top of page


                   Poetry     Steve Ely
        Photography     Michael Faint

     From the midsummer height of Càireasbhal,
looking west over causewayed Dùn na Cille,
the sun has lit the townlands in the Gulf Stream’s evening zephyr.
In the pellucid ocean light, under the troposphere’s
argentine blue, everything comes into HD focus:
the blackland’s dikes and rickety fences,
rush-fledged forage of tussock and rock,
fleece-shedding sheep and rough, red-pelted shorthorns;
Boisdale’s straggle of crofts and cottages,
Nissen huts, tractors, jacked-up transits;
the tracks beyond through the plain of barley
to the sugar-sand crescent of Orasaigh Bagh.
Orasaigh, the double-humped tidal island
on the beach off the edge of the Boisdale machair,
still moored to her mother by the sand umbilicus
she fashions herself from the silts of the longshore drift. 
She rises on her strand like a sagging frame tent,
or the sunken withers of a sea-ware pony;
two shaggy rorquals, breaking the swell
from the Sound of Barra, frozen on the curve
towards Hirte and the Greenland seas. 
The beach-stripping blitzkrieg of winter storms
and the rising tides of the gnawing Atlantic
have frayed, but not in centuries severed,
her squat tombolo’s hawser. She will not let go
of the land that birthed her and to which she still belongs.
     I walk the track from Leth Meadhanach
to the crossroads with the faded road
that runs from Pol a' Charra to the Ford.  
A quarter-mile strip of rough and tumble grazing:
horsetails, juncus, clumps of yellow flag,
rocks breaching the turf like the hulks
of fossilised right whales. The isle lies flat
on the low horizon, crushed under the dome
of the huge Atlantic sky. Each crunching stride-length
lifts it taller, on the western skyline, the vistas
of my mind. I lift the loop on the five-bar gate
and pass between derelict lazybeds and a stand
of thin phragmites. Sheep scatter from the fences
at my bootscrapes. Greylags up their periscopes.  
Redshank yammer from the trackside posts
and switchback lapwings puit and dive—a motorhome
rumbles down the track to the barbecue pits
and picnic tables of the Geàrraidh na Mònadh campsite.
Settling dust, crushed stone diminuendo:
corncrakes shorting from the eight-inch grass
under tremolo columns of larks;
ululating snipe traverse the argentinian blue. 
The crossroads mark the blackland’s end
and the start of a furlong of sandy machair,
the ever-unravelling remnant of the miles-wide
Bronze Age plain. I set a course across the headlands,
between rusty ploughs and abandoned rollers,
sunk axle-deep in the blown sand’s sod. 
The patchwork of barley and needlework fallow
lays down its quilt before me, washed green silks
with crewellings of crimson, cobalt, silver and gold—
orchids, cornflower, birds-foot trefoil, daisies,
clover and corn marigold. The scuts of conies
vanish down sand-chutes and dunlin drag
disingenuous broken wings. Quail crawl
through the bent like whistling field mice.
From halfway across the machair—between the abandoned
burial ground and the gutted net station—
the island rises from the swell like Surt. 
I can feel the shush and thump of ocean,
breathe the beach’s warm kelp breeze. 
Patrolling herring gulls monitor my approach
and gannets plunge from the sky’s high tower— 
then the wind’s in my face on the low dunes’ ridge,
and there, beyond the precarious, hop-across causeway,
the storm-ripped ruin of An Doirlinn and the crab boats’
wedge of white van landing—twin-papped, raven-crested
Orasaigh stands on its strand before me.
     Low tide. I pick my way between wrack-matted boulders
and banks of rotting kelp to the storm-gouged gate
to the island. Turf sags above the sand-cliff,
the edge of collapse. A brace of shelduck
bob out on the heave, ducklings strung
like rosary beads between them. Weather-wrecked
stump posts, damp plateau of cotton-grass,
silverweed, bent. Corncrake crexing from the iris beds,
scissor-billed oystercatchers bombing and screaming. 
Neolithic, Bronze Age or Pictish stones rise from the turf
like curious seals and note my bold approach.
I climb the slope to the Big Top summit
in the stripes of the evening sun’s relief;
sheep paths, turf-sunk boundary walls, run-rig shadows
of long-abandoned plough. Great black-backed gulls
and ravens, circling overhead; one predatory,
the other wary. Cronk. Twin peaks, a rushy cleft
between. Exposed gneiss, a tumbled fank
(or dun, or bothy). Each peak is crowned
by a wild-stone menhir: to the south a summit-slipped
altar stone reclines on the wind-cropped turf;  
the dorsal fin of a great white shark breaks
the moat of the north peak’s sacred pool:
agitated pipits, windy crescendos of towering larks. 
The high ground’s wide panopticon—due west,
four thousand miles of ocean, the calves of Saglek Bay. 
To the east, the cloud-capped, herded hills
of Stùlabhal, Easabhal, Chionnich. 
The toytown townlands spread before me
along the Viking shore—Cille Pheadair, Baghasdail,
Leth Meadhanach, Smercleit, Geàrraidh na Mònadh;
white horses of Eriskay, blue hills of Barra beyond.
The back of the island slopes down to its hunkered cliffs.   
Wave-hewn riprap, tide-heaved tethers of kelp. 
Great-northern divers ride the waves, on their summer cruise
to Iceland. Cormorants mock the crucifixion. 
On the topmost ledge of a storm-gouged cove,
a shit-fligged heap of kelp; a family of ravens,
aloft above the menhirs. Fulmars cut the sunlit slope’s
bright spindrift—one summer I fell asleep here,
and had to wade to land. Otter breaking from its flounder,
disbelieving. I drop to the path above the rocks
looking north along Tràigh na Doirlinn. Jewels glinting
in the grass: primrose, violet, tormentil. 
Sentinel oystercatchers, incessant and ubiquitous,
their piping alarums ripped off on incessant,
ubiquitous wind. Crab boat anchored in the headland’s lee,
where the Northmen dragged their longboats
up on to the sandy haven. Ringed plover sitting tight
on the driftwood strandline. Wind-wrecked fence post. 
Turf sags above the sand-cliff. I pick my way
between wrack-matted boulders and banks of rotting kelp
to the storm-gouged gate to the island. 
     Surf breaks on Tràigh na Doirlinn and rushes
up the beachface. Clockwork sanderling  
switchback in the swash-zone like speeded up footage
from a silent film, picking tiny titbits
from the foam. They’re fuelling up for Iceland
and Franz Josef Land beyond, the ever-receding
Arctic edge of the Holocene interglacial. 
A whippet flies in and the sanderling lift and scatter,
flashing twittering chevrons down the beach
towards the headland at Cille Pheadair. 
Uprush wipes their footprints’ blurred cuneiform. 
How many billion sanderling have stopped-off here,
since ice-melt stretched the north from Spain?
Where are their embalmed, mummified corpses,
their stelae in the foam’s wet sand?  
Scorpion left his mark: his skull-crushing mace
and gibbet of lapwings. Gilgamesh cleared
the sacred groves from ocean to Euphrates. 
He slew the lion, glorying in life, hyena,
stag and panther. All manner of small game.
He butchered the mighty Bull of Heaven
and fed its heart to Shamash. His swastika
wheels from Göbekli Tepe to the trenches
of the western ocean, its cargo of infinite dead. 
A Sailor of the 1939-1945 War,
Merchant Navy. Buried 21st August, 1940. 
The pharaohs of Cluny, Westminster, Wannsee. 
The dead go into the Sun. Ice-melt washes
their genocides clean. Atlantic ripping away.
An Doirlinn
     Isthmus, peninsula, tombolo, spit.
‘Landing’ derived from usage—snekkja,
bìrlinn, sgoth. A blue-ringed tidal-islet,
the shape of a guillemot’s egg—731174,
OS Explorer 453. Causewayed landing,
stacks of creels. Crab boats moored offshore. 
That smash of rocks and ripped-up turf
en-route to the lovely island. Built, low-walled,
but not a dun: the cyclone’s disgorged
flint-knap scatter bespoke the Neolithic,
confirmed by subsequent excavation:
successive layers of occupation, 3,700 to 2,400 B.C.
     When Scorpion II was lord in Nekhen
and Gilgamesh reigned in Uruk,
the farmers of Boisdale had been turning the sod
for half a thousand years—trumpeting mammoths
on Wrangel Island, sea cows roaming the plains of kelp
from Pribilof to Lewis—picked bones of garefowl
dumped on middens for the next five thousand years.
The steading no doirlinn, but a bump at the foot
of the westernmost hill in the forest of Uist,
the land-devouring ocean still a mile or more due west. 
Clearing the woodland, burning back scrub;
scratching furrows between the stumps for emmer
and six-rowed bere. Aurochsen, deer and Irish elk,
gone to the dogs. Canis familiaris. Wolf and bear
to the bottom of the Minch, with the cachalots
and right whales. Paddocks for ovis, sus and bos. 
Material culture: stone walls, stone hearths, stone axes;
a flaked-flint knife, smashed carinated pottery. 
No hieroglyph or baked clay tablet, painted tomb
or bas-relief. Archaeological speculations
built on scant empirical altars: bloodstone bigshots
cornering the surplus, investing in astronomical
priesthoods and vernacular death-mitigation schemes:
seven days and nights I wept for my brother
until the worms of Enlil fastened in his flesh. 
Deadly theatre of ritual landscape; flint arrowheads
signifying war. They mated with pigs and chapped-face children,
killed strangers for profit and neighbours in fits of rage. 
In times of dearth they starved the old codgers
and fed their shrunken wreckage to the dogs. 
They lived at one with Magna Mater, dug henbane beer
and Aqualung. DNA says, they’re just like us—
undestroyable serpopard, sphinx that moves the sun! 
In his house beneath the ocean, Great Kraken lies waiting.

    A great black-backed gull labours aloft
from the rocks below the turf-scabbed mound. 
She’s been tugging
the guts from a washed-up
porpoise, snagged beneath the wall. She settles
on the strand of Tràigh na Doirlinn to watch me
prod and probe. Zip of grinning peg-teeth.  
Eye-socket caves and jailhouse window ribcage.
Tangle-stink of pinky-grey intestines.
This beach is good for the wreckers of dead cetaceans,
the scavengers and collectors: the lumbar vertebrae
of a pothead blackfish, somewhere in the shed;
the mandible blades of a minke whale,
lost to the tides or a rival necrophiliac
when I dallied at the Polochar Inn;
the digital image of the Risso’s dolphin, torn open
and wolfed by a slaughter of gleeful ravens.
What else does the kindly ocean bring?

 Mary’s Nut, Sea Purse, sixty-foot trunks
of shock-root loblolly pine; skraelings stitched
into buckskin thongs, unravelling bark canoes. 
Gannets, seals and narwhals. A case of Spey Royal. 
A naked lady with bitten-off fingers
washed up from Tràigh Siar. Cluny’s man had her rings. 
Una had her frock. The black-backed gull
had the pearls that were her eyes. 
Bowed heads around a gaping lozenge of sand:
hunc tumulum benedicere dignare, eique
Angelum tuum sanctum deputa custodem. 
The resurrection and the life. The kindness
of strangers in their threadbare Sunday best. 
He took it all—their land, their livings, the shirts
off their humped and weal-encrusted backs.
The Stones
     Up the grassy hvalsbak to the cleft
between the paps, each low mound nippled
in its slipped, off-centre stone: a tumbled altar,
the dorsal fin of a basking shark.
Three billion years old Lewisian gneiss,
rough concrete hide of an Indian elephant:
grey quartz, underglint pinks of mica.
The southern peak’s sacrificial stone,
recumbent under the threadbare summit
and sheltered from the salt Atlantic,
is scabbed in moss and yellow croton,
sea ivory’s shaggy wintergreen. 
The north peak’s upright jag of fang
is scoured to the stone on the windward side
and streaked in the shites of ravens.
Bumfluff ramalina furs the underlean of lee.
     Mike Parker Pearson calls Orasaigh’s stones
spontaneous megaliths; natural features,
that to the novice or self-deluding,
suggest a Stonehenge hand—blame Baldrick
or the Modern Antiquarian. I defer, of course,
but looking three-sixty from Orasaigh’s summit
it’s hard to believe that this grassy ziggurat—
the highest prominence on the plain of Uist
from Rubha Hornais to Ceann a' Ghàraidh—
didn’t rise above Doirlinn’s Neolithic quotidian
to quicken in peoples’ dreams. Now, as surely then,
the landscape knits together from the vantage
of its summit. Open your arms, and embrace
the evening sun. For the hundred and twenty degrees
of your span, all you can see is the squinting gold of ocean:
sun-swallower, storm-bringer, bearer of bounty,
edge of the knowable world. Due north is the foam-fringed
diamond-head of Rubha Àird a' Mhuile, ground further down
on its sea-level stump with every passing year. 
To the south, across her horse-plunged sound,
spreads womanly Barra, the cleft between Heabhal
and Hartabhul, mirroring Orasaigh’s own. 
A bead drawn roughly east-north-east takes the eye
through the clefted rifle sights of Càireasbhal’s
microcosmic stones, and beyond to the cleave
of Coire na Cuilc, between many-breasted
Triuirebheinn and Choinnich. The chambered tomb
of Trosaraidh, a clear mile east-south-east;
the chambered tomb of Layaval, a clear mile
south-south-east. The standing stone at Pol a' Charra. 
Bones ripped from the kists at storm-torn
Ceann a' Ghàraidh. Atlantic hurricanes,
lightning strikes, aurora borealis. Hyperborean
winter darkness over fields of freezing peat. 
Hesperidean summer light over plains of shimmering bere.
The cloud-commanding anvil-tops of Thacla,
Choradail, Mhòr. The eagle and the aurochs
and the curragh-capsizing whale. The pounce of death:
stone axe, droch shúil, the body-blotching fever,
breath sucked from your ribcage in the night.
A people thrown on the littoral edge,
making sense of it somehow, encoding land
with dream and meaning, the seer’s inaccessible vision—
‘a semiotic landscape of the living and the dead’.
Niall Sharples, Neil Oliver, Mike Parker Pearson.
I heckle the telly and think I know best. 
Blame Baldrick and the Modern Antiquarian.
Shona and Heather J 2.jpg
The Burial Ground
     Every man should be a farmer and till his own land.
      His croft might be small—a few acres of barley,
      a couple of goats and a stone house thatched with reeds—
      but it’s all he needs to fill his belly and keep him living free.
                                                                               Hávamál, 36-37.

     Bÿisdaill on the machair in the windbreak
shadow of Soa. A little Dutch city
in careful perspective, towers & spires, etc.
Joan Blaeu, 1654, based on Timothy Pont,
around 1600. Bûyſdale. No chapel, church
or burial ground, though Kilphedre has its cross.
Cille Pheadair, the cell of Peter, St. Peter’s kirk,
or kirkyard. Boisdale on the machair
in the windbreak shadow of Ornsay Island,
the bled white tack of high Kilbride.
Fourteen careful oblongs, each denoting
a house or building.  No chapel, church
or burial ground. William Bald, 1805.
The burial ground on the Baghasdail machair,
just south of Bald’s obliterated village.
In Orasaigh’s shadow, a few hundred yards
north-east of Sgeir na Cille. Explorer 453.
     A wonky, walled-off acre, enclosing
an ancient settlement mound, its ten-metre contour
of stratified dead. ‘Supposed site of a chapel’,
where the Great Bull of Boisdale
seceded from the faith of Rome and joined
the cult of Mammon. Four dilapidated vaults,
a scatter of leaning stones, some fallen;
plenty more sunk beneath the trampoline sod.
The three-foot, dry-stone wall is topped
with a grey steel, chain-link fence, to protect
the dead from the blasphemies of sheep.
Or jail their vengeful ghosts. Rabbits collapse
the lichened walls and starlings hurtle in-and-out
of gaps between the stones; once a lapwing
trailed its wing across the mounded graves. 
Generally ravens, leaping the arch of the gap-toothed vault
that yawns from the graveyard’s summit.
The metal gate says close the gate
and Commonwealth War Graves.
Someone comes down with a strimmer.
     The Great Bull is somewhere under this turf.
Wynne drove the Little Bull out. He’s under the sod
at Greyfriars, where no dog waits but to worry
his bones. Three from the Merchant Navy,
one a nameless, flotsam stranger. A major
of the Gordon 6th, under the turf at Anzio,
listed with his brothers on his parents’ modest stone.
MacLellans, MacKenzies, Pattersons and Stewarts;
every second stone a Ferguson, even beyond
the spike-fenced walls of their privy family vault. 
Little pharaohs of the machair, piling their pyramids,
gibbeting their lapwings. Sand and time have devoured
the Israelites’ unmarked graves. Their monument
is their own survival, their remembrance, their tongue.
     Ravens cronk from the burial ground,
over the shell-holed machair.  Hysterical
lapwings and oystercatchers harry them
on their way. Wind whips away the clamour,
the hush and whump of ocean. A little red tractor
raises its front-bucket horns like a beetle
and trundles its trailer down onto the beach
at the dune break to An Doirlinn. The ravens
give it a wide berth, climbing the wind
over Orasaigh Bagh until their flags unfurl
on the summits of the island. I rally to the banners.
Corncrakes crexing from the eight-inch grass
fall silent at my footsteps: they slink invisible
through the bent and resume their duel behind me. 
Subsidy keeps them from shredding by combines,
and tourism chips in its quota—car stickers
proclaiming I Slept With Corncrakes, twittered
encounters with white-tailed eagles on the slope
below Beinn Mhòr. Raised fingers at every passing place. 
The café and gift shop at the Kildonan Museum. 
Yesterday’s paper at Dalabrog Co-op. 
Otter loping up the beach; turning, loping back.  
The whippet doesn’t know what it is. 
Wreck of rotting kelp, front-bucketed
into the dripping trailer with a brace
of stiff gannets, flotsam from distant Sula,
where Lewismen club garefowl and harpoon
northern right whales. Drum-beats sound
in Orasaigh’s forest and tall flames leap
on the western strand, where tonnage of sea cows
and bullock aurochsen drip from spits
before the fire-glow’s gilded thrones: chainsaws
of Gilgamesh, mace-heads of Scorpion II. 
A family of ravens pick over their bones
on the beach. ‘A shrewd businessman and as able
a bowman as any in Scotland […] a man of outstanding
abilities and active business habits […] educated
at Eton […] an assiduous, innovative and generous
landlord […] has taken a very active
part in the management of her enormous estates
and has figured prominently

in connection with the crofter problem.’ 
Hitler loved his dog, and figured prominently
in connection with the Jewish problem. 
The Great Mother let rip in the Empire
of Boisdale, all over her tickled pink world—
land as capital’s lebensraum, enslavement as policy,
extinction as carnival, collateral damage. 
The pink-headed duck and great Indian rhino,
the pot-bellied children of Skibbereen and Bengal. 
Bagpipes, kilts, sgian-dubh. Old Tom Morris,
the weaver’s lad. Hauled himself up
by his sillybod bootstraps to build a links
for the Lady on the cleared out Askernish machair. 
Trump swinging his irons like Custer’s sabre. 
Trump signing his treaties with the repeating rifles
of the Seventh Cavalry. Spotted Elk frozen
like a gannet on the beach, hecatombs of buffalo,
burnt on the Wall Street machair. Bolsonaro,
Orban, Johnson.  Cameron, Brown and Blair.  
Horrible children, ripping the heads off Spix’s macaws
at the Harewood Lane allotments.  Parliament
ripping out their grown-up hearts with Amazon
and HS2, for which they are truly grateful.
Reid and McGahey, Jeremy Corbyn,
donning their ghost shirts, bawled down
by the brexiting helots of England:
the working class, a weapon deployed against itself
by those who have enslaved them. Love Island
versus Poles and Pakis. Love Island versus
Greta Thunberg. Love Island versus doodlebugs
and Messerschmitt 109s—eight ravens over Orasaigh;
below An Doirlinn, a single black-backed gull.
Low tide laps and swells around the island,
a mile or two higher than it was five thousand years ago.   
It will open the graves of the burial ground
and scatter the bones in the North Atlantic Drift.
A motorhome drops beneath the dunes;
ravens vaporise in the flare of the evening sun; 
the black-backed gull has vanished. Cyclonic thunderheads
bleed their inks on the crab boat’s west horizon.
The follicles of the cotton grass are rising.  
Five thousand years of immaterial culture,
life on the literal edge—Hebrides, falling slowly. 
60 A
Steve Ely in front of the Island of Orasaigh

Dr Steve Ely is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Director of the Ted Hughes Network at the University of Huddersfield.  He is an award-winning poet, novelist, and biographer. His most recent publications are Lectio Violant and The European Eel (both 2021).  


Michael Faint is a photographer based in South Uist.  Shortlisted for the World Photography Awards in 2020, he is published and exhibited widely.

TC logo.png
bottom of page