The McLellan Prize : Bheinn na Caillich


Intro: There’s an earlier post – Landscape and legend 16/11/2014 – that tells you all and more than you need to know about Bheinn na Caillich, the red granite Cuillin behind Broadford on Skye.)

I’ve been asked if I’d post a copy of the poem that got chosen for the McLellan Prize. So I will. Now.

A bunch of thank-you’s are in order.

First off, thank you Kim Moore and Carola Luther for running a residential writing course in Grange-over-Sands in March this year. Thank you, Carola, for the concentrated writing task that produced the first draft of the poem. The only note of an instruction I have in my notebook is ‘Imagined landscapes…what’s the place that you think you remembered?’ Then there’s about 20 lines of stuff about volcanoes, and the Cuillin, and melting stone. All very febrile. And then

‘Or I might just think of Bheinn na Caillich. because they built with stone and had mastery of iron’  No. I have no idea why.

( Aside: And here’s a thing. Last Friday night, I walked into the Little Rock Cafe in Brodick on Arran and the first person I saw was Carola. I had no idea she would be there, and because the results of the competition are secret till they’re announced, there was no reason why she sould expect to see me.)

Second thing. Concentrated writing exercises will do nothing if they don’t somehow tap into ideas that you don’t consciously know you have. So thank you, Robert Macfarlane for writing The Old Ways which planted in my head and heart the idea of the sea as a highway on which we leave no marks.

Third thing. Yet another thank-you to Ann and Peter Sansom who have taught me how to wring every last ounce out of a writing day.

Finally. Thank you to every one responsible for the McLellan Arts Festival. Thank you to everyone I met for their generosity…especially, to David Underdown, Cicely Gill; to Chris Harrison (for the music); to Jonathan Totman (2nd prize winner) and Zetta Bear(Commended) for your readings. And thank you, Simon Armitage. A man of impeccable taste and discernment.

Here’s the poem.

Bheinn na Caillich

Because they had the mastery of iron,
because the land was thin and hard,
because the sea was the way to everything,
because nothing could gainsay
a well-caulked, lapstraked boat
with a flare at the bow that perfectly
fit a space the water would make for it,
because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.
because they wrote their maps in the wind,
in the run of the cod, of the herring, of the cloud,
the way the gulls would go; because of that

they sailed out from granite fjords;
cargoed with amber and jet and beaver pelts,
red river gold and wolfskins;
over the Dogger, the mouth of the Rhine,
round Cape Wrath, to the Irish Sea, Biscay,
the gates of the Mediterranean,
its hot shores, its painted boats
and whitesailed dhows as bright as ghosts,
and all for the lapis, amethysts, white gold
they spun into knotwork dragons swallowing their tails;
bracelets, cloakpins, breastpins, clasps and rings.

Who counted the hours of tillage,
the scantlings of barley and oats,
the frozen sleet on longship shrouds,
skin torn on intractable nets,
or how many million herring and cod
shrank in the wind on racks of spruce?

Who told how it was
after all the work of hands and years,
they could fashion chests of black bog-oak,
bind them with ironstrips ,
lock up the lapis, the gold, the bright enamels
and bury them high in the eye of the wind
on a red granite summit over snowfield and scree
in a grave with a princess anointed and shrouded,
how they might raise a great cairn,
with chockstone and boulder,
and no one would touch it.


2 thoughts on “The McLellan Prize : Bheinn na Caillich

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