Wednesday, 1 September 2010

(45) The Quiraing

‘Moon & sun are passing figures of countless generations, and years coming or going wanderers too. Drifting life away on a boat or meeting age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey and the journey itself home. Amongst those of old were many that perished upon the journey. So - when was it - I, drawn like blown cloud, couldn't stop dreaming of roving, roving the coast up and down, back at the hut last fall by the river side, sweeping cobwebs off, a year gone and misty skies of spring returning, yearning to go over the Shirakawa Barrier, possessed by the wanderlust, at wit's end, beckoned by Dosojin, hardly able to keep my hand to anything, mending a rip in my momohiki, replacing the cords in my kasa, shins no sooner burnt with moxa than the moon at Matsushima rose to mind …’

Oku-no-Hosomichi, (from station 1), translated by Cid Corman

Our hot springs at Yamanaka is the sacred well at Tobar Loch Shianta (and the hot showers at Flodigarry Hostel)

Our Mt. Shirane is the misty cliffs of Grianan nam Maighdean

Our oddshaped rocks are The Cailleach, The Needle, The Table, The Prison

Our ancient pines are the hazel and willow of Loch Shianta

Our merciful Kannondo is Ben the dog

Our ‘small kaya-thatched temple there, handsomely situated’ is the memory of Saint Turos, whose ruined chapel is on Eilean Flodigarry, and who gave his name to the water between mainland and island, Poll Dórais

Our stones are dark, not white; they shuckle in the tide

Basho’s dream

At Flodigarry we did deep sleep, in a dormitory cell above the boiler room, whose periodic rumble’s a dream of the gushing burn at Inver. And so I did, visioning a spuming peaty torrent, hidden within overhanging crustaceous rock; a riven tortoiseshell vault, with Ken plashing the way ahead.

Caller water, dreamt for aching legs, lactic mustard, from yesterday’s hurried hike up from Inver. I woke with the ghost numb feeling of that nameless burn. Och, for a station to pair with our forbears hot springs at Yamanaka! A bath would do.


Tobar Loch Shianta

45 Basho, Kirsty, Maoilios Caimbeul, Hamish Henderson, (Edinburgh, 1995?)

I used to stay with Maoilios each summer’s trip to the Hebrides. We were introduced by Cid Corman, by letter via Kyoto, on the ‘Corman Inc’ poetry switchboard. One visit my German lover Kerstin – Kirsty – and I met at his home in Dunans; she with Martina, weatherbeaten from Shetland; me clean-shaven off the bus from Edo. Like a scamp, as soon as we arrived I took her off for a hot bath, lovemaking sloppingwater.

Like the Germans with good boots and terrible haircuts at the hostel, Kirsty loved this landscape. This trip I’ve to tell Maoilios she’s gone, from cancer, not even 40 – like Martyn, whose memory we’ve shared with Margaret and Meg. Those that die young leave a sharply defined outline memory, a strange skyline.

45 hokku-label, Tobar Loch Shianta
(‘a well / still // a pool / slow // a spring / flow’, AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

45 hokku-label, Tobar Loch Shianta
(‘healing is a well / fed by 7 streams, a wish / Lactic Acid 12c BN597601 / and Ben's gentle eyes’, AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

45 bhokku-label, Tobar Loch Shianta
(‘seven streams converge / beneath hazel-woods forming / clearest water’, KC)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Fitting that Maoilios takes us the short walk, from the home he shares with Margaret – old sweetheart to whom he came in a dream – to the healing well, Tobar Loch Shianta, by the sacred loch (‘Shianta’), fed by 7 streams from under the hill.

When he was a boy Maoilios used to collect water here, for the neighbouring croft ––– from where gentle Ben tags along as our guide – Basho’s Kannon of Mercy – drinking from the well, peeing in it, with the wisdom of a Saint who know that only a spring that bubbles and flows can heal.

45 Maoilios & Ben
Ken Cockburn, 2010

45 audio, Maolios Caimbeul, the well
Alec Finlay, 2010

At the Well of the Sacred Loch

for Keiko Mukaide

A cold showery day,
the loch itself restless
with a brisk northerly wind

but the well is calm
under shelter of fuchsias
and a streamlet runs

from the sacred loch –
we three at the well
guided by its virtue;

as it flows quietly,
communicating peace –
a shy, half-hidden diva.

We raise water to lips
without the analytic word
stopping its wholeness:

if there is a word it is prayer,
remembering the hado
between mind and water.

The water comes from the table
upwards from far beneath the wood,
from the kind earth we see:

the transient, lasting water,
today in Flodigarry
and tomorrow above some ocean.

East and west come together
at the well in this moment:
the word is simpatico.

45 wish, willow, Tobar Loch Shianta
Ken Cockburn, 2010

Maoilios reminds us of the Japanese, ‘kami’, the spirit that lives in a place, which plashes in this ancient modest wee spring. A swig and nod of hope inside toward healing, thinking of all we have between us: white pills and wishes, prayer for some, homeopathic remedy, crystals, reiki, for others; divination with a rod; the scientific method and this water at our feet that bubbles and tastes of pure nothing. Whether we discriminate or not, each of us shapes a skyline from our odd beliefs.

We left poem labels and wishes, but when Ken came back the next day, to collect a bottle of healing water, they’d already gone, so he tied one more on.

45 hokku-label, Tobar Loch Shianta
(‘watch out / for the cheviot // (does the horns sign) / there’s rams in that field’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010


Loch Shianta

The same waters flow through Loch Shianta, crystal clear, glimpses of sinuous transparent trout.

45 hokku-label, Loch Shianta
‘the clarity / of Loch Shianta / dissolves in the rain’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

45 hokku-label, Loch Shianta
(‘seven streams / perfection / into the loch’, Maoilios Caimbeul)
hokku-label, Loch Shianta
Alec Finlay, 2010

45 tea at Loch Shianta
Alec Finlay, 2010

45 circle poem (meadowseet)
Alec Finlay, 2010

The most celebrated well in Skye is Loch-Siant Well. It is much frequented by strangers, as well as by the inhabitants of the isle, who generally believe it to be a specific for several diseases - such as stitches, headaches, stone, consumptions, megrim. Several of the common people oblige themselves by a vow to come to this well and make the ordinary tour about it, called dessil, which is performed thus: They move thrice round the well, proceeding sunways from east to west, and so on. This is done after drinking of the water; and when one goes away from the well it is a never-failing custom to leave some small offering on the stone which covers the well. There are nine springs issuing out of the hill above the well, and all of them pay the tribute of their water to a rivulet that falls from the well. There is a little fresh-water lake within ten yards of the said well. It abounds with trouts, but neither the natives nor strangers will ever presume to destroy any of them, such is the esteem they have for the water. There is a small coppice near to the well, and there is none of the natives dare venture to cut the least branch of it, for fear of some signal judgment to follow upon it.”

Martin Martin, in A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1703)

45 hokku-label, Loch Shianta
Ken Cockburn, 2010

last years wisdom
poisonous this year

Happy Birthday

45 fourteen ragworts, for Isobel's birthday
Ken Cockburn, 2010

It's 6/8 and in Edo Isobel's 14 so to mark (my absence from) the occasion I arrange 14 ragwort petals in various ways, six eight for the date, an even two sevens, sonnets Petrachan four four three three and Shakespearean four four four two, text Petrach and get a teenage grateful / aggrieved 'oh how very poetic of you' response. I take to the form and over the coming days vary materials and layouts.

45 fourteen birch leaves, for Isobel's birthday
Ken Cockburn, 2010

45 fourteen blaeberries, for Isobel's birthday
Ken Cockburn, 2010

45 fourteen chanterelles, for Isobel's birthday
Ken Cockburn, 2010


Mount Sunlight

45 Towards Mount Sunlight
Ken Cockburn, 2010

45 hokku-label (Grianan nam Maighdean)
(‘Grianan nam Maighdean / Sun Bower of the Maidens / Mount Nikko’, KC)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

After lunch Maoilios and I walk from the road past Lochs Langaig and Hasco on a path made by among others Maoilios’ grandfather to carry peats after Flodigarry crofts were allocated by the Congested Districts Board in 1909 below the mist-shrouded cliffs of Grianan nam Maighdean, 'Sun Bower of the Maidens', the closest we've got to Basho's Nikko, Mount Sunlight.

45 The path below the Sun Bower
Ken Cockburn, 2010

45 Pinnacles on Grianan nam Maighdean
Ken Cockburn, 2010

The rain is steady, the heather bright. We cross a stile over a well-maintained fence, the boundary between Digg's and Flodigarry's common grazing. We meet a couple of young Germans who check their route with us. Back at Loch Langaig we drink Talisker and offer some to the heather.

45 Loch Langaig looking towards Grianan nam Maighdean
Ken Cockburn, 2010

45 Heather & whisky
Ken Cockburn, 2010

By the car Maoilios points out Loch na h-Inghe, Loch of the Girl, so named after a girl drowned there 100-odd years ago. She was found by two mencoming down from the hills, one of whom had earlier had a vision of a girl being carried on his friend's coat, without understanding what it meant. A red-roofed stone building at the south end was the bull-shed.

All the sheep seem to be by the road. Maoilios says the only way to shift them is to sound your horn but it doesn't work and they keep their own pace.


Quiraing renga

This is Maoilios' renga word-map of the Quiraing.

45 audio, Maoilios Caimbeul renga
Alec Finlay, 2010

in Trotternish
the pinnacles rise
like giants in the mist

Quiraing busy with tourists
little dots on the path

an eagle flies high
golden wing gleam
over moor and mountain

above Loch Hasco
rises Grianan nan Maighdean

the hills a quaich
for the loch’s dark dream
a contemplative eye

yellow primroses remembered
the tormentil right before us

the little stream makes for Loch Langaig
drops drip on the rock
telling the heart story

the Old Lady on her own
standing on Leathad na Caillich

seeing the island, not Kasashima
but Altabhaig, the isle of the big headland
with the ruin of Doras’s Chapel

the island shaped like a swan
as the Norsemen saw it in the bay

cold steel in their grip
the land speckled with ‘aig’ and ‘shader’
susuki grass in the memory

stalactites on the rock
melting little by little

frost and snow
the tits and sparrows
look for the seed in the gardens

under the wing of the Minch
the Rubha rèidh lighthouse starts to blink

thunderous waves on the shore
the seaware gathering in heaps
and the screeching of seabirds

driven sea spray in the bay
and the boats sheltering

a midden by the shore
over seven thousand years
since the shells were left

ancient markings all over the place
like dreams remembered

send me a kiss in a shell
and when I hear the lark
I’ll put it to my ear

the first snowdrop appears
soon the lambs will frolick



45 skyline (Trotternish)
Alec Finlay, 2010


We ask Maoilios if he has any of Cid Corman’s letters to hand, and he soon returns with half-a-dozen aerograms, each neatly typed and concluded with a brief handwritten note. A form, one-and-one-third pages long, typed the word-count must be pretty steady, after writing a few you'll soon have the sense of beginning middle end, their measure.

45 Cid Corman's Of, and letters to Maoilios

One of Cid's letters (dated 1/8/1988) includes this comment on his translation of Oku-no-hosomichi:

“The Basho took me 4 years of concerted effort – the opening section was done at least 40 times (it is a classic in Japanese and I want it to be so in English as well): it is a very accurate version.”

We've been travelling with Cid for three months, as Basho's translator, but this is the first time he's appeared in his own right. The more I read it the more I enjoy his translation; I can't judge its accuracy, but it is very readable, and durable, surviving re- and re-readings.


Signs and Wonders

Maoilios and Margaret told us how the fates, which resided in their attic, guided them to marriage. The route began with a troublesome dream and took five years to resolve. Margaret, it turns out, is on the shamanic wing of the Free Church. Other signs and wonders include the way the stick that opens the hatch to the attic, though well supported by the nail on which it hangs, falls at significant moments, once to allow Maoilios to retrieve a copy he didn't know he had of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Gaelicised, which Margaret hadn't known till that day she wanted to read.



It’s one thing reading the hosomichi at home, but when your on the oku – or as Ken would more correctly say, reading the oku at home, but on the hosomichi – you feel the delight and the devilment of the ploy. We have it easy, traveling Skye poet by poet, from Meg’s Sleat, to Sorley’s Raasay, and north to Maoilios’ Flodigarry. But, on the road for 2 years, how did Basho shave; did he carry a change of clothes; how’d he deal with mosquitos, without Avon Skin-so-Soft; would a paper mac keep off the rain on the plain in Japan; and that illness of his that no-one is quite sure of? A thought too for Sora, who mournfully quits the journey at Yamanaka, the hot-springs not doing it for his stomach, and goes for a rest-cure with his family at Nagashima in Ise.

Same goes for Johnson & Boswell: fat Sam, riding through downpours on his horse; their boat blown off course on the voyage from Armadale to Mull, ending up on Coll.


Basho’s hokku

45 Flodigarry Island
Alec Finlay, 2010

For Basho’s ‘small kaya-thatched temple’ Maoilios gives us the memory of Eilean Flodigarry – a swan, to the Norse, landed the -aig, bay – an isle which Martin Martin speaks of as sweet with [hay]. Though there’s no ruin possibly there was a chapel and Saint here, Turos, Dórais, whose name lives on in the straits, Poll Dórais.

stones no whiter
than the autumn's wind

Basho, tr. Cid Corman

stones shoogle
in the tide

ver. AF



On the first night at Flodigarry I looked over to Applecross, picking out the saddle of Slioch, imagining the coast bending around to Gruinard Bay, Polewe and the Sand Chapel; waved to our September selves.

Here, on the north tip of Skye, we happened on two springs, the charmed well that heals and the source of poetry – it’s numinous everydayness; the mysterium tremendium, which we touched in the close-pressed wood of Hallaig and heard gurgle from Tobar Loch Shianta and lilt in Maoilios speaking the names of places, Poll Dórais, Grianan nam Maighdean.

After a day of mist and rain and an evening of conversation, we drove back into a lobster pink & mussel silver-green sunset, which drew us on past the hostel road end, up the coast, where we could see Eilean Trodday, north of the northern most tip of Skye, where Kirsty Law sang in her sea cave. Beyond the purple-grey wave of Harris’ hills.

Then we knew this road ended in Duntuilm. Our other guide, Seton Gordon, lived here, taking his daily swims in the bay, playing the pipes on the beach, or in a row boat followed by seals. We laughed, that we’d read so many passages of his misty romanticism, and here layed, or plaid, before our eyes was the perfect pearl Hebridean sunset, with his view to the isles. In 3 weeks we’ll be on the far side, waving back, or looking further into the west, scanning for the white cliffs of Hirt (‘Death’), as the Celt’s called St Kilda.

45 Duntuilm Bay
Alec Finlay 2010


Leaving Skye

Morning, noon, night, the Quraing wore a different shift of cloud. At Stoer The Old Man has a young man’s vim. We inscribed him with Momus’ Mao homage and a wish.

Scotland 105

The Scotland of the Munro Mao
whose long march leads him
over 284 mountains

Momus, The Book of Scotlands

Hiking thru Raasay’s wet bracken finally convinced us of the need for new boots, brought at Broadford.

45 hokku-label
(boots, for Minowa and Kasashima)
Ken Cockburn 2010

out with the

in with the



For further information on Loch Siant Well and its location, click here.

Maolios Caimbeul is a poet and linguist, born and based on the Isle of Skye. He is a renown writer of Gaelic verse, which can be found on his website with English translation.

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