A Recipe for Whisky

Wring the Scottish rain clouds dry;
Take sleet, the driving snow, the hail;
Winter twilight; the summer's sun slowed down
to pearl-sheen dusk on hillsides, city-roofs,
on lochs at midnight.
And, most of all, take the years that have already run
to dust, the dust we spill behind us…

All this, distill. And cask. And wait.
The senselessness of human things resolves
to who we are – our present fate.
Let's taste, let's savour and enjoy.
Let's share once more.
Another glass for absent friends. Pour
until the bottle's done.

Here's life! Here's courage to go on!

Ron Butlin, from Without a Backward Glance: New and Selected Poems

Landscape and I

Landscape and I get on together well.
Though I'm the talkative one, still he can tell
His symptoms of being to me, the way a shell
Murmurs of oceans.

Loch Rannoch lapses dimpling in the sun.
Its hieroglyphs of light fade one by one
But re-create themselves, their message done,
For ever and ever.

That sprinkling lark jerked upward in the blue
Will daze to nowhere but leave himself in true
Translation - hear his song cascading through
His disappearance.

The hawk knows all about it, shaking there
An empty glove on steep chutes of the air
Till his yellow foot cramps on a squeal, to tear
Smooth fur, smooth feather.

This means, of course, Schiehallion in my mind
Is more than mountain. In it he leaves behind
A meaning, an idea, like a hind
Couched in a corrie.

So then I'll woo the mountain till I know
The meaning of the meaning, no less. Oh
There's a Schiehallion anywhere you go.
The thing is, climb it.

Norman MacCaig



A long peninsula of solid rock,
upholstered every year in threadbare green.
Stones everywhere, ambiguous and burgeoning.
In Sanna ramparts of them
march around our crofts
but whether to keep cattle out or other stones
no man can say.
And at Kilchoan there were three houses
cropped from one field.
That was when I was a boy.
The masons left the pebbles
and there’s a castle now, waiting to be harvested.
God was short of earth when He made Ardnamurchan.

Alasdair Maclean, from From the Wilderness: poems

Wild West

Return to Scalpay

The ferry wades across the kyle. I drive
The car ashore
On to a trim road. A car on Scalpay?
Yes, and a road where never was one before.
The ferrymen's Gaelic wonders who I am
(Not knowing I know it), this man back from the dead.
Who takes the blue-black road (no traffic jam)
From by Craig Lexie over to Bay Head.

A man bows in the North wind, shaping up
His lazybeds.
And through the salt air vagrant peat smells waver
From houses where no houses should be. The sheds
At the curing station have been newly tarred.
Aunt Julia's house has vanished. The Red Well
Has been bulldozed away. But sharp and hard
The church still stands, barring the road to Hell.

A chugging prawn boat slides round Cuddy Point
Where in gale
I spread my batwing jacket and jumped farther
Than I've jumped since. There's where I used to sail
Boats looped from rushes. On the jetty there
I caught eels, cut their heads off and watched them slew
Slow through the water. Ah - Cape Finisterre
I called the point, to show how much I knew.

While Hamish sketches, a crofter tells me that
The Scalpay folk,
Though very intelligent, are not Spinozas...
We walk the Out End road (no need to invoke
That troublemaker, Memory, she's everywhere)
To Laggandoan, greeted all the way -
My city eyeballs prickle; it's hard to bear
With such affection and such gaiety.

Scalpay revisited? - more than Scalpay. I
Have no defence
For half my thought and half my blood is Scalpay.
Against that pure, hardheaded innocence
That shows love without shame, weeps without shame,
Whose every thought is hospitality -
Edinburgh, Edinburgh, you're dark years away.

Scuttering snowflakes riddling the hard wind
Are almost spent
When we reach Johann's house. She fills the doorway,
Sixty years of size and astonishment,
Then laughs and cries and laughs, as she always did
And will (easy glum, easy glow, a friend would say) ...
Scones, oatcakes, herrings from under a bubbling lid.
Then she comes with us to put us on our way.

Hugging my arm in her stronger one, she says,
Fancy me
Walking this road beside my darling Norman!
And what is there to say? ... We look back and see
Her monumental against the flying sky
And I am filled with love and praise and shame
Knowing that I have been, and knowing why,
Diminished and enlarged. Are they the same?

Norman MacCaig

Saga Biorn Ùr

English version here


Privilege or necessity of age
this twice or thrice nightly quitting
warm pit for a slash in the dark?

Not that automatic
nocturnal quest to the loo and back
I woke to hear my father make,
   heavy tread past my room humming
   childlike under his breath
        Oh Jeezy-beezy loves me
        the Bible tells me so
and wondered that he went so often ...

Years tell not in the mind but in the bladder.
It's a reminder
who's in charge here
as one unzips the tent and stumbles
turf thrust wet between toes,

      to sway  stop  stand
      upright in the night
      streams of oneself back to earth.

I find myself
   upright in late middle-age
     a mast stuck into the ground
bracing the billowing
     spinnaker of night
as the dark hull of this island
      sails forth with constellated sails …

Cockleshell image, I know!
    Couped by the first critical wave
but wonderful to float within
for the duration of a pish.

Damp soles dried on palms,
back in my pit,
first offices of the night performed,
I smiled at the dark and sank.

Andrew Greig, from Found at Sea

The Tear in the Sack

A nocturnal bird, say a nightjar,
cocking its head in the silence
of a few deflowering trees,
witnesses more than we do
the parallels.
            Its twin perspective:
seeing with one eye the sack-
grain spilt on the roadway dirt,
and with the other, the scattered stars,
their chance positioning in the dark.

Niall Campbell, from The Salt Book of Younger Poets, (ed. by Roddy Lumsden & Eloise Stonborough)


In a salt ring of moonlight

The dinghy nods at nothing.

It paws the bright water

And scatters its own shadow

In a false net of light.

A ruined chain lies reptile,

Tied to the ground by grasses.

Two oars, wet with sweet water

Filched from the air, are slanted

From a wrecked lobster creel.

The cork that can't be travels -

Nose of a dog otter.

It's piped at, screamed at, sworn at

By an elegant oystercatcher

On furious orange legs.

With a sort of idle swaying

the tide breathes in. Harsh seaweed

Uncrackles to its kissing;

The skin of the water glistens;

Rich fat swims on the brine.

And all night in his stable

The dinghy paws bright water,

Restless steeplechaser

Longing to clear the hurdles

That ring the Point of Stoer.

Norman MacCaig, from The Poems of Norman MacCaig, (ed. by Ewen MacCaig)

When the Whales Beached

Dear, on that day of spades,
engraving lines and inlets in the sand,

so that we could begin the slow
unmooring of those black shapes to the waves,

it was hard to think of anything
but how soon after my grandmother

had followed her husband earthwards. Love,
and yet so much more than. The quiet

unionship of sometimes being the one
to lead, sometimes to follow. And these

who softly climbed the aching stair
of shore together and there, stalled.

How we stood by as if we’d nothing
to say, when, love, I did, I do.

Niall Campbell, from Moontide



Kenneth Steven, from The Thing that Mattered Most: Scottish poems for children (ed. by Julie Johnstone)


The sound of horses’ hooves in market square
recalls the riding out to mark the bounds,
the summer rites and battles fought elsewhere
for king and country. And burial grounds
on ancient sites commemorate the loss
of young men felled, of women’s grief
for those so loved who nevermore would cross
ripe fields at harvest time nor bind a sheaf.
Now in the market square goes out the call
to fight with honour someone else’s war.
Chaotic aftermath as ruins fall,
such human waste amidst the rubble for
a dubious peace. Wary of attack
the soldiers know that some will not come back.

Dorcas Symms

Summit of Corrie Etchachan

But in the climbing ecstasy of thought,
Ere consummation, ere the final peak,
Come hours like this. Behind, the long defile,
The steep rock-path, alongside which, from under
Snow-caves, sharp-corniced, tumble the ice-cold waters.
And now, here, at the corrie’s summit, no peak,
No vision of the blue world, far, unattainable,
But this grey plateau, rock-strewn, vast, silent,
The dark loch, the toiling crags, the snow;
A mountain shut within itself, yet a world,
Immensity. So may the mind achieve,
Toiling, no vision of the infinite,
But a vast, dark and inscrutable sense
Of its own terror, its own glory and power.

Nan Shepherd, from In the Cairngorms