Thursday, 23 December 2010

(46) Loch Maree

‘O restless heart and fevered brain,

Unquiet and unstable,
That holy well of Loch Maree
Is more than idle fable!’

– John Greenleaf Whittier, ‘The Well of Loch Maree’

Our Yamanka is Isle Maree

Our hot springs is the legendary well on Isle Maree

Our already become legend is the ‘Gairloch bard’ Uilleam Ros (William Ross) who, like Kemenosuke’s father, also died young

Our pain of one who goes, emptiness of one left behind is the ‘Tragedy of Loch Maree’ recounted in Dixon's Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire (1886)

Our pair of wild geese, lost in clouds is the V of wild geese overhead

Our Sora, stomach ailing, is Ken's tick and midge bites, and Eck’s old trouble, reumy and glandy from his soaking at the outdoor poetry reading at H-I-C-A, where the poems turned to papier-mache in the rain

Our Basho and Sora’s names don’t have to appear in the Hotel Register as ‘Aliens’, as used to be the case


This is the last blog to write. It’s as if I’ve been putting it off.

Nick said, you don’t take anything off the island. There were larches to be felled in van Vlissingen’s time, and he could have got good money for them, says Nick, but he chose not to remove them. The Teeside fishermen at Loch Maree Hotel tell us of a friend who took home a sapling oak from the island, and had a really dreadful time of it that winter. Next trip north he returned the tree, and life regained its equilibrium.

Does the tabu include even the photographs of the poems we wrote and left there?

Setting Out

46 Loch Maree Hotel dining room
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 hokku-label
(‘the window into the world out the’, circle poem, AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 Loch Maree, early morning
Ken Cockburn, 2010

We breakfast in the bay-window of the dining room, watching mists lift from the loch, as if we’re in a Swedish painting, lacking colour but with infinite tonal gradations. Our life here is Spartan-Victorian, scenes from one of the less-well known Buchan novels.

This was the best sea trout loch in the world, until they put the salmon farm at the mouth of the Ewe. The meds swilled all the lice off the caged fish onto the migrating trout. Now it’s been moved further out maybe things will pick up.

In the spring planning phase there’d been much research about how to float our way to Isle Maree, where to hire a boat. Turns out Nick is all things – manager, chef, stalker, guide, ex-badminton pro, tennis coach, boatsman. I’ve an old Edwardian postcard that seems to show exactly the same rowboats at anchor.

46 skyline
Alec Finlay, 2010

That dawn out my window cloud lifted from water level up until the bands of cloud revealed bands of mountain. It was so still the boat pair floated stem to stern.

calm defined by anchored boats
pointing different ways

in the
clear loch

there are
deep fish

watching the trout

the ripple unfurl its

46 Loch Maree, silver & azure
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Overhead what to the eye is grey, with patches of blue, the camera sees as silver and azure.

Nick casts off and sets the motor north. Wild mountains, gentle wooded islands. Soon we’re winding our wake between Eilean Sùbhainn and Eilean Eachainn. He points out a fragment of the rough path on the Letterewe shore, route of the old postie whose round took 3 days, the spot where a hiker slipped recently and had to be rescued. Then slows to let us see a wee bundle of floating greenery, camouflage for an SNH des-res nesting platform, constructed for black-throated divers. Their habit’s to scrape a nest on the shore, but the loch level rises fast when there’s a rain squall. They only lay a couple of eggs, and too many were being flooded out.

46 Nick
Alec Finlay, 2010

Loch Maree islands
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 On the map
Alec Finlay, 2010


46 Sora on Loch Maree
Alec Finlay, 2010

Instead of the other islands’ rocky edges, at Isle Maree waves lap a gentle pebbly beach.

46 Offshore oaks
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 Air root
Alec Finlay, 2010

46 The Money Tree
Alec Finlay, 2010

The island’s smooth holly, offshore trees, aerial roots, a range of species found on none of the loch’s other islands.

46 hokku-label
(‘indigenous pines before / Druids planted oak & rowan / before Maelrubha planted holly / before Vikings planted larch / before whose birch and chestnuts?’, KC)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Nick explains this as successive religious plantings. Some even say the shingle was brought here, as it occurs nowhere else nearby. The wood is a model of ecumenical diversity, each religious culture adding its own sacred tree – Druidic oak circle, Viking line of larch pointing toward Norway – leaving the others to flourish. In the same way the Church allowed bull sacrifices to continue here, shifting the calendar from Lughnasa to Saint Maolrubh’s feast day.

46 Enclosure
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 Viking grave-slabs
Alec Finlay, 2010

Away from the shoreline’s the tumbled enclosure, the grave-slabs said to be those of the tragic lovers, more recent gravestones, barkbooks older even than the Newton beeches. We drink today’s tea, Phoenix Honey Orchid, perfect for such a rich woodland. Sora wears a garland of oak. Nick tells us the tale of the Viking lovers.



46 audio, Nick’s Viking tale
Alec Finlay, 2010

46 Sora garlanded
Alec Finlay, 2010

46 Barkbook, ‘LFH’
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 Barkbook, ‘MWW 1850’
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 Barkbook, ‘PETE WARD’
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 Barkbook, ‘MICK 1904’
Alec Finlay, 2010

And there’s the ‘money tree’ which, fragile though it’s become, still draws supplicants, like Munlochy’s clootie well. The coins and the oak-leaves each seem to have changed colour so as to camouflage the other. There’s also an old well here said to cure insanity – lughnasa, lunacy, a connection with moon worship? Or as SNH have it, a cure for ‘metal illness’– would that relate to the greeny coins? After sipping you’d to be rowed round the island and ducked three times.

46 hokku-label
(‘the coins have / camouflaged themselves / among oak leaves’, KC)

Ken Cockburn, 2010

Maybe like the swordsmiths, islands deign to guard their secrets too.

Isle Anthology

46 Eck at the Money Tree
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 Eck & Nick
Ken Cockburn, 2010

I don’t know how long we spend on the island, but Eck seems to be poeming throughout. Here is his Loch Maree anthology.

46 hokku-label
(‘a deer path / leading in / from the edge / of the lochan’, AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 hokku-label
(‘a line / of larch / pointing / north’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

46 hokku-label
(‘don’t / give / up, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

46 hokku-label
(‘holding / off the / rain // letting / in the / light’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

46 hokku-label
(‘life is a path / of light and shade / a raindrop / about to fall’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

46 hokku-label
(‘mountain / cloud / lochan’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

46 hokku-label
(‘rotten rags / but coins’ / silent wishes’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

46 hokku-label
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 hokku-label
(‘the cloud threads cloud threads cloud threads’, circle poem, AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 hokku-label
(‘the lichens prove / the present air’, AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 hokku-label
(‘watching the trout rise / until the ripple / unfurls its circle // (Loch Maree)’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

I haven’t brought the whisky with me, so back on shore we libate, tippling Ardbeg from the jetty into the loch water.

46 Ardbeg in Loch Maree
Ken Cockburn, 2010

46 Isle Maree libation
Alec Finlay, 2010

(AF, KC)


As a guide to the Loch and its surroundings, Nick has recommended John H. Dixon’s Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire, first published in 1886. We read in it the tale Nick had told on the island, of the tragic Viking lovers – though ‘tragic’ strikes me as a polite way of describing a corrosive jealousy.

Rereading Dixon back in Edo I enjoy his phrase-making – ‘the elastic conscience of the age’, ‘aeriel chaos’, ‘streams debouch into it’ – and from his prose extract these found poems.

The Money Tree

an oak tree
studded with nails
hundreds of nails
a faded ribbon
still fastened to one

we also found
two bone buttons
and two buckles
nailed to the tree

pennies and halfpennies
driven edgeways
into the wood

over many the bark
is closing, over many
it has already closed

(Part I, Ch.11)

Isle Maree

everywhere on
the island grows

the sacred holly
loaded with fruit
the oak
the larch
the alder
the beech
the mountain-ash
the sycamore
the willow
the dog-rose
the juniper
the honeysuckle
the heather

all abound and form
a most charming grove

(Part I, Ch.11)


'Every superstition,’ says Archbishop Whately, in order to be rightly understood, should be read backward.'

Cuthbert St
to oblation and alms
an as offered be to
cords with bound
church the to dragged was
ferocity and strength
its for parish the
of marvel the bull a

(Part II, Ch.12)

Maelrubha in Applecross

what god or demon or genuis loci did before
the saint took upon himself, tolerating
as much of the old ceremony
as the elastic conscience
of the age per-

(Part II, Ch.12)

Of What May Be Called Cloudscapes

These broken clouds
are most usually seen
in mountain lands;

they are quite different
from the wreaths of mist
previously spoken of.

The numerous summits
attract and then break up
the cloud masses

into rough and fleecy shapes,
some thick enough
to obstruct the light,

others edged by silvery gleams,
and others again brilliant
with the sun shining through them,—

the whole exhibiting
wonderful examples
of aerial chaos.

(Part III, Ch.2)

A Sailing-tour of Loch Maree

from the sweetheart’s stepping-stones
via the dark forest
and the mare’s height
to the cave of the king’s son

from the minister’s stone
via the stone of tribute
and the cave of tribute
to the witch’s point

from the white horse
via the bull rock
and the cave of gold
to the English graveyard

from the giant’s point
via the everlasting island
and the black island of the nose
to the rough island

from the planted island
via the high point of breathing
and the black rock
to the cave for your choice

(Part IV, Ch.13)

The phrases above are Dixon’s English translations of Gaelic place-names.


John H. Dixon, Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire (1886)

Caroline Tisdall has achieved recognition for her organic gardens, her conservation work in Africa and her many books and films, which include the direction of Joseph Beuys and The Last Post Run for BBC2 and Channel 4 respectively. She has published 7 books on Joseph Beuys and worked with him to organise many of his major exhibitions. Witches' Point: Time in a Landscape is a collection of shared poems from Loch Ewe.




Each stone shifting
Contributes to the whole
And all is in a state of flux.
An undefined relationship,
Uncharted but enduring,
An enviable state.



Time makes molehills out of mountains,
Grinds hills to sand,
Pain to dust.

Not far from here are cliffs
Humped low with age
And time too vast for us to scan:
Six hundred and fifty million –
- Years – that is, of wind and waves
Lapping, dragging, rounding,
Eroding to perfection
And then the end of form.

We measure time in timid months
Dreading the loss of love
And life.

Extract from Caroline Tisdall and Paul van Vlissingen, Witches' Point (Richard DeMarco Gallery: Edinburgh, 1987)

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