On your whistle-stop tour of the Highlands
and Islands our whispers are said
to be heard by native ears
dè rinn iad?
The Barabhas moor on Lewis is empty.
Leòdhas – far an do rugadh mo sheanair
Lewis – where my
grandpa was born
I have nothing new to say. And yet
perhaps I echo the emptiness they pronounce
as they roll in brazen on bulldozer. As if it is a tank.
Nothing to see here! No sign of life.
The shaft of ephemeral light hits the same spot
on Donald-John’s rowing boat at the same time of day,
each day this season, as we continue to live
in the shape of our shadows, lapping against low tides.
Uibhist a’ Tuath – far an do rugadh mo shinn-seanmhair
North Uist – where
My grandpa sits atop a rock on the Cnocaire at number 10, Bàgh a’ Chàise/highest hill point above the croft/I am small enough then to still be sat atop his knee.
His walking stick props up the rock next door to our stone throne
its head gracefully carved by Duncan Mathieson of Kintail
into the face of a bird
whose wife force feeds me biscuits and strokes my cheeks
(Duncan Mathieson’s wife does, not the graceful bird walking stick),
twice a year when visiting on our way home to croft from city,
Duncan Mathieson being distant cousin on my grandpa’s father’s side
this delicate web of sloinneadh they trace
through every ceilidh as we sit in their tiny dwelling
set into mountain face of a cleared valley of
broken and uninhabited homes and
listen to the last of our tradition-bearers spitball stories that
mix with tinkling laughter,
peat and cigarette smoke and reverberate round the room.
We drive away. A sad echo
follows us through the Glen.
Now, back on the Cnocaire we survey our Kingdom,
mo sheanair and I, the sea on three sides.
Nothing between here and Canada, a Shinéad, dìreach ocean.
I imagine I am falling off the edge of the world right into its centre.
Gusts of wind blow my hair across my face
grandpa hums the Addams Family theme tune,
we giggle. He squeezes me tighter against the breeze, points,
seall air an sùlaire. Dreamily we watch gannets dive for fish that way they do,
high up at our hilltop-eye-level, they circle,
we watch in wait – and then
– a sudden plunge! Turning like a whisk as they plummet down
into quiet splash, we yelp in delight spotting squirming fat fish in its beak
I ask, small chin tilting up to his,
how can they see under the water from all the way up here?
Survival, he replies.
With a slight shake of his head.
I have never seen anything more unpropitious
– said Sir Walter Scott of the Harris skyline (from his boat)
Beàrnaraigh na Hearadh – cò às a thàinig mo sheanmhair
Berneray, Harris –
where my granny
They made maps with no place names
numbers instead, to demolish
our townships, already poor in soil
now drifting nameless through their cache
In this desolate land
Eyes flash cash, hand grips stick, miss what sits
in front of them/hold on to your breaches boys and away we go!
Screech into hearth holding hearts encased in stone
bleed out into rich purple heather staining it brown
Sinéad, come on, time to move on – I – flinch/gut/choke on my own knowing/freeze in disappearing/shout or run/shout or run/shout or run/I –
swallow. Hundreds of years stick fast in a throat taught to sever our speaking,
to dance carefully round drunken hopelessness. All in the past.
Sit quiet/feel the weight on my chest/moors burn/flames lick hot on our backs
And you do not exist.
O Dhia/Ar n-Athair a tha air nèamh
Oh God/Our Father
who art in Heaven
where great grandfather, the minister,
and great grandmother, the healer, are buried,
far from home, dead amongst the ghosts
of 7,000, never to return.
Run over our bones until they turn to dust and you can say – See?
It’s empty here.
Hear the psalms swell we call and we respond
wrapped in shrouds of bitter judgement
pray our resistance away/arrive starving from Barra
shock the city/draped in the famine they made.
Cò as a tha thu?
Where are you from?
who are you from?
The land springs forth the people
not the other way round
so remote, how wild,
so rugged, how free
freedom is in the eye of the beholder when
they proclaim the people of a place are pretend.
My mamaidh, mo mhathair, text me yesterday,
Six eagles circling over Bagh a Chaise this morning with a golden moon
going down in the shell pink Western sky
Eagle emoji eagle emoji
Tha gaol agam ort
I love you
Literal translation/I have love at me on you
sits between us/as eternal offering.
all the men in my story are dead now.
land was never meant to be a possession
and I have nothing new to say
nothing I could translate into this tongue, anyway.
For all erased and dispossessed people and lands.
Many thanks to Catrìona MacInnes for the photos and to Fiona MacIsaac and Yvonne Irving for checking over the Gaelic