Orasaigh

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                   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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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     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. 

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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. 

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