r2vyln3rdioj14u-rld0ska where mountains meet the sea: Let the Northern land shine

Let the Northern land shine

A poem for the inauguration of the University of the Highlands and Islands, 2011
The university looks like a chart of the stars,
thirteen constellations spangling the land
of colleges with their planets in room and hut,
scattered over islands, folded into glens.
Windows shine in the dark of the night
with the ghostly glow of computer screens,
a phosphorescent net with a catch of thought
holds the craggy land in its mesh,
from Lerwick in the north, Whalsay and Unst,
to Dunoon in the south and Campbeltown beyond,
from Elgin, Buckie and Keith in the east,
to Lewis and Uist, Benbecula and Barra.
Yet without approaching these wave-pounded coasts
with their cliffs and gloups, their skerries and stacks,
serene voices enter the debate
online in America, Germany, Japan.

It was said St Columba made the northern land shine,
with his understanding of Scripture, of tides and moon,
the illumination of manuscripts and singing of psalms
in monasteries perched in the desert of the ocean
and thrust beyond Drumalban, in Monymusk and Deer.

The Picts, carvers of bent rods and zigzags,
of discs and crescents, combs, and mirrors,
must have had schools to share their templates
of symbol s and beasts, to teach ogham
and to plan their intricate, whirling designs.

The learning of the Norse in Scotland has gone,
lost in language, overtaken by change,
yet they trained smiths to make jewellery and arms,
tailors, sail-makers, skalds and wrights.
Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson was educated well:
“There are nine skills known to me:
At tables I play ably,
Rarely do I run out of runes,
Reading, smith-craft, both come ready.
I can skim the ground on skis,
Wield a bow, do well in rowing,
To both arts I can bend my mind –
Poet's lay and harper's playing."
In the golden peace of the Lordship of the Isles
MacMhuirich poets kept a school in Uist,
Beaton doctors had a school in Mull
where Avicenna, Hippocrates and Galen were read,
and Morrison breves taught the law in Ness.
Experts came over drawn from Ireland:
Ó Brolcháin and Ó Cuinn came to Iona to twine
winding foliage round the high crosses,
Ó Seanog played on the harp in Kintyre,
Cú Chulainn himself came for martial training.
And who knows if the great stone circles
of Callanish and Orkney were lunar labs,
or how the geometry was worked out
of the carved stone balls at Skara Brae,
or in what groves the druids rehearsed their arts?

So much has been lost
of the learning of the past,
forgotten through spite and abjection,
but from fractured rocks
fresh flowers will blow,
and puffins fly from the fissures.
The land heaves a sigh
from the weight of the ice,
the population begins to recover
from the years the youth
would make for the south,
the place robbed of their hopeful spirit.

We look out on hills and woods
while contemplating cause and effect
and the sea stretching silver around the globe,
just as those others, with quill in hand,
would pause and peer from corbelled hut
to delight in the sunlight, the arrival of ships.
Some died serene, some were murdered,
some grew lonely, lacking books and guidance,
their minds vast in the narrowness of their days.
Rev. Colin Campbell, minister of Ardchattan,
would write in Latin to Sir Isaac Newton
for a chance to discuss astronomy and maths,
and his struggle killed the mason Hugh Miller
who tried by himself over in Cromarty
to make Genesis agree with the fossils on the beach.

But now there are libraries, real and virtual,
the goodwill of the Parliament to own our own,
and the internet to open our conversations wide.

Though the tides brush out our ripples in the sand,
the northern land again will shine
with the aurora dancing above our thought.

Meg Bateman

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