Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Alex Salmond's Farewell Speech

'When Scotland was alive with ideas and debate, all Labour could demonstrate was timidity and fear'. Regardless of your feelings about Salmond, it's worth watching at least the first 9 minutes of his farewell speech. Imagine, a politician whose own party aren't mortified by him. Actually, anyone who's sick of Westminster should watch or listen to the whole thing. Any of the folk who couldn't understand why Scots might even WANT to become independent should watch the whole thing.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship

I'm really grateful to have been appointed the 2014 Dr Gavin Wallace Fellow hosted by Moniack Mhor. All the information about the fellowship and my planned project is here, but expect some posts about flotsam and jetsam. I start in December. Can't wait.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Shipping AIS Map

this interactive map shows real time shipping around Shetland. You can click on the boats and see where they're headed and what they're up to. Wherever we live is the centre.

Scroll down to Shipping AIS Map

Friday, 26 September 2014

Reading at Aye Write! next week

with Don Paterson, Sam Willetts and McGuire.

Mitchell Library, Wed 1st October

6-7, free.

book on 0141 287 2951 or ayewrite@glasgowlife.org.uk

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


With bees

it's all about heat.

Hard to find ourselves

in a damp autumn dawn

now that the circus

has moved on

the worst- 

off cramponned

to a vertiginous

leaf, wings 
to a silver panel

to sop up
what thin warmth

they can 



on empty.

We can barely buzz

but do

what we can
without your teaspoon

of sugar-water –

slowly rocking

our grounded weight

(so mite-laden

we look like strawberries)

from limb to limb,

grieving, really,

the slippage

of the sun. 

Which is in

itself to recollect 

our business which is

to be us to agitate

each stiff joint,

gather a quorum and 

shiver together hum

fiercer and groom 

our leavening pelts

as the late rays stoke us,

no surplus

perhaps but enough

to get up and among

the dog-roses


Friday, 9 May 2014

Reading with artist Anne Bevan in Aberdeen tomorrow

Tomorrow I'll be nipping down to Aberdeen for Mayfest and reading with Alan Spence, celebrating Orkney artist Anne Bevan's lovely exhibition. Things Unseen is all about microscopic marine life.

The Sir Duncan Rice Library, University of Aberdeen, 3-4pm, 10th May 2014
Free! (but booking required)

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Reading at 'Streams of Story', The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

I'll be reading from Byssus at The Fruitmarket Gallery next Thursday, to celebrate Tania Kovat's new exhibition Oceans

'The exhibition begins with All the Sea (2012–14), a work made from the sea water collected from around the world by individuals who responded to a public invitation to help assemble the world’s sea water in one place. Decanted into 365 glass bottles, All the Sea takes the form of a library of bodies of water, from the Adriatic to the Yellow Sea. It also represents an archive of moments in time, recordings of 250 human experiences with – and most probably in – the sea, capturing in bottles a substance that otherwise slips through our fingers.'

Details here, booking recommended.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Friday, 4 April 2014

What happens in our brains when we look for and find wild food – can you help?

I'd like to understand more about what happens in our brains when we go foraging for wild food. Why are hunting for and finding mushrooms, shellfish, berries exciting/compelling/satisfying? I'm assuming dopamine/oxytocin/reward centres may be involved…can anyone explain how it works? Can you recommend any reliable but not excessively technical reading? Please comment below if you can help!

Monday, 17 March 2014

For the University of St Andrew's 'Loch Computer' project, I was asked to write a short text about my 'sense of the balance in (my) existence between remoteness and connectedness'

Remote is a function of our brains, not a geographical fact. Perhaps we are longing for times when the world was flat and infinite and remote is always just out of sight. It's only recently that 'how can a plane disappear?' seems like a reasonable question. Living in Shetland I constantly meet the kind of folk who yearn for the edge, yearn for 'remote', so much that they invent it where it doesn't exist. Please take care. We're in trouble when we let 'remote' mean something like forgettable (out of sight, out of mind) – especially if it's defined as such by people with the power to exploit such a place.

I've tried to identify some of the things I think I need to be happy where I live. Company of compassionate, informed, egalitarian and mindful folk. Company of makers and musicians and scientists and explorers. Company of wild creatures doing their own thing despite us. Sometimes to give up and go to the pictures. Good wireless speeds; mangos; an alternative place to work than home, interrupted by people I do and don't yet know. Places you can walk out of the view of houses. The ability to get to my family if I need to. The possibility of elsewhere from time to time. People ever coming and going, by cruise, research vessel, helicopter, pelagic ships and whitefish boats, yacht, ferry, plane. And the world's junk washing up on our beaches. With most of these needs satisfied enough of the time, where I live is not remote. Places change and people's needs change, and so 'remote' is not an absolute – but what 'remote' is also not is a fixed geographical location.

Foula, from the Westside

'A row of cottages called New Zealand – because they were so far from anywhere – was built' (Tim Dee, Four Fields) I was there, recently, as far from home as it's possible to be. And found myself weirdly at home in a place somewhat like Shetland.

I stayed overnight on Kapiti Island with the poet Glenn Colquhoun. Glenn can see Kapiti most days from the coast near his house, though it disappears in fog, as Foula does, from my back yard. Jetlagged, I tried to sleep on the warm deck of our cabin, but the ponderous footfall of a kleptomaniac weka startled me awake. It dipped its beak into my mug of lukewarm tea. The beach was covered in blazing oval mirrors – upturned iridescent paua shells. In ten minutes at ten in the morning, my white Northern nape began to burn. I had sort of forgotten about the hole in the ozone layer until I burnt underneath it. We ate tough, gamey chunks of paua, fried in a bit of flour; a large kaka lurked in the trees, ready to raid the cheese and biscuit platter. We worked our way along a cliffside track through flax, bending back the stiff blades for each other, and eventually reached – in older-growth bush, the ruinous whaling station. Kakariki, powdery greenstone, that were prising seeds from flax pods, shattered from the sharp leaves. And we saw kiwi and spoonbills; massive blue takahe on the brink of extinction. 

Gratuitous picture of a Takahe, by the lovely folk at Kapiti Island Nature Tours

The whole world grew out of here; the heart of the whorl, though the globe has infinite such crowns. But as we packed the trunk of Glenn's car again, back on the mainland, it was immediately as if we'd never been there. Kapiti vibrated and fizzed, the same fictional blue as Foula. The wind had picked up, and we'd narrowly missed an indefinite stay on the island, or an expensive helicopter trip. It takes less than half an hour to get to Kapiti but it's impossible to reach by boat when the wind gets up. The island hovered slightly above the shattering sea, ready to plane off, like Laputa.

Leaving Kapiti

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Commonwealth Poets United trip to New Zealand

waving to friends in Iraqthe sunrise, and the first of 26 episodes of Big Bang Theorymorning in Dubaias close as I could get to the end of the runway in WellingtonCuba StGregory O'Brien
thoupInternational Institute of Modern LetterskitWaikawa Beachlooks like the skerries off Fitful Headpoet, hustled by weka
blowfishpaua, circular saw shell, poetryGlenn Colquhoun, reading at ValhallaIMG_5291South Crater, Tongaririo Northern CircuitEmerald Lakes
i like these guys. A kind of gentianArgentinian woman, showing me how far she can spread her toes. Far.pukekoBill Manhirebiggest fish supper everubiqitous flax

I wonder what long haul air travel across time-zones does to body, soul and mind. The world is a scalp with two crowns. Coming home go back in time and brush its fur the wrong way. Halfway between Melbourne and Singapore abandon hope of arriving ever. The guy in the seat behind me has unfairly long legs, and big feet which intrude into my footwell. I wake from a two hour sleep, find his feet between mine and kick them violently and deliberately until they retreat. Long legs and I avoid each others' eyes as we get off the plane in Singapore. Terrible to travel through the equator for the first time and not even get outside, which is why Changi is my new favourite airport: they let you smell the air. Upstairs and out into the cactus garden. It is midnight and 26 degrees. The sky is stifling, orange and smells like a wood-fired oven. Under the clear skies of Kapiti Island and the Tongariro Alpine Circuit, Orion was upended as if diving for pearls below the horizon. Here I couldn't find my way to a single constellation: the fainter stars obliterated in smog. I clapped the flask-shaped trunk of a ponytail tree. A friend of mine quotes a friend of hers: 'the soul travels on horseback'. So what happens while your soul is catching you up? Empty, you fill up like a well, mostly unmediated by language. For a while language is a almost purely sensual phenomenon: birds, places, rhythm, phonetic novelty and familiarity. (To 'whakapapa' is to 'redd up kin'. It's pronounced 'fokkapapa' or so, and was the name of the village I began my walk through the mountains.)

With big thanks to all the folk who put me up and in touch and showed me around: Frances Hendron and Robyn Marsack, Bill Manhire and Marion, Greg O'Brien and Jenny Bornholdt, Chris and all the students at the International Institute for Modern Letters at Victoria University, Glenn and Olive and Amey, Dinah Hawken and Bill, James Brown, St Benedicts and St Catherine's Schools, Radio New Zealand, Unity Books, the nice folk I met on the Tongariro Northern Circuit and the Shetland Society of Wellington!

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The End of the Runway (after NZ poet James Brown)

Leaving Shetland on a stormy morning for Glasgow, on my way to New Zealand on the Scottish Poetry Library's Commonwealth Poets United project. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Jim Mainland

Jim Mainland – one of my favourite Shetland poets – appears in The Island Review today, including some desperately lovely translations of Holub, Milton and Les Murray into Shetland Dialect. His new pamphlet A Package of Measures is available now from Hansel Cooperative Press.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Advance copy of Byssus...

…with gorgeous cover artwork by Shetland artist Kristi Cumming

Monday, 13 January 2014

Bearding the Mussel

Mussel's beard (or byssus) and items made from it, 
from the Natural History Museum Basel's Project Sea-Silk.


It's not due out until mid-February, but apparently a finished copy of my third poetry collection, Byssus, is sitting on a desk in the Picador offices, about to be posted to me. Way too exciting! 

'Byssus' means the strong fibres of what used to be known as 'sea-silk', that some bivalves, including mussels, use to secure themselves to their rocky homeplace. You can make yourself a tie out of it, apparently. 

Half-knowing what I meant, I heard myself telling a friend this summer that the act of writing this poetry collection had finally become a performance. I remembered then that that's what it felt like before. It took the threat of publication – the real risk of finding a reader – to stand a chance of making real work again.

And what was the work? Camping on the rosy cliffs of the Lang Clodie. A cep-hunt on arctic terrain in the north of Shetland. My recurrent dream, climaxing in the hectic extremes of the Spring tides, about tugs-of-war with brawny spoots (razor clams). And wasn't there something to try to say about puffballs? Hours lying on the banks with the surf thundering under and through me.

The problem of poetry is that while it dangles before us the possibility that we might 'get home' to such moments of animal absorption, our effort rarely – thanks to pernicious habits of intention and self-consciousness – succeeds. This book is trying very hard; in time, I'll see how many of these poems do actually vibrate on the present tense's 'thin line'. (Gaspar Galaz)

Whilst it is fashionable to speak of the liminality of islands, with people titillated by the notion of them as World's End, a brink to teeter on; this world-view denies that for island-dwellers, they can be the centre. I wanted to dig down into this place, prospecting the infinitely-revealed complexities of 'home'.

Byssus is, I hope, an arched book: climbing through spring's maniacal flowering to summer's zenith, declining to exhaustion, and a contemplation of how it batters us just to live, learn, make and love. I have always fetishised the idea of home, and perhaps, Shetland. Byssus is, I hope, as it is for a mussel, my holdfast in such wild water.

There now follows a celebration of the mussel's beard…

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Bill Manhire

Looking forward to my poetry exchange with NZ poet Glenn Colquhoun this Spring – with the Scottish Poetry Library – I'm reading Carcanet's Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets. This, from Bill Manhire, made me smile and rang bells all over the place:

'I started writing poems out of a deep shyness and social awkwardness, and because words could sound magical. Probably I hoped to project an image of mystery and sophistication while remaining somehow out of sight, though I don't recall thinking this at the time. But certainly what looked like self-expression was more like palisade and refuge – some sort of secrecy machine – and I think this is still true for plenty of the poems I write. Fortunately, good poems have more presence and capacity than the people who write them. The world of Oz is more interesting than the Wizard.'