Poetry with a European twist in Portree

The great giants are crumbling one by one.

The Gendarme and the Cubaid are gone

and the trees are sliding to the shore

on Scorrybreck

Morag Henriksen

This is not about Brexit though goodness knows it was hard to escape the rumblings, crumblings and forebodings of separation among the unexpectedly European gathering on Skye.

Portree was bustling and buzzing, a strangely cosmopolitan congestion after the wild open sweep of the road to the isles. ‘Our busiest summer ever,’ says our Northern Irish landlady welcoming authors arriving for the Skye Book Festival and easing them into a tight parking space.

Down at the harbour we squeezed into Sea-Breezes bistro. On a Friday night ours was the only English-speaking table surrounded by a swift turnover of Spanish, French, Germans, Italians and – not only Europeans – right beside us there were Americans and Japanese tucking into freshly-caught langoustines and mussels.

If not for horizontal rain we might well have been in Brussels; excepting that tourists are less likely to be drawn to European hot spots this year. Fear of terrorism, and a plunging pound are luring holidaymakers of many nations to Scotland, despite weather and midges. All day long we see cagoule-clad travellers fixing cameras on misty horizons – hooded selfies smiling back at rain-pocked mobile screens.

Red Skye at night

‘No time off this weekend,’ says Piotr, the Polish barman filling glasses of Skye Red with a cheerful flourish in the crowded pub on the main street.

Sun occasionally sparkles on wet surfaces during our three days on the island, but there’s an undercurrent of anxious uncertainty in the air which suits grey skies. Our landlady confesses she served breakfast in tears on 24 June, apologising on behalf of Britain to a table of French and German guests – though of course both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay with Europe.

At breakfast this September morning we meet author Peter May. The successful crime writer who began life as a Scotsman journalist now lives in France and holds dual citizenship – he and his wife saw how the wind was blowing some time ago. We shake hands and heads over the sadly diminished Scottish newspaper landscape and share misgivings about what the future holds.

But this is not about Brexit. To Skye Book Festival at Aros Cultural Centre a mile down the road where managing director Donald Macdonald has a declared mission to bring together local, national and international authors: ‘something for everyone’. Which means a congenial mix of music, whisky, foraged wild fruits… and chocolate…since the programme headlines Freeland Barbour, Peter May, Joanne Harris and The Campbells of Canna (celebrated in words and music with Fiona Mackenzie, Ray Perman and Hugh Cheape).

There’s poetry too and I’m drawn to Morag Henriksen’s afternoon event, chaired by Cailean MacLean (photographer, broadcaster and nephew of Sorley MacLean). In an era of uncertainty there’s comfort in her beautifully crafted stories and poetry evoking a time that feels both closely familiar and long past.

Skye was a far country in those days. To some folk in Edinburgh it still is but let’s not get political.

In the sixties Morag went from her sheltered existence in the Highlands to Fresher’s Week in Edinburgh where she joined the Highland Society only to discover the respected dialectic and debating society had become ‘an excuse for a hoolie on a Saturday night’.

A joyous hoolie

That was a time when the young student could think it an adventure to travel overnight on a St Cuthbert’s bus from Edinburgh to Portree – and sleep the afternoon away between boxes on the pier, waking to a ‘joyous hoolie in Kyleakin Hall’ and escaping south again ‘before the gates of the Sabbath clanged shut’. When, six years later, she realised she was moving to live in Portree she found she could remember very little of the trip.

Artist, poet, singer; Morag has lived on Skye since 1967, although she often returns to Australia where she once thought of settling. The result of that phase (and other wanderings) is her second book Tapestry of Scenes (like her first book Scenery of Dreams published by the Adelaide Independent Reporter) and it is filled with the light and shade of personal stories told with a gentle ease which does not conceal a depth of feeling – ‘at once delightful and poignant, troubling and optimistic’ as the cover says.

Morag Henriksen reading to the audience at Skye Book Festival
Morag and Cailean

 

That deft touch shows also in her art flickering on the screen above as Cailean teases Morag to discuss a ‘wardrobe malfunction’. She resists but If Only her (almost) true tale of an adventure beginning on a nudist beach is a delight.

I know it’s almost true because I asked her. I had half-hoped I might get permission to publish in full some of her poetry in this blogpost but shied away from the long queue of readers seeking signed copies after her talk. As luck had it, however, Morag was at Aros again next day when we happened in for lunch.

So I came away with my signed copy and the difficulty of choosing a poem from a rich selection. It might have been For Somhairle (which includes the lines at the start of this post and ends with a taunting thought that one day Bod Storr will tumble too). Or Scott in Auchmithy – where one of her sons lives – because we have friends there too and I like the implied jibe at Donald Trump in the gaiety of whirling windmills rescuing the horizon from the ‘North Seas unremitting/ horizontal absolute’. Or many more…

But in the end I settle on the last poem Fairy Tale for Finn. Like Morag I am a grandmother and I enjoy the idea of an innocently subversive shopping trip with a mischievous granny. For when it comes down to it, this, for me, is what it is all about. Hope for the future – as long as mountains stand and rivers run – lies in our interconnectedness. Across islands, countries, continents and generations.

Fairy Tale for Finn

I walked down to the shopping mall with Granny

And all the way she held my hand

and talked to me of forests

filled with magic beasts –

ivory unicorns and green and red-gold dragons.

 

The stacks of bottled water

Became glass mountains.

Wolves skulked around the potted plants;

Three bears were buying porridge oats;

Jack Frost was fixing freezer cabinets

and witches shopped for bathroom tiles

among the chocolate biscuits.

A great, big notice shouted,

GIANT REDUCTIONS!

But I saw no dwarfs.

 

Tomorrow I’ll go back with Mum

To check things out.

Till then

I’ll keep my Granny

well away from potted plants.

Tapestry of Scenes is available to order from Mor Books and on sale in Portree bookshop Carmina Gadelica and Aros gift shop.

 

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