Sailing with Alcuin

56°24.936’ N, 5°28.532‘ W, 18.05.19

We’re the new crew
With our how-do-you-dos
Our uncertainties
And our good-to-meet-yous
We’ve thrown ourselves together
Here in Oban.
It’s a kind of pilgrimage
A blind date
With the ocean.
Of course, we’ll just be
Hugging the shores,
Focused on getting to know
The place, the ship, each other,
And what we are doing
To the sea
With our thoughtless, throwaway pollution.
We don’t know much
But our eyes and ears, our senses
Are ready to be opened,
Let’s go!

56°24.982‘ N, 5°30.738‘ W, 19.05.2019

Name me the weed
On the shores of Kerrera,
The wracks:
Bladder, spiral, channel
And more.
And the spongy stuff
Consistency of cooked spinach
But fluorescent green
Or occasionally
Beach-bleached white,
As yet unnamed.
But I will get there.
And among the weed, dark and rich,
Among rocks strangely striated
And unfamiliar,
Along the strip of the high-tide mark
And the grass above it:
Tufts of the stuff grow from the earth
Blue strands of disintegrating rope
Buried deep as if
It belongs here,
Netting, packaging, fragments.
All eternal.
As it breaks down
Into ever-smaller
Ingestible parts.
This is a clean one
Janie says, heartened.
But we, new to the game
Continue our foraging
Mixed with despair.

Loch Aline                         
56°33.356‘ N, 5°45.411‘ W, 20.05.2019

The still blackness
Of Loch Aline
Heavy hanging clouds
Rain sheets draped
Her wood-crested shores.
A ferry leaves
From Aline’s supposedly
Treacherous mouth
But her song
In my ears
Is sweet nonetheless.

Loch Na Droma Buidhe  
56°39.498‘ N, 5°55.745‘ W, 21.05.2019

Powering quietly
Up the Sound of Mull
Force four to five
Past the red peak
Of SgurrDearg
And round-shouldered Beinn Bheàrnach
Tacks and weaves
To Calve Island
And Tobermory
With its harlequin houses
And aluminium fish and chip van.
We don’t stay for long though
Just time enough
For diesel, water,
Furtive rechargings
Hot showers seven minutes long
At two pounds a pop
Plus twenty p at the turnstile,
Before leaving
To recross the Sound
To the silent waters of
DromaBuidhe by Oronsay
Yellow-finned, humpbacked whale
Of an island
Run to greens and greys
And purple sunsets.
We ghost in
Finding fish-farm debris
On the way
And snuggle into our anchorage
Where we are visited
Three times
By an inquisitive selkie
Who though intrigued
finds us somehow wanting
and snorts
And dives back
To the finfolk
Below the waves. 

55°37.269‘ N, 6° 31.239‘ W, 22.05.2019

From Loch na Droma Buidh
We strike out north westwards
Out of the Sound
To Coll.
Sunny but cold.
Coll welcomes us
With turquoise waters
And basking seals,
Lobster pots
And workers’ houses,
Squat, thickset, whitewashed
In the sun.
An old man’s arthritic fingers
Struggle with a phone
To take our picture.
The island itself
Is flat, wind-blasted, beautiful.
A church with a warm, wooden-vaulted ceiling
And worn prayer-books
Offers a view of the sky
As a suitable substitute
For a stained-glass window,
As if to say:
All of this
– And barely anything more –
Is yours.
Back then, the islanders
Had to work for
You could say
Belonged to
The Laird.
The rich man’s house
Has a sign –
Silhouetted against the
Most magnificent view of Skye
Please respect
Our privacy. 

N56°29.718′ – W6°24.966′, 23.05.2019

From flat Coll
We turn southwards
On a beam reach
To the Treshnish Isles –
Dutchman’s Hat
And the puffin island
Of Lunga.
We see the birds, penguin-like
Strugglingto get airborne
Flapping desperately across the waves
And deem them
Poor flyers
Compared to
An easy and unexpected
V-shaped skim of cormorants.
Yet after we slip and scramble
Ashore, across kelp
And rocks green with slime
We find the birds to be
Trusting, guileless, beautiful,
Launching themselves
Like little jets
From their cliff-top burrows
Whilst nearby
The thermal glide
And swoop,
The fluttering brake
Of cantankerous, clamouring fulmars
Continues incessantly
And starlings nest
Screaming and wary
Among the boulders of the shore.
And between them
Tourists by the boatload
For a photo-op
With the exotic creatures.
But what
of their plummeting numbers
The disappearance of the sandeels
– their primary food supply –
Industrially hoovered up for fishmeal
For fishfarms
Dying out
For lack of plankton?
What of us?
Where are we
In all of this,
And what is it exactly
What disappearance
What soon-never-to-be-seen-again
Are we witnessing?
The weather turns
The tide is coming in
And we leave
On a dead run
For Goletra, Little Colonsay
And arrive on the wolf island
Of Ulva,
Where we watch, from Cragaig Bay
As the  lenticular clouds
Over the cliffs by Mackinnon’s Cave
And Sloc nan Con
– Ravine of the Dogs –
Turn pink
Then grey
Then greyer still.

56° 28.112’ N, 6°13.130’ W, 23.05.2019


We come ashore
Like astronauts
All suits and boots and harnesses
And walk among Ulva’s ruins
And standing stones,
Visitors to another world
One in decline
A shoreline
So littered with debris
And dead crabs
That it strikes the heart.
For sea-worshippers
The shore is a sacred place
And this one has been defiled
Wolf island sits and watches us
With a baleful gaze
That says
You will be next.
You are on the path now
And that path is loss,
Loss of everything
You love.
We prepare to return,
Our sad record haul
Sits above the high-water mark
Waiting for transportation.
But the worst thing
The most soul-destroying thing
Is not the sheer amount of plastic
But the way
It has insinuated itself
Into the very fabric
Of the island,
Ensnaring rocks
Entwining with earth and roots
Become the lattice, the trellis
Through which
Plants and seaweed
We leave dumbstruck,
Speechless in our grief.
Our hearts have reached
Peak plastic.

Ode to a Dead Crab

I don’t know much
About canaries
In coal mines
But I spent enough of my childhood
Scrambling over low-tide rocks
And watching
Under stones
And in rock pools
To know that
They ain’t
Supposed to be
But here I am
Four days into
A tour of the remoter parts
Of the Scottish coast
and I’ve seen a total of
Two live crabs, little ones,
And scores and scores
Of big ones
And now, I’m on the beach
By EileanReilean
On the beautiful island of
And here you are
Little fella
And you’ve got me thinking:
How come you’re dead?
How come you and your kin
Are lying around here, belly up,
Not even eaten
By something bigger than yourself
But just
And it’s got me thinking
That maybe it’s a
Lack of oxygen in the water
Or a sudden temperature change
Or maybe it’s the toxic waste
From those fish farms
That used to be here, or from those
Along the coast
On the next-door island
Of Inch Kenneth
Or the other side of Ulva
Or maybe it’s the teflubenzuron
Or one of the other chemicals they use
To kill sea-lice, which feed on
Farmed salmon
But which, like you
Are crustaceans.
And it’s got me thinking
that whatever you did
In your short crab life
You didn’t deserve this.
And it’s got me thinking
That if we don’t
Stop poisoning the seas
She’s going to start
Poisoning us back.

The Corrie Breachain

Ulva whines and keens
Her canid heather forms
And black fern root-stems
Call to her mistress 
Lying in wait
Over the horizon.
For she is one of the
Grey hounds
Of the Corrie Breachain,
Cauldron of the speckle-sea plaid
Feal to the winter queen
Maelstrom mother, sea mistress,
Her storm kelpies whipped
To a frothing lather
Her name feared, half-whispered,
Her sea-wolves ready
To bite unsuspecting seafarers –
A querulous, vainglorious bunch –
Mightily in the ass.
She is Beira, ruler of tides and storms,
Veiled one, tempest hag, siren spring seducer.
At Ulva’s call she yawns, her maw
The cavitation that sets the Corrie
Into motion.
Hers is the vortex
And we have erred too close.
Our ship tilts and yaws
Ours is a spiralling
Downward path and
We are in the maelstrom now.
With a supreme effort
We can strain our sinews
Focus all the will we have
To break free, but
Is a pretty weak force
In the greater scheme of things.

Tinker’s Hole, Erread                                          
56°17.468’ N, 6°23.061’ W, 24.05.2019

The skies hang heavy
As we leave our anchorage
At EileanReilean.
Slat seas
Sweep us out to
But our question is:
How to assuage
The grief
Of a remote paradise
Today we are lucky
The sea
Answers our questions
With a pod
Of massive, muscled
Sleek and scarred
White bellies
Shimmering luminescently
As they corkscrew under
The bow of the boat.
They stay with us
For ten minutes, maybe twelve
Till they veer off
To find another vessel
To play with.
Spirits lifted
We tack across
To the weird geologist’s
Geometrical dream
Of Staffa,
The other end
Of the Giant’s Causeway,
Dark Fingal’s Cave
Volcanic, vulvic,
Ribbed cliffs,
Hexagonal pyramids
Barnacled stepping stones
To another world
Then on
Through the treacherous
Sound of Iona
To Erread
Where we thread through the rocks
To anchor at Tinker’s Hole
With its folded granite hills
Of fern and heather
White sands
And hilltop cairn
To a man
Swept out to sea.

Return to Oban                                             
56°24.919’ N, 5°28.531’ W, 25.09.2019

The intermittent hiss
Of radio static
Calls from far
Belfast and Mallaig
And the lilting voice
Of Julie from the
Stornoway Coastguard,
The roll of the sea
Along the Firth of Lorn
Coming into Oban.
The babble and chatter
Of the water off the stern
Through the hull of the aft cabin.
We’re on a dead run
And Skipper’s happy,
His log-book entry reads:
Sailing goosewinged – kettle on!
And what could be better?
But strapped like a tumour
To the aft rail
Crammed into
The starboard locker
Like some Pandora’s
Puppet on a spring
Our haul
Of pollution:
Plastic, in every shape and form
Gleaned, beach-cleaned and hand-picked,
Sacks and sacks
Of the stuff.
Items from the everyday
To the unidentifiably arcane.
We’re heading back now
Full of impressions
Drunk on sea and sky
Yet sobered
With the realization
Of what our
Presence in the world
Is doing to the world.
Flung together
We have learned
So much
Not just
How to be together
In this tiny space
But perhaps better
How to be
In the greater space
Around us.
For seven days
We have listened to
Taken in
And lived
Dream message
Of the sea.
Now it’s up to us
To spread the word
We are his
Apostles now.