September 20, 2009

Beautiful obit for a Scottish Traveller

I recently traded some you'll-never-actually-be-able-to-fly-with-these-because-we-have-365-blackout-dates-per-year frequent flier miles for a subscription to the British publication The Economist, arguably the best and best-written English-language weekly news magazine. Along with its crisp, no-nonsense reporting and analysis, I enjoy the British English: no periods after Dr or Mr, spellings like tyre, favourite and honour, words like dogged, nipped and tinter-sticks, and letters to the editor that all begin, "Sir." The prose, besides being informative, is great fun to read.

A recent issue contains an obituary of Scottish storyteller Stanley Robertson, one of Scotland's Travellers, "... that mysterious band who were neither true Romanies, nor settled citizens, but roamed the roads of north-eastern Scotland in tents and carts." Robertson died on August 2 at age 69.

The language in the obituary is so rich and evocative, it transports the reader to the underside of Aberdeen and into the swirly, gritty, texture of Stanley Robertson's life. I have to share it (and wish I could give a proper attribution, but The Economist doesn't use bylines):

"The fish-hooses of old Aberdeen were dark, reeking places, and the work was scabby. But it was all Stanley Robertson could get. At 15 he started, 48 hours a week chopping up fish in some poky hole, getting shocks from the finning machine, steeping his skinned, sore hands in brine or pickle-juice. The smell was so scunnering it made him want to puke up, and the lassies on the next bench thought it a great joke to throw fish eyes in his face. When he finally caught the bus home to his dinner, still with his wellies on, croaked after hauling wooden boxes of haddock or hanging kipper kilns in the roof, other passengers would say, 'What a horrible smell of fish!' and change their seats. "

Once a year Robertson's family -- he was one of 13 children -- left their lives of fish-hooses, flax-gathering and rabbit skin-hawking to go up into the country's far reaches and tell stories. Robertson's hands, writes the author of this flowing obituary, were always careful and busy, but "his head was in Fairyland."