r2vyln3rdioj14u-rld0ska where mountains meet the sea: May 2010

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