from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 18 April 2014

sea gardens

my breakfast view –
merganser, eider, greylag
and away over the loch's quiet shimmer
Ben Cruachan's snowy pate

Oystercatchers wake us. At the end of the little garden, beyond the daffs and flowering currants, three mute swans drift in the clear green tide. It’s not long past full moon, and I’m delighted to see that the spring high tide here is the same time as the springs 600 miles away on the Bere peninsula, my old home in West Devon (the tides vary enormously throughout the country).

Today it’s still and gentle, where yesterday a huge northwesterly beat the sea’s surface into a mess of foam out in the sound between here and the many islets that freckle the water before you get to Mull. One of them, ‘Holy Isle’ (another!), is reputedly where the Irish adventurer Brandon, or Brendan, landed, bringing Christianity to mainland Britain a while before Columba.

Wherever you go on this island geese voices follow you from the Canada, barnacle and greylags in the fields, in the bays.

Last night in the dusk a bellowing kerfuffle in the water turned out to be a big bull seal, blowing and grunting, flipping and waving in either fishing activities or sealy ablutions just yards from where we were standing.

From here I can see the ruins of the Kilchattan chapel (‘Kil’ means ‘saint’ in Gaelic), which boasts some fine graffiti from the early mediaeval period. One is a clear and distinct carving of a birlinn, an early slender Highlands galley built to resemble a Viking ship but altogether finer, smaller and more elegant, designed for these tricky waters.


The word ‘birlinn’ shivers me timbers, as they say in pirate stories. I first came across the word ‘birlinn’ in Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room. Nicolson inherited the little Shiant Islands from his father when he was only 21, and the book is a kind of natural history of the islands. I was so captivated by his description of the building of the birlinn he’d commissioned to navigate the fierce waters of the Minch* that it took me weeks to get beyond that passage. Such a longing was set up in me to go and make one myself that I read the description over and over (yes, I know; I’m not normally that compulsive, honest).

Somerled, legendary mediaeval Lord of the Isles whose seat was at Castle Duart on Mull, and who is reputedly buried in the little St Oran’s Chapel graveyard on Iona, used one of these.

My campervan is wonderful, but heavy and slow, so on the first day we only (only!) covered 400 miles, and pulled off along the Solway Firth near Gretna, just over the border and into Galloway – an area completely unfamiliar to us. The strange littoral landscape was made hugely atmospheric by the rising full moon, and we looked out across the mudflats towards the Cumbrian fells one way, and an offshore wind farm the other.

I learned a new word, probably familiar to any of you who are northerners: ‘merse’, meaning marshy hinterland on the littorals. I imagine the ‘Mersey’ of ‘Merseyside’ comes from this; and I think it must also be ‘moss’, as in ‘Moss-side’, or, up here, The Moss, on the (stunning) Campbeltown peninsula. 

Daughter takes me to a couple of her favourite places here: Crinan, like a Scottish version of a small wooded Cornish harbour, and the stunning Ardfern peninsula where we look out on this sunny day on a string of islands from another ruined little church, Kilmarie, host to some ‘sculpture stones’ from the C16th>C17th, with one or two much older fragments.

Then there’s the famous series of megalithic sites at Kilmartin; but that’s another story.

My friend Francis, one of the friends with whom we’re staying, has just been awarded his fourteenth prize for poetry translation. He presents me with his latest book, a very beautiful bilingual edition of the work of Serbian poet Ivan Lalic, Walking Towards the Sea. Here, to sign off, is a little excerpt from ‘There should be gardens here’:

‘There should be wind here, stripped to the leaves
Like a swimmer, and plenty of unfrightened birds
On the shoulders of silence, in the eyes of light,
So everyone can vanish sleepwards on the grass...’

© Ivan Lalic/Francis R Jones


  1. Lovely, Roselle! And a happy Easter to you.

  2. Wonderful! I've taken pictures of those same stones, Roselle, and I'll be driving up the M5 in my little car as usual when camping season comes

  3. Hello Jenny (lovely to hear from you here) and Robert - thank you for the comments. This is a hello from the wonderful Isle of Iona where I'm leading my annual writing retreat - a heartful rich group and Iona is working her usual magic.

    I've had no internet access since that brief window on Luing - two weeks without a computer (and almost no mobile signal either) has been strange, and freeing too.

    Glad to know you know those stones, Jenny. Scotland is a frequent destination for you too, then?

    More soon from this little huge island - IF there's a moment when I can drag myself indoors from this amazing sun and the usual phenomenal colours and light, not to mention the demands of leading a group who are having epiphanies (and sometimes catharses) ;-) - from 9.30am till at least the same time in the evening each day!


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