Boxing Day saw the birthday of my good friend, Peter, an anniversary I invariably fail to remember until several days later (typically, in fact, round about now). This year, completely in tune with these times, Peter hosted a Skype call for friends and cleverly secured my timely recall of his anniversary by asking me to recite a poem.
After a bit of deliberation and a bit more research, this is what I came up with – it’s a poem written by Angus Dunn, which I found on the Poetry Map of Scotland, which I think captures well the elemental nature of living on these islands (not least just ahead of Storm Bella now, thankfully, blown out here (and which crossed also into Germany) although, this time, we were far from the worst-hit place in the UK). It’s not particularly celebratory for a birthday anniversary, and the ending is bleak, but Mr. Dunn captures some strong reference points to nature and, particularly, to history within his lines:
There is nothing here,
in all the wide ocean
to stop the wind
that frays the edge of the land.
On the foredune,
dry from the long sunlight and the sea breeze,
In the slack behind the dunes,
the brown bird lies low
in her nest among the grasses:
even here, sand moves, held in nets of buttercup roots.
When the storm comes,
sand flows like water, stings like hail –
air eating the earth –
small white houses
grip the soil of the machair,
one window gleaming all night long
to light the way home –
though some will not return.
Up on the hillside,
thin sheep graze on rocks,
and there the Lady stands
looking past the ocean
out to the furthest West
from where no one of us returns.
No poem is complete without a few footnotes, so here’s a few of my own.
The reference in line 9 to the ‘brown bird’ could be many things but most likely speaks to the corncrake, a migratory bird now few in number and on the UK’s Red List but which migrates to breed here in these islands from its winter home on the Africa savannahs. Here’s one (of the up to four males which can be heard in Aird A’Mhachair across the summer) in calling mode, captured in April 2019 amidst the wind-torn rags of daffodil leaves:
On line 16, the machair is the Gàidhlig word for the fertile, but fragile and shallow, coastal strip on which the wind and seaweed farming practices have, over centuries, dumped fragments of shell on the land, enriching it and making it cultivable. Machair is common to both these islands and the west coast of Ireland – another facet of the shared history between these two places – and is a riot of changing colour in the summer months owing to the profusion of wild flowers (buttercups among them) in uncrofted areas and in gardens.
The references in line 19 and at the conclusion to people not returning home is most likely to the people brutally forced from the land and their homes on these islands (though not without many protest actions taking place) as a part of the socio-economic tragedy of the clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of them went west, with the largest numbers settling in Canada in the area around Cape Breton: hence why ‘the Lady’ looks west. Modern research has identified that the source of the wealth of many of the landowners involved was slave-derived – echoing the conditions of travel in which many Highlanders were forced across the Atlantic, with many dying en route and, of those that did make it, arriving destitute. Today, many islanders fear fresh de-population as a result not least of the lack of opportunity stemming from job and skills loss – including among air traffic controllers – and as a result of a distorted housing market forcing out young people. Both – to say nothing of the potential impact of Brexit on the crofting character of the islands – will have a deleterious impact on our communities.
‘The Lady‘ (on line 22) is a statute set up in the 1950s and paid for by public subscription at the initiative of ‘Father Rocket’ who realised that the coming of the military (these islands occuyping a place of strategic potential during the Cold War) would fundamentally change the lives of islanders. Canon John Morrison’s collection of artefacts, originally housed near to us in Iochdar, is now the basis of the collection of Taigh Tasgaidh Chill Donnain, the Kildonan Museum. Here is ‘Our Lady’, captured in 2017 looking west across the machair out to the Atlantic, and beyond:
Happy Birthday, Peter!