Lyrics from a lush landscape
26 August IT'S BEEN A WHILE SINCE Scottish Book Trust told me that I was going to the Jura Malt Whisky Writer Retreat for some precious writing time between mid-August and mid-September, and I knew I was looking forward to it, but I didn't know how much was going on at the back of my mind.
So, when I finally got here (after a three-day sojourn on Islay, because the Jura car ferry had broken down) I had so much work – so many promising notions – to be getting on with, I didn't know where to start.
At which point, of course, the place to start is by calming down and reminding yourself that there's plenty of time. A whole month, more or less (car ferry notwithstanding). And also to take a look around and see where you are. In Jura. I didn't know it would be such a beautiful place.
What I do know is that a beautiful place has beautiful place names – and when Catriona Mack, the housekeeper of Jura Lodge, brought me a pile of local interest books, the one I seized upon was Place Names of Jura: A Guide, by Calum McArthur. It's not a big book – 16 pages, in fact – but it's full of treasures. Beinn nan Capull, for example, which means "peak of the horses", or Tom na Pioghaide, which translates as "hillock of the jackdaws".
The one that really caught my eye, though, was Leac Fhola, which means ledge of blood – and, perhaps because my recent poetry has been much preoccupied with blood, and hunting, and with such very physical matters, it set me thinking. I've set down a couple of poems since I got here – not my plan at all; I came to write some stories I've been carrying around in my head for months – and I think there may be another on the way.
Another notion about place names was that it might be a good place to begin the artist 's book project I'll be starting on while I'm here. I'll be working with David Faithfull – who sent me a bottle of oak gall ink that he'd made himself, along with some Hebridean reed pens, so I could try writing in the old way. I've been beguiled for some time by the idea of that old practice of a monk or a scribe sitting with a pen and carefully copying out documents – so I think I shall start there, with my reed pens and oak-gall ink, copying out the place names of Jura and watching to see what they bring.
Having spent a few hours copying out place names with my reed pens, I begin to see the extraordinary patience of people who did this kind of thing for a living. It's something that has been so carefully eradicated from our lives, this close-in, scrupulous patience. The writer's first concern is attention to sound. Not to marks on a page, and – for the poet at least – not to questions of meaning. It might seem mystical to say so, but I do think meaning emerges from the sound. Sound comes first, and then, sometimes much later, a posteriori, one sees the meaning – or, often, a complex of meaning, in the piece. To begin with, however, you are working, not with an idea, but a notion, not with a set of specifics, but with an atmosphere, and the only thing you have to guide you is sound.
And what of the sound of the word "sound" itself? It's one of my favourite words, and it carries some of my favourite notions: a magical, immensely rich feature of coastal waters, the word for what my trade is all about, and one of the aptest ways of talking about things being right, about a certain just quality to a thing, or a person or an event. She's sound. This boat is sound. All the joy of using language can be summed up in that use of the word.
The name "Jura" could originate in old Norse (meaning something like "deer island") and the Vikings certainly were a presence here. What they left behind included the fort at An Dnan, though not, perhaps, the eerily familiar, Bates-Motel-in-pink edifice beyond.
The island is full of voices. All islands are. Everyone who passed by, or passed through, left a voice behind, their own individual sound, indelible, among the rocks and rivers and hill trails.
It's been an intensive week or so. I've managed to do much more work than even the optimist in me was hoping for, and it's much more varied, too, than I had planned.
Nothing about my collaborative work with David Faithfull had been very closely defined, the idea was to spend some time together on Jura and see what came out of it. Yet, by the time David got off the ferry, I was already buzzing with ideas and notions that had come out of the land, and the place names – in fact, I'd already written a few lines and I could feel there were more on the way.
David is a great walking companion. Infinitely curious and almost blithely optimistic, he's a little like Kendal Mint Cake on legs when the weather turns and, standing on a beach at the end of a long walk through mud, water and midge-infested bracken, big, penny-sized drops of rain start bouncing off the tip of your nose. For three days, we explored the island and there is much to explore: Beinn Shiantaidh in the mist, the waterfalls on the Evans Walk, the old fort at An Dnan, the raised beaches around Inver, the gardens at Ardfin.
All this walking and looking and sometimes seeing things from another's perspective got me started and I put aside the fiction I'd been working on for two days and set down a sequence of short, impressionistic poems that came all in a rush and just seemed to know how to organise themselves on the page without any interference from me. It happens like that sometimes: as Robert Frost liked to say, the work of the poet is to not get in the way of the poems.
I suppose it's only natural, coming to a place as beautiful as this, that it would be the land and the water and the light that first struck us, but as I begin to settle in – and in spite of the fact that I've spent large chunks of time holed up in the Lodge, scribbling – I see that the real beauty of this island is its people. I've obviously not met everyone on Jura, but the people I have met have been full of stories and music and their fondness for where they live is almost tangible. It's a small community, and it seems a very close one – not just of the living, but of the dead, too. Somebody said to me that Jura people don't forget the dead, they keep them close with stories and memories and there is something wonderful about that. It reminds me of what a Sami friend told me about the yoik – a Sami song that, whether it's about a person or a pin-tailed duck, carries the spirit of its subject so fully that, when somebody yoiks a friend who is far away, or dead, that friend is actually in the room, in spirit, which is to say, in reality.
Now David is back on the mainland, and I am back with my stories. I have just about a week left on this island – which is truly full of voices – and I want to make every moment count. Yet I am always fighting the temptation to put the pencil down and go out and just walk up and down the road in Craighouse, or pop into Jura Stores for a chat with Steve, the best book critic I've met in a long time, or maybe wander over to the hotel to see if there's music tonight – real music, impromptu, just a group of friends and neighbours, with maybe a visitor or two sitting in, just jamming, making it up as they go along, the way it should be done.
My last few days have been extraordinarily productive – if that is the word. Now that the last day has come, it is hard to be driving off to the early ferry to Islay. But I've been missing the family pretty hard, too, so it will be good to return.
I thought I was leaving with something of a mystery hanging over me. I had written what I thought was a sequence of poems coming out of my walks and talks on the island, both alone and with David, for our collaboration – or rather, a sequence minus one part, which seemed to be there, somewhere, but wasn't coming. It wasn't until I got on to the ferry – alone, on the early boat to Islay, and then later, far from alone on the crossing from Port Askaig to Kennacraig – and stood looking out at Jura receding into the distance – and, for me, into the past – that I realised the last piece has to be about the journey. I hadn't seen that on the way over, because I met some friends and spent that crossing talking and catching up, so didn't really notice that sense I have, on such journeys, of a kind of innate longing for the archipelago, for ferry crossings and quiet piers on tidewashed islands, for the sound of the water slapping against the wood of the dock and for the intimation of some bright interior, bees swaying through walled gardens or a stand of Himalayan balsam by a dark burn, patient deer waiting to repossess an orchard. In other words, a piece about anticipation, on the one hand, when every island is an Elysium of expectation, and on the other, about the transformation into the land of the true self that memory performs. Any island could be this place.
So the work that began on Jura continues through the crossing – and onward, through the dark and the rain, as I traverse Scotland on my way home. I know I have left the islands as soon as I drive off the ferry – after all the polite driving, people waving as they pass, and a general lack of hurry, now I am in the middle of a ruck of noisome fools who think that driving like idiots – one guy cuts me up, then the car in front, then the one after that – is somehow impressive or intimidating. It isn't – it's a reason for pity. For those who do it, and for those they drag into their feverish hurry.
When you write, there are no goodbyes. Everything stays in your veins, and it might be years before it bleeds out – as ink, as memories, and always transformed, though hopefully not distorted.
The holy grail, I suppose, is a process of distillation. Cask strength, at its best. Surely the right metaphor to end on, after a month of living and working next to a distillery. At night, or in the early morning, when I was about my business, the people who worked over there – a yard's width away – were at theirs. Found that heartening, reassuring. We were both engaged in the business of making something – hopefully, what I was making might warm somebody, or inspire a good conversation, or close out a solitary evening by the fire almost, though not quite, as well as the water of life.
So no goodbye to Jura – and one day, I trust, a return.
• For more on the Jura Writer Retreat, visit www.scottishbooktrust.com/jura
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 2 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 21 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West