Category Archives: Poems

The Shepherd’s Day

As a young lad, my father had it drummed into him by his father, that as soon as he awakened, he should get his feet onto the floor. The whole idea of a long lie, or even just an extra five-minute snooze before getting up was not to be entertained.

As a result, my father became from an early age a compulsive early riser. Throughout his life he could never understand people who were not up with the lark. When he retired from his home in the glen down to a house in the village of Comrie, his neighbours were horrified to be woken at 05:00am by the sound of Dad out cutting his grass.

He never quite grasped why they were so upset with him. But being an early riser was all part of his life as a hill shepherd. “The work won’t get done lying in your bed!” he would often say.

As the shepherd on Tinto Hill, one of his favourite things was to set off before dawn, and enjoy a smoke of his pipe sitting on Tinto’s huge cairn, watching the sunrise. Now, this was in the days before most houses had central heating, and one of the first things people would do when they got up, was to light the fire. From the cairn, Dad could look down on the villages of Symington and Thankerton. On a still morning he would see smoke start to rise from chimneys in the villages. These smoke signals told him that certain households were up and about, and he would check his watch for the time.

Sunrise from Tinto Cairn (Photo by Paul McGee)

Over the next few days, as he encountered some of the locals, he would make a comment along the lines of, “I see you were having a wee lie-in yesterday. I thought you might have been up before 7 o’clock. You missed the best part of the day.” He never let on as to how he knew when people got out of bed, and he relished in their puzzlement.

Now, the early morning gene was one that he never passed on to me. I am an owl, a creature of the night, and have never ever been a lark. As a teenager, I do recall an occasion when I was rudely awakened at 04:00am. Dad had woken, got out of bed, and looked out of the bedroom window. To his horror, there was a large hare in his garden, munching on some plants. He got his shot gun and gently slid the bedroom window open. Whatever the hare was eating, it was it’s last ever meal. I can confirm that being roused from deep slumber by a double barrel shot gun being fired in the adjacent room is no way to start your day.

So, with the idea that Dad’s day started hours before anyone else’s, I wrote “The Shepherd’s Day”.


The Shepherd’s Day

No alarm clock rings, but his eyes open wide

His wife still asleep in the bed by his side

In the sky only starlight, no sign of the sun

But the shepherd’s day has begun

In the crisp morning air, there is only one sound

His tackety boots on the hard-frozen ground

And the earliest birds, they have not yet sung

But the shepherd’s day has begun

His dogs are excited to be off to the hill

His faithful companions, Queenie and Jill

They’re raring to go now, they’re raring to run

Now the shepherd’s day has begun

And through the darkness they climb, past heather and scree

The cairn is the place he is aiming to be

To welcome the dawning, of a new day’s sun

And the shepherd’s day has begun

Up on the cairn, he finds his favourite stone

The King of this Mountain sits down on his throne

He lights up his pipe as he always has done

When the shepherd’s day has begun

And in the eastern sky, the first light of dawn

A rosey red glow, tho’ it won’t last for long

And he ponders the work, that waits to be done

Now the shepherd’s day has begun

Looking down in the glen, he sees mist start to form

Lit up by the light of this cold Autumn morn

The world is awakening, the night it is done

But the shepherd’s day has begun

He taps out his pipe and he puts it away

Stands up from his throne, walking slowly away

His sheep graze below, there is work to be done

And the shepherd’s day has begun


The Story of Mortimer’s Deep

For seventeen years I was privileged to police the waters of the River and Firth of Forth. Over that time, I developed a great deal of local knowledge about the Forth as we patrolled up and down in the Police Launch.

Patrolling the Forth

Inchcolm Island off the coast from Aberdour was a place of great interest and it draws many visitors to its shores each year. The island is most famous for its stunning medieval abbey. The Augustinian abbey was founded in the 12th century, although there are some who place its origins even earlier than that.

All these centuries later, it remains in a remarkably good state of preservation. Perhaps the inscription above the abbey entrance may have something to do with that. The inscription translated reads,

“May this house stand until an ant drains the flowing sea, and a tortoise walks around the whole world”.

Inchcolm Abbey

The deep-water channel that separates Inchcolm Island from the town of Aberdour on the Fife coastline, is called Mortimer’s Deep. It fell within the patrol area of the police launch and I have sailed through it on more occasions than I care to recall. If we had guests out for a trip on the launch, I would entertain them with stories about the various parts of the Forth including how Mortimer’s Deep got its name.

Seals at Inchcolm

When my daughters were youngsters, they were both into Fighting Fantasy Books like Ian Livingstone’s “The Warlock of Firetop Mountain” and “Deathtrap Dungeon”. It would be fair to say that I too enjoyed an adventure through these books. Inspired by the concept, I concocted my own adventure book for the girls called “The Mad Monks of Mortimer’s Deep”.

First, I drew maps of the island and then all the different passageways and rooms of the abbey and various other buildings on the island. Then I created a scenario whereby the girls were captured and held prisoner by the mad monks in the abbey. Clues and dangers were hidden in the creepy rooms and corridors. The girls were given two or maybe three options about what they did, what they looked at, what rooms they went into, who they spoke to, who they hid from. Depending on their choice I would then explain what happened next.

I suspect I had more fun putting it together and playing it with them than they got trying to find a way to escape from the mad monks. Dastardly fun….

In 2006 I wrote the monologue about how Mortimer’s Deep got its name. I wove a mixture of historical fact, legend, and fantasy together to generate a light-hearted story about dark deeds. The tale is set during the reign of King David 1 of Scotland. The Heiress of Aberdour, Anicea Veteriponte, marries the villain of the story in 1126. He was called Sir Alan de Mortimer and at the time of their marriage, his bride was only 15 years old. But by marrying her, Mortimer acquired the Barony of Aberdour. Legend has it that his marriage was more about land acquisition and financial gain than love of Anicea.

But, as in all good stories, the villain gets his comeuppance.

The Evil Duplicitous Cad


There once was girl called Anicea, who lived in the reign of David the First

Her choice in men it was woeful, but her choice of husbands was worse

For she fancied Sir Alan De Mortimer, an evil, duplicitous cad

Sadly Mortimer, he didn’t love Anicea – but he fancied the land that she had

They were soon engaged to be married, and when the wedding feast it was o’er

There was singing a drinking a plenty, through the streets of old Aberdour

But Mortimer, he was so treacherous, a two-faced tyrannical swine

After consummating the marriage, he said, “Your land is all mine now – all mine!”

It would be fair to say that Anicea, wasn’t too chuffed at this news

And as fury coursed through her body, she blew her proverbial fuse

“A curse – A curse on you Mortimer” cried his hysterical wife

“A curse – A curse on you Mortimer – the foulest man in the Kingdom of Fife”

“I place a curse on you Mortimer – may nightmares take over your sleep”

May your body be food for the fishes – and creatures that lurk in the deep”

Well Mortimer he just laughed at poor Anicea – tossed his greasy hair back with panache

And it was then, that Anicea first noticed, that he had waxed his pointy moustache

“Stand aside wife!” roared Alan de Mortimer, “For I have work that needs to be done”

“I have taxes to extract from the peasants – and boy – it’s going to be fun!”

For Mortimer he had decided, using lots of evil intent

That he would top up the gold in his coffers by doubling the poor peasants rent

And woe betide any tenant, who refused, or wasn’t able to pay

From their houses they would soon be evicted, and banished from Aberdour Bay

But each day at sunrise and sunset, that curse was made by his wife

“A curse – A curse on you Mortimer – the foulest man in the Kingdom of Fife”

“I place a curse on you Mortimer – may nightmares take over your sleep”

May your body be food for the fishes – and the creatures that lurk in the deep”

Now Mortimer feared he would never see heaven, when the time came to pass on from this life

And each night he dreamt that the devil was doing a deal with his wife

So, he donated half of his lands, to the monks, out on Inchcolm’s fair Isle

To secure a Christian grave, where his remains could be buried style

In the grounds of that beautiful Abbey, where the monks spent their time deep in prayer

There was no chance of his wife, or the devil, condemning his poor soul from there

And so, Sir Alan De Mortimer, he reigned with terror and threat

And he robbed all his poor starving tenants, of all he was able to get

Since the dawn of time there had never, been a man with such horrible ways

But illness it struck, without warning, and ended his bloodthirsty days

“A curse – A curse on you Mortimer” was the cry of now smiling wife

“A curse – A curse on you Mortimer – the foulest man in the Kingdom of Fife”

“I place a curse on you Mortimer – you were a conniving, cold callous creep”

May your body be food for the fishes – and the creatures that lurk in the deep”

Now the folks of old Aberdour, were delighted to hear he was dead

And they cheered as Mortimer, was laid out, in a coffin constructed from lead

And that night the monks came from the Abbey – they sailed o’er the surf and the spray

To collect the malevolent Mortimer – And ferry the tyrant away

But half way back to the island, the monks they encountered a storm

With the wind at gale force eleven, the waves, round the small boat did swarm

The boat was taking in water “We’ll sink! We’ll drown!” the monks cried

So they grabbed De Mortimer’s coffin, and they chucked it o’er the side

With a splash the lead coffin it vanished, and at once the howling gale eased

And as calmness returned to the waters, the monks were exceedingly pleased

Some said that the storm, it was God’s will, to send Mortimer down to the deep

For a man as evil as Mortimer, in an Abbey you never should keep

Some placed the blame on his widow, and the bitterness Anicea nursed

Did she really make that pact with the devil, to make sure that her husband was cursed?

Make you own mind up if you go sailing, past that beautiful Isle of Inchcolm

Or if down by Aberdour sands, some evening, you happen to roam

Somewhere, down in those waters, lays a coffin constructed from lead

And some say that, when it hit bottom, the lid of the coffin was shed

And now there is no trace of De Mortimer, that conniving, cold, callous creep

Cause his body was eaten by fishes and the creatures that lurk in the deep.

And some say that on a really wild night, as the waves, down on the shore crash

An ugly old seal, pops up preening, his waxed and pointy moustache.

The Story of the Heathery Knowes of Auchnafree

The Story of the Heathery Knowes of Auchnafree


This story is a combination of a personal encounter with a strange character on the summit of a Scottish mountain, and a friend’s superstitious beliefs that a visit from a raven was an omen of death. 

As part of my work as a police sergeant on a boat unit, I was doing a week long course on navigation at the Faslane Naval Base on the Clyde. As I plotted imaginary courses across large sea charts, countering the effects of wind and tide, my work was not made any easier by virtue of the glorious weather that afternoon. I kept looking out of the classroom window on that spectacular late summer afternoon, wishing I was climbing somewhere in the nearby mountains of the Arrochar Alps.

At 4:00pm, we packed up, and I headed for the hills. My plan was an evening assent of Scotland’s southern Ben Vorlich (there are two of them). I parked the car at Ardlui at the northern end of Loch Lomond and put my foot to the hill.

There are two tops on Ben Vorlich connected by a short ridge. I arrived at the southern top and then headed north along the ridge. Mist was rising swiftly and vertically on the updraft from Loch Sloy far below to my left. Through that curtain of mist the evening sun was sinking quickly towards the horizon. I knew I was going to have descend in darkness but I was looking forward to watching the sunset before heading back down the hill.

As I approached the northern summit I walked past a cluster a craggy rock with a cleft running through it. I had not seen anyone on my climb and as far as I was aware I had the mountain to myself. So it gave me quite a start when I spotted someone standing in the cleft amongst the rocks.

There were several odd things about this person that stopped me in my tracks. Whoever it was could not have been much more than 4 feet 8 inches in height. I am still undecided as to what gender this person was. If I had to guess, I would opt for male. But it would only be a guess.

He was wearing a coat that resembled a duffle coat. It was dingy fawn in colour and had a hood unlike anything I had seen, or have seen since. The hood was up and hiding the face of the wearer. It seemed ridiculously tall and rose to a sharp forward facing point. The overall effect was something that put me in mind of a hobgoblin or dwarf from a fairy tale.

In his hand he held what appeared to be a cardboard tube about 2 inches in diameter and about 18 inches in length. He seemed to be irritated and trying to extract something from the tube without success. I was confident that he had not heard me approach. So I guardedly said “Good evening!”. There was no response. Either he couldn’t hear me or he did not want to acknowledge me.

I tried again, “Good evening!”

Suddenly, I had this overwhelming desire to get away. It was a strange feeling, and not a nice feeling. I just needed to put some distance between this other worldly character and my self. Not quite running, I hurried along the ridge occasionally glancing back to see if I could spot him.

After covering a distance of about 300 yards I  stopped in my tracks. To my right a saw a most remarkable sight. It was my first sighting of the Brochan Specter. Hovering just above the ground in the mist was a perfectly circular rainbow, and in the centre of it, my shadow. I had never seen it’s like before. I put my arms out horizontally watching my shadow do likewise. I stood there watching my form combine with the circular rainbow to create a strange version of Leonardo de Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

And then it was gone, as suddenly as it arrived. The sun was dipping below the hills to the west and darkness would soon follow. I looked back along the ridge for any sign of the hobgoblin, but saw none. It had been an unusual evening on top of Ben Vorlich and I was more than happy to be on the way down and get back to the safety of my car.

Whilst I now know all about that rare and beautiful natural phenomenon, the Brochan Specter, I still have no explanation of who, or what, the diminutive person in the pointy duffle coat was. But that encounter came to mind one night when I was talking with a friend about superstitions. She had a total belief in the ability of crows and ravens to foretell death. A visitation from a black bird was a certain sign that someone was about to die. I took that fearful superstition and mixed it with my own spooky experience on Ben Vorlich to create the story that follows.

Whilst it is a blend of those two things, it is obviously a work of fiction. It was therefore an easy thing for me not to set it on Ben Vorlich but to move the action to a Perthshire mountain called Auchnafree. After all there are a lot more rhymes to Auchnafree than to Vorlich.


I wrote it initially as a ballad but subsequently found that it worked better as a spooky monologue.


The Heathery Knowes o’ Auchnafree

A shepherd lad set oot yin evening, his ain sweetheart all for tae see

And the path he took, it took him oot, o’er the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree

But the light that shone frae the setting sun, it glint sae bright in a raven’s ee

He was perched high up, on an auld peat hag, on the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree

And the raven watched the shepherd lad, as he cam scramblin’ o’er the knowe

Wi’ his plaidie hingin’ loose around his shou’ders, and the sweat running free frae aff his brow

“Aw turn yer heid ye croakin’ hoodie, aw turn yer gaze awa frae me

For I’ve a sweetheart, who’s  waitin’ for me,  o’er the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree”

Then o’er the riggin’ there cam a beggar, an auld fesh’t beggar wi eyes o’ green

And in his hand was the finest fiddle, that the shepherd lad had ever seen

“Oh Beggar! Beggar! Tak up yer fiddle, and play a tune of love tae me

As I gang aff tae see my sweetheart, o’er the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree”

“I’ll play nae tune for a love-sick shepherd, tho’ mony’s the tune of love I know

For although my fiddle it is the finest, this very nicht I’ve broke my bow”

“But turn aroon ye love sick shepherd, and the broken-spectre ye will see

As the sun and mist dance aroon yer shadow, on the heathery knowes o’ Auchnafree”

The shepherd turned to the broken-spectre, that summer’s night up on Auchnafree

But the shadow o’ a beggar’s knife, was the last thing that he e’r did see

The summer soon gave way tae autumn, then came the snaws sae cauld and white

And the raven ruffled up his auld black feathers, against the winter’s bitter bite

But when the spring came and the snaws had melt’d, o’er the knowes the raven’s flown

And he’s carried tae the auld fesh’t beggar, a shepherd’s white and weathered bone

The beggar sat doon amongst the heather, and frae this bone he’s carved a bow

And wi’ the raven perched upon his sho’der, around them baith the wind did blow

Then the beggar he’s tain up his fiddle, all in the blink o’ a raven’s ee

And he played a lament for a love-sick shepherd, ca’d “The Heathery Knowes O’ Auchnafree

He plays his fiddle as he walks the knowes, he plays in sun and mist and rain

With the raven flying close a’hint him, should ‘er he break his bow again.


Written by Duncan A. MacNab    2003