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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.