Guest post in Scots and English by Martin Travers, playwright

Udston Disaster Memorial, Hamilton

Wirkin oan ma new play A Daurk Maiter haes buin awfu naur tae ma hert an ma ain faimily’s history. Baith ae ma grandfaithers war pickmen in Lanrickshire an ma faither’s faither dee’d ae silicosis. Ma faither anely iver hintit oan the hership an pyne the tribble brang aboot but whan A pusht him oan hit whan A was a laddie ‘e telt us his faither wad “Cough up black”. ‘is eemage haes stiyed wi us fir near fowerty year. 

Whan Professor Kirstie Blair frae Strathclyde University bade us scrieve a play in Scots aboot Lanrickshire miners’ poesy ta bes pairt ae Piston, Pen an Press A wis fair chuffed. A hae buin scrievin mair an mair in the Scots leen fir twa-three years. English tae me is the leen ae schuil. In Viewpairk whaur A growed up in the 1970’s Scots wis aye pickt frae oor mooths like neets gittin pickt oot ae hair. Hit wis slang – dirten – brockle – embarrassin – smittish – the slippy brae tae the dole queue. 

Viewpairk stairtit aff as a minin veelage – nor’ ae Uddingston an Sooth ae Coatbrig. Gif hit wisna fir coal Viewpairk wad hae niver cam aboot. The mines war lang awa bi the tim A wis born but the michty lunar bings an ink-black stanks abuin deep daurk clytit mine sinks whaur cuits an reed buntins splored, an weans war drount an thair bouks niver fand, wis oor playgrund wildertness. 

Oan uncannie bairnheid adventurs ower bings kent bi sic wunnerous names as the Flatty and the Caumel’s Humph we spaik fou Scots awa frae the tuts an richtin ae adults. Wi’oot e’en kennin it we war breithin life intae our ain leen throu play.              

A’m mair at hame whan shapen up Scots twa-haundit crack. Hits daurker, mair radge – mair ferlie ‘an staundart Ingles. Gif the Ingles leen is makkit ae late simmer hinnie, than Scots is makkit ae wintery traicle. 

The rich stuff Kirstie an her gesserant sairchers hae unkivert is chairmin. Culturally signeeficant oan ower mony levels. Whan A rade the varse ae thir wirkin-cless ghaists recent gaithert, A kent A wantit a muckle cannas tae pent thaim oantae. 

The teetle ae the play cams frae doctors’ witterins frae the early aichteen hunders whaur seek miners’ war reportit tae bes berkin up a daurk maiter. The sel an same daurk maiter ‘at afflictit ma grandfaither Michael in his feenal days. 

Frae the verra stairt A wantit tae scrieve a daimaged luve spell atween twa poets. Wan frae Glesgae an wan frae Lanrickshire – but a guid play haes tae hiv a ootside threit.  A wis needin tae fand somethin ’at wad howk the luvers frae yin an ither’s airms.  

Wan ae the poems A was gien tae rade wis On the Udston Explosion.  As a playwright ‘is wis a praisent frae the gods. Ma gate tae Damascus maument. The Udston Mining Stramash is a tragedy ae Greek wecht – a avydeable catastrophe brang aboot bi the gutsiness an slouth ae the mine awners. 

Wanst A haed ‘is hellsest an brutal backdrap, an endin tae ma story; A set tae wirk…

A Daurk Maiter: English version

Working on my new play A Daurk Maiter has been very close to my heart and my own family history. Both my grandfathers were miners in Lanarkshire and my father’s father died of silicosis. My father only ever hinted at the distress and pain the disease caused but when I pushed him on it when I was a boy he said his father would “Cough up black”. This image has stayed with me for nearly forty years. 

When Professor Kirstie Blair from Strathclyde asked me to write a play in Scots about Lanarkshire miners’ poetry to be part of Piston, Pen and Press I felt honoured. I have been consciously choosing to write more and more in the Scots language for the last couple of years. English to me is the language of school. In Viewpark where I grew up in the 1970’s Scots was constantly picked from our mouths like nits getting picked out of hair. It was slang – dirty – lazy – embarrassing – contagious – the slippery slope to the dole queue. 

Viewpark began life as a mining village – north of Uddingston and south of Coatbridge. If it wasn’t for coal Viewpark would have never existed. The mines were long gone by the time I was born. But the mighty lunar bings and ink-black ponds above deep dark collapsed mine shafts where coots and reed buntings revelled, and children were downed and their bodies never found, was our playground wilderness. 

On dangerous childhood adventures over bings known by such wonderfully fitting names as the Flatty and the Camel’s Humph we spoke fluent Scots away from the tuts and “speak properly” corrections of adults. Without even knowing it we were breathing life into the language through play.            

I feel more at home when conjuring up Scots dialogue. Its darker, more brutal – stranger than standard English. If the English language is made of late summer honey, then Scots is made of wintry treacle. 

The rich material Kirstie and her brilliant team have uncovered during their research process is fascinating. Culturally significant on so many levels. When I first read the poems of these working-class ghosts recently gathered, I knew I wanted a big canvas to paint them onto. 

The title of the play comes from doctors’ reports from the early eighteen hundreds where sick miners’ were reported to be coughing up a dark matter. The same dark matter that afflicted my grandfather in his last days. 

From the very beginning I wanted to write a damaged love story between two poets. One from Glasgow and one from Lanarkshire – but a good play has to have an external threat.  I needed to find something that would pull the lovers from each other’s arms.  

One of the poems I was given to read was ‘On the Udston Explosion’.  As a playwright this was a gift from the gods. My road to Damascus moment. The Udston Mining Disaster is a tragedy of Greek proportion – an avoidable catastrophe brought about by the greed and sloth of the mine owners. 

Once I had this awful and brutal backdrop and ending to my story, I set to work…

Martin Travers

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