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‘The pilot stops for a moment, bends down, picks up a shell’: Editor on anthology of poetry celebrating the islands of Scotland

© James Fraser/ShutterstockThe poem At Barra Airport by Elizabeth Burns describes one poignant moment at the famous sandy airfield
The poem At Barra Airport by Elizabeth Burns describes one poignant moment at the famous sandy airfield

It is a rare condition but Stewart Conn is quite certain he is afflicted: islomania – a rare affliction of the spirit affecting those who find islands irresistible.

The poet and playwright first came across the condition while researching and editing his anthology of Scottish island poems, Other Worlds.

“For such islomanes the mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication,” he said, quoting the author Lawrence Durrell, whose life with his family on Corfu is portrayed in the television drama series, The Durrells.

But Conn believes the Greek islands can’t compare with Scotland’s 800 or so islands, which play such an essential part of our history, national identity, culture and economy.

“Inhabited or deserted, archipelago or solitary rock, boasting skerries or silver strand, peatbog, machair or fertile acres, it is impossible to conceive of a national psyche in which they are not deeply embedded,” said Conn, who put together the collection of poems by writers including Jackie Kay, Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s Makar Kathleen Jamie, Iain Crichton Smith, and Norman MacCaig.

“The poems set my pulse racing through a sharpening of memory or by opening new vistas and evoking new worlds and states of mind, from Barra and Eriskay to Luing, Mingulay and the Isle of May; Inchcape and the Torran rocks to Taransay and Tiree.”

Some of the poems are by native islanders: Orcadian George Mackay Brown, Shetlander Jen Hadfield, and Sorley MacLean, who was born on Raasay and schooled on Skye. Others are by mainlanders who recount their love of the islands: Hugh MacDiarmid, from Dumfries and Galloway, who spent some time living on Shetland, and former makar Liz Lochhead, who lives in Glasgow.

“Previous anthologies insisted that poets be island born and bred, but a lot of their poetry has nothing to do with islands, whereas I wanted poems about islands. Somebody visiting an island even briefly, as well as describing it can come up with something of its essence. I threw the net much wider,” added Conn, who grew up in Ayrshire and lives in Edinburgh. He believes that no matter where you live in Scotland, the islands exert a mystical pull.

“Most of us, though mainlanders, have surely been visitors, however briefly. I retain early-childhood memories of paddle-steamer trips down the firth of Clyde, the band playing and a red sun sinking behind Arran’s ‘sleeping warrior’. On a first trip to Skye, my wife and I, fleeing Sligachan’s non-stop downpour and midges, encountered a shift in the weather and spent a glorious week at Elgol. Later would come family holidays on South Uist and South Harris, visits to Orkney, unforgettable glimpses of Iona, Canna and Islay, and, under a steely east-coast light, boat trips to the Bass Rock, Inchcolm and the Isle of May.”

© SYSTEM
Stewart Conn

The poems are grouped together under themes: Crossings, Loch and Moor, Island Life, Love and Loss, Creatures, and From Afar. “Some capture an almost abstract beauty or bleakness while others, including many depicting island life and relationships, touch the heartstrings. Rich depictions of island flora and fauna sit alongside sightings of croft dwellers and ferry-lowpers (strangers). Expressions of affection and accounts of imprisonment and bereavement sit cheek-by-jowl with evocations of drowned sailors and ghosts,” said Conn.

Some of the most poignant poems were written when the poet’s feet were not on island soil or on the deck of a fishing-boat or ferry. “Helen B Cruickshank’s yearning is sparked by a glimpse of someone wearing a Harris tweed jacket in London’s very different Strand while, for Hamish Whyte, back home again in Edinburgh, a family photo triggers a sharp tang of memory.”

One of Conn’s favourite poems is The Birds Dream Of Uist by Catherine Eunson, who is originally from Orkney and lived on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides for 20 years.

“I like the exhilaration of the birds flying. The poem gives me a sense of Uist and the water glistening underneath the birds. I love the flow of it and the music of it, especially the last four lines. I love Catherine Eunson’s confidence in risking repetition ‘as they fly, as they fly’. It’s very effective.”

© Shutterstock
South Uist

Another favourite is At Barra Airport by Elizabeth Burns, which describes the small passenger plane landing on the beach and ends with the air hostess and pilot walking across the sand. “The poet enticingly catches the bustle, colour and flavour of those waiting and gathering, and the plane’s arrival. And what a lovely, lucid ending, with the hostess, and time freezing while ‘the pilot stops for a moment, bends down, picks up a shell’.

“I’ve been to several islands and one of the reasons I liked the poems was they let me walk through my own memories. But others I loved because they extended my horizons and took me to islands that I have never seen.”

From the book

Stewart Conn chooses two poems from anthology that capture the essence of the isles

The Birds Dream of Uist

Oh the birds dream of Uist as they fly, as they fly

Uist of the singing lochs

Uist of the shorelines

The birds dream of Uist as they fly

It pulls them in the wind

It is the heart of the wind

It does not mind, does not mention

All the ground work, the vigilance

The pecking

It seals the lock in the air that

Keeps the flock exposed

Keeps it flying over shelter, further on

For the rest and the water at the end

Will be home

Head there

Finish there

Rest there

Nest there

Oh the birds dream of Uist as they fly, as they fly

Uist of the singing lochs

Uist of the shorelines

The birds dream of Uist as they fly.

 – Catherine Eunson

At Barra Airport

We’ve wandered all morning on the runway,

dabbling in seawater for shells,

looking out to Eriskay

and the blue Uists.

Reaching the airport, we go in for coffee,

windswept, sand on our shoes.

The phone rings but no one answers it.

All the chairs are turned towards the view.

Out again, with the ocean

humming in our ears,

we sit down to picnic on the dunes

and up snuggles the airport cat.

People begin to gather: porters,

the post bus, an ambulance,

a man with cameras.

Everyone eyes the horizon.

And here it comes now, out of the clouds,

dipping over water, skimming with white wings.

Fragile as a dragonfly,

it lands, on tiptoe, on the cocklestrand.

A bustle of luggage and hugging.

News arriving: letters and papers.

Trucks scrawling tyremarks on the sand,

the cat hissing at a sheepdog.

The air hostess struggles with high heels

and the wind flapping at her kilt.

The pilot stops for a moment,

bends down, picks up a shell.

– Elizabeth Burns

Other Worlds, An Anthology Of Scottish Island Poems, edited by Stewart Conn and published by Polygon, is out now