Thursday, 9 September 2010

(52) Lochailort

52 Lochailort
J. B. White Ltd

‘the way the blocks of the world
hug each other

and brush up
against each other,
their weight, their air,
their colour

and the soft uncertain spaces

AF, after Sean Scully, from 'Iona'

Our Iro Beach is the singing sands of Ardnish

Our boat is a canoe

Our bedraggled Hokke temple are the remains of two vitrified forts on Eilean nan Gobhar, Sound of Arisaig

Our carefully-packed warigo and sasae, etc. was salad, chocolate cake, tea of life and recipes for ice cream and a whisky drizzle


52 Frisealach
architect Helen Lucas

photograph by Brendan MacNeil

Entering the region known as The Rough Bounds, we’ve to find Rois-bhein (‘hill of showers’). We know we’re close; catching glimpses of houses through the trees, wondering if we’d gone too far. As soon as the sloped roof hoves into view it must be Malcolm & Helen’s place, Frisealach, dwelling of the Frasers, in strawberry bay – the Clan emblem 3 strawberries on a field of blue. Constructed from green oak and douglas fir, the house is set to weather to Lochaber grey. Malc & Helen’s son Hector’s right, when he says

the house looks
like it grew

from out of
the rock

And the art inside belongs just as well

sealight shining
on an Innes

knowing there’s no
better way to see it

That evening there was a muckle salmon, and we got to meet Pod – great-grandson of Alexander ‘Carmina Gadelica’ Carmichael – and his wife Helen. Pod kindly compassed the view over the bay to Rhum from the verandah.

Alec Finlay, 2010

The white noise background is less sea than the burn that rushes by the house, An Garbh-allt, (‘rough burn’).

Allt : height
and the burn

that flows
down it

(AF, KC)

L'embarquement pour Eilean nan Gobhar

52 L'embarquement
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Second, clear morning, high cloud, Rhum and Eigg, clear, even the Skye Cuillin beyond Ardnish shows itself. Basho sailed; we get to paddle – or Ken does, and Eck’s ballast in the bottom with Mairi, with Cap’n Hector and paddleswoman Kaz. Flat-calm – 7 into 2 canoes, across the bay, first to the cliff-girt islet of Eilean nan Gobhar (‘isle of the goats’), then on to Ardnish’s singing sands, white at Feorlindhu.

Ken’s at the front of the red Old Town canoe, Helen in the middle, Malcolm steering, tacking its way. The kids – Eck, Mhairi, Hector and Kaz – are in green, and they head straight, beaching first.

take comfort sailor
on the sea
there are no midges

The narrow strip of grassland between shores is jittery with butterflies: Mhairi’s fluttering hands have a knack of catching and we don’t have the knack of photographing, so we catch a poem on her hands instead.

52 butterfly (genus Mairi)
Alec Finlay, 2010

An exotic red and blue-black Cinnebar Moth is in contrast a patient sitter.

52 Eilean nan Gobhar (beastie)
Ken Cockbu
rn, 2010

We climb steeply through high bracken to the first vitrified fort, an outline memory laid out between two tops.

52 vitrified fort, Eilean nan Gobhar
Ken Cockburn, 2010

52 circle poem, flames, (Eilan nan Gobhar)
Alec Finlay, 2010

52 circle poem, (flames isles), Eilean nan Gobhar
Alec Finlay, 2010

A second fort on a smaller top, through thicker bracken not eaten by the nominal goats but only by wild pigs and they’re long gone. These are our natural pairing for Basho’s ‘bedraggled Hokke temple’.

A wish, a dram, a recording, a label.

52 Eilean nan Gobhar wish

52 Eilean nan Gobhar whisky

52 Eilean nan Gobhar recording
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Alec Finlay, 2010

Now we’re in 3 small clans, each with their own hilltop. Hector & Kaz, young love needs its own fort.

Hector squeals
a grass flute –
Ken calls back

if you’re not careful
some bird will try

to mate with you

From the hilltop Eck, Helen & Mhairi’s clan can see Muck, and The Cuillin, and it can see them. They consider things in the round. Why do binoculars make Helen feel seasick? Why is Rois-bhein smooth and An Stuc rough? What’s that commotion on Sgeir Ghlas (‘grey island’)?

gulls float and cry
off Sgeir Ghlas

3 cormorants on the rock
look out to sea

On the third hill rhodies have arrived (how?), and Malc forms a one-man work brigade, pulling them out with his bare hands, saying:

if people only
ate rhododendrons
we’d be fine

(AF, KC)


In Highways & Byways Seton Gordon tells how Bonnie Prince ‘Morag’s’ Le Doutellier anchored in the lee of this island, just as Pat & Andy Law said, it’s the safest anchorage on the western seaboard. SG also tells this wonderful story of the ’45 (I find it helps to imagine John Laurie playing the old man).

picture two frigates
out on the bay
exchanging canon

and an old man
tears streaming down
furrowed cheeks
praying, but who for,
The Froggies or The Brits?

Don't be a fool, man.
My thoughts were not

of either vessel

I'm praying for my goats

on Eilean nan Gobhar –

for I those guns are getting
awfa close and I see
they are in the line of fire

Pod – whose brother keeps goats – excavated barnacled beams from his house, from a burnt and wrecked ship, maybe the remains of one of the frigates?

52 circle poem ('rolling away of the tide')
Alec Finlay, 2010


To Iro Beach, Ardnish

52 Iro, singing sands, Ardnish
Alec Finlay, 2010

Back in the boats for the second leg, Ken takes the ‘Eck position’, sitting in the hold and spectating – the kids beach first again.

between Eilean nan Gobhar & Ardnish the canoe breaches the gentle swell of the ocean
A swim before lunch; shoulders ache at first, but it doesn’t feel so much colder than Loch Eilt. Ken stays in for 50 strokes.

........(after Ponge)




Lunch on the singing – blackboard squeaking – sands. Basho ‘packed warigo and sasae, etc.’; leftover roasties, salad and chocolate cake, 2 thermos of Summertime Tea of Life, and an island whisky, Jura – chosen by Malc for the colour of the water here and there.

52 wish, Ardnish
Alec Finlay, 2010

Then explorations. Eck reaches craggy birk and rowan on Glasnacardoch, descends to plant a wish in the sea and float a poem the waves capsize, then takes his swim, and floats.

52 meso-morar, Ardnish
(‘More Of moRe And moRe’)
Alec Finlay, 2010

52 tidal poem (sunk)
(‘fine / sands // squeak / songs’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

52 wish, Ardnish
Alec Finlay, 2010

52 circle poem (the hills beyond), Ardnish.
Alec Finlay, 2010

the beach counts

again and again

Malcolm and Mhairi rechannel the burn’s final run to the sea, name this new channel ‘Talki Burn’.

52 The Talki Burn, Ardnish
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Ken climbs rocks barefoot then welly-shod aspires to inaccessible trees, descends to a sheep skeleton, happens on the cave Helen finds spooky. There are no ‘fishermen's huts’ along the beach – it’s a 6 mile hike in by way of Loch Doire a’ Ghearrain – and this natural shelter is made of fallen stone. We consider it with Malcolm who wonders how the stones don’t fall down – all loose, but jammed supportively tight against each other.

52 Ardnish cave
Ken Cockburn, 2010

at the beach
Malc quizzes us

on the origins
of sand

Basho decided to gather small shells which our notes say are Japanese masuo and Latin Sanguinolaria elongata Lamarck, but there are next to no shells on this beach and we’re grateful for a purplish crab shell and a pinkish broken razorshell.

52 Ardnish shells
Ken Cockburn, 2010

And a pair of limpets Eck starts devising a character around.

52 Sora eyes
Ken Cockburn, 2010

A Japanese soldier
has just stumbled out of the heather.
The war has been over …

(after Alistair Peebles, after Paul Muldoon)

As we go we've been discovering other Narrow Roads to the Deep North, (even) more tangential than ours. A chance meeting with theatre critic Mark Fisher in Pitlochry led us to an Edward Bond play, and from Orkney Alistair Peebles sent Paul Muldoon's poem from Mules (1977), which the lines above – and perhaps the character – draw on.

(AF, KC)

Round Trip

52 Basho's canoe
Alec Finlay, 2010

This side of the loch’s
Morar that’s Knoydart
sea and sky are grey

Returning Ken’s paddling stern again. Less tacking, but Eilean nan Gobhar takes a long time to pass and Frisealach seems very keen to keep its distance. Concentrating on the strokes, not seeing how far it is, finding a rhythm: by the time it’s
lost we’re nearly there. The toughest part is pulling the canoe back up to the boathouse. Between there and kitchen we pick yellow chanterelles for the evening risotto. Today was the full MacNab: canoeing, rock-climbing and a sea-swim.

52 hokku-label
(‘the riches of the world / the paucity of language / leaves all poets beggars’, KC)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

52 Morar, Iro
Alec Finlay, 2010

(KC, verse, AF)

Tir na Nog

That evening Basho was ‘much moved by the pervading sense of isolatedness at nightfall’. We couldn’t be cosier, watching a beautiful bright-sailed boat pass, playing Monopoly with Mairi, recalling the characters from Wacky Races.

Then Malcolm gave us his interpretation of Eilean nan Gobhar and the alignment of the vitrified forts.

‘On the two peaks of Eilean nan Gobhar are two vitrified forts, the largest of them particularly fine. There are Iron Age vitrified forts across northern Europe, but Scotland has most of them. To archaeologists they are a mystery, for it has not been possible to reconstruct the conditions where a wall built of stone and timber, then burnt, has generated a heat intense enough to melt its stone – to vitrify the wall.

‘The craft of their construction must have been of an extraordinary high level: only certain stone, only certain woods – presumably all laboriously transported across to the island – woven together in ways we don’t understand. High craft and huge effort … all of which went into creating a defensive wall that was brittle, actually weakened by the laborious vitrification process.

‘As we know they were not daft we need to look to reasons other than pure defence to understand what these structures might have meant for the people who built them. Considering Place, and Culture, gives us a gateway to their world, for it is hard not to see the towering halo of flame from the burning as a primary purpose and a sacred rite, with the drama of fire, water, mountain, island and heaven playing out before a Loch Ailort ringed with tribes.

‘For Goat Island sits in extraordinary relation to its landscape. Out from Lochs Ailort and Moidart, past the islands to the horizon beyond, springs a big axis. It crosses the low, concave horizon of the island of Eigg, then across the Sound of Rhum and through the deep cleft between the great mountain ridges of the Rhum Cullin, before disappearing west over the far, lonely conical Cullin called Trollaval.

‘Further West is the setting-sun and Tir na n’Og – the Land of the Young, the Celtic Valhalla. Light, weather, time and space play with these distances and in March and September, when the sun sets directly behind Trollaven, the sheer drama of it all takes your breath away. How much more must the dying of the sun across islands and sea have meant, back then, with the first flames flickering on the island?

‘(And was there an echo of this, much later, when the clan chieftains landed the Young Pretender in Moidart? Loch Moidart is hard to navigate, and it’s harder still to land there. But the west of this ancient landscape might not have been a bad place for a hero-king, from beyond the water, to return from.)’

Tea & Whisky

‘Here drank tea, hot sake’, says Basho. Our informal ritual, drinking a different tea and whisky at each of the 53 ‘stations’, is another way to map. Most of the teas were kindly selected for us by Imperial Teas of Lincoln, so each day on the oku holds a surprise. The sweet fruitiness of Summertime Tea of Life, perfect for Ardnish. Each tea becomes a spill, imprinted with a tea-cup, to compose a tea-moon.

from ‘53 tea-moons on the road north’
Alec Finlay, 2010

In honour of the Bashoian beverage, we follow the ‘Iro Beach’ station with some culinary advice, thanks to Donald Urquhart, who has taken the principle of pairing into the kitchen, and kindly shared these recipes. The recipes are followed by a coda for next day’s northing.




3/4 cup milk
2 egg yolks
5 tbsp sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp maccha green tea powder
3 tbsps hot water


Mix hot water and green tea powder together in a bowl and set aside. Lightly whisk egg yolks in a pan. Add sugar in the pan and mix well. Gradually add milk in the pan and mix well. Put the pan on low heat and heat the mixture, stirring constantly. When the mixture is thickened, remove the pan from the heat. Soak the bottom of the pan in ice water and cool the mixture. Add green tea in the egg mixture and mix well, cooling in ice water. Add whipped heavy cream in the mixture and stir gently. Pour the mixture in an ice cream maker and freeze, following instructions of the ice cream maker. Or, pour the mixture in a container and freeze, stirring the ice cream a few times.

*Makes 4-6 servings



2 large glasses of single malt
1 tbsp Scottish heather honey
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp water


Mix water, honey and sugar over a very low heat until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and gradually stir in one glass of malt whisky. Stir until all ingredients form a smooth mixture. Drink second glass of malt whisky whilst mixture cools.

Place a large scoop of ice cream in a bowl with a thin oatcake. Drizzle with whisky sauce.

(Donald Urquhart)


The Malcolm Fraser architects "attempt to foster rich human relationships with the natural and built environment"

* * *

Coda: Lochailort–Mallaig

‘Growing old, the harbour waves
Lapped against the pilings’

– George Oppen, ‘Belvedere’

On the little hop up from Morar to Mallaig we scouted 3 camus or bays, but, the tide being high, we missed Ben’s beach (from Local Hero). These verses belong to Rubha Da Chuain (‘Point between two oceans’), where – so moved were we by the memory of the shells of Iro – we formed our own cult.

52 Basho: shell cult
Alec Finlay, 2010

Rubha Da Chuain


I’m secular liberal
except at the beach

where the shell-cult
holds sway


wild pansy
(Viola tricolor)

now there’s
a thought


at Rubha Da Chuain
a lad & his dad

cast in turquoise
for pollack


getting back
to the origin of things

sipping dark tea
from a shell


one of those days
with one of those seas

where every wave
could be a seal

52 hokku-label (Mallaig-Armadale ferry)
Alec Finlay 2010

Alec Finlay, 2010