I first contacted poet, Rab Wilson in 2016 looking for poems relating to industry in and around Ayrshire, in particular in my native Lallans Scots. I had been commissioned by Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival to write a 50 min piece of new music as part of their New Voices concert series and I decided to write about local industry and coal mining. I called the piece ‘The Hammering Tongue’. Rab had been suggested to me as a source of poems by musician John Moran whom I had worked with on the John Lapraik Festival some years previous. Rab did not disappoint! He initially sent me around 50 poems, mainly on the subject of Ayrshire coal mining and ‘The Great Stariski’ caught my attention immediately.

Rab comes from (and still resides in) New Cumnock in East Ayrshire. He served his time as an engineer at the Barony Colliery before changing career paths to become a psychiatric nurse. He is a prolific poet and mainly writes in his local Scots language. It was during his time at the Barony that he heard of the amazing story of Johnny Stariski. Here is what Rab has to say about Johnny and the events that inspired the poem:

“Johnny Stariski was employed as in charge of the powder magazine (supply of explosives for blasting purposes underground) at the Barony Colliery, Auchinleck, in the mid/late 1970s early 80s, when I worked there. His family emigrated to Scotland before the First World War, when there was a huge influx of Poles to Scotland. His family had been boot and shoemakers. Johnny was of short stature – but possessed of a marvellous physique. In the 1960s he had followed the famous Charles Atlas body building course and was also a champion high-board diver. These attributes no doubt played a part when Johnny famously (fact, and not fiction!) did his famous handstand on the top girder of the Barony Colliery ‘A’ Frame at Auchinleck. I have a filmed conversation with Johnny where he tells his story of this remarkable happening. It is this actual event that is celebrated in my poem ‘The Great Stariski’.”

Although I didn’t use ‘The Great Stariski’ in my New Voices commission it was always at the back of my mind to do something with it. Lockdown has given me the perfect opportunity to work on this poem, put it to music, and turn it into a song. Rab has been extremely supportive in this process and has given me free rein to do as I please with his work. It is my hope that through presenting this piece of work in a different format it will increase the amount of people who will hear about Johnny Stariski and his amazing stunt, and also introduce a new audience to the work of Rab.

I have been a full time musician for many years now however ‘The Great Stariski’ is my first solo release. I’m really not sure how long it would have taken to get round to finishing a track if it had not been for the time I’ve had off during the pandemic. Releasing this track has really boosted my confidence as a musician and I feel more driven than ever to continue to work on Rab’s poetry and release more music. I have been spurred on by the messages of support from people across Scotland including members of Johnny Stariski’s family and friends.

Both of my grandfathers were coal miners and I have grown up hearing about stories from the pits my whole life. Prior to becoming a full time musician I served an apprenticeship as a manufacturing engineer (a turner) at the 100 year old factory, Allenwest Wallacetown, manufacturing mining equipment. There was certainly no shortage of mining and factory stories there either! Even the land surrounding my native Ayrshire has been shaped by coal mining industry. Importantly all of these things have been told to me in Scots language. I read once that language not only gives you the ability to communicate, but also each language shapes the way you think in a unique way. It only makes sense that these stories should be told in Lallans Scots. I will continue to work on Rab’s poems on coal mining in Ayrshire to help preserve the stories of the people who lived, worked and sometimes died in the pits.

I hope that as many people as possible hear about Johnny Stariski and this legendary story. There will be no one like him again.

(Photos of Seán by Hamish MacLeod)

The Great Stariski (cover picture) – Artwork by Anna Colliton