Trains and Boats and …… Poems?

If you enter Kirkcaldy railway station on the War Memorial side, go past the ticket office, and make your way up the stairs to Platform 1 (Trains for Edinburgh and the South) you will see hung permanently on the wall of the waiting area a poem, of all things. It is cut into an unusual material for such a display, linoleum – the origin of one of the queer-like smells I posted about recently. This is partly a celebration in verse of the town of Kirkcaldy and its most famous product, but more, it must be said, of the halcyon days of the railways. It is called The Boy in the Train and was written by Mary Campbell Smith.

Curiously, I first came across these same verses thirty years ago when I was working as a Research Chemist in Hertford, just north of London. My (English) co-workers brought them to me because they wanted to know what they all meant! Imagine their astonishment when I told them I would be taking the train to “Kirkcaddy” the very next day. (I was coming up as part of my holiday to visit the good lady’s parents who, at that time, lived in Glenrothes. Kirkcaldy was the nearest suitable railway station if you didn’t have access to a car; which at the time I didn’t.) I only moved to Kirkcaldy myself twenty years ago.

The poem has stuck in my mind ever since. (It is not only cheap music that has potency.) By one of those strange word association things that probably shows what kind of brain I have, whenever someone muses on what they’ll be eating for their evening meal I always mutter to myself, “a herrin’ or maybe a haddie.”

I very much doubt that the town’s name was ever pronounced Kirkcaddy as in the poem. That usage was clearly adopted to fit the rhyme scheme.

The Boy in the Train by Mary Campbell Smith

Whit wey does the engine say ‘Toot-toot’?
Is it feart to gang in the tunnel?
Whit wey is the furnace no pit oot
When the rain gangs doon the funnel?
What’ll I hae for my tea the nicht?
A herrin’, or maybe a haddie?
Has Gran’ma gotten electric licht?
Is the next stop Kirkcaddy?

There’s a hoodie-craw on yon turnip-raw!
An’ seagulls! – sax or seeven.
I’ll no fa’ oot o’ the windae, Maw,
Its sneckit, as sure as I’m leevin’.
We’re into the tunnel! we’re a’ in the dark!
But dinna be frichtit, Daddy,
We’ll sune be comin’ to Beveridge Park,
And the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!

Is yon the mune I see in the sky?
It’s awfu’ wee an’ curly,
See! there’s a coo and a cauf ootbye,
An’ a lassie pu’in’ a hurly!
He’s chackit the tickets and gien them back,
Sae gie me my ain yin, Daddy.
Lift doon the bag frae the luggage rack,
For the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!

There’s a gey wheen boats at the harbour mou’,
And eh! dae ya see the cruisers?
The cinnamon drop I was sookin’ the noo
Has tummelt an’ stuck tae ma troosers. . .
I’ll sune be ringin’ ma Gran’ma’s bell,
She’ll cry, ‘Come ben, my laddie’,
For I ken mysel’ by the queer-like smell
That the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!

Since it is not in Standard English doctorvee considers the whole thing to be written in slang, though it is of course in a variant of Scots, which, while now declined, was once one of the great languages of mediaeval Europe, capable of producing a classic work such as Ane Satyre Of The Thrie Estatis.

I make no literary claims for the poem in question, however. Since it is written from the viewpoint of a child its language is, no doubt deliberately, debased and the “poetry” is really no more than doggerel. (Though it is more than several degrees above McGonagall.)

Since those far off days in Hertford I have always had a hankering to provide a cod English translation. So to my old colleagues at MRPRA, to doctorvee (and to anyone who cares) here is:-

The Boy in the Train 2008

For what reason does the locomotive make that piercing noise?
Is it afraid of confined spaces?
Why is the fire not extinguished
When rain falls onto it down the chimney?
What will we be eating for our evening meal tonight?
Herring perhaps, or haddock?
Has Grandmother the modern convenience of electric lighting?
Is the next stop Kirkcaldy?

There’s a hooded crow atop a raw swede,*
And six or seven seagulls,
I’ll not fall from the carriage window, mother,
It is secured as certainly as I am eleven years of age.
We have entered the tunnel and there is no light,
But there is no need to be scared, father,
Beveridge Park will soon be in view.
And the next stop is Kirkcaldy.

Is that the moon I can see in the sky?
It’s terribly small and curved.
Look! There’s a cow and a calf out there,
And a young girl pulling along a small playcart,
The attendant has checked and returned the tickets,
So give me my own, father,
Take the bag down from the luggage rack,
Because the next stop is Kirkcaldy.

There is a plethora of boats in the mouth of the harbour,
And, I say! Can you espy the cruisers?
The sweet comestible I was enjoying just then,
Has fallen and glued itself to my trousers,
Soon I shall be ringing the bell at Grandmother’s house,
She will say, “Enter, my fine young fellow,”
For I know myself, by the strange aroma,
That the next stop is Kirkcaldy!

*Edited to add:- “raw swedes” should be “row of swedes” – see Comments

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34 comments

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  1. Lizzie Dickson May

    I have heard the town pronounced Kirkcaddy by older folk along the coast from Dysart to Leven. I also think that the first line of the second verse refers to a row of turnips rather than a raw turnip. Here is a poem we wrote for friends who moved back to London from Edinburgh last May (round the time of the Mayoral elections).
    Enjoyed the piece.

  2. jackdeighton

    Welcome to my blog, Lizzie. Now that you say so, I agree that it’s a row of turnips.
    Consider the line amended to, “There’s a hooded crow on a row of swedes,” –
    which actually scans much better too.

  3. Groanin' Jock

    That’s the first time I’ve heard or read that poem in almost 20 years – I love it! Doggerel indeed….. 😉

  4. rona

    i am a scottish lass through and through but live in England
    to educate!!!
    i have been asked to read this at my best friends mothers funeral this coming
    friday 17th april at 3.30 in Macclesfield
    her mother was from KirkCaldy and wishes her ashes to be taken there
    thanks for being here
    rona x

  5. Hilda Madden

    I had this poem at school 32 years ago. The first two lines of the poem have stayed with me, I couldn’t remember the rest of the poem. Recently I was in St Andrews and on my way back we went through Kirkaldy I wanted to see this place where this poem came from. I googled the first two lines of the poem and lo and behold there was the poem, Brilliant!

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  7. Helena Nelson

    I loved your translation. It is very funny, full of character, and serves to prove, in the best imaginable way, how wonderful the original is.

    Doggerel, however, it is not. It is a superb piece of formal writing. It evokes a whole period of time with flawless technique: Mary Campbell Smith knew how to turn a stanza; modern poets could learn a thing or two from her.

    The layout would not have been centred. The proper layout is presented on the wall at Kirkcaldy station, etched in linoleum as is fit and proper, and also on the Scottish Poetry Library website at http://www.spl.org.uk/popular/boy-in-tra.html

  8. jackdeighton

    I only centred it to make it stand out from the prose surrounding it in my post.
    I know its metre cleverly echoes the sound of a train going over joints in a railway track but the ABABCDCD rhyme scheme, for me, lessens it overall. It does make it easier to learn and remember, though.
    The poem clearly strikes a chord, still; which aids your argument.
    I agree modern poets could do with a bit more structure. It’s actually very difficult to get hard rhymes – or even your poetic idea – to fit in with your chosen metre; which is why modern poets often don’t try.

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  10. private schools database in America

    I have heard the town pronounced Kirkcaddy by older folk along the coast from Dysart to Leven. I also think that the first line of the second verse refers to a row of turnips rather than a raw turnip. Here is a poem we wrote for friends who moved back to London from Edinburgh last May (round the time of the Mayoral elections).
    Enjoyed the piece.

  11. jackdeighton

    Yeah, thanks.
    Someone else mentioned the turnip row. The raw, like the Kirkcaddy, I believe, is a Fife thing. I’m not a Fifer.

  12. Vic Grant

    Well, I’m a Fifer and grew up in a town about 9 miles from Kircaddy. I remember fondly as a boy reciting the poem by heart in the early 60’s and it was fun to read it again. The only thing I could remember about the poem was the reference to the smell of linoleum which was still present at that time so I googled kirkcaldy + train + linoleum to find it again. I’m also in doubt about the raw word as I haven’t lived in Scotland for over 40 years. Loved the translation and will show both of them to my Danish wife.

  13. jackdeighton

    Thanks for looking in Vic,
    Someone else mentioned the “raw” thing.
    This post has been one of the most looked at/searched for I have ever done. The poem certainly seems to strike a chord.

  14. Gayle Gilmour

    Hi, love this poem, I remember my Mum reciting it at a church concert. I am Ayrshire born and bred and we still use a very similar language to that written in the poem although it’s West Coast. The raw is indeed a row. I wasn’t so sure about the translation of the word “leevin”. I would have translated it as living. Eleven is usually pronounced aleeven. Lovely to see it online. Thank you.

  15. jackdeighton

    Hi Gayle,
    Thanks for commenting.
    As far as leevin’ is concerned you’re more likely to be right than me. Eleven made sense to me, but so does living. I’m from the West too, but a bit further up, and my local speech wasn’t as broad as Fife’s, I would say.

  16. jackdeighton

    Thanks Bob,
    A lot of people have a soft spot for the poem.
    My translation was the best I could do. I’m not from Fife/the east of Scotland and don’t know all of the local words. I’m happy to go with punched. I should have thought of that. Inspectors used to punch the tickets in the same way bus conductors did. I didn’t know chackit was used as punched in a wider sense.

  17. Elizabeth Shepherd

    I learned this poem at primary school in the very early 60s. I’m from Dundee and have lived in London and Surrey since 1970, so I’ve done the train journey through Kirkcaddy umpteen times. I also used to go dancing with my friend Joyce to the Raith ballroom in the late 60s, using the train. Every single time without fail, I quote the last 2 lines of the poem in my head as we stop at Kirkcaddy. However, my memory always says, “I ken full well, by the richt queer smell, that the next stop’s Kirkcaddy”. Obviously memory befuddles over time! Or perhaps that’s how our teacher taught us.

  18. jackdeighton

    Thanks Elizabeth,
    “richt queer” is as good as “queer-like.” I used the text as I remembered it from the hanging in the railway station – and the version I checked on the internet. But there may be variations elsewhere.
    The Raith ballroom was before my time in “Kirkcaddy.” I believe it’s demolished now. Can you tell me exactly where it was?

  19. Elizabeth Shepherd

    Hi Jack.

    I believe the Raith Ballroom was on Links Street, behind the Esplanade. I don’t remember that we had to walk too far from the station. My friend and I were underage, but with all the false eyelashes and eyeliner (a bit like today’s makeup) we passed for older and didn’t have to show ID in those days. It was better than any ballrooms in Dundee. A couple of times we got a minibus with a crowd to travel through, but usually it was Joyce and I on the train.
    One time, around 1969, before I left for London, we saw The Humblebums – with Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty. There was a great atmosphere there and I have really happy memories of the place.

  20. jackdeighton

    Thanks for this, Elizabeth.
    Not many people got to see the Humblebums!

  21. Gordon Cameron

    Really enjoyed this. One question is, in which of the various Scots accents should one read the poem. Evidently not the Kirkcaldy accent since the child is travelling there and he seems excited about the prospect (puir soul) I conclude that he hails fae elsewhaur. Perth methinks?

  22. jackdeighton

    Gordon Cameron,
    Thanks for looking in and for your comment.
    The reference to the tunnel makes me think the train was travelling towards Kirkcaldy along the coast from the south (Edinburgh way.) This is not a disbar to the “laddie” travelling from Perth, though. The phrase “has granma gotten electric licht?” implies he lived somewhere that already had that amenity – a city or large town.

  23. Gordon Cameron

    Fair point about the tunnel Jack. I confess I had imagined the journey from Perth going through the tunnel at Glenfarg but that was just wishful thinking really.
    Not sure that the electric licht issue implies that he already had that amenity. Perhaps it implies the opposite and that Kircaldy offered the chance of him experiencing such?
    Either way, I think the beauty of the poem allows the reader to recite it in whatever Scots dialect he or she chooses, provided they ascertain that there is a tunnel involved in the journey.

  24. jackdeighton

    Gordon Cameron,
    The tunnel at Glenfarg…
    I’ve seen its (boarded up) entrance from the road but that line was gone long before I moved to Fife.
    You could be right about the electric licht.

  25. james harvey

    ejoyed all the chat -infomative and entertaining – but don’t look to deeply. musicians say ‘don’t pull the wings off the butterfly’ It’s a great poem!

    Mc Gonnagal has left us many classic lines buried amongst the doggerel.

  26. jackdeighton

    James,
    Thanks for commenting.
    I’m afraid as a writer and reviewer I can’t help but “pull the wings off.” It even sometimnes helps to illuminate the work in question.
    In that light we may have to disagree about McGonagall.

  27. Scott McKenzie

    Thank you so much for the translation. Growing up in the Midwest of the United States – I’m 72 now – when the family got in the car to visit my Scottish grandparents in Chicago, my father would always remark, “Next stop’s Kirkcaldy.” Now I understand the relationship between the poem and where my grandparents were raised in Scotland – Edinburgh, a short train ride from Kirkcaldy. Today, my siblings and I use the “Next stop” phrase with our own children and grandchildren. With memories like these, it is nice to be “Forever Young.”

  28. jackdeighton

    Scott,
    These family traditions are great things. I hope your grandchildren pass them on.
    It’s amazing how that poem sticks in the head. When asking or being asked “What is for dinner tonight?” I always think or want to reply, “a herrin’ or mebbe a haddie.”

  29. Frank McDonald

    My uncle taught me this when I was four and I used to recite it to a perplexed Aunt when she visited from Yorkshire; as well as other off-colour poems that my shale-miner uncle thought would shock her. I read it with his voice ringing through nearly seventy summers of mist. I took “leevin'” to be a pun on Leven and read it as “leaving” for Gran’s hoose. No eleven year old would say “leevin” for eleven and there’s a punctuation mark there to show it is leaving. We didn’t have electric lights but we used big globes to light the house at night. You turned up the wick to make everything brighter and the big coal fire, on which they cooked, helped too.

    In fact I was looking for another poem he used to recite: The Kaiser he fell frae the top o’ Ben Lomond and skint a’ his knees on a wee chuckie stane; a wee lassie was passin’ and she took compassion and carried the puir wee Kaiser hame…. or at least that is how I remember it. I couldn’t find it.

    Thank you for the nostalgic train journey back to my roots and my lost boyhood.

  30. jackdeighton

    Frank McDonald,
    Your reading is as good as any. I couldn’t see what or where the boy would be leaving from as he was/is already on the train. Eleven was the nearest I could come to making sense of it. Yet there is that apostrophe – but which may only be an indicator of a missing “g”. A pun on Leven is probably stretching it a bit far.
    I’ve just found a website (http://mudcat.org/scots/index.cfm) which has the English equivalent of “leevin” as “a person+ food”. That suggests the best translation of its use in the poem is “living”.
    I’ve never heard of the Kaiser/Ben Lomond poem – and I hail from Dumbarton only a few miles away from the Ben.
    Thanks for looking in and commenting.

  31. Frank McDonald

    Yes, “leavin'” is a childhood recollection of mine. When I heard it I understood only “leaving”. I’ve checked the Scots Dictionary and indeed to leeve is to live, so the young lad was saying “as sure as we’re living”. Clever wee soul. Best regards.

  32. jackdeighton

    Frank,
    Living is certainly a more sensible meaning.

  33. Lorraine Espin-Hempsall

    So nice to see so many comments on this piece of Scottish poetry. As a Dundonian, I lived across the water from Fife and spent many happy times in Kirkcaddy. It was indeed pronounced as in the poem by anyone who used a true Scottish dialect. The posh folk would say Kirkcaldy (Kirkcoddy)! It is a poem dear to my heart as in the early 1960’s, it won me the school prize for the recitation of Scottish Poetry. Many decades later, I recited it to my university classmates as part of a popular culture presentation on Dundee, the Whaling Industry, the t industry, D C Thomsons and of course Keiller’s, famous for their Dundee Marmalade.
    The poem came back to me today as I was looking for ephemera in relation to “School”. Im in the process of converting an old Victorian school on the Isle of Harris and whilst it will be very modern inside, I needed to find a nod to days past – this gem fitted the bill and will be framed for visitors to attempt!! Thank you for appreciating it.

  34. jackdeighton

    Lorraine,
    This post is the one of mine which has had most comments. The poem certainly strikes a chord with people – whether or not they hail from Kirkcaddy. (I shall bow to your superior knowledge of the pronunciation.)
    Thanks for looking in and commenting.

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