Message from the Skies returns to Edinburgh this month, with five celebrated writers reflecting on Scotland’s relationship with our waters, coasts and maritime heritage. Their words will illuminate and animate landmarks around the city until Burns Night, 25 January. Here, Robin Robertson takes a whistle-stop tour around Scotland’s coast...
Ten Thousand Miles of Edge, by Robin Robertson
Looking for the long pulse of Scotland.
Not here in the Central Belt, where most folk are;
not Scotlandland – twinned with Poundland
or Legoland, its national flower the plastic bag;
not its mapped centre, Schiehallion, with its garden
the Black Wood of Rannoch, home of my people –
but at the farthest edges, its islands and sea-coasts.
The sea protects us, the sea links us.
From the Solway Firth round the Rinns of Galloway
past the Firth of Clyde and its closed shipyards
to the nestled isles of Bute and Arran, and round
Kintyre through the North Channel to the open sea
and Islay, home to Lagavulin, and Loch Finlaggan,
once the seat of the Lord of the Isles.
Half Scotland’s catch is taken here,
from the Malin Sea to the Minches,
from the Mull of Kintyre to Cape Wrath.
To the lean wilderness of Jura: empty, knuckled
by the three Paps, with raised beaches to the west;
and north, where the tide-race funnels
into the bottleneck, the narrow gap with Scarba,
to make the monster that is Corryvreckan:
the speckled cauldron, the whirlpool, where
Orwell nearly drowned, where the sea
blisters, sliding up into hanging towers that drop
like lift-shafts, down into their own absence.
And then the garden of Colonsay and Oronsay,
safe harbour at Scalasaig, the wooded valley
of Kiloran: magnolia, maples, rhododendrons.
Mull, promontory island, Iona the bright chapel,
Staffa’s pillared cave of organ pipes –
to Tiree and Coll and the Small Isles beyond.
The sea sewn by dolphins, moving north to Elgol,
where the ridged keels of the Black Cuillin
rise over Loch Coruisk’s hidden glass. Skye
under its own sky, island of the MacLeods
and Dunvegan Castle, where Am Bratach Sìth,
the Fairy Flag, is held, and when unfurled
is said will multiply the men on the battlefield
and win the day for the clan, as it has done twice,
and holds one more victory yet.
In the east crook, in the Inner Sound, is Raasay,
the deep sea here is now where submarines sleep,
and the ghost of Sorley’s Hallaig, where only ferns
and birches grow on the slope, below the ruins
of the cleared village where their fields had been.
West to the Western Isles, the Long Island,
sixty-five islands long – fifteen of them still alive –
over a hundred miles from Berneray to Berneray,
Renish Point to the Butt of Lewis.
Their names a litany – Mingulay, Pabbay,
Sandray, Vatersay, Eriskay – Barra of the seal-song,
South Uist, North Uist, Lewis of the Gaelic psalm:
that hypnotic drone, slow as pibroch, bleak
and rolling as this cold Atlantic swell.
The raised stones – the great circle of Callanish,
the double-skinned broch of Dun Carloway –
and the hidden stones, like The Beasts of Holm:
the skerry, just out from Stornoway harbour,
which sank the Iolaire on New Year’s Day
with two hundred sailors, fifty yards from home.
When the seaweed harvest failed, the islanders
made offerings to Shony, the sea-god, wading
into the ocean with porridge or a cup of ale,
pouring it into the breaking waves:
throwing the produce of the land into the sea,
so the sea would throw its produce onto the land.
And now all we feed it is sewage, oil and plastic.
To the outliers: and furthest west to Hirta,
where people had lived three thousand years at least,
on seabirds and their eggs, till 1930,
when the last were taken off
and given work on the mainland, in forestry,
when not one of them had ever seen a tree.
Past the Flannan Isles, Rona, Sule Skerry
the seal island, north of Sutherland and Cape Wrath
to the lethal Pentland Firth, to come at last
round Hoy’s great cliffs of red sandstone,
the Old Man, and Rackwick Bay, to the haven
in the sound: the harbour of Stromness, gateway
to Neolithic Orkney. Within a mile’s radius,
the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, the Stones
of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, with the Ness
of Brodgar’s temple complex being slowly released
from the ground by trowels, aligned as it is
between these two stone circles and two lochs,
hung in a basin of light.
Eynhallow, the holy island, vanishing island,
that disappears as you row towards it –
and the islands of Westray, Papa Westray, the Holm
of Papay – islands off islands off islands –
North Ronaldsay, where the sheep are kept
on the shore by a drystane dyke, and eat seaweed.
Past Fair Isle – and on up to Shetland:
the furthest north is Out Stack, north of Unst,
and furthest east in all Scotland – Bound Skerry
in the Out Skerries. See the perfect broch on Mousa,
the fulmars planing at Sumburgh and Fitful Head,
the shell-sand sweep of beach at St Ninian’s Ayre.
Down past the peatlands, by Helmsdale and Brora
to the Dornoch Firth and Moray Firth to Lossiemouth
and Hopeman beach where we huddled, sand-blown
behind windbreaks, on Scotland’s cold shoulder
every summer – then round the ports of Fraserburgh
and Peterhead: whaling; fishing; then oil; then heroin.
My coast, lost like Forvie, to moving sands, like
the dunes of Balmedie to one American’s greed,
and my city, Aberdeen, lost to oil – to the robber
barons and city planners. The thieves.
From the sea-village of Footdee, close-in at the wall
under the waves, to the Castlegate and the Tolbooth,
down the Spital’s cobbled streets to the old town:
the melted Snow Kirk and the beauties that remain –
King’s College, Dunbar’s Mercat Cross,
the Chanonry to Seaton Park, with the Don
glittering below in the sun, curved
like a crozier under the gaze of St Machar.
On Sunday, south through the Mearns
and the great Highland Fault to Stonehaven bay,
to visit the grandparents: with the reward
of a Giulianotti’s ice-cream cone at the end,
while Sunset Song played in the background
over Carron Water, under Dunnottar.
Then Crail, Pittenweem – all those pretty East Fife
fishing villages – Anstruther, Elie – to the Forth
and over it, to the great good sense of Edinburgh.
Built, like Aberdeen, on seven hills,
but great hills that still stand guard above the city.
Climbing the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill
looking out over the metalled Firth to the Kingdom;
south to the city, to the Pentlands; east to the sea;
down at the Parthenon – unfinished, barely started,
the flecked people far below, and my father
standing there, smoking, dead these twenty years.
And all that’s south of here are the Marches,
the Debatable Lands, the Borders down to Berwick.
What matters here is this:
the permeable sea-membrane of land –
Scotland’s ten thousand miles of edge
from the Solway Firth to the Tweed.
The sea protects us, the sea links us.
We are many people: settlers, wresting a living
from the sea – the Celtic Scots of Dalriada, the Picts,
the Norse and Normans – flying under many flags –
Saltire, Standard, Union – but quickly European,
trading for centuries across those borders,
and internationalists: citizens of the world.
And we peopled the world from these shores:
invented, built, explained, explored – we wrote
ourselves into history from this small country,
and our country was peopled in turn: the Irish
from famine, Jews from the pogroms, Asian,
Italian, Russian, Polish, all – welcomed, all.
We don’t own the land, we tend it briefly,
and the sea protects us, and keeps us.
And the sea links us; lets us in, and lets us leave.
Devised by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival, this year’s Message From the Skies is subtitled Shorelines and marks Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 with texts by five leading writers reflecting on our relationship with our coasts, waters and maritime heritage projected onto buildings around the city. Produced in association with Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust and supported by Creative Scotland through the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, these literary illuminations continue until Burns Night on 25 January. For more information, visit www.edinburghshogmanay.com