walking words

Good morning, everyone. Today I thought I’d share with you one of the poems I recently read at Write by the Sea.

I’m someone who loves walking, and since my stroke in 2010, I’m also someone who has a disabled body. If you’ve read Handywoman, you might remember that a really formative moment in my understanding of disability occurred when, struggling to learn to walk as a disabled person, I looked back on all the nature and outdoor literature I’d previously enjoyed, and was shocked by the fact that limited bodies never seemed to appear in nature writing. Noticing that absence prompted me to reflect first on my own implicit ableism; then to begin to understand how resourceful disabled walkers might experience landscapes very differently; and finally to think about how a new kind of nature writing might begin to address the absence of disabled people and their bodies from the landscapes in which many of us walk and find creative meaning. A lot of interesting conversations are now finally being had about the strange homogeneity of nature writing and its issues of exclusion, and last year I was very pleased to be a small part of one such conversation with the brilliant people at Kendall Mountain Festival. Since then, I’ve found myself thinking about the many different ways in which language (and the English language specifically) might itself restrict endeavours to represent and celebrate disabled walking bodies (words like “lame”, for example, are loaded in such a pointlessly negative way). It was during one such train of thought that I opened up Amanda Thomson’s wonderful Scots Dictionary of Nature and discovered hundreds of wonderful Scots walking words: words in which the limitations of the body were never hidden, but vividly brought to the fore. This poem’s about my experience of discovering those Scots words, and you’ll find a glossary at the end.


On reading Amanda Thomson’s Scots Dictionary of Nature

Put in words, the walking body seems
so able that
it barely exists.

stepping out
beyond itself
but never
its own soundness.

How could the body’s ease ever
be a kind of nothing?
Perhaps only for the awkward
does ease begin to mean.

Where, then
the grammar of impediment? How
might our mouths
move to shape
the morphology of
our lost footing?

The turned page
a term
to affirm
two appendages
unevenly matched:

Without pity or
contempt I

for mine is a hilchin’, hirplin’, howdlin’
body, a form
that will often
hench awa.’

My feet
sclowf, staup, futtle
when I move I
skyte and sklitter
noop and knoit.

The stibblin’, staverin’, strummelin’ gait
the ordinary strain
of ambulation.

Words, raw and tender
the ingenuity
of being:

a gathering of limbs
twisted, broken, faltering —


With the ceaseless grace of
its own inelegance
each under its own load
the body haigles on
through time.


Words for the walking body, Amanda Thomson says,
belong to none of us and all.

Stones cast on the tide
of songs long before ours.
In speaking, we’ll turn them
smooth in our mouths.


camshauchle – to walk lamely or inactively
finster – a discovery, something worth finding
futtle – to walk clumsily
haigle – to walk with difficulty, as one with a heavy load upon their back
hench awa’ – to move onward in a halting way
hilch – hobble
hirple – to move crazily
hotchin-hippit – having hips that cause clumsy walking
howdle – to walk in a limping, heavy manner
knoit – to amble or hobble
noop – to walk with downcast eyes and nodding head
pleuch-fittit – having heavy, dragging feet
sclowf – to walk with a heavy tread like a flat footed person
sklitter – to walk in a slovenly fashion
skyte – to slip about
staup – to take long awkward steps, to walk as a person does in darkness
staver – to walk listlessly
strummel – one who stumbles
swaver – to walk feebly as one who is fatigued