Sunday, 30 September 2012

Cairn Holy Equinox

I take the bus to Carlisle. From there I can connect with another bus that goes to Stranraer, and passes the road end to Cairn Holy. But a few miles short of Longtown, the driver stops, gets out, comes back in. I think we have a puncture he says.
We’ll have to wait for the next one whenever that will be. In an hour?
Some people get out and walk. I consider this. I could hitch a lift perhaps. Strangely, after about 10 minutes, the driver decides to see if it’s possible to go on to Longtown. It is. There doesn’t seem to be any problem at all. So after talking on the phone again to his boss, he continues on to Carlisle. Of course, I have missed my connection, but there is a train to Glasgow which goes via Dumfries, and I take that. In the hour or so I have to wait for the Stranraer bus, I explore Dumfries city centre which is pedestrian and peaceful, in the late afternoon sunlight. I buy potato scones and cakes from a bakery, to take to J & E.

The bus is very crowded, mostly with young people who get off at Castle Douglas. The woman sitting next to me says it’s not normally as crowded as this. Because of all these people getting on and off, the bus is running late. I want to reach Cairn Holy before the sun goes over the horizon at 6.45, so I’m told, but it’s about that time when the bus pulls up at the end of the track. After I get off and the bus drives away, suddenly, all is peaceful. The sea is very close, there is hardly any wind. Just the trees for company as I cross the road and begin walking slowly uphill. I turn around from time to time to look at the clear view of the sea below me.

When I reach the stones there are still several people there, and J is talking to them.
I missed the sunset I say. We didn’t see it either says J, there was cloud on the horizon.

Cairnholy stones, half moon just visible over the sea

J told me that his car broke down at the end of the road leading to Cairn Holy, twenty-one years ago. He had not been there before, it was just where he ended up, spending the night in the car.

I imagine him walking up the hill that evening, the paved road turning into a stony track. I wondered if he turned round as I did, the view of the sea as he climbed higher becoming more and more spectacular. Then he would have come upon this flat and grassy platform with its straggly assemblage of curious stones, some long and thin some short, bulging in places, oddly shaped. At right angles to this motley crew there’s a tapering...something... that looks like a corridor lined with thin stones and there’s one stone at the end that seals it off, ends it the way the curve of a bowl marks the end of the place of containment.

I wonder what questions must have come up in him as the stars began to appear, as he looked around him, noted the landscape, the rise behind to the north, the dips and slopes to east and west, with the horizons there forming curves, the edges of this bowl, while to the south, the ground fell away, and he could see clear out to the watery sea edge, far away and far below.


In ones and twos the people gathered by the stones leave and go home. The half Moon in the southern part of the sky hangs over the water and begins to glow as the sky darkens. I talk for some time to a woman who lives near Castle Douglas and has been coming here for many years. Her husband kindly makes us cups of tea in their camper van. Their grandson runs about, plays with their dog then pretends to be a dog himself, coming up to me with a stick in his mouth and insisting that I throw it for him. It’s completely dark and the first faint stars have become visible when they leave, and the boy invites me to come and have dinner with them. I thank him but explain that I’m staying here, at J & E’s house, just a 10 minute walk away.
It’s nearly 9 pm when J and I take the path through the wood that leads to the mansion house, a pale blur among the pitch black of night and trees. 

western sky

Early the next morning I look out of J & E’s living room window. The light is faint, grey-blue. This getting up in darkness and watching the squares of windows turn opaque, reminds me of winter mornings. After tea and toast J and I head up to the stones, in that tremulous new light, the sky shrouded by a few colourful clouds on the eastern horizon. But a few minutes later, the clouds lift and the sun appears over the edge of hill. A shaft of sunlight falls between the two tall stones in front, and runs along the corridor.
A dance of sunlight and shadows on the stones continues for the next half hour or more (I was not looking at my watch).


J says - Cairn Holy is officially described as a chambered cairn or a passage tomb. Of course that may even be true. But it is much much more than that.
We will have to wait until J writes up all his observations and discoveries to find out about that ‘much much more’. 


The patterns of light are particularly impressive (assuming the Sun is not obscured by clouds) at the equinoxes and solstices but the experience of the stones – that is there, open and available to everyone, at any time. gives you pictures and information

many more photos here, as well as a short video with some interesting sound effects!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Callander Poetry Festival 2012

Bridge over the river at Callander

This year's Callander Poetry Festival seemed like the best yet though possibly I feel that's the case every year. The 'special' this year – Saturday in the church hall - was a showing of Alastair Cook's Filmpoems, 

The Sunday morning discussion in the garden, led by Les Merton, Editor of Poetry Cornwall
also centred on poetry and other media. I'm familiar with poetry and images, I've experimented with combining them in different ways 
cat and archway in Piran Slovenia

but Alastair is the innovative master of what may well be an entirely new medium. 
Later on Saturday, there were also split screen readings, where people had written a poem about one of their favourite TV characters. ShielaTempleton  chose Jean Luc Picard, reviving memories of gazing at Star Trek's new generation's handsome captain.

There were too many fine poets to do them all justice here but I'd like to mention just a few, a very personal selection.

John Coutts'  hugely entertaining delivery, beginning with his box of surprises which immediately arouses people's curiosity. 
Ritchie McCaffrey, whose first collection Spinning Plates, has just been published by Happenstance. 

From The Professional

You will notice some day soon
all your cups carry my trademark -
a faint hairline crack. I specialise
in subtle, half-bearable damage.

A C Clark's reading from her latest book Fr Meslier's Confession,  based on the French priest (1664-1729) who had to hide his atheism in those oppressive times when the church had huge authority and power and to question their beliefs and dogma could have severe even fatal consequences. But Fr Meslier wrote about his true beliefs in a secret document, shown to no-one of course, and only discovered after his death.

From Fr Meslier on his book

I have walked decades hand in hand
with this, the only friend
to whom I speak my mind.
I will not long survive

the ending of our daily talk.

Chrys Salt’s  reading from her latest collection Grass a moving tribute to Angus MacPhee, the Weaver of Grass

Margaret Gillies Brown's poem she wrote about Freiburg in Breisgau, a city I owe more to perhaps then any other on earth. 


Les Merton, who always makes us laugh and this time excelled himself.

Sheena Blackhall

And Sheena Blackhall, Makar of north east Scotland, also makes us laugh because no matter how serious her subject matter, she superbly catches and presents to us that sweet note of the absurd, the profound underlying humour of life.

As soon as Sheena starts to speak, you listen enthralled, for each anecdote is a story, and reading her poems on the page cannot compare to listening to her. Sometimes she reads in English, sometimes in Doric but even if you don’t know Doric, you will understand the drift of it and can’t help but enjoy the lilt of the spoken language. Another treat from Sheena is when she sings, unaccompanied, with perfect pitch. 

Sheena read, among others, some of the poems she wrote of the Impossible Gifties, the tiny, gorgeous, intricate paper sculptures left anonymously in various places in Edinburgh connected with books (National Library, Poetry Library, Central Library, Storytelling Centre etc.)

Poeta est in silva she began by saying - when she learned Latin at school, that's where poets always seemed to be, where they spent their time - in the wood!

The poet is in the woods.
Currently, she is a bird

Whose flight never ends till it drops. 

It is the business of birds
To fly, they are winged creatures

The poet’s little flights of imagination
Rustle the leaves for a moment
Snap a twig or two

The bird does not stop her flight
Because it is Sunday
Or she has reached the edge of a leaf

The rest of the poem can be read here, as can the others, accompanied with images of the relevant sculptures.

Mike Penney, poet and musician, in Sally and Ian King's bookshop

Finally, someone who was not physically present at the readings, but whose book I bought from Sally and Ian’s bookshop – Rachel Boast’s  great debut collection Sidereal.
I met Rachel a couple of years ago at the Bakehouse,  where Chrys Salt organizes wondrous evenings, full of poetry, food and wine. After the reading, Rachel and I sat up late, finishing off the wine, then went outside into the damp dark night to look at the stars.
GuardianReview of Sidereal here

More images of the weekend can be seen on Dominique Carton's site


Monday, 3 September 2012

The Blue Dolphin and other Illustrations

Water Barge

Your voice.
It makes a space I can step into
where there is room for me.
It is a journey which holds me,
like the arms of trees.
They bend, they shift slightly,
with the weight, they rock
a little, to accommodate
the fingertips, pressing space
to mould the shapes of words.
When I heard your voice
I knew it was a boat
I could step into; there was
space for me to stretch
my limbs and words; not sink,
but float, on this slow
and gentle barge.

Morelle Smith

(included in the collection The Way Words Travel)

Illustration to Water Barge by Meg Watson (1950 - 2002)
Years ago a group of us exhibited during the Edinburgh Festival, in a small space called the Blue Dolphin Gallery, with whitewashed walls, which we decorated with various wall hangings. Paintings, textiles and poems hung on the walls, sculptures lurked in corners and were displayed in the window. We called it Venus Rising and had a private view at 8.30 am (because that’s when the planet Venus was rising over the Ascendent, or horizon). We offered people coffee and croissants and a surprising number of people, considering the early hour, turned up, lured no doubt by the promise of free croissants. In the evenings we persuaded our musician friends to come and perform so there was live music with some poetry thrown in. It was a lot of fun and though some pictures and books were sold, that was a bonus. The main purpose was to exhibit and perform our work, and get together with our friends. Forest Dream Weaver was one of the group, as was Meg, who sadly is no longer with us. She designed this illustration for the poem Water Barge and I felt she captured the spirit of the words just perfectly.

I was thinking about illustrations this evening, as I’m designing and printing cards with short poems (quintas) and accompanying photographs, for the Callander Poetry Festival this weekend. How extraordinary it can feel, when an artist takes your words and translates them into their own vision, their own interpretation.

The Traveller

The train wound through the bare brown mountains,
the carriage icy cold; he ate salty cheese, flat bread,
stepped out into freezing fog. He headed south.
His tent was ripped apart, his papers lost,
possessions gone - except the book of poetry -
a little creased and stained, but still there.
Later – the heat, the flies, the fever.

Back in winter, he breaks the film of ice
over water in a brass pot,
on a rooftop in Baluchistan.
When the dust storm covers mountains, rooftop,
he covers his mouth, to breathe air, not grit -
in a bare room with no lamp,
the book breathes for him
the lines become the breath.

Morelle Smith

Illustration to The Traveller by Katerine Loineau

I felt very lucky too, that Katerine Loineau chose to illustrate The Traveller, both words and image included in La Traductière30, published earlier this year in Paris. The theme for this year’s issue of the magazine, which is bi-lingual, so English contributions are translated into French, and vice versa, was the Poetry Reader. I wrote the poem in the third person but it was my own experience I was describing. From travelling in the east, a long time ago. So we turn our experience of the past into stories which emerge in the present, which then feed other memories. Past and present and no doubt future too, all seem to be interweaving in a continual dynamic activity.