The Winter Coast

(for Kevin Williamson on Burns Night 2012)

Six weeks of gales have blown the tide
flat into the bay
a thin white line like shifting ice
separates the sand dunes from the sea
the wind has washed the last green essence
from the January parks
& thoughtful eyes look to the window
to search for blue sky to the West

now calm has collared the neck of the storm
& frost has petrified the fields to grey
the bay is full of sea-smoke
& Hoy is iced behind a cloud
hung & busy at forty five degrees
a thin ship of snow & sunlight
tacking East to Cantick Head

Hoy is an eyebrow hovering over a dream
the fulmars have returned briefly
each one an Atlantic watercolour
to reclaim the biting air
the nations settlement has changed
since late Summer when they left
it is as if millennia under ice
has forced the sedimentary rock
to bow its flagstone head
but now released from this glacial weight
Caithness rises up to meet the sunlight
& is rising still
free from the oppression of the tilting world
so unlike the determination of Nature
& as unending as her storms
arguments congregate on this Winter coast
like shipwrecked rats on emptied islands
they find house-room easily enough
but will not go

today I saw a squad of curlews
beaking their way across a field
where the Two Harolds fought
a rough battle of hacking broadswords
& severed limbs to settle
the blood feud of the Jarl

what can I do here
but look for imaginary lives
those in the past I see
rising up from a desk
after a day of labour
opening a door into another room
or ambling across some acres
to view a potato park progressing
beneath a Northern sky
a grey-blue Summer sky
these shades rise & fall
with the sea-clouds off Dunnet Head
my heart leaps

the countrys future is shaped by such
as these & many other
formless dreams which find their frame
upon the tongues of those who fish & croft
& refuse to weep
when both coast & Winter
conspire to wash flat
the markers of their lives

there are no longer any “fabulous raiders”
save for the Atlantic storms
who sweep their valkyrie of rain
down over Hoy onto our sandstone lap
no longboats other than tankers & trawlers
drive through this bi-polar fjord
Flotta burns its constitution of North Sea gas
these are the leavings of trades weather

an otter swims through the edges of the tide
on the sorn for sellags & partans
who works at poems like these
like that anymore
in the pay-as-you-go university
of getting on
& having done so
unlike the otter
are permanently gone

Winter peels the skin of Caithness
back to the flagstone bone
on Dunnet sands
the fossil roots of ancient pines
spread out & claw the ebbing tide
like upturned crabs
so close after the two miles deep
pelt of ice retreated
so resin rich & once young
they filled the air with Alpine scent
now they ring millennia
like a swans leg
all this information sinking
into the shell sand
did I swim once otter-like
through these vanished tree-glades?

All this life is woven solid
into the slate-shirt of the land
every footprint & handhold
is locked tight
beside the fossil-fish & the dog-wilks
in there is lodged writing
a worm trace across mud
in the bitumen inked paper of flag
captured in an epic of Devonian seabed

Time is calm but the age is rough
all is hurry panic rage
difference is made to manufacture fear
so the storm grows confident
& tries on the coat of permanence
likes the fit & feel of it
the palms of my hands grow cold

I walk the Winter coast
in search or runes & light
up in the dunes behind me
the marram grass bends back like eyelids
they blink a parabola of three miles
& by the faint light of these flickering runes
I see that nothing is carved
but the sand by the wind
that we are ruled by barbarians
that everything is mocked & denied
to those who cannot forget
by those who cannot remember

they say the Aurora will be out tonight
but we will not see it
not because we are not “North of Norway”
but because the Atlantic clouds sit
like the ghosts of ideas on weeping Morven
its late January & the green glimmer
of the Merry Dancers is inside us
beside Robert Burns & the aspirations
of an “independent people”
drilled out like a row of turnips
in a forgotten field
but Januarys book will close
& the Winter coast will thaw its cheek
in the sap-wind of the coming Spring
for the window is still there
& the eyes still look

look soon Bride will bring Imbolg
& through the dead month
the wolf-month of Faoilleach
she will wave her white wand
the bellies of ewes will swell
& ravens will build their nests
& the shivering cold will search for itself
skylarks will return to the rising house of their song
but enough
the ground is still hard
from the poverty of thought
no light will shine
or flame burn
without organisation
as there is beneath the sky
& beneath the sea
who will go to the door
& invoke the revolution of desire
who will build such a fire
who will test their finger against the cold
for poverty is cold
who will drink
who will eat
& who will capture youth
& is a nation young
when it is so obviously old
for here is the ground
& here the birch trees grow
& we will drink & eat
enough enough
there is never enough
they tell us
for everyone
I say
there is enough
more than enough
as I look across this land
this sea this sky
this coast where dreams fuse
into purpose & to love
& fly with the fulmars to their home
to build the daylight of the heart
& set our rights out
as being only what we give
& with everything to give
we should give it all
& think nothing think nothing think nothing
of the cost
there is no cost
only love

which is our purpose
take the road to light
to the pushing new grass of promise
I heard the fulmar say
as she flew from the Winter coast


George Gunn

St Ninian's Isle

Hit hed ta be a saint at strayed dis far nort
at cared aboot da sowls o Pictish fisherfock.
Foo da bairns a Rörick man a gawped
at men at biggit chapels, walked in silence.
Someen man a shaan dem whaar da piltocks took
Sweyn Holm, Selkie Gyo; gied dem bere an kale
fae Ireland’s strippit rigs or Bigton’s toons.
Eence here, dey nivver could a left: trist slaked
wi beauty; air laced wi saat an honey.

St Francis could a felt at hame here if he’d come
ta Ninian’s Isle. On a warm day he micht
a tocht himsel on some green suddern shore.
Da burnin pavements o Assisi coulna kyemp
wi dis pale nordern straand: a glisk on watter
is hit kissed da sheenin saand; a smush
o saandiloos aroond his feet, chastin froad
alang da shoormal is he gud. He wid a traded
martins fur a single laverock i da lift
sheerlin blissins on göd an ill alick.
An i da waa o Ninian’s kirk he wid a fun a font
filt wi a stirlin’s laachter. An i dis quiet place
a wagtail micht a tippit in ta sit wi him
- is shö sits apö da alter noo – her flicht
a peerie chancel dance wi dips and tirls
at’s lifted centuries o haerts. She’d be
his perfect cantor for a chorus o göd wirds.

Here, on a boannie day, wi birds apö da wing
aa but da herdest haerts could fin demsels
communin wi da greater scheme o things.

 
 

Port nan Ròn

Na bodaich a bh’ ann air feadh Eilean Mhuile,
Càite bhon t-saoghal a dh’fhalbh iad uile?

Dh’fhalbh iad uile-gu-lèir, nach bu duilich,
Thar a’ Chuain Mhòir mar a chaidh na Muilich

A bha eòlach fhèin anns gach cnoc is coire
Bho Ì Chaluim Chille gu Tobar Mhoire

‘S gach iomadach cruachan is creachainn
Air cùl-fraoin ann an dùthaich Shìol Eachainn

‘S na coilltean a bh’ ann bho thus air an gearadh
A chunnaic mi bhuam uair bhon bhearradh

Mar a chunnaic uair eile ris a’ mhaorach
Bodach leis fhèin an Eilean na h-Aon Chaorach

Is e mar gum biodh is e ga bhuain
A’ bruidhinn ris fhèin os cionn gàir a’ chuain

Is am baile bàn agus balbh buileach
Ri Port nan Ròn thall ud anns an Ros Mhuileach.

ir faillirinn illirinn uillirinn ò
ll iù ill eò illean is eò ill iù ò



Port nan Ròn tune

The old boys who used to be all over Mull,
Where on earth have they gone?

They’ve all gone, sad to say,
Across the Pond like all the Mullmen went

Who used to know every hill and corrie
From Iona to Tobermory

And every mountain-top and rocky slope
In the middle of nowhere in the Land of MacLean

And the woods that were there from the start cut down
I saw once from the ridge

As I saw another time gathering shellfish
An old boy on his own on One Sheep Island

Like he was as he gathered them
Talking to himself over the roar of the ocean

And the village all empty and silent
By Port nan Ròn in the Ross of Mull

Rody Gorman, from Na Fir Chlis / Aurora Borealis

the shores of the Gaels



Turas Húicéara /A Hooker's Journey This six-part series sees three mariners from Connemara take to the high-seas of the old Gaelic Kingdoms round Ireland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland on board a Galway Hooker, sailing 3,000 miles in search of their history, culture and heritage.

Real Presence

Clear as the endless ecstasy of stars
    That mount for ever on an intense air;
    Or running pools, of water cold and rare,
In chiselled gorges deep amid the scaurs,
So still, the bright dawn were their best device,
    Yet like a thought that has no end they flow;
    Or Venus, when her white unearthly glow
Sharpens like awe on skies as green as ice:

To such a clearness love is come at last,
  Not disembodied, transubstantiate,
      But substance and its essence now are one;
  And love informs, yet is the form create.
No false gods now, the images o’ercast,
    We are love’s body, or we are undone.

Nan Shepherd, from In The Cairngorms

January

Even on freezing nights my pony is quite content to be outside. If you put her into a stable or shed, she spends the night standing on her hind legs pulling the walls down. As the walls are of loose stone, she can speedily create an effect of bad blitz. She has a genius when outside for finding sheltered places, sometimes lying deep in well grown heather or old bracken, or backing into a slit in the cliffs, or lurking behind the house, where she makes the most unbelievable noises in the middle of the night; noises that you would not think a horse could make,  sneezy snorts and bangs and mumblings to herself. So though the snow is thick and the cows are in the warm byre, I know that the pony will be snug somewhere, and that in the morning she will come galloping up the brae to the cottage, full of high spirits, the snow flying from her slapping hooves and her body as warm as an oven whenever you put your hand on it. In winter she grows a marvellous coat, almost vieing with the Highland cattle. Her mane falls the full depth of her neck and her tail is down to her heels, which have tufts like furry cuffs. In summer she is short-coated and glossy, but I leave the long tail as a weapon against flies and the hairy fetlocks as drainers against greasy heel.
 
It is no use trying to make up to her when she is feeling haughty. She does not like the usual titbits of apple or carrot, but she seems to know when I am baking, for however far over the hill she may be grazing, her face soon appears at the window, and one day, before I realised what was happening, she was inside the cottage with her nose in the mixing bowl! I was less alarmed about the baking than the job of backing her out. It looked an impossible feat without taking the walls of the house down; it seemed as if I should either have to do that or take the legs off the pony! It is as difficult to be really cross with her as with a small boy, for she has a way, when you scold her, of shoving her soft muzzle into your neck, and making a queer whistling noise.
 
But snow time is not the coldest in the glen, and the frost can make harder conditions for the beasts when every waterfall is static, every burn looks like blurred glass, and the water hole in the broken ice gets lower and lower. Tanks are frozen, and that strange medley of old baths, sinks and tubs which acts as field supplies for stock is filled with ice as solid as the metal.
 
On a day showing the first signs of thaw I crossed the hill to get the food supply. Below me lay the mountain loch, still gripped in ice, and to my amazement, in that still atmosphere the loch roared! It roared exactly like a lion. It was some time before I gained its shore and found that the wind was getting under cracks; the level of the loch having dropped since it froze, the imprisoned wind was roaring to get out. Had I heard such a sound in the darkness I certainly would have wished for a rifle in my hand. On the hill beside the loch lay a fine young stag: it had died of thirst beside the frozen water. There was the spoor of a wild cat that had taken advantage of a bigger prey than it could have brought down for itself.
 
Next day I took up a saw and cleaver and brought down some of the carcass for the dogs. Judging by the latters' behaviour, I think it must be a dog's dream of paradise, after so many meatless days, to have a whole leg of venison thrown to him, all the better for being a bit "high". They do not attempt to wander as long as "home" is permeated with that suffocating scent.
 
Later in the week curiosity sent me across Loch Shiel side and I saw a sight which we all hope will be very rare, for the loch was frozen right across from its foot at Acharacle to two miles above Eilean Fhinnan. It was a great country to look down on from the top of the hill, with Ben Resipol towering white to the sky and the ice field below reflecting the early moon as it rose from misty gloom among the lordly peaks at Glenfinnan - a moon that was literally crimson in colour. There was snow lying on the ice and down at Dalelea a deer's tracks led straight across the loch. That would have been a ten-mile detour if he had had to go by land.
 
In the evening I sat before a fire in a neighbour crofter's house. Logs were stacked one above the other, ablaze with licking flame, and every corner between them glowed with scarlet peats. The man who had cut, footed, and stacked them in the summer removed his coat, remarking, "I sweated when I cut them, and now I'm sweating when I burn them!"
 
Though frost means that I cannot use the pony, it brings calm seas so that we can get cargoes down from the station and can fish, though that is a gey cold job. Frost plays queer tricks with the appearance of the horizon, making isles and islets look as if they are afloat in the sky. It also often brings the Fir Clis - the Northern Lights. The Gaelic name is generally translated as The Merry Dancers, but a truer translation would be The Men of the Start or Surprise. It is a magnificent sight to see these multi-coloured giants leap from behind the hills and shoot in pulsing waves of red, green, violet and blue into the ebony arc of the sky, chasing each other till they are lost in the heart of Moidart.
 
Wendy Wood, From a Highland Croft

Between mountain and sea

Honey and salt - land smell and sea smell,
as in the long ago, as in forever.

The days pick me up and carry me off,
half-child, half-prisoner,

on their journey that I'll share
for a while.

They wound and they bless me
with strange gifts:

the salt of absence,
the honey of memory.

Norman MacCaig, from The Many Days: Selected Poems of Norman MacCaig, ed. by Roderick Watson

for Ian

Climbing Suilven




I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down.
Between my feet a loch shines in the brown,
It's silver paper crinkled and edged with rust.
My lungs say No;
But down and down this treadmill hill must go.

Parishes dwindle. But my parish is
This stone, that tuft, this stone
And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone.
I claw that tall horizon down to this;
And suddenly
My shadow jumps huge miles away from me.

Norman MacCaig

Winter

Shepherds, tramping the frozen bogland
Beside the sheeted ghost of Quinag,
Hear guns go off in the shrivelling air -
Not guns, ice on the frozen lochans
Whose own weight is too gross to bear.

Crofter, coughing in the morning,
Sees the pale window crossed with branches
Of a new tree. He wipes a rag
Across the glass and, there, a beggar
In his own tatters, a royal stag.

Six black stumps on the naked skerry
Draw the boat close in. The oarsman,
Feeling a new cold in his bones,
Sees cormorants, glazed to the sea-rock,
Carved out of life, their own tombstones.

Norman MacCaig, from The Poems of Norman MacCaig, ed. by Ewen McCaig

Tog Studio I The Lighthouse



Tog is a Gaelic word meaning 'build', 'raise', 'educate', and 'excite'; just what we hope to achieve.

air an fhàinne, fada bho ‘shàbaid’

rovaniemi, suomi, am faoilleach, 1998

mac is athair
dol tarsuing na h-aibhne gil
o bhruach gu bruach
san tìr a tuath

a coiseachd bàrr an uisge
mheanbh-shreamach shèimh
eadar baile nan solus
agus a choille ghorm

seirm nan glag dòmhnaich
sanas air an cùlaobh
muinntir dhé gan gairm
dhan tional eòlach

mac is athair
paisgte mar phàisdean
an clòimh ’s an gàire
eadar faiceall is faodail

anail air an àile
braonach ris ‘an fhìrinn’
a laighe sgrath de shiùcar
air màilin agus ciabhag

coigrich anns an t-saoghal seo,
a leantainn làrach bhonn,
mise ‘s mo mhac
a cur earbs anns an fhuachd

ar n’air’ air nì ach
taobh thall a ruigheachd,
(eadar cur is cur)
agus tilleadh dìon



on the circle, far from ‘the sabbath’

rovaniemi, suomi, january 1998

son and father
cross the white river
from bank to bank
in a northern land

walking on the water
on its rippled stillness
from a town of lights
to the green forest

a sunday carillon
sings lightly behind them
god’s people called
to routine assembly

son and father
wrapped like infants
in wool and laughter
between caution and windfall

breath on the air
misty as ‘the truth’
laying crusts of sugar
on eyebrow and forelock

and, strangers in this world
stepping where others have,
my son and i
put our faith in the cold

our only objective
the other side
(between snowfall and snowfall)
and safe return

Aonghas MacNeacail