Category Archives: Voyages

New territories and old histories.

We were guided towards Kensingston market. It reminded me of Brixton. But the fish tacos were a new experience. That was lunch. We would eat in, this evening, so we’d invest in a steak of beef, of known provenance, to share. The butcher was in no hurry and laid out the choices of meat, hung for 40 days. Now, if you want to try Ontarian wine to go with it… And what are you guys doing over here anyway. I know a Scots accent when I hear it.lake1

So a conversation started. We exchanged emails and met up, of an evening, two couples, sipping beers and swapping the cultural notes of visitors and locals.  I had another email from Sara Hunt (Saraband), who is going to publish my first novel, later this year. A great friend of her partner is a professor of social anthropology in Toronto. We braved icy rain, between connections, to reach a suburb. Then we were welcomed into tea and talk of islands. Daniel is from St Helena. He also makes films. He told us of his plan to document the lives of the hundred men who left their home island to work in South African mines.

I thought of the Hebrideans, on two year contracts, gone to the whaling in South Georgia and sending money home in the 1950s and 60s. The present generation, with so many working offshore, banking money to build the big house on the family croft.

But the real echo was the loss of more than two hundred of the fit men from Lewis and Harris, returning from the First World War on the doomed Iolaire. The hundred men, lost to St Helena, did not all perish but loss is loss to a fragile island social structure.

Another e mail arrived from my Toronto cousins. We tried to determine when we had all met last. As in all stories, the different versions did not exactly match. I introduced my wife and she was immediately welcomed into the family stories. We were taken out to breakfast. In the space of a couple of hours, lifetimes flew past us.

The way family stories and stories of love collide with histories gone out of all control reminds me of the work of Anne Michaels, who lives in Toronto. Her novel The Winter Vault is on a similar scale to the expanses of geography and time in Fugitive Pieces. You can take the events in because of the intimacy of the human relationships, also studied, in close up. I took time to look at some poems, available on line. They have similar qualities:

I’m on my way in town again. I’ll be looking for the book that gathers both her collections.

Remembering that this blog form is like a diary, I’m also sharing some poems-in-progress. They may change or they may not. They might be kept. They might not.

Toronto conversations


Graham the butcher is a wine-writer.

He’s writing a novel about a wine-writer

but it’s not like Sideways.

I told him I used to be a coastguard.

I’m writing a novel about a guy who

used to be a coastguard but it’s not about me.


Graham’s grandpa discovered the separations

that sorted the colour in Ladybird books.

My grandpa came to Toronto as a teamster.

His family had their trunks packed, to join him

but it was Willum came back across the pond,

homesick for Doric. Mind, my Toronto cousins said,

he’d been a prisoner of war, after gas.

He came home to ‘my dearest Mary Jane’.

Shovelled coal, killed moles,

grew grapes, like goosegogs, under glass.


We sip Syrah, grown across the great lake.

See the twinkle of development, from dark.

Watch cyan seep into a monochrome dawn.

My grandma sent her eldest daughter out

from the nine in two rented rooms

taking her place in

a city growing tall.

All these layers in

simple separations.



It’s the inscriptions on the backs of cards,

the ones that fall from mounts and frames.

It’s the scribbles, tight to the edges

of printed matter.


A story known to others

is told at the waterside café

over sweetcure Canadian back

and eggs, over easy.


Willum broke out from a wrecked Morris Minor.

He walked to find help for the two still trapped.

That’s what did the damage

to his own internal organs.


After they gave in

Mary Jane lost her own will.

Simple as that.

She lingered long enough

to meet the eyes

of her Toronto daughter.

Scarborough Bluffs, the lakeside of Lake Ontario, suburbs of Toronto
Scarborough Bluffs, the lakeside of Lake Ontario, suburbs of Toronto


From Henry Moore to Mike Nelson – a visitor’s impressions of culture in Toronto

A large scale exhibition was being installed at the Art Gallery of Toronto. The museum has benefited from a long term relationship between Henry Moore and this city. A huge scale bronze sits well outside, in the space between old brickwork and modernist developments. ‘Terror and Beauty’ is the title of the Francis Bacon/Henry Moore exhibition but we found that Wednesday is the day for viewing drawings and prints held in this building and a range of Moore’s drawings was set out on easels. You could view them up and close with no glass between you and the marks. My wife and my companion on this trip, Christine Morrison, is a visual artist by training and one who has recently been rediscovering the direct joy of drawing.

We studied one of the drawings Moore made in air-raid shelters during World War II. Wax and wash, pen and ink, somehow conveyed three dimensions from the work on paper. We moved to an exhibition wittily titled ‘Words On Paper’. Bruce Nauman (American born 1941). This was a questing, questioning poetry. Words in mirror image, from the printing, or drawn in mirror-image to print as you would expect to see the word. You lost the security that comes from recognizing words in your own language. Phrases became strange or elusive. A video installation consisted of two screens. An actor read words out loud, on each. It was the same list of words but the intonation and delivery made them menacing or reassuring.

tumblr_leo0xnHs7e1qds7upo1_1280The development of the building is itself a sculpture by Frank Gehry. Laminated beams curved forever. The shapes were as graceful as the artifacts of indigenous peoples, installed, throughout the building. These sometimes told stories. A bow-drill, in bone, was etched with the details of a hunt.

That evening we went to hear 20 poets compete in presenting five minute samples from recent books. It was not a slam contest and many stories were told in a short time. ‘Battle of the Bards’ is a test in choosing and presenting work which could represent the poet well in this tight structure. Narrative was usually more to the fore than the act of seeking or drawing, with language as the medium to fascinate poet and audience.  There were aphorisms and there were lyrics. The standard of presentation was astonishing, as if there is a long culture of presenting poems in public. A long table was piled with recently published poetry books, all well-produced and all as expensive as editions in the UK. I have not been able to find out who this year’s winner was but I’d suggest taking a look at the work of last year’s winner, available on line:

Also on Toronto’s waterfront, we explored The Power Plant, a pristine and large scale space for contemporary art. Another British artist was installed – a large scale show by Mike Nelson, who has travelled extensively in North America. One dense installation is composed of found objects from the coastline of Vancouver.


In another space, the personal possessions of a Canadian of Orcadian descent, who was killed in a climbing accident in Scotland, are arranged and placed behind a screen. A procession of images from ongoing journeys in this continent all show vestiges of human interventions on the landscape. Like many of the poems heard the night before, the work conveyed a sense of the absence of one particular person, from the world.

Another large area is given over to ‘Quiver of Arrows’. Four aluminium trailers, once the epitomy of streamlined development, are joined and parted from their wheels. You step up into an evocation of lives suggested by a few pertinent personal effects. You tiptoe in case there is a body dozing in one of the bunks:

But the work that moved me most could be described as a poem. A wide room suggests a functional office space, peopled with photocopiers. Printouts are taped to provide elusive traces of a story. Some phrases are blown up to highlight them and you realise that the fragments are picked up and echoed or progressed by the paper spewed from other machines. It was the diary of another journey. But it was also an unnerving one-sided conversation with his dead friend.

Like Nauman’s work, the appearance of the language and its presentation is fascinating in itself but it seems to me that in both bodies of work, it is the language itself that is the central concern.



Commonwealth Poets United. Canada, 31.03 to 02.04

It takes time for me to leave the place I’ve come from. As the aircraft took a descending sweep south of Greenland and the visibility cleared, Christine insisted that I lift my eyes from a screen filled with prose. This was a job I had to complete – a book to put to bed, before opening the mind to the opportunities of a poetry exchange in another continent.

I leaned over to take in the breathtaking sight of breaking pack-ice, out from the Gulf of St Lawrence. Last Autumn, I’d introduced Tim Severin, navigator and author of The Brendan Voyage at Faclan, the Western Isles book festival at an Lanntair, Stornoway. Tim relived the experience of encountering a wall of ice off Greenland and escaping it only to meet other drifting floes, out from Newfoundland. Now, our arrival in Canadian airspace presented an image of the forces he described.


Brendan’s Voyage  (for Tim Severin)


Hide hit

edges of ice

and the leathern integrity

of a saltcured hull

was pierced.

Local damage.


That low,

that close,

there’s no chance

of even a glimpse of extent.

Breakaway fields

belie our forecasts.


It was venture and error,

repair and retreat.

Not a trail

but a trial.


Christine makes her own visual work as a response to observations of the natural world. She took her images and I closed the laptop and leaned again to the window.

Sometimes I’m scared to take my own photographs because I fear the act of capturing a startling image will ease the disturbance it causes. We were told that this was the first truly clear day for some time. I was filled with a sense of huge distance, a bit like the feeling of putting boots over the edge of a cliff. No matter, the safety margin, the tolerance of the protection, you get that intoxication. I’d been snooty about the practical need to approach this continent by air.  But that’s the way it happened. Of course I’d wanted to sail to this place, in the wake of the Brendan. Now we plan to travel across a large section by train, to compare that passage with crossing open water – seeing the prairie as sea.

But right then, I found the controls on the new phone fast and tried to hold it steady. It’s simply a tool for catching and sending. It’s still your own eye. And I don’t think that eye can ever be free of the images it has experienced, to date. They get written over but they can’t be deleted.

In the frame


This high, it’s too easy to observe –

fissure and melt.

Blue snakes awake

on this first foolish day

of bare naked light.


The aperture is sensed,

shutter speed set.

In conditioned air

you touch the screen

for exposure.


The wavering line

is a long way left.

A continent is no more nor less

than an island, bigger

than my own home.

That’s under our airtrack,

about four hours back.


Nothing’s square now,

down below.

Except when we see it

within the corners

of our framing tools.

I think I navigate by images. I was taught to recognize and name unique features, to fix fishing marks, when I was young. Now it’s difficult for me to take in the wide visible sweep of this terrain until my eyes lodge on a specific feature.




The constant white runs

in the mottled weave of terrain

have to be water,

suspended for now.


And the running edges,

parallel for so long,

have to be

a human road,

taboo for now.


But there is an intersection,

more of a saltire

than a crucifix form.

In a given area,

all elements of one

are contained in

the other but


from this perspective

how can you say

which is the major highway

with right

on its side.

We’re in the city of Toronto now. It’s not all modernist towers. It’s full of contrasts, in smells as well as architecture. Already we’ve had conversations and invitations. Like most Scots, I’ve Canadian cousins. We plan to meet. I met the novelist and poet Anne Michaels at the Tip of the Tongue Festival on Jura, a couple of years back. It looks like we’re meeting up, too. I’m thinking back to her large scale novel, The Winter Vaults now. That’s a work that moves seamlessly between continents and ranges also in time. Jura to Egypt to Toronto and the passing trails of generations.


SY to LK – Sule Stack revisited


It’s not only the angle of the observed island, in relation to your bow or stern. The degrees off the wind at the time and so the point of sail you were on. Even if it’s the same vessel, the mood aboard her will not be the same. Not even if the crew is composed of the same individuals.

sule stack col

Sule Stack came shining from the blue, in June 2007. I was skippering the 33ft sgoth Niseach ‘an Sulaire’ en route to joining a flotilla of  working-craft in the Moray Firth. After months of working in a shed, open to the wind  at one end, the vessel now had a buoyancy system, tested the night before crossing the Minch. The timbers were painted and oiled and a new tan sail was bent on to the sanded spars.

First we had a couple of weeks as the dipping lugsail craft in residence, at an international gathering of artists on Tanera Mor.  My pal became a mate who knew the boat well – how to sail her and how to stow gear so it would not shift. Our crew, who linked the shoreside community with the visiting artists asked to join us, not bothered by being the only woman aboard a boat with an equal opportunities bucket.

One of the new crew judged the planned route northabout impossible and loudly stated that the Caledonian Canal was the only possible way. I reckoned on using our outboard from time to time to catch tidal gates but, with that, making a viable passage to Stromness. The rest trusted this judgement and the team stayed together.

We made long tacks out into open water in light winds but fair weather. This sighting was our reward, an iconic shape as a visual reference, lifting us from the dial of a log and the figures to plot from navigation by GPS.

Landfall was made at Stromness and then we went on to sail across Scapa Flow and the Pentland Firth to join the flotilla. Friendships developed. The open vessel was my real home for a month or so.


I met the woman who was to become my wife aboard the sgoth ‘an Sulaire’. As a volunteer, I took eleven artists out in the labour-intensive lugsail boat, as a team-building trip in strong westerly breeze. The students and their tutor tacked and gybed the boat through the gap between Tavay Mor and Tavay Beg in Loch Erisort. I was caught by the determination of Christine Morrison, working the tack. And that was that.

The same woman put countless hours of energy and skill into repairs, paintwork and canvas fabrication for the 33ft wooden sloop ‘El Vigo’. We hoped we might sail together and make work together, in response to sailing. We departed Stornoway, bound Lerwick with another Morrison friend to help, on the 23rd of August, 2013.

Forecast wind was favourable but the isobars indicated that we would have to run the inboard motor from time to time to keep momentum. So it proved, with strong breeze and fair tide to to take us well clear of Cape Wrath and almost no breeze, in the stretch west of Orkney.

sule stack mist

This meant that fins of visiting dolphins were prominent, even at a distance. Then visibility closed in, as promised. But not before a more grey Stack Skerry and then Sule Skerry itself, the place in the ballad, appeared off to port. I took some video, intrigued by the way an accidental rain spot on the lens became an indicator of the boat’s rise and fall. When the seas are long you don’t realise how steep they may be.

Then I woke Christine, before her watch was due because I knew she would want to photograph this sight at this time. A comparison with the image I took in 2007.