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Mouse of the rising songstress; Scots folk singer Karine Polwart receives an unwelcome visitor.

"In this corner of the Scottish Borders, the field mice have decided that the field outside my house isn't quite glamorous enough in this nippy weather and that the kitchen, bathroom and, eventually, bedroom of my home is a cosier option.

Let me tell you, when you wake up in the night with a wee field mouse scuttling about on the end of your bed you're not necessarily thinking about how cute it is, how its big eyes and dove-coloured coat make it much more Disney-friendly than your average house mouse, though all this is true. You're thinking, Right! That's it. War.

In the cold light of day it made me think of something else. If you're not from Scotland you might not be acquainted with a splendid wee Robert Burns poem called To A Mouse.

This was the first ever poem I recall being forced to learn as a child, indeed it was one of two set poems, along with an extract from the epic supernatural thriller Tam o' Shant-er, for the annual Burns recitation competition at our primary school.

When I was nine or so I thought To A Mouse was, quite simply, a poem about a mouse: a kind of nice poem, in the way that field mice are kind of nice (when they're not in your bed), but nothing amazing.

Not until very recently did it occur to me just how profound this poem is, how much it says about the world and our place in it, how much it's not just a poem for kids. I got to thinking about this by being involved in both a cross-cultural radio programme for BBC Scotland called Ravi Burns and a cross-genre song-writing event called Burnsong in Dumfries in the south-west corner of Scotland.

Subtitled "On turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1795", I'd like, if it's okay, to take you on a bit of a walk through To A Mouse and hope it doesn't remind you too much of dreaded English comprehension classes.

For "thee" and "thy" just think "you" and I'll try to explain the trickier Scots words.

Wee sleekit, cowrin, timorous beastie (small timid creature) O, what a panic in thy breastie! (your breast)

Thou need na start awa sae hasty (needn't run away so hastily) Wi bickering brattle (with frightened mouse noises) I wad be laith tae rin and chase thee (unwilling to run and chase) Wi murderin prattle (the noise I made when I saw the mouse on the bed!)

To me this is such a vivid image of a wee flustered creature (how do I translate the word "sleekit" though?) and a hapless big sympathetic man who's kind of mortified at what he's done.

That's pretty much all anyone ever remembers. But verse two is something else. It gives a real sense of Burns' notion that all creatures are part of the same universe and that maybe (even 200-odd years ago) human beings are in danger of going a bit too far.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion

Has broken nature's social union

And justifies the ill opinion

Which makes thee startle

At me, thy poor earth born


And fellow mortal!

His subsequent description of mouse-sized devastation in verse four is truly tender: Thy wee but hoosie, too, in ruin Its silly wa's the winds are strewin An naething now tae big a new yin O' foggage green

An' bleak December winds ensuing Baith snell and keen Or (in English): Your tiny house too in ruin Its silly walls the winds are blowing And nothing left to build a new one Of foliage green

And bleak December winds coming in Both quick and biting

Then he ponders upon the fact that though the wee mouse has no insurance plan to account for such a catastrophe, no amount of planning makes anything certain for any of us folks either (again in English below). But Mousie, thou art no alane In proving foresight may be vain The best-laid schemes o' mice and men

Gang aft agley

An le'e us nought but grief and pain For promised joy


Dear Mouse you are not alone

In proving foresight may be vain

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Often go astray

And leave us nothing but grief and pain

For promised joy

There's a bit more but that'll do for now. It's not a depressing poem, despite what that last verse might suggest: more a reminder of imper-manence and of being part of big, big thing. I always feel an extra sense of fragility about the world at this time of year just because it's winter and it's clearer than at other times of year that "clouds form and disperse".

2005 has been a year that's turned the whole singing and songwriting adventure around for me in all kinds of ways and I'm really looking forward to next year.

My next Midlands date is with a trio (most likely Inge Thomson on accordion / vocals and my brother Steven Polwart on guitar / vocals), at Wolverhampton's Newhampton Inn on Saturday February 4 2006.

At my gigs I'm selling a new five-track limited-edition CD called The Pulling Through EP. It's a big symbolic thing for me as it's the first recording I've made that I own. From now on, all my future CDs will bear the name of my imprint "hegri music" (hegri is the Shetland word for heron - my favourite creature), though I may lend them to other companies to help me get my stuff out there.

The EP features one new studio track, a preview of a mellow song from my next album. It's a wee lullaby called Holy Moses. All of the regular band are on there, plus lovely layered violins from a splendid fellow called Greg Lawson, who has also scored string quartet parts for several other songs that will appear on the next CD, and my wee sister Kerry on her recorded glockenspiel debut.

There are also two live tracks from this year's Cambridge Folk Festival: Daisy, which many people have requested, and Only One Way. And there are live versions of Waterlily and Light On The Shore, with spoken introductions, from Darvel Festival in Ayrshire. Of course, the stuff sounds live, but the point is it's like it says, a "pulling through" sort of a thing until I get to the next album in spring of next year, with any luck.

My youngest brother Douglas has been helping me to set up a system for ordering the EP online and at last it's up and running."

Thirty five year-old Polwart, who hails from the Stirlingshire village of Banknock, scored a hat-trick at this year's BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, picking up the Horizon Award' winning Best Album for 2004's Faultlines, and receiving the prize for Best Original Song for The Sun's Comin' Over The Hill.

Now she's scooped the nomination in the 2006 Radio 2 Folk Awards as Folk Singer of the Year. "I really thought I'd cashed in a lifetime's worth of chips last year but, surprisingly, I managed to get nominated for an award again this year," she smiles.

"But you should check out the other nominees, all of whom are splendid in very different ways (a special punt for Chris Wood if you like old-fashioned traditional singing - his version of Lord Bateman is brilliant). In particular, check out the folks nominated in the Horizon category. Both Julie Fowlis (a Gaelic singer and multi-instrumentalist from the Isle of Uist) and James Chadwick (a young songwriter with a Nick Drake meets Nick Jones touch) are names to watch out for."

Karine Polwart can be seen at Newhampton Inn, Riches Street, (off Tettenhall Rd), Wolverhampton, on Saturday February 4 2006. Tel 01902 745773. The Pulling Through EP is available from

Karine Polwart was talking to Charlie Melvin


Karine Polwart comes to Wolverhampton in February
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 2, 2006
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