Notes from a small island (3)

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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                       (Unpublished.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)


embedded image from entry 96581 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).


           embedded image from entry 96582 Suishnish: Croft

          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.



          embedded image from entry 96583 Fank

     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,

      binding contracts;

      weddings, christenings, funerals.


     And another:

     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.


embedded image from entry 96584 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.























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Greg Freeman

Sun 3rd Nov 2019 11:43

John, many thanks for these dispatches from your favourite Scottish island - such a source of poetic inspiration for you. It is always brilliant to read about the poets you admire and their work - but it has been great over the last three weeks to catch up with your own poems, too!

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