Notes from a small island (3)
We’ll back home by the time you read this; still, I’m enjoying myself too much to stop. About five years ago, Effie’s daughters moved back to Skye, and the holiday cottage was needed as a family home. That’s two more Skye-born families living in Achnacloich, reversing the trend that’s seen it more and more Anglicised. Which is A Good Thing. So now we stop in a chalet in Ord, about five miles along the coast. The road to Ord will, in most weathers, give you the best panoramic view on Skye. Just in case you should go that way.
That boat bucking the wide loch’s swell and chop;
the bracken flat from the wind
and the snow come from the west.
The gleam of outcrop quartz,
the stumps of teeth tired of chewing
the cud of weather and time; tired of wind.
The hum of the strung fence;
the soft wet glottals of snowmelt becks
in the clutter of tumbled gullies.
The nameless plants of sour land,
all ruby, emerald and rust,
that nothing can live on but spiders.
The soft gleam of sand
where seals used to lie,
where coral crumbles, like memory.
(Unpublished. Till now)
Ord itself has lovely views across the loch to Bla Bheinn and to the Clearance sites of Suishnish and Boreraig. For years I was fascinated by the history of the Clearances, and particularly by John Prebble’s beautifully written account.
Because I’d started on an MA creative writing course,I had the idea that I could write poems about Suishnish and Boreraig. I’ve learned since to distrust ideas like that; they’re likely to end in making poems whether they want to be made or not. I’ve also learned to beware of going into places with second-hand ideas about what they mean.
‘The earth has no melancholy
and the land no ghosts
except what we bring with us.’
Go to Boreraig, then, head full of history,
of clearances: the burning of rooftrees,
the nailing of doors; milk thrown
to douse a burning thatch;
the old woman dragged on a hurdle
to die in the lee of the stone;
snow flurries in the bitter smoke.
In this warmed cup of green land
here’s a standing stone, tumbled field walls,
gable ends, clumsy lintels, stooping doorway
spaces; inside each shell of a house,
only amber bracken, brittle reeds.
These crofts turn their backs on the sea,
their window spaces look away
from the sun’s setting,
their tenants all gone over the ocean,
and the veils that blow in from the islands
are only skirts and skeins of rain.
You craft webs of handwove shawls,
of weeping, no ghosts come here,
no grey shades from out of the west;
there’s no return from Tir nan Og
for the dead or dispossessed.
I learned to settle for walking, taking the place as it was. You can walk along the shoreline from Boreraig, under the shaley cliffs and two big waterfalls; you can often see a pair of golden eagles, or a single one harried by crows. The path scrambles up the cliff, into a scooped grassy shoulder of land below another cliff, and then wanders into Suishish. There’s a big new metal sheep barn (they call it a fank) and a ruinous croft that was lived in at least into the 1950s. In the 1930s there was an attempt to reverse the depopulations, and four miles of metalled road were laid from the main Broadford road. It worked for a bit, and then didn’t. But the sheep are well looked after. We were once forced to shelter in the fank in a torrential rainstorm. I learned that it’s no good to go looking for poems, but sometimes they come and find you. And sometimes they’re bleak. Which is where I’ll leave you. We should be back to business as usual next week (whatever that is).
They tried to claim the land with histories,
or maps they treated as contracts
sealed and signed with thumbprint contours;
But the land is shifting, won’t be fixed;
the mapped tracks to Suishnish come and go;
a new fingerpost at the road edge points
only to slough and moss where one day
there’ll be stands of rowan, holly, alder, ash;
they’ll turn the clock back to an age
before the blackfaced sheep.
before enclosure, clearance.
The metalled road will crumble
while sheep potter and nibble
between the polished stones
on the shore at Camas Malag;
the maps will need redrawing,
at Suishnish, on this green headland
where the track runs out at a grim croft,
sinking in a moat of hoof-pocked mud,
set about with trees brittle-grey as bones.
Its floor’s a trodden slurry;
the chimney lintels tumbled,
spilling rubble in the cold hearths.
Someone had thought to make a go of it;
put on a bright tin roof, hung doors,
glazed window spaces; lit fires;
brought in a stove, a table, chairs, a bed.
Then, one day, just upped sticks, fled.
The glass is gone, the fires long out;
the roof is rust, its edges fretted;
the stove’s tipped over, and in the iron frame,
of the bed, like a malediction, barbed wire.
drenching rain hissed on the roof like static,
a constant note behind the pock and tick
of neat hooves on packed ground;
four hundred sheep and lambs;
no sound but that of hooves and rain,
the scrape of shifted hurdles, shepherds
moving the beasts through metal mazes,
and the great shed quietly emptying,
till, finally, there’s left this residue
penned in with bedframe fencing;
mad-eyed as sheep are anywhere:
the rickety, the runts, the lame, the goitred,
the ones not fit to sell.
When life moves on, what won’t pay’s left.
What’s left’s out of sight and out of mind,
is off the map.
On Suishnish there’s a history:
the seasons’ recreative rhythm;
the certainties of dour religion,
accommodation to thin land,
hard weathers, quarter days,
weddings, christenings, funerals.
bad dreams, sharp edges, wire, rust;
Here be monsters.
The caution at the edges of old maps.
Stories come and go.
Like rain. Like wind.
I realised this turned out darker than I planned. I’ll leave you with something to perk you up. A scooped grassy shoulder of land below another cliff, where you may see golden eagles.