Hunting in the dark


I’ve tried to take most of this month off from writing – after the frenetic efforts of the previous two and a half, it seemed like a good idea. Now it’s driving me up the wall, even as I know my mind needs to refresh, recover from the effort of putting together 30,000 words in such a short space of time.


But I find myself opening up the Hauntings word file and dabbing away at a few pieces, being unsatisfied with the bittiness of my efforts, but knowing I should be happy with making small marks right now. I need a long stretch, quiet, and a head full of new images before I can really hope to get into the project properly. Until then, I am hunting in the dark, stepping in puddles and falling against tree branches. It was coalesce, it will be copacetic, it will have a better title I think, but not right now.


Now is the time for ideas and reading and squirreling things away. I’ve been reading Frankenstein (about time, really)  and watching – or is watching the right word? Being hit by the weird and amazing hurricane that is  American Horror Story – I hope to have a conversation on The Female Gaze about that quite soon.  I am tentatively even thinking of the next project after the currently-named Hauntings. Something with more weight. A flash novel, set in a particular location (something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, like The House on Mango Street, like American Horror Story, but mine. Something worthwhile moves ahead of me in the dark, the moon glancing off its back. I don’t know what sort of shape it is, only that it should be unsettling – even frightening? – When I get it down on the page. But if I’ll catch the right form, I don’t know. That is writing. Hunting in the dark, with our fingers to guide us, and everything we’ve seen before providing that faint cast of light for us to see by, though we trip over enough, that’s true.


For now I am a reader and a watcher, not attempting anything more, just yet.





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A Humid, Leafy Space

Butterfly and Insect World, Edinburgh



a hallway in the bee sanctuary



D and I went on a little field trip to Edinburgh’s Butterfly and Insect World, a place where little quails roam wild, and terrapins squat along the banks of turgid ponds and fast, artificially pumping waterfalls, and outdoors, where bees fly into indoor perspex-paneled combs.







It’s been intermittently warm here, and busy where I work, hence my absence here. I haven’t had many organised thoughts lately – I’ve just been dabbing about with the beginnings of a new flash fiction collection (I’ve been thinking whether or not I want to include some relevant poems too) BUT I do have one piece of news to report: my flash piece ‘No One’s Gonna Take My Soul Away’ is going to be published in August in decomP magazinE. The story is another one from Monstirs, and if any of you are fans of the supernatural, and/or singer Lana Del Rey,  it might be of interest.  Links when it goes live.


I hope Summer is as productive or as unproductive as you’d like, and the days as warm or as cool as you need.




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‘Ipseity’ up on The HU

Ipseity (noun):  Selfhood, individual identity. From the Latin ipse, meaning self + English -ity. This is another piece from Monstirs, an existential-crisis sort of a take on the Wildean/Hans Christian Anderson style fairytale:


There was an emblem on the floor upon which she stood, a charm that tired her unbearably. In the fireplace, the fire hissed. Down the chimney, a storm was spitting on it. The walls of the room were mirrored and the ceiling was a painting of the man she would marry, standing in the grounds of his home. When the roof came off she had to spin. The lawn beyond her own room was endless. She was supposed to be wealthy, she was supposed to be a princess.That’s what the girl told her. 


Read more…


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‘The Drowned Sailors’ up on Flash Flood

It’s National Flash Fiction Day here in the UK – and to celebrate, Flash Flood Journal is hosting its yearly, well, flood of flash. And my opportunely-themed story is one of the waves:


It would be best if we didn’t live here together any more.


You like the smell, that’s what you’ll miss. You like the smell of rot on the shore where we staggered to stay, the fumes off our mouldering tar boat huts, and the North Sea itself, cold and humid. A chill territory, a grey steppe with no heaven on any side, but everywhere to be gone. You would have taken longer to know it, if things had been different. 




Stories will be coming all day long, on this longest day of the year, until Midnight, BST. I think the archive will be available over this next year though, should you be busy enjoying the extra hours – or, if you’re south of the equator, the brief light.


As you’ll be able to see, ‘The Drowned Sailors’ is another piece from Monstirs. Now I have to set myself the task of writing two-three flash for a reading I’m giving at an event in Glasgow on the 1st of July. The theme is wilderness, and the big night will revolve around film as well as stories and other wonders. I will be sitting today enveloped in memories of Banff, November to December last year. More details here about the night, when I have the work ready and feel a little more prepared myself.



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As in a dream

Iona Abbey


Iona Abbey, once one of the most important centres of religion and learning in Western Europe, now a place for tourists and lodgings for ecumenical visitors, is a plain, almost austere place. The air of ruin hangs, just pushed back to arms distance. Systematically dismantled during the 16th century Scottish Reformation, it stood open to the elements for a time, before being basically rebuilt and restored – a process only completed in the last decade of the last century.


photo credit: D



Final resting place of George MacLeod and his wife Lorna, responsible for leading the charge to bring about saving the abbey from ruin.


restoration work





Restored stone carvings, of a slightly eerie nature.



rare ferns growing on the inside wall



While open to the elements, the Abbey’s church became home to these apparently rare sea-loving ferns. According to the guide, their presence is evidence that the building, though now enclosed, is still breathing – I quite like that idea.


Outside the church we came across a strange sight: a swarm of bees, baffling a local expert beekeeper called in to guide them away.


abbey church and bees



There’s only one clearly visible but if you look close to the guttering, you can see the swarm. The beekeeper was scratching his head over how to charm them down into the box he had ready. Later we’d see him cross the fields with a wheelbarrow and a companion. I wonder if he managed to move them on? The bees caused no bother to us, even as they blew around us, rising up to the roof. That has to be some sort of omen, doesn’t it? A good one. At least in this one spot, the troubled bee population of the world is thriving.



St Oran's from the outside



St Oran's chapel



This is the 11th century St Oran’s Chapel. St Oran, or Odran, was one of St Columba’s followers, and as such lived in the late 500s. However his chapel stands in the beautiful pocket graveyard of Reilig Ordhrain (Oran’s graveyard, naturally enough). I found the chapel had a very peaceful atmosphere. It’s ecumenical now and dedicated to prayers for justice for causes and people in need of such entreaties. However, Wiki supplies an amazing snippet of hagiography for St Oran, that I have to share:


Another legend tells that the chapel that Saint Columba wanted to build on Iona was destroyed every night. Finally he was told by a voice that it could never be finished until a living man was buried below. So Odran was buried alive willingly and the chapel could be finished. But one day he pushed his head through the wall and said that there was no hell as was supposed nor heaven that people talk about. Alarmed by this Columba let Odran’s body be variously covered with earth more securely or removed with haste.[3]

In a Hebridean version of this tale Odran is promised that his soul will be safe in heaven. Some time after the burial Columba wants to see Odran once more and opens the pit under the chapel. When Odran sees the world he tries to come out again, but Columba has the pit covered with earth quickly to save Odran’s soul from the world and its sin.[3]

These legends are one of the few instances of foundation sacrifice in Great Britain. [x]


All I can see now in my mind is St Oran pulling a post mortem John Lennon, and subsequently St Columba’s passive aggressive zombie re-interment. Anyway. The story is likely linked to a much older legend – the lines between pagan and early Christian tales can get a bit fuzzy. A good story is one worth re-telling, as many writers will tell you.


in the distance, the beekeeper strides back to the swarm



I’ll leave you with that strange story, and this last vista of the abbey, with the white-suited beekeeper walking back to his puzzling duties under the bright blue June sky.


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photo credit: D

photo credit: D



A small island off the coast of Mull, Staffa was named by the Vikings – ‘Staffa’ meaning stave, or pillar.  It’s easy to see why – Staffa is a basalt outcrop, a bloom of lava that came in three stages – the second of which provided the island with the great black pillars that give it its name.



Staffa at the landing point



Basalt columns on Staffa



We had about an hour on the island, just about enough time to see everything. By everything, I mean a landscape similar to Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh – a volcanic plateau studded with low, alpine-like wildflowers and grasses, the only difference being the small coves, the abundance of seabirds, and the ever-present sea sparkling below.



a cove and the sea - I'd love to camp overnight here, though I'm not sure there's any fresh water here



But the biggest draw to Staffa has to be Fingal’s Cave.



The acoustics were something else








It’s not a deep cave, nor the biggest in the world. But there is something very moving in the turquoise colour of the water, the sound in the air as you stand inside on the narrow black ledge, staring down at the bobbing white jellyfish coming and going with the low surge.

The cave has been a mystery and an inspiration for centuries. James MacPherson’s Ossian poems popularised the name Fingal’s Cave, after the legendary builder of the Giant’s Causeway, a similar stepped Basalt formation in Northern Ireland.  The cave also inspired Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture, which some kind soul has uploaded to Youtube with a video of the ferry crossing to the island. In the piece you can hear the surging of the waves – when he visited it was apparently a rougher day than when we did. It would be an amazing, if cramped, space to put on a small concert. I wonder if it’s ever been done?





the arch of the cave



I’d happily go back to Staffa, and perhaps from there on to Lunga, one of the Treshnish islands where thousands of Puffins make their nests in season. Perhaps I will get the chance some time later. Though there are many more islands that pull me towards them.


That’s all for today. Tomorrow – Iona Abbey, bees, and the graveyard of the great and the good.


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Iona in the blue

The harbour at Iona


It was a sunny day when we arrived on Iona, which you must reach from Edinburgh by taking:

the train to Glasgow (50 minutes)

the train to Oban (3 1/2 hours)

the ferry to the island of Mull (40 minutes)

a bus across Mull on single-track roads, to the ferry at Fionnphort (1 hour)

the final ferry from Fionnphort – 10-15 minutes.


It takes, with transfer and waiting times, roughly a whole day. As the crow flies, the distance between Edinburgh and Iona is only 126 miles . Here’s our journey across Iona on the first day:


a garden facing Mull


The Ruined Nunnery



As you might know, Iona  was the first place Christianity came to Scotland, in the late 500s, through the exploits of St Columba, or Colm Cille in Irish. He seemed an interesting, magnetic figure – his name means ‘church dove’ but he also led an army against some Irish princes and the resulting slaughter by his group may have been the reason he fled Ireland forever. He supposedly settled with his 12 followers on Iona after climbing a hill to determine whether or not he could still see Ireland – when the answer was no, he was happy to set up his religious community there.  Under his tenure, the island flourished as a centre for learning as well as religious thought. My favourite exploit of his was the ‘proofreading miracle’ he performed - he correctly predicted that a monk writing a text would make only one mistake, and that it was changing an uppercase I to a lowercase i.  St Columba – saint of proofreaders? I’m not sure. There may be a few more contending for that, given that the monks so liked to write and copy great texts. It’s also believed now that the famous Book of Kells was at the very least begun on Iona, and taken to Kells to protect it from the frequent Viking invasions of the island.


The Abbey across a garden of flowers - everywhere was in bloom when we visited



Iona youth hostel


This is the youth hostel where we stayed – lovely owner, and perhaps one of the best settings for a youth hostel anywhere in the world -


from the youth hostel-



over the hill-



the Atlantic!


(these last photos were taken about 10pm)


That’s probably enough for today. As you can see, the island was very photogenic. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was a huge draw for the Colourists, a group of Scottish artists whose work revels in the chalky white and turquoise blue palette the island provides. Tomorrow I’ll post some pictures from Staffa, a tiny, mysterious island that influenced Mendelsohn in his Hebridean Overture. The sea fog came in, as I said, on the last day we were there, so I hope to add more images of the machair disappearing into the coolness.


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