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, 24 April 2015


Sunday. 100 miles, 200 miles, 300. Sun and cloud and sun. Spring starting to fizz in the hedgerows; high laps of plover. Hillsides freckled with lambs; the ravens too have their fill. On the hard shoulder so many corpses: vulnerable young of badger, fox. Pheasant, pheasant, pheasant. Duck, duckling.

The radio tells of 700 human migrants drowned in the Mediterranean – twenty ships and two helicopters there - how could they only have saved twenty-eight? I guess they simply arrived too late. Every life is our life too.

The Carlisle to Settle steam railway on which I never took my dad.

These hills – can I call them hills? – hunkered, inscrutable, infolded in their camouflage cladding: ochre turfscape, spring olive turfscape, cloudshadow.


Gwendolyne Brooks on the radio: 'We are each other's harvest, We are each other's magnitude'. What a responsibility.

400 miles. And now the dog, lethargic and limp for so many days, trotting so fast for so long in the uplands of Dumfries and Galloway I can barely keep up.


Early walk in the high hills through beechwoods hazed with sun. Back on the road, northering further: plantation of mime-artist wind turbines, stationary; below them an installation of larch fallen one on the other.

Just here the old caravan by the ruins, now even greener with algal growth. There's the river where we saw, we thought,  a few years ago the osprey. I called my ornithologist sister to check; she was so ill she could raise no enthusiasm.

There on the right is that stretch of lacy fence. Then it’s SCOTLAND / ALBA, and Glasgow and the Erskine Bridge, and now I can really breathe.

Loch Lomond. Snow on the beinn; here, silver water. A flurry of geese and swan. The dog who’s on mini-hunger-strike (except for thieving catfood at any opportunity) finds something disgusting to snack on on the shingly shore of the loch. I think of where I’ll be offered hospitality tonight, and hope she doesn’t throw up.

Andrew Motion’s on the radio talking about seahorses: beloved by humans because they look so beautiful even in death, which makes them vulnerable. I think of the one my father brought me cushioned in blue velvet, boxed up, when I was 8 or 9. It was magical to me then, and is probably in one of my ‘special things’ boxes still, even now. But even then I felt sad when I saw it, at something so beautiful, so magical, so dead.


Through Fort William and through a tiny tunnel under the canal. Then it’s Gay, and a pond and a light-filled art-filled house, all wood and glass and A View: the river Lochy to the southwest, close by, past the (fruiting) lemon tree and the pelargoniums (pelargonia) in the sun-lounge. 90 degrees further round, another window looks to Ben Nevis with its snowy runways, Gay’s partner’s passion.

Because I ask, Gay plays me a little Paraguayan melody on her harp; then we walk down to the shingle foreshore. ‘The rivers all seem low,’ I remark. Gay turns round and points to some hazel and rowan branches behind us and higher than my my head. They’re festooned with river-debris. Just a couple of weeks earlier the Lochy had burst its banks.

Dog-with-an-empty-belly suddenly perks up and heads off towards a jumble of flotsam, from which arises a pungent pong. Her taste for all things rotten (in this case part of a deer carcass, followed five minutes later by a sheep carcass on the riverbank, both perhaps brought down by flood) is with us still, and she’s been successful at thieving a mouthful or two of catfood. The many cans, sachets and packets of expensive picked-for-quality-and-temptation-levels ‘treat’ canine foodstuffs to which I have sacrificed various principles and which will constitute half my luggage and most of my carrying weight at the Iona end minus my car (along with books, smartish clothes, warm and waterproof clothes, dogbeds and course material) merely draw an elegantly averted muzzle.

We stroll on through glades of miniature wood anemone, wood sorrel, speedwell. ‘What are the ruins?’ I ask as we skirt their feet. ‘Oh, Banquo’s castle,’ Gay responds casually. I must have looked stunned. ‘As in Macbeth?’ ‘Apparently. It was built in the 11th century by a Banquo Cameron. Bit earlier than Shakespeare placed him. Various people have seen different figures, like soldiers, for instance, from earlier times in these woods.’

Banquo's castle

view from Banquo's castle

I’m here to run a writing workshop that Gay, who came to my week in France last year, has organised in Fort William. Friends of hers who will participate turn up that evening from Norway and Aberdeen, and supper is a warm and lively affair in which I learn that Gay’s partner ran teams of huskies in Antarctica for several years for the British Antarctic Survey, and that Lori in Norway was brought up at the other end of the globe, in Alaska, that Sue is a homeopath and that Gay was a harpmaker for many years.

As I write this I reflect that I’ve picked up on one thread with each of these people that seems to me especially interesting or exotic, either because of my own interests or because it’s utterly foreign to me, but to them is simply one slender, perhaps minor and taken for granted strand of all that they are, and is simply how it was or is. And this, of course, is what makes our stories, for we all have them; even in the most sedate-seeming lives there are details that to others may seem foreign, and exotic. It's our job as writers to notice and bring back such news. 


Next morning, by the river, some duck I don’t recognise scatter, and a goose calls. Ambling back up the track through the primroses I hear the first cuckoo, and a tired-looking swallow is balanced on the telephone wire.

So it’s a workshop, another rich evening, and then the drive past the blue and peatygold lochs down to Oban and the ferry

and past Duart, castle of the Lords of the Isles, which is scaffolded right now, and arrival, again as so often in rich rosegold gloaming sunlight, at the sacred isle (where the Abbey is finally unscaffolded), but just as I come out to take yet another photo of this thin place the clouds drift in

view from bottom of the hotel garden
and within an hour and on into the next morning it’s all seafret, haar and whitebows, and the little island is adrift on an ocean of mist.

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