Am Bratach No. 325
November 2018

by Kevin Crowe

Norman MacCaig, “Between Mountain and Sea: Poems from Assynt”, edited by Roderick Watson, Polygon, 2018. £9.99.

One of MacCaig’s most famous poems, and the one that perhaps sums him up, is “Two Men at Once”, in which he views the Assynt he loves from the Edinburgh where he lives. He describes the two men he is thus: “One smiling and drinking coffee/in Leamington Terrace, Edinburgh./The other cutting the pack of memories/and turning up ace after ace after ace.”

In a similar vein, “Assynt and Edinburgh” describes the poet in Assynt imagining he is back in Edinburgh “sprawling like seven cats/on its seven hills” and in Edinburgh thinking himself back to Assynt “amongst the mountains and lochs of that corner”. This feeling of belonging in two places makes him feel “every day a birthday”.

This collection of his poetry about Assynt demonstrates joyful feelings about the area, but without any sentimentality. Many of the poems are brutally realistic, particularly when describing nature’s disinterest in the life and death which is a part of it. In “One More”, while a stalker shoots a stag “another stag mounted a hind among the small flowers”. In “So Many Summers” he compares “a hind’s neat skeleton” to an abandoned boat. “Basking Shark” recounts the time he came across one while out fishing on his boat. In “View With No Prospect” he admits to killing four adders.

At the same time he recognises and praises the beauty around him. In “Toad”, he revels in the amphibian’s skills, ending by imagining it has put a jewel in his head. He describes the beauty of animals as diverse as corncrakes, sandpipers and stonechats, a goat which he describes as “White sarcasm walking” and lizards, one of which when swimming he calls “the alligator/A finger long”. Many of the poems compare the sounds of Assynt to music.

MacCaig dislikes the idea of humanising nature. In “Humanism”, he writes: “What greed and what/arrogance, not to allow/a glacier to be a glacier”. In “Reversal” he dismisses the artists who “Scrabble on beaches for an addled egg left/By a mountain, varnish it, make it domestic/And tart it up with a miniscule landscape,/An improbable flower or a salmon fly”. Such activities he believes damage the music of the natural world: “How tunes diminish when they become domestic./Grace notes fall off, the lamentable, sour/Flat note climbs up that ruinous semitone”.

At the same time, he revels in man pitting himself against nature. “Descent From the Green Corrie” describes something that all hill walkers will have experienced: “It’s not/The punishing climb, it’s the descent that kills you.” He describes the difficulty of walking downhill in some detail, concluding: “Gravity’s still your enemy”. There are also poems about the battle between the angler and the fish (fishing was one of his loves).

He expresses his admiration of those who work the land without romanticising the lives they lead. “Among Scholars” describes gamekeepers as being able to “read the landscape as/I read a book”. There are poems about sheep dipping, scything, haymaking, fetching cows, controlling bulls, trawlers bringing in the fish and more.

For many years he was a close friend of Angus MacLeod, who maintained the road from Inverkirkaig to Achiltibuie. The collection contains a dozen poems he wrote about the death of his friend. He describes his death in the starkest way imaginable: “Next morning, the man who had greeted me/with the pleasure of pleasure/vomited blood/and died”. In “Triple Burden” he sees his own death in the moment of his birth. In “Comforter” he writes: “my grief is also/his celebration of me”. “Praise of a Man” looks back at his friend’s gregarious nature, ending: “He’s gone: but you can see/ his tracks still, in the snow of the world”.

At the heart of this collection is one of his few longer poems: the powerful and majestic “A Man in Assynt”, which brings together many of the themes found in the shorter poems. He describes the uncaring land, millennia old, that will continue long after all those who live on it, work it and claim to own it have gone. He describes himself as having a love affair with the land, but an affair that is one-sided: “I can’t pretend/it gets sick for me in my absence,/though I get/ sick for it”.

In perhaps the poem’s key section, he asks: “Who owns this landscape?— /The millionaire who bought it or/the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning/with a deer on his back?” His answer is that these are “false questions”: it bows down before nothing other than “the weather/and its indefatigable lieutenants—/wind, water and frost”. The poem goes on to describe those who have worked the land and gone, those who have exploited and betrayed the people, new generations including incomers looking for their own renewal, the life that lives in and on the land, ending with those still to come who will replenish it.  

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