Marking the Silence

Obsessions, once again:

A ruined cottage, Isle of Rum. Likely the inhabitants were cleared from the island when the landowners wanted to turn the whole thing to game hunting. Rum became Rhum, the forbidden isle (because the landowners would take pot shots at any boats that came to close to shore)

I think, looking at this picture, of other relics of the Highland Clearances, an event which rippled across the world – the displaced shipped off to Canada, America, Australia, or South to Glasgow. I try to imagine the lives that the crofters would have led, families in those single-room spaces. Peat or wood reek blustered back down the chimney. Cracks in the wall stuffed with carcinogenic bracken. Beds made of the stuff. The damp, the biting midgies. I grew up next to a spike-grassed, boggy field which held one of these ruins. Remember going down with a neighbour to poke about in the nettle-ridden interior, finding nothing at all but the mud tracked in by generations of sheep and cattle.

Again on Rum, the open path the crofters would have taken, towards the small community that now has bought back the island for the people

I think of the brutality, the lack of recourse to justice, the legacy of empty valleys left behind, the great, slow decline after, akin to all rural places in the Western World.  I think of the echoes. I think of the weight of absences, and what it does to the soul. I think of this poem (here in his English translation), which was written by one of the great Gaelic poets, Sorley MacLean, who taught at the high school on Skye before my time:


‘Time, the deer, is in the Wood of Hallaig.’

The window is nailed and boarded
through which I saw the West
and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig,
a birch tree, and she has always been

between Inver and Milk Hollow,
here and there about Baile-chuirn:
she is a birch, a hazel,
a straight slender young rowan.

In Screapadal of my people,
where Norman and Big Hector were,
their daughters and their sons are a wood
going up beside the stream.

Proud tonight the pine cocks
crowing on the top of Cnoc an Ra,
straight their backs in the moonlight –
they are not the wood I love.

I will wait for the birch wood
until it comes up by the Cairn,
until the whole ridge from Beinn na Lice
will be under its shade.

If it does not, I will go down to Hallaig,
to the sabbath of the dead,
where the people are frequenting,
every single generation gone.

They are still in Hallaig,
MacLeans and MacLeods,
all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim:
the dead have been seen alive –

A mostly birch wood on Skye - not Raasay, Skye's little neighbour-isle, where the poem is set.

I think of the mark the history of absence has left in me.

I think of consolations, try to understand how much it is that art can do, and how much it cannot.



Filed under consolations of reading, Scotland, The Now, Theory

4 responses to “Marking the Silence

  1. CJ

    Your love of that land is palpable. Wonderful. The writing and the images.

    • Thank you. I think the strength of my feelings comes in part from leaving the Highlands at a young age for Edinburgh, and has only been compounded by my leaving Scotland for (briefly) Australia and then America. It helps to be able to see the land with outsider’s eyes.

  2. Ah, I’ve thought that before.

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