"Wee Reid Ridin Hood": Matthew Fitt and his Scots fairy tales in deepest Bohemia

Matthew Fitt

This week we meet Matthew Fitt, a Scottish writer, who is on a tour of the Czech Republic. He was born in Dundee and lived and worked in the Czech Republic, in the town of Pribram, from 1991-1993. He fell in love and married a Czech woman. Now they live in the south of Scotland.


Chalmers, Cochranes, Cockburns, MacLeans, Weirs

left the rain at leith and aberbrothock

met weet snaw in the skagerrak's mooth

and flitted hoose and shore tae the baltic

in hansa's coorts, fairs and merkat touns

where the chapmen unrolled their packs like souls

the guid men o the guilds cauldly glowered,

drave oot the schotten mang the Jews and Poles

intil Poland's hert and centuries' blood

tae kythe as surgeons, teachers, brewsters o beer

reckoners o five-year-plans - Czamer

Czochranek, Kabrun, Makalienski, Wajer

"It was great fun. I spent nine years of my life writing a science-fiction novel in Scots. Everyone told me, 'Don't do it. What's wrong with you? Why don't you use English like a normal person?' But I refused. I thought the best way to give people the idea that Scots was something that could be used for the future as well as the past, was to challenge them - and myself - with a science-fiction novel. It was great fun. The year 2000 was when it was published.

"It's called 'But n Ben A-Go-Go'. It's about Scotland and, I guess, the rest of the world under water to a depth of 700 metres. Everyone lives on floating islands. Perhaps the science-fiction plot is one thing, but the real hero of the story for me is the language, that it was able to carry a tale like that."

There is a part about Prague. I believe you've managed to get a Prague pub in there somewhere!

"In this virtual future all sorts of tourist icons like the Taj Mahal or Prague have been downloaded into a big dump, a big software dump, because they're no longer useful, because everyone has their own personal reality engines. So these collective places are sadly not used any more in this future. Here is one of the characters, a guy called Diamond Broon, trying to find another criminal, called Sark, and you'll find as we go on, if you listen carefully, where Sark is hiding:"

Broon swallaed as Java 5 whirled him owre the reid pantile roofs an lum pots o Mala Strana. Prag Castle glowered grandly doon fae its crag an St Vitus' spires glistered in the early moarnan repro sunsheen. Broon kent the original city weel. He had DJ'd for a summer an hauf a winter in the real Prague a pickle years afore the watters o the earth rose tae droon the European continent. He had bevvied in aw the city's great beer bothies an become, like every ither erse an pooch traiveller tae visit the toun, a skilled symmeler o Czech beer. In the spring o'38, he had foond the Sark heid doon on a widden table in U Dvou Sluncu, a cafe wi twa gowden greetinfaced suns abinn the door three-quarters the wey up Nerudova Street juist ablow the Castle. The pair o them supped an slavered there every nicht fae May tae November that year colleaguin the demise o the Western World. If Sark had been hiddled awa for fufteen year, it wisna a glaikit guess, Broon reckoned, that he wid brave it oot in the repro tap room o the kenspeckle Prague pub.

To turn now to your children's books. They're part of a series called 'Itchy Coo'. I'm very interested to know how Czech audiences are reacting to Scots.

"I'm delighted to be in the Czech Republic. I'm doing a tour of schools and teacher-training colleges. I've been to one school, the Gymnazium nad Aleji, this afternoon and it was fantastic. The children had no idea what was about to hit them, nor the teachers. All their English language teachers were American, so they didn't know either. They were third and fourth years, so they were quite old, and I had them doing what I do with pupils in Scotland, but for the very young ones. It was good fun.

"I gave them a quick verbal lesson in parts of the body in Scots - words like 'heid' and 'lug' and 'mooth' and 'oxter' and 'hurdies', all these words used commonly all the time in Scotland, and these are the words that we use all the time in our books because the children know what they are - parts of their body. And so then we went on to read some of the fairy tales - 'Snehurka', I think, is the Czech for Snow White. And so I got some of the children to read it in Scots as well - no problem at all! If you have access to English, you can cope with Scots no problem at all. You just need to experience more writing and reading it. And at the end of it, we all sang - because we were saying goodbye - 'Auld Lang Syne', which is in Scots and is sung all over the world on Hogmanay - New Year's Eve - and is on almost every mobile phone around the planet. The energy of that is from a Scots poem by Robert Burns."

Let's look at one of the fairy tales. I had a look at your book and I was particularly fond of Little Red Riding Hood:

Wee Reid Ridin Hood

Lang lang ago in the days o lang syne, there wis a wee lassie that stayed in a hoose wi her mither on the edge o the muckle green forest.

This lassie ayeways wore a bright reid cloak wi a hood when she went oot, so everybody cried her Wee Reid Ridin Hood.

Yin day her mither cawed Wee Reid Ridin Hood ben tae the kitchen and said, "Poor Grannie Mutchie's no that weel- She's in her bed and taen a peel. I've baked a cake for her the day, And here's a poke o aipples, tae. Noo tak them tae her through the widd. A visit fae you will dae her guid. "

Wee Reid Ridin Hood pit the cake and the poke o aipples in her basket and pit on her reid cloak. Grannie Mutchie stayed on the ither side o the muckle green forest but Wee Reid Ridin Hood didna mind. She aften walked alang the path tae Grannie's hoose and she loved tae stop and see the bonnie flooers and speak tae the wee craiturs that stayed amang the trees.

list as she wis closin the gairden yett, her mither cawed tae her through the windae.

"Mind noo, lass, and dinna daunder, And frae the pathway dinna wander. Go straight tae your Grannie Mutchie's hoose - They say there's a wolf oot on the loose."

I can understand the great success that the books have had in Scotland. You seem also to be building up a relationship with an audience also in the Czech Republic. There are many Czechs now who travel to Scotland, so this is a two-way traffic, I think.

"It's fantastic. Fifteen years ago the walls came down and everyone was free to travel. It used to take 36 hours to get from Dundee to Prague, now you can do it in two hours from Edinburgh. Czechs are making the same journey to Scotland. There are so many Czechs. Just in the small place I live, including my wife, there are seven Czechs in a radius of about 10 miles doing various things: they're there because of partners or jobs. There are dentists. We have no dentists in Scotland - Scotland's famous for bad teeth - we're always in need of dentists. Any Czech dentist out there is always welcome. So there are dentists establishing practices.

"And there's a cultural interface between Scotland and the Czech Republic. There's a Czech guy from Dobris who's a fireman in Edinburgh. He's famous, legendary now. He doesn't speak English. He speaks Czech or he speaks Scots. A friend of mine, a linguist, was at a party, and I said to him, 'Look, there's a Czech guy here, who speaks Scots. Go and find him.' And he was looking around the place asking people. He had no idea. Eventually he went over to Petr and said to him, 'Matthew says there's a Czech guy here, who speaks Scots,' and Petr goes, 'Really? I've no idea who that is. Well, we'll try and find him.' He went round for ten minutes before he revealed that he was Czech.

"So the barriers are all gone. We can now explore each other's cultures more fully and knowing that Scots is there will help everyone."

I'd like in conclusion to look at some of your own poetry.

"As a poet, I've always been fascinated by my experiences in the Czech Republic as very much a part of that. My father-in-law builds microlight aeroplanes in the garage. I find it incredible. In the '70s, when they were going out together, he wasn't allowed to fly because of the restrictions - this was during 'normalisation' - and so he'd take his plane out into the field in the middle of winter. My mother-in-law would go with him. She wasn't interested, she hates the flying, it was really just to be near him. And so this poem is for them:

forgotten airfields o west central bohemia

the wind scarts at the birks

boys scutter wi a puck on the frozen lochan

the pilot has nae cigarette tae licht

she cups his hauns wi hers

and tells him it'll soon be summer

then wi a gleg airm,

he ruggs awa the chocs

haps his een wi cracked auld goggles

feels his hert skelp faster in his chist

she bides by the skoda

smoorin the cauld intil her wi a scarf

and smiles

she kens where he's gaun and hou far

heid boued in the micro-licht cockpit,

he hirples the plance twiced

roon the roch ploued field o hajany airbase

then wi a gesture

mair puggled than crabbit

sneds the ile-flow tae the engine

she reads and unnerstauns the scunner on his face

but gledly retrieves her goggie's haun

and drives him hame throu the sub-zero winter glaur

thirty thoosan feet

abinn the jeel-cauld west Czech forests

an arra-heid o soviet bombers

dinnles dour anthems amang the altocumulus

"I'll fire just one more at you. This is about the experience of a Czech living in Scotland, my wife Mirka. She valiantly tries to grow sunflowers. They last quite a while. It's that splash of colour in the winter gloom, that I always find very brave of her, almost trying to keep the dampness away for as long as possible."

mirka's sunflowers

she arrived from the land

of which we know nothing

and brought the dark island

an adrenaline of yellows

La Jolla's spanish lights flicker in her eyes

her skin is dyed with Baja California

and under her fingernails

Mojave desert dust

in a knapsack pocket she carries Trosky's ochre seas

a kanga wrap

that once blew like a pirate's sail over Ipanema

paper bags of xanthin gathered

from the fields behind Five Dogs

and in the season

her sunflowers occur like memories

renew the pigments of vanishing afternoons

and continue to renew

in this country of unbalanced light

where we ride the rape highway

from Kinfuns to Kirrie

to the sulphurous city beyond

and observe between summers

the winter sun

forever crash-landing on Tinto

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.