Aunt Julia

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Aunt Julia

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Aunt Julia



Learning Intention:

We are learning how to read the poem for UNDERSTANDINGSo that I can Understand the basic points of the poem before I study the poet's techniquesSuccess Criteria: I can...Identify the speaker, setting and subject of the poemSummarise what happens in the poemIdentify and define any unfamiliar vocabulary words



Before we begin to study the poem, we need to do some work to ensure that we all understand what is happening in the poem. You have already completed these tasks for Assisi so you should be familiar with the process.

From now on, you will do this on your own for homework before we study each poem in class..


Aunt Julia

First, let’s consider the title. Write it down at the top of your page.

What do we think about when we read this phrase? Write down your ideas on the next line.

What do we already know about this phrase? Write down your ideas on the next line.

Considering all the information we have gathered, what do you think the poem will be about? What do your facts suggest about the poem? How do they make you feel?


“Aunt Julia” by Norman MacCaig

We are now going to listen to Norman MacCaig’s poem ‘Aunt Julia’


‘Aunt Julia’

We will now listen closely to the poem.

Listen carefully to the poem and follow it in your workbook.

Now that we have heard the poem through once, you will re-read it yourself and complete a further task to ensure you understand what is happening.


Aunt Julia

Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic

very loud and very fast.

I could not answer her —

I could not understand her.

She wore men’s boots

when she wore any.

— I can see her strong foot,

stained with peat,

paddling with the treadle of the


while her right hand drew yarn

marvellously out of the air.


Hers was the only house

where I’ve lain at night

in the absolute darkness

of a box bed, listening to

crickets being friendly.

She was buckets

and water flouncing into them.

She was winds pouring wetly

round house-ends.

She was brown eggs, black skirts

and a keeper of


in a teapot.


Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic

very loud and very fast.

By the time I had learned

a little, she lay

silenced in the absolute black

of a sandy grave



. But I hear her still, welcoming me

with a seagull’s voice

across a hundred yards





and getting angry, getting angry

with so many questions




As you read it for the second time I want you to make a list of any unfamiliar vocabulary words that you come across and any questions or thoughts/observations that you may have.







Other Thoughts



Gaelic – a Celtic language spoken in the highlands of Scotland

Yarn: continuous twisted strand fibre produced on a spinning wheel.

Peat: an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation which forms in wetlands such as bogs

Treadle: rocking lever operated by the foot to drive a spinning wheel

Box bed: bed built into a recess in a traditional Highland cottage, separated from the main room by a curtain or wooden panel.


: old eight-sided pre-decimal coin (worth around 1p)


– tiny village with spectacular sandy beach on the island of Harris.


: traditional way of growing crops in small patches of soil using ridges of soil.


Problem solving

On your own or with a study partner try to generate definitions for all the unfamiliar vocabulary words. You can use dictionaries or on your phone to help you!

Make sure to look up every word you're not sure of and write it down in the table. I will be testing your knowledge of the vocabulary when you return.

Now I want you to turn your attention to your questions. Using the internet or any other resources at your disposal, try to find an answer for each of your questions.



Working in the same pairs, read the poem again and take notes under the following headingsWhat (happens in the poem)Where (do events takes place)When ( do events take place)Who ( is mentioned in the poem)



Now you should use your notes to help you create a profile of Aunt Julia where you write down everything you learn about her and draw and label a picture( can be drawn/printed/cut out) to represent her.



Norman MacCaig's Aunt Julia lived on Scalpay, a small island off the coast of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. She lived a traditional, hardworking life on a croft and she spoke only her native Gaelic language. MacCaig sometimes described himself as three quarters Gaelic - three of his grandparents were Gaels and his mother came from the same small island. He was born and brought up in Edinburgh, however, and knew Scalpay only from visits. He developed a deep affinity with the people, landscape and culture of Gaelic North West Scotland from his visits there.As is evident in the poem, MacCaig felt a strong attachment to his Aunt Julia despite the language barrier that existed between them. This is one of the most memorable of his studies of Highland characters. Julia is depicted in a series of striking metaphors that show how the young narrator connects her with three elements of nature - earth, water and air.


Understanding Questions

Stanza One

What characteristics of Aunt Julia does the poet establish in his opening stanza?

Why was he unable to understand her or answer her?

Stanza two

What physical details are we given about the character in this stanza?

What is the poet describing her doing in stanza two?

How does the poet feel about her?

What kind of life does Aunt Julia lead according to both stanzas two and four?

Stanza Three

8. What is being described in stanza 3?

9. How does the poet feel here?


Understanding Questions

Stanza FourWhat memories of his aunt does the poet describe in stanza 4?What does the quotation “threepennybits in a teapot” suggest about her?Stanza FiveWhat does the poet mean when he says ‘learned a little’?What does he mean when he says ‘lay silenced’?What is the final description MacCaig gives us of his Aunt?The poem ends enigmatically when the poet refers to "questions unanswered". What in your opinion might these questions be?


Learning intention

Learning Intention: We are learning WHY MacCaig chose to write this poemSo that I can Understand the message that he is trying to convey to the readerSuccess CriteriaI should be able to give one reason why MacCaig wrote the poemI could also be able to offer another reason why the poem was writtenI might also be able to identify what makes the poem universal



Now that we have a good basic understanding of the poem, we have to think about the WHY question. Why did the poet choose to write this particular poem about this particular experience? What is he trying to share with the reader?



One of the main themes which emerges in this poem is the

sense of isolation

felt by the speaker, who is frustrated by his inability to communicate effectively with this much loved relative.

Despite this barrier though, he shows us

that emotions can often transcend language through the obvious, almost spiritual connection and affection

between the two.

On a wider level, Julia comes to symbolise elements of a distinct

Scottish heritage, language and culture

that are at risk of disappearing forever in the modern world.


Aunt Julia



Form and Structure

This is an autobiographical poem so the poet employs a first person narrative stance. Like all


poetry, part of its success lies in his skilful and effective use of accessible language.

Writing in free verse helps to create a conversational style and tone, while the use of enjambment and repetition allow him to emphasise key aspects of the poem.

The poem is divided into five stanzas, each with a specific focus.


Stanza 1 and 2

The poem begins with a series of warmly drawn, affectionate childhood memories.

These stanzas introduce the subject of the poem - Aunt Julia – with a description of her physical appearance and the objects


most strongly associates with her. He makes references to distinct features of island life, making clear his fascination with his aunt’s lifestyle. The poet begins to create a picture of a woman who lives a life close to the soil in this rural landscape. Her work is physically demanding, both out of doors and within her house.


Stanza 3 and 4

The perspective moves to the way the poet felt when he visited her. He was safe, secure and happy. A series of metaphors are used to create a sense of her character. It also gives an impression of


affection and fascination with the island way of life. The language barrier was surmounted by an instinctive bond between the speaker and his aunt. As a result the young boy feels safe and secure in the dark island of the box bed in Aunt Julia’s home.


compares his aunt both with the elements he associates with this landscape, the wind and water, and within the objects and garments that for him are most evocative of her.

The observations are

those of a child,

fascinated by both the curious and the ordinary. there is a pride and honesty in this life, which the speaker obviously admires.


Stanza 5

The last stanza introduces a tone of regret before ending with a picture of the larger than life character calling to him still “getting angry, getting angry/with so many questions/ unanswered”. The reason for this regret is that only after Julia's death did the poet learn enough Gaelic to be able to communicate with her. Hence, all the questions that he would have asked to her must now remain unanswered, just as her questions to him as a child had been.


Analysis Questions

How does the poet use language to establish the character of Aunt Julia in his opening stanza?


Show how the poet uses sentence structure in stanza one to emphasise his lack of understanding of Aunt Julia.


Identify the poet’s attitude towards his aunt in stanza 2

b) How is this made clear?



Choose any ONE characteristic of Aunt Julia from stanza 2 and explain how

the poet conveys this to the reader.




Identify the poet’s attitude towards his experience in stanza 2.

b) How is this made clear? 1


Analysis Questions

How does MacCaig use imagery to emphasise her relationship with the natural world in stanza 4? 2 Identify the CONTRAST presented between stanzas 1&2 and 3&4. 2What is the TONE of the final stanza 1b) how is it created? 2 What is the effect of the word ‘silenced’ in line 27? 2 How effective is the image ‘with a seagull’s voice?’ 2 Comment on the poet’s use of structure in the final 3 lines to express his feelings of frustration. 4 12) With reference to this poem and ONE other, show how MacCaig uses the natural world to convey his themes. 6 TOTAL 35


Aunt Julia



Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic very loud and very fast. I could not answer her – I could not understand her.

The poem opens with a series of


to clearly convey information about his aunt.

Word choice: Gaelic/loud/fast


she was forceful and dynamic. Also reveals the language barrier/cultural divide. Speed of her speech


of “very” creates an affectionate tone. It suggests that Aunt Julia had a great deal of energy and a strong, forceful personality and suggest life and vitality– an impression that is developed in the rest of the poem.

One of the key themes of the poem is immediately established, the barriers of communication between them.


of “I could not” emphasises how difficult he found communication with his aunt. emphasises the impossibility and shows frustration. Balanced sentences: reinforces he tried and tried.

Already in this vivid description we have the impression of Julia as a dynamic, vigorous and forceful character.


She wore men's boots when she wore any. — I can see her strong foot, stained with peat,

It is clear that Aunt Julia was very practical and capable, frequently able to go about in her bare feet. The fact that she wore “men’s boots” suggests that she was not bothered about how she looked or appearing especially feminine, she wanted clothing that was as strong and practical as her. “Wore any” – implies an ability to forego conventional norms.

Word choice: “strong” suggests capable.

Use of

present tense

makes these memories seem very immediate. It is clear how important they are to the writer and how well he can remember his aunt.

“strong foot” capable of hard, manual labour- emphasises her physical strength and vitality

Peat is a type of soil that can be cut and used in fires. It is common in the Western Isles and would have been Aunt Julia’s main fuel source. The fact that her feet are stained suggests that Aunt Julia would have cut the peat herself. This is very physically demanding work and emphasises how strong and hard-working she must have been. The staining again suggests her lack of vanity. It also suggests that she is very close to nature – the soil has physically marked her body. The word ‘stain’ suggests something happening over a long time/ingrained. Shows that she’s worked the land for a long time. Suggests nature/ her connection with the land. She is synonymous with nature.


paddling with the treadle of the spinning wheel while her right hand drew yarn marvellously out of the air.

Spinning wool is a skill heavily associated with island life. Harris Tweed is still famous to this day. The poet shows here that it is not just physically demanding work that his aunt is good at, but also delicate work, such as spinning wool. This further develops his clear admiration for her.


accentuates the lengthiness of the spinning process and

creates a sense of movement and activity which


also associates with his aunt.

Long vowels

of “her hand drew yearn” reflect the nature of the task. It helps create the impression of the wool being pulled out.

Word choice of


suggests that she is very good at it and the poet finds it amazing.


is upbeat/nostalgic. Conveys poet’s love and admiration.


: “out of the air” compares his aunt to a magician. Again, this emphasises how amazed and entranced the young


was to see his aunt doing this task. Reference to the natural elements but also suggests magical/amazing/exceptional skill.


also has a double meaning, As well as being wool, it is also a term used for a story suggesting that his aunt was a storyteller, a tradition that is again a feature of island life.


Hers was the only house where I've lain at night in the absolute darkness of a box bed, listening to crickets being friendly.

pronoun Hers, emphasising her significance to him. She was special. His.

“only house” emphasises how special this house was to him. He had never experienced this anywhere else.

Respectful tone:

highlights the uniqueness of this character/her special qualities that made him feel safe as a child. Illustrates their close bond.

Word choice

of “absolute” makes clear there was no light at all. This is usually something that would suggest a fearful atmosphere, as would the insects. However, it is made clear by “crickets being friendly” that the poet is very happy in this environment. It is a place where he feels secure, happy and peaceful.

“a box bed” is a bed that is built into the wall and has curtains in front of it. Again it is something that is common in rural environments but would have been quaint and old fashioned



, , suggesting that it is not only his aunt that he remembers fondly, but that the rural environment made him feel safe and happy.

We are given a warm and happy impression of the crickets – in this memory, nature is completely welcoming. W/C:


suggests he found this a pleasant and enjoyable childhood experience despite its potential to be terrifying. It pays tribute again to her special ability to make the strange/unknown very comforting.

The ‘darkness’ and friendly crickets contrast


She was buckets and water flouncing into them.


of “she was” and the


of different metaphors throughout this stanza makes clear the huge number and variety of warm memories that the poet has of his aunt. It also gives us a clear impression of her great energy and vitality – she was clearly capable of being and doing a great many things.


“she was buckets and water flouncing into them” suggests her quick and busy physical activities. Also suggests a difference between her rural life and


city life – she would have had no running water and would have collected it from a well.

Word choice

of “flouncing” is a comic image of her liveliness. It suggests a jolly, happy way of moving. Suggests she is active/full of life and moves spontaneously/rapidly.


‘she was winds…’ both are fast moving, forceful and again connected to nature.


She was winds pouring wetly round house-ends. She was brown eggs, black skirts and a keeper of threepennybits in a teapot.


: “She was winds pouring wetly” suggests her energy and again identifies her specifically with the island way of life – this time through its unique weather. “pouring” making clear how strong the wind and heavy the rain could be.


“she was brown eggs” – we are given a third metaphor identifying his aunt with nature, Presumably the brown eggs would be those she collected from her hens – this highlights the boy’s fascination with how different her life in the island would be compared to his in the city. This is the turning point in the stanza as eggs are also domestic objects, as are the two following comparisons. She is close to the wild nature of the island, but also keep a warm and inviting home that


remembers fondly.

“black skirts”

again suggests a lack of vanity. The fact that it is plural suggests that she always wore the same style of practical and plain clothing illustrating her hard life; the hard work she had to undertake and the bleakness of the surroundings she had to work in along with the financial difficulties suggested.



suggests her thriftiness – that she saved small coins. Describing them as being kept in a teapot is also a detail that evokes feelings of warmth and affection. ‘teapot’ suggests she may have been eccentric.

Aunt Julia combines the strength of nature and the security of a domestic home


Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic very loud and very fast. By the time I had learned a little, she lay silenced

Shorter lines with more pauses for thought. Change of atmosphere – disappointment and sadness. The tone is now darker

The stanza opens with


of the first lines, reminding us of the sound of Aunt Julia’s voice.


first lines but now tone sounds regretful: she is gone and so is her language.

Alliteration “Learned a little

” – indicates his boyhood frustration/aunt’s exasperation did have an impact on him and he attempted to learn Gaelic. Also suggests the life lessons he has learned as he grew up – he is older and wiser now and more able to appreciate her life and culture but it is too late.


that the poet was finally able to speak her language but she was unable to speak to him as she had died. This highlights the theme of the challenges and importance of communication.


she lay silenced in the absolute black of a sandy grave at Luskentyre


of “lay/silenced” creates a slight pause and therefore a bit of a shock. The reason for the repetition at the start of the stanza has become clear – it reminded the reader of her unique and powerful voice to make the contrast with her in death more forceful. The power of death is made clear.


their tie has been severed by death. This silence contrasts to her previous vivacious, noisy existence. Personification – death has taken her.

The tone seems almost accusatory, as if blaming death for suffocating and stopping her voice.

“absolute black” recalls the “absolute darkness” of stanza 3.

word choice: absolute

creates a sombre tone and shows how final the separation of death is. Death = Darkness. The

tone is

sinister, unsettling. This contrasts with the security of the darkness of the box bed. The safety and security of her simple life is gone.

There is a mixture of emotions in this stanza. “sandy grave / at


” is obviously sad because of the word “grave”, but we also have “sandy” and the naming of a specific location on


– even in death, Aunt Julia is identified and at home with nature and island life. A possible reference to the circular nature of life and death.


But I hear her still, welcoming me with a seagull's voice across a hundred yards of peatscrapes and lazybeds

Present tense:

“But I hear her still” makes clear that death cannot remove or diminish the memories that he has of her. In a sense she is still present in his life

Present tense

: the importance of her voice and language. Suggests death has been unable to stifle the vivid memories of her because of the strong impression she made on him.

Word choice:

“welcoming” again making clear how comfortable and at home he was made to feel, how fondly he still thinks of her and how strongly he identifies the island and the island way of life with her.


“seagull’s voice” compares her voice to that of a bird which is common to islands. It is loud, shrill and associated with nature and life on the islands. A humorous image. Describing her loud, shrill, piercing, incomprehensible voice. Again, connects her to the natural world. Her voice travels a great distance, again emphasising how loud she is but that he still cant understand her.


and getting angry, getting angry with so many questions unanswered.


of “getting angry” emphasises her frustration.

Suggests Aunt Julia’s (repeated) attempts to communicate. Emphasises her frustration at him being unable to respond or understand her. OR IN present tense, the angry one is the poet with so many unanswered questions about his aunt’s life and culture.

Word choice: unanswered

shows the cultural gulf and his loss that he will never get the chance to truly understand her life and culture.

With “so many questions/ unanswered” The poet returns to the theme of communication. Whereas once they were unable to communicate because of their different languages now they are separated by death. The

single word line

and the use of


creates a sense of finality. There is so much that they will never be able to share with each other and learn from each other.

‘unanswered’ Word choice shows the cultural gulf and his loss that he will never get the chance to truly understand her life and culture. Single line reinforces the speakers enduring sense of frustration and conveys a sense of finality. Her secrets and stories are

gone forever.

This can also be seen as a warning to the reader, not to wait to get to know their loved ones better as even people as strong and lively as Aunt Julia will die and communication will be impossible

Aunt Julia can be seen to represent a very specific way of life- that of the Gaelic-speaking Scottish islands- that is also dying out.


is also lamenting this loss and making a plea that it is not forgotten.

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