On narrow streets and the life to come

Looking up a cobbled wynd in the Scottish town of Falkland, Fife. Image: Su Leslie, 2013. Edited with Snapseed.

Cobbled wynd. Sharp’s Close, Falkland, Scotland. Image: Su Leslie, 2013.

In Scotland and northern England, a narrow street or alley is called a wynd or a close (/ˈkls/ pronounced with a soft ‘s’ rather than a ‘z’ at the end).

A few years ago, I stood at the entry to this wee street with its old cobbles worn slick, and saw, in the creamy stone and whitewashed houses, my family’s past.

My ancestors — overwhelmingly working class Fife men and women — lived not in Falkland but in Dysart, Auchtermuchty, Wemyss, Kinglassie, Abbotshall and Gallatown. In streets with names like Pittesdown Close and Watery Wynd; Coal Wynd and Dobie’s Close.

For some, their whole lives were lived in those narrow streets, moving from one rented dwelling to another in the same village or town. Others left Scotland altogether; sensing a wider future for themselves in Canada, the United States, Australia, southern Africa and, in my parents’ case, New Zealand.

I love the way this poem —Wynd, by fellow Fifer Andrew Greig — gives tangible, geographical form to the almost universal condition of being young and caught between the seemingly narrow world that is known, and the vaguely suspected vastness of a future to come.


It’s back again, the how of rain
pleating off leaky roans, binding
strands that curve down stanks, curl
by high-walled wynds and dreels,
past sweetie shops with one faint bulb,
bell faltering as the pinnied widow
shuffles through from her back room –
What can I do for you the day?
She hands me now
no Galaxy or Bounty Bar
but a kindly, weary face, smear
of lipstick for her public, the groove
tartan slippers wore in linoleum
from sitting-room to counter, over thirty years:
the lost fact of her existence.

Currents ravel past the draper’s
where Mr Duncan and his unspeaking sister
sort shirts by collar size, set out
Mason’s cuff links and next season’s vests;
on stiff white cards their flowing pens
price elastic, Brylcreem, dark tartan braces.

Floods tangle, splice, uncoil
down Rodger Street, past bank and tearoom,
the dodgy garage where they sold airguns to anyone,
the steamed-up window of the ‘Royal’
where fires warms the bums of men who like
to drink standing, bunnets jammed down tight.
At Shore Street the rain-river
leaps the pavement, scours a channel
through pongy weed behind the sea wall
where damp frocks shiver under umbrellas
by the market cross, waiting for their lucky day
or at least the bus to Leven –
which won’t come for ages, because it’s Sunday.

In the hours between Stingray and the evening meal,
when the strings of family, place and history
working us, are all too bleeding visible,
as gutters burst the adolescent wonders
whether to have a quick one or read French poetry.
Smouldering with solitude, the prince of boredom
stands at the window, watching rain,
wondering when life ends, or will finally begin.

Fall, flow ache.
By those cramped streets, the kenned wynds,
loans, closes, byways, dreels,
the dying shops, fishermen’s damp houses
with empty sail lofts, broken pantiles,
wash-houses not ready for witty conversion;
by the constricting, cherished dreichness of our town
whose high tide had ebbed before ours began;
by the draper with its yellow blinds pulled down,
the angle of a bent streetlamp,
the budgie cage in old Jeanie’s window;
by the secret path behind the allotment,
the steep slalom of Burial Brae,
the short-cuts, the dank kirks and graveyards –
by these details we did not know we loved,
we grew up provincial, in the heart of the world.

You are standing at the bedroom window
watching rain, homework abandoned on the desk.
The parents are somewhere unimportant,
wee brother plays keepie-uppie in the gloom –
time to belt the shorty raincoat, go
in search of nothing but the life to come.

Andrew Greig

— from the Scottish Poetry Library

A contribution to the Daily Post Photo Challenge, on the theme of narrow.

31 thoughts on “On narrow streets and the life to come

  1. Pingback: Narrow (Grass) | What's (in) the picture?

    • Thanks so much Janet. I know what you mean about the poem, but for me hopeful wins out. He speaks for everyone who’s grown up in a small town, and felt both comforted and frustrated by the familiarity. And I guess he’s speaking as one who has left; who went “in search of nothing but the life to come”, and found it. Cheers, Su.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A beautifully dreamy photograph and an awesome poem, Su! Always dreamed of going to Scotland one day… what a magnificent country it must be! But I also understand the wish of your family for a wider horizon and new shores, as pretty as those wynds are, they can feel slightly oppressing I imagine, especially after a hard days work…

    Liked by 1 person

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