Notes from a small island


If tonight’s post is unusually incoherent, it’s because I still haven’t got over driving back from Skye yesterday.  440miles, ten hours. There was  snow down to road level in Glen Shiel and it looked wonderful; so did Glen Cluanie. There was a Mordor sunset beyond Fort William. Rannoch was just a long dark punctuated by headlights, and it’s pretty much downhill all the way after that, and after Glasgow  the grim non – welcome for travellers on the M73 on a Saturday night. Bothwell, squalid. Cairn Lodge, shut. Annadale water, near deserted, cold, and everything shut but the coffee machine in W H Smith ….and a MacDonald’s. It’s a tribute to my desperation that I bought a double-cheeseburger, and ate it. If it had been cooked I might even have enjoyed it.

It never feels like this on the way up, because every mile gets more wonderful, and after Glen Shiel there’s the sight of the Skye Bridge and the Red Cuillin beyond, and then it’s the last twenty-odd miles of brown moorland, the first sight of the Black Cuillin, and whatever the weather’s doing is fine with us.

As it happened, it mainly rained this year. As it did last year. Mizzling rain a lot of the time. Which gave me more time than usual to watch the shoreline of Suishnish and Boreraig come and go across the loch.


It’s an important bit of coast, for me. The first time I came to Skye on my own was to Write. The capital letter is deliberate. I’d signed up for an MA in Creative Writing. As I’ve said before, it was rubbish, but that was at least in part because I was, too. Suishnish, on the left, and Boreraig are sites of 19thC. Clearances, and I was going to Write Poems about them having read everything John Prebble could tell me about the business. Anyway, I hiked over the moor to Boreraig, and on another day, tramped up the metalled track to Suishnish, where there’s a house that was inhabited until relatively recently, and also big fank…a sheep station barn. There are only ruined walls at Boreraig. The crofters were driven to subsist on the poorer land on the opposite shore, or shipped off to Canada. Or they just died.

That was over 12 years ago, and the past is another country. I wrote poems about it all, but as Helen Mort said to me ” You can make a poem be, but it won’t be any good”. They weren’t. However. There’s a circular walk of 12 miles or so that starts on the other side of that Boreraig skyline. It starts from a the ruined church of Kin Criosdh on the Elgol road, and can be walked clockwise, passing the doomed marble quarries to go over to Boreraig and then along the shore below the cliffs, up a cliff path and on to the Suishnish headland and’s a bit of a plod along the road back to Kil Criosdh. I had always wanted to walk it, and when I hit 65 I had both hips replaced and six months later I did the walk, counterclockwise. The following yearI did it again, clockwise. For my money, counter- clockwise is best…it gets the road and the lorries from the Torrin quarries out of the way while you’re fresh, and after that, you may see no one for the rest of the trip. If it’s pissing down they’ll let you shelter in the fank if they’re working that day. Golden eagles haunt the cliff above the track, and there’s often the sight of one being harassed  by crows.

I’m conflicted by that bit of coast in so many ways. I want to walk it again, but my ankle’s useless, and I can forget it. I regret the whole business of the MA and the ill-considered writing. And every year, there they are, Suishnish and Boreraig, the first thing I see in a morning for a week in the year. Or don’t see.


They are shapeshifters. They vanish in a scrim of wet muslin. They shine in the sun. They are scoured by squalls of snow. Sometimes, after a snowfall one of the Red Cuillin peaks rises like a moon, and Bla Bheinn towers beyond the headland. I love them and miss them. Anyway, last week, unable to get any sense out of my laptop, and unable to make it let me log in to WordPress, I had to give up trying to write two proper guest poet posts. And it rained, so longish walks were just too wet. I decided to have one last go at the stuff I’ve written and rewritten over the years about what those two Clearance sites mean to me. I thought I could try stripping them back…they were long rambling things originally. And then stripping back some more. And a bit more. I thought I could stitch in some of one about the defunct marble quarry I mentioned earlier. Child murderers found their way in and I let them stay. The only bit of backstory you need is that abandoned buildings frighten me. Always have done. As did the kids who who would haunt them when I was a kid. Old bits of terrace houses. Air raid shelters. Shut-down builders yards. Old mills. Edgeland places. That’s what the croft at Suishish is like, for me. So here they are. Final version. Whether they work or not, I’ve done with them. I’m not going back.


the factor’s men who came in snow,

over the watershed, bearing iron and fire;


the hasty steps of the quarrymen,

the steps of disappointed creditors;


the track of the engines that broke the bank,

a straight track through bluebruise upcasts;


a winding track through weeping peat,

dour hymns on the wind;


the smell of men in Sabbath black,

of wet worsted, old dogs;


ghosts who go through slough, over stone

to take Christ’s blood and flesh


at Kil Criosod’s roofless shell

among its slanting headstones.


Where they quarried star-white marble

for graveyards and fine houses


bright new fences are shining

and a pair of crows are calling.




‘The earth has no melancholy

and the land no ghosts

except what we bring with us.’ [John Prebble]


Go to Boreraig, head full of history,

of the nailing of doors, the burning of rooftrees,

of milk thrown to douse a burning thatch;

of an old woman dragged on a hurdle

to die in the lee of the wall;

of snow flurries in the bitter smoke.


There’s a standing stone, tumbled field walls,

amber bracken in the shells of houses, brittle reeds.


These crofts turn their backs on the setting sun;

the crofters all went long ago, over the ocean,

and the veils that blow in from the islands

are only skirts and skeins of rain.


Craft webs of handwove shawls if you like,

webs of weeping, but no ghosts come here,

no grey shades from out of the west;


there’s no return from Tir nan Og

for the dead, for the dispossessed




Suishnish.: Croft



It shifts, the land; won’t be fixed

by maps sealed and signed

with thumbprint contours.


One day rowan, birch and ash

will turn the clock back to an age

before the blackfaced sheep

that potter and nibble

between the polished stones

on the shore at Camas Malag.



The metalled road crumbles

on this green headland,

runs out at a grim croft,

sinking in a moat of hoof-pocked mud,

set about with trees brittle as bones.


Someone had thought to make a go of it;

put on a bright tin roof, hung doors, lit fires;

brought in a bed, a stove, a table, chairs.

Then, one day, just upped sticks , cleared off.


The fire’s out; the roof’s rust; the stove’s cracked;

two rolls of barbed wire in the iron bed frame.


Sheep fank at Suishnish


Clean grey steel in a a green park,

rain hissing on the roof like static,

a constant note behind the pock and tick

of neat hooves on packed ground;

four hundred sheep and lambs;

hooves and rain, the scrape of shifted hurdles,

the shepherds’ necessary talk,

moving the beasts through metal mazes,

and the great shed quietly emptying,

till, there’s just a residue

penned in with bedframe fencing;

mad-eyed as sheep are anywhere:

the rickety, the runts, the lame, the goitred,

the ones not fit to sell.

What won’t pay’s out of mind,  off the map,




Stories come and go like the wind and rain.


There’s a story of the seasons’ rhythm;

the certainties of dour religion,

accommodation to thin land,

hard weather, quarter days;

weddings, christenings, funerals.


In some others, bad dreams come.

Wire, rust; the creeping clones

of Brady, Hindley, Thompson,

Venables. Mary Bell. Here be monsters.

The caution at the edges of old maps.


Next week, proper poems from a proper poet. See you then xxx












One thought on “Notes from a small island

  1. I don’t think you should be regretting the MA, John, if it led you to a place where your soul has found resonance. Even if you’re wary of the buildings abandoned by the living, though not by the energy they left behind, perhaps. Well done in putting to bed the poems that started inauspiciously. They show wonderful grounding in the place, reminding me of my favourite poem, “… thankfulness to those dead bones
    That knit hills closer than loose stones.”


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