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.”
A mermaid in a cab delivered her note, handwritten in wavering purple ink.
She chose a secret location on Long Island at midnight.
Strictly no pictures, no questions and I must come alone.
She said she admired my honesty and the scoop on Leonard Cohen.
The tide was out, the mist was in and it looked like a no show
when suddenly she appeared by the rocks, lapping quietly at my feet.
She wore a blue mac. A fedora pooled shadows over her eyes. Such an honor to meet you, I began. Thanks for letting me tell your story.
This is not about me, well not much, she said.
Her voice rippled and skipped through the dark. It’s about you guys. My warnings
aren’t getting through, not
even the tsunami of 04. You morons
have short memories and no understanding
of omens. We don’t know where we went wrong, me
and Neptune. We were good parents. Fuck knows
we tried our best. Ever since you crawled
onto dry land you’ve lost your way.
What do you mean exactly? I asked. I told you no questions, she replied and a cold wave rose up and slapped me in the face.
We sent clear signs, reminders every day. It’s hard work
maintaining the tides, the rhythm, all that pulling
and pushing to teach you the value of self-discipline, of balance
and how to give and take. We’re sick
of your abuse and the shit you dump in the water. I could
go on and on but I’m not here to give another
lecture cos the truth is, you’re screwed. No,
I’m here to tell you I’m quitting.
Neptune hitched a ride to Andromeda
five years ago. He sent a postcard last month
and says he’s doing swell. I stayed behind, hoping
for change but now your time is up. There’ll be no
more marinara pizza, no more calamari fritters, no
more weekends hanging out at the beach and no
more yachting holidays for the jet set. There’ll be no
more clouds with silver linings and no
more rain on your dahlias. You will be forever grounded.
I’m off to Orion for my new job as Head of Desert Prevention.
My advice in these dying days is to forget love, it will fail you.
Read Dostoevsky and respect your cat, he is wiser than you know.
And before I could protest, she disappeared,
dancing and leaping into a vortex of spray.
In the old days I was Canis Marinus, Dog of the Sea.
I was born in a mangrove swamp of the Antipodes,
abandoned by Ma at first swim to the murky
mysteries of waves, death and capitalism.
I was crated frozen to the Land of the Free.
Now they call me Tiger, Blue, Hammerhead,
Great White, Art-wank. I prefer Sea-Dog
but they call me shock, ragged, monster, demon
or jaws (cue scary music and pearly sharps to die for)
the perfect engine and eating machine, soulless
beast, killer of slaves and pretty girls in bikinis.
I can morph into fin soup, a Chinese delicacy
or a shifty money lender. A role model for the aspiring
acolytes of Damien or a trophy tanked up on formalin
stinking behind the thin glass wall of privilege.
Predators queue and gawp
at the impossible.
I stare straight back
and what’s more
I never blink.
I was inspired to write this poem after seeing Damien Hirst’s so-called conceptual art entitled ‘The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. I found it disturbing to see a wild creature exploited and displayed in an art gallery. My feelings of distaste and anger increased when I later learned that Hirst had several Tiger Sharks killed for his art work. Even though the sharks are preserved in formaldehyde they start to decompose after a few years and need to be replaced. Other animals have also been killed by Hirst for his art, including cows and calves for the piece titled ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’. I find the morality of this indefensible. It is one thing to kill for food or survival but not for art or entertainment. Hirst’s pickled shark was sold for millions.
I also find it sad that humans have a tendency to demonise and label as ‘other’ anyone who is different from themselves, this includes other species, races, religions, sexual orientations, disability, etc. Even sharks can respond positively to kindness and afffection. They are not the vicious, mindless monsters portrayed by our culture but a beautiful creature trying to survive the best it can, just like the rest of us. Please watch this amazing YouTube video showing a shark conservationist petting and playing with a shark. Perhaps they are truly the dogs of the sea.
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!
buckles and bends
a bandage of rain
the shore. The sea watches,
murmurs peace man
or cries life sucks!
One after the other
they come seeking;
white camper vans
celebratory as iced
party cakes sprinkled
with cycles, paddles,
canoes, fishing tackle,
picnic hampers crammed
with yummy goodies;
coachloads of pixelated
tourists, heads turning
in syncopated rhythm,
weary in uniform
Ford Transits; tinted salesmen
swaying on hangers
in Vauxhall Astras.
The sea watches,
curious in turquoise
or flirty with plutonium frills.
Always too cold for swimming
beyond the no-man’s
land scarred with ruins
and new builds.
One after the other;
the vintage Harleys,
the butt naked
the goggling Euros,
the English salt
and vinegar families
all seeking the lights
of John o’Groats.