Study of Gannet over Boreray
Study of Gannet over Boreray
The proscribed texts of St Kilda were stored next to gannet-plumage stacked within the feather store. Copies of Marx and Darwin – smuggled in by dissident mainlanders – were stacked on a high shelf. Below them lay a book of fish recipes, imported by a dissident of another kind.
Most dangerous of all, however, was the Greek myth of Icarus, concealed behind a cover of gannet-skin, chained and padlocked below a sack of feathers.
‘In case it gives youngsters ideas,’ the minister explained.
Not long before his final day,
language deserted him,
the meaning of vocabulary
flocking like a host of seabirds
from his head’s vacant nest.
The word for ‘wall’
blending with the term they used for ‘cliff’.
A fireside ‘chair’
referred to as a ‘skerry’.
His children becoming ‘cormorants’
diving on a ‘carpet’
transformed into the ‘sea’.
Extract from ‘Tales Of Alexander - 5′
SMALLPOX EPIDEMIC 1727-29
And we thought we were in danger
with seas snarling below us,
winds buffeting like gannets’ wings
while we tore their flesh for food.
And the cold that racked us
as fingers smashed at stone for shelter
was sharp as spume; a blitz of white
that stung us with each storm.
Hirta on the horizon during cloud
- yet when skies were clear,
Conachair sharp with sadness,
Oiseaval a clenched fist out of reach.
Where were the people
who had abandoned us.
the souls who had condemned us
to endless exile on this rock?
Yet when we had heard all they had suffered
- the scorching heat of fever -
we felt half-glad to have been stranded on that stac,
to have endured the chill
Of spring and winter on its stone
while they lacked strength to even dig
graves for those who were not there to greet us
when we returned to Village Bay.
Study for Smallpox Epidemic 1727-20
Poem reproduced by kind permission of Donald S. Murray
THE DEATH OF THE LAST GREAT AUK
(The last Great Auk ever found in Britain was killed by St Kildans who believed
its witchcraft for responsible for a particularly violent storm that struck the island.)
And so we descended on it
- that strange bird -
and cried it for a witch:
As if its flightless wings
could summon up
the strength for storms;
As if head and beak could break
clouds free of their ledges
and bring rain tumbling
shelled and shattered on these rocks.
A mistake, of course,
and when the flap was over
we looked down
into that great bird’s sightless eyes,
Where could be read
our future -
black as nightfall,
boat slipping away in darkness
as it carried
the remnants of our race.
Study for Petrel-Post
Because his love for her must be concealed by night,
he trusts that fragile bird to bear
a message to the dark-eyed girl he’s glimpsed
while landing on the shore at Bailesiar.
He dreams about her as that petrel rides
eastward on these waves within the dark,
hoping its wings will sweep across that gap,
find her home where she will catch it, sending back
words like those he scrawled upon the note
clipped and fastened round its tiny foot
that might tell him that her small heart trembles too
and if it’s worthwhile, this pursuit
of love – or will she choose simply to remain
landbound on that shoreline, sensing only danger
in the pitch-black night that brings this bird
and in the edgy gaze of a lovelorn, wordless stranger?
Study of Storm Petrel Lamp for The Guga Stone
STORM PETREL 2
Alive, they are a flare of black,
a flickering after nightfall
they flocked home in the dark
to congregate in cracks of walls,
gnarled cliffs, houses, towers …
Dead, they gave off flame, a light
burning from their beaks,
within both flesh and feather, brightening nights
for fishermen below decks
resting from their toil
in that island’s shelter,
raiding ocean’s silver
far from familiar soil.