Skear n. (This word does not appear in the OED but is recognized by the Dictionary of the Scots Language as a variant spelling of ‘scaur’ or ‘skerr’.)
It is unusual for any of Nicholson's poems to carry explanatory footnotes, so when a single poem has two of them it catches the eye.
The poem is 'The Borehole', in Nicholson’s 1972 collection A Local Habitation (p. 266 in the Collected Poems), and the footnotes refer to two individual terms, ‘skear’ and ‘jammy-crane’. This article will examine the word ‘skear’; ‘jammy-crane’ will be dealt with in a later piece.
The poem begins:-
'A huddle of iron jammy-cranes
Straddles the skear, ...'
The footnotes read:-
Skear: a bank of shingle or stones exposed at low tide.'
‘Skear’ is a topographical word, which, although the footnote does not indicate any geographical restriction, is probably limited mostly to the north west of England. Only probably? Certainty is rare in topographical matters; because so many locally used words are never written down. But the English Place Name Society's volumes on the names of Cumberland (published 1952, so definitely Cumberland not Cumbria) indicate why it should be limited in its distribution.
As a place name element, the word derives from Old Norse 'sker', so is likely to be used in areas of Norse settlement. In fact, it exists generally in minor names; not those of settlements or features which occur in national gazetteers, but the small landmarks which render a locality individual.
The most significant place name using the element 'sker' seems to be Skerton in Lancashire - it was Schertune in the Domesday Book. That might seem to contradict what has just been said about settlements not using this, but in 1922 the philologist Eilart Ekwall said, 'I have no doubt the name means the village opposite the ayre or gravel bank. The first name is Old Norse sker ...'. Skerton (now effectively part of Lancaster) lies opposite a feature - a gravel bank in the river Lune - which could be the ‘sker’ from which its name arises.
The English Dialect Dictionary of 1898 included ‘skear’, listing it as a variant of ‘scar’, and indicating that it was very much a feature of northern and north western dialect, its use fading away as it reached Cheshire and Shropshire. The second of the definitions given by the EDD is:- ‘a ridge of rocks; a bed of rough gravel or stones; esp. a place on which cockles or mussels abound; a spit of sand running into a lake; hard surface on land’.
Nicholson doesn't mention cockles or mussels in connection with his skear. They were not relevant to the subject of the poem. But a decade ago, they hit the headlines when a group of cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay drowned off a gravel bank known as Priest Skear. One can only speculate what Nicholson would have made of such an event. But Google the word ‘skear’ and this is the reference which crops up most often. There are numerous similar banks in Morecambe Bay, many with their own individual names, some without, but all generically known as skears. Thus, it is a word, which Nicholson's family - via his mother - would have known.
In The Lakers: the Adventures of the First Tourists, one of his earlier prose works, published in 1955, Nicholson tells the story of a party of cocklers who were drowned in Morecambe Bay many years ago, but in doing so he does not use the word skear; his vocabulary in the prose works is quite different to the vocabulary of his poetry.
The dictionary definitions of ‘skear’ are all consistent. It is related to modern Norwegian 'skjaer', and to the English words ‘scar’ and ‘skerry’.
Both scar and skerry are also found in Nicholson's poems, but neither of them is awarded an explanatory footnote. Both are presumably reckoned to be easily understood by the reader, even though skerry is also a word geographically restricted in its use.
The fact that so many such small features were named either originally by the Norse settlers or by those who came later and used their vocabulary means that this particular feature of topography meant something to the Norse and their successors. They were sailors, traders, navigators as well as settlers and farmers, so a feature like a skear was important to them as a landmark, a hazard to navigation, or a place where a boat could be beached. Theirs was a small world, where the tiniest feature could be of major importance locally - perhaps the difference between life and death, as a single worm might be to a hungry heron.
Why was this word treated to its own footnote? The published edition of the poems does not give any clues, and neither does Nicholson's surviving correspondence from around the time of publication.
Several letters in the Norman Nicholson Collection at John Rylands Library in Manchester contain congratulatory remarks following the publication of A Local Habitation. Several, indeed, list their favourite poem or poems. But only one of Nicholson's regular correspondents, Sybil Cholmondeley of Houghton Hall, King's Lynn, says anything about 'The Borehole', and her comment is tantalisingly brief. Writing to Nicholson in October 1972, she said that the poem had a real 'local' atmosphere; unfortunately she did not specify why she thought so, and we are left to speculate whether the use of dialect words such as 'skear' had anything to do with it.
Of course, the letters at Rylands are only one half of the correspondence. We do not have the letters which Nicholson wrote to his correspondents, so there is a possibility that he gave an explanation to one of them and it has not survived.
Nevertheless, I think the letter from Sybil Cholmondeley is a reliable indicator of how one word – such as skear – can set the tone and atmosphere of a whole poem. The real artistry is in not making it evident at a first reading.
Kathleen says: ‘Biographically I am very boring, but the relevant bit is that I spent part of my youth growing up in Millom, where of course I got to know Norman Nicholson. You might almost say this shaped my life to some extent. He was very much the local celebrity but naturally as kids we just accepted that without realising that we were very privileged to know him. In a larger town we would probably not have got to know him as a person in anything like the same way. I have worked in the law and public administration (yes, I can already feel the waves of boredom ...) but now have the luxury of being able to devote most of my time to the things I really enjoy, such as historical research (hence the familiarity with the archives of Manchester), and helping to run a small music society.’