It all started with the publication of Hamish-Haswell Smith’s An Island Odyssey. (See my review on Shiny New Books.) and the irresistible pull of Island 14, Staffa, the lure of Fingal’s Cave. Staffa is uninhabited – now – and it is necessary to travel via Mull. So, one fine sunny weekend in June, bags packed, appropriate reading material excavated from the TBR, where this fine anthology has languished for some 3 years, off we set.
It was an inspired choice of reading material. As the editor Kevin MacNeil says in the prologue “I believe the poetry in this anthology is among the best that the UK has produced since the beginning of the 20th century. Even the most objective critic will appreciate that a high proportion of the finest and most important poems of recent years have had a connection with one or other of the Scottish isles: Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Muir, Hugh MacDiarmid. And although all those “big” names are male, I hope this collection will go some way to remedying that gender imbalance, as it also showcases the strength of the great female island voices, so often underrated.”
Besides balancing gender, this anthology also spans language containing compositions originally written in English, Gaelic and Scots. The Gaelic poems are translated into English, but the Scots ones are not. This, I thought an oversight, for Scots really isn’t that easy to read. I may have lived in Scotland for 25 years, but I haven’t picked up enough of the vernacular to understand some of the longer poems. The poems I did understand were delightful and true companions as I meandered my way around just 2 of the 800 Scottish Isles. They chart island culture and its loss through emigration of the younger generation to the mainland. They chart the landscape of human emotions as well as the landscape of the islands themselves, and it was this theme that stood out for me during my first trip to the Inner Hebrides.
(Myles Campbell – translated from Gaelic)
Islands rise from the sea,
their foundations hidden
in ancient experiences.
Islands are in and out of time,
guides for the wanderer,
or submerged in time long gone.
Some are well established,
high and dark in the flood.
No storm will affect their well-formed front.
Some in lava and sulphurous grief,
sea children of torn heart.
And others, icebergs, coldly moving in the water.
Some will stand silent,
lonely – inwardly as rock –
unassuming in the heat of the day.
And there is an island in the dusk,
assured, dark, and repelling,
its foundations in a fading time.
And this island in the sunset,
island watching another island.
You decide your own form.
These tangible differences between the islands were clearly demonstrated on the trip from Mull to Staffa.
The sight of Bac Mór on the horizon and this poem are now permanently fused in my mind.
Slate, Sea and Sky
An island on the rim of world
in that space, between slate, sea and sky
where air and ocean currents
are plays of wild energy
and the light changes everything.
And finally to Staffa, formed by the same slow-cooling volcanic activity as the Giant’s causeway. Spectacular. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Inspiring. Certainly something to sing about. If you want to invent a lyric to Mendelssohn’s overture, feel free.