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Friday Fiction: Nithraid
Of cows and rivers
Here’s this week’s Friday Fiction. And it is something different! My first post where I share another writer’s words, rather than my own. I’d like to do more of this, so I can amplify other authors’ voices.
This short piece is by Davey Payne. I first met Davey when I was teaching on the High Street Multiverse project, and have become familiar with his writing through other creative events in Dumfries. Enjoy a wander through rich language and one of our local cultural events. Welcome to Dumfries, a gateway into Scotland!
As vernal hopes sank into anticipation for summer, we now yield to another autumnal lament for impending winter. Seasonal joys depend on lunar currencies as much as the Selgovae and Novantae relied on the Nith's flow. Their ashes and dust deep filtered through bedrock under mud fords which savages sailed over to settle, upstarts who roused and harangued. On these bankings, Scandinavian and Irish melting pots blazed then cooled, casting Viking steel galvanised by Brigante blood, their brutal moulds broken then tossed to the elements like bone. Curious, intrepid spirits made fun of these tides, skited o’er its lurky luminescence.
Its basin, like the town itself, is a furnace: its water a brown steel, stoked by early September sun. Today’s contenders will lick and lash at it with competitive edge, outsmart the ebb, threatened by the impending cold torch of a new moon coming at night. Who, exactly, dared to temper this torrent, stretching from firth to caul, where its salty stream is damned? The muscle memory of those who fetched Chinese opium, Middle Eastern glass, American tobacco, French brandy and lace is disseminated by these Nithraiders in their final flourish, this last act of summer...
...before an ephemeral russet backdrop is painted amidst the spectre of lost tradition. Y’ken, these days there is no’ even a Standard on Wednesday, ‘Coo Day’ as it was once affectionately known as ‘Doonhame’. Midweek hump day blues reign mainly but today the Millgreen is awash with colour and streams with sounds that succour our senses! A verdant natural resource personified, snatching at its potential. Beyond the auld brig fresh waters lie stagnant where volleys rang out from the foundry by the Stakeford, whose spoils drove iron horses that diverted cattle trade from the Burgh.
What of the men who once traded blows over these arches? Was it the thwarting of the tide or loss of industry that stuck in their throats and forced them to swallow their frustrations? Whatever the reason: the peaceful trade of cattle is now a distilled memory for us, the last sincere connection between Dumfries and Maxwelltown. Until the union of 1929 this navigated axe wound separated two burghs and today divides just one. Yet here we are, united by it, by our past, bound for the future!
Take heed - the Salty Coo!
© Davey Payne – 2023
Nithraid! is an annual river race festival celebrating the town’s rich port and trading heritage. The Salty Coo its emblem used to denote the contenders’ finishing line where, for centuries, cattle were driven across a ford.
Selgovae: 2nd Century Celtic tribe who lived both East and West of the Nith.
Novantae: 2nd Century Celtic tribe who settled west of the Nith in Kirkcudbrightshire.
Brigante: Ancient Britons who ruled what would become the North of England during the pre-Roman era.
skited: from the verb ‘skite’ to move quickly and forcefully, especially when glancing off a surface.
Firth: similar to fjord. An inlet where the tidal effects of a large river has eroded the coast and widened the riverbed into an estuary.
Caul: a stone weir built to divert the Nith’s flow to serve a mill on the Maxwelltown side.
y’ken: similar to y’know; ken is Scots for “know”
Standard: Dumfries & Galloway Standard is a local newspaper printed on Fridays and Wednesdays when weekly cattle markets were held in town.
Coo Day: older generations continued to call Wednesday ‘Coo Day’ long after the Wednesday cattle markets ceased trading.
Doonhame: “Doonhamer” is a nickname for someone belonging to Dumfries. Historically, we had no university so Doonhamers were forced to travel to Edinburgh or Glasgow to study and said they were going ‘doon hame’ (‘down home’) to Dumfries on holidays.
Foundry at Stakeford: Alexander Maxwell’s gigantic ironworks which forged steam tanks and engines for the railways.
Union of 1929: from 1810 to 1929 the west bank of Dumfries was known as Maxwelltown, a burgh of barony which came under the jurisdiction of Kirkcudbrightshire and completely separate from the Royal Burgh of Dumfries.
The Salty Coo: a cow modelled from salt to symbolise the tidal nature of the Nith, used as an emblem for Nithraid.
Davey Payne is native to Dumfries, Scotland where he presently works in the catering industry and writes prose poetry which is often polemic, sociopolitical and anthropological. He reaches into history to raise and answer questions about the contemporary state of society and has a predilection for the psychogeography of urban settings
Davey is also a naturalist, inspired by the rural surroundings and natural assets within Dumfries, particularly the River Nith.