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Poetry Steve Ely
Photography Michael Faint
Excerpts and selected images
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Burial Ground
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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