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Kingskettle janitor and Fife cartoonist team up to celebrate beloved Scots words like ‘whigmaleerie’ and ‘scunner’

Poet Ian 'Fergie' Ferguson and illustrator Tom Smith's unlikely friendship turned into an 30-piece exhibition.

Ian Ferguson and Tom Smith have collaborated to create a poetry/illustration exhibition featuring Scots language at the Rothes Halls.
Illustrator Tom Smith, left, and wordsmith Ian Ferguson, are showing Michty Me at the Rothes Halls.

Kingskettle Primary School pupils know that Ian Ferguson is no ordinary janitor.

When he’s not working at the school 15 hours a week, former chef Ian, 63, has another life – as a exhibiting poet and photographer.

“I’ve never been to art college or anything, but I’m obviously a creative person,” explains Dunfermline-born Ian, who previously worked in the catering industry in the navy and offshore for more than 40 years.

“I say to the kids at school, you can do what you want to do as long as you put your heart to it.”

His latest project, Michty Me, is currently showing at the Rothes Halls, and features some of Ian’s favourite words in the Scots language, with poems titled ‘Oxters’, ‘Whigmaleerie’ and ‘Midden’ among others.

Ian Ferguson, with his 'Peely Wally' poem at the Michty Me exhibition in Rothes Halls.
Ian Ferguson with his ‘Peely Wally’ poem at the Michty Me exhibition in Rothes Halls. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson.

“I think ‘oxter’ is a great old Scottish word,” smiles Ian. “It’s good to keep these world like ‘scunner’ and ‘gitter’ alive. They deserve to be up there at the top of the canon.

“And these words have a funny side to them. ‘Mind an’ wash yer oxters’ is a phrase I can remember my granny saying when I was three and four years old!

“I wonder if mums are still saying that?”

Paid for poems in ‘packs of 200 cigarettes’

Indeed, Ian has always had a way with words, and was the resident wordsmith on board the oil rigs during his offshore years.

“It sounds terrible now, but a lot of the lads would say to me: ‘Fergie, can you write me a poem for my missus’ or ‘Fergie, my anniversary’s coming up, will you do me a card?’ when I was on the rigs,” he recalls.

“I’d do wee commissions for the companies I worked for too, but I didn’t want any money for them, so I’d get paid in packs of 200 cigarettes!”

His first poem – “on the cheery subject of suicide” – was published in the Melody Maker in 1980.

Oxters by Ian Ferguson, with illustration by Tom Smith.
Oxters by Ian Ferguson, with illustration by Tom Smith. Image: Supplied.

And throughout the last four decades, he’s exhibited numerous times across Fife, in the Lomond Centre and Lochgelly Centre, as well as publishing poems in the Glenrothes Gazette and Fife Leader.

But self-confessed “lone wolf” Ian has very rarely taken on collaborators, until now.

“I had this idea for Michty Me about five years ago,” he explains. “I was pottering about, doing this and that, and suddenly I thought: ‘I’m looking for a cartoonist to do this’.”

After his own contacts led to nothing but dead ends, a chance meeting with an old friend saw Ian being put in touch with Markinch artist Tom Smith around two years ago.

Poet Ian put his money on artist Tom

Thirty years Ian’s junior, residential childcare worker Tom has harboured dreams of illustrating full-time since he began drawing Marvel and DC superheroes in his bedroom as a young boy.

So when Ian asked him to illustrate his poems, Tom agreed – even though the pair had never even spoken face-to-face.

“He sent me a poem on Facebook Messenger and his initial idea of what he thought would go well with it. I drew that up and sent it back to him, and he was blown away,” says former Wade Academy pupil Tom, whose whimsical drawings are inspired by the likes of The Far Side creator Gary Larson.

“I love funny art, so I loved doing these illustrations.”

Tom Smith doodles on a Michty Me booklet at the exhibition.
Tom Smith illustrated all 30 poems for the Michty Me exhibition. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson.

From there, Ian and Tom became pen-pal collaborators, communicating only through messages, poems and drawings. But not long into the process, tragedy struck.

“My iPad, which I’d been using to do all the work, completely died,” sighs Tom, 33. “I didn’t know what I would do. And then out of the blue, Ian says: ‘Well, I could get you another one’.”

Reluctant to accept “such an extravagant gift” from a stranger, Tom initially resisted – but Ian was so inspired by his work, he was determined to make it possible for them to collaborate again, and an iPad was purchased, and gratefully received.

“I can’t praise Tom enough,” Ian enthuses. “His artwork is incredible. The poems are universal, but the artwork makes them unique.”

Michty Me exhibition is kid-friendly – apart from ‘bampot’

Two years into the collaboration, Ian secured an exhibition space in the Rothes Halls, and called Tom to tell him the good news.

It was, at the end of the project, the first time the men had spoken.

“I thought ‘Oh, this could make or break the relationship’,” jokes Tom. “Because we’d known each other for two years but never spoken.

“I answered the phone and we both just kind of laughed and were like: ‘This is weird eh?’”

Now, the pair are finally sharing their efforts with the public, and are “well chuffed” with the reaction to Michty Me so far.

Ian Ferguson and Tom Smith stand in front of their framed poems and illustrations.
Ian and Tom finally met in person, after two years of collaboration. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson.

“A couple of weeks ago, I took my wife and daughter and a couple of friends, and while we were there, a couple of the staff members were saying things like ‘I’ve not heard that word in years’ or ‘I don’t know that word’,” reveals Tom.

“It was so nice to hear people engaging with it. They were interested.”

For Ian, the exhibition is “a bit of lighthearted fun amid a lot of darkness in the world” where people can remember the words of their childhoods and pass them on to their own families.

“It’s nothing too technical or difficult,” he says. “And it’s kid-friendly, except for maybe ‘bampot’ – you can explain that to your wee ones!”

Michty Me is exhibiting for free at the Rothes Halls until December 31 2023.