I. The Evacuation of St Kilda

The remote island community on St Kilda had existed for thousands of years in considerable hardship until, from the 1890s, tourists began to visit in large numbers. The wealth of these visitors introduced the St Kildans to another world far more affluent than theirs at the same time as the population had dwindled to a level that was becoming unsustainable. St Kilda was abandoned in 1930.

No idyll did he shatter nor could he,
The early tourist, wealth at his command,
Unless grey stones lapped by a freezing sea
Make sunless Tartarus the promised land.
Their life was harsh, so they with passing grief
Four thousand years of history resigned
And for a better land, to their relief,
They left a bleak and dismal world behind.

Their ship hove to in fog, return delayed
Till they’d found every dog, tied stones around
Their necks and thrown them all in Village Bay.
Where they had played at ebb-tide they were drowned:
Afraid too late, their trust in man betrayed,
High tide it was, they drowned them in the bay.

 

 

II. Rockall

This tiny rock, annexed by the UK in 1955, had probably, until very recently, seen fewer landings by human beings than the moon.

In nineteen fifty-five claimed for the Queen,
A rock so very far away from land,
It’s scarcely possible to understand
Why she’d be keen to rule this rock unseen.
In seas where only trawlermen have been
Could anybody really take command
Of such a dreary no man’s land, and stand
Upon the single feature in between

The summit ridge and sea below? “Hall’s Ledge”
Is flat enough for guillemots to stop.
But see its narrow width and view the edge:
The wind is fierce, vertiginous the drop,
No halcyon days to quell the swell, too steep
This granite hump, the seas too hellish deep.

 

 

III. North Rona

North Rona, 43 miles north-west of Cape Wrath, is the remotest part of the UK that has ever been permanently inhabited. It was evacuated in 1844. St Ronan was a hermit, according to legend, who lived on the island in the eighth century. An early dry-stone Christian oratory survives almost intact with a few ancient grave-stones nearby.

Remote his fortress, far from humankind
And girt by fifteen leagues of open sea,
North Rona’s lonely hermit, was he free
To contemplate, forsake the daily grind?
To find the time to discipline his mind
He strove with nature’s forces gallantly,
Fought elemental strife he couldn’t flee,
Nor did he leave his earthly cares behind.

As Francis tamed the wolf, as Gall enthralled
The bear, as Cuthbert in his wisdom called
The otters from the sea, so Ronan must
Have loved the seals that throve and put their trust
In him. Still at his post on Rona’s coast
On vigil through the night is Ronan’s ghost.

 

 

IV. The Flannan Isles

The Flannan Isles were the scene of an incident in 1900 that has never been satisfactorily explained, when all three lighthouse keepers mysteriously disappeared without trace.

Upon the storm-lashed Flannan Isles one grey
December hour, while still the night, these three
Young lighthousemen had breakfast; tidily
They piled the plates and put the pots away.
The light was out, the hearth-stone chill and they
Had gone, and on the mantel plain to see
The clock had stopped at three. Where could they be
But in the sea, how had they gone astray?

The stories flew around but no-one knew
What happened to the sturdy lighthouse crew
For they were never seen again. What doom
Befell them in the gloom, those three for whom
The light went out that wintry night forlorn
Who sought the dawn that never brought the morn?

 

 

V. The Wreck of the Annie Jane

This was the biggest ever maritime peacetime disaster in the UK when, in 1853, 350 emigrants to Canada lost their lives after the Annie Jane was dismasted in a storm and foundered in the east bay of Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides.

Beneath this barren strand on Vatersay
Are all at rest I trust where we have lain
Through storm and thunder, hail and sleet and rain.
Four hundred and some fifty sailed away,
A hundred lived, we others died that day
In eighteen fifty-three when Annie Jane,
Dismasted in a storm, could not maintain
Her errant course and foundered in the bay.

En route from Liverpool to Montreal
We drowned, they buried us close by the shore.
No longer do our dying children call,
There’s peace in this pale earth forevermore
For there’s a fellow comfort in our graves,
Awash at times with gently lapping waves.

 

 

VI. Gruinard Island

This island off the far north-west coast of Scotland has been uninhabited since the 1920s but was the unlikely setting for experiments in 1942 in biological warfare. Eighty sheep were taken out there and were slowly but successfully killed when they were bombed with anthrax. The island was not declared safe till 1990.

Remote it lies from any tourist trail,
Albeit barely half a mile offshore.
It holds a secret dating from the war,
A proving ground behind the darkest veil
Of night, for evil such as this must quail
Before the glaring light of day, before
The gagging press-hounds baying at the door
Before the sight of God and on a scale

Beyond the pale today? If only it
Were so! Those anthrax trials we deplore
Where now we can with just a single hit
Annihilate the human race and more:
Beneath the heavens’ vault a sombre shroud,
Still swathes Gruinard today in blackest cloud.

 

 

 

Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.


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16 Responses

  1. Maria Heaton

    These atmospheric poems have been so beautifully crafted that they almost seem to have been hewn from the rock of the islands themselves.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Maria – much of that rock being Lewisian gneiss, claimed to be the oldest in the world. These islands also boast at least two other superlatives: St Kilda’s main island of Hirta has the highest sea cliff in the UK at 1397 feet; and Boreray, in the same group, has the biggest gannetry in the world. Many thanks for the compliment on the poems, poetic in itself.

      Reply
  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Another remote but interesting island is St.Ninian’s, in the Shetlands. A major archaeological find of Pictish and Anglo-Saxon treasure was unearthed there in 1958.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      I’ve been to the Shetland Islands twice but never got further than Lerwick and Scalloway. However close to Lerwick is Clickimen, a fine example of a “broch,” an ancient fortified round tower peculiar to northern Scotland alone. This is only bettered, among the several I’ve seen, by the Glenelg brochs on the NW mainland and by Dun Carloway in Lewis.

      Reply
      • James A. Tweedie

        Peter, I was also impressed with the Dun Carloway (Charlabhaigh) broch on Lewis. Interestingly, directly below it are the ruins of several Black Houses . . . the first time I had seen or heard of those. There is also a largely-scattered stone feature on Barra called Dun Cuier of which the Barra archaeology internet site says, “this complex of stones has proved difficult to identify.” Personally, after hiking up the hill and examining it during my visit, I concluded that whatever else it may have been, it had most certainly been a broch. I have photos to support that view. So interesting all these places, each with their own particular history and monuments. You are very fortunate to have visited so many of them.

  3. James A. Tweedie

    Peter, I have been looking forward to these poems and more than satisfied by how descriptive and well-composed they are. As I have said many times, I am particularly attracted to poems that tell a story. Each of these islands has a story to tell, and you have narrated each story . . . well . . . as Maria says so astutely . . . with words that appear to “have been hewn from the rock of the islands themselves.”

    I can’t say that any of these destinations are going to appear on my bucket list any time soon (although North Rona is a maybe), but each one is interesting and significant in its own way. My only question is if you have visited any of these besides Vatersay (and, I suspect, St. Kilda)?

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      James – First of all many CONGRATULATIONS for winning the riddle of the year competition. With such a ginormous number of entries this was a considerable achievement and one that was very well deserved. Regarding your question I have at least SEEN four of these islands or island groups, viz St Kilda, Flannan Isles, Vatersay and Gruinard, the last of which, pathetic fallacy notwithstanding, looked exactly as I describe it in the final couplet when I saw it (still under quarantine). To visit the other two islands would be extremely expensive and expeditionary in character. Only on rarely calm days could a landing ever be effected on Rockall anyway, and who would want to? If you ever were to consider visiting North Rona have a look at it on Google Earth. All I can make out is the capital aitch of a helipad! Thank you for the kind remarks about these poems and I’m glad you weren’t disappointed.

      Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      James – the black house was the uniform and typical dwelling throughout the NW. Highlands and Islands until comparatively recently. It consisted of thick low walls with rounded salient corners, two rooms inside (but and ben), a thatched roof weighted down with a netting of rope and great boulders round the sides and, significantly, no chimney. I imagine the peat smoke swirling about inside gave the black house its name. By the time of my last visit there were a small number still “inhabited” and preserved as museums, at Arnol and Gearanan. Most of the remainder can now be seen in the back gardens of smart new stuccoed and whitewashed bungalows all around the coast of Lewis, where they have often been cannibalised for the new homes. The black house blended in with its surroundings as an extension of the land, the brash bungalow is jarringly at constant war with them. But that is the price of progress.

      Reply
      • James A. Tweedie

        Peter, Yes, indeed. I learned quite a bit about them during my time on Lewis, including a visit to the rebuilt/recreated village at Gearanan. One of the pictures that accompanied my poem on Black Houses was taken there, looking down at the small bay from the hill above the village. The other Black House photo was taken from Dun Carloway. Most of the recreated versions seem to have added windows and even skylights. One that I saw from the inside had a small fireplace in an adjoining room that appeared to be original–a clear exception to the usual rule. That is one of the joys and frustration of world traveling: You learn so much in such a short time that it is impossible to remember it all!

        (As an aside, I have wondered if venting the fire through a crude chimney flue created a problem with sparks setting the thatch on fire–while keeping the fire contained in an open hearth on an interior floor allowed the smoke to vent through a hole in the roof while while keeping the sparks under control?)

      • Peter Hartley

        James – You appear to have “done” just about everything worth doing in the “Long Isle” during a very short space of time. I must say the landscapes were more picturesque in the 70s, but this was in direct proportion to the degree of grinding poverty, the hardships of life and the hardihood of the islanders, for many of whom vehicular access had yet to arrive. There seems to be something quite salubrious here in the connection between beauty and honest toil.

  4. C.B. Anderson

    Peter,

    Most American universities and colleges regard History as a social science, but a few (including Yale) place History among the humanities. Your poems resonate with a tone of deep antiquity and remind the reader of losses suffered within the compass of his or her own childhood. In other words, your poems are numinous and grab hold of a reader’s hackles. This is especially true for those of us who claim British (and, in particular, Scottish) ancestry.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      CBA – One of my profound regrets in life is that I was not born a Scot. All I can claim is that my father was a brilliant piper who used to regale us with hundreds of pibrochs, laments and strathspeys while practising on the chanter, and who actually died while playing the bagpipes with his regiment on full dress parade at Woolwich Royal Arsenal in 1976. Thank you for the kind comments about my poems.

      Reply
  5. David Watt

    To write six atmospheric poems, each conveying their own fascinating slice of history, is a fine accomplishment. It proves the maxim: “There is nothing like being there”, at least directly in regard to four of the islands, as an inspiration for insightful description.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      David – I’m quite glad that I wasn’t on St Kilda in 1930 at the evacuation. I don’t know why the islanders insisted on drowning their own dogs before they left Hirta – there were plenty of kind offers from individuals and charitable organisations on the mainland to adopt them. I can only think that a harsh and brutal life led to a brutal outlook and attitude on the St Kildans’ part to every other life form. Many thanks for the kind comments above.

      Reply
  6. Philip Keefe

    Peter
    I enjoyed these poems which are very descriptive and tell great stories and that makes me wonder why you preface them which the short potted histories of place or event because I for one find they give me too much information before I read the poem itself. I know I could just not read them but it seems to me your poems should each stand alone as they are telling stories and describing places so very well.
    We know what the subject matter is by your titles and if a reader after reading wants further background he could look it up himself on Wikipedia for instance as I did in two cases.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Philip – Thank you for your kind comment about these six poems and I’m glad that you liked them. Thank you too for the criticism and the constructive suggestion. You wonder why I have prefaced each poem with a short explanatory text. Although it was not my conscious reason for so doing and it did not occur to me at the time, I am reminded of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in which the story in the poem is accompanied by marginalia that summarise and explicate the tale. And going from his sublime to my ridiculous, I do believe that in the the octet of “The Evacuation of St Kilda,” for example, it is difficult to grasp the purport of the poem because, as in the nature of much poetry, an awful lot of information is squashed into a very small space at the expense of instant comprehensibility at a first reading. I have also sometimes found introductions like these can be used for burying vital, useful or key words that we may need to incorporate somehow but which would make for awkward scansion or prove difficult to rhyme in the body of the poem itself. I would like to think that my poetry could be read, and even enjoyed, without demanding access to Wikipedia, but with the ubiquity of internet access today I must admit that my attitude probably puts me squarely at the evolutionary level of a stegosaurus.

      Reply

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