A short tour of Scotland / inhabiting someone else’s home

There are no words to describe the beauty of Skye.

That’s the sort of lazy, easy, meaningless writing you get in holiday brochures and vacation websites. But, having just returned from the island, I find I’m struggling to summon any words myself. As a poet, I’m supposed to have the vocabulary to describe beauty and awe. Or am I? As a contemporary poet, beauty has become a no-go area. I have banned my students from using the word, telling them to draw on their powers of observation and description, to find better words, more personal applications. But now I’m lost too. When you dig deeper into the meaning of beauty, you find it is nearly impossible to avoid cliché, particularly in reference to landscape. The sky is always blue (although last week on Skye, there were the predictable storms), the water crystal-clear, the mountains majestic. Cliché embraces the familiar, the common experience that so many have shared; first thoughts verbalised when faced with something so important, so much larger than ourselves, that it is nearly impossible to express.

In Elaine Scarry’s famous essay, On Beauty and Being Just, she begins by making this point:

Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.

The poet’s dilemma. My personal dilemma made greater by the fact that I don’t have the precise terms for the natural landscape. As readers of Invective will know, I live in south London (a place which I have yet to hear described as beautiful). I have just published a sonnet sequence which took as its subject the ruined and blighted corners of my adopted city. When I was teaching a course on Crete a few years ago, there was a woman who knew the names of nearly every wild flower we encountered on our walks; I envied her knowledge. There is nothing that prevents me from getting a book and looking these things up (indeed, I now know that it was the marsh hellebornine I found on a lochside path). But maybe it’s to do with possessing that knowledge, feeling that it is somehow part of your wider understanding of the world.

And then there is the added issue of language. To see signs in Gaelic (although I didn’t hear much spoken) is to be reminded that you are actually in a foreign place. Although we didn’t make it to Raasay, I thought about Sorley MacLean, and the one and only time I heard him read, just a few months before his death. He came to read for me in London, and I’d dutifully leafleted the London Gaelic Society. I asked him to read some poems in Gaelic, and he was moved to find that so there were Gaelic speakers in the audience. But even for those of us who didn’t understand, the flow and sound of the language was an extraordinary experience. Going to his place, at least as far as Skye, if not all the way to Raasay, I know will add something to the way I read his poems.

A late poem of his begins:

The mountains are speechless
if what they say cannot be understood
and the many-voiced ocean is silent
if no-one knows its language.

So from language back to beauty. Is Skye really beautiful? Yes, the Cuillins are extraordinary, but also full of threat and menace, especially when the clouds draw down around them. ‘Rocky and terrible’, MacLean called them. The valleys are dotted with picturesque ruins, but when you consider that these are the ruins of settlements, sometimes whole villages (one of our walks took in what is left of the abandoned dwellings that made up the village of Erisco, on the north of the island), then that postcard vision takes on a different light.

From Skye we headed South (of course), stopping in Biggar to visit Brownsbank, the home of Hugh MacDiarmid for over thirty years. The cottage exists in a sort of time warp, with seventies packaging still visible in the tiny kitchen, and the great man’s collection of tattered Penguin paperback crime novels still cramming the bookshelves.

Although his language was different, the Lallands Scots of his childhood, he and Sorley MacLean had a great admiration for each other. I have to admit that sometimes I find it hard to extract meaning from MacDiarmid’s Scots, the textures are so thick to my North American ear, but hearing them read (incredibly robustly by Alan Riach) was a great treat, and something of the energy and anger of the work came through to me (again, helped by being in the poet’s landscape) for the first time. There were other readings from Richie McCaffrey, Angela McSeveney, Lorna Waite (who read an incredible poem about learning Gaelic), and Andrew McCallum, all of whom have been resident in the cottage at some time. Catherine Sadler, who has just finished her stint there, is particularly interested in the intersection of poetry and place, and writes about

A reconciliation with living in what was someone else’s home. I have been using their plates and pans, sleeping in their beds, not quite eating their porridge, making more mouldy the wallpaper with the hot baths that steam up the bathroom …

She talks of the tension between past and present; maybe this is something I’ve felt during my whistle-stop tour, in addition to being aware of a different landscape, a different language.

I met a couple of poetry friends I hadn’t seen in some time, both of whom have settled in Scotland from other places. Chris Powici lives in Dunblane, but grew up in Guildford. He’s now the editor of Northwords Now, a magazine dedicated to writing about the highlands. In this role, he has travelled all over Scotland. He very kindly suggested I might send him a poem if I get round to writing about my Skye experience, and I said to him that any attempt I make at writing about Skye will go no further than the postcard impression of a tourist. And that goes back to possession. I’m not saying poets shouldn’t write about places outside their own experience, but I feel uneasy about writing on a place unless I feel I can inhabit it more fully (the way that Catherine has spent a month thinking about MacDiarmid by inhabiting his house).

Vicki Feaver was also there, and gave a short reading. Later we talked about place (she has been in Dunsyre now for eleven years, having come from the south), and she remarked that she doesn’t think of herself as a poet of place – I agreed, her poems are more about human interventions and relationships (although in her most recent book, often the relationships are between humans and the natural world, surely the result of living in the country rather than in the city). And I found myself saying that London is my place; it may seem obvious from my recent work, but it was the first time I really thought of myself as being situated somewhere in my poems. Maybe it takes a trip to somewhere else (and a journey from the place you started) to figure that out.

I’ll finish with a few lines of MacDiarmid’s:

What happens to us
Is irrelevant to the world’s geology
But what happens to the world’s geology
Is not irrelevant to us.
We must reconcile ourselves to the stones,
Not the stones to us.