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Incredible Beasties

Looking forward to when choirs are able to sing together in public again, Alexander McCall Smith has written this happy text which I have set to music for mixed-voice choir.  If your choir would like to perform it, please email me at telling me about your choir.  I expect to complete the composition by the end of March and we will make the scores available to download free of charge.

Tom Cunningham

Incredible Beasties
The Imaginary Animals of Scotland

Words by Alexander McCall Smith © 2020 Music by Tom Cunningham © 2021

1. The Uncelebrated Animals

Proud of who they are,

Recipients of plaudits

From the earth- or


Eagle and deer

Need no further

Honours or adjectives;

But unsung, unnoticed,

Less likely in every respect,

The small beasts of Scotland,

The unusual ones,

Say: what about us?

Why are there no poems,

No songs nor compliments

To proclaim us,

No paintings

To portray our modest habitat?

2. The Pygmy Deer

So small he’s never really seen;

Only the sharp-eyed catch

The fall of his shadow on a leaf,

The dapple of his moving

In hidden places

Where larger deer

Disdain to go;

Our small deer on tiny feet

Move silently, shun

The strutting pose, the challenge;

Their antlers little branches

Of coral, snapped-off twigs,

Nothing that would deter

Anything but another

Of their breed, the pygmy

Race, shy companions

Of the little creatures

Unseen by most, unsung by all.

A stalker in the hills

May see a shadow

And think it is a leaf

Blown by the wind:

It is the pygmy deer,

The smallest of the deer.

It is the pygmy deer,

The smallest of the deer.

A stalker on the hills

May notice something

Hiding under the heather

And ignore it;

Luckily for me

Says the pygmy deer.

Luckily for me

Says the pygmy deer.

Tiny hooves, eyes

Like the smallest

Of pearls; graceful

In movement;

Size is destiny,

Says the pygmy deer.

Size is destiny,

Says the pygmy deer.

3. The High Altitude Seabird

Hatched in the air, in a nest

That rests on clouds,

The high-altitude seabird

Spends his life aloft,
Air his medium, his unbounded habitat;

He never lands, but looks down

Upon a sea that is always there,

Beneath a sky that is his element,

A dome of stars by which

His endless navigation

Is charted and fulfilled.

Never does he come to land;

Why would he? His wings,

Never folded, barely move,

Pivots upon which he

Turns and swoops,

He sees it all: sea and fish

And men and trawlers

And lesser gulls, he sees it all,

But the wind has him now,

The wind, his companion, has taken him away.

4. The Spey Goldfish

The silver salmon leaps proudly,

But the great goldfish of the Spey,

His orange cousin, less noble

In the eyes of anglers

But in his own eyes

A hero of the first water

Has a purpose of his own;

Braves the dangers

Of the swim upstream

To a matrimonial dynastic

Destiny. His like

May populate fish bowls,

May be won at fairs,

May have nothing to say

But the same tiny bubbles

Goldfish have always uttered;

But here, for a moment,

He is the rider of currents,

The conqueror of whirlpools,

He is the fish

The exaggerating angler

Claims he almost caught.

5. The St Andrew Cat

He alone defends the feline name,

Shows qualities that cats are never

Believed to possess: loyalty based

On something other than cupboard love,

Dauntless courage, brave persistence

In the face of all indifference.

While other cats are selfish,

He is generous in his spirit;

While other cats are cruel,

He releases the mouse;

While other cats are greedy,

He waits his turn;

While other cats are ill-mannered,

He utters thanks;

While other cats despise,

He finds the best in all;

For he is with charity,

For he is with benevolence,

For he walks beside us

In all our human effort.

6. The Invisible Lowland Cow

Mistress of camouflage,

That concealing art

That deceives even

The most practised eye,

The invisible cow is unseen

In every light, in every season.

Endowed by nature with a form

That fits without argument

Every landscape, she stands

Unseen against pasture,

Impossible to make out

In the shadows of a forest;

Black, green, brown –

These resources of her palate

Blend and adjust

To merge with the shapes

The land assumes around her.

People have looked in a field

And not seen an entire herd

Of invisible cows, although

Sometimes they hear them,

And think their lowing

Is the wind in the trees.

But we who are aware of them

Will spot the transitory shadow,

Will discern in a shrub’s movement

A full cow concealed,

And say, “Yes, there; there

Is an invisible cow, over there.”

7. On the Existence of These Animals

You ask: do they exist

These strange animals

We have never seen;

Nor have you, we suspect,

If truth be told?

We say: you may be right,

Yet what is, sometimes is

Although we think it not to be;

What is not, sometimes might

Be shown to be at last

Because we hope it so.

That is all, all we’d say.

Except for this –

Brothers and sisters:

Our tiny world

Of creatures

Real and imaginary,

Is all we have,

Is all we have.