Sunday, 5 September 2010

(27) Sandaig

The otter of Ring of Bright Water 1958 – 1968
Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to nature.’

– Gavin Maxwell

Our Ojima Beach is Sandaig Islands

Our mainland is Sandaig Bay

Our Ungozenji is Gavin Maxwell at Camusfeàrna

Our inn is the trekkers lodge at Glen Shiel, windows opened on a still bay with a blue

Our inn is also the Glenelg Inn, windows opened upon sea

Our poems from a neckbag are by Valerie and Angus, back in Edo

Our thatched huts are the caravan in the forest clearing

Our religious recluses are a pack of mountain bikers, headed 36 miles down the coast

Foretelling, Foregoing

From the very beginning of our journey I wondered if the 2 map-box wide walk to Sandaig would be 1 box too many and, after the exertions of Raasay, so it proved. Ken kindly left me at the second broch in Gleann Beag, and I leave this record of ‘Camusfearna’ to his weatherbeaten skeleton alone, fortified by tea (Huiming Temple Gold) and whisky (Speyburn) – and thank him for carrying the verse Valerie gifted me, and my rejoinder to leave in their true home.



Even the simple sign seems to be pointing towards the past rather than the future.

27 signpost
Ken Cockburn, 2010

The walk there is through commercial woodland currently being cleared. A steep, muddy, descent, many mushrooms, and a gap reveals a first glimpse of the bay below, before a rope-bridge crosses alder-banked Allt Mor Shantaig.

27 Sandaig Bay
Ken Cockburn, 2010

27 Allt Mor Shantaig
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Immediately beyond are two memorials, one marking Edal's burial-site, the other marking the site of Maxwell's house named in his books Camusfeàrna ('Bay of Alders'),destroyed by fire on 20 January 1968. Each is honoured by stones and shells (Edal's being flat has more than Maxwell's).

27 Edal memorial
Ken Cockburn, 2010

27 Maxwell memorial
Ken Cockburn, 2010


As I expected from the cars parked up at the road, the bay was busy – several generations of a northern English family spreading out from their driftwood fire – a couple with small children, one of whom liked lobbing large stones into the burn too close to her siblings for his parents’ liking – a couple with a labradoodle – a boatload of folk on Eilean Mòr – a sailing couple who once the tide turned rowed back to their moored boat.

27 Sandaig Islands
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Fording the Allt Mor Shantaig close to the sea I reach Sandaig Islands – Eilean Carach,Fraoch Eilean, Eilean Mòr. They’re tidal, and I cross to the first and second of these. As I'm sitting on a rocky height a teenager in a Scotland shirt pops up close by with an axe in his hand, but he looks more gatherer than hunter. I make a little collection of lined stones that catch my eye, one with its own contour lines.

27, 7 stones
Ken Cockburn, 2010

At this station Basho takes from his neckbag and reads poems given to him by friends in Edo,let them be my company this night. Eck earlier opened an envelope from Valerie Gillies, and now I open one from Angus Reid. Angus’s poem chimes with my thoughts about Allt meeting sea – where does the one end and the other begin, when does the moment of change occur?

27 hokku-label (Allt Mor Shantaig)
(‘You’re walking away / Begone into solitude / And come back different // Allt Mor Shantaig – / when does river become sea / and sea, river?’ KC, Angus Reid)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Valerie’s seems to belong on Maxwell's memorial, shell-weighted against the breeze.

27 hokku-label (Allt Caillte)
(‘the sound of the lost cascade / reaches out / beyond the sea’
Ken Cockburn, 2010

She writes, “‘The lost cascade’ is a translation of the name of the Allt Caillte waterfall on the opposite shore, on Sleat. I hoped its sound would carry to you.” Perhaps up the coast at Kylerhea where the straights narrow, but here it’s an otter-paddle across to Meall Port Mhealaraigh and the south-flowing allts of Ben Aslak.

I've copied out a description of Camusfearna by Maxwell, and leave it on a bramble bush near the house-site, as a further echo of Basho’s summer grasses we riffed on down the coast at Dunstaffnage.

27 hokku-label (Gavin Maxwell)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Kathleen’s Ring

Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water opens with a poem by Kathleen Raine, her ‘The Marriage of Psyche’, which he titles ‘The Ring’, and from which the book takes its title. Amid the particularities of that coastline it seems a very abstract poem: here Ken reads the original; Eck composes a specific version, including the names of places and things at Sadaig.

27 audio, Kathleen Raine, read by Ken Cockburn, 2010
Alec Finlay, 2010

The Marriage of Psyche

He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water
Whose ripples travel from the Sound of Sleat,
He has married me with a ring of light, the glitter
Broadcast on the swift Allt na Loacainn.
He has married me with the sun's circle
Too dazzling to see, traced in summer sky.
He has crowned me with the wreath of white cloud
That gathers on the snowy summit of Mam an Staing,
Ringed me round with the bay-circling wind,
Bound me to the centre of Coire Bhreacain.
He has married me with the orbit of the moon
And with the boundless circle of Orion,
With the orbits that measure years, months, days, and nights,
Set the tides flowing,
Command the winds to travel or be at rest.

At the ring's centre,
Spirit, or angel troubling the pool,
Causality not in nature,
Finger's touch that summons at a point, a moment
Stars and planets, life and light
Or gathers cloud about an apex of gold,
Transcendent touch of love summons Camusfeàrna into being.

AF, after Kathleen Raine

Kathleen’s Curse

Raine had an unhappy relationship with Maxwell, as an obituary explains.

“The love of her life was the homosexual Gavin Maxwell. She believed they shared all she held dearest in life. His grandfather was the Duke of Northumberland; her grandmother had sat behind his in Kielder Kirk, "admiring her coils of shining hair". He and Kathleen were at one in their love for that place, for his hut at Sandaig on the west Highland coast,and for Mijbil, the otter he had brought from the Euphrates. But the relationship was doomed.
“Once, at his request, they shared a bed, without sexual contact. ‘Every night of my life, since then, I have spent alone,’ she wrote in The Lion's Mouth (1977), her third volume of autobiography. In it, she tells their story with surgical honesty, not avoiding what she came to see as her most terrible act, the words she spoke in her despair by the rowan tree on Sandaig that had symbolised for her the eternal quality of their bond: ‘Let Gavin suffer in this place, as I am suffering now.’
“Maxwell's beloved Mij was killed, for which Kathleen blamed her negligence; his house on Sandaig burned down. He endured other losses and failures, and died prematurely of cancer in 1969.
“The agony that Kathleen Raine underwent thereafter, expressed in her poetry and prose, seems never wholly to have expiated her guilt for a curse that so rebounded on herself.”



Eilean Ban, the former residence of Gavin Maxwell, and a beautiful site of natural heritage; visit the The Eilean Ban Trust website for further information on the visitor centre, wildlife, and walks in the area.

For more information on the life and works of Kathleen Raine, visit:

No comments:

Post a Comment