Leaving St Kilda

Sombrely dressed as if for kirk
To greet the mainland looming at their back,
Awkward in homespun tweed and Sunday boots,
The mens' thick ankles and their splayed,
prehensile toes adapted to the guano-covered
Rocks, sheer, vertigo-inducing
Cliffs and sea-drenched, foam-flecked crags,
Pinched and uncomfortable on the level deck,

They stand in silence at the Harebell's stern,
Huddled at the taffrail, close to the fluttering flag,
Watching their way of life recede,
The old world dying as they head for Lochaline,
The wake unfurling backwards towards their home,
To Hirta, Soay, Boreray, Stac lee,
To Stac an Armin and Conachair's towering peak,
The fulmar's caterwaul still haunting them,

These refugees, the final thirty-six.
Men who have never seen a tree,
Wildfowlers now are destined to be foresters,
In Morvern, Tulliallan, Culcabock,
Ardness and Achabeg, scattering like chaff
Across the wilderness, before the wind,
Their daily parliament and small community
Dispersed. Their womenfolk will knit in solitude.

The wind beats down upon the walls, lifting
The thatch, prefiguring a storm. Crabs, fieldmice,
Horniegolachs, creeping and crawling things
Seek shelter in the cleits, abandoned cottages
And kirk. Below the jetty all the dogs
That they had drowned before they left
Weighted with stones, festoon the shore,
Garland the crystal waters of the bay.

Like stoneage tombs their sturdy dwellings stand
Foursquare against the gale, smelling of peat smoke,
Feathers, paraffin, manure, the family bibles
Open at Exodus. Fires in the hearths burn low,
The oil runs dry and, after a thousand years,
The cindery wicks in cruse and clach shoule
Falter and fail. Coming at last into their own,
The gannets, guillemots and guags cackle derision.

Norman Bissett

This poem was awardd second prize in the Surrey Poetry Centre Open Competition 1999


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