St Fergus Gran by Beth McDonough


Image by Margaret Calvert

We are living in a time of shifting demographics, which has the potential for pitting the young and old against one another. Not in a face-to-face sense, but in the way policy makers shift their thinking to ‘balance the books’. Just recently, in the UK the Work and Pensions Committee has recommended an end to the ‘triple lock’ of state pension payments that sees them increase according to three factors (i.e. whatever is highest in terms of average earnings, consumer price index, or 2.5%). There is a fear that as people live longer we won’t be able afford the state pension in its current form. This is compounded by the roll back in salary-linked company pensions. The elderly then are seen to be costing ‘us’, as though ‘we’ are the ones paying for their inactivity.

This is dangerous and not based on fact. You walk around during the working week and see how many grandparents are picking up their grandchildren from school; or looking after pre-schoolers all day whilst their own children are working. It is estimated that grandparents contribute £7 billion free childcare each year. They are contributing a similar amount to help fund their grandchild’s education. But it is also wrong to assume that they are all wealthy; one in seven pensioners live in poverty and a further 1.2 million live just above that line.

beth-mcdThis sets aside the history they have lived through and the people they became because of it; a World War to monumental technological change from the TV to virtual reality. They have so many stories to tell and be told, and Beth McDonough’s eponymous poem ‘St Fergus Gran’ does just that. “Great Gran lived in weighty old pennies, dropped/from bonehard hands to my fat-cup palm/just before we’d journey west.” Like many stories, hers is one that is handed down the generations, “I never knew of her second sight/All those deaths, and how she kent/her brother lived, when the telegram said not.” Their lives weren’t a straightforward one of getting married and having children; war put pay to that. “I met the East End Glasgow lad she’d/fostered in the war, with all his tricks, his walk/to her from the west coast up to Buchan.” Here Beth tells us a little more about the poem:

“Although my poems are often partly autobiographical, they are rarely so openly so. This one arrived that way. I suspect my Dad would have problems with it, as for his Scots generation there is still a perceived stigma. For my part, I am in awe of my Great Gran – a couthy and brave woman. The knowledge of her  situation, so much later, only increased my respect. The two sisters brought up their families a few miles apart in rural Aberdeenshire, where doubtless no secret about my Grandfather’s paternity could be kept. I feel a certain indebtedness to Norman MacCaig’s Aunt Julia, and yes there are “so many questions/unanswered” and in St Fergus Gran’s case, I mourn too that I will never really know those answers in her beautiful Doric, so specific to that area.”


Beth McDonough trained in Silversmithing at GSA, completing her M.Litt at Dundee University. Writer in Residence at Dundee Contemporary Arts 2014-16, her poetry appears in Gutter, The Interpreter’s House and Antiphon and elsewhere and her reviews in DURA. She has a background in teacher trade union activism and she is involved in various disability-related groups. Handfast, her pamphlet with Ruth Aylett (Mother’s Milk, May 2016) charts family experiences – Aylett’s of dementia and McDonough’s of autism.


St Fergus Gran

Great Gran lived in weighty old pennies, dropped
from bonehard hands to my fat-cup palm
just before we’d journey west. She was coiled
inky hair, all starling eyes, a bent body leant
on a wooden frame. She lived till I was twelve.

I never knew of her second sight.
All those deaths, and how she kent
her brother lived, when the telegram said not.
She dreamed birds and hearts. It took
my first adult death for Dad to tell me this.

What she could not see, was how
the man who left her pregnant was to wed
her sister in their kirk before
their son was born. It took
his Father’s death for Dad to tell me this.

I met the East End Glasgow lad she’d
fostered in the war, with all his tricks, his walk
to her from the west coast up to Buchan. I loved
his anarchy on buses to the Broch. It took
his Mother’s death for Dad to tell me this.

Today, I asked my Dad about my Great-Gran’s
Christian name. He can recite the cottage signs,
say all those burns that feed the Ythan, but
he cannot tell me this. They had
no need to know her name. She was just
St Fergus Gran.




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