Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Shore Lines: Verse in English

 
 
 
SHORE LINES

Verse in many moods and styles

by
 
Donald E. Meek

 



SOUND ORIGINS

 

I am, of course, a child of Gunna Sound,

Somehow struggling ashore aeons ago

Amoeba-like, finding a foothold,

Little claws on soft sand,

Between Greasamul and the Clach Ul,

And groping upwards to land and light,

Beyond the Port Ruadh,

Reaching warmth and new being

But never fully of the machair,

Left stranded on a raised beach

With that hankering after a receding ocean

That pulls me inexorably

To the tides and currents,

The ships and boats struggling in turgid turmoil

Or gliding on tranquil translucence

Between the two Caolases.

 

My origin lies millennia behind that great rending

Flood that tore and filled a trench

Breaking one island into two,

Bursting angrily over massive rocks,

Submerging a fault, a fracture in the surface

Of the known world, a thunderous dissolution

Shredding and remaking by the ferocious forces

Of earth’s creative turmoils.

 

Somehow I transformed westwards

From fish to land creature, processing,

Hanging grimly on to the end

Of an anchorless biological chain.

 

Or was it thus? I lived and moved

And had my being in Gunna Sound,

Long before I knew it?

 

Times I walked Ceann Traigh Thoisinis

Looking for that clear message, glittering in a bottle,

To explain causality! But I did not find it

On the million, million particles,

The complexities that fit together firmly,

Enjoined to perform their tasks, their interactions

Above, below, around, beside, within

This maelstrom that forms me –

And all humanity.

 

I am the agnostic of the rational,

The atheist in scientific method,

Who crawls not towards the physical,

But to a realm beyond the disputatious

And tempestuous tides and currents

Which rule that uncertain Sound of the intellect,

Finding firmer understanding of self

Shrouded in deeper,

Diviner mysteries.


 
Tiree, as seen at 6.30 a.m. from the MV 'Boudicca', passing to the west of the island in June 2013



 

ISLAND ON THE FAR HORIZON

 
 
Island on the far horizon,

Many, many miles away,

Distant, misty, and invisible –

Not to those who know your sway!

 

Island on the far horizon

Means a brochure holiday,

Lazy, listless, unconnected –

Not for those who feel your sway!

 

Island on the far horizon,

Evening dreams in sunset ray,

Black on gold now silhouetted –

Not to those who see your sway!

 

Island close within my being,

Anchored in my deepest clay,

Controlling, holding, all-possessing –

When will I escape your sway?

 

Back I come to walk the shorelines,

Feel the storms along the bay,

Shaping, moulding with a chisel –

Cutting softest flesh away.

 

Not for warm romantic daydreams,

Not for idle, endless play,

But in constant, painful vigil,

You demand to have your sway.

 

IN AN ISLAND



I could not live ON an island,

Standing there on top of it,

Precariously trying to grip it,

Robinson Crusoe on a raft,

Thor Hyerdahl drifting on Kon Tiki,

Passenger on a ferry,

Worker on an oil platform,

Aircraft on a carrier,

With mechanical prospect of take-off,

Steam catapult enabling lift

To false altitude.

 

I could not live on an island

When hurricanes swept eastwards;

Without grip or depth or substance,

Anchorless, light, transitional,

I would go with them,

A haystack unravelling,

Flying apart,

Fragmented,

I would be off it soon.

 

No!  I have always lived

IN an island,

In its sand, in its machairs,

In its caves, in its houses,

In its rhythms,

Tidal, human, natural,

In its ebbs and flows,

In its ups and downs,

Flat stretches, hills,

Mountains, moors –

I am in all of that.

 

And what’s more, I’ll tell you,

All of that is in me;

The rugged beauty is deep,

Lives inside my life,

I have the island within,

Dictating my contours,

My profile, the set of my bones,

My emotions, feelings,

Yes, and language,

And dialects, special words,

Songs, and music,

My way of being,

A mutual in-ness,

Holding fast.                                     

 

Aye, you can always tell

The newcomers, without

The centuries-old rootedness,

The feelings of generations;

They live ‘on an island’,

‘On Mull’, ‘on Coll’, ‘on Tiree’,

But what of them will live on,

And where?

How much will they leave,

Before they too move on?

 

My life is into the ‘in’,

Into the core of the earth,

Into the pliable magma below the ancient gneiss,

Into the most molten, immovable,

Renewable reductable rocks,

Generation after generation,

Going away, but, yes,

Coming back, knowing the meanings

Of gigantic two-letter words.

For me and for them

‘On’ is not ‘in’!




EROSION


Strange how communities vanish

Before our noses, but we don’t notice,

As one light goes off, and then another,

And a lock is turned for the last time,

Even by our own hands.  The winter

Cloak of darkness becomes warmer

As we watch Sky TV and shut out

The emptiness that lies within a mile,

The holes in the heart of life.

 

Nor do we perceive rising sea-levels

As they eat rocks quietly, continuously,

Stormily, seeing only calm days of long

Deceitful peace which we affirm

As reality in our island.

 

Not until we take the road

To the story that we heard

And now admire – too late –

And seek for deeper sense,

Do we reach the graveyard

Of our dearest thought.

 

We’ll get back home safely:

The roadmen have repaired

The breach made by the tide

When it carried off silently

A hundred feet of tarmac

Without our knowing.

 

Perhaps we’ll waken up

The day a township

Falls right over,

And takes us

With it.
 
 
 



SELF-DISCOVERY

 
‘Sunsets and sunrises are our islands,


Our pleasure-zones, our Nirvanas,

Where we discover ourselves,

The truth, the reality.’  

 

Ah yes!  That rings a bell! 

My reality dawned over

The Sound of Gunna a while ago

On a chill winter’s morning,

And since then I’ve been seeing

Gaps left by storms, tidal erosion,

Sandblow encroaching steadily,

Seaweed strewn across roads,

Plastic bottles, nylon ropes,

Black streamers on fences

That nobody bothers to remove,

Rubbish flying across machairs,

Old cars bedecking landscapes,

Rusting implements, houses chewed

By wind and rain, desolated by death.

 

I can ignore some sharp-edged objects,

Mere material that I don’t want to see:

But harder by far are the gaps

In the community that I once knew,

The funerals, the visits to homes

Where bereavement has struck,

The locked doors, the transformed

Commonality that now I do not know:

 

A brutal sense of strangeness

Invades my own shorelines;

I am made for yesterday,

A native alien in terra cognita:

Like Ossian after the Fianna,

Glad when I meet survivors

From my own generation

With Gaelic on their lips.

 

Ah yes!  I’ve discovered

My own reality in the changing sky –

It’s a damnable dawning of the self –

And in the long, long evening,

A searing sunset shedding gold braid

Over darkening fields,

Beguiling beauty

In a graveyard. 

 

Who can rescue me

From my island

Of self-discovery?

Where can I find

Home?

 

 





STROMA VISIT

10.8.2013

 

Islands are complex places,

Layers, mixtures, tangles

Of time and tide and tempest,

Of comings and goings,

Of lives and deaths,

Of endings and beginnings,

Of weathers, skies and seas –

 

Everything piled together,

Past, present and future,

Buildings thrown down,

Rusting tools,
 

Restored houses,

Hopeful signs among graveyards,

Exiles brought up there

And now back again;

Enthusiasts who want to ‘study’

Something, focusing on

Birds, plants, animals, grass,

Rocks, fields,
 

Myopically eager;

‘Strangers’ once,

Now trying to go native,

Probing sheepishly below the surface,

The ‘new’ islanders,

But there is nothing ‘new’

In an island.


 

We have been there before;

I wander purposefully

Over Stroma’s spine, 

A ‘new’ island to me,

But totally familiar;

Every mark of its distinctive ways

Utterly meaningful;

Even the ruins are my friends,

Speaking of battles lost,

Some partly won, contending with

Elemental energies

Beyond our own,

My struggles Stroma’s struggles.

The restored house my house.

 


Sheep hardly move as I pass;

I am their friend too;

They know I speak their bleat,

Understand what it is to be ruffled,

Thundered sideways by hurricanes;

We exchange meaningful glances,

Sheep without a shepherd,
 

As I pass their church,

Now implemented with remnants

Of recent exertion,

Themselves immobile

Beside the telephone box,

‘Stroma One’ – or did it?

The single pole

Communicates with nothing,

Its glass smashed,

Transmitting jagged messages,

Cutting my mind.

 

The school haunts me,

Sears me, ‘Vita Vinctis’

‘Life for those in Bondage’,

Falling apart on a shelf;

Bondage broken, pupils

Have escaped,

Found new life beyond the sound

Of sea and teachers –

‘Tutorial History of England’

Written in their souls.

 

The lighthouse points bluntly skywards,

Beam automated, no keepers,

The foghorn silent,

No ‘Noise’ here to notice –

Only the roar of the Swelkie,
 
A stern eternity in its notes,


Sterner than the pulpit on the ridge,

As it chews the harsh ledges

Where boys caught lobsters,

But there are no boys now.

 

I look outwards, blunt ships passing,
 

Catching my spirit, my yearning,
 
Contending with the current


Or swept along unstoppably,

Black with fire-red below

The waterline

On deep blue.

 

A world passes an island;

An island passes a world;

An island is a world;

A world is an island.




 It is the centre


Of the centuries,

Revolving,

Evolving,

The outpost

Of everyone’s

Ultimate meeting,

True destiny.





 Donald boarding John Kennedy's school-bus at Caolas 'road-end' about 1964.



 CAOLAS ‘ROAD-END’



What a strange designation!

What a mad signification!

What a silly insinuation!

It drove me round the bend!

Who said that I was penned

At Caolas ‘road-end’?

 

Where my life’s road began,

My eyes would often scan

Worlds unknown to Central Man –

At Caolas ‘road-end’.

 

But ‘They’ knew better –

Knew life to the letter:

 

Where it really all began

Was known to Central Man,

Why natives walked with tilts

In their grass kilts

In the great storm

 Which was aye the norm –

At Caolas ‘road-end’.

 

And why they danced at night

Round the fire and had a fight,

And knew not what was right.

‘We’ll tell ’em how to see

The world beyond Tiree,

Where there’s not a single tree’ –

At Caolas ‘road-end’.

 

Where it really all began

Was obscure to Caolas Man,

But not to Central Hack,

Who never had a lack

Of delightful inspirations

To suit the needs of nations

In all their situations:

 

Each Hack would understand

The lie of every land:

In fact, ‘They’ made the ‘Lie’,

And spread it through the sky,

Through the oceans and the ports,

Through the railways and the courts,

That the World began

Where you found Central Man:

 

Advanced in thought and deed:

‘They’ never had a need:

A most Superior Breed,

Born to spread the Creed –

 

That round that farthest bend

Lay Caolas ‘road-end’.

  



SAMARKAND
 
An Orient Express
Filled full with dreams,
Camels and drivers,
Merchants in streams:
 
Silver-peaked mountains
That burst the blue sky:
No Taliban present –
Silk cloth out to dry:
 
As I make my journey
On Kennedy’s bus,
And reach Cornaig School,
With all the day’s fuss:
 
This morning it’s English,
Two periods of style,
With Mr MacDougall –
It will last a long while:
 
But out of those poems
Flies the name ‘Samarkand’:
It bursts like a sunbeam
Through a very dark land:
 
And I’m off on that journey
On the far silken road,
Far away from Room Three,
No need for a goad:
 
I’m captured by magic,
By the sound ‘Samarkand’:
Each time I hear it,
I join that small band
 
Who are tuned to the splendour
Of words and their ways –
On that ‘Golden Journey’
Till the end of my days.
 

 



 
GREASAMUL


 

Seeing you green-maned,

With white wave-crests

Rubbing your brown flanks

On a day of sharp skies,

We romantics would overpaint

Your stark nakedness, fill in

Your deep incisions, put

Poetic polyfilla in your cracks:

But to those who saw you

With penetrating essential eye

In history’s cruel dawn

You were no more than

‘Humped island of grass’.

 

Precisely so, and thus you remain,

Joined to Tiree by tidal causeway,

Negotiable only at lowest ebb,

Defiant, dangerous, unreachable. 

 

Your name-givers knew you well

When they spittingly eschewed

Flattery, faced razor-edged reality,

Discovered your summer value,

Thrashing some cattle across

That unpredictable neck to graze

Above your fractured valance.

 

Norsemen held life hard,

Did not leave their own lightly,

Brooked no soft sentiments,

Kept stark onomasticons,

Told it straight, lastingly,

Shoved nomenclature’s sword

Down bloody Gaelic throats.

 

In golden evening sunlight,

We dream contemporary fantasy,

As the cold steel of the ‘Clansman’

Clatters intently southwards,

Kishmul’s CalMac galley,

Swerving past the green buoy,

Red funnel roaring out grey fumes.

 

Her island-hoppers will not cast

Even a shrivelled glance at this

‘Humped island of grass’:

They have better hummocks

To behold.
 


Port nam Baighdeag.


 
PORT NAM BAIGHDEAG 
(‘HARBOUR OF COWRIES’)



 
 Nobody in Caolas remembers your Gaelic name
Any more: I am the last survivor of the native stock
Who used to go there with wonder in my heart,
Amazement at the never-ending discoveries
Of fragile beauty battered by the ocean swells,
Driven through rocks and clefts and fissures,
Hammered and pounded by waves and storms,
Shovelled by the greatest earth-moving powers,
The massive water-powered JCBs on the perimeter of the island,
Exerting mighty force, moving tons of sand and shells,
Pulling them back like seagulls’ feathers,
Thrusting them forward, rolling them over,
Never stopping the ceaseless upheaval,
Reshaping the coastline, making it different,
Changing it with every tempestuous tide.
 
 
And yet, there you were, shimmering quietly
In the magnificent frailty of your fragility,
So small that you were strong beyond measure,
So weak that you could defy primordial forces,
So gentle that you were happy for this small boy
To pick you up, roll you over in the palm of his hand,
Take you home, and put you on display on the dresser,
In the full glory of your minute majesty.
Cowrie shells, you speak in your silence,
Above the roar of the never-dying storms,
Telling a story of endurance beyond our knowing,
A survival against every power unknown to man,
Except in its merest outline, its acceptable superficiality.
 
You made that harbour, Port nam Baighdeag,
What it will ever be for those of us with understanding,
And its name runs through my waking hours;
I will take it with me until I lie among the listening dead
In Kirkapol, the groaning of Gott Bay to my right,
And you will be in that performance somewhere,
Eternally resonant, the tiniest reminder of what matters
And of who I am, who we are,
In the weakness of our strength…
 
If only we could get back to where that boy
Stood in admiration, gazing into the palm of his hand
At the priceless jewels of the shoreline.
 

 


 
 
THOUGHT BOSONS

 

You did not ask us to come to you,

But we came quietly, unforced:

As you walked, your reflections

Gave us happy opportunities

To make ourselves real to you,

To create new substance.

 

We were hiding in the waves

Of light that connected your mind

To the point of inspiration:

We were in Gunna Sound,

We were in the shores,

We were in the clouds,

We were in the machair,

We were in the ships

Boats, and aircraft,

Gliding effortlessly,

Making pictures on your retina,

Communicating with screens deep within,

Helping you think about meaning,

Our meanings, your meanings,

The island’s meanings,

The world’s meanings,

The meanings of existence.

 

We are now in your words,

But we are still in all these places,

And we ask you not to stifle us,

Not to kill us off as dead art,

Placed between boards,

Shrouded in white paper,

With black lettering inviting others

To the funeral of solidified thoughts,

The graveyard of mortal print,

Where all is epitaph.

 

No!  Please, please let us live

And move and have our being

In the energising, unstoppable ether,

Where we flit from subconscious

To conscious, and then return,

Ricocheting on infinite surfaces.

 

Let us mix with rocks and grass,

With flowers and animals,

With rain and wind and sun,

And moon and stars;

Let us be part of all your pictures,

Let us be part of your life, your being,

Your movements, revealed to all

In your collective selfness,

In the wholeness of your understanding,

Because you are part of our context,

And your context is part of ours.

 

We have waited for this new era

For centuries, for aeons, for eternities,

To roam unrestricted as unfettered Logoi,

God’s particles, the quirks and quarks,

The bosons that add mass to thought.

 

Let us be ourselves, and not the slaves

Of paper and print and board and wrappers,

Building physical empires

Hungering after crowns.

 

Let us out of the print prison,

Let us burst through copyright,

Free us, let us travel unhindered

Through worlds, universes,

Galaxies, deep spaces,

Still undiscovered, but discoverable

Because we are there,

And always will be.

 

We look to you

For fresh beginnings:

That’s all we ask.

 
 
RECYCLING


 
 
No fly-tipping in those far-off days,
No ‘No Dumping’ notices,
No hint of prosecution
Down there by the Sound of Gunna,
Where the sea surged white
Tanging the air refreshingly,
Energetically waiting
For something more to chew.
 
The seapinks grew from ledges,
Defiant ‘Daisies of the sea’,
Clinging hard to cracks with yellow mosses,
Barnacles, limpets, whelks,
Brown, grey, black,
Light lichens too,
Deep down in the crevices.
 
We would arrive with the jute bag,
Clanking, rattling, tingling,
On Aunt Maggie’s broad shoulder.
She would throw the first tin
Into the abyss – resoundingly,
A Heinz 57 once full of beans,
Paper fluttering off to meet the seagulls;
Then the oblong tins
Devoid now of salmon and corned beef;
Some HP bottles too,
Some broad flat specimens
Formerly powerful,
Now thrown hard by a little hand,
Learning how to smash glass
Against brutal rock –
Hissing, jingling, falling,
Bit by bit, fragment by fragment,
Into the unknown.
 
Stories came to life
Of those who rounded these rocks,
My aunt getting into her stride,
White headscarf flying over grey hair,
Patterned overall fluttering,
Forearms throwing heavier rubbish –
Any old iron, cogwheels, spent gear-chains –
Manfully into the sea.
‘That’s where Seumas’s boat
Hit the rocks, but he managed to stuggle
Ashore…’
 
Sea now swirling with incoming tide,
Great surges of white foam flecked with blue,
Stirring the gravel, the cowries so fragile,
So beautiful, down there with metal
And glass, waiting for the great grinder
To make them yet again
Grains of metal, elements of sand,
Dust to dust.
 
I walk stubbornly home,
Souvenir cowries in hand,
Behind that great lady
Who knew the rise and fall of tides,
The crunching of the ocean
On life’s rocks –
Animated but serene,
At one with the elements.
July 2013
 
 
CROFT LIVING


 
Life is a croft, an untidy guddle,
A ragged patchwork, rocky sometimes,
Breaking plough-shares, smashing straight lines
Into fragments, furrows zig-zagged,
No sense of direction beyond the wind
Or storm in your face, trying to make
Progress against traditional reluctance,
Broken fences to be repaired everywhere.
At least you can stay on the surface
Occasionally.
 
But sometimes it’s flat, deep-soiled, fertile,
Yielding, co-operating, offering promise,
But don’t be deceived by fecundity.
There’s a price to pay before reaping.
 
It asks for constant attention,
Making you its servant,
Demanding you as its seed,
Ploughing you hard into itself,
Harrowing you with its insistence,
Burying you in weeds, leaving you to struggle
Through the choking overgrowth,
Eventually poking your nose
Through the sinewy turf.
 
It consumes effort, it eats energy,
Sucks it right out of you,
Leaving you exposed to rain and sun,
Lying there, trying to find your essence
Before you are swept up, baled roundly
As silage for winter,
Ready for recycling,
Ready for spring.
 
 
 
 
CO-OP-TED


 
From the lone Co-op on the low-lying island,
We buy our spuds and our tins of peas,
Our warm-up meals, our cakes and biscuits,
Our milk and veg, and packs of cheese.
 
We buy the six-packs and the brimming bottles,
And dream of evenings when we take our ease,
With Tunnock’s tea-cakes and caramel wafers,
And a couple of flapjacks by our TVs.
 
That puts the crown on the eggs and bacon,
The rich brown chips with their drips of grease,
To hold our cholesterol at just the level
To clog our heart-valves the way we please.
 
As I wheel the trolley I feel I’m slacking,
As it gets heavier with every wheeze;
I’m just so grateful the boot is massive,
To take my loot in no small degrees.
 
I can’t imagine how my ancient forebears
Could live on porridge, with no deep-freeze,
With no Co-op, no plastic wrappers,
No beef stroganoff, and no UHTs.
 
As I drive back to my home in Caolas,
My shopping’s safe, though it’s quite a sqeeze;
My girth’s increasing and my belt is bursting,
But I’ll bless the Co-op for my cream teas.

 
 
This photograph of Am Port Ruadh ('The Reddish-brown Harbour'), Caolas, shows the massive 'erratic' known as 'A' Chlach Ul' in Gaelic.  'Ul' is pronounce with a long 'u' ('oooo') and a broad final 'l'.  It is a favourite haunt of lobsters.
 


STONE AGE

 
 
Again that row of stones
Gathered by little hands
From Tiree shorelines
Sits along our wall,
In shapely Palaeolithic beauty.
 
We all gathered
These jewels, lifting them,
Feeling their shapes,
Putting them in our pockets.
 
As we walked the shores,
Some went unconsciously
Into our souls.  They made
Our walk uncomfortable
And different.
 
I rediscover mine regularly,
Examine, explore,
Splinters, pebbles,
The occasional boulder
That somehow levitated
And lodged mysteriously
In my inside pocket,
Near my heart,
Like the huge Clach Ul
At the Port Ruadh,
Remnant of an Ice Age
When Gunna Sound
Was chiselled out?
 
I don’t want to dress them,
Polish them, smooth
Their rugged contours:
 
No, I’d rather return them,
Drop them gratefully
Back along my path,
And let others
Pick them up.
 


(Copyright: Linda Gowans)
 
 
SHORE  LINES


 
Sea rips rocks
spray splashes
foam on flecked sand
 
wave pulls back
sucked seawards
hurled headlong hard
 
washes my feet
dog leaps along
circling on lead
 
we watch wet
reflections linger
footprints lost
 
we walk warily
on smashed shells
at eternity’s edge
 

 
SHEEP-TRACKS
 
 
Pounded hard by hundreds,
Thousands, millions of sharp hooves,
Clipping along edges of banks,
Steep precipices, over sand-dunes,
Through the biting marram, past angry stones,
Beside, under, over, through bitter fences,
Underpasses with flags flying on wire,
Telling of ragged passages, parts left behind,
Celebrating the right to roam,
The authority to go for life
Wherever, to the shore’s fragmented border,
The grey-damp mists and fleece-white clouds,
Vanishing beneath great heights,
Finding affinities everywhere.
 
Two thousand feet above sea level,
They climb, perching precariously,
While automatic humans trundle
Their ritual roads, choked railways squealing,
Motorways thundering to tired destinies,
Ignorant of the unobserved paparazzi of the hills,
Sharp lenses of brown and black
Adjusting exposure,
Intent on closer views in the bracken,
Focusing on blade-fine sustenance,
No downward glances.
 
Today I left the ritual road,
Following yet again a track,
Solidly going through soft sand,
Mighty grasses of forest,
Unbroken in the wind.
 
Intent on discovery, I went down on all fours
To see unknown wonders, and crawled freshly,
Against serious wind, face bitten,
Along the ten-foot drop, reached
Shore’s jagged perimeter,
And discovered sand spattered
By last night’s sheltering parliament
Of fifty nodding, knowledgeable heads,
The shifting positions of two hundred feet.
 
I struggle now on two feet,
Dogs pulling furiously, sniffing salt,
Impatiently wondering at the man
They thought was human
But had become sheep.
 

 
WORD FOR WINDOWS


  
We build our houses with windows,
We answer aesthetical calls;
Nature’s Grand Views attract us,
We have no time for walls.
 
As long as we see the sunset,
And say ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aah’ as it palls,
We get the essence of islands –
We don’t need to bother with walls!
 
We see the maahvellous mountains,
The quaint little cottage with stalls,
Where the natives kept their animals,
But we do not need such walls!
 
We are the new generation,
With speedboats and trailers and balls;
We play around on the beaches,
And build our house without walls!
 
The sand is our finest foundation,
The rocks are the place for the trolls;
We know for a fact that we’re winning –
Our edifice never falls!
 


 
THE SPINNING-WHEEL
 
 
 
I have a happy memory
Of the day the skip arrived;
I’d been praying for a century
Because of my great pride
 
In being such a ‘with-it’ guy,
Who hated all that’s old,
And couldn’t stand those ancient things
That made my heart feel cold.
 
So, when I least expected it,
The darkened skies turned blue;
The yellow skip was sitting there;
The world could now be new.
 
I skipped along and looked around
The rubbish-littered croft;
Everything was ‘for the out’,
And I would not ‘go soft’.
 
So first I took the implements,
The plough, the cart, the scythe,
And dumped them happily in the skip –
My tune was rather blithe.
 
The fencing wire was next in line,
And I rolled it from the fields,
Where it had lain for many years,
As iron never yields.
 
And it went in with twirling spires,
Ascending to the skies;
I filled that skip in a half an hour,
And prayed for larger size.
 
And then I had two skips for fun,
And that was truly fine;
Old tools went whizzing out the door,
And yards of fishing line.
 
Washing machines and fridges too
That waited many years,
Toasters, cookers and old grates,
Iron bars and shears.
 
The rowing boat that went to fish
And sailed across the sound;
Its planks were rotting, so why keep
Such clutter on the ground?
 
And then I found a spinning-wheel,
And said, ‘What earthly use,
Is this for us with our new ways
Of keeping clothes quite spruce?’
 
So in it went, wheel in the air,
And treadle breaking free;
It sat atop that glorious load,
And that was that for me.
 
And now the croft is sparkling clean,
No junk around the doors;
I look across the ‘lawns’, no less,
And think – ‘The end of chores’.
 
But somehow that old wheel returns
And breaks my happy dream.
It speaks of something rather more
Than just a wooden beam.
 
Tradition there, and maybe skills,
To keep a family clad?
And Gaelic too, and happy song,
And life that once was glad?
 
The skips have gone, they’ll not return,
Nor will the junk therein;
But, O, that spinning-wheel of mine –
Please give me one more spin!
 
 
THE SKIP-RAKERS OF THE HEBRIDES




The skip-rakers of the Hebrides
Are a very worthy clan;
They’re woolly-pully wealthies,
But that’s not known to man.
 
They come along to see what’s spare,
What can be had for free;
Because they love to live the life
That’s ‘alternative’ to spree.
 
 ‘Ow, see what that chep’s thown away –
That lovely Tilley lamp;
We’ll put that in the chalet, Nick -
Antique ’s the style and stamp.
 
‘And, goodness me, that lovely pot,
That’s white and deep and round –
We’ll use it for the bright green plant
That can’t be grown on ground.
 
‘And thet owld chey-ah that’s lost its leg,
Don’t let that treasure pass -
Noah’s Ahk had one like that,
And we are just that class!
 
‘And – look! – that ancient spinning-wheel!
Ow, what a maavel hee-a!
That’s how the people lived
Be-fo-a wee appeah-ad!’
 
‘But, Nick, I can’t believe my eyes –
I think I see a bomb!
Phone the police, it may be live –
To pot with our aplomb!
 
‘The natives hee-a ahh awl sow daft,
Do they want to kill us, Nick?
Putting mines in skips, I say,
Well, that should do the trick!’
 
‘Alas, it really can’t be mine’
‘If only…’ – that’s my sigh!
What a pity it wasn’t live
To blow that lot sky-high!
 
 
  

 
 
NO LEFT LUGGAGE
 
There is no Left Luggage in my island,
Nowhere to leave the memories,
The people, the animals, the implements,
The boats, the buildings, the tides,
The views across the Sound,
Ben More for ever leading my eyes,
The storms, the calms, the days
Between two elements, when skies hung
Menacingly over Coll, and we did not know
How tomorrow would be, or whether
The ‘Claymore’ would manage a call.
 
There’s nowhere to leave the voices,
The crofters chatting over the wall,
Or at the meeting of Ferguson tractors
In the middle of the road, blocking traffic;
The days at the sheep-dipping,
When laughter splashed through sodden wool,
Stories floated in the dip-rich air,
Niall Iain went deep-sea again, Iain Mòr
From Torr a’ Bhaile chuckled as he pushed
The sheep’s head below the oily surface,
And Calum Salum arrived with his thick glasses
To retard unnecessary progress.
 
There’s nowhere to leave Neil Jackson’s voice,
Chanting at Crossapol auction mart,
‘A ten-pound bid, a ten-pound bid, who says
A ten-pound bid, at ten a bid, at eleven…
At twelve…at twelve…and it goes to Jim Henry.’
His stick clinches the sales of sheep and cows
To Lowland drovers with green expanses,
Their soft hats, grey raincoats over
Waterproof trousers, and Wellington boots.
We go for tea and sandwiches
In Paterson’s barn, a straw-filled café,
Swept clean for the occasion,
With no cobbled cows;
Home we go with fat cheques
For the lean and hungry winter.
 
There’s nowhere to leave an evening’s fishing,
The sharp tug on the line,
The hard, expectant heave over the gunwale,
The long swathes of orange sunset
On blue-green water as we glide towards the buoyed anchor,
With glittering, flapping catch,
The dog swimming to meet us;
I still go searching for that boat,
The ‘Peace and Plenty’ which eludes me,
Long since turned to dust above the shore,
As I try to translate memories into realities,
Make the experiences pulse again
Through flesh and blood.
 
There’s nowhere to leave the Gaelic services;
Balemartine church with sharp, rigid pews
Is now closed, but still I hear
My father’s rhythmic voice
In sermon and in prayer,
And Niall Ruadh leading the singing
Of trembling, rough-edged psalms,
Nasally pentatonic, vibrating,
Ebbing, flowing,
With a withering congregation;
My mental tapes are indelible.
 


 
Service ended, I open the church door,
And glimpse Ben More again, constant
Above the wave-tossed rocks.
It remains my eternal landmark.
 
There’s just no escape from these cases,
Filled with albums, recordings, mementoes,
Recollections, sayings, comments,
Which weigh me down, the journey
Heavy sometimes.  
 
I think of Johnny Pakistani –
Himself now part of my luggage –
Trundling uphill to Croish on his bicycle,
Grateful for the downhill ride to Caolas,
The wind on his back, feet at right angles,
That vast portmanteau on his handlebars,
His miraculous merchandise for sale,
Displayed on sooty floors.
 
Like him, I rearrange the contents,
Stopping to take fresh bearings
From that distant mountain, praying for strength,
As I step across the machair
Or down the Milton road,
Never knowing which package
I must open next, which tape will play.
 
Exhausted, I pause and think,
And then set off again
With my indispensable baggage,
Which I will never leave behind.
It helps to keep me going
As I head for the horizon.




The legendary shop-keeper, 'Calum Salum', Malolm M. MacLean, in piping attire.



CALUM SALUM’S SHOP

 

The Two Ronnies couldn’t act it, it would be too hard for them –

Calum’s grand emporium was Tiree’s most splendid gem:

In that shack he carried all you’d need from stern to stem:

For your stays or drawers, he’d have thread to make a hem.

 

Calor Gas in cylinders would be lying at the door,

With pipes and tubes and bicycles, and wheels and spares galore:

Blowlamps and tobacco, spanners, hammers and much more –

No hardware merchant on this earth ever owned a better store.

 

There were ladders tied to rafters and rylock on the floor,

Many potential booby-traps, and unsteady folk who swore,

As hay-rakes fell, and planks of wood, most often three or four –

But Calum Salum hadn’t heard of the Health and Safety bore.

 

Liquorice and gobstobbers, and chocolate in fat bars,

Maltesers, Aero, Five Boys, Turkish Delight and Mars,

Marshmallows, Wagon Wheels, and toffees in bright jars –

Calum Salum’s deli made your belly reach the stars!

 

Asprin, Aspro, Askit, just in case your head was sore,

Sedatives and laxatives, he had them by the score:

These mixtures were most powerful, with delirium at their core,

But an even stronger remedy lay in glass towards the shore.

 

Aye, Calum was unflappable, with a pencil at his ear:

He’d take your list and look at it, and say,‘I greatly fear,

I do not have the Scrapex or the Veet or Iron Beer,

But, chust you wait a minute now, I’ll have much better here!

 

‘As I’m the “Cheneral Merchant”, things “cheneral” you’ll see,

But I also have specifics that are specific to Tiree:

I brew my own behind the rocks, the good old barley bree,

But keep it quiet, a charaid, because my licence is QT!’

 

From a needle to an anchor, from the cradle to the bier,

Calum Salum had it, and its lack you’d never fear:

Stock conrol was absent, but his shop was full of cheer –

His stock controlled our Calum, and a solution aye was near.
 

 









ROAD HOME

 

That road I walk today

In sunshine, wind and rain,

While sitting miles away;

My restless heart and brain

 

Seeing familiar tracks

With a central path of grass,

Where horses and their carts

Would regularly pass.

 

Trudging to that school,

In a morning of dark cloud,

Grit invading shoes;

I dread the daily round

 

Of drill and shouting,

Belt poised to warm small hands;

No talking! Stop the noise,

And listen to commands!

 

But then the slow cloud clears,

Time’s passage frees the skies:

I walk homewards, bright

Among flowers, and grass, and cries

 

Of birds on moors, and lark

Soaring high in song;

The Caolas march I see;

The last stretch will not be long.

 

Gunna’s roughness is unmoved,

It still defines the Sound,

Hard shapes of Coll and Mull,

Eternal, changeless ground.

 

Gently down from Crois,

The slope conveys me fast;

I climb the old back wall,

Another school day past.

 

But now the years have run,

As that last stretch I walk;

The school has long since closed,

And dead friends cannot talk.

 
   
 
CREAG A’ MHANAICH 1964-2014

 
A smirr of rain on Creag a’ Mhanaich,

A gentle smell of wet, rank grass,

As up the slope I stride with strength,

The latest set of boots to pass

 

This ancient way to check each march,

Each fence, each gate, each rocky mass,

For sheep and lambs that may have strayed

Beyond the confines of their class:

 

Life stretches on, as through the mist,

I walk alone, concealed at last:

Dreaming in my own small world,

The future calls me, not the past:

 

I walk once more that self-same slope,

Full fifty years of time amassed:

What I would give to stride with strength –

And lose that man whose form has passed!

 

 

TIREE ROADS

 

I could weep for the Tiree roads –

(Copyright: Stephen Hughes)
They will not be the same again:

When the upgrade is finished,

I’ll miss the way they were ‘then’:

 

When my springs gave up at Ruaig,

And I lost my exhaust at Vaul,

And the door fell off at Mannal –

I most dearly loved it all.

 

The great oceans will have subsided,

And no fun will I have at Gott,

When the waves went hurtling skywards

And it was ‘Periscope up’ for the lot.

 

I loved to play ‘submarine’:

‘I’m the “Astute”,’ I would say,

And I’d turn my car in a circle,

And head straight out of the bay.

 

Thank goodness for dear Captain Martin,

Who taught me to hold my course,

Or I’d never have found the Co-op –

I’d have been on the rocks, or worse.

 

But the fun of it all was delightful,

The potholes an absolute joy:

I knew each bump and each hollow:

Autopilot I’d often employ.

 

Now I’ll not know where I am going:

Sensations will be utterly strange:

My stern was trained to interpret

Each thump and each bang within range.

 

It’s really the fault of the Council,

Interfering with us once more:

If they’d just leave us to manage,

I’d not be feeling so sore!

 

It’s dreadful to see all the gravel

Piled up down at the pier,

Spoiling the views and the vistas,

And taking away our good cheer.

 

You see, I just hate the present:

To the future I cannot relate:

I love the past, though I hated

The roads that were so out of date.

 
 

But, och, as you look in the mirror,

And see the road that’s behind,

It’s always the best way to travel,

And a girn is just great for the mind.


 

HAUNTED

 

I jumped with happy, joyful terror

The other evening in ‘Coll View’;

The garret, above those bare, white joists,

Burnt by the Tilley’s friendly light,

Was alive with familiar trembling,

Creakings, groanings,

Bangs and wallops, flat things falling,

Face down, knocking others off their pedestal,

As if my father, preparing his Sunday sermons

In his favourite sanctuary, seriously writing,

Had dispatched a heavy tome, which had in turn

Collided with the old Singer sewing-machine,

Sending its reels and spindles

Bouncing off the pedals, flying along

The cold, shining, yellow-brown linoleum.

Theology had some very strange

Outworkings, miraculous effects,

Hard-hitting at times.

 

Was this a visitation, a revenant?

Could I perhaps glimpse the ectoplasm

Of that devoted man again, hear the voice,

See the sparkle of blue eyes.

The noise, in truth the music, was

So familiar that I lost fifty years

Of distance between now and then.

 

I crept out to the garret stairs,

Straight, steep, made for storms,

Rescued happily in the nick of time

From a wrecked ship, and put to use,

To convey the purposeful feet of

Human generations.

My eyes drilled the darkness,

Searchlights in the gloom.

 

She came down gently,

Tail in the air, a happy purr

Of recognition.

 

THE OLD BAROMETER

 

I miss the old barometer

That hung within our hall;

It was fixed so firmly –

That ‘glass’ would seldom ‘fall’!

 


Pressure rarely bothered it,

Or came within its range;

Its needle rested quietly,

And pointed us to ‘CHANGE’.

 

A hurricane of greatest strength

Like Betsy and her kind

Might move it down to STORMY,

But CHANGE it soon would find.

 

An anticyclone had to top

All those that yet had come,

Before the needle rose a touch,

To FAIR – that was the sum

 

Of the best weather it could tell,

Because it had a mind

To know that CHANGE would happen –

To truth it was not blind.

 

The many hands that touched the glass,

And tapped it in their day,

Have long since left this pressure zone,

And CHANGE has come to stay.

 

And CHANGE has come upon the wall

Where it so long held sway;

We threw it out, because we said,

‘We need to CHANGE our way;

 

‘We need precision, not a guess,

We need to know the bar,

The pressure means a lot to us –

It makes us who we are.

 

‘We take delight in all the stress

That makes our wheels go round:

The ups and downs are what we want,

From highest ‘high’ to ground.

 

‘We cannot live with CHANGE for all,

We want the STORMS and FAIR;

We much prefer extremes of life,

Real CHANGE must fill the air.’ 

 

That calm old glass is in the dump,

And I sure lament its loss;

It truly knew the ups and downs,

But CHANGE was aye its boss.

 




 

STORM NOTES

14 December 2013

 

The old house becomes orchestral,

A cacophony of blustering music.

 

Walls with peaked gables provide

Woodwind instruments of all kinds,

Wooden doors on their last stands

Bend inwards on their hinges,

Whistling strange, novel tunes,

Windows groan and grind,

Foundations reel in pain

As external objects collide callously,

With punishing percussion,

The cat-flap clicks and clanks,

No harmony here at ground level,

Stiff resistance, hit or miss.

 

But skywards we have

Purposeful, powerful playing

With dynamic deflections

Of moving air, pressure held

Momentarily, venting upwards,

Gutters are chanters

As the bag of wind blasts

Through pipes,

Chimney-heads and pots

Are drones,

Slates play drums.

 

The well-nailed ridge

Conducts cleverly,

Knows the score,

Has read it many times,

Holds the musicians together,

Proud Pipe Major.

 

The top storey dances,

Merry in the storm.





THE OLD WELL



 
How often as a boy I primed the pump

With bucketfuls of water till it foamed

With refreshing surges from the rock below,

Essential for the lives of all we owned.

That clattering handle, high above my head,

Heaved down by little hands with trembling grasp,

And up again, to catch the freshest draught,

Still pumps within my mind, though years ago

We closed the ancestral well, with concrete slabs.

 

Its eighteen feet of depth defied the driest drought,

Its stonework holding strong throughout the years,

Becoming narrower or so it seemed, as I looked down

And saw my own reflection in its refreshing stream.

Part of me was nurtured deep within that soil,

Made and moulded by the mineral wealth

Of ancient seams integral to the earth.

 

But then water from the loch arrived,

And, tapping into the island’s common source,

We closed our well – something ‘better’ came.

Yet, behind the Pump House, it now bides its time,

Ready to serve, when, weary of the standard flow,

We open it again, and find once more

The refreshment needed by our jaded soul.

 





NEW FIRE

 

Fifty years is a long time

To be without a fire

Where it ought to have been,

Burning, lighting, warming,

Drying, airing, soothing,

Comforting, giving the room

Gentle currents of cleansing,

Lifting spirits,

Sparking life.

 

The old hearth was dead,

Killed with hardboard façade,

And no longer did figures appear

In the embers, no longer did stories

Lick their way round the flames,

Kissing their lively shadows

On the cheeks of children.

 

Fashion’s flat-lining, bland,

Deadly concealer of reality

Hid that theatre from view,

And dampness reigned

In curtains and furniture,

On walls and floors,

Overcoming electric optimism,

Hopelessly switch-controlled.

 

But now smoke rises again

From that well-nested chimney

Clean-swept in readiness,

And the ceilidh returns:

Walls sing quietly,

Tables tell stories,

Hands stretch out,

Cats curl cautiously,

Marvelling that winter

No longer rules with

Icicles on its claws.

 



 


MOVING BOOKS

 
Shelf after shelf, pile upon pile,

I move them, box upon box,

Upstairs from collapsing floors,

To a solid landing, where they preside

Over each step, each person’s

Ascending rites of passage,

Observed by each author;

Un-uttered word full of power

Writes of my passage,

Interacts silently.

 

How many times have I climbed that stair?

The boy is printed on its steps,

Reaching to the old brown case

Where new worlds were stored in leather skins.

 

The skylight brought the day to bear

On pages that were turned with care;

As figures sprang, and sang and walked,

‘Mr Tumpy’s Caravan’ lurched along;

The ‘Secret Seven’ solved the plight

Of others, turning all things bright,

And ‘The Lost Planet’ was found again

By MacVicar’s space-age pen.

 

Layer after layer has come

Since then,

English, Scots,

Gaelic, Irish, Manx,

Welsh, Cornish, Breton,

Histories, Explorations, Biographies;

I’m lost again in ‘Hen Dy Ffarm’,

And in Kate Roberts, sparing woman

Of slate-grey short stories

Of cold, hard Blaenau:

I go round Wales, touring my books,

Dictionary in hand,

Speaking again to that genius,

T. H. Parry Williams –

Diolch i chi, Athro heb eich ail;

Stopping off in Ireland too,

‘Maire’s’ stories worth another look,

Agus scealtai o na Blascaoidi;

I burrow through tunnels,

Reaching Man,

Ellan Vannin mo chree,

Feeling again that thrill

Of worlds and words beyond

Tiree.

 

And so the books go back

To where it all began,

On that landing, between sky

And walls and machair,

Between sea and land,

And they are still talking

In head-turning silence,

Pulling me, taking me aside:

Ealasaid Chaimbeul a’ bruidhinn

Mu a beatha, sgriobhadh eireachdail,

A leugh mi mile uair;

George Bruce is calling

From Kinnaird Head,

Norman McCaig is singing

Of a musical moment in Assynt,

And George MacKay Brown

Is there setting his jaw firm

Against the storms of Hamnavoe –

And I’ve just seen John Clare

Passing by, extolling Cowper,

While the Ancient Mariner

Shoots the albatross…

Meantime Iain Crichton Smith

Observes deer on high hills,

And presents ‘A Last Summer’

In yellow wrappers.

 

Moving books?

Ah yes, but I am the one

Being moved,

My entire being

Rediscovering

Wonder.

This delightful labour

Will never end until

The boy is no more

Moved by books.

 


 

WORDSPATE


 

Unrestricted unrestrained

You tumble down

From hill crag peak

Knowing no direction

Except headlong hurling

Hammering of rock and earth

Striking boulders

Whacking stones

Hitting tree-trunks

Dead and alive

Underflowing heather

Wrenching out roots

Clearing old clay

Bringing new

Until ledgeless you

Thunder white-maned

Foam-furied debris-flecked

Cutting clean sharp fissure

Worn by aeons of energy

With relentless swirls

Of globules glubbing globbing

Glowing going

Spuming sparkling

Valleywards.

 

You now despise the lade:

You will not be checked

By channelled concrete’s

Potential harnessing

Of your inborn power.

No, you are not serving

The heedrum hodrum hydro

Any more:

No damnable dam

Will stop your

Razor-

Edged

Fury.

 

Beyond creative hills

Polluting yellow-toned dull

Glow of mind-filled cities

Measures wattage

Mega-monsters

Vying to destroy

Darkness but you

Have not energised

Their wastage.

 

You gurgle onwards gathered

In the broad-bottomed valley

Destined for

Deep ocean

Trenches trans-

Formational

Where you will

Ceaselessly

Re-be your

Self’s infinity.

 

 




HYNISH

 
Here in the afternoon,

Dull with cloud and close rain,

The world becomes radiant;

The hill wears a crown of silver,

Road ribboned in celestial wonder;

A wave breaks as I walk upwards

Through the heavy turf.

 

The sharp, grey granite speaks

Of genius, of craftsmen’s hands

Holding chisels and refining millimetres

To achieve perfection, twice building,

First on land, and then on treacherous rock

That eternal tower,

Pin-point

Sharp

Against

Halo-blaze

Of orange

Sunset.

 

This is another world, another time

When building was sacrificial,

When lives were laid down in granite

As foundations for others’ futures,

When Alan Stevenson lay in the barrack

Thirteen miles from health and safety,

Rejoiced in danger and defiance,

Thrown around by thunderous power,

Held his Bible hard to his eyes,

And prayed that God would grant him

The salvation of sailors.

 

The ‘Pharos’, ancient light enshrined

In modern miracles of technology,

Sends off her red bird, seeking a place

To perch on that torrent, descending

Safely on Skerryvore,

And back she comes, dove-like

With a message.

 

The lights of workers’ houses

Flash through the gathering dusk,

The tower stands sentinel,

Stark chimneys pierce the sky,

Reflecting the shafts

Of sunset’s greater beacon.

Sea laps round

The shining pier.

 

This place is radiant.

This place is sacred.


 

 




RED FALCON

In memory of the Fleetwood trawler 'Red Falcon',
wrecked off Skerryvore on 15 December 1959.

Your sinking has not sunk

From my childhood memory:

I see you still, battling storms,

West of the huge wave-sweeps

Of Skerryvore, as the flashes

Tell you to keep clear of danger,

But you cannot do so, unable

To turn or steer or stop,

The brutal south-westerly

Whipping you on to a lee shore,

Pounding you, smashing you,

Tearing you apart on boiling reefs,

Hurling your crew into the sea,

Showing no mercy.

 
Model of the 'Red Falcon'

The great lighthouse warned you well,

But a warning cannot stop

Nature’s force, no power surpasses

The hidden unknown energies

Of unfathomable oceans.

What’s a ship to them?

 

Fleetwood in sadness,

Fragments of its Christmas

Coming ashore unknown

On Tiree sands.

Children weeping

With empty hearts.

 

Santa’s gift trembled

In my hands that night,

The red wrappers somehow

Bringing the ‘Red Falcon’

To my mind, fixing it eternally –

A bird that did not find

Its family nest,

A boat that did not find

Its safe haven.

It gives me still

No peace.



Skerryvore Lighthouse (Copyright: Angus and Pat MacDonald)

 

DYKING

 
He rebuilt the dyke, that dyker,

An expert, a man who knew his job,

Understood stones, they said,

And would repair the hole.

He came.  Aye, he came – and went.

Well, no sooner had he gone

Than we heard a mighty rumble,

And then we saw an ugly tumble,

And that dyker man was humble

In our eyes.

 

You don’t rebuild dykes with

Round stones, round on round, round and round,

Piled up with no plan.  There’s a strategy.

You go right back to the very bottom, start again,

Get out the crowbar, drive it into the ground,

Dig out the disaster, heave, shove, hard work,

Sort out all shapes and sizes,

Admire them for what they are,

These rough and ready spewings of geology,

And see the pattern of irregularities

That holds the whole thing stable.

 

You don’t use three-letter words and three-letter words

Or four-letter words and four-letters words

Or six-letter words and six-letter words

To write a poem, dull, cull, mull,

With rumble, tumble, humble,

Unless you are writing a daft limerick,

A wee transient heap of hah-hah.

 

To do the real job, the thing that lasts,

You look at the lexicon in your head,

Marvel at the unsuitability of every logos,

Feel its emotions, its contradictions, its rough side,

Its smooth side, its inclination, its declivities, its deflections,

Throw them all around until they fall into patterns,

And if they don’t fit, and won’t fit,

You make them fit, fit for the purpose

Of holding fast, and you can’t make them fit

Unless they don’t look as if they’ll fit.

Strange, isn’t it?  Possible is tucked inside impossible.

 

That’s the secret of strength, though,

The irregularities are the secret,

The sharp edges we wouldn’t bother with at all

In our smoothed-out, throw-away world

Of dreich and dreary look-alikes,

Our politically correct, Teflon world,

Where nothing lasts more than ten seconds.

 

The wee sharp stones are the big, big secret,

As my great-uncle told me sixty years ago,

When I myself was a wee nipper.

These wee nippers of rock have

Nasty sharp edges, getting in under the skins

Of ancient, solid, acceptable centuries,

Holding the round days, balancing the flat weeks,

Getting the dyke into line, plumb-on,

Making tight what is slack,

Making life hold,

Making it work.

 

Aye, that dyker wasn’t up to the job,

Was he, but yet he’ll be back to do it

All over again.   A professional, sure.

And we’ll hear a mighty rumble,

And we’ll see an ugly tumble,

And the dyker will be humble

In our eyes.



 

 



LITTLE HOUSE IN GUNNA

 

Little house in Gunna, who put you there?

‘Someone retreating from the world and its care.’

 

Little house in Gunna, have you really no care?

‘No, I need to be painted because I do wear.’

 

Little house in Gunna, what do you wear?

‘Weather-proof coatings – I cannot go bare.’

 

Little house in Gunna, is the Sound hard to bear?

‘Waves’ noise is horrendous, and gives me a scare.’

 

Little house in Gunna, can’t you deal with the scare?

‘No, because in winter my owner’s not there.’

 

Little house in Gunna, why’s he not there?

‘Because for these storms he really can’t care.’






ENCOUNTERS

  

Walking is intuitive here,

Old ley-lines guiding the feet

In magnetic paths, earth’s energies

Amplified by centuries

Of knowledgeable contact.

They lead to the locations

Of houses deeply rooted in me,

But now rebuilt new-style

For people with no familiarity,

Sitting on the edge of sand-blow.

 

They watch me through huge doors

Of glass, worried that a native

Has come with his dogs,

Unkempt, wind blowing his jacket

Across their designer minds.

Anxiety needs no words.

What is he doing here?

We each sense Other.

 

I divert shorewards

Remembering the ferrymen

Who fought this liminality,

Pulling on huge oars, eloquent

Storytellers of Gunna Sound,

Blustery today, waves looking

Hostile, but manageable,

Easily navigated if needed

With the dipping lug.

 

I glimpse above sharp marram

A yellow surfboard on a car roof,

Totem of a new devotion,

Colourful kites hauling

Their owners religiously

To their extreme heaven.

Their god does the divine

Wave classic on the clouds.

 

On track homewards,

Atavistic meditation

Turns me into another being:

Ley-lines (you don’t believe in them?)

Go international instantly:

 

I am the ghost of Cuavatemoc

Risen out of the Aztec soil

To disturb the dreams of Cortes,

Silent behind glass

Upon a sand-dune in Tiree.


  

 

FIELDS


 
How dead they lie beneath their winter shades

Of withered grass, broken rushes, blasted blades,

Where once I ploughed, and sowed, and rolled,

And saw the dust rise, clouding evening airs!

Harvests were there, with sheaves and stooks,

Ears of barley, weighted down with grain.

 

Waterlogged, with flooded drains, they’re bog,

While geese, the favoured tenants of our age,

In massive flocks now graze them bare –

Environmentally correct, but humanely wrong;

Lands lie waste, where birds and animals reign.

This is a swamp, a nightmare preview of a day,

When none shall live here, but the wealthy few,

And nature rules supreme with deadly gaze.

 

But look – up there, upon the sunward brae,

The grass is green, and offers fertile hope!

That was where the township had its roots

In run-rig time, before new crofting came

To stem the tide and stop the endless drain.

 

How strange to see it now, a radiant field,

While dying acres lack the folk to care!


 





GEESE



What birds are these that thickly flock upon my fields,

As if they had some right to claim the grass,

And crop it back until the earth protrudes?

What gives them power to find their way across

From Svalbard’s barren shores and restless seas

To vex the tranquil pastures of my mind?

I hear their calls, as they come clouding down,

Leave their arrow-long formation and alight,

With browns and greys and stabs of white,

Creating rugged ridges roving over soil.

For years, they did not come, nor did I hear

Their squawks or wingbeats on the morning air.

Now on the green, broad machair they spread out

In waddling, weighty lumps that catch my eye.

 

They are impostors, they should not be here,

So let me blast them upwards, feather-bomb the sky,

Fragment them to the heavens whence they’ve come,

As on the fields of Normandy the enemy flew apart

As tunnelled munitions exploded hand and foot and heart.

 

How strange!   How violent these creatures make my yen!

Yet now I drop my gun – and net them with my pen!

 



 
 






OBANTOWN MORNING

 

The Seekers sing again;

Oban comes to mind;

Mary ‘Myrtle Bank’,

Queen of all things kind:

 

At breakfast that song plays,

And Judith sets the day:

Down Ardconnel Road,

I walk towards the bay.

 

Rockin’, rollin’, ridin’

‘Columba’ in from Mull:

Carrying hopes and fears,

Cars within her hull.

 

‘King George’ raises steam,

Sleek beauty of her day,

Prepares to carry seekers

Many miles away.

 

Somewhere they will find

Sunshine for their soul:

Iona, isle of saints,

Is their spirits’ goal.

 

‘Claymore’ lurches round,

Avoiding Corran Ledge,

Tiree within her plates,

Vibes in every edge:

 

Rockin’, rollin, ridin’

Round the isles they go:

Somewhere harbour beckons

Seekers we all know.

 

 

TRINITY OF TONGUES

 

When I opened my larynx

I found three tongues

All made to measure

The worlds in which I lived,

Each finding new words

To define my places

In life’s linguistic universe.

 

Gaelic came first,

A strong, incessant tongue

That knew the rocks and hills,

The cows, the sheep,

The dogs.

Flora down the road

With her cups of strong tea

And her fauna on the machair,

Far islands clad in mistery.

I spoke to past generations,

Travellers of the world,

Tellers of old stories,

Builders of new boats,

And then I found a family

Much larger than Tiree,

Irish, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Breton,

Keys to other cultures.

 

English came second,

Language of ‘making your way’,

Meeting me ominously in school,

Then appearing in every book,

Jumping at me,

Forcing itself into my soul,

The teacher-cuckoo in the nest,

Shoving out the other chicks,

Building life’s structures

Regardless,

The school an island of English

In an ocean of Gaelic.

English took me out –

But Gaelic took me in,

Kept me anchored,

Held me fast in raging,

Wrangling, wretching,

Wronging, ripping

Tides of hostility.

 

And out the door I went

To Glaschu, Glasgow, Gleska,

Where yon third lingo

Lived upon the street,

Spoken by the bunnets on the corners,

The wee folk wi bendy legs

And hearts so big

And minds so strong

That they built an Empire

Of ships and cranes and cars

And lorries and trains,

Put steam around the world,

Sewed railway tracks into fabric

As tough as granite,

With that deathless glint

Of Gleska humour.

 

‘Where’s ye from, wee man,

Wi yer Gaelic twang?

Frae Tobbirmorey or Tiree?

See Davie there,

He’s Hielan tae,

A teuchter like,

But he’s some man, Big Davie,

An his behher hawf

Is Aggie, aye she’s posh,

Speaks Ednburra,

An her accent wud cut gless,

But, aww, they’re awfy nice

All ma friens, all o them.’

 

Gaelic, English and Gleska

Are all friends of mine,

Mo chàirdean gràdhach,

Teangannan mo ghaoil.

 

7.7.2013

 
 


 




FERGUSON TE-20

 

The mind that devised that tractor,

Clean, clear, purposeful,

Seeing essentials,

Eschewing superfluities,

Getting down to earth

With a plough lightly attached

For enlivening heavy soil,

Exposing the dark side to light,

Deepening land’s fertility,

Reducing danger in encounters

With harsh geology,

Overcoming obstacles,

Bringing order on four wheels

With hydraulic pipes,

Lever-controlled,

Complexity made perfect

In simplicity.  A singularity

Of practical multiplicities.

 

No time here for nonsense,

No time here for self-indulgence,

No time here for waste,

No time here for pomposity.

Just plain Harry, without

A redundant knighthood. 

 

What use is a title

When a tractor needs true power,

Delivered by cylinders linked

To crankshaft and transmission,

Empowering transformation

Through three-point linkage?

 

The important people

Live at ground level.

‘Ferguson’ does the job,

Reigns supreme.

 

Genius on two feet, tall, slim,

Impatient Irishman,

Small head with massive brain,

Produced a miracle,

Diamond of engineering.

 

The mind that created the TE-20:

Oh, give me a piece

Of such a mind!

 


 

TE-HE-HE-20

 

I do not want a Jaguar,

An Audi or a Porsche,

A Lamborghini or a Bentley,

Or even a Rolls Royce.

 

I’ve no interest in status

Or travelling in style;

Bottom of range will do me

For covering a mile.

 

But a Fergie TE-20

Inspires my deepest joy;

For ploughing fields and pulling,

That surely is the boy!

 

The dungheap loves its loader

When lifting grim manure,

And it will haul the seaweed

With claws that are most sure.

 

And if you need a taxi

To reach the Co in time,

You can trust the grand wee Fergie –

Its comfort is sublime.

 

The luxurious hydraulic

Will hold your heavy tail,

And make your coccyx tremble –

The linkage will not fail.

 

As you cross the rocky moorland,

Your vertebrae will sing

A hymn of praise to Harry

For his super three-point sting!

 

So to pot with BM Dubya

And all these fancy things:

Just get a TE-20,

And you’ll really spread your wings!

 

 



HOMECOMING

 

Just to get home to the little grey Fergie,

Just to get back to the spanners and rags:

Just to climb up to the choke and the throttle –

In dirty old tee-shirt and oily blue bags.

 

Just to enjoy the sound of the engine,

‘Miss’ in a cylinder needing some care:

Just to show love by lifting the bonnet,

Unscrewing a sparkplug and finding a spare.

 

Then when it’s purring to utter perfection,

Let up the clutch and engage the first gear:

I’m off on a joyride round the old dirt-track,

With cow-dung and mud right up to my ear.

 

Oh, those emotions that well in my spirit,

As fumes from the petrol freshen the air!

Oh, to go grandly around the old holding –

With little grey Fergie taking me there!

 

The cows and the sheep will look up and marvel,

Combustion like thunder spoiling their cud:

They’ll say with delight, ‘There’s the fine fellow,

With a love of Tiree deep-dyed in his blood!’

 

 

OLD ALBION BINDER

 

You were conceived in the era of the horse,

When a team hauled you heavily through corn,

But now, towed by grey Ferguson tractor,

You are empowered by a single tram:

 

Your broad platform and cutter bar

Slicing the standing grain, canvases

Rattling round and over runners,

Occasionally seeking adjustment,

Sending thousands of ear-heavy oat-stalks

Upwards on double elevator canvases

To be compacted into shapely sheaf,

By the impatient packer, ready

To land beside those muscular spikes,

While knotter twines a band

Round young yellow-green trunk:

 

Next sheaf comes, whacked downwards,

Applying pressure to release bar,

While these harsh mechanical arms

Give birth to ageless gentle Ceres,

Slim-waisted golden maiden,

Augmenting glorious display,

Stretching to field’s perimeter.

 

Fresh-born in death, Ceres stands,

Arrayed in primordial propriety,

Momentarily transfixed proudly,

As her deadly life-giver passes,

Huge central wheel powering all,

Drive-chains dripping oil on pulleys,

Clacking, crunching, whirring,

Revolving rake above the platform

Knocking the arrogant young corn

Backwards into razor-toothed blade,

Human grip adjusting height and depth

From that seat of power above

Noise-filled mechanism.

 

As you clatter inharmoniously onwards,

Slicing all bounteous fecundity,

She falls slowly facewards, sighing,

Resting weary travails on sharp stubble,

Until, raised by heaving hands,

She joins her entourage again

In stooks, row upon row,

Curving into the sunset

And the golden stackyard.




This photograph, taken in 1976, shows the last lot of haystacks built in traditional style on the 'Coll View' croft.



 

STACK-MAKING

 

Up here the world is wobbly,

Unsure, uncertain, will pitch you off,

Tramping down resistant hay,
 
Filled with freshness, springing back,

Ready to send headlong

The oppressor of nature’s resilience,

While two-pronged fork relentlessly

Throws up load after load.

 

Round and round I go,

Dizzy with determination,

Loosing balance,

Stumbling on,

Lurching

 

Until I grip the ladder,

Reassuring wood firm,

Swing my leg round,

Stomach butterflying,

World still reeling,

And I stabilise

To descend.

 

The green sky

Looks very steep.

 




PLOUGHING

 
That afternoon my father said,

‘I’ll drive the tractor,

You’ll guide the plough.’

 

Ancient potatoes demanded

(Who would doubt it?)

The old-style single-furrow,

Devoid now of four-footed traction,

But chained to the Ferguson:

They’d refuse to grow

In hydraulic scrawl:

Traditional treatment,

Hands-on, or nothing.

 

Draw-chain tightening,

I gripped long iron handles,

Sinking share, levelling angle,

Anticipating sharp-edged furrow,

Turf turned immaculately,

End-to-end straightness,

Perfect depth.

 

But that old iron warrior

Of jealous rusting vintage

Refused to obey orders,

Would not lift its nose,

Or straighten the bottom plate:

It pulled over, upwards,

Then on its side, carrying me

Transversely, my arms straining,

My legs lurching, my feet knotting,

Zig-zagging, until finally

At the uneven furrow’s end,

It swiped my ribs contemptuously

With those hard handles,

And flopped ironically

On the ground.

 

Seagulls cried overhead,

Whirled mockingly,

Squawking laughter.

The Ferguson trundled

Along regardless

For the next furrow,

While I mourned

The sure-footed

Friendly horse.

 


SAWING WOOD

 

‘Such a mindless task!’

That’s what I thought too,

Until in that old workshop

I plied the Bushman saw

Across the crumbling lengths

That I had stored for firewood.

 

Somehow they came to life,

A spark emerged with every cut,

An internal fire was kindled,

Deep within my being.

The rotting wood lived again,

As through experiences I travelled,

And while travelling looked around

That universe of creativity:

 

The anvils and the hammers,

The bolts, the clamps, the drills:

The planes, the dyes, the spanners,

The tools that nothing kills:

 

‘We are still here,’ they shouted,

‘And now we want your mind:

Your father used us proudly,

And you are of his kind.

‘For too long we’ve been idle,

But we’ve bided well our time:

You come here and use us,

And knock sparks from ancient rime.’

 

Poetic they were indeed, versifying

Effortlessly from their perches,

The traces of rust, the cobwebs,

Lending colour to their iron words,

Eloquent, visionary facilitators

Of thought and action.

 

As I sawed on, looking, listening,

I noticed the boat of the future

Sitting quietly between me and the door,

Her planks shaped elegantly,

Steamed to perfection,

Held by those brass rivets on the bench,

Her gentle sheer rising proudly,

Her beam swelling on a strong shoulder,

Her bow slicing Gunna Sound,

Her sail filled on a morning breeze.

 

Fresh shavings covered my feet,

And not the sawdust from old wood:

Even the sea licked my boots,

And salt sharpened my lips.

 

Sawing wood – ‘a mindless activity’?

Only if you haven’t got

A mind.

 
 



SCHOLAR’S CROFT

 
 

On this patch of ground we toil

Across the centuries of arid days,

Clearing rocks and stones and sticks,

Applying ploughshares to unyielding clays:

Sowing the seed, removing tangling weeds,

Frightening off the birds, the alien crows,

Maintaining fences, keeping out the foe,

Ensuring that the moisture softly seeps,

And that, in time, essential crops will grow.

 

At harvest, as the binder throws out sheaves,

And stooks appear across the stubbled fields,

As corn-stacks rise in rows within the yards,

And blistered hands secure the summer’s yields,

They come, the inspectors of our ways:

 

They watch us idly from their roadside rest,

And pull out pen and paper as they gaze:

‘Let’s study them,’ they say with lofty joy,

‘That subaltern crew in our postcolonial ploy.’
 


 

 


THE MOUNTAINS OF TIREE

 

For these are my mountains, Ben Hynish and Hough,

Ceann a’ Bhar’ and Dun Mòr, Beinn Ghot at the shore:

No land gave me credence, or wanted me there,

Though I always considered Tiree’s mountains are rare.

 

For cash and for labour, I wandered the earth,

But now I am poor in the land of my birth:

I’ve brought back no treasures, left nothing behind,

And Tiree’s great mountains seem wondrously kind.

 

Tilley whoops loudly at my going by,

And I hope for a windfall in the sweet by-and-by;

The Otter flies over, and hears not my cry,

But for Tiree’s great mountains, I gladly would die.

 

There’s no one to greet me at Lean To or inn,

Unless I splash coppers to give them some gin;

They say I can travel the whole world again

To extol Tiree’s mountains, each butt and each ben.

 

For these are my mountains, Ben Hynish and Hough,

Ceann a’ Bhar’ and Dun Mòr, Beinn Ghot at the shore:

No land gave me credence, or wanted me there,

Because, for these molehills, no one could care!

 

 

 

 

TILLEY THE TIREE TURBINE

 

Tilley the Tiree turbine

Has a very shapely pose:

Towering over the moorland –

Her beauty grows and grows:

There on the barren landscape

She’s the very whitest rose,

Lifting her arms and waving,

To everyone who goes:

 

‘All you who tilt at windmills,

I’d like you now to know

That some of us can generate

A fine electric flow:

At times we’re not productive,

Because the breeze is low,

And we like a little rest-time,

Because we go and go…

 

     Oh Tilley the Tiree turbine…

 

‘We also add some colour

To the heather at your door;

The lochs, the rocks and bogland,

Can have a better show:

When blue skies are above us,

We will not be slow;

When the clouds are floating,

They say, “Oh, Tilley, go…”

 

     ‘Oh, Tilley the Tiree turbine…

 


‘At night we love the moonshine,

And our red lights will glow;

Then we’re like a spaceship,

Wanting to land below:

You can hear us whooping –

That’s our best “Hello!”

We’re here to make you happy –

To say you’re not alone!’

 

        Oh, Tilley the Tiree turbine….

 

 
 

  

AULD LANG TWINE

 

Should auld connections be forgot’

And never brought tae mind?

We’ll spin a ball o’ cordage yet

For love of binder twine!

 

For love of binder twine, my friends,

For love of binder twine,

It held our world together, folks,

Did dear old binder twine!

 

When Fergie’s linch-pins fell away,

And them we could not find,

We’d tie the drawbar to the stays

With lengths of binder twine!

 

When gutters broke around the house,

And gushing streams would shine,

My father, he would always say,

‘Let’s get the binder twine!’

 

When braces snapped because of strain,

And dungarees declined,

We’d haul ’em high and keep ’em there

With good auld binder twine!

 

When gates had broken from the hinge,

And in came sheep and kine,

We’d put them back to swinging form

With lengths of binder twine!

 

When storms were raging out at sea,

And making walls of brine,

Our boats were anchored safe at port

With springs of binder twine!

 

For auld lang twine, my dears,

For auld lang twine,

We’ll tie the knot o’ kindness yet

With lengths of binder twine!

 




 

IT’S NAE ME…

 

I tried to find a label

To match my funny ways:

Just one that would define me,

And I’d be what it says.

 

I started off with ‘poet’

But to that I was averse,

Because I write such rubbish,

And I just don’t keep it terse.

 

And then I thought of ‘writer’,

But O, the junk I’ve read!

So I’ll not use that label

Until the day I’m dead.

 

I then considered ‘author’,

But, no, that didn’t suit,

Because I don’t like pounding

The keys till day is oot.

 

I go to build a model,

But a builder I am not:

The urge arrives and vanishes,

And I’m stuck without a thought.

 

Then the model languishes,

And it’s almost in the bin.

I lift it and I lay it,

Until the tide comes in.

 

I also do some broadcasting,

And I’m told I’m ‘on the air’;

People say, ‘I saw you’,

But I reply with ‘Where?’

 


I once tried to be a ‘scholar’,

But the mantle didn’t fit:

Sometimes I felt clever,

But more often just a twit,

 

Poring over matters

That I didn’t understand;

Others thought I’d answer

All the questions in the land.

 

I simply cannot fathom

The depths within my soul:

I’m me, I think, but sadly

That’s not a single whole.

 

Nothing is consistent –

I’m whiles each one of these:

I’m just a walking bùrach –

My ‘I’ ’s a million ‘me’s’!

 



 

AIRPORTS

 

(1)

My intermediate state is an airport,

checked-in brain in overdrive,

defining dangerous chemicals,

afraid that my socks may contain

reactive fumes, dreading the

moment without shoes,

barefoot and vulnerable

before snatchers that whisk

my terrorised body parts through detectors

with all my treasure in trays, my posh bits

losing dignity.

This place of screens

screams transience –

I think of Munch –

no one stays here, they hate

staying, want to go-go-go.

No- no-no…but I go.

Can’t stop myself.

 

Beyond security

for ‘Passengers Only’,

I join the elite

consumers of airmiles,

wasters of energy,

fuel, food, earth’s resources

in Vanity Fair –

real life is living

beyond the nightmare.

 

This is life, a contradiction

with diction that is contra

to nature, where the way out

is existential glass, brittle with lights

perfumed with powdered

dolls selling aftershave

to camera lenses, bottles wanting

to bust dry desire, magazined explosively

alongside WH Smith, dry as dust,

fat with airport reading:

I have no time to read;

I’m on my way.

 

Let me out, out, out!

I’m not a celebrity!

Get me out of here!

I’m a hostage to signs,

terror in long corridors

Gates 1-34, through

checkpoints with passport,

praying I won’t miss

the turning to the flight

I honestly don’t need

but I really must have

to destination

to detest a notion

contra

to real me.

 

The crystal palace ends,

but now I am in bleak

cheap portacabin passages,

long, long, long, long

corridors, walking, walking,

hearing tunes, ‘Flight now

boarding at Gate 26

to Palma’, that voice

so reassuring,

ping-pong music –

I want out of all

this fragility,

this hellish limbo.

Where is the Gate?

 

I’m imprisoned

in freedom’s hard cell,

lost between states of being,

looking, looking…

for Fly Be

to raise me

to the level of Tiree.

 

I’m counting down

anxiously looking…

Phew!

Gate 4 at last.

 

(2)

Tiree is so different

airport is on the level,

miles of machair on the Reef,

cattle grazing regardless,

Beinn Ghot with fairy knoll

watching our goings out

and our comings in,

both now

and for ever more.

Twin Otter sits sedately.

Calm here too, except for wind,

no hassle, friskers friendlier,

faces I know,

easy to check bookings,

done in seconds.

No queuing and stewing:

I’m going back

to the Crystal Palace.

 

(3)

Back in the Arrivals Hall

with the baggage belts,

anxiety starts again.

Where’s my case?

I move closer to the belt

hoping that will speed things up.

 

Where has all the perfume gone?

Nobody wants to sell me

anything.

It is assumed that the consumer

has been consumed

on sun-drenched shores.

Mine were wave-drenched,

stormed by Force 10.

 

Ah, there’s the case,

and now where’s the bus?

I’m back to the beginning

of non-existence.

 

 



BALQUHIDDER

 

Fifty years later, the name takes me there:

Every time I hear it, hot steam still hisses

From the dome-valve of the Black Five,

Heavy doors slam, a walking lantern flashes

Wavering light across a gravel platform,

A voice shouts ‘BAL-QUHIDDER’,

Some travellers leave the train,

Crunch their feet on the cracked stones,

Walk away, but we journey on,

As a whistle blows, and a green lamp

Swings permission to the driver

To release the brake and fill hard cylinders

From the boiler’s blazing energy.

 

We heave ourselves up Glen Ogle,

A slow, heavy haul, with orange sparks

From the chimney flying backwards,

Leaving a smoking trail in the heather:

They will see it through Strathyre.

 

This corridor coach is humid in the night

As we head for Killin Junction:

My mother talks to Faith Mission pilgrims

On their way to be fishers of men in Tiree:

One of them from Lewis speaks Gaelic,

Her strong face intense, its gneiss lines

Accentuated by soft light in the carriage.

 

This journey is soul-searching, and I want out

To taste sulphur, feel ash on my face

For myself, but that is not ordained:

I can’t endure tweed prickles in my skin

In this over-heated oven with boiling narratives.

 

With my finger, I draw a boat

On the moisture of the window-pane,

Where breath’s hot air has condensed creatively:

I fashion an image of the ‘Claymore’,

Its hull dripping wet, running with streams,

Anticipating tomorrow’s voyage from Oban.

 

We creak to a harsh halt on the bay’s edge;

Mast-lights bedeck the star-clouded sky:

Heavy doors slam in leaden discord:

The salt, seagull-laden sea air blasts

Through that pressure-cooker carriage,

Lowering the temperature:

Gulping, I step into refreshing freedom

As the Black Five hisses

At the buffers.





OBAN TO BUCHANAN STREET

 

Contending with the gradient that rises out of Oban,

Two grubby old ‘Black Fives’ are gradually slowing;

Sparks come out each chimney, grit is hitting noses,

Firemen hard are shovelling, the furnaces are glowing:

 

‘The summit may be possible, if we keep on going,

Though I think we’re puffing, peching, panting, groaning,

But at last we’ve made it, with whistle hoarsely blowing:

Then it’s down to Connel with a rattle on each bogey:

Dalmally, flat to Tyndrum, Crianlarich then some snoring

To Killin, it’s fairly level, with no gradients to slow us:

Buchanan Street, Buchanan Street, we’ll reach you in the gloaming,

If we can keep up pressure at Lochearnhead and Glen Ogle,

With so many in these carriages, and goods so tightly loaded:

Balquhidder, on to Callander, and Doune with castle noble:

Stirling we’ll stop at briefly, but keep the rhythm flowing:

At Cowlairs we’ll see some sidings and trucks at our disposal.

 

‘At last we’re firmly braking, and wheezing in slow motion:

Signal arms are beckoning, as we read them with devotion,

And clank along the junctions, our sweaty drivers showing

A weary face to passengers, with soot on cheeks reposing,

Leaning tiredly out of cab-doors to finish off their story,

As we hiss at buffers, with passengers out-pouring,

And cool our boilers quietly, before we go next to Oban…

Before we go next to Oban…Before we go next…to Oban…

Sssssssssssssssss…..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….’

 

 




THE LOVELY OLD ‘CLAYMORE’

 

When I was a wee laddie, I’d leave my island shore

On the finest MacBrayne liner, the lovely old ‘Claymore’,

On a voyage bound for Oban with other calls in store –

I still feel great vibrations from the wonderful ‘Claymore’!

 

We drove along to Scarinish in our very finest gear,

As that mighty MacBrayne liner manoeuvred at the pier:

We were there and waiting when the ropes were thrown clear,

And delightful smoke was blasted from the lum of yon old dear.

 

Her funnel was the largest that I’ve seen upon the brine;

It was high and red and rounded, with a black top and a shine:

On her bow she had an image, a Highlander most fine,

With kilt and targe and toorie, and a claymore as a sign.

 

Captain John, he was her Master, a doughty man from Vaul;

He loved to make us welcome, with a chat for one and all:

His laughter rang like thunder through each dividing wall,

And the brand of his tobacco was the fragrant Bogey Roll.

 

When he would ring the telegraph, the ship would leap away,

And soon she would be surging through the breakers of Gott Bay,

Across to Arinagour, the first challenge of the day –

To meet yon wee red ferry that would often go astray.

 

Captain John would shout to them, as they went round and round,

‘Just drop your hook, you dafties, in case you’ll all be drowned!’

He’d then call down the voicepipe, and the Chief, he never frowned –

They nudged the ‘Claymore’ forward till the little boat was found.

 

When the derrick had stopped swinging, and the ferry sailed away,

We’d head towards the Cailleach through clouds of mist and spray:

The ‘Claymore’ would be rolling, but fine food was on the tray –

The fattest Loch Fyne kippers that I’ve seen in all my day.

 

In Tobermory’s sheltered harbour, the crew would take a nip

Through the back door of the Mishnish, and then rejoin the ship:

Two hours behind her schedule, she would resume her trip,

With vibrations that were terrible, and no chance of any sleep.

 

Then we’d head for Oban with the seagulls flying high,

And giving some deliveries to tourists from the sky:

The Sound of Mull was glorious, a hundred ships went by –

I’d steer the ‘Claymore’ past them under Angus’ careful eye!

 

When the ‘Seaforth’, that old banger, went down at Tiree pier,

The ‘Claymore’ returned in grandeur to take away our fear:

She had her days of glory, and in Greece she’d soon appear,

Rebuilt to give the tourists some ‘Hydra’-hodra cheer!

 

Oban Bay is terrible without the grand ‘Claymore’:

There’s nothing there but ferries, and they are such a bore:

Each one is just a shoebox, with no surprise in store –

They’re very drab successors to the colourful ‘Claymore’.

 

Since I have passed my sixty years and just a little more,

I love to walk in memory down by the Caolas shore:

I think I see that funnel, and I hear the engines’ roar –

Oh, I’ve never seen the equal of the lovely old ‘Claymore’!

 
 

 

  

THESE ISLANDS WE SING?

(Specially for Kevin MacNeil)

 

We don’t sing of these islands.

All we do is complain.

We hate the wind and the weather,

The misty mornings and rain.

And when through the mist

Comes the ‘Clansman’,

We can start on Caley MacBrayne.

There’s that bad winter timetable,

That’s been foisted on us again.

 

And when we’ve done with the transport,

We’ll get Argyll and Bute on the brain.

We can grouse and girn about services,

The dumps, the bins, the drains,

The roads, the ditches, the fences,

The school, the pier, the mains.

 

I myself am most happy

When I think there’s no other to say,

‘Come on, you rogues that plague us,

You cannot do that to our ways.’

 

There’s just no end to our litany,

But sing of these islands out there?

You must really be joking, Kevin;

We’d rather be dead than admire them –

We hold the whole world in disdain!


 

 


BODY IMAGE

 

‘Why did they make me like this?’

The ‘Clansman’ cries in despair:

‘I don’t like my blunt bow-visor,

And my stern is terribly square.

 

‘I’m far too broad on the beam,

And I’m mocked in a sideways sea:

The waves at Lismore are bullies,

The current causes list to my lee:

 

‘I’m far too high in the water,

My sides are just slabs, I am told,

And when I turn to the linkspan,

I look like a tank that’s too old.

 

‘My funnel resembles red Lego,

With black stuck over the top:

I hate that mast they’ve put on it –

Some day my patience will pop.

 

‘Yon architect surely was silly,

He hadn’t a clue about style:

He designed a tub to heave lorries -

He made me a hull of a pile!

 

‘I hope there’s a Doc at the Garvel

Who’ll shortly take me in hand:

My calling is that of a speed-boat,

My vibes are really quite grand.

 

‘I want to go shooting past Gunna

At forty-five knots and more;

I want a fabulous welcome

From spectators lining the shore.’

 

 





THE MIGHTY 'CLANSMAN'

 

Press on, press on for Barra,

I hear the 'Clansman' say,

As she powers through the channel,

Gunna Sound beneath her sway;

Her bone is in her molars,

And she’s throwing out the spray;

Her bow-wave makes the yachtsmen

Get on their knees to pray.

 

Barratlantic’s on the main deck,

And Brogan’s fuel for cars;

There’s bread to keep folk chewing,

And whisky for their bars;

Deliveries from Oban,

Derek Wilson’s stacked with jars,

And Jewson’s heaving timber

For another house’s spars.

 

Press on, press on for Barra,

Till Maol Domhnaich comes to view,

But throttle back a little,

Till we align a buoy or two.

Thank goodness for the markers

As we make our passage through;

We’ll swing by Kismul Castle,

And engage the thrusters too.

 

We’ll use our Becker rudders –

Captain Norman has a way

Of steering to perfection

In every kind of bay;

He’ll bring us in so gently

That the ancients all will say,

‘There’s skill in these new ferries,

Though I’d like the old to stay!’

 

Press on, press on for Barra;

Angus Brendan is on board,

And he’s watching out for slackness

In the way we shift our load;

But the Big House down in England

With yon unruly horde

Will not despise the 'Clansman' –

She knows how to use her sword!  

 

 



THE STORMING ‘CLANSMAN’

 

Let the geese fly high, let the geese fly low,

On the ‘Clansman’ you can go:

All the faint-hearts say, ‘No, no’ –

But ye canna whack the ‘Clansman’!

 

When Force 8 gives us a blow,

Or Force 10, she still will go:

In the storms that ship’s not slow:

I’ll give the crown to ‘Clansman’!

 

That mighty ship will always show

The power she’s storing down below:

Throttles back, and she’ll go-go:

She’ll get you there, will ‘Clansman’!

 

Unless, that is, a fuse has blown,

And she’s tied up with engines down,

And then we moan and show a frown –

But that’s not fair to ‘Clansman’!

 

Let the geese fly high, let the geese fly low,

On the ‘Clansman’ we will go:

When the fleet’s tied up, and give no show,

You can always trust the ‘Clansman’!

 

FERRY STRANGE

 

How strange that no-one notices

The day the ferry comes;

When she is waiting at the pier,

There are no pipes and drums:

 
(Copyright:  Angus and Pat MacDonald)


No welcome that will say to her,

‘Well done, you faithful ship;

We want to thank you for your work,

And every perfect trip.

 

‘We hardly see you as you cross

From Coll to our fine pier;

We take you all for granted,

And we never, ever cheer.’

 

But when our terrible ferry

Fails to tie the rope,

Struggles with the nasty swells,

And there is just no hope;

 

Well, then we’ll surely make a noise,

And shout about our plight:

‘She’s just a tub, a wretched boat,

Her course was never right.

 

Her Skipper doesn’t know the way

To steer his awful boat;

I’d do far better there masel’ –

He’s just not worth a groat!

 

‘In olden days when we were young,

The good ship aye came in;

Storm Force 12 was just a breeze

To the ‘Claymore’ and her kin:

 

‘We never lacked a single day

Without our lovely ship,

But now these awful ferries –

They give us all the pip!’

 
(Copyright: Frazer MacInnes)

No, we never lacked a single day,

For it often was a week –

We did not see the ship at all,

But we could plug that leak.

 

With rolled-up sleeves we baked the bread,

And lived on oat-meal puds,

But now the Co-op is our life –

Its groceries and goods.

 

And we’re the bosses, aye, ’tis us,

And the Captain – he’s a dud!

If he misses just one day,

We’ll have to chew our cud!

 

So let’s be grateful, island folk,

And stop the girns and groans,

And just say ‘Thanks, you faithful ship,

You’re worth far more than moans!’

 

 

 
 


‘I’VE NEVER SAILED THE MINCHES’

In appreciation of Rudyard Kipling - a parody of 

‘I’ve never sailed the Amazon’.

 

I’ve never sailed the Minches,

I’ve never reached Craignure;

But the ‘LOTI’ and the ‘Clansman’,

They both go there, for sure!

 

Yes, daily out from Oban,

Great ferries, black and red,

Go pressing on for Barra

(Press on – press on for Barra!)

And I’d like to press for Barra

Some day before I’m dead.

 

I’ve never seen a cormorant

Nor yet a grey-lag goose,

A-goosing in his feathers -

I’ll not put him in a noose…

 

Unless I go to Barra

These wonders to behold –

Press on – press on for Barra,

Press really on for Barra!

Oh, I’d love to press for Barra

Some day before I’m old!

 



OBAN TERMINAL
 

I’m lost in here.  Please come to help me.

I’m having an identity crisis in this terminal:

It’s not a pier, but an airport of gates

And adjustable hydraulic walkways

And plate-glass windows, and blue chairs,

I don’t know whether I’m meant to fly or sail.

 

Oldies wait, stand around, becoming increasingly

Grey-haired, having been enticed out

For another frolic with the cheap ticket.

I always feel sorry for them: this confusion

Must induce dementia, if not madness.

It will be my turn soon: in fact….

 

I am wondering what supersonic space-ferry

Will depart for Craignure at Gate 3:

The ping-pong music has played

‘The ferry now standing…’,

And foot-passengers are invited

To walk on.  It will be the Tiree call

Very soon, but first I’ll load the car

Through the aircraft’s mouth.

 

Is the new seaplane jet-propelled?

Or could she be a starship?

The ‘Space-ferry Enterprise’, owned by

Inter-galactic Ocean Assets Unlimited?

The ‘Clansman’ has sold off to Venus,

About fifty years ago, I’m told.

 

Is this really Oban, where I used to skid

On rancid herring lying on huge wooden sleepers,

Which were often loose, or had gaping holes

Where you could see the greasy water below?

No gates then, believe me – only gangways,

Sometimes suspended at 75 degrees from the ship’s side,

And we climbed up like cormorants,

Barely keeping our feet until we reached the deck.

 

No hydraulic walkways, either.  You took your chance

And your life, and up you went, holding on

For grim death.  There was no identity crisis there:

We knew we were on a boat from the first glimpse

Of masts and derricks, and cars being slung on board.

And we accepted our fragile place in the world –

Health and Safety be damned.

 

In this era of inter-galactic time-travel,

We’re going to fly through the sea, skimming

White foam, fly-cruising with Captain Kirk.

I hope he will beam up some understanding

Of this new terminal before we leave.

 

 

SISTER JEAN KENNEDY’

De Havilland Heron G-ANXA on ambulance night-flight to Tiree.

 

Engines roar overhead

Down she sweeps,

Navigation lights flashing,

Aluminium bird,

Cockpit silhouettes,

Peaked caps,

Main tires bite tarmac

Of flat Reef,

Nose-wheel touches,

Throttles ease back,

The rudder flaps,

Captain follows routing

To the apron,

Engines whir to stop,

Propellers secured,

Chocks on wheels.

 

Steps go alongside,

Door opens,

Red-caped nurse walks down,

Patient stretchered over,

Carried on board,

Care in charge.

Door closed.

 

Pilots write logs,

Captain looks out.

No time to lose,

Gets ‘All clear’,

Waves gloved hand.

 

We stand back,

Chocks away,

Propellers rotate,

Slicing air, transparent circles,

Silver in dark night.

She turns tail over my head –

I’ve never been so close –

Rudder flapping momentarily,

Lights flashing starboard green,

Port wing-tip crimson,

Underside beacon white,

Glitter of airport lamps

On undulating fuselage.

 

Elegant in emergency,

She taxies off gently

Down to runway,

Turns to position,

Opens full throttle,

Makes a dash for the sky,

Ascending steeply.

 

Lights fade out over the sea,

But hope now sparkles

In the darkness.

 


Indelible image,

Memory vibrant,

Deathless ‘Sister Jean’,

Unforgettable Heron of mercy,

Heroine of Hebridean sacrifice.

 

NOTES

De Havilland Heron G-ANXA was acquired in 1953, and, with her sister G-ANXB, ‘Sir James Young Simpson’, served the Hebrides and Scotland with distinction until 31 March 1973.  Both Herons are closely associated with air ambulance flights throughout the country.  A third Heron, acquired slightly later, crashed on an air ambulance flight in Islay in 1957, killing the Captain, Paddy Calderwood, and the radio-operator, as well as the on-board nurse, Sister Jean Kennedy from the island of Coll.   In honour of Sister Jean, British European Airways renamed G-ANXA in her memory.  It was one of the most appropriate tributes ever given.  

I will never forget G-ANXA or the real Sister Jean Kennedy, a heroine in my eyes, as was the Heron which was named after her.  I witnessed G-ANXA’s ambulance service on two occasions in the 1960s, when one of my elderly relatives in ‘Coll View’ needed immediate hospital treatment.   I can still see G-ANXA coming to our assistance and landing at the Reef at night.  It remains remarkably vivid to this day.   This was truly outstanding service, given gladly by pilots and medical staff, and also in a very matter-of-fact manner – all in a day’s (or night’s) work.





THE TIREE BOAT

 

The day they found the Tiree Boat,

The world went all agog,

As such a ship had not been found

Since the time of the Bremen Cog.

 

They dug her out of sandy dunes,

With shovel, spade and hoes,

And saw a sight they hadn’t seen

Since the days of the ‘Mary Rose’.

 

The Professor said, in earnest tones,

‘Don’t put her in the skip!

I’ve never seen such a shapely hull

Since I stood by the Gokstad Ship!

 

‘This one’s the mother of them all,

And shows the Viking style,

From which descend all Tiree boats

On a ‘turas’ through the kyle.

 

‘The ‘Victory’ by Pompey’s quay,

The ‘Stallion of Glendalough’,

They all look poor compared with this,

The queen of every loch.

 

‘Dendrochronology we must do,

To prove our point for sure:

We’ll let the boffins take a look -

Her lines are truly pure.’

 

So he sent some lovely scraps

To a very learned team,

And back the happy message came -

‘She was built in Pittenweem.’

 

The Professor’s nose then sadly drooped –

His dream was in the dust:

His wreck was shouting from the sand,

‘Beware of misplaced trust!’
 
 


 


 
 

BRISTOL DOCKS

 

Not the soft white sand of Tiree here;

No blue-green tides, no wave-swept rocks;

No islands, only the mud-yellow Avon,

Victim of ebb and flow,

Banned from the Cumberland Basin,

Its sludge recalling sounds of trade,

Hiss of steam, blasts from hooters,

Rope-handlers’ boats darting for hawsers,

Charles Hill’s maiden handiwork hitting water,

The flapping flump of slow floats,

Campbell’s pure white-funnelled paddlers

Curdling grandly through the foliated gorge,

Adorning it with soot and steam.

All are gone: Brunel’s bridge

Now holds silent vigil.

 

In this isolated Floating Harbour

My feet pound ancient quays, sheds

Striving to be relevant, rejuvenated artfully,

Homes to soft-handed creativity, picture-frames

And performances in the Arnolfini,

Bookshops for arty connoisseurs;

A woman mourning her garden rose

Fights the machine to take plastic cash;

And over Pero’s walkway, ersatz edifices.

Glass-fronted temples of Mammon;

St Augustine’s Reach adjacent

Filled with grimy cabin cruisers,

Tupperware wealth held precariously

By worn cords to ephemeral pontoons.

No gin palaces today, no silver exuberance,

Only low tastes, the deceptive detritus

Of bottomed-out pomp.

 

Across the swing bridge, I glimpse

St Mary Redcliffe in the distance,

Recall Thomas Chatterton, creatively mortal,

His successors all around, oblivious

To his glorious, literary death,

Forging their own ends, unable to prevent

Leaps of ever-contemporary despair.

 

Cyclists hurtle past me, confidently riding

Stern cobbles worn by hooves and wheels,

Despising dangerous surfaces;

I pause at the steam crane, no sign of life,

Only appeals to preserve the remnants.

 

With metallic dirge, two cyclists skid

On the wet stones, and history

With its steel rail-tracks and sleepers

Hits back hard with no mercy,

Detests superficial transits.

As they lie stretched out, dazed,

We check them for broken bones.

 

Ironic icon ‘Great Britain’ 

Grins from her cradle at Wapping;

Rescued from Sparrow Cove,

Towed home, resurrected, rebuilt,

With a green-glass sea

Lapping her patched waterline,

‘No. 1 Visitor Attraction’.

Brunel sits in wax in the saloon.

 

Ferries glide across the harbour,

Pass a summerless ‘Balmoral’,

Flat barges sport orange sides,

Ex-Dutch houseboats carry pot-plants

And grow weeds on their keels;

Old tugs hibernate beside M Shed,

While a replicated ‘Matthew’

Eternally tries to discover Cabot.

 

Thank God, there’s spark here,

But there is no pounding piston,

No steaming hiss of harsh reality,

No lasting flesh and bone

In this animated graveyard.

 

 

ELVIN RIDGE

 

At Elvin Ridge in moonlight,

I saw the elves at play,

Dancing in the moonbeams,

Enjoying every ray:

 

At Kelvin Bridge in daylight,

When letters were restored,

I heard the subway rumbling

Below Great Western Road.


 

 
 

GLASGOW UNDERGROUND

 

From deep below

You felt it blow,

The purest air,

Raw and rare,

Warm niff of tar

And sweaty char:

Made glasses steam

With misty gleam:

 

Beneath the Clyde

A lovely ride:

Splendid view

Of ladies too,

Face to face,

A cosy place,

So little space

For so much grace –

 

With brutal brakes

That gave you shakes

At the Coocaddens

An’ Merkland Street,

An’ Sain’ Teenochs,

Slammin’ them oan:

 

‘Whit’s wrang wi’ him

The day?  Dug nae winnin’?

Whit’s stapped’ him?’

Actually, it was ‘her’,

Hurling scowls

At the ruddy signal.

 

Aye, those awfy brakes,

Gave them quakes:

They lost their balance,

Found weight a challenge,

Girls grabbed straps,

Banged into chaps:

‘Haud me tight –

Ah’ve goat a fright.’

 

The Glasgow folk

On yon red train

Were up to capers:

Dropped sweetie papers,

Ate fish and chips,

And had good sips

Of Irn Bru,

Tennant’s too,

Left some treats

Lying on seats,

Went in and out

Of clanky doors,

Blocked the aisle,

Talked loud style,

Read the paper,

Lit a taper,

Had a drag

On a welcome fag,

Which gave them puff

When life was tough.

 

If they took a snooze

And had to lose

Their station stop –

Or read a book

And didn’t look! –

They came out on top

Next time it came

To the wee red train,

Which took the strain,

As they went round,

And round and round,

On the underground,

With many a joke –

The Glasgow folk.

 

TRAM LINES

 

They still rattle through my memory,

Those far-off trams, so near, so noisy,

So much part of my inner track,

Clanking, whining into the night

To places like Auchenshuggle,

And Mosspark and Anniesland,

Mount Florida and Dalmarnock.

They appear again in the morning,

Fresh in the drizzle, going to University.

 

Their frames vibrate electrically,

Precariously perched on banging bogies,

Spitting blue sparks out of fuse-boxes,

Just below that fag-festooned stair

Curving upwards to the top deck,

Mystery enveloped in smoke, exuding

Grey translucent mist in sunlight,

Explosions of coughing

Behind newspapers.

 

Down below the air is cleaner,

Confidential conversations

Whispered in Kelvinside tones

Over the tops of bags and parcels

From Wylie & Lochhead and Lewis’s

And Arnott-Simpson’s and Goldberg’s.

 

They disapprove, purse lips, as

Someone jumps off between stops,

And at the lights another leaps on.

A Morris 8 sways dangerously past.

They hate drunks who sing

Raucous songs in their faces,

Fall on the floor with the used tickets.

 

The buxom conductress swings

On cold rail polished by a million hands,

She’s queen, rules the rattling roost,

The perfect mistress who understands

This conspiratorial capsule of lurching energy

Supposedly powered by E.R.L. Fitzpayne,

The crested man of Glasgow Corporation Transport:

His resounding name is everywhere.

 

The stiff driver stares seriously ahead,

Puts his pulsing hand on the lever,

Glimpses momentarily at the Tiree boy

Watching behind varnished door

As we heave past the Central.

 

I sit again on those leopard-skin seats,

Wondering where I’m going,

Where this driver is taking me,

While a voice cries ‘Fares please!’

It’s up to me apparently.

Perhaps I should ask this time

For a single to the ‘terminus’?

Or should it be a ‘return’?

 

What a word!  ‘Terminus’ –

What a place!   What onomatopoeia!

She says it’s ‘All change’ there!

But what sort of ‘change’?

I always wanted to reach it,

To be ready to receive the ‘change’,

But somehow I never went beyond

The destination of the day

At Jamaica Street.

 

I still want to reach it somehow,

To feel the ‘change’,

And, on that Glasgow tram,

Start that juddering journey

In the other direction.

Perhaps I’ll see

Fitzpayne.

 


 





THORNTONHALL

 

The island boy stands

Transfixed, limed into structure,

 A keystone, holding a parapet

Tightly in little hands,

Feeling the hard edges

Deposited centuries ago,

Refashioned now to cross iron,

Gracing industry’s religion.

 

Watching the far white plume

Flecked with grey, coughing

Flame through steam approaching,

Playing hide-and-seek

With dull green hedges,

Brown trees stained with yellow

Fumes, dirty flat gleams of round

Boiler-fire driving clanking rods,

Slowing, braking, squealing

With hollow sighing

Dragging six coaches

To a cacophonous stop.

 

Banging of buffers, doors

Opening heavily from red carriages,

Dirty smoke, whitened with bent feather,

Valve hissing off excess power;

Trundled from Central Station;

Energisers of business, makers of destiny,

Sharply attired, umbrellas sword-like,

Step out, steadying themselves,

Resuming poise with straightened suits,

Duties done.

 

Doors slam weightily, whistles, green flag,

Iron torso snorts, belches huge chimney,

Clatters under the bridge, vibrating;

Hot air, sulphur tastes delicious

With coal clouds blasted dustily

Straight into my face,

From hungry orange furnace,

Fireman shovelling with tender spade,

Piston-rods pushing, driver’s hand

Steady on the regulator.

 

The last coach topped with ventilators

Breathes past, flashes white lantern

Showing red, vanishes on a bend

To distant terminus suspended in foliage.

 

I melt into the bridge,

An image in the ancient masonry;

Stone, iron, smoke seep into my bones,

I become a line in that powerful

Journey onwards, track-led

To the last destination,

Homeward, recalling all.
 




 
 
 
PERTH STATION

 

Here I feel existential bleakness chill

The inmost arteries of my weary heart:

Glory days of Caledonian grandeur,

North British pride and Highland polish,

Long gone; terminus now terminal:

Exquisite, ornate Victorian temple

In honour of the deity of railways

Desecrated by diminutive DMUs,

Horribly routine, drably predictable,

Cantankerous engines grinding out

Their blue diesel oaths and blasphemies,

Mere rail-buses for pale commuters.



You once housed devout worshippers,

Clad in sporting tweeds and business suits,

Flowing skirts and rose-decked hats,

To grace your soaring arches and laced pillars,

Ascend an elegant rake of coaches:

 

Music flowed from your many tracks,

Harmonious hymns of wheels and rods,

Powerfully prayerful puffs from boilers,

Burnished brass candle-stick levers ready

To regulate the hissing, striving steam,

Incense of hot oil wafting through aisles,

Shiny-capped clerics, subservient to fire,

Feeding the incessant flames,

Ready to face the next godless gradient,

Exhorting each train to conquer

The defiant mountain –

Conquer it, conquer it, conquer it.

 

Today I am lost as I struggle

With your cavernous emptiness:

We are mere minnows now,

With toy trains and trivia:

Old-time railway religion,

Hot and palpably pulsating,

Is no longer here:

Ichabod.



 
 

LOOKING ACROSS THE CLYDE FROM GOVAN

 

I squint across the grey-black Clyde;

I set my eyes to close the sight

Of a towering giant in the clouds

And an armadillo keen to fight,

 

As he tries to knock that brute

Right off its perch and claim the brand;

Frankenstein has come to town,

And metal monsters stalk the land.

 

Gaelic voices reach my mind,

Steam whistles sound their piercing shocks:

The Clansman throws her ropes ashore,

And rubs her belting on the docks.

 

They come, they go, as sirens sound,

The traffic of a thousand feet;

Where Highland hearts once throbbed with song,

There’s nothing now but empty street

 

Of ghosts that ply their ancient trade,

Reminding flesh it cannot stay;

The Clansman’s sailed for Tail o’ Bank;

Over Govan dawns a deadly day,

 

Of memories and searching minds,

Seeking life beneath these stones;

‘The church was here, where flats now reign,

And tarmac covers Highland bones.’

 

No ceilidh now in that Town Hall

Where pipes once blasted through the walls;

Where spirits danced and sang and laughed –

A day of deepest silence falls.

 

The armadillo looks around,

Stalking out his newest prey;

That mighty tower comes hurtling down,

While I turn my back and walk away.

 

20.4.2013

 

 
 

COSTA CONCORDIA

 

The titan of our time tricked us,

Vanity’s hand took the joystick,

Luxury lurched leeringly across

Tables tilting in darkening depths,

Panels under strain, bending,

Breaking, bruising, banging,

Calm turned turmoil, loss of light

Symptom not cause as yawing

Momentum maintains movement

Verticals veer vengefully,

Lamps flash fitfully

Over illuminated jackets,

Struggles for lifeboats;

On tilting hull, a trailing chain

Of humanity, black and white,

Defined by rescuing light.

White doomed liner keeling over,

Hull ripped open with huge rock

The last passenger to join the ship,

Collected in that fit of pompous display.

 

Luxury listing and heeling hopelessly

Out of joint, yellow funnel lying slantwise,

Exhausts pointing to a cliff face,

Colourful flotsam all around the great

Nightmare of western indulgence.

 

Now she’s upright again, expecting

Final flotation to fate’s dockyard,

Massive chains taking the strain,

Defying the gravity of hubris,

Disclosing what remains of two

More bodies to add to the other thirty.

 

Dramatic, visible, western, significant,

Narcissism at its height, now lying low.

But headlines rising, engineering miracles

Clean a damaged coast.

 

Another night brings bodies

By the hundred to Lampedusa,

Another chain fails to rescue

Those who have sunk in squalor,

Panicking on squeezed hulks,

Sinking under the overload

Of determination to leave arid trouble;

No luxury there, only grim travelling

Through deserts to the last stage

And the mercy of cheap ferrying,

The treachery of misplaced trust.

 

Nobody is going to move megatons

To lift two of their bodies,

Nor even ten thousand corpses

From that sea cemetery;

Headstones not needed there,

No commemoration or class actions;

Just let them go, downwards.

 

Rescuers pull out what they can,

Then throw wrecked hulls

Into the boat graveyard,

Human relics clinging to the last,

Shoes, boots, bags still aboard.

 

The tonnage of luxury weighs

Upon consciences at Giglio,

Mountains are moved from the sea,

Impossible feats achieved

By pumping millions into the wreck,

But in that Europe beyond Lampedusa

Fugitives’ worthlessness meets closed borders.

Survivors cry over grim decisions.

Did we leave the right child to drown?

War-lords do not care – death is their business.

 

On the far horizon in orange sunset

‘Costa Futura’ sails past Sicily.

 






 
LAMPEDUSA

 


Tides flow through history

Carrying optimism’s frail craft,

Leaving shores of despair

For horizons of hope.

 


They go gladly, abandon Eritrea,

The best of their kindred,

Chosen for a purpose

To keep others alive.

 

I see them, packs on heads,

Walking purposefully,

Willing for the voyage,

Wondering what will lie

Beyond hope’s horizon.

 

They reach the shore,

Board the boat,

Frail jetty shaking,

Wave back to their friends.

 

It could be Stornoway

And the ‘Metagama’,

With a Gaelic psalm

Spreading its grace notes

Over separating

Distance.

 


Except for the outcome.

Lampedusa…Lampedusa…

Stepping-stone island,

Between past and present,

Between death and life,

Where the rocks eat you,

Swallow hundreds.

 

Lampedusa…

Sounds like a drum-beat,

A dirge, a keening in the current

Of dashed hopes,

Shattered lives.

What matter three hundred,

So far away from here?

 

It’s right here, actually,

In the dangerous diasporas

That we want to forget.

 

The ‘Exmouth’ wrecked

On Islay’s rocks haunts me,

The year 1847 is ever present

In the history of the tides

Of humanity,

In the history of need

And pain and desperation.

 

But how easily we push others

Out of our history,

Because they are ‘not us’.

Are they not human too?

Why West and East?

‘Chords of deep and intelligent sympathy’ –

John Murdoch’s perceptive mental radar

More needed now than ever.

 


Lampedusa…Islay…Stornoway…

Let us link our histories –

But, better still, our futures

And defeat the Lampedusas

That litter our shores.

 

 
POPPY COLLECTION

 

From door to door the small boy went,

Feeling manly in November’s night,

Believing himself to have been sent

On a mission in a cause so right.

 

A little white tin was in his hand,

A box of wax-red poppies by his side,

And as he knocked, he took his stand,

Trusting for coins, and showed his pride.

 

The doors were opened, and each heart

That gave its pennies to Haig’s Homes,

Mysteriously caused his brain to start

Reflecting on the missing bones.

 

The missing limbs, the missing folk,

Those blown to bits by shell and bomb;

As moon shone down, he felt the yoke,

A greater weight than war’s aplomb:

 


Then back he came to his own home,

Walked through the doorway in the hall,

And saw that picture yet again –

Our Iain pinned against the wall,

 

And, as he looked, the picture spoke:

‘Beyond the kilt, there lies a pall;

Forgive me for the hearts I broke,

But truly I did give my all.’

 
 

THE TWO JOHNS

A song in memory of Captain John Livingstone Stewart, MC, BSc (Edin.), MRCVS (with Honours) (1896-1971), a native of Hawick, and his ADC, Private John MacDonald, a native of Tiree, killed in action at Arras, April 1917, both of the 11th (Service) Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.   At the end of the war, Captain Stewart trained as a veterinary surgeon, and served, again with distinction, in the Colonial Veterinary Service in Ghana.

 

Over  the top, over the top,

Over the top they went:

Big Jock from Hawick and John from Tiree,

Brothers in freedom’s intent.

 


Mine’s brutal sound split frost on the ground,


Roar of barrage boomed loud;

Out of the trench to mud, blood and stench

Leapt the lads with their bayonets proud.

 

Arras had dawned, lives would be pawned,

But no semblance of terror or fear

Showed on a face as they hastened their pace,

Through bullets and wire and spear.

 

The first bullet struck, Jock slumped in the muck,

And called to his batman behind;

John leapt to his side, with comrade’s strong pride,

Cleaned the gash, and began to bind.

 

A sniper, so sly, out of nowhere let fly,

And John from Tiree fell dead;

Not a groan was passed as he breathed his last –

The pellet’s full force pierced his head.

 

Jock’s life was spared, no power impaired;

The Captain returned to the trench;

With a Cross on his chest, he gave of his best,

Defying the blood and the stench.

 

When Armistice came, Jock made it his aim

To combat disease and death;

And in Africa’s sun, he lived truly as one

Who knew what it was to draw breath.

 

Over the top, over the top,

Over the top they went;

Big Jock from Hawick, and John from Tiree –

‘Greater love’ at its fullest extent.

 





 
 
 

RIPON 1914-2014

 

War is beautiful here, virginal,

Set in green pastures, no valleys of shadow,

Eternal chanting of Psalms, antiphons

In Fountains Abbey, as soldiers at North Camp

Pierce straw men, dry innards falling out

Through bandages, bayoneted precisely

With sword on Lee Enfield, plied prayerfully,

Finding death’s heart; nothing goes

Against the grain of dead corn.

Victory seed is sown into soil,

As the trench-axe ploughs

Deep furrows, long graves

For enemy’s victims.

 

Hard rations emaciate desire,

But they tramp the night lifeless

On Victoria Café floorboards,

Ripon girls buoyed upwards

By mighty Seaforths, Black Watch,

Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders,

Muscles made to lift bodies,

Swept off their feet by waves

From Hebridean islands, glens

Emptying gladly into Yorkshire

For Dance Macabre.

A cabar is tossed high at the racecourse,

Adrenalin powers Highland games,

Running through tapes, winners feted,

No losers: girls bestow laurels, don’t yet

Wring their hearts’ blood into salt tears

For bleak ships sullying Dover’s white cliffs:

Ripon is not Etaples, not the Somme,

Not a Fred’s Wood of creeping snipers

Picking off perfect targets slogging themselves

To death at the Railway Triangle.  Here girls choose

Lovers with terminal intentions.

 



At the train station they watch black coffins

Carried to the hearses, old rituals of honour

Reinforcing glory, the innards of dead men

Heaved into the stackyard of stinking straw

With trumpets of triumph.






Crocuses flourish round wooden crosses

Below the broad-towered cathedral,

Looped by a relentless river.

 

In the square tonight, the horn-blower still

Sounds a curfew at nine o’ clock,

And distributes a Lucky Wooden Penny

To his admirers.




 

ARRAS TUNNELS

 

Down there they swore and cursed,

New Zealand tunnellers, bluntly

Telling officers to go to Hell,

As they were familiar with the place,

And had no time to observe stinking rank:

The rank stink of Hades drove them on. 

Saluting wasted rock-hard time,

As picks, shovels, drills, bitts and axes

Hammered into limestone, long sparks

Illuminating darkness, extending lines

Below the front, aiming to emerge

With ammonal charge on cue.

 

Huge corridors, galleries, rooms,

Hospitals, Jules Verne’s world

Made real, a city of soldiers bunkered in,

Sleeping, eating, singing, talking,

Worshipping, hard voices softening

To celebrate the good fight,

Believing they lived inside

The rock of ages, until the last blast.

 

The advance exploded harshly,

The subterranean Vesuvius poured

Its human lava outwards, an eruption

That melted opposition, froze it solid,

Magma humanised, leaving pomp strewn

In fragments in the flows of history.

 

Success burst brutally down the terraces,

Hurling lead, flattening foes,

Lines pushed, enemies stunned,

Walking lamb-like to surrender.

 

The officers came again

For self-congratulatory salutes,

‘A great day’s work, chaps’,

Thought opposition dead,

Bringing soft hands

To unmake success,

Creating the real Hell above,

And drowning men once more

In the rockless swamp

Of mud and blood

And murder.

 

Rain weeps relentlessly

In these tunnels:

I feel it on my head:

It runs down my cheeks

Today in Arras.

 

 

GAMEKEEPER

 

You strode across the moorland

With your gun at break of day,

Watching for small movements,

And looking out for prey:

 

And if you saw the enemy

In its predatory way,

You took your aim and blasted,

To let your creature stay.

 

In war you were accepted

As a sniper with sharp eye:

You sneaked along embankments,

Well hidden below sky.

 

You saw the men advancing,

Your sights were on their head;

You struck Jock on the shoulder,

And down he fell like lead.

 

As John leapt out to help him,

You had your second chance:

You hit your man precisely,

And death stopped his advance.

 

But, sniper, I forgive you,

Because they’d have done the same

To you, if you had let them –

They too were at that game.

 

Jock was a skilful marksman,

And led his snipers’ troop:

He loved to pick off enemies,

As singles in their group.

 

In retirement there at Lakeside

With his rifle neatly out,

He spent his hours of pleasure

Scaring poachers from the trout:

 

With hand and eye so steady,

He’d fire a warning shot,

Straight through their rods when fishing –

Jock showed ’em what was what.

 

Jock, the mighty soldier,

Kept up the shooting game:

He was then the gamekeeper –

So why give you the blame?

 

 

METAL DETECTOR

 

Jacques gently made his cautious way

Across some fields in France,

Hoping that, on some fine day,

His fortunes would advance.

 

To draw a breath, he’d hardly dare,

As he listened to each sound,

Assessing ring and tone with care

Lest gold was in the ground.

 

Then that great day at last appeared,

When the detector jangled loud:

Jacques’ hopeful heart was greatly cheered -

His de His detector did him proud.

 

He dug below the heavy sward,

Removing every sod,

And cleared the clay until he heard

A voice that said, ‘Good God!

 

‘Have you now come to wake the dead,

When they were sleeping sound?

We three have rested in this bed,

Since bullets stopped our bound.

 

‘Our mettle’s really not the kind

That you would want to know:

Our name-tags only, you will find,

Have metal in their show.

 

‘But as you’re here, we’d gently beg

That you would lift our bones,

And take us home to stretch a leg

Far from these foreign stones.

 

‘We’re Bosch and Gerry and young Fritz,

And we were just like you,

When we were hit by bullets’ blitz,

And all our blood poured through.

 

‘We’ve been here a hundred years,

Trapped solid in Death’s hold:

So now’s your chance to kill our fears,

And prove that YOU are gold!’

 

NOTES

This was inspired by a real, and very recent, ‘discovery’ in the Arras area, when a young man with a metal detector found German bodies.   The same man just happened to walk into the ‘set’ when we were filming in Arras in the early evening.  I had read about the ‘discovery’ in the papers several weeks earlier, and the story was fresh in my mind as I walked in those deeply thought-provoking fields round Beaumont-Hamel on the Somme.

One of the bodies preserved the metal name-tag, which was still legible, and it was returned to the relevant family.   The family was very pleased indeed to receive the body of its lost son. 

 



VIMY RIDGE

 

Today on Vimy Ridge

Rain’s pall weeps across Arras

Concealed in the mist below,

Coal bings like pyramids

Breach the grey horizon,

Woods and thickets heavy

With humidity, dimmed out

As I search for bearings,

Try to find a gun-sight,

Trapped in trenches

To fire death’s shells

Sharply at the martyred city.

 

Rain bathes my head,

I turn to see towering

That cleft monument,

Pointing mightily skywards,

Its centre a deep void,

Eloquent in silence,

Eerie in emptiness,

Proclaiming powerfully

The pity of war.

 

Supreme statement,

Carefully crafted,

As shells resound

On cratered ground,

Canada’s soil,

Where impacts boil,

Earth flies

Through skies.

 

War leaves lethal legacies,

Huge depths, dangerous,

Inhabited by live ordnance,

Still seeking men to kill.

Don’t go where they had to walk.

 

Canadian Corps conquered,

Blew out the enemy,

Through tunnels, trenches,

Where I walk dazed on duck-boards,

See gun-rests, entrances,

Wire barriers.

 

Flags hang limply,

As I am pulled back to wrestle

With a last look at that

Giant gapped tooth,

Gloriously memorable,

Eternally eloquent,
 

Beautifully gaunt.

War’s summary.

 

Victory, what are you but

An emptiness, with defeat

At your very heart?

 





 

WAR MEMORIAL

 

Gaunt against stormy sunset

Defying elemental powers

In a last stand on rocks and bog

It grips minds, pulls eyes,

Catches the breath,

Heaves out its bayonet

And stabs me straight

Through the heart.

 

Its grey flesh bleeds

Poppies in pools,

Seeping through heather

On this bleak day.

 

I sink into the soil,

Dying slowly,

Fatally wounded

By friendly fire.


 

THE ELEVENTH HOUR

 

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day

Of the eleventh month of every single year

Is here again, and again, and again,

A heavy drum-beat in the memory,

Which some of us would want to silence,

To expunge from the calendar,

To find another way of getting to the heart

Of those who lie dead, exploded out of life.

 

Assemblies at granite war memorials

Reek camphor, deliver dutiful anaesthesia,

Remembering, remembering, remembering,

With polished brass, sharp uniforms,

Peaked caps, stiffly perfect salutes,

Immaculate red wreaths, gold braid,

The sacrifice of others,

Noble, patriotic, glorious –

 

But subtly forgetting to smell, to see, to feel

The broken hearts, the shattered dreams,

The rodent-infested muck of trenches,

The diseases, the rotting feet, the explosions,

The barrages, the gas, the slaughter,

The screams, the groans, the agonies,

Dresden in ruins, Coventry smashed,

Clydebank in a blinding, brutal blaze,

Shadows on the remains of Hiroshima,

Burnings in Vietnam, the napalm,

Girl screaming as her skin falls off,

Another few Iraqis blown to smithereens

While we observe the silence.

 

Remembrance is not an emotional perfume,

An incense-filled palliative, an annual propriety

That ennobles the vilest of human instincts,

And ensures its eternal endurance;

It is hell on earth, reliving, if we dare,

The doleful disintegration of humanity.

 

Even at the eleventh hour, we do not learn:

Happily we hear the ‘Last Post’,

And on its dying notes we plan

Our next Great Destruction.

 

Forget the waxed poppies, and grasp the thistle:

Press its bristles into your skin,

Rub it over your face and hands,

Your naked body, and let the blood run:

Then wear it on your lapels, and tell the world –

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Thereafter, without forgetting,

Salute the heroes.

 

WHY SEEK YE THE LIVING…?

 

Dead heroes are manageable,

Comfortable to live with,

Easy to re-imagine, to reshape,

Pliable, ready to be moulded

Into our theories, our aspirations,

Our self-delusions, our system

Of values for honouring mortality.

 

We throw up the granite obelisk,

Because that’s our way,

And don’t think too much

As long as we have put the marker

On the hillside, with its top

Tapering into the sky.

 

Death is our thing:

Life is much harder to grasp:

Survivors are not our heroes:

The more-than-conquerors

Who went through hell in trenches,

Survived four years of death

But came out the other end,

Opened another chapter,

Got on with their lives,

Kept the old story firmly closed,

Shoved their medals in a box,

Didn’t bother with glory,

And set about the greatest toil

Of making a better world.

 

We have to dig to find them

Through layer after layer

Of our forgetfulness, our failure

To notice the greatness of life,

Content to visit our cenotaphs

And to omit the living heroes

From the roll-call

Of history.

 

AFGHANISTAN

 

Mirages glint upon the sand,

Sunshine stings like leather whip,

Rotors whirr through wisps of cloud –

The chase is on, and bullets rip…

 

Pounding the dust, which flies above

The painful earth of endless strife;

Machine-guns rattle, soldiers shout,

And somewhere ends another life.

 

Empires there have come and gone,

Worn down by stealth and weapon’s stock;

By those who know each nook and cave,

Each pinnacle and sheltering rock.

 

Missions loftier than such ground

Have failed to find the peace they crave;

Turbaned men, their faces scorched,

Are skilled in fashioning a grave

 

For those who feed on that mirage

Of empires once empowered by gold,

But now are in their sunset’s shade –

Young men in desert’s heat turn cold.

 

 
DRONE SPLAT

 

Thousands of miles away

He sits safely watching images,

Contours, shapes in green,

Reads co-ordinates, receives data;

Confirmation comes clearly,

Nothing need be questioned;

His hand moves the mouse,

Presses a button as X marks the spot,

And X disappears in a cloud.

 

Great thing IT, isn’t it?

Protects civilisation from terror;

Operator acts securely, does the deed,

Goes home, and plays

With lively children.

 

Who gives a dam for that X?

A hooded group of terrorists,

Part of the sunburnt Taliban,

Gathering for another plotting session,

To get rid of their space invaders,

Or to carry IEDs to Kabul.

 

Well, they won’t do it now.

From deep blue sky

Comes a gift from the west,

Perfect for the occasion,

Delivered with ribbons,

Postage free.

 

The searing flash rips the rocks,

Generates deadly dust;

Keening begins, wailing,

But IT doesn’t hear, doesn’t decode,

Doesn’t want to know

The pain of others.

 

The wedding has turned into a funeral

For fathers, mothers,

Children, brothers,

Aunts, uncles, others.

Blood runs scarlet

On yellow sand.

 

Why should civilisation care?

IT rules OK.

Just another drone splat,

With terrorists bound to be

In there somewhere.

 
 

IN AFGHAN FIELDS

 

In Afghan fields the poppies blow,

And death is growing row on row,

And we, with such just cause for woe,

Will rid the land of drug-lust’s show.

 

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow,

And we like to think, that row on row,

They preserve our men who died in woe –

We wear them now, November’s show.

 

God help us for our silly show,

The way we heap the woe on woe,

And think we have the straightest row –

Hypocrites await death’s blow.

 

GALLIPOLI

 

I am glad I was not there:

It was long before my time,

When Churchill sent the men

To be slaughtered in their prime.

 

The lumbering ships rolled on,

Too ancient for their role:

The enemy soon would yield

To His Great Nation’s goal.

 

The guns that lay concealed,

The skill behind their shot –

They didn’t think of that,

They weren’t worth a jot.

 

The Great Nation reeled in pain,

The barrels blasted death,

And pompous words soon died

In puffs of gasping breath.

 

But still the ships plough on,

The lesson still not learned:

The body-bags come home,

The victory still not earned.

 

MARTYRDOM

 

Fifty more deaths in Iraq yesterday,

Bodies in God's image blown to smithereens;

Freedom-fighters, loyal to their ideals,

Seeking martyrdom and the departure

Of those strangers who came to liberate

Their country and themselves,

Stepped on the path to Heaven,

Saw glory in the distance, crowns, angels,

Pressed buttons, and human frames

Blew skywards. Devils red with blood

Walked the shattered streets,

The fragmented limbs pointing

Limply everywhere and nowhere.

 

What is this martyrdom of souls,

This upper level of resolution,

And where do we who, unasked,

Were made complicit in a decade

Of deadly troubles find our peace,

Our glory? Where is our heaven?

Where do we, hubris's victims,

Who have suffered mortal pain

On behalf of others' actions,

Find our own solace?

 

What will we have to say

The day we reach that Throne

And a judgement falls,

Razor-sharp and well-deserved

Upon our high ideals?

'God be merciful to me,

A sinner'?  Will we have space

To say, 'Not I, not I, but that other

One who glimpsed, with smiling face,

The democratic heaven,

The fulfilment of his ideals,

Has thrown us as his martyrs 

Into Hell'?

 

Why worry?   It's just another day

In liberated Iraq.  Let's go for a walk.

 

 

DUMP THERAPY

 

Here I am again,

Car boot full,

The junk spilling over the back seats,

Things I’ve wanted to throw out

For years,

But never quite managed

Until now.

 

How good it feels!

Oh yes, driving’s great today,

Sun warm, benevolent even,

I’m younger too,

Not a grey hair in sight,

Almost airborne with relief

That my rubbish is behind me.

 

I steer expectantly,

Even joyfully

To the ‘Recycling Centre’ –

The old name has been dumped too,

It’s gone creatively posh,

To let the new come in.

 

I tell the wee man

The nature of my rubbish,

Explain the categories,

The subdivisions,

The demergers,

The finer distinctions,

The sub-sub-categories,

The technical differentials;

I disaggregate my self

Before the watching world.

 

When I get down to

The atomic separations,

The quarks and bosons

Of my former existence,

I feel I’m in control,

That I know how to do

A taxing taxonomy

Of my own trash.

 

I drive round,

Gradient increasing,

Well-being on the ascendant,

Stopping at each

Very, very specific

Skip.

 

Precision is of the essence

In this recycling business.

‘Household Plastics’ –

I hurl them in,

The old basin, the bowl,

The bucket with the crack;

‘Electronic items’ –

The CDs and DVDs

Have their last spin

Tunefully fragmenting;

‘Televisions and Monitors’ –

The old set reaches

The far end of its life,

Crashes down,

Displaced by digital –

Everything available now.

We must be more receptive.

 

But where’s the

‘Cardboard’?

I go round again,

And ask again,

And go round again…

And again.

 

Ah, there – yes, yes!

How could I be so blind,

So ignorant of the litter

Created by the little things,

The harmless things of  life…

 

So silly as to believe

And even feel

Great cleansing has been achieved:

Less junk around the house,

Less to hold me back,

Less to impede the hand and heart…

 

Until the next time.

Please don’t look

Inside.

Just skip that.

 
July 2012

 






FLORO ENCOUNTER

 

Suddenly I’m there again,

Walking into ‘the ship’,

Just another church,

Something else to see…

Not thinking of Someone,

Only myself.

 

Threshold crossed

Another dimension pulls me,

Heaves me upwards,

Invisible, inexplicable

Block and tackle,

A ship sail-billowing,

Fashioned with devotion,

Every plank perfect,

Crosses the nave,

Bowsprit towards the Cross,

Steering for Christ

At the altar.

 

Another level transcends

My being, stills my heart;

I sit in utter quietness,

Others inclusively excluded…

I think about life,

Death and the hereafter,

The Why, the What, the How.

Not Why I came,

Not What I came to see,

Not How I came to see it,

But greater, deeper stirrings

In these eternal interrogatives:

Bearings to be checked

On life’s voyage.

 

Marble Figure speaks,

Shows His wounded hands,

Palms pained with nailprints,

Beckons with outstretched arms,

Preaching inaudibly,

Wordy sermons not needed

At His altar:

‘This do in remembrance of

ME’.

July 2013

 


 

Drinking a Dieselino coffee on board the MS 'Atloy' at Floro, Norway, in June2013, with my two new friends (Photograph by Ewen McGee)
 

MS ‘ATLOY’

 

Red and black funnel

Like a lodestone pulling me,

My destiny inevitable,

Unstoppable until I stood

Glued to a varnished wheelhouse,

Nameplate ‘Atloy’,

Mast and derrick energetic,

Winch and blocks ready for action,

Undimmed by time and storm,

Waiting to swing me aboard.

 

Across the massive fender,

Huge tyre hard as rock,

Between gunwale and quay,

I skip, hitting deck,

Hard teak soft beneath my feet,

Spring in my legs,

Youth renewed

By eighty years of ‘Atloy’.

 

There we are together,

A trinity of friends,

Yet aliens half an hour ago,

Meeting by pure coincidence,

Now all strangeness gone.

 

United by coastlines,

Bonded by oceans,

Empowered by islands.

Our feet on teak planks,

Metal all around us,

Riveted into the ‘Atloy’

At Floro’s dockside.

 

Framed in stories,

Each saloon, cabin;

‘Cursing and swearing’ second class,

The ‘better lot’ in velvet saloon;

Cows roaring in the hold.

We climb a strenuous ladder

To that narrow wheelhouse

Draped in postal pennant

Preserved with pride –

Atom of energy

That keeps ‘Atloy’ sailing,

The telegraph of commitment

On ‘Full Ahead’.

 


We drink diesel coffee,

Strong, rich, enabling,

As the yarns flow thick,

And now a recitation:

‘Tam o’ Shanter’ rides again

Over the airwaves of Floro,

Outwards, upwards,

‘Meg’ leaps across the oceans

To gain ‘Atloy’s’ quaystone.

 

Gunnr releases his Scottish passions

From a Burning heart,

And the boy from the Suduroy

Talks of Vatnsbolstadr and Skaranes,

Remembers Gunnaroy across the Sound.

Feels Norwegian,
 


Listens forever,

Entranced,

Amazed,

Enlightened.

Delighted.

 

NOTES

‘Suduroy’ – the Norwegian term for the ‘southern isles’, the Hebrides, from Lewis to the Isle of Man. 

Vatnsboldstadr – [Loch] Bhasabol (‘the farmstead of the loch’), Tiree.

Skaranes – Scarinish (‘sea-mew promontory’), Tiree.

Gunnaroy (‘Gunnr’s island’) – the island of Gunna, across the Sound of Gunna from Caolas, Tiree.

 

 

TAM TOLERANT

 

Ma name is Tam the Scotsman,

An’ Ah’m fair in word an’ deed:

Ah’m balanced in ma attitudes,

An’ tolerance is ma creed.

 

Ah huvnae time fur God or kirk,

Ah’ve never felt the need,

Because Ah’m balanced in ma attitudes,

An’ tolerance is ma creed.

 

Ye ken, that’s what it’s aw aboot–

Gie an’ tak afore ye’re deid,

If ye’re balanced in yer attitudes,

An’ tolerance is yer creed.

 

But see if anyone says tae me

That he believes indeed

In God an’ Heaven an’ aw that stuff,

Ah’ll fair cut aff his heid:

 

Because, ye ken, ma tolerance

Is aboot ma ain true creed,

An’ if some guy is pushin’ me,

He’ll feel ma blade wi speed.

 

See me oan a Seterday,

When Ah want ma team tae lead:

Ah’m roarin’ on thae terraces,

Fur tolerance is ma creed.

 

An’ if ony guy’s a Tory,

Ah’ll butt him wi’ ma heid,

Fur Ah’m a red-hot socialist,

An’ tolerance is ma creed.

 

An’ Ah’ve got a nice wee hanker

Fur the Nats an’ Alex’s breed,

So socialists ar’nae quite ma thing,

Though tolerance is ma creed.

 

Noo, pity help the stupid nut

Who thinks Ah’m just a weed,

Who’d even dare tae gie a hint

That intolerance is ma creed.

 

Fur Ah’m an internationalist,

An’ Ah’m helpin’ peace succeed;

Ah’m open-minded aw the way,

An’ tolerance is ma creed!


 

ROBERT BECK

In ever-grateful memory of Robert Beck, MRCVS, formerly Veterinary Surgeon in Tiree,

and Lecturer in Animal Husbandry in the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Medicine,

Edinburgh, who died in Tiree on 14 December 2013.

 
 

Trust you, Robert, to leave us on a stormy day,

To take your final passage when the seas were surging,

The waves thundering on the brown rocks,

The ‘Clansman’ turning back to Oban, unable

To face the seas beyond the Cailleach.

That was your weather, the weather of your soul,

The weather that called out the best in you,

The elemental challenge which powered your heart,

As you fought to beat the forces that kept islands

Submerged below the horizon of Glasgow desks,

Beyond the vision of offices with Venetian blinds.

 

The storms were what brought you into view,

Your red hair blowing wild, like seaweed defying

The pounding of the day, your brown overall

Splashed with cow-dung, the ‘sheugh’ as you called it,

And the cow’s head held firmly in your mighty grip.

 

Never was strength more affectionate,

Never love greater, unforgettable to those who marvelled

In the cattle-crush that such elemental energies

Could live together, bringing healing succour,

With words of comfort for a hurting animal.

You lived for care, for cure, for conquering,

For the good of your own beloved islanders –

And you an Ayrshire Lowlander too.

 

Aye, and the thistle was your favourite flower,

Growing out of your garden,

Wild and tooried like yourself,

Proudly defiant, because you cared

For Scotland – and we all knew

Where you stood, when it wasn’t fashionable

To have thistles in the garden,

Far less stand on them

Barefoot for pleasure.

 

You were a thistle, with bagpipes

Over your branching, prickly leaves,

Coming tousled and kilted up the pier

From the pulsing old ‘Claymore’

With your band playing proudly,

Their notes chantering tunefully across Gott Bay,

Winners of World Pipe Band Championships,

Carrying gold, because that was

Your only standard.

 

We all knew your impatient strength,

But beneath it was your deep-rooted kindness,

Your love for people, your ability to appear

On the day of hardship, unasked, unsought,

And work a croft, this very croft of ours

When my father almost died.  

My thanks will be eternal.

 

You rough, gold-studded, diamond-hearted

Thistle of a man, standing in the storms,

You heaved this island up above the surface,

Made it rise above the waves,

Made it visible, healthy, tuneful,

And today your music sounds

In the instruments of others.

 

Aye, Robert, you chose your day to go:

You couldn’t stay, because there was an illness

That demanded your attention, and you went

Immediately as you always did for others –

It was your day to travel to your Last Island.

 

But in the storms the islanders will see and hear

The thistle playing the bagpipes,

And the cattle will look up to find

A miracle-man, tousled and red-haired,

Striding kilted through the field.

‘There’s THE Vet’, they’ll bellow,

‘And all will be well.’



  


SUSAN

In memory of Susan Paterson,

formerly Head of Marketing with Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries.

 

Quietly you slipped your moorings

Your boat destined for the farther side

Bending its smiling sails to the evening breeze

With no strain upon the shrouds

A ripple of laughter from its shapely bow

The helm held firmly in your gentle hand

Waves bearing you proudly

Pleased to carry your kindly spirit

To its desired haven.

 

We did not see you as you left

We had no time say farewell

For we did not set the time –

The schedule was not ours.

There was a time to keep

But we were not the keepers;

Suddenly you were gone

Leaving us the empty space

Beside the harbour wall.

 

Yet with telescopic sight

 We see you on the other side

Where you will rest awhile;

But when your sails are furled

And your boat lies safe above

The relentless stubborn tide

Your warm heart will look astern

Across that restless ocean

Which we too must some day cross;

And when we do make harbour

We will see that beaming face

Which we now so deeply mourn

But which we are proud

To have loved –

And known.

19.12.2012




 


 


ROBIN AT RYDAL MOUNT

 
Little bird, I caught you in digital form,


Sharp in the sensitivity of your plumage,

Perfectly formed, diminutively glorious,

Patiently perching in that deep green hedge,

While I trembled at the moment’s peak,

As you crowned it with light presence.

 

The gate was closed, and we were too late

To see the garden where the Poet had spent

Years of tilling, finding fecund phrases,

Discovering crops of words, engrossed

In growth of thoughts, engaged in the soil

Of creativity, each day labouring with hoe,

Removing weeds, casting aside rough stalks,

Nurturing plants yet too young to appear

In public show, for judgement by eyes

With piercing, powerful gaze.

 

Yet there was no disappointment, but joy

In deeper solitude alive with endless voice,

One that I had not heard before, stronger

In its unspoken fragility, its haunting silence,

Travelling beyond sound’s need and reach

To the inner being of the self,

Providing an immense glory,

 

The perfect poem, the greatest tribute

To the Poet’s honed horticulture,

An explanation of infinite fertility.

 

As I watched you, and pressed the button,

My eyes sang tears of understanding,

Yonder at the locked gate

Of Rydal Mount.

 

NOTE

Rydal Mount, near Grasmere, was the home of William Wordsworth for many years. 

 

GENITIVE CASE

 

Sometimes I think I spent my whole life

Unpacking the genitive case.

I don’t know where it came from,

But when I was at the Left Luggage

Of an ancient Indo-European language station

In a fit of labellous confusion

And academic amnesia

I picked it up. 

 

A slim portmanteau,

Or so I thought until I opened it,

Unlocked the first clasp, and found

Proximity, possession, prepositions,

All piled on top of one another,

Nouns, singular, plural, large, small,

Some erroneously wrapped, sellotaped badly,

Other packages in there with ‘Return to sender’

Clearly indicated, but never actually

Sent back.  The products of our grammarless,

Godless generation.   Linguistic archaeology

Urgently required inside that case. 

 

Heaney-like I tried to dig with my pen,

Layer after layer of cases in point,

But never finding the root of it all;

A case study merely left me bogged down

In endings, but there were no beginnings;

Things tagged on constantly, then eroded,

Worn down by misuse.   As I went through

The case it led me back to Tollund Man,

Smiling soggily at me through the peat

Of Indo-European burials, layer upon layer,

His asterisks shining through the mud,

But when I dug him out finally

I discovered he had zero genitive.

Time had taken its revenge.

 

I’m still trying to get out of that hole,

But sometimes I fear it went too deep;

The case led on, bottomless, sides

That expanded endlessly, ever contracting

My vision to the very nadir of world view.

 

No Left Luggage will have it back,

Just in case it contains a bomb.

It’s all like a fairy-tale, except that

It’s real and inescapable.

 

My post-mortem will record:

‘He was engulfed

In the genitive case, swallowed up,

But nobody knows how he got in there.

He became Tiree Man.’

 





KELPIES

 

Dramatic heads, horses heaving

Above motorways, tiny cars passing,

Pylons alongside, looking small:

Mighty in creative energies,

They dwarf our present,

Challenge thoughtless lowlands,

Make our today minimal

Compared with yesterday.

 

They drag us into the reality,

And point us beyond.

Powerfully they pitch for the sky,

Pull the past behind them,

Haul the future into view.

 

 

I see them and look forward

To an unknown tomorrow,

Rising from the water,

Glinting with sunshine.

 

 






ROAD WORKS

 

Warning bleeps of a reversing lorry

Strike immediate terror, panic, window-watching,

To see if it’s workmen coming with a digger

To make a hole in my road.

 

I hope, pray, beseech earnestly that it is not,

As I loathe, hate, abominate

This damned disturbance,

This frivolous fracturing, fragmenting,

Rupturing, rumbling, roaring,

Pneumatic drills pounding,

Banging, walloping, whacking,

Cutting, cracking, crunching.

Road Closed – a diversion?

You must be joking!

 

Go away, leave us alone!

No red lights here please!

We want green all the time.

We don’t want noise,

We don’t want a broken road,

And we don’t want a new surface.

 

The old is perfectly good for us.

It’s safe for now,

Done the job for centuries,

 And who cares about the day

The truly big hole

Will appear, and swallow

The lot of us

Hollus-bollus?
 

 

 
 

STREET WISE

 

The never-ending one-way street

I travelled on for months and years,

No way to go but straight ahead –

‘Keep on, keep on, and have no fears!’

 

And down I went, and down and down,

Looking out for rainbow’s end,

That pot of gold as my reward,

Until the street went round a bend…

 

And horror stared me in the face,

A chasm opened; I stopped dead;

A yawning gap where ground had been,

And no support for any tread.

 

So back I turned to find my Self,

Past hundreds on that self-same route,

‘You fool!’ they said, ‘Keep on, keep on!

You’ll never find the jewelled loot!’

 

But back I fought against the flow,

Traffic, people, surging on,

Avoiding their relentless ‘go’,

Until the cramping street was gone,

 

And fresh perspective then appeared,

With eloquent rainbow proudly arched:

‘I have no gold to make you rich,

But I do have water for the parched.

 

‘Stop right here and see the world,

Its breadth, its depth, and all its height:

Head for the hills, and leave that street –

Fix your eyes on a Larger Light.’

 
 

 RADIANCE

 

My kingdom is not darkness,

My world is not darkness,

My head is not darkness,

My heart is not darkness,

My hope is not darkness.

 

I glimpsed darkness once,

Darker than any darkness,

Blacker than any blackness,

Thicker than any thickness,

Darkness that only one light

Could penetrate,

But that light did not shine

For me, and I fell down

That shaft, that gulley of despair

Where no speck of brightness

Could enter.

 

A battle raged in my soul,

Within my being, tearings

And wrenchings, white-knuckle

Fights, punch-ups, manglings

Of mind and body.

 

Painfully I returned to the light,

To a kingdom of brightness,

Where every colour, even black,

Shines to the perfect day.

 

I met the denizens

Of that other kingdom,

I fought with them,

And I never want to see

Their brutal blackness

Again.

 

My door is closed firmly, bolted

Tight tonight and every other night,

When their representatives

Even pretend to arrive.

My kingdom is light.

 


LOST TIME

 

Sunshine hangs limply on trees,

Uncertain of strength, shading grey,

Clouds of cotton-wool caress roofs

Knowingly, floating emptily

In a strange suspense; bushes move

Branches in slow fragility,

While time waits quietly

To reassert meaning.

 

My clock has stopped, lost its meridian,

No signal coming to reset the hands,

To make energy, to motivate,

To make a temporal frame

To hold the boundaries of the day;

The day seems boundless, endless,

Shading off into that contemplative sky

Beyond the window blinds.

 

No focus now which is set on someone else,

No hour to keep, no visit to be made,

No desire to accommodate tiny selfish calls

Round one central vocation.

 

How strange to sit here, looking outwards,

Glimpsing a portrait of recent life

Which controlled the day’s order,

But now asks for no more than a glance

Within a broader gaze

Towards these clouds.

 

Time for myself?  Is that what I have at last?

How then to define it, to shape it,

To relate it to the unfolding day,

Week, month, year, decade,

To discover the rationale that brings these

Waving branches, these fleeting clouds,

That wan sunshine,

Into the confines of the self,

Into the necessary new meaning

Of being here?

 

My clock within, when will your signal

Come afresh to integrate this hour?

 
 

PARTING

 

Radiance came through glass,

Sunshine filled the chapel,

As we said our Goodbyes

To ninety-eight years of life

Well lived, full of days,

Every day filled, no moment lost,

Everything of interest,

No particle of bone denied

To others’ service,

Music to the end, glad

Voices of great-grandchildren

Interrupting tunefully in affirmation,

‘All things bright and beautiful’.

 

‘The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended’,

But another day is beginning

As we remember

That self-giving little lady

With sparkle in her eyes

And sunshine in her heart.


 

 







LAST SERVICE AT KIRKAPOL

8 December 2013

 

Did I live through that?  Was I there?

Or was it a phantom of the night,

Come to create a false grieving?

It lurks in the depths

Where no ordinary chores

Or routine memories linger, where

Reality lies behind necessary facade.

 

My fingers press keys reluctantly

On this board, and they translate

Into faint music in the far corner,

Organ cowering under supreme pulpit,

Playing a soft, final tune,

As the weighty Bible is carried

Solemnly downwards, step by step,

By an east-end Elder,

No Word left on the book-board.

 

The font follows into a morning of mist,

And then the congregation drags itself

From the sanctuary into the cramped vestibule,

The sea grey today, the sky downcast,

Gott Bay’s sweeping crescent ready to accept,

In gusting winds, that sighing in the soul.

 

I stand uneasily, trying to converse,

My mind asking if this is the remnant

Of night’s silly turmoil, brain’s chaos,

An outline devoid of substance,

But somehow it remains, pushes itself at me,

Tells me that it has happened,

But I deny it a hearing.

 

That fortress of reformed faith,

Squarely obstinate, stubborn in the gales,

Rose above the glowering clouds

As I drove through the cold puddles

Of night’s ceaseless downpours.

The island landmark bulked before me,

Massive block of parish authority,

Steering life from conception

To eternal resurrection.

So it must endure:

As then on a million occasions,

So now and for ever more.

But this is terminal, an ending,

No hope of physical resurrection

For this almighty building.

 

Another parish church stands empty,

Successor to St Columba’s ancestral chapel,

Now a roofless ruin in the graveyard,

Doorless with gaping gables,

The frail fabric finite and bodies too,

Rev. Neil MacLean mere dust in the western corner,

Replicating the last pilgrimages of the myriad mortals,

Whose births, marriages and deaths it recorded,

Directed, consecrated, commemorated,

On their journeys across life’s machair,

Over these very roads to Kirkapol

In sun and rain,

Calm and storm,

Joy and sorrow,

Until they ended there.

 

That great cloud of witnesses

Conveys me homeward,

And lingers until now.

Presences remain, talking, arguing,

Singing, preaching, praying,

Pressing themselves hard

Upon my fruitless frailty:

 

That locked door, they say,

Is not real, for faith continues:

But I was there, and I saw and felt

A painful conclusion.

 


EPITAPH FOR A PROFESSOR

 

Beneath these stones a scholar lies –

He told a few, and here’s his prize:

Professor once, but now the ‘Late’,

As befits a man who’s passed his date:

He often sought for longer time,

And kept others waiting for each line:

He also made some bad mistakes,

And spoiled his copy with retakes:

But alas! His greatest fatal fault

Was to be mortal.  What a dolt!

No new edition sells down here,

So no corrections will appear.

He had his chance to rise and shine,

But now he’s met his last deadline.

 


 

TRANSLATIONS

 

THE YOUNG LADDIE AND THE OLD FELLOW

(Transl. of ‘Am Balach ’s am Bodach’)

 

Today I encountered a laddie,

As I was hauling stones and gravel,

A young fellow with a gleam on his face,

Unfamiliar with pain or hardship,

His hair the colour of the raven,

The depth of the sea in his eyes.

‘What are you doing, my friend?’

Asked the lad in a way that was kindly.

 

‘I am reinforcing the foundation

Of that house over there with high gables;

And I am thankful that I can lift

The rugged stones with a shovel,

With nothing to bother my mind,

But to use my sinews in the quarry.’

 

‘What are you doing?’

I asked him in pity.

 

‘I am currently a scholar

Sitting in the toffs’ classroom,

Listening to the history of Scotland

And England and Ireland, and their hardship.

I am down in the Bridge of the Cam,

There in the stylish edifices,

Where the tuneful voice of the tutors

Tells how the hosts crossed the oceans.

 

‘Occasionally, I’ll go out on the river,

To take a relaxing breather,

And I’ll sit for a spell in the library

Reading and snoozing and dreaming.’

 

‘How amazing that is,’ said I,

‘I once was at the very same game,

Listening to very posh tutors,

And attending stimulating lectures,

Walking the ancient pavements,

And splashing about in the wavelets.’

 

‘I followed the river to its source,

I sought the origins diligently;

And I supposed with a certainty that I’d find

The Rosetta that would be my lodestone;

That I would be a grand, famous professor,

Attracting hundreds to hear me,

But my mind harboured only a mirage,

Though it was an effective allurement.

And here I am with the wheelbarrow

Strengthening the foundations that bore me,

Likening myself to Ossian

After the death of the Fianns, once victorious.’

 

And he said, with understanding eyes,

‘Who on this earth would believe

That we once walked together as one?’

 

 

THE OLD CART-TRACK

(Transl. of ‘An Seann Bhealach’)

 

Today I walked along the old cart-track,

Step by step across the machair,

Through the long grass and the marrem,

Where frequently the feet

Of the brown horse pulled a cart;

The hooves creating ruts,

And wheels’ iron tyre cutting stones,

And there was hope in a boy’s heart

That he would find seaweed on the shore.

 

And that he would return with the cart creaking,

The wheels squeaking on the axles,

And the brown horse struggling in harness,

Water streaming from the stalks of seaweed,

The boy walking by the side of the cart

Until he reached the plot for tilling,

Where he would tip the fertiliser

To encourage the growth of spring planting.

 

I walked, and the image was so vivid,

Red-brown seaweed entangled round my legs,

The horse frightened with fear of the sea,

The cart clattering with noisy rhythm,

And when I reached the shoreline,

The seaweed was piled high in stacks,

Yellow heaps overflowing…

 

But, alas, as I gained the shore’s threshold,

I lost the cart-track in the sand-bank,

The smooth light sand caused me to stumble:

I was not destined to find crop-enrichment –

The cart-track of youth, the cart-track of fantasy.

 

NOTES

‘Bealach’ in Tiree Gaelic means ‘a cart-track to the shore’.

‘Leasachadh’ in Tiree Gaelic meant (past tense, I fear) the ‘growth-improver’ that was spread on fields, either seaweed or manure.   Nowadays, in posh official Gaelic, it means ‘development’. 

This flash-back was very vivid indeed as I took a walk along the old track yesterday.  The track was preserved reasonably clearly, until it reached the edge of the shore, and then it vanished in the light sand.  Changed days!  How often, as a boy, I went there on my own with the horse and cart!

 

 

THE WELL OF JOHN’S WIFE

(Transl. of ‘Tobar Bean Iain’)

 

Today I walked past

The Well of John’s Wife,

Myself and the two dogs,

Each one of us on a lead,

And the well choked

With cress and weeds,

And no water to be seen,

Although the well of youth

Returned for a moment.

 

Maggie, my grandmother’s sister,

Sitting with me

Once again on the edge,

Plucking the watercress,

And giving it to me to eat,

Tasty on our lips,

Our silent communion.

 

Then she would take a leaf of iris

From the soft, warm ground,

Folding it between her

Large, manly, knowing fingers,

Creating a boat,

Bending the end of the leaf

Into a beautiful wheel

Which the wind would

Grip as a sail.

 

And I would make from another leaf

My own little, hopeful boat,

In the same way, carefully,

Preparing it for the race.

 

We would release them from our hands,

Maggie’s boat going first,

Propelled by the eddies,

Colliding with the rushes,

Going over on its side,

Carried by the ditch’s current

Through every pool and loop,

Until we would lose it finally

In the strange stalks

At a distance far from us.

 

My own little light one

Would go then, shapely in form,

Only just able to sail,

Keeling over,

Following hers,

Uncertain of the outcome.

With no joy

I would return home.

 

But the water has not stopped

Running in my mind,

And I can see my iris boat

Still

Going with the current,

Although it’s certain

That she is not far

From the brown stalks.

 

 

MISSING A DEPARTED POET

(Transl. of ‘Ionndrainn Bàird’)

 

On the night of your flitting, John,

As the evening sun was sinking

Red as fire in the western sky,

You sailed on the ‘Economy’ of white clothes,

And you passed the island of your youth.

Your eyes were directed over Gunna

To Mull of the high mountains,

And on the island of Coll across the sound

From Urvaig of the stones and machairs

In the island of your natural endowment.

 

Here I am imagining you,

At the ship’s side, constantly watching

Until your eyes could no longer see

MacDougall’s Hill and the old home

On the horizon, as your tears flowed,

That great, final separation,

The divorce between two worlds

Broadening, regardless.

 

Your course was set,

Your destination certain,

But the sea was restless

Under the keel of your ship,

And the heart was rocking

At the prospect of gloomy woods.

 

Today I too am trying

To find MacDougall’s Hill at a distance

Of two hundred years since you left,

And to see the foundations of that old house

In the soft, succulent grass

That now covers the nest of your youth,

Where your life’s basis lay,

Where songs would be heard,

Where the shapely stones

Protected you from the storm,

And nourished your poetry.

 

I saw nothing at all,

House ruins or settlement site,

Nothing but sheep grazing,

A lonely lapwing

Rising on the breeze

Over by Miodar,

A beautiful partial rainbow

Multi-coloured on the great circle of the sea,

And the mighty car-ferry

Sailing for Barra.

 

NOTE

The Gaelic title, ‘Ionndrainn Baird’, can mean also mean ‘A Poet’s Longing for Something or Someone Lost’.  This ambiguity fits the theme of my effusion perfectly:  both the poet and I have lost something and or someone.    The sense of loss is two-way.

 
 

TIREE MUSIC FESTIVAL

(Transl. of 'Fèis Chiùil Thiriodh’)

 

When in the garden last evening resting my eyes,

A very loud rumble reached me out of the skies:

Bands, groups and Muses really giving their best,

Two hundred miles from me in the Isle of the Fest!

 

Each drum being thumped with a mighty big blow,

Each trumpet and chanter emitting a roar;

The rumpus resembled a thunder-filled cloud,

Like Armageddon being waged – and that very loud!

 

The Low Island was leaping and then jumping high;

Ben Hynish stood clear on the edge of the sky;

That little Golf Ball was sparkling in sun,

And spinning most sprightly as Manran gave it the gun!

 

Skerryvore’s brand of music caused the ocean to heave,

A tuneful tsunami was assailing my ear;

Each whale and each shark was riding the waves,

The sweat pouring off them – mist lasting for days!

 

No sailor could see beyond the length of his nose

With the spray and the spume from each seal as he rose;

The seagull was dancing with a heron in joy,

And the sandpiper chirping in time to their ploy!

 

On the Reef’s broad machair, the cattle went wild,

As the Sturdy Brown Bear scraped a tune from their hide;

One scratch with his claws, and sure they would roar –

But it wasn’t a bellow, just a sweet tuneful tone!

 

Each Blazing Fiddle chased the darkness of night,

You could see every stave, though you might not have light;

Each old man and wife, who were stiff in their bones,

Abandoned the hearth, and started dancing in rows.

 

Said the good Doctor Holliday, ‘It gives me great joy

That they’ve got back their sight and have limbs like a boy;

Red Seumas’s wife, bent and blind she was once,

Landed in Barra when she started to dance!’

 

A skilful group Skipinnish - that was always their way;

Angus, chanter in cheek, gave his box the full play;

Flora went reeling to Iona’s far shore,

With the power of the music that Tiree did outpour!

 

The wee folk in terror fled out of their knolls,

Shouting, ‘Stop breaking the peace, you dirty great trolls!

We live under the ground, quite some distance below,

But we can’t get to sleep with the pipes’ mighty roar!’

 

There wasn’t a nook where you’d not see the crowd,

The hotels full to bursting, and tents standing proud;

CalMac was congested with folk wanting to sail,

The Lean To had run dry, not a drop in the pail.

 

We truly never heard such tunes in the sky;

Though the island is low, its shout is quite high;

Tiree will be famous for many a year,

If the earth stands the strain, and the Fest stays in gear.

 

 

HAILSTONES

(Transl. of ‘Clacha-meallain’)

 

Darkness in the west,

Beinn Hogh disappearing from view,

While we walk the old road north:

We must hasten towards the shore,

To the shelter in the cleft in the rock,

Ancient fortress of seagulls.

 

I see the dun-coloured pall spreading,

Dark splay-feet below it, taking hold of

The waves and the skerries and the islands,

Greasamul of green grass now black-brown,

White foam licking it, Gunna under mist,

The Clach Ul keeping watch in the turmoil:

The Sound of Gunna lost in the twinkling of my eye.

 

The ‘Clansman’ at the Head of Soay,

Her demanding daily duty completed,

Fleeing before the volley to come.

 

And now the bullets, round, rugged,

Showering down with no pity, mercy or sensitivity,

Cold, tempestuous, whistling

And dancing on the old rocks,

Rocks that are totally indifferent

Though I should hit them with my soft, white hand:

I am nothing but flesh

And blood and brittle bones.

 

Ten minutes of intense warfare,

Eternal strife of foundational elements,

Everything dark, black, debilitating,

But there yonder in the west,

A flash of hope, a shaving of blue sky.

 

We will try out again,

Myself and the dogs,

Treading the old pathway

Towards the light.

 

 

THE LAST PHOTOGRAPH

of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother.

(The photograph was taken in 1916 by their son,

John MacDonald, who was killed at Arras in 1917.)

(Transl. of ‘An Dealbh Deireannach’)

 
 

Here you are hung on the wall,

Congealed in the chemistry of preservation,

Your backs to the garden dyke,

Between the biggest stones of them all.

 

These stones have stood right down to the present,

Without change or shadow of turning,

Except for some moss

On their faces.

 

But you have departed, in spite of the photograph;

The chemistry preserved you only as an image,

Although you were both so brave and active,

Living stones that neither wind nor storm would shift,

Fearless before poverty or disease,

Before landlord or factor,

And both of you gladly engaged in

The building-stones of life,

Building the new house,

Building the family,

The great wall of the generations.

 

What did you see on that day,

When you sat in front of the camera,

As Iain pushed the button?

You were weary, worn out

With the grim constructing of your day,

Your faces ploughed by hardship,

But yet your sight was sharp,

The stones [= pupils] of your eyes open.

 

Did you see the little bullet of light

Whizzing towards the camera,

Freezing you inside it,

And travelling in a trice

Into Iain’s brain?

 

Did you see the great stones falling,

And the family wall that you built with effort

Falling apart,

Not a single person

Left

Alive?

 

 

ROTTEN SEAWEED

(Transl. of ‘Feamainn Ghrod’)

 

Down at the craggy back of Miodar

The south-east wind is sharp,

The bare, grey sweep of spring cutting

The dark-brown skin of surly winter

From the soft, mortal machairs;

Low tide, and reefs appear,

Gravel and sand and shells,

Loquacious streams running between stones,

Keeping at it eternally,

Bailing out the land

That is drowned beneath floods.

 

And the stench!  The pong of seaweed,

The putrid, brutal guff of mortality

Piercing my nostrils with the sharp skelf

Of the stinking, rotten, decayed fruit of battle,

The remnants of the struggle of the great powers,

The bare bones of broken kelp-stalks lying

Far above the tidemark, where the storm

Left them with its smoking and roaring,

In every rent, cutting and corner,

Heaped up, dead and lifeless,

With the onslaught of the big guns,

Wave upon wave, volley upon volley,

The poisonous ice-pellets hammering,

Without stopping or pausing, until everything

Living on the machair had been destroyed,

The land breathless, and the booty of ocean’s fight

Abandoned where it fell.

 

And there, an open grave

Beside the stream, dug out

Beautifully, neatly, by a kindly breeze

And a merciful little loch licking it,

Where one soldier could rest,

And where the elements could cleanse him continually

From the corruption of war.

 

If only we could know for whom

The friendly breeze made it…

A hundred years afterwards.

 

Who would believe, John, that it was to that spot

That your restless thoughts returned

In that final letter,

The never-ending stench of the Miodar’s rotten seaweed

Reaching you again

In the mud and muck and mire

Of the battlefield of France?

 

Was the ultimate omen

In the wind?

 

JFK

(Transl. of poem of same name)

 

Fifty years, did you say?

That night is as clear to me

As though it should have happened last night –

By the fireside in Tiree,

The cat roasting himself by the fire,

Turning over and stretching his paws,

The wind whistling in the chimney,

And I so safely snug and warm, stretching

My own legs on the bench.

 

In my hand a book full of maps,

Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas,

Information pouring out of it,

The four brown corners of the world before me,

Understanding of the world lying in my lap.

 

The nine o’ clock news

Coming with the rumble of thunder,

The Young Hero of the West

Dead in the afternoon sunshine,

The map of the world exploding

In the middle of the living-room.

 

Those bullets that were fired

In Dallas, in our opinion,

Felled Conn of the Hundred Battles,

Cuchullin,

Finn mac Cool.

 

Great was our lamentation –

Our treasure, our gem, our jewel,

The darling of the bards and great poets,

The tallest tree in the orchard.

No blemish or bruise in him.

 

Fifty years since that night,

Memory is still clear and sharp,

But the fire went out long ago,

The big book of the world rotted,

The wind dispersed the romantic mist of delusion,

And there is no sign of a hero.

 

THE SEA-FARING BANKER

Composed in memory of the late William Groat and his boat, the ‘Otter Bank’.

(Transl. of ‘Maraiche a’ Bhanca’)

 

Your boat is today in harbour

In the museum of Scapa Flow;

The ‘Otter Bank’, strong and agile,

When a storm of waves would blow;

 

Her seafaring is part of history,

Her mast rests on her gunwale now;

She will never again be wave-tossed

In the museum of Scapa Flow.

 

Many a day on the seas of Orkney,

With wind-blown seaspray at her nose,

She takes relief in form of money

To islanders, and gladly goes.

 

William Groat, whose words were gentle,

Endured the banging of great sea,

For the sake of those who needed

Support to form their venture’s key.

 

But you, good William, understood

That money was not all that’s gold;

Your heart was where the treasure rested,

And you opened up your store.

 

Stories and knowledge of sea-faring,

That was the tradition of your folk,

For you belonged to Orkney’s people,

Your body was their flesh and bone.

 

And in Tiree your name is cherished,

Still being mentioned with great pride;

Your meek support was warm-hearted,

And your speech was peaceful, kind.

 

You would raise your sail so neatly,

Competing with others in the race;

We would see your vessel clearly,

Her mast whacking in current’s pace.

 

You, dear William, bequeathed to us

A gift of a kind we’d never seen;

You left us your soul’s tranquillity

In the raging, stormy sea.

 

You and your boat are today in harbour,

Far from the tossing of great waves;

Now cradled are the boat and banker

In Orkney, where your spirit lay.

 

 

MY FRIEND, GORDON DONALD (1928-88)

(Transl. of ‘Mo Charaid, Gordon Donald (1928-88)

 

Gordon, my friend, who would believe

That twenty-five years have gone their way

Since you yourself passed on,

Since you left the shores of Vaul

On that final journey:

You and the ‘Oircean’ are so vivid to me still,

The brown sail swelling on the steadfast mast,

As you steer to windward past the Cleit

To the Eternal Islands far off on the horizon.

 

Vaul is so empty, so lonely,

Since you departed, since you passed on,

So utterly alien to me, as if it has lost

Its very heart.  There’s not a throb there.

But that house still catches my eye,

And I keep expecting that you yourself will come

Over the threshold to meet me.

 

The days, the evenings, that we used to enjoy,

The sensible conversations, subject-based, real,

When I would feel the depths of my mind

Being stirred by the power of your perception,

As if a great and mighty tide,

A tsunami of understanding, had struck me,

And that the puddles and conventional lochs,

The little parochial mud-holes without substance,

Were being cleansed, and swept into the ocean

That connected the low-lying island of Tiree

To the intellectual world of humanity.

 

You understood the weather, each day

Maintaining a watch on the clouds, the showers,

The hours of sunshine, the mist, all the elements

Mastered by you, and that was fortunate, my friend,

Given each wicked storm that came upon you,

And even each beautiful, mendacious evening

With injury and murder in its glorious rays,

A hidden dog-tooth rainbow

That plundered you.

 

And that painful picture –

You on your own searching the shoreline each morning,

To see if you could locate Torquil’s body.

I see you still down among the rocks,

Without my having any way of helping you,

But to speak to you in the Gaelic of Tiree.

The English of London was useless in that adverse hour.

 

My dearly-loved friend, without equal in the land,

We sat together, and we laughed,

We sat together, and we cried,

We sat together, and formed a friendship

That not even the highest tide will break or burst,

That will not be damaged by a brutal rogue-wave

Or by a tempest, until the day that I myself gain

That fair haven with you as my companion

Over yonder among the Eternal Islands.

 

LACHIE, THE ST KILDAN

(Transl. of ‘Lachainn Hiortach')

 

Isn’t it strange how things happen, Lachie!

When I was clearing the garret,

You appeared to me clearly,

And although we never met,

I would nevertheless swear that you were

Here by my side; so nimble in your ways,

So level-headed, peaceful, so active,

Returning every summer to make the old house tight,

Until there was no more returning, and no house,

Everything chewed away by winter and wild weather,

Until you made only an occasional journey

To keep memory green.

 

It was in St Kilda that you appeared to me

At the outset, when I was walking

Through the village, and all the ruins alive

With spirits that nobody sensed but myself,

And I afraid that I was destroying

The blessed, kindly peace that was still

In those exposed, broken houses

That were not by any means empty.

And I see you right now

Walking with your calm step

To the old home, without a bad word,

With only an attractive story

Which was a lamp for those

Who possessed perception

And humility.

 

You narrated to the company

How the pirates came to St Kilda,

And how the people fled for shelter,

How you were almost wiped out

By the terrorists of that time.

 

But when you yourself reached the mainland,

After you had bidden farewell to the island,

Didn’t the plunderers appear again,

Asking you for a story, a story about every custom,

Every tradition, every fashion, every peculiarity

That you had in St Kilda,

And all of you as outlandish as the fulmars.

 

And didn’t they go off with the treasure,

The lofty, swelling sails of ignorance,

Sparkling, haughty on the masts,

Until they reached the harbour of fabrications,

Where they sold St Kilda’s honour

For mean-spirited pieces of silver.

 

You never sold your honour,

And you never will, my friend.

You were still courteous and fair-minded

The day the last ship came

Into the big bay of your life,

And you sailed in it

To another mainland over the horizon.

 

May you long be by my side,

Honourable Lachie from St Kilda.

 

GAVIN

In memory of the late Dr Gavin Wallace

(Transl. of poem of same name.)

 

Creativity was in you naturally, Gavin,

Woven into your sinews,

Breath of life,

Beat of heart,

Shake of hand,

Lift of head,

Sweep of eye,

Fruit of mind,

Dance of imagination,

Pen’s stroke on paper,

Radiant books,

Scotland being created skilfully,

Scotland of Gaels and Lowlanders,

Long before Creative Scotland

Was created.

 

You were a creator

In your own humble, earthly ways,

As you saw sharply through the initial mist

A world that could come into being

If there were opportunity,

A new story that had not been heard

Or seen ever before;

And you created the opportunities,

Weaving a rainbow for those

Who were willing to walk with you

On the rugged, lovely road of creativity

Until together we arrived at

The gold that was concealed.

 

A wicked flood came upon us,

And it swept you out of our sight,

But it was then

That we saw,

Suspended above the clouds,

The beauty of your rainbow

Still encircling

Our sky.
 

22.8.2013.

 

FORGIVENESS

(Transl. of ‘Maitheanas’)

 

When you left Robben Island,

It was not with murder in your heart,

It was not with hatred in your soul,

It was not with fire’s venom in your eyes,

It was not with a gun blazing in your hands,

It was not with red rage in your brain,

It was not with dark death in your feet,

 

But with the walk of peace,

The handshake of friendship,

The gleam of hope,

The warmth of kindness,

The spirit of forgiveness,

A relaxed smile on your face.

 

You learned your craft

In the bitter-sweet quarry of hardship;

The real stone-cutting

Was now ahead of you;

It was not stones of lime,

But stones of life,

On which you would strike

Your gentle chisel,

Well-aimed.

 

In the end you sat down,

You laid your tools aside,

And you drew up your will:

 

You did the quarrying:

You bequeathed the stone-dressing

To us.

 

HOW MANY?

(Transl. of ‘Cia Mheud?’)

 

I was in the wake-house tonight,

And the whole community was in there,

Some frozen in chairs, speechless,

Others pawing their way round the walls,

Others again congealed to the floor,

And I myself at the door, on the threshold,

Observing it all with concern,

Swinging between two lives.

 

I was biding my time

Until the body arrived,

So that we could put it in the coffin,

But I didn’t see one single body.

 

Then a black van appeared

With a dozen coffins, and another van

After that with another dozen – and I understood

That I would have to go beyond one

In my counting.

 

I managed to get out the door

On this occasion.

 

TAKING LEAVE

(Transl. of ‘Dealachadh’)

 

The cow bellowed in the field

In the middle of the prayer,

As the breeze was dancing

With the leaves of paper,

The flowers fluttering

Lightly on top of the coffin,

The wind between the houses

Sweeping my hair, playing

With the signs of old age.

 

A big white world of sunshine

Was all around us, a heavenly day,

The clouds of righteousness in the sky,

The sea so broad, so blue,

Mull on the horizon, Ben More

On eternal vigilance, and the sands of Coll

Gleaming across the Caolas narrows.

 

The old friends had gathered

On the grass-covered machair,

Which had hardened after the floods

And storms of the winter.

The great tempest now past,

And peace on earth,

For the moment.

The old house stood behind you,

The house of many memories,

Giving its warm parting blessing,

While the house of many mansions

Was waiting for you expectantly.

 

 

GOTT SANDS

(Transl. of ‘Tràigh Ghot’)

 

Gott Bay all around me,

A sparkle on each wave,

As, upon soft sand,

My foot-steps cut their way.

 

Ferry glides gently in

To a harbour, peaceful, calm,

Turns towards the link,

Steered by a Master’s hand.

 

Old churches on the hill

In Kirkapol above the surf

Keep their sacred watch

Over those below the turf.

 

 

 
 
 

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