We think of Scotland as being beautiful now -
As it surely is;
But how much more beautiful when,
Covering the hillsides up to the tree line,
Caledonian Forest filled the glens -
How spectacularly beautiful then!
But Neoliths came with axes made of stone,
And turned the forest into farms,
Until cattle grazed in these now empty glens,
And from this now lonely stream,
People once collected water for their daily lives.
A few tens in this glen, a few hundred in that,
Perhaps occasionally a thousand mouths or more,
Eking out a hard, subsistence, feudal living;
Yet for the most not actually in want.
But landlords found
That when compared to humans
Sheep increased land values five to ten fold,
And rents by even to a hundred fold;
And so the Clearances began ...
By any standards, we were not a happy family,
But summer brought an annual joy,
Mum would grab the kids and, fleeing the nest of thorns,
We would journey north to see her kith and kin;
Later, after divorce and equable remarriage,
This happy ritual somehow stayed,
To give us all our best family memories ...
Annual travels ...
The overnight car-train
From King's Cross, Bedford, or Newport Pagnell
To arrive in Edinburgh or Glasgow
After a night gazing mesmerised through the glass
At the darkened country flashing past;
Or up the Great North Road, with its enigmatic signs -
"Beware low-flying aircraft!",
"Just what is one supposed to do? Duck?" -
Until steepening hills criss-crossed by dry stone walls
Promised the Border ever more strongly,
Forgetting that there was as much to travel
North of it as there had been south;
And once Dad came after us,
And finding us in a Border lay-by
Tried to unhitch the caravan
From Mum's car onto his own,
To force us all back home,
But we carried on north;
I think that may have been the same trip
That I insisted on doing my own packing,
And the only shoes I packed were my wellingtons
Which I got water-logged on the very first day ...
The roads ...
Single lane with passing places,
Maddening for caravanners and those behind alike,
But keeping huge areas of the Highlands free
From the worst excesses of tourism;
The paddle-wheel ferries ...
Trying to reach Ballachulish before the last one
To save the long drive round Loch Leven;
And the ferry to Skye,
Limping slowly crabwise across the Kyle Of Lochalsh,
Most of its power taken in stemming the racing tide;
The cars we took ...
Mother's MG T,
I in the space behind the seats, and us going through a ford -
A fountain of water up through the floorboards
And up the skirts of the adults in the front
Yet, to my laughter and glee, missing me entirely;
Of running out of petrol in it, and bawling my head off,
Because my unread comic was used to make a funnel;
The Humber Super Snipe Estate,
Whose petrol cap no attendant could find,
Hidden behind an unscrewing reflector;
And the dogs in the back of it ...
The noble Florin, named for his price,
A wonderful long-haired Alsatian,
And the manic Pyrenean Mountain (of a) Dog
That others had given the regrettably twee,
And totally out of character, name of Beausie;
Sometimes encouraged, I have to confess,
Every time he saw a sheep - everywhere in Scotland -
He would fling himself at the car window barking furiously all the while;
So, unless the adults thought of something, it was going to be:
"Sheep, Beausie!"; "Shut up, Charles!"; "Lie down, Beausie!"
All the way round Scotland ...
But we found that standing in groups apart calling each in turn,
The dogs would rush to and fro, and exhaust themselves entirely;
On the road home from the walk,
Further mention of the magic word would elicit barely a single opened eye;
And the cousins ...
To me then, seemingly,
A gentle mother of a whole clan of huge men in kilts,
All full of Highland hospitality and Highland music;
Of their farm at Achaderry ...
Long summer days
Following the reaper and binder to prop the sheaves into stooks,
And of my forearms scratched by the straw being bathed with calamine;
Of building dams in the Roy and then building them higher
When the chilling water inevitably overflowed each one;
Of looking up to see a bridge of two cables one above the other -
You shuffled along the lower holding on to the higher,
Teetering above the rocks -
Of later hearing wide-eyed with astonishment
How one hostile winter night
A neighbour had carried across it
A living, kicking sheep;
Of the ceilidhs in the evening,
The squeezebox, the fiddle, and the pipes
Of putting on my walking shoes with my pyjamas,
So I could stamp my feet louder;
Of the slight smell of malt on my mother's breath
When finally it was time to kiss me goodnight;
And later when they sold the farm, and bought Dunain Park -
My mother's home, and place of birth -
Of staying in the cottage ...
Of Mike lighting the fire, and the chimney,
And mother's casual, "It'll save getting it swept!
We'll stand outside while it burns itself out, then it'll be safe to go back in."
And watching the miniature volcano hurl flaming fragments into the night sky;
Of Brian cutting the grass with a scythe,
And cutting his thumb to the bone while sharpening it,
And his iodine groan;
Of trying to remove an unwanted tree-stump
By digging it out by the roots,
By chopping it up,
By setting fire to it,
But it still being there to dent the car, as we reversed out to go home;
Of walking back from the hills with a school friend,
And, as he later swore it,
My disappearing in mid-sentence:
"I heard a rustle, looked around, and you'd vanished!"
Crawling back into view, dragging the dog backwards,
I had to explain that this was normal behaviour,
When Florin smelt a rabbit and you were not braced to hold him;
We spent some minutes in hysterical laughter
Ridding the dog and I of evidence of the holly hedge
Whose under- and far- side we had so unexpectedly explored;
And touring all the legendary places,
The intriguing but unlikely Saint's Footsteps,
The dramatic Falls of Measach,
The beautiful Loch Maree,
And stunning sunsets over Gruinard Bay,
Where once on an impossibly wet day, Cousin Charlie lit a fire in minutes,
And, the opener being forgot, opened the tins with his dirk,
So we could heat soup against the sudden bad weather;
And always carefully picking up our rubbish and putting out our fire,
Before going on our way;
And more ceilidhs in the evenings,
And the shock as the kilts swirled higher;
And once my being called in and reprimanded
For forgetfully doing a handstand in one.
But we all grow older
And the magic just seemed to slip like gold dust
Through our clumsy, groping fingers.
Elder brothers got girlfriends, and holidayed with them.
Cousins got married, and we stayed in hotels.
And when I drove north last,
My eyes just filled with tears.
For memories of similar journeys had come flooding
Like the rain on mountains so long Cleared
That their story is too oft forgot.
The roads to the Highlands were much improved,
Bringing doubtless some employment,
And better emergency access,
But also bringing the commuter,
Spiralling house prices, the dormitory town,
And the worst sort of desecrating litter:
There was a proper car park at the Falls of Measach,
Where some soulless shit
Had emptied his ashtray on the ground
Just yards from a litter bin;
There was roadside parking too at Gruinard Bay,
And supermarket bags in the burn -
Waiting to float out to sea
And choke to death some hapless turtle
Mistaking them for jellyfish -
I removed them, but wept again,
And wished I had not been nor seen.
For now I know too well what once I did not:
That my story is an allegory for the Cleared,
And theirs another for the Caledonian Forest -
That man having cleared the land,
Reducing the bear, the wolf, and the elk
To silent, reproachful, fossilised ghosts,
He himself was cleared by sheep,
And his resistance was as a dog's frenzied barking.
And just as the forest can only survive
In plots protected from man and sheep;
Just as those scattered peoples
Can only return to the glens
Via the website and the visitor centre,
So I can only go back to that childhood Scotland,
Via too few, distant, faded treasures,
Unreachable behind plate-glass
In the museum of memory.
We behave like tourists in this life -
We desecrate the present thinking not of the future,
And think to hold on to the past
By taking a photo, painting a picture,
Compiling a history, or writing a poem;
But actually we are the tenants of Time
Who, like an 'improving' landlord making way for his next tenant,
Takes through enfeebling age our roots and the things of our past -
Our friends, our relatives, our memories, our health,
And, probably before we are ready, our very lives,
Til we ourselves be but as a distant memory to others
With less substance even
Than the ruins of Highlanders' cottages,
On treeless hillsides.
I had been meaning for years to write a poem about our childhood holidays in Scotland, and was vaguely thinking of writing one about the Clearances, but these two ideas somehow became one.