r2vyln3rdioj14u-rld0ska where mountains meet the sea: 2010


Hogmanay! I turned on the wireless and listened to the habble of excited crowds milling round in a city square and I turned it off again to hear the silence. The clock ticked into it irrevocably, like drops of water wearing the year away. The kettle hummed and was silent again, as if regretting its momentary conversation. It was five minutes to twelve.I opened the door to let the old year go, and stepped towards the loch. The black water was like a dish of stars stirred with a giant's spurtle. It "lapped" with a crisp sound as if it were more alive than usual, yet no breath of wind disturbed the air. The woods that arise abruptly above my little cottage were obviously waiting, with a million twig-hands upheld to receive unquestioningly what the new year might bring. A lone oyster-catcher gave a sharp disturbing cry, "Bi glic, bi glic"(be wise), sound advice.

Again there was silence except for the gentle swish of the water, but something moved. At first I could neither identify nor locate the sound, then I realised that it came from a bunch of bracken on the mound beside me, and I knew who it would be. I tried to be as completely immobile as the rock on which I sat; then I saw her, the roe deer who brings her Bambi every spring to drink at my well. The moon outlined her slight form, her delicate little head turned in my direction, but she did not flee; she stood there expressing faith in our mutual kindliness. I wonder if she too feels the drama of the turning year?

A cloud passed over the face of the moon and when I looked again she had disappeared. Somehow she had given the night a legendary quality, as if the black Morvern hills remembered the hind that was the mother of Ossian. I felt suddenly small in the immensity of the night, in the infinity of history, on a star among stars in the profundity of space. The doe and I were insignificant atoms suspended in wide, deep, peace. A breeze ran up the loch, the trees whispered, and right across the firmament, like a finger drawn across a darkened pane, a meteor streaked. So came the new year to the western Highlands.

Wendy Wood, excerpt From a Highland Croft (1952)

a Highland Christmas

I have been up the wood to get my Christmas decorations. I am sorry for people who have to buy their evergreens in a shop. The wood always invites. Its fascinating depths draw one on, over boulders, up rocks, with always the brotherly trees to touch, each an individual though standing among thousands. As for decorations, there are plenty of holly trees, some a hundred years old, their smooth grey trunks contrasting with the dark glossy leaves. There are few berries this year, yet one tree is so covered that it shines out scarlet. Some of the oak trees appear at a distance to be in full leaf, till you are close enough to see that it is ivy that clothes them. I also gathered some moss, for I never cease to delight in its softness and in its bright green fronds like tiny faerie ferns. The Douglas firs seemed to be spreading down their dark branches as if they asked to be picked and wanted to come into the house to be a part of the happiness that is Christmas.

It was dusk when I arrived back with my arms full of greenery, and with a specially large branch of holly without berries to hang over the cottage door. I say "without berries" because one year I put a magnificent branch covered with berries over the door, and the whole hen tribe concluded that it was a Christmas gift for them and flew up to feast off it. The big cock caused a tremendous uproar as he climbed rather than flew up for his share of the spoils, and people coming to the door in the gloaming might have thought that they had let off a burglar alarm. On Christmas Eve, when the candles are lit, when the kettle is boiling on a log fire, when the cards on the mantelpiece look like fluttering butterflies bearing good wishes, Christmas is something to say "thank you" for indeed.

I cannot believe that townspeople get half as much of the reality of Christmas as we do who dwell in the country. It is true that their festivity begins sooner with shopping and last longer with pantomimes. They have a variety of friends and neighbours which we well might envy, but how far from their daily life a real Christmas card depicting the stable and manger must seem. To them it may be a miracle that happened in an unfamiliar place, to us it is the completion and fulfilment of our daily darg. The shadow of the byre, the sweet milky odour of the cow, the friendliness of the beasts, the rustle of straw, are shared by the everlasting miracle of motherhood and childhood, and the message which the diplomats still cannot swallow, "i give you a new commandment; love one another, even as I love you".

Everything in a byre sings of generosity. The free herbage of spring and summer went to the making of the calves, and they were no mean gift in themselves. The seaweed and dung that went on the hayfield was free. In my case, as on many another croft, the assistance with the cutting of the hay was freely given. The bracken in which the cows are so warm and dry and comfortably bedded grew free upon the hill. The cows freely give their milk for drink, for butter, for crowdie. Above all, from grip to rafter there is the warm and simple affection between beast and man.

I am sure that Mary had many a drink of warm milk straight from the cow, and that the Bairn would profit from it. The first sounds that Christ would hear would be the deep breathing of the cow and the rustling noise as she nosed among her portion of hay for the best bits. The sound of the milk "pinging" into the pail would often be his lullaby, and the contented grunt a cow gives as she lies down to chew the cud. But the most complacent cow will give an occasional bellow that would scare a child the first time. I wonder how long in His life He remembered that sound? I very much doubt whether the full inn with its stir of strangers would have been half as kindly a birthplace for the Bonny Bairn as the homely byre.

Wendy Wood, excerpt From a Highland Croft (1952)

Tales of the Ceilidh House

Though the wind of the wolf-days should blow
With all the keeness of a snell north wind,
Though the snow should stack against wall and the banks,
Though like steel it should lock on the top of the hills -
Nothing will keep us from the Ceilidh House
Where song, tale and rhyme will be heard.

Though rain should come ferociously in squalls,
Though sleet and hail hammer from the skies -
Nothing, not flood, nor deluge will hold me back!
Nor will there be tiredness or gloom about any one of us
When the stories begin - and from the seat by the fire
We hear the rich calm voice of the seanchaidh.

The genealogy of our people will be uttered,
The history of clan and family recited.
There will be debate about the places and process
Of fishing, about the hardship and skill
Of the fisherman's art on the water -
Talk about mishaps and drownings at sea -
And remembrance of friends who the seas took from us.


But better to me were the tales of the shielings
Where the young men and women learned music and song;
Where the cattle were tended on the summertime grasses
And herding was easy for the young as of old:
Unfenced was the sward where freedom was ours
And timeless the peace as we walked home to the fold.

But those days and the Ceilidh House are now in the past
New fashions and habits have forced change on the glens:
The old folk who sang in the houses i knew
Now moulder in earth they once trod so lightly.
New ways and new merriments have replaced the old ceilidh
And the houses of youth have long shut their doors.

Donald MacDonald
translated from the Gaelic Sgeulachdan nan Taighean Céilidh by Ronald Black

The Field of Tartan

(Written for my grandfather who walked across this field on the Somme: July 1916).

I walked for my life, across a field of tartan

The Scots went first. They had it worst.
The First, the Twenty-First.
They sowed the seeds, the soft touch
Of fabric-woven earth, over which we walked.
They had been mown down to a man.

They made a field of tartan.

Before they went, they sang,
The songs were haunted.
We joked about their skirts; they took it in good part,
there was a sense of peace,
That touch of Spartan in each heart.

(He walks for his life, across a field of tartan)

No mud when the top was crossed,
When the iron wind blasted and counter-crossed,
Seeking the marrowbone, the head, the heart,

Taking us down into that field of tartan.

It was so strange, so savage.
Astonishing to find no earth, just fallen flesh
To briefly meet a dying gaze,
A last remembered highland day.
To walk over limbs clad in scarlet tartan.
And we slipped and slid upon the patterned cloth, but made the other line.
There was killing, then.
No charms, just arms, the sinking down, the frightened frown,
Flesh suddenly shaped into dirt, life dearth,
Blood silt,
Nothing to hearten us
Except our unwanted luck at walking over hand-weaved kilt.
Not sinking into earth.
Walking across a field of tartan.

Robert Holdstock, from Avilion

The Colourists

They came out here in the first years of the century,
Their eyes still drunk on Paris and Venice -
Here to the edge of the world, this blowing place,
Where the days are a constant gale,
Where everything is always changing
In a flurry of bright gusts.

They came out here
To put easels into the north wind and try to catch it,
To haul colours from sky and sea,
Tie them down to canvases - shreds of them,
Tattered edges - and take them back
In something that lasted forever.

Kenneth Steven, from Island Collected Poems


Green Sea, Iona
Samuel John Peploe
oil on canvas



I remember what it was like to barefoot that house,
Wood rooms bleached by light. Days were new
   voyages, journeys,
Coming home a pouring out of stories and of
The sun never died completely in the night,
The skies just turned luminous, the wind
Tugged at the strings in the grass like a hand
In a harp. I did not sleep, too glad to listen by a
To the sorrow sounds of the birds
As they swept down in skeins, and rose again,
All that was summer. I did not sleep, the weight of
Behind and before too great to waste a grain of this.
One four in the morning at first larksong I went west
   over the dunes,
Broke down running onto three miles of white shell
   sand, and stood.
A wave curled and silked the shore in a single
   seamless breath.
I went naked into the water, ran deep into a green
Through which i was translucent. I rejoiced
In something I could not name; I celebrated a
Too huge to hold. I trailed home, slow and golden,
Dried by the sunlight.

Kenneth Steven, from Island Collected Poems

St Kilda 28-8-1930

for David MacFadyen and Peter Mackay

The last post boat
Has cleared Village Bay,
All smoking away
As the peat fires burn
And they'll burn your eyes
If you stay long enough

And the family Bible
(Only in Gaelic,
Preserved for generations as in aspic
In a cleat) they know by heart
They've all gone -
MacKinnon, Gillies, MacLeod -

And left by the hearth
In every house, open -
Gun tèid iad a-mach às an tìr;
Gach mac a bheirear;
Where on earth else, for crying out loud? -
At the start of Exodus.'

Rody Gorman



Men prefer an island
With its beginning ended:
Undertone of waves
Trees overbended.

Men prefer a road
Circling, shell-like
Convex and fossiled
Forever winding inward.

Men prefer a woman
Limpid in a sunlight
Held as a shell
On a sheltering island . . .

Men prefer an island.

But I am a mainland
O I range
From upper country to the inner core:
From sageland, brushland, marshland
To the sea's floor.

Show me an orchard where I have not slept,
A hollow where I have not wrapped
The sage about me, and above, the still
Stars clustering
Over the ponderosa pine, the cactus hill.

Tell me a time,
I have not loved,
A mountain left unclimbed:
A prarie field
Where I have not furrowed my tongue,
Nourished it out of the mind's dark places;
Planted with tears unwept
And harvested as friends, as faces.

O find me a dead-end road
I have not trodden
A logging road that leads the heart away
Into the secret evergreen of cedar roots
Beyond the sun's farthest ray—
Then, in a clearing's sudden dazzle,
There is no road; no end; no puzzle.

But do not show me! For I know
The country I caress:
A place where none shall trespass
None possess:
A mainland mastered
From its inaccess.


Men prefer an island.

Dorothy Livesay

Directions for a Map

Birds' eyes see almost this, a tiny island
odd as a footprint on a painted sea.
But maps set margins. Here, the land is measured,
changed to a flat, explicit world of names.

Crossing the threads of roads to nibbled coastlines,
the rivers run in veins that crack the surface.
Mountains are dark like hair, and here and there
lakes gape like moth holes with the sea showing through.

Between the seaports stutter dotted shiplines,
crossing designs of latitude and language.
The towns are flying names. The sea is titled.
A compass crowns the corner like a seal.

Distance is spelt in alphabets and numbers.
Arrows occur at intervals of inches.
There are no signs for love or trouble, only
dots for a village and a cross for churches.

Here space is free for once from time and weather.
The sea has pause. To plot is possible.
Given detachment and a careful angle,
all destinations are predictable.

And given, too, the confidence of distance,
strangers may take a hundred mural journeys.
For once the paths are permanent, the colours
outlast the seasons and the death of friends.

And even though, on any printed landscape,
directions never tell you where to go,
maps are an evening comfort to the traveller -
a pencil line will quickly take him home.

Alastair Reid, from Inside Out

life is a journey

Life is a journey. The journey of a river. Its source lies unmarked somewhere deep in the hills. A spring gathers itself underground and emerges blinking into the world. It seeps its way over boggy moorland, finds a gentle slope and begins to trickle downhill, then merges with other springs and becomes a burn chortling its way over small stones into dark pools.

From all sides come other burns to be lost in its flow; birch and rowan and sweet blaeberries grow along its banks, tracing blue veins on the hillside. It gathers pace as it falls into a strath, scampering over boulders brought there by some long gone glacier. Its surface glints in full sunlight. The strath becomes a glen and more burns join it until it becomes a river.

Now it can take its time, for it has a sense of its own significance and, whatever happens, it has already come far. Other rivers were not so fortunate, some petered out in lochans, but this one flows on, picking its way over rocky ground, meandering through wildflower meadows, sometime losing its bearings, doubling back on itself. It's in no hurry. Thick woods surround it, villages appear alongside and people come to walk its banks and admire its beauty. If it's lucky, another river will flow into its waters, merge, then go its own way.

At some point on its journey the river will cross some remarkable feature of the landscape, perhaps a wide valley or confluence. There a town will sprout up and obscure its presence, and folk will try to control and shape it to their own purpose. Many will make a living from it, and some will pollute and abuse it in all kinds of ways. No matter, it journeys on, renewing itself and opening out as it nears its end. Its waters can no longer be drunk since they taste of salt, it rises and falls with the tides. Now it is a wide firth, a sparkling sea bounded only by distant shores; gulls and oystercatchers dine out daily on its silt deposits. Out it flows into the ocean, bringing currents rich in nutrients which feed shifting shoals of silver fish.

The river has run its course, it joins with all other waters which have gone before it to form the great oceans of the world. Eventually, somewhere far out at sea, perhaps some of its tiny particles may evaporate, form clouds, be wind-driven towards land, and fall as rain on hills. The cycle of life has come full circle.

The self is a river. It derives from other selves, it grows slowly and is fed by many springs. In no two places on its journey is it the same. We give it a name and assume it remains the same self throughout its life, but it is constantly changing. One day it will cease to be and will be lost to those who once knew it, yet somehow it may nourish others.

Norman Bissell, excerpt Slate, Sea and Sky A Journey from Glasgow to the Isle of Luing

Travellers Poem - Travelling Ways

The night was dark and slowly creeping,
inside the tents young men were sleeping.
All waiting for the bran new morn
when the day begins and the sun is born.
Now all these boys they were all travellers

living by their wits and hands.
They learned their trades from all their fathers

handed down from man to man.
Their wives as well were never idle

they sold their wares from door to door.
And if they made what kept them living,

they thanked the lord and asked no more.
But now those days are all forgotten

when travelling folk all wandered free.
Yes those days are all forgotten

no travelling ways for you or me.
Now I mind the stories of the campgrounds

where families all gathered round.
To hear a song or tell a story

those days for me will not be found.
For now we live inside brick houses

no more we'll hear the old folks tales.
We just watch our lives go past us

the homes we made, we made them jails.
So yes those days are all forgotten

when travelling folk all wandered free.
Yes those days are all forgotten

no travelling ways for you or me.

Alexander Stewart

The Summer Walkers

original photo of Travelling People* taken in front of the gates of the Station (now Lochalsh Hotel)
by Duncan Macpherson in the 1930's

Sometimes when you journey
Through the pages of a book
You’re taken places beyond words
You let them speak the truth
Today I’ve opened treasures
That my eyes could scarce believe
They’re the words of confirmation
Everything that makes me sing

Summer comes to Sutherland
And you bend the hazel bow
You harness up the ponies
And you head out on the road
By Kilbreck and Altnaharra
You journey to your rest
With the guiding might of Suliven
For the campsites of the West

And it's up by the Shin
And up by the 'Naver
And the long winding shores
Of Loch Maree
By Ben Hope and Ben Loyal
By Stack and by Arkle
The road reaches far
Now the summer is here

Now your words are not of sentiment
Shallow or untrue
But wells of living water
And from their clear deep sides we drew
The songs, the tin, the horses
This country’s great and ancient wilds
Your faith in God and man and nature
And the keenness of your guile
So have you stood out on Coldbackie
At the time the sun goes down
Or up on the king of campsites
In the hills about Brae Tongue
That's when music filled your evenings
It's all so different now, this world
For you were the summer walkers
And the fishers of the pearl.
So as we close another chapter
That we label Archive Gold
Still the Conon flows each morning
And the dew falls from the sloe
But today you took me walking
Through a land that we have lost
While our children sit at websites
With no access to the cost


written and performed by

*for more information about the Highland Travellers, click here and here.

The Road to the Isles

original photo by Duncan Macpherson (1882-1966)
'Stout boots, thick socks, rucksack and rope: the lady is ready for her day on the hills in the 1930's'
-Bob Charnley, from Over To Skye...Before The Bridge!

A far croonin' is pullin' me away
As take I wi' my cromach* to the road.
The far Coolins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' the sunlight for my load.

Sure by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go
By heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles.
If it's thinkin' in your inner heart the braggart's in my step
You've never smelled the tangle o' the Isles.
Oh the far Coolins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' my cromach* to the Isles.

It's by Shiel water the track is to the west
By Aillort and by Morar to the sea
The cool cresses I am thinkin' of for pluck
And bracken for a wink on Mother's knee.

The blue islands are pullin' me away
Their laughter puts the leap upon the lame
The blue islands from the Skerries to the Lews
Wi' heather honey taste upon each name.

Traditional Scottish song
*cromach: a Scottish walking stick

Ealghol: Dà Shealladh / Elgol: Two Views

Choimhead mi an t-seann chairt-phuist,
na taighean mar fhàs às an talamh,
na h-aonaichean nam baidealan os an cionn,
nan comharra air mòrachd Dhè,
mus d’ rinneadh goireas de bheanntan,
no sgaradh eadar obair is fois,
eadar an naomh is an saoghalta …
is shìn mi chun a’ bhodiach i.

‘Eil sin cur cianalas oirbh, a Lachaidh!’
dh’ fhaighnich mi, ’s e na thosd ga sgrùdadh.
‘ Hoi, òinseach, chan eil idir!
’ S e cuimhne gun aithne a bh’agam oirre-se’,
is stiùir e ri bò bha faisg oirnn san deilbh,
‘ Siud a’ Leadaidh Bhuidhe, an dàrna laogh aig an Leadaidh Bhig –
dh’ aithnichinn, fhios agad, bò sam bith
a bhuineadh dhan àite rim bheò-sa.’

Elgol: Two Views

I looked at the old post-card,
the houses like a growth from the soil,
the peaks towering above them,
a sign of the majesty of God,
before an amenity was made of mountains,
or a divide between work and play,
between the sacred and the secular …
and I passed the picture to the old man.

‘Does it make you sad, Lachie?’ I asked
as he scrutinised it in silence,
‘ Sad? Bah! Not at all!
I just couldn’t place her for a moment,’
and he pointed to a cow in the foreground,
‘ That’s Yellow Lady, Little Lady’s second calf –
I’d know any cow, you see,
that belonged here in my life-time.’

Meg Bateman

In Praise of Bridges

On our immigrant Canadian street
we heard at least twenty words for frozen,
spoken by snow-blonde children named for Icelandic volcanoes,
Ukrainian saints or Hungarian freedom fighters.
“Melting pot” was an American idea,
but ours was mosaic or patchwork Confederation.
Termed “New Canadians” (not white settlers, incomers or aliens)
just “new”, the right road for a young nation to go.


Two hundred years ago a proud Shetlander
boasted that his son was able
to master a new tongue in Caithness:
“De vara gue tee when sone min guid to kadanes.”
(Those were good times when my son went to Caithness)

Someone across the world may be wishing the same thing
right now, in their own tongue:
“De vara gue tee….”For sons and daughters,
huddling from Scotland’s past
to future and back again.

Today, new in Caithness,
I drive or walk Bridge Street
with modern Vikings whose legacy is in their hair, their height, their eyes.
Modern Hallgerdas and Gunnars whose ancestors
were named from the West, “strangers, Gollachs”.

Together, we are all crossing
from Asia, Africa, from New Worlds and Old,
new strangers on one bridge (One Planet)
in hard rain and cold.

But bridges have a way of being built
exactly when needed,
taking all
where none could go before.

Tom Bryan

Gallaibh, the Gaelic word for Caithness, "the land of strangers, foreigners" (Probably, the Gaels describing the Vikings)

"On the east side of it (The Burn of east Clyth) scarcely a word of Gaelic was either spoken or understood, and on the west side English shared the same fate…"

- George Davidson, Minister, Latheron, 1840.

a Highland croft in May

After cutting rushes I turned to a tougher job, for, lacking my pony, I had to creel the seaweed on my own back. The weed lay on the shore in a rough semi-circle like a rusty scimitar. It was in that half-decayed condition which is so good for the fields yet is unpleasant to touch. I could have put on rubber gloves, but the weed is the very best of hand softeners, and I found the under layers warm. The loch water was so crystal clear that it almost tempted me in for a swim, but the appearance was sufficient, for a test with the pinkie nearly paralysed me.

Big farmers sometimes regard crofters as being behind the times, but with no more than lime or shell sand, seaweed and dung, we are enriching our land, while they with chemical fertilisers, will ultimately impoverish theirs beyond retrieving. I have tasted some of the produce grown by "medicine" and whether it is grass for beast or cabbages for humans, I think it is responsible for some of the diseases of man and beast. The forced production of eggs is spoiling the hens, and the unnatural milk yield is spoiling the cows. In my grandmother's day the cures for human ills were such as sea water, horn broth and elm bark, and folk lived actively to a great age. The cattle had no more when ill than boiled seaweed or home-made cod liver oil, and half the diseases that keep vets busy today were unknown.

Wendy Wood, excerpt From a Highland Croft (1952)

Old Photograph

It is VE Night, Tobermory.
Cottages blaze and shimmer in the mirror of the bay.
Light is necklaced everywhere,
on the cross-trees of destroyers,
on the hulls of every cockleshell and scalloper afloat,
even on the gutted snout of a U-Boat,
but there are shadows, to imagine
the black and frozen water
and the land, lonely of men,
from Sunart to Mers-El-Kebir.

Daisy chained by sailors, three WAAFs
pose for a photograph.
Her friends are grinning, wide-eyed,
but my mother's smile is dying
and she's turned away
to the sound of the waves,
as if she could sense my father,
whose war would never cease,
limping inexorably back to her
across the oil scarred sea.

Hugh McMillan, from After the Storm

Ullapool - The Book Festival that Makes a Difference

The opposite of a book festival
is not a book-burning,
it is indifference. Let them hear
us sing the difference. Love’s words
are louder, brighter than flames. Listen
I have watched Love’s sweat-earned words
plunge readers’ hands into
soft sweat-palmed lyrical hugs,
become part of an always us.
I have seen words introduce someone
to Love. Love is a work of art.
Novel. Novella. Epic. Poem. Story.
Love is an inveterate writer of letters,
emails and texts. I love Love, whose hair
is cut like a haiku, whose mind is epic
as a novel, whose hands are bright and
restless as a bookmark. I love Love.
Love is an us, Love shows us
life is an us. Listen, may this always
be the festival that loves
to make a difference. This festival
reminds us we belong with Love’s words
which, like village halls and ceilidh
places, are physical and inwardly
permanent parts of an us. Let us give
thanks to that which brought us to an us,
let us never forget that the opposite
of a book festival is not a book-burning,
it is indifference. Let us make a difference.

Kevin MacNeil

Woman and Deer

He does not know what she holds for him.
She doesn't know what he brings.
But they have stood now long enough
Watching each other's landscape
From the window, from the hill,
To recognise the change that's taken place -
Something that has crossed between them,
A bar of light, or shadow,
Light and shadow, beam succeeding gloom
As light and shadow pass across a forest floor
Or firelight dances on the ceiling of a room.

The cold has brought him down, and loneliness,
And fear, and another instinct that is somehow
More than natural: as if from a common dream
The two of them had learned to reach
For what they expected least but most desired -
To touch a side of nature beyond fear;
As if in the half-light there's a half-remembered truth -
Of a woman's hand outstretched and cupping
A tentatively probing mouth.

She waits there for him, with her arm, her hand,
Her offer tilted from the curve of her breast.
He sidesteps, sniffs, angles his head, retreats,
Advances, all the nerves and hot-breathed senses
Of his nose and mouth alive; his searching eyes,
The shudder of his delicate approach -
All this is a gift to her for the sweetness
In her palm. And she has reached this moment quite alone,
To be with him, and feels her body drenched
In light and shadow to the bone.

Flesh upon flesh. He dips into her hand.
She marvels at the warm wet beauty of that fit,
And now it is with a familiar grace.
Slowly, so as not to startle him,
She lifts her other hand to touch his face.

Where Truth Lies

Maps, once made,
leave the impression of a place gone dead.

Words, once said,
anchor the swirlings in the head.

Vows, once taken,
waste in the shadows of a time forsaken.

Oh, understand
how the mind's landscape grows from shifting sand,

how where we are
is half on solid ground, half head-in-air,

a twilit zone
where changing flesh and changing ghost are one,

and what is true
lies between you and the idea of you -

a friction,
restless, between the fact and the fiction.


The Bluebells Of Scotland

Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar passed away today. I was a child when i first heard his voice. My grandmother used to play his records, his and Calum Kennedy's. They're all gone now. A different era, a long long time ago, remembered with affection. 

June 23, 1927 - April 9, 2010

Oh where, tell me where is your highland laddie gone?
Oh where, tell me where is your highland laddie gone?
He's gone with streaming banners where noble deeds are done.
And it's oh! in my heart I wish him safe at home.

Oh where, tell me where did your highland laddie dwell?
Oh where, tell me where did your highland laddie dwell?
He dwelt in bonnie Scotland where bloom the sweet bluebells
And it's oh! in my heart I rue my laddie well.

Oh what, tell me what should your highland lad be slain?
Oh what, tell me what should your highland lad be slain?
Oh no, true love will be his guide and bring him safe again
For it's oh! my heart would break if my highland lad were slain.

He's gone with streaming banners where noble deeds are done.
And it's oh! in my heart I wish him safe at home.

Lady of the Loch

The legend lives on and it's told
by the folk around Loch Ness
She's been seen by many for o'er
a thousand years or less
An ancient creature who dwells
in the cold and murky deep
They named her Nessie
and they pray that she will keep...
out there

It is a mystery
how she's made it through the years
Though she's never hurt anyone
she feeds upon our fears
She's watched us come and go
and she's wise to all who plot
Don't try to find her
She'll slip away
The Lady of the Loch
The Lady of the Loch

She will rise from the deep
She will pass by the shore
'Neath the summer sun,
autumn moon so hazy
And the people will come
With their boats and their guns
But they'll never find our
Lady of the Loch

(Out on the Loch tonight...)

She will rise from the deep
She will pass by the shores
And then quietly drift
into the mist so hazy
And you may see her like
In the watery moonlight
But you'll never find our
Lady of the Loch

Steve McDonald

Old shoes

Don't throw them out, don't put them
in the rubbish bin. They're full
of two things, emptiness and journeys.

They're boat-shaped, but (you say) what water
is left for them to swim on? They're empty -
but what chapters of me are curled up in them?

Autobiographies, all mine
who walk the roadless landscapes
of memory. - But there are memories still to be born

and emptinesses to be suffered.
- Don't take them away. I'm balanced
between two times, between two loves -

times past and the ones I've still to meet
that'll give me emblems like old shoes, boat-shaped,
lifeboat-shaped, full of survivors.

Norman MacCaig


Skye: I'm back again
couldn't resist your wide horizon smiles
and the jewellery of your whitewashed houses
gummed to the summer-green glens and your sensuous coastal fringes.
Skye, I'm talking to you, can you hear me?
Only, you seem to be turning your back on me.
Sometimes you stare at me with your compound thistle eyes,
like some deadly insect, which scares me silly like leaning over a cliff edge.

Skye, are we falling out, or is it that we are spending
too long in each other's company…
tha thu gam chur às mo chiall. You're driving me nuts.
Skye, are you clouding over again?
It cost me £14.70 to get here
and I seem to have had this conversation some place else before.
Will it rain again? Will it keep on raining? Will it ever stop?
Are the midges coming?
Will we ever get home together again?

Skye, I feel you have a single-track mind with no place to reverse:
we're a battleground of passing places.
You see, I try and make sense of you, understand your cultural sensitivities,
but forgive me, I'm a slow learner.
Eh! I was brought up in England,
fed on greed and nostalgic spoonfuls of Empire
and now my feet keep sinking into your bogs.
God, you have so many bogs. All that water stored up there
for years, lacking minerals, and then what do you do?
Release the lot in a gush and guilt of waterfalls…
Skye – you obliterate me with your long nights

you turn my head with your sunsets
you make me dizzy with your giddy winds;
you know, sometimes they go on and on and on:
it's the only conversation we have for days,
and it drives me crazy.
And your bog myrtle perfume is making me ill.
I need a drink. More whisky. I haven't drunk enough of you yet.

Skye, let's put our relationship in some sort of order.
I know about the clan warfare, the Clearances,
the painful baggage of a previous marriage;
but can't we now tie our own individual Celtic knot with a little more hope?
Skye, you are not East Timor; Portree is not Dili.
I know, I know, it's not going to be easy:
crofting daughter is in trouble again;
she's being flattered with riches.
You've come over all postmodernist in Portree,
and Urban Nightmare, he stalks the shadows in the square
with the latest in mobile phone technology.

Locals are barred from hotels in case we embarrass the guests.
Hey, where can I get a clootie dumpling this time of night?
Huh! Kilt Rock tilts, it's laughing at me. You bastard! You looking at me?
Ha, aye: I know what you're up to, standing there, pissing in the wind;
and those lochans so full of water, glassy eyes staring into the night.
The fossils are moving again, I can hear dinosaurs grazing,
I can hear the primordial howl. The lava's flowing.
I'm feeling sick. I am feeling very sick. Sorry.
Tha mi duilich, tha mi air chall. I am lost.

Skye, I am not going to worry about us any more. I love you. Will always.
You know I really mean it, don't you? Please say you'll forgive me.
It's been a long night. We are both tired. I understand.

You're still having a rough time with your sons and daughters,
trying to sort out what's best for them;
keeping the Gaelic going. The best part of you.
Tha mi duilich. Can we just lie down here together, quietly?
I'm going to keep on singing your praises, I promise.
Listen to the psalms that silt the wind. Dè nì mi? Dè nì mi?
What will I do before the next war plunges us
into darkness, leaving only the starlight to hover over Rubha Hunish?
I will swallow my tears and drain my glass and reach for your softness
and put one hiking boot in front of another –
tapadh leat, tapadh leat, tapadh leat.

Mark O Goodwin

morning tide

...the beach sloped in clean grey-blue stones rounded and smooth, some no bigger than his fist, but some larger than his head. As he stepped on them they slithered and rolled with a sea noise. The noise rose up and roared upon the dusk like a wave. All around no life was to be seen, there was no movement but the sea's.

Neil M. Gunn, from Morning Tide


Monday I found a boot -
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.

Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
Next winter
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.

Wednesday, a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.

Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a bad cough.

Friday I held a seaman's skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.

Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
was wrecked last month at The Kame.

Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I smoke on the stone..
What's heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins.

George Mackay Brown

Loch Music

I listen as recorded Bach
Restates the rhythms of a loch.
Through blends of dusks and dragonflies
A music settles on my eyes
Until i hear the living moors,
Sunk stones and shadowed conifers,
And what i hear is what I see,
A summer night's divinity.
And I am not administered
Tonight, but feel my life transferred
Beyond the realm of where I am
Into a personal extreme,
As on my wrist, my eager pulse
Counts out the blood of someone else.
Mist-moving trees proclaim a sense
Of sight without intelligence;
The intellects of water teach
A truth that's physical and rich.
I nourish nothing with the stars,
With minerals, as I disperse,
A scattering of quavered wash
As light against the wind as ash.

Douglas Dunn

No choice

I think about you
in as many ways as rain comes.

(I am growing, as I get older,
to hate metaphors - their exactness
and their inadequacy.)

Sometimes these thoughts are
a moistness, hardly falling, than which
nothing is more gentle:
sometimes, a rattling shower, a
bustling Spring-cleaning of the mind:
sometimes, a drowning downpour.

I am growing, as I get older,
to hate metaphor,
to love gentleness,
to fear downpours.

Norman MacCaig


The boat need carry no more than a live man
And there's a meaning, a cargo of centuries.
They make a hieroglyph on the sea that can
Cramp circumnavigations in one round gaze.

Hard sailors put out from books and ancient tales.
They have names that chink like gold or clash like ice.
They shred coarse fog or beat suns with their sails,
Pooled in iambics or tossed on hexameters.

Days jagged on skerries, nights signalling with foam
Were golden fleece, white whale, lost Ithaca.
No answering star could call these wanderers home.
Each cape they doubled jutted from history.

Watch this one, ancient Calum. He crabs his boat
Sideways across the tide, every stroke a groan -
Ancient Calum no more, but legends afloat.
No boat ever sailed wth a crew of one alone.

Norman MacCaig

Highland farewells

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the mountains, high-cover'd with snow,
Farewell to the straths and green vallies below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods,
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Robert Burns, whose 251th birthday it is today.

The Highland Farewell

And so, we must leave our land,
Forget, all our hopes and plans,
And sail, far away, cross the sea.
We pray, to keep our self-respect,
As tears, fall upon the salty deck,
We watch, our beloved land, fade away.

I'll sing to you, my Highland Farewell,
I'll sing to you, my Highland Farewell.

Na sloigh as fearr san gcruinne
(The best people in the round world)
a muirn a mire bhfoghnamh;
(Their joyousness, their keenness, their effectiveness)
ni comhnairt bheith 'na bhfeagmbais;
(Without them is no strength)

Although...our seed is scattered far,
In time, we remember who we are
And sing, our people's songs, of yesterday.
And now, as i take your hand,
We walk, upon the golden sand
And think, of our long lost home, far away.

I'll sing to you, my Highland Farewell
I'll sing to you, my Highland Farewell

Steve McDonald

May 3rd

today the sea has left skeins
of treasure on the sand
each wave ebbs a necklace
seaweed threads, broken shells,
feathers, straw and fine peat grain

Pauline Prior-Pitt, from Shore Sequence

Treeless landscape

Except in grooves of streams, armpits of hills,
Here's a bald, bare land, weathered half away.
It pokes its bony blades clean through its skin
And chucks the light up from grey knucklebones,
Tattering the eye, that's teased with flowers and stones.

Something to do with time has all to do
With shape and size.  The million shapes of time,
Its millions of appearances  are the true
Mountain and moor and tingling water drop
That runs and hangs and shakes time towards a stop.

Prowling like cats on levels of the air
These buzzards mew, or pounce: one vole the less,
One alteration more in time, or space.
But nothing's happened, all is in control
Unless you are the buzzard or the vole.

Yet, all the same, it's weathered half away.
Time's no procrastinator. The land thrusts

A rotting elbow up. It makes a place
By sinking into it, and buzzards fly
To be a buzzard and create a sky.

Norman MacCaig

November 21st

Grey on grey
the corrugated iron sea
one shade deeper than the sky
washes in reluctantly.

Pauline Prior-Pitt, from North Uist Sea Poems

Never Before

Grown men tremble when they meet,
have never seen, never felt
not in living memory, never before.
And they know storms.
Marooned in the blind dark,
never so long a black night
the sea rising, never before so high,
shuttering in across open fields
pursued by the frantic wind

Houses shook in the suck and push of it,
the smack of rain and the banging.
Not knowing what was banging,
walking from room to room with torches,
drowsing not sleeping, finding buckets
to catch water dripping through ceilings,
listening for the ebb for a slackening
which never came.

In the late dawn of cold morning,
tales are told of causeways fallen,
roads barred by boulders
shoals of seaweed swept inland
of roofs blown off,
of sheds fetched up on other crofts,
a slate through a window impaled on a pillow
an old woman afloat on her bed
and people up to their waists in water
and forty sheep flocked dead in a corner
and mile after mile of grass and black plastic
clinging to broken wire fences.

Never before such a torn island
and the west coast shoreline gnawed to the bone.

Pauline Prior-Pitt, from North Uist Sea Poems

Foiled shepherd

I drive my little flock of beliefs
along a narrow road. They behave well
until we pass your house.

You are that parrot in Lairg
that had learned the language
whistled by shepherds. When
the Lamb Sales were on - what
confusion in the road! - what scattering,
what barking, what human execrations!

You parrot my language.
All you need now is to learn
its meaning. Then I, with my dogs,
at heel, will saunter at ease
behind that flock, my mind
filled with their baaing, my face
grinning in their dust.

Norman MacCaig

Old crofter

The gate he built last year
hangs by its elbow from the wall.
The oar he shaped this summer
goes through the water with a swirl, a swivel.

The hammer in his great hand
pecks like fowl in the grain.
His haycocks are lopsided.
His lamp stands on the dresser, unlit.

One day the rope he has tied
will slither down the rock
and the boat drift off idly
dwindling away into the Atlantic.

Norman MacCaig


High in the air, the air
Lies like an open secret;
It loosens its fist and lets
Islands float in to where

Round heads bob on the green -
Their dogs' eyes follow the dinghy
Crabbing across the tide.
Two cliffs and a sea between

Have stolen a space of time
And squander it all in being;
The sea thrills like a silence
Between a chime and a chime:

And the rowan digs its claws
Into the heart of the matter
And a rose is Lazarus and
Shuffling ripples are flaws

Through which the mind can see
What way the wind is blowing -
As this one, that drifts in
Over the boulder scree,

Where ducks squatter in mud
And, cubed on a kilted stone,
Stands the grey honeycomb
Filled with claret and blood

Where a great music arose
And Mary, Red Alasdair's daughter,
Made poems and ladled her snuff
Into her randy nose.

Norman MacCaig, from A Round of Applause