Friday, 3 December 2010

(15) Dunira

“There is a whole world in Perthshire that is as unique as Faulkner’s Deep South – no-one is aware of it. No writers I mean.”

– IHF, letter to J. F. Hendry

Our huge chestnut in a corner of Tokyu's estate is the great sycamore on the estate at Dunira

Our off on the edge of town… a priest, completely out of things, is Ian Hamilton Finlay, painter, playwright, poet, who lived here in the early 1950s

Our chestnuts are the Quebecois buckwheat pancakes that Margaret cooked for us, with a wee glass each of our whisky, Tullibardine 1993

Our walking-stick is the hazel walking-stick made by Margaret's uncle in Balquhidder

15 Sora with Margaret’s walking stick
Alec Finlay, 2010

The Square at Dunira

15 The Square
Alec Finlay, 2010

packing the gear again
folding the maps
turning our thoughts
to Dunira and the maw
of the earthquake glen


We're staying at The Square, Dunira, between Comrie and St Fillans, in a flat owned by Margaret Bennett, singer, storyteller, writer, folklorist. Dunira – formerly known as Movey, the Mouth of Hell – means ‘fort at the west water’ – so was this another ‘armoured farm’? But it has its idylls too – Sarah Murray in her Beauties of Scotland (1799) refers to the ‘rills’ of the Boltachan Burn at Dunira, as did Ian Hamilton Finlay a century and a half on, inspired to construct a stone-lined rill flowing into the Top Pond at Stonypath, Little Sparta – a memory of wee burns in Perthshire, complete with planted ferns. A Virgilian Celtic spring.

15 Ken & Margaret, Dunira
Alec Finlay, 2010

15 audio: deer, Dunira
Alec Finlay, 2010

15 Dunira sycamore
Alec Finlay, 2010

Dunira’s a hunting estate, and we drive through fields thick with pheasants, where deer come down to graze at dusk. We walk with Margaret and Gonzalo to a special spot in the woods, but ‘Narnia’ has lost its green spell. Then Margaret, who lived here for years, discovers a new magical spot – a rowan and a holly both growing out of the bole of a gean.

15 Rowan in gean
Alec Finlay, 2010


Finlay’s Perthshire

IHF was a shepherd in Glen Lednock, just after the war – with his wife, Marion, and dog, Finn MacCool. One of his final works at Stonypath was a fank or stell, a memory of the sheep shelters high up on the moor, where he couldn’t go any longer, inscribed with this beautiful line from a Gaelic poem: The beginning and end of life is herding.

We’d taken a drive up the glen as far as Invergeldie, looking N to Ben Chonzie, and within sight of the Lednock dam, made to withstand earthquakes, as needs must on the Highland Boundary Fault. Water from Loch Lednock flows down a tunnel to St. Fillans power station, buried in a cavern hewn from solid rock, at the foot of Loch Earn. Later we discovered it was here at ‘Innergeldie’ that he’d lived in the late 1940s, composing his first published poem here in 1946 – a Perthshire Poem, epistle to his friend in the corrupt capital.

Postcard from Glenlednoch

For Derek Stanford

Since ours is not the rhetoric of mountains,
Romantic heather shawled in purple mist,
These raw moors sour the mind, and icy darkness
Seals up the fountains in the poet’s wrist.

My verses all as bones are stiff and brittle
That might, and under your blue warmer sky,
Be fed on ennui, éclair, apple-blossom …
But, craving truth, must seek the hard and dry.

Bleak stone instructs the soul in nihilism,
And leaning firs whose meaning I have found
Means not the South, nor yet the silky ocean
Where Shelley floats, magnificently drowned …

Thus meagre faith surveys its landscape-token
Of which, as mind wings South, I send to you:
Signed with respect, and stamped with my friendship,
A poem, – perhaps! Or just a postcard view!

15 Signpost
(Alec Finlay, 2010)

They then moved over the hill to Drum na Keil, at Dunira – or Druim-na-Cille, as it’s known now – which bears an uncanny resemblance to Stonypath: white-washed cottages at the edge of habitation, reached by stony tracks, their windows facing south-west over a conspectus – the Stonypathian vale finding its counterpart in the sacred hill of Saint Fillan and the pyramid of Mor Bheinn. A letter to Stephen Bann sets the scene: ‘I used to go for wood every evening through an extraordinary landscape of pines and mountains which I still owe many poems to …; the landscape, or my wee bit of it, was so bittersweet, like a mixture of Heine and Trakl’. Significantly, as Ken would discover, there’s also a ruined formal garden at Dunira, complete with fallen columns identical to those Ian hid among moorland grasses at Little Sparta. Another unpublished poem describes one of the local characters, as if in a scene from Turgenev.

The Old Sleigh

(in memory, Billy McNee of Dundern)

The Laird’s old sleigh left out in the brown barn
With runners gone all silver – as we brush
The cobwebs, we can feel, on ear and arm
Snowflakes of yesterdays: the lightest touch.

1961 (Lilly Library Special Collection)

He had memories of the tremors and small earthquakes the glen is famous for, giving Comrie its nickname, ‘Shakey Toun’, and how the ‘messages’ were delivered by bus to the end of the drive – a fair walk. It was here that he and Marion both gave themselves fully to their art. This is their friend Bet Low’s portrait of their lives there.

15 'The Soup', Ian and Marion at Drum na Keil
Bet Low, Perthshire Museum and Art Gallery (early 1950s)

In the Summer of 1956, IHF writes to his friend George Mackay Brown from Glasgow, ‘I don’t want to finish any writing when I am in a city, amid alien shapes. If only I could get well enough to arrange for a place, and to make an order. I loved my shed at Drum na Keil, its tarred, leaky roof, the wee windows full of mountains and pines, and the big table that was the table on which the shepherds ate at the gatherings in the years before.’Another letter to George records a return visit to his old cottage: ‘After [Balquhidder] we went to Comrie, via Loch Earn, and my shepherd friend, where we got a great welcome. Then down the rusted railway and across the viaduct into the village. Seeing my wee cottage with Edinburgh eyes, I thought it very nice, a bit like Van Gogh’s at Arles. The village children had broken in, and got hold of my oil paint, and, across the wall where I’d hung my pictures, written: “You are a lovely artist.” Then a lot of kisses in red and blue. I was rather touched … [ ] I knew I could write OK if I went back to Comrie; it is quite another world, with mountains, and people, and a life, a real life. Only it is the past. Even if the future is a blank, that is what one must live towards.’

(AF, KC)


‘Finlay’s house’ is above the main Dunira settlement, a white cottage visible from a distance. There’s a track up but we've been told not to take the car so I leave The Square to walk up in gentle Friday evening sunlight. Two workmen are still at work in a barn of some kind; I see no hunters but regularly hear shots. The track winds through woods and unfenced meadows then climbs burnside towards the cottage. A strange tree turns out to be a phone mast and I fail to locate the cup-marked rock marked on the map.

15 tree-mast
Ken Cockburn, 2010

I’ve no idea whether the cottage will be inhabited; I find it isn’t. It’s in good repair, freshly whitewashed with neat black trim; I'd guess, going by the bottles on the long table inside, that it’s used for post-shooting refreshments.

15 Druim na Cille
Ken Cockburn, 2010

No midges, but the air is full of curious flies; by the time I've focused the camera two or three have landed to investigate. Sitting on the bench I look through trees across to St Fillans Hill.

15 Dunira looking towards Dundurn
Ken Cockburn, 2010

I hang Eck’s labels, homages to his father, on birches to the near side of the cottage.

15 hokku-label
(‘pastor of pines / shepherd of rocks // Druim na Cille / St Fillans Hill’, IHF // AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

15 hokku-label
(‘pool / fall / pool / fall / pool / fall / pool / fall / rill // Druim na Cille / Stonypath’, IHF // AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Returning, and nearly back at The Square, I turn left to investigate a tree-circled enclosure and find the remains of a formal garden, beautifully ruined. If the hillside cottage resembles Stonypath, these classical ruins echo Little Sparta but, with neither gardener nor poet, here nature masters culture.

15 Garden ruins
Ken Cockburn, 2010

15 Garden ruins
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Later I come across a photo of the cottage from January 2008, perhaps more like it was in the 50s.

15 (



15 Dalchonzie Power Station
Alec Finlay, 2010

15 Dalchonzie Power Station, mirror-pool
Alec Finlay, 2010

Our Kagenuma (‘Mirror Pond’) is the still birk-reflecting pool of the Dalchonzie Hydro-Electric

Hereabouts a weir below the outlet of Loch Earn diverts the waters into a tunnel, feeding the small Dalchonzie power station midway between St. Fillans and Comrie. A few days before, we’d driven by the Lawers dam, a 344m buttress between Tay and Lyon, which collects the mountain waters in Lochan nan Lairige.

15 hokku-label, Dalchonzie
(‘swifts too beneath / power-station eaves / mirror-pond stillness’, KC)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

15 hokku-label, birks, Dalchonzie
(‘O you Russians! / how we envy you – your birch forests / and 5 Year Plans!’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

Alternatively –

eftir Iain Crichton Smith, eftir Yeddie’s Mayakovsky

Och youse Ruskis!
Hoo we envy ye!

Yir birk forests!
Yir 5 Year Plans!

We look back at Druim na Cille, a white speck half way up the hillside to the north.


Bobbin Mill

One of IHF’s local poems is called ‘Dalchonzie’, but we discover it not at the power station, but on a back road nearer Comrie, by a self-catering cottage just past the old railway bridge. Bobbin Mill, opposite the Sawmill Road, and we’re sure because there’s the embankment of the railway line the poem refers to; and curly-haired Alan, father of three daughters, points us towards the millwheel, still and subsiding into grass and nodding foxgloves.

15 Bobbin Mill, Dalchonzie
Alec Finlay, 2010

The selfsame image of the mill wheel turning in the afternoon sun would, just four years later, be translated into the one-word poem, where autumn is emblematized as ‘one orange arm of the world’s oldest windmill’; and then a few years farther on, in the garden, the season-wheel of the sun was translated again into stone and carved letter, sundial and gnomon.

And the little toy mill Dad made from wood, painted grey, whose sad wheel could never turn – being two storeys it was a memory of Sourin Mill, on Rousay, not Bobbin Mill.


Deils Cauldron

We stop by the path in Glen Lednock, find more beechbarkbooks and a big felled beech.

15 Barkbook, Glen Lednock
Alec Finlay, 2010

15 hokku-label, Lednock
(‘news of defeat / hasn't yet reached the canopy / life goes greenly on’, KC)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Later Ken and Barno walk out from Comrie up the Glen to the Deil's Cauldron waterfall.

15 hokku-label, Deil’s Cauldron
(‘the sound of the falls / is louder / when you look up / at the sky’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

15 hokku-label, Lednock
(‘going a wee way / out of the village / to the waterfall // after Shiki’, AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

15 hokku-label, Lednock
(‘TRAUCHLED MENISCUS / waterfall // The Deil’s Cauldron’, AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

A steep walk uphill through gloomy woods brings them to the Melville monument, an ugly pillar visible for miles around remembering Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville and Baron Dunira (1742-1811), at one time the most powerful man in Scotland. On the other side of the riverbank alders predominate; the sky clears, and by the path Ken finds another signature tree within a tree.

15 Melville Monument
Ken Cockburn, 2010

15 hokku-label, Lednock
(‘L aldEr shaDed baNks O C K’, KC)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

15 Rowan on the stump
Ken Cockburn, 2010



Meanwhile, in recognition of the turning season and as a nod to Tokyu’s chestnut, here is a recent an outdoor poem composed by London comrade Andrew Ray and his kids.

15 Conkered: Ceasar’s Road North
Andrew Ray & family, London, 2010


Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections, edited and with an introduction by Alec Finlay. Due for publication January 2012.

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) was a poet whose work found its form in a variety of mediums, such as in his and his wife Sue's garden Little Sparta, in Dunsyre.

Margaret Bennett is a singer, storyteller, and part-time teacher. Her prize-winning books include Oatmeal and the Catechism (1999), The Last Stronghold: Scottish Gaelic Traditions in Newfoundland, (1989), and Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, (2004).

1 comment:

  1. I lived at drum na cillle from 1960 - june finlay