Everywhere you look in the Highlands there are wild seas, sparkling waterfalls, crystal rivers and lochs. Rain falls almost every day. Northern Scotland is a realm of water. Perhaps that is why so many people choose to make it their home. Human beings, like other animals, have an instinct to gather near water. Water is a source of sustenance, essential to survival.
Many of the novels of acclaimed Scottish novelist Neil M Gunn (born 1891 – died 1973) focus on a watery theme:- Morning Tide, The Silver Darlings, The Grey Coast, The Drinking Well and Highland River which won the 1937 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Neil Gunn was born in Dunbeath, a tiny coastal village which is a half hour drive from my home. His father was the captain of a herring boat and Gunn’s writing explores the harsh lives, isolation and landscapes of Caithness fishing communities. Gunn was a socialist and a political activist committed to Scottish Nationalism and independence. His writing has a Zen-like intensity with an underlying mysticism, detailed descriptions of landscape and the slow unfurling of events.
Visitors to Dunbeath harbour today will see a striking bronze statue of a boy wrestling with a huge salmon. The statue illustrates a dramatic scene from Highland River when nine year old Kenn captures a salmon with his bare hands. The novel contrasts this childhood struggle for survival and dominance with the brutality of World War 1 when an adult Kenn joins the British army.
Within the first two pages Gunn introduces the novel’s main protagonist, establishes the remote community setting and the landscape whilst building dramatic mood and tension. It is an example of Neil Gunn’s great skill as a writer. Here is a short excerpt describing when Kenn on a cold morning, reluctantly goes to the river pool for water for the breakfast tea just before he sees the salmon:-
“Out of that noiseless world in the grey of the morning, all his ancestors came at him. They tapped his breast until the bird inside it fluttered madly; they drew a hand along his hair until the scalp crinkled; they made the blood within him tingle to a dance that had him leaping from boulder to boulder before he rightly knew to what desperate venture he was committed.”
My first experiences of poetry happened early in childhood. My maternal grandfather wrote a poem for me each year to commemorate my birthday. It would be penned carefully on the back of his birthday card. I am sad today that I did not keep these special tokens of his love.
My first poetry book was A Child’s Garden of Verse by Robert Louis Stevenson. A beautiful blue leather bound copy with gilded page edges was presented to me at Primary School as an Attainment Prize. I was nine years old. Again it reinforced the idea that poetry was something precious. I began to write my own poems. I recall a gem that began with the lines, “I was playing in the dairy/when I first saw the fairy”!
At the age of sixteen I was initiated into contemporary poetry (together with sex) by my Glaswegian boyfriend. He introduced me to the music and poems of Leonard Cohen. As a Christmas present he bought me a little book of his poetry and I still have the battered copy on my bookshelf. Cohen’s poetry is often overlooked as he is best known for his songs. I like his short poems which seem to have a mysterious double meaning. Here is one of my favourites called I Heard of a Man:-
I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.
If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.
it is because I hear a man climb stairs and clear his throat outside the door.
I read Cohen’s romantic and political poems over and over again, learning some of them by heart. At the time I had no idea poetry would become such a vital element of my life as it is now. For me, poetry is therapeutic but more importantly, a way to communicate difficult emotions and experiences to others.
What were your first tastes of poetry? Were they positive or negative? Did you learn poems by rote in the classroom? Or did your parents read to you? Do you remember your first ever poetry book? I would love to hear how you were initiated into the wonderful world of poetry.
And here is a YouTube video of Leonard Cohen singing one of his most famous and poetic songs:-
“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
This amazing bus shelter is on the Isle of Unst, one of the Shetland Islands. The tiny island is Britain’s most northerly inhabited land mass. Known locally as Bobby’s bus stop after the school boy who first began to customise it, the shelter features a working television, a computer, fresh flowers and a comfortable armchair. It’s redecorated every year with a different theme and forms a bizarre spectacle at the side of the road. Buses are few but you will enjoy the wait. I took this photograph on my recent trip to this remote island.
The February air is zesty with unexpected sunshine and the northern wind softened to a breeze. Spurning my faithful duffle coat I reach for the cashmere coat with a fake fur collar that I haven’t worn since leaving London. This coat has been on a long journey and in storage for two years. Its chic appeal seems incongruous in this land of anoraks and woolly hats but why not be different today? Should I wear the sheepskin gloves or the fluffy angora ones? I go with the fluffy. The dusky pink matches my suede boots.
The street is quiet, not even the builders around and no sign of my elderly neighbor who likes to feed the seagulls every morning. A battered red pick-up truck rattles down the road towards the harbor trailing an aroma of fish. I’m heading to the village shop for milk and bananas. As my clumsy fingers place the house key in my coat pocket they dislodge a crumpled piece of yellow paper from the silk lining. It flutters onto the waterlogged front lawn. The sulfur color reminds me of old moss, the sort that clings to old stone walls.
It’s not a discarded shopping list or a receipt for some long-forgotten object of desire but a couple of cinema tickets; Twenty One Grams. It’s a poignant film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu about how people’s lives intersect and fragment due to a random event. The story reveals the patterns concealed beneath the surface of everyday life. The twenty one grams refers to the amount of weight which is mysteriously lost at the moment of death.
I went to see this film on my thirtieth birthday, the first of March, many years ago now. We ate lunch in the roof top restaurant of an art gallery overlooking the Thames before going to the cinema. After the film we drank cocktails in a trendy bar in Knightsbridge. It was an enjoyable day in a faraway life. Tom and I were both in a good mood and we didn’t mind the cold wind, dodging the rain showers without an umbrella or searching for an elusive parking space. I didn’t complain about the dirty pavements, the crowds or the traffic. At that time I’d never heard of Caithness and living in Scotland was a romantic dream. I was wearing this same grey coat with a leopard fur collar. It felt like the wrong coat for a wet day.
Today I queue in the village shop while two incomers, a mother and teenage daughter stock up on junk food. They are horsey types who have adopted a feral lifestyle. The mother wears a red bandana and a dirty shredded t-shirt any eighties punk would be proud of. Her bare feet are encased in flip flops. Jagged green toenails protrude from a crust of mud. Both women exude a smell reminiscent of rotting potatoes. They spend more than twenty pounds on sweets and chocolate. As they exit the shop Elaine reaches under the counter for the air freshener and sprays it around in a protective circle.
On my way home I wonder if I’m wearing the wrong coat.
The Scots language has a perfect word to describe winter in the north highlands. ‘Dreich’ (pronounced /dri:x/) is an adjective mostly used in relation to the weather. It translates as bleak, dull, dreary, grey, comfortless, cold, overcast, miserable. At least four of these conditions must apply for a day to qualify as truly dreich. The origins of the word come from the Middle English ‘dreig, drih’ in the sense of ‘patient, long-suffering’ and correspond to the Old Norse ‘drjugr’ – enduring and lasting.
Certainly a great deal of endurance is necessary to survive a Scottish winter. The endless grey skies and lack of light can be depressing. I find my energy levels dwindle and I just want to hibernate at home, huddled by the fire. But there’s also a strange beauty in the dreich days, a potential for change. When the mist dissolves and the clouds blow away the light will be brighter than ever. Who knows what will be revealed. Something fresh is germinating but we need to be patient. It is a transition period between the old and the new, a time that can be used for self-reflection and healing.
Here are two of my favourite dreich photographs. The first shows the section of an old gate leading to an overgrown field. The second shows the windows of a disused filling station. As well as the empty shelves you can see the reflection of a minimalist landscape. If you look really hard you might see me.
There’s a question I’m often asked about my art and poetry; why am I so interested in dark subject matter when I could be writing and making images about ‘happy stuff’?
I’m not sure if I choose my themes or they choose me. Inevitably my work reflects my life, my view of the world. From early childhood I’ve experienced pain and trauma growing up within a dysfunctional family where I never felt safe and also at the hands of an uncaring medical establishment that treats disabled people as expendable. Although I’ve been lucky enough to have love, friendship and joy in my life, it’s always been within the context of a threatening world. I’ve spent most of my life in ‘survival mode’.
It’s important to me that my creative work tries to expose the truth as I see it. I want to confront my reality head on, with all its flaws and sores. I don’t want to retreat into a rose tinted bubble and pretend life is perfect which is what the State would prefer us to do. It’s much easier to control a population that doesn’t ask difficult questions. Of course, it’s also essential to maintain a positive attitude and a sense of humour. To see into the dark we also need some light. Before you descend into the subterranean depths of your pain make sure you have a torch.
An attraction to the dark side of life may be a tendency among creative people. There certainly seems to be a link between poetry and pain. There’s a higher rate of depression, addiction and even suicide amongst poets. Flick through any poetry book and you will find more poems about loss and pain than happiness. Personally, I find cheerful ditties about love and rainbows rather tedious. Misery is far more fascinating! Perhaps truly happy people (if they actually exist in the real world) do not feel the need to agonise over choosing the right words in the right order on a piece of paper. They’re probably too busy doing whatever it is that normal, happy people are supposed to do, making money, having sex and playing football or whatever (no disrespect to rich, sexy footballers intended!)
One of the reasons I write poetry and make art is the hope that sharing my experiences may help others in similar situations. It’s comforting to know you are not the only one with difficult thoughts and feelings. We can all learn from one another, we can all gain strength from one another. We don’t have to be alone. That is the beauty and power of art.