Tongue and Talk: the Dialect Poets – Northumberland

BBC Radio 4

Sunday 27th May 16.30, repeated Saturday 2nd June 23.30

Available after first broadcast on i-player HERE

In the final episode of this three-part series, children’s author Kirsty Mckay investigates dialect poetry in Northumberland today. Kirsty’s programme focuses on the poetry of the Cheviot hills, where she meets poet and musician James Tait, the children of Harbottle School, and poet Allan Wood. Allan is a retired shepherd, and – together with shepherd and singer Graham Dick – I was lucky enough to travel with him to the Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko Nevada in 1999, to investigate the origins of Western American folk traditions in those of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders. In her programme, Kirsty revisits Allan, who worked with her father on a remarkable series of films made by the Coquetdale community in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.

Kirsty also visits the Northumbrian coast to talk to me for her programme. Although I am not a Northumbrian native or a dialect speaker, I spent a great deal of time with dialect speakers of the Northumbrian coastal fishing community throughout the 1990s, and have written poetry which reflects that. I’ve never pretended to speak Northumbrian like a native, but I do find great expressive richness and vitality in the language. I really enjoyed our thought-provoking conversation, and very much look forward to hearing Kirsty’s programme. I’ll post some further thoughts on writing in the dialect on this blog in the next few days.

In the meantime, for those who are interested in the subject, here are some links.

Allan Wood’s voice and poetic scripts can be found in a remarkable series of 16mm films made by the Coquetdale community led by Dr Keith McKay, now available on DVD in the ‘Bygone Coquetdale’ series, HERE.

James Tait’s poetry and music is available HERE.

In the programme, Kirsty also talks to Kim Bibby Wilson, leading light of the Northumbrian Language Society. The NLS exists to promote, research, preserve and enjoy the Northumbrian Language through meetings, competitions and publications. For some years, I’ve enjoyed the great honour of being its President. You can find out more about it HERE.

Every year, the NLS celebrates the birthday of Northumberland’s most famous dialect poet, Fred Reed. Fred’s collected works can be found in ‘The Northumborman’ (Iron Press, 1999), available HERE.

My own long dialect poem The Wund an’ the Wetter, written for the launch of ‘The Northumborman’, is published in ‘Two Countries’ (Bloodaxe Books 2014), available both as print and as e-book with audio HERE.

The original publication with CD (with music by Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston) is available HERE.

You can hear me read an excerpt, with Chris on pipes, HERE.

My first collection, ‘The Lost Music’, which includes poems about Northumberland fishermen, many of which are at least partly in dialect, is available HERE.

You can hear me read some poems containing dialect from each collection, including Charlie Douglas, Plenty Lang a Winter, and excerpts from The Wund an’ the Wetter and Five Sea Songs at the Poetry Archive, HERE.

My full 30-page word-list of Northumbrian fisher dialect, collected over two decades, was used by Bill Griffiths as a major source for his last book, Fishing and Folk (Northumbria University Press, 2008), and is included in it as an appendix. Bill’s book is available HERE.

I’ll add some thoughts on writing poetry in Northumbrian dialect to this blog before the end of this month. Please listen to Kirsty’s programme — and please do watch this space!



The Cheviot Hills, Northumberland