It was not an ordinary day.
The east wind sparked salt and I awoke
to dreams of the unicorn. My old bones
rolled the waves and the falcon’s shadow
shifted. I knew what I must do.
Down Fast Eddie I chased the Dragon’s Tail,
surfed by leafy isles, rested in deepening
pools a while, glimpsed churches, spiraling treetops,
salmon swimming through castle walls.
I passed beneath Ness Bridge unseen.
It was the end of an ordinary day. So at So Coco
the waitress wrapped sweet fancies in tissue twists
as the last customer licked cappuccino
from his lips. At The Mustard Seed the chef marinaded
for dinner. At the Victorian Market they folded
tartan as gates clanged and the clock chimed.
In Falcon Square the piper belched away his ale
saw my passing. No-one saw the unicorn
Note 1:- The Loch Ness Monster is a mythical aquatic creature reputed to dwell deep in the cold waters of Loch Ness near Inverness in Scotland. There have been numerous sightings and photographs showing a curvaceous beast rising out of the grey waves.
Note 2:- The unicorn is Scotland’s national animal. A statue of a unicorn is located in Falcon Square, a landmark in the centre of the city of Inverness.
Note:- compared to the rest of the UK, the North of Scotland has a high level of social problems particularly affecting men. Unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and suicide are on the rise due to the decline of fishing, farming and the oil industries. Men are feeling increasingly powerless as they lose their traditional roles. So although it is a beautiful part of the world, the Highland region is a tough place to survive.
I met the friendly guy in the photo while I was trying to photograph a window display in the tiny shopping precinct in Wick. He offered to pose alongside the rather creepy mannequins. He’d just bought cat food as he does voluntary work for a cat rescue charity.
These found poems are based on the real letters of Annie Mackay. She spent her brief life working the small family croft in a remote area of the Highlands. Sadly, she developed cancer and died at the age of 21 in 1957. Her orphaned six month baby boy was left to be raised by an aged uncle. At the time illegitimate children were considered social outcasts. No-one ever discovered the identity of the baby’s father which might be hinted at in these letters. They were written to Annie’s married sister Violet who had moved to Edinburgh. I love these letters because they are full of joy and humor even though Annie was already aware of her illness. They also paint a picture of the preoccupations of a country girl and life in the 1950s.
I sold eighteen turkeys
so we can have a night
out in the pub,
going from bad to worse (puff).
Ronald says Ray is a born lunatic,
that was his opinion when he saw
the photos and then the blue jersey.
Your hair looked very nice,
is that a new dress you had on?
I hope it’s nylon
I’m not in favor of wool.
Lots of love and kisses,
I can tell you about it. There was turkey for dinner, then at 3 o’clock tea.
I had my cake with 21 candles. All the family were there listening to Lux
and singing The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House.
I think its super, don’t you? Lena brought the record Walking in the Rain.
I like it do you?
Jesse gave me £5 and Connie £2 and Grandad two aprons and Mary a nylon underset
and Margaret a necklace, sparkles all colors and Donald a mohair scarf (awfully warm)
and Sheena nylons and Jane a cameo brooch and Granny a Terrylene blouse.
I’m not in favor of blue.
And from Julie a ‘Le Page’ compact and from Johnny, Black Rose perfume,
very good of him and from Lynn a Coty lipstick, nearly ruby and from Alan a purse.
What a present, not much use with no money and then of course, your presents.
Johnny stayed till midnight… everyone else went off at six.
Lots of love and kisses,
PSA Separate Special Instalment for your Eyes Only:-
BURN AFTER READING
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.”
The day the waves came,
she went out looking.
Rocks, boats slashed by winter,
White Rose half-painted on the quay.
The beach swirled diamonds,
wind down-turning creels.
The Café closed tight,
shuddering on the line
where elements collide.
The Orkney Ice Cream sign
askew by the door, keening
like a gull with a broken wing.
In the bothy he burned
a fire of peat, warming
fingers, interwoven. He breathed
the secrets of seashells into her ear.
The sky splintered beyond the window pane,
words drowning as oceans swelled a crescendo
of herring-bones and the lighthouse slowly crumbled.
Note 1:- a bothy is the term used for a small hut or refuge in the wilderness of Scotland.
Note 2:- Collision is an attempt at a concrete poem…the shape on the page is supposed to represent a lighthouse…well, more or less!
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.