r2vyln3rdioj14u-rld0ska where mountains meet the sea: June 2014

Ruined Croft

The gable gash alone is not fatal.
Slates are sliding in crazy dips,
rattling like shards in the withering wind.
Deep rivulets are eroding the bedrock.
The whole thing is sinking.
Angry armies of reeds advance,
cutting swathes
through choking daffodils.
The timber is sound.
The door ajar, but hanging.
Joists and cladding, able and dry.
For eight years, a cup of tea,
half-drunk, sits on the table.

Reaching Helmsdale

If it weren't for
this red tweed jacket
I bought in Brora
I might well wonder
if we'd ever gone
north of Inverness.

We shouldn't need proof
but do, it not being
normal to crowd in
so many slow years
to three or four hours
cuffed by a sea-wind

and buffeted by
non-highland music
from the Highland Games
up on Castle Park
(now called Cowper Park
– no-one can say why).

We'd come a long way
to look at gravestones:
we could read father
was 'devoted' while
mother was 'beloved'.
Weren't both 'beloved'?

Wandering I saw
Andrew Rutherford
had four doctorates
(honorary) chipped
on his stone. And Nan
MacLeod my once fierce

maths teacher, mother's
best friend and bête noire,
had an out-of-place
middle name: Percy.
Her mother Lizzie
sat by a peat fire

trapped and arthritic.
Unmoving the stones
turn their backs on us.
Blind they look through us.
This brash easterly
from the Moray Firth

is not going to stop:
the longer it comes
to blow in my mind
the harder it will
tug at my coat-sleeves
my hair my eyelids.

Robin Fulton Macpherson

a day in Helmsdale

Sphagnum Moss

Sphagnum moss remembers. It recalls
the touchdown of each lark that tumbles
down upon its surface, the slightness of that weight
recorded in the tendrils of each stem. It anticipates
the appetites of flock which graze
upon that wasteland when the rare haze
of summer-heat crisps heather.
The constant tide and toll of weather.
Snow concealing peat and turf like surf,
rolling in with weight of dark clouds curving
around the bleak horizon. The persistent smidge of rain
blurring the land’s muted shades year upon damp year again.

And, too, the heavy trudge of boots
which used to stamp upon it in pursuit
of sheep or cattle. Or else stumbling back
homewards just before the black
of night consumed the borders of a bog
stretching wide before soles, the perils of a loch,
perhaps, where a neighbour drowned. Sphagnum moss,
above all, stores the footsteps of those who are now lost,
those residents and denizens of moor
for whom moss feels an absence, their drum of feet
no longer pounding desolation like a heartbeat any more.

Donald S. Murray, from The Guga Stone: Lies, Legends and Lunacies from St Kilda


I met a man in Harris Tweed
As I walked down the Strand;
I turned and followed like a dog
The breath of hill and sea and bog
That clung about the crotal brown.
And suddenly, in London Town
I heard again the Gaelic speech,
The scrunch of keel on shingly beach;
The traffic’s never-ending roar
Came plangent from a shining shore;
I saw the little lochs where lie
The lilies, white as ivory;
And tumbling down the rocky hills
Came scores of little foaming rills.
I saw the crofter bait his line,
The children herding yellow kine,
The barefoot woman with her creel,
The washing-pot, the spinning wheel,
The mounds thrown up by patient toil
To coax the corn from barren soil.
With buoyant step I went along
Whistling a Hebridean song
That Iain Og of Taransay
Sang to me one enchanted day.
I was a man renewed indeed
Because I smelt that Harris Tweed
As I went down the Strand.

Helen Cruickshank, from Collected Poems

Riasg Buidhe

A visit to the island of Colonsay,
Inner Hebrides, April 1987

There are other lives we might lead, places we might get to know, skills we might acquire.

When we have put distance between ourselves and our intentions, the sensibility comes awake.

Every day should contain a pleasure as simple as walking on the machair or singing to the seals.

The ripples on the beach and the veins in the rocks on the mountain show the same signature.

When we climb high enough we can find patches of snow untouched by the sun, parts of the spirit still intact.

The grand landscapes impress us with their weight and scale but it is the anonymous places, a hidden glen or a stretch of water without a name, that steal the heart.

The mere sight of a meadow cranesbill can open up a wound.

We live in an age so completely self-absorbed that the ability to simply look, to pour out the intelligence through the eyes, is an accomplishment.

You will require a tune for a country road, for hill walking a slow air.

When I climb down from the hill I carry strands of wool and fronds of bracken on my clothing, small barbs of quiet in my mind.

At dawn and again at dusk we feel most acutely the passing of time but at dawn the world is with us while at dusk we stand alone.

The farther we move from habitation, the larger are the stars.

There is a kind of bagpipe and fiddle music, practiced in a gale, which is full of distance and longing.

A common disease of sheep, the result of cobalt deficiency, is known as ‘pine’.

The best amusement in rain is to sit and watch the clouds negotiate the mountain.

Long silences are as proper in good company as a song on a lonely road.

Let everything you do have the clean edge of water lapping in a bay.

In any prevailing wind there are small pockets of quiet: in a rock pool choked with duckweed, in the lee of a cairn, in the rib-cage of a sheep’s carcass.

When my stick strikes a stone, it is a call to order.

The most satisfying product of culture is bread.

In a landscape of Torridonian sandstone and heather moor, green and gold lichens on the naked rock will ignite small explosions of sensation.

Whatever there is in a landscape emerges if we just sit still.

It is not from novelty but from an unbroken tradition that real human warmth can be obtained, like a peat fire that has been rekindled continuously for hundreds of years.

After days of walking on the moor, shoulders, spine and calves become resilient as heather.

The hardest materials are those which display the most obvious signs of weathering.

We can carry a tent, food, clothing or the world on our shoulders, but how light we feel when we lay them down.

Just to look at a beach of grey pebbles can cool the forehead.

On a small island, the feeble purchase that the land obtains between the sea and the sky, the drifting of mist and the intensity of light, unsettles the intellect and opens the imagination to larger and more liquid configurations.

Although the days should extend in a graceful contour, the hours should not be accountable.

A book of poems in the rucksack – that is the relation of art to life.

On a fine day, up on the heights, with heat shimmering from the rocks, I can stretch out on my back and watch all the distances dance.

The duty of the traveller, wherever he finds himself, is always to keep faith with the air.

We should nurture our own loneliness like an Alpine blossom.

Solitude and affection go well together – to work alone the whole day and then in the evening sit round a table with friends.

To meet another person on a walk is like coming to a river.

In the art of the great music, the drone is eternity, the tune tradition, the performance the life of the individual.

It is on bare necessity that lyricism flourishes best, like a cushion of moss campion on granite.

When the people are gone, and the house is a ruin, for long afterwards there may flourish a garden of daffodils.

The routines we accept can strangle us but the rituals we choose give renewed life.

When the lark sings and the air is still, I sometimes feel I could reach over and take the island in my hand like a stone.

Thomas A. Clark, from Tormentil and Bleached Bones

Little Sea House

Little sea house,
when I found you,
the yellow poppies
were nodding round you.

Your blue slate hat
that the four winds
came to tug at
over the tamarinds:

I remember it well:
the salmon-nets drying –
laugh, violin-shell,
and cease crying!

For I will return,
through the sea-haze:
I am sailing back there
always, always.

Hamish Maclaren, from Sailor with Banjo

island exile

Where does a journey begin and end? On the road? In the imagination? There are evenings in the Cumbrian fells, when I’m far inland, watching the slow shadows of night creep across the calm surface of the lakes, when I suddenly hear sea-birds calling, returning to their nesting ledges on the cliffs above the dark beach at Ness or Dalmore.

This particular journey began with one of the most treasured images I have ever had the good fortune of capturing on camera – the 2003 annular eclipse. The beginning of a journey, I realise, is so much easier to pinpoint than the end. Perhaps this is true for all island exiles. I’ve met islanders who talk about ‘home’ as though they’ve only just left the week or the month before, so it’s a surprise to find out it’s been twenty or thirty years since they last lived there.

There are others who have yet to travel to the Outer Hebrides who are connected by threads of history, by a deep sense of belonging through something so simple as a surname or a place. They come ‘home’ from Canada, America or Australia to find the land of their ancestors; to a croft in a township they feel they know but have never seen.

Sometimes, as is the case for me, instead of a family connection, it’s the landscape itself that creates the bond. I’ll be back. I know that much. Treading the fragrant heather at dusk, looking for the blue plume of peat-smoke rising over the croft, listening for the calls of summer birds out on the machair. I find myself repeating place names over and over again like a mantra: Skye and the Cuillins; St Kilda and the Shiant Isles; Plocrapool, Lackalee, Luskentyre, Brue. Each name a catalyst for memory, working its own particular magic.

I don’t know that I will ever be able to say I’ve truly left the Outer Hebrides. Perhaps it’s because the islands have never really left me. The physical journey becomes subsumed in a more complex exploration of what it means to belong to any landscape or culture. I don’t live here, but the Outer Hebrides live within me now. A place of serenity, and storms; a far away land, close as a heartbeat.

Ian Dawson, Island Exile, an extract from his book From The Land Comes The Cloth

Favourite Place

We would be snaking up Loch Lomond, the
road narrow and winding after the turn at Tarbert,
and we’d be bending branches as we slid
through the green and dripping overhang of the trees.
All the bickering over the packing, and the – as usual –
much, much later-than-we’d-meant-to leaving,
all that falling from us,
our moods lifting, lightening, becoming our good mood
the more miles we put
between our freed and weekend selves and Glasgow.

Driving in the dark means: slot in another CD
without even looking at what it is,
another any-old-silver-disc from the zippered case
that, when you reminded me, I’d have quickly stuffed
far too full and randomly, then jammed it,
last minute, into the top of my rucksack.
Golden oldies, yours or mine, whose favourite?
Anyway, the music would spool us through Tyndrum,
past the shut Real Food Café where other days
       we like to stop,
and over moonscape Rannoch Moor to the
moonlit majesty of Glencoe,
over the bridge at Ballachulish, past Corran
with the ferry stilled and the loch like glass;
we’d be wriggling along Loch Linnhe then
       straighten up
past the long strip of darkened lochside Big hotels
       and their
Vacancies or No Vacancies signs
to 30 mph Fort William –
Full-Of-Rain-Town-With-Its-Limitless-Litres-In-A-Mist! –
we’d shout it out and we’d be honouring a
long ago and someone else’s family pass-the-time-car-
        journey game we never even played, but Michael,
proud of his teenage wordsmith son,
once told us about – and it has stuck.
We’d be speeding up now, taking the bend’s wide
        sweep as
we bypass the sleeping town, making for
the second-last turn-off: Mallaig and The Road
        To The Isles.
And you’d say,
‘Last thirty miles, Lizzie, we’ll be there by midnight.’

The always longest fifteen miles from Glenfinnan
        to Lochailort
and a wee cheer at the last turn,
down past the big house and the fish farm,
beyond the lay-by – full of travellers’ ramshackle vans
now the yellow’s on the broom again –
our eyes peeled now for the white-painted stone
        so we’ll not miss
the overgrown entrance to the field of caravans.

There would be that sigh of
always glad-to-see our old van still standing,
opening the door, the sniffing – no dampness,
        no mice…
I’d be unloading the first cool bags of food,
while you’d be round the van’s side, down in the mud
turning the stopcock for the water,
fixing the gas – and soon,
breathing a big sigh, laughing in relief at
how that huge stag that had suddenly filled the
        windscreen a mile back
stopping our hearts as – ho! – we’d shouted our alarm –
had somehow astonishingly leapt free, was gone,
and no harm done,
we’d be lighting candles, pouring a dram,
drinking the first cup of tea
from the old black and white teapot.

And tonight the sky would be huge with stars.
Tomorrow there would be the distant islands
cut out of sugar paper, or else cloud, the rain
        in great veils
coming in across the water, the earliest tenderest
feathering of green on the trees, mibbe autumn
laying bare the birches stark white.
There would be blood-red rowan berries,
        that bold robin
eating from my plate again, or – for a week or two
        in May –
the elusive, insistent cuckoo,
or else the slow untidy flapping of the flight
        of the heron,
the oil-black cormorant’s disappear-and-dive,
shifts of sun, double or even treble rainbows.
The waterfall would be a wide white plume or a
thin silver trickle, depending…
There would be bracken’s early unfurling or
late summer’s heather pinking and purpling over,
        there’d be
a plague of hairy caterpillars and the last
        drunken bees.
Mibbe you’d nudge me, and hushed,
again we’d watch that otter swim to shore
on New Year’s Day with a big fish in its mouth, emerge
so near us on the flat rocks we
wouldn’t dare to breathe as we’d watch it,
unconcerned, oblivious,
make a meal of eating it before our eyes.
Or it would be a late Easter this year and,
everywhere along the roadside,
the chrome-yellow straight-out-of-the-tube-and-
laid-on-with-a-palette-knife brashness, the
amazing coconut smell of the gorse.

But tonight you are three months dead
and I must pull down the bed and lie in it alone.
Tomorrow, and every day in this place
these words* of Sorley MacLean’s will echo
        through me:
The world is still beautiful, though you are not in it.
And this will not be a consolation
but a further desolation.

Liz Lochhead, first published in My Favourite Place

*Sorley MacLean’s great tribute to his brother Cumha Chaluim Mhic Gill-Eain /Elegy for Calum I. MacLean begins with
Tha an saoghal fhathast àlainn
Ged nach eil thu ann
The world is still beautiful
though you are not in it

herring song