Sunday, 29 June 2014


“A life built around making the spaces to write”

That was the description of writer Christian McEwen in a recent Scottish Poetry Library podcast.  Christian was talking about the difficulty of - and the necessity for – finding the space for creativity.    I recommend listening to this wonderfully inspiring interview. 

Creativity requires both physical space and emotional space.  Christian spoke about her desire from a very early age for a private space of her own.  At the age of seven she took over a disused garden shed, lugged in her bookshelves and made it a place to write her first stories.   She talked about the need to protect the delicate growth of a new idea, to free the imagination from the mental influences of family and friends, to pay attention to hearing, touch and scent, not just the ubiquitous images and sounds which assault our eyes and ears in the contemporary world.  It was inevitable that Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space would get a mention - that quirky and wonderful book about how intimate spaces are essential to the imagination.  

As I write in my summer house I think of the words hafod and shieling, the Welsh and Scottish (via Norse)  names for a summer house.  On maps they are marked high up in the mountains or near remote coast lines.  When I find them they are often in reality only humps in the ground, overgrown turves, a few stones.  These were working summer houses - places where people went in the summer, taking their cattle and sheep with them, away from the fields of crops.  There would be grazing for the livestock, a stream or pool for water.  The long mild days, light until almost midnight, would be a time for cheese-making, peat cutting and perhaps a little romance, away from the restrictions of township life.  I wonder if it is a faint collective memory of this transhumance way of life which makes some people long to get away to the mountains and the sea in summer.

David and Claudine Mackenzie, who farmed on the Isle of Mull at Ballygown (the same house where I have stayed several times), described reconstructing a shieling in the hills above the farm.   It was a place to  stay for a summer break when they couldn’t afford a holiday.  It combined work and leisure – they lined chick boxes with sphagnum moss, did some botanical research and drank a little whisky.   I think they also did some writing as David describes the experience in Farmer in the Western Isles - “The gentle and constant movement of life on the summer mountain tops only reveals itself to those who sleep and wake there”.

By contrast my summer house is only a few yards’ walk from the back door.  I use it from early March to late October.  It’s my “Think box”, designed by my architect son when he was still a student and built by him and his brother from rough-cut wood from the local saw mill and recycled planks.  The wooden floor extends out to raised decking overlooking a miniature valley where a small stream trickles down on its watery way to the Solway.  The decking faces west and double doors open right out on this side so that the afternoon and evening sunlight shines in, filtering through the leaves of a chestnut tree.

This is where I come to write, read, and eat solitary meals when no one else is around (or watching yet more sport).  Sometimes the old black and white cat comes in for a while.  Inside is a wooden table and a cafĂ© chair.  There are pebbles for paperweights, some pottery bowls made by the children at school and a line of horseshoes cast by the Clydesdales and fell ponies when they worked on the farms round here.
It is not silent – always there are birds – a pigeon cooroocoos, a blackbird starts up in alarm (the cat’s about again), a buzzard mews high up over the wooded ghyll.  Most days there is the drone of tractors and farm machinery and in fine weather the voices of people out walking or cycling along the lane. 

But there is no one else in my summer house.  I only bring the task in hand – writing to work on, research to do, a book to read.  There are no distractions and no to-do lists, no unanswered letters that eye me accusingly.  There is no radio, no phone.  I forget my watch.  I work on into the midsummer evening, citronella candles flickering to drive away the midges, a hurricane lamp to prolong the light. 

Go to and follow the links to Connect and Podcast for the Christian McEwen interview.  Jennifer Williams, an excellent interviewer, asks the questions.

Thursday, 19 June 2014


I’ve paid my money to Caledonian MacBrayne and had twelve wonderful days exploring the Small Isles (Eigg, Rum, Canna, Sanday and Muck).  I’ve heard cuckoos and corncrakes, dodged great skuas doing their Hitchcock impressions, climbed An Sgurr, visited little museums of island life and met some very interesting people.

The Hebrides have a long tradition of poetry and I particularly wanted to visit Canna House.  It was the home of John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw, whose great contribution to Gaelic culture was to collect a vast amount of material – songs, poetry, folk lore, traditions, history, photographs, recordings.

Canna House has a very personal feel.  It is as if its inhabitants have just popped out for a few hours to help with the harvest and might return any time.  There are a couple of hens scratching around and their last cat is still alive and well on the island.  The rooms are full of their pictures, furniture and ornaments and there is music open on the wedding-present Steinway grand that Margaret managed to shoehorn into a tiny corrugated iron cottage on Barra when she was first married.   It is not hard to imagine the many guests who were welcomed to Canna House – crofters who came to play billiards, scholars, artists, scientists and writers who all came to talk, argue and be inspired, visitors from the Outer Isles who had known Margaret since the 1920s (she died at the age of 101 in 2004 - an inveterate chain-smoker to the end!)

The poet Kathleen Raine (initially brought by the painter Winifred Nicholson) came several times, a fugitive from her intense one-sided romance with Gavin Maxwell.  She wrote some occasional poems for the Campbells.  “A Valentine” lists the characteristic furnishings of the house, including “The cat-clawed Chippendales and the dog-haired cushions”.  I imagine her sitting on the white bench in the garden, pen and paper in hand. 

The Scottish poet, Helen Cruikshank, was another visitor.  Margaret first met Helen on Barra and invited her to join a rather damp picnic.  When Margaret recited lines from a poem she had enjoyed and learned by heart years ago (“I met a man in Harris tweed/As I went down the strand”) Helen was surprised and delighted – “I wrote that!”, she said. 

In the hall of Canna House there is a framed illustrated poem (“Margaret Fay Shaw”) by the Scottish writer Angus Peter Campbell and half a mile down the road at the dairy museum there is Hugh MacDiarmid’s  translation of part of the 18th century Gaelic poem “The Birlinn of Clanranald” by Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair.  Alasdair lived and worked on Canna for a while.   It is said that he composed part of the poem while lying under an upturned boat at the head of Canna harbour – one way to get some peace and quiet.  I found a leaflet about Alasdair with translations of his poems by Ronnie Black and Derick Thomson.

The Campbells were remarkable people.  Margaret was a determined American, a gifted pianist, who fell in love with Gaelic music and went to live on the island of South Uist in her 20s.  She lived in a small crofter’s cottage and collected the material which eventually became her book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist.  She was an excellent photographer and sold pictures of Hebridean life to the British press.  Both Margaret and John worked ceaselessly to preserve the land, wild life and culture of the Hebrides.  After their marriage they lived for a few years on the island of Barra and then bought Canna and settled there.

The house is full of their books, papers, recordings (the earliest on wax cylinders!), photographs, films and diaries.  A Gaelic treasure trove, some of which has yet to be catalogued.  There is plenty of work for the archivist, Magda (who knew the Campbells from her childhood), and her part-time assistant, Kirsteen, both of whom are full of enthusiasm for their work.   When Margaret first went to the Outer Hebrides she was entranced by everything she saw and heard (though a bath at the Lochboisdale Hotel was appreciated now and then).  It was only some years later that she realised that she and her husband were chronicling a disappearing way of life. 

While visiting the Small Isles I re-read my copy of Laughing at the Clock by Aonghas MacNeacail, a gifted contemporary Gaelic poet.  The book has Gaelic originals and English translations side by side.  The words from “poet’s congress, at the house of chida-san” could apply to the Campbells’ lives in the Hebrides:
            “among yellow fields of corn
              a harvest of words
              ascends to the sky,

              a great shoal of blackbirds, singing”

Sunday, 1 June 2014


Cut grass, the scent of summer – or at least of silaging.   Diesel fumes linger in the air and the nitrogen-fertilised monochrome ryegrass to me has an unpleasant whiff of seaweed washed up after a bad storm.  Silaging has been going on round here for the past fortnight.  It’s bad news for ground nesting birds - curlews, oyster-catchers, skylarks - whose numbers have plummeted in the last two decades, but good news for the corvids and gulls which circle round for rich pickings of rodents, frogs and invertebrates. 

My father made hay but his aim was the same as the silagers – to gather enough fodder to feed the livestock through the winter.  On our smallholding the grass was cut later in the year and our fields yielded what conservationists would call a herb-rich mixture of grasses and wild flowers.  My father reckoned that mixture made the best hay.  The fields had not been ploughed within living memory and you could still see the pre-enclosure ridge and furrow lines.   The smell was a wonderful mix of all those plants and grasses.  He would leave a small square uncut in the middle of the field, get off the tractor and save the shrews, mice and voles. 

Hay-making was a collaborative effort.  When I was a student I would come home after the summer exams to join in.  We needed several days of hot dry weather to cut, turn, dry and cart the hay.  There was a fine ratio between how much grass could be cut and the time needed to gather it in safely.  Long daylight hours meant exhausting hours of work.  Sweat on our skin attracted grass seeds, thistle thorns, microscopic black insects and a general grey grime. 
We were driven by fear – fear that the fickle Warwickshire heatwave would implode into a thunderstorm, fear that damp hay in the barn would spontaneously combust months later, fear of a hard winter to come – like 1963 – and having to buy in expensive and lower quality fodder.  But there was satisfaction and relief and cold beer when the last trailor was safely unloaded.

So, while the forage harvesters drone on,  I have been thinking of hay poems. 

Gillian Clarke’s “Hay” begins “Seven hold their breath, / their full arms itch with gleanings”.  You can feel the unyielding heat – “Not a cloud sails on, / not a leaf stirs”.  There are horses (one of them flicks an ear) and their skin “shivers off the flies.”  Only towards the end does the reader realise that the poem is describing a photograph of hay-making long ago.

Robert Wrigley “Hay Day” and “Hay for the horses” by Gary Snyder (thanks, Mick, for this one) › Poems › Gary Snyder: both describe a hay delivery for their horses.  Robert Wrigley puts magic into an apparently ordinary day and captures the excitement of the horses eating their smooth brome hay from the new big bale while Gary Snyder ends his poem with the voice of the delivery driver.

Paul Muldoon has a whole volume called Hay and the title poem is an apparently unassuming sonnet, beginning “This much I know”.  But surely there is more going on than bales of hay transported on beat up Volvos when a poet from Northern Ireland talks about “a right turn / off Province Line Road” and a bale exploding (though he doesn’t use that word).  It is Muldoonianly enigmatic:  “... when one bursts, as now, something takes flight / from those hot-and-heavy box pleats.  This much, at least, I know.”

You can find “Hay” on – go to “Hay poems of the late twentieth century” and Paul Muldoon.  On this site the poem is followed by “The Plot”, Muldoon’s witty concrete poem which shows the poet working a linguistic field.

*  My title is a phrase from Robert Wrigley’s “Hay Day”