Posts Tagged ‘memory’

The Narrow Road to the Far North


When the doors of perception are cleansed
Man will see things as they truly are – infinite

(William Blake)

Voices piercing
by the sliding door –
Autumn wind.

(Matsuo Basho)

I heard and tasted the sea long before I saw it. Over the railway crossing with its brief whiff of oil, then the smell of seaweed hit me. I still couldn’t see the sea, the hammering waves were now a close boom. A short descent, a pile of lobster pots against the side of a hut, and there was the grey-blue heaving mass of the North Sea. Breakers crashed and smashed into rocks, hurling clouds of spray skywards. I tasted the sharp cocktail of salt, ozone and seaweed and drank deeply and gratefully of it. Along a narrow spit of rock ringed plovers pecked amongst the bladderwrack and kelp. I wondered how long it would be before the sea submerged it as it roared into the mouth of the Brora River.

The Beach at Brora


I looked past the estuary to the dunes beyond, and fading into the distance, the dark blue of the northward bound coast. A subtle change in colour marked Helmsdale and its river meeting the sea. I was heading that way tomorrow, and the anticipation was already welling inside me. I remembered previous visits, passing through on the train, where the railway takes a great swing inland to avoid the cliffs, climbing out of the strath up into the bleak heather and bracken of the Flow Country. And tomorrow I was heading that way again.

A day of slate grey clouds and heavy rain greeted me. The dark sea foamed and churned in the sharp wind. Sudden squalls rocked the car as I turned inland at Helmsdale. Though an “A” road, it was little better than a potholed lane, the tarmac wearing the look of something that has endured years of harsh weather and while not beaten was just about clinging on. Parallel to the railway but separated by the river, a train obligingly marked the route as it headed on its long southward trundle to Inverness.

As I passed from Strath Ullie into the Strath of Kildonan, the rain slashed down heavier than ever.

Kildonan –
Rain hammers car roof,
Logging lorries pass.

A897 near Kildonan

Baby trees when I first came were now mature. I wondered if the logs were from trees planted to give rich southerners a tax break in the 1980s. A tax break that dried out the bogs and seriously damaged a unique environment, the Flow Country. Profits for folks far distant from here. Out of sight, out of mind, ignorance was bliss as long as in that dawn their wallets were filled.

At Kinbrace road and rail were next to each other. Past Loch an Rhuthair, and a polished stone welcomed me to Mackay Country: Failte Dùthaich MhicAoidh. My Scottish grandmother (née Mackie) always said she was descended from the Mackays, so perhaps I was in some sense, home. What I’d seen from the train thirty years ago is fixed in my mind with little needed to bring it into the full colour spectacle of memory. A photograph, taken from the train window near Kildonan became an ikon of that journey, and has remained so.

On the train near Kildonan in 1988

I stopped at Forsinard station for a leg stretch. On a previous visit, I’d taken the train up here from Helmsdale. As I got off, the guard said “bet you wish you’d not got off eh?” Quite the reverse. As the train’s sound faded, a deep silence descended. There was little here: the station, road, a few houses and a hotel. And me. I the hotel, I was amused to see a Port Vale FC scarf slung over the bar (I then lived not far from their ground), and to be greeted with “yes duck, what can I get you?” from the landlady.

Forsinard station

Today, the place looked shut up. But there was now a nature reserve where the RSPB were trying to restore some of the damage caused by forestry. There was a footpath for ten miles across the empty bog to the roadless station at Altnabreac. Perhaps next time…

On into Halladale. I’d left the mountains behind now and entered moorland. The land was mostly tough grass with some bracken and heather, punctuated occasionally by small bits of cultivation. A tough life farming up here, I thought, recalling how the lands had been forcibly cleared in the nineteenth century to make way for sheep. To live in [here] is to be conscious/At dusk of the spilled blood/That went into the making of the wild sky/Dyeing the immaculate rivers (RS Thomas, Welsh Landscape).

After 40 miles of twisting narrow road, I reached the north coast at Melvich. I saw a sign for a beach, so followed it down the rough, unmade lane. A short walk through the dunes, my zipped cagoule immediately inflated by the wind, onto golden sands; wonderful and deserted.

Atlantic breakers
Over my sandy boots,
Let it rain!

I couldn’t have been happier standing there, even as the rain streamed of my coat and soaked my trousers.

A sudden squall
Curtaining the beach,
My soaking clothes.

I headed further west along the coast, glad to be on a decent road. A steep drop through rocky cliffs into Bettyhill – named after a countess of Sutherland, who deserved no such honour after her role in the local clearances. Sharp-peaked mountains rose in the distance, after miles of moors. The blue-grey remembered mountains I’d first seen twenty years ago. I recalled my disappointment that we turned south and away from them. Not today though. I drove past the road previously travelled by and continued west, with joy in my heart.

These were real mountains, rising sharply and sheerly with jagged peaks that would not have looked out of place in Middle Earth. Questing travellers, knights riding to rescue maidens, messengers with parchments sealed in heavy wax… The rain was finally easing and as I drove into Tongue, it had stopped and the looming mountain had resolved into the multi-peaked Ben Loyal. I stopped for fuel at an old fashioned filling station where I had to ring a bell for someone to come and put the petrol in for me. While I waited, I had my first encounter with the dreaded Scottish midges as a cloud appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, (how do they do that?!) and went into full attack. I dived back into the car and slammed the door, cursing the wind, which having been with me faithfully all day had now deserted me.

Near Tongue

Eventually, an old lady emerged and fuelled the car with some reluctance. She scowled as she took my money and was even more reluctant to give me my change. I’d wondered about getting some sandwiches, but she deserved no more of my money. Not quite the Basil Fawlty School of customer service – she hadn’t uttered a single word, nor even a grunt – but deserving of a dishonourable mention.

I’d stayed in Tongue Youth Hostel on a previous visit. One evening, I noticed the sunset and went outside. It was 1030pm, the western sky suffused with a deepening gold, which was perfectly reflected in the still waters of the Kyle of Tongue. The pungent tang of seaweed wafted up, a curlew trilled from the darkness below and a seal splashed its head above the water. Looking south, the water mirrored the mountains: the jagged peaks of Ben Loyal and the smoother Ben Hope, all the shades of rock and grass reflected there. I stood, transfixed by the quiet perfection of the scene. Well, near perfection: the lack of wind brought out the midges and they quickly made their presence felt. Such are the joys of the Far North…

As I drove over the causeway across the Kyle and headed further west, the clouds returned with squally showers.

Slow for a bend,
Road drops faster than my jaw –
Loch Eriboll.

Loch Eriboll

Loch Eriboll

Near Loch Eriboll

There it was, I’d seen it before, but I still gasped in wonder. A wide, nine mile long sea loch, that just appears, unexpected and amazing. Below a small island joined to the mainland by a thin spit of shingle, dotted with the ruins of an old lime works. The road fell and drew level with the water. As it reached the base of the loch and turned, there was a rainbow over the hill.

Loch Eriboll

Grey clouds crack,
A peep of sunlight stabs
My eyes – what joy!

And so to Durness, an Old Norse word meaning “wolf’s cape”. It was good to be back. The object of my first solo journey, reached after three hours on the post bus from Lairg, bumping and swerving along the 56 miles of single track road. The weather was filthy, and after leaving the Youth Hostel in the morning, I spent days walking round in waterproofs, sheltering where I could: behind walls, in the White Heather café, in the pub, until the Youth Hostel reopened at 5pm. But now, miraculously, the sun came out. I parked and followed the steps down the cliffs to the rocky beach and into Smoo cave. I was awed by it the first time, and it still impresses. The great arched space with a little brook – the Allt Smoo – flowing out of it. A wooden bridge leads to the flooded inner chamber into which the brook cataracts with a wonderful gushing roar from a sinkhole above. It was thundering in, throwing clouds of drenching spray back onto the bridge. I stood there for several minutes, watching, listening to this wonderful spectacle. There were a few others about, but was easily able to shut them out and the place became mine. I was it and it was me.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

A short video of the waterfall:

The last stage of the journey took me south out of Durness. I passed the road to Cape Wrath (pronounced “rath”, nothing to do with anger, an Old Norse word for “turning point”) then the road followed the Kyle inland for several miles. The Kyle became the Dionard River which soon left the road and vanished into the heather and moss towards the rearing mountains of Beinn Spionnadh and Cranstackie. These swept up steeply to plateau like summits, sliced with frequent shining rills and cascades.

Kyle of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

After a few miles, I reached Rhiconich. The hotel was to be my base for the next few days, and my room gave views down Loch Inchard. Since my first visit, the road had been diverted onto a new wider road for the few miles down to Laxford Bridge. The old narrow road now led to a few cottages and was part of the hotel car park. After dinner, I walked a short way down it to the old stone bridge over the Rhiconich River. I looked along the narrow valley to the peak at Arkle, which reminded me of a volcano…

View from the hotel window, Rhiconich

old road bridge, Rhiconich

View of Arkle and Rhiconich River

I suddenly felt every one of the 500 miles to home. And the distance delighted me. Concerns, anxieties, all that gently fell away, and a calm sense of perspective moved in. My sense of wonder was fully engaged and would receive further stimulation over the next two days of exploring. I’d arrived. And it was wonderful.


For Thu-Van


I’m not going to scream
Or tear my clothes
(I’m far too British anyway)
But simply say
“I can’t believe you’re gone”.
I don’t know how or why,
Especially why…
You’re gone, but you are.
And I can’t believe it.
I remember
Giving you lifts to work
Or waiting with you for the bus
As a wren sang in the trees above.
And the conversations,
How we sorted out the world…
Rain drops in the river now
That flows into the sea,
Evaporates to fall as rain again tomorrow.
I’m not going to scream
Though I want to,
I’ll listen for the rain,
Think of you there,
Your gentle voice amongst
The rustling leaves
As the wren sings in the trees.



New Year’s Day 83,
I climb the hill to the castle,
Look down and over
The oystercatcher speckled water
Where the Towy meets the sea,
To misted Gower beyond.
From the battlements,
My shoulder on medieval stone,
I watch a train on the far shore
Pass Ferryside with a toot,
Remember last night,
Frosted sharp, skin biting night,
My glance up rewarded
With a meteor’s death streak.
Who else saw that?
That split-second flare
Ending a million year journey
To mark the passing of my year?
In that second
I forgot everything,
That fiery hot death lit me,
A gentle fire I could warm myself with
On frosty nights,
As thirty years on
I still do.

My Grandparents’ House


Such attics cleared of me! Such absences! Philip Larkin

The last time I went to the house
Was the day we cleared it.
I arrived, as I always had:
Train then car, renewing my familiarity
With the happy highways that led here:
The Runcorn Bridge, dual carriageways
Suburbs, the streets
Narrowing after each turn,
Until finally, parked outside,
I could have been a child again as
Another school holiday begins.
No. Closed too long, the house was musty.
Men with scythes and saws
Were chopping back the jungle
The garden had become. I choked then,
Their pride and joy, recalled the hours
Lavished on it, mowing, weeding,
Seeding, picking, a feast of flowers and fruit,
I used to wonder how
They ever had time to go to work.
As we moved from room to room,
I expected them to walk in, and ask
What the hell we thought we were doing.
I looked in my old room:
Single bed, wardrobe screwed to the wall
And Grandma’s sewing machine
Folded into a table.
I sat on the bed, breathed
Deep and slow the air of that room,
Remembered the first night’s sleep
Of any holiday, the excitement
Of being here again
With all the days or weeks ahead.
Of days out, days in the garden,
Of Test Match Special,
And bowls on the lawn.
Now it feels like I was never here,
Just another stale space to be cleared
With all the others:
Wardrobes, cupboards, closets
Emptied now of all but memory.
If the bricks could talk,
What conversations we could have.

A Bonfire (2014 revision)


Flames caress the letters
As I feed them in,
One by one, words crumbling.

I watch them lick the photograph,
Hers, taken that last day
Before I caught the train.

I can’t find it later
When I rake over still warm ash,
Blacker than her hair.

Memories smouldering into suburban sky,
A few shovelfuls of soot,
Smoke in my clothes.

A Bonfire


This is one from the archives, written in 1995. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with it as it’s a bit too tell not show. Here’s the original, the next post has the revised version.

Flames lap-up the letters
As I feed them in,
One by one, words crumbling.

I watch them lick the photograph,
Hers, taken that last day
Before I caught the train,

Bubbles and hiss, it flakes,
Burns a part of me off.
I can’t find it later

When I rake over the still warm ash,
Blacker than her hair,
Smouldering into the suburban sky

Above the greenhouses,
Mown lawns and
Neatly pruned shrubberies.

Memories compressed into
A few shovelfuls of soot,
Smoke in my clothes.

On Nostalgia, Into My Heart an Air that Kills, A.E. Housman


This short poem is from A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896. Its two stanzas of four lines each form a dialogue on the nature of nostalgia. In the first, the poet asks a question, prompted by a sudden, painful remembrance: “an air that kills” has blown straight into his heart from some “far country”. The recollection takes the form of an idealised pastoral scene of “blue remembered hills” with church spires and farms nearby. Just what is this place? the poet asks.

He answers his rhetorical question in the second stanza. He sees his past, a time when he was happy: “the land of lost content”. Clear and close, yet he knows he can never get it back, never return to “the happy highways where I went”. This is, I imagine, a common experience: it’s certainly one I often feel. Yet it’s surely the mark of a great poem where the poet can describe such an experience so originally and effectively, with some truly memorable language: “blue remembered hills”, “the land of lost content”, “the happy highways”. And he describes it so concisely, capturing in eight lines both the power of memory and its ultimate futility. Futile it may be, but it’s a very human impulse which this beautiful short poem captures to perfection.

from A Shropshire Lad


Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A. E. Housman (1859-1936)

Unreliable Memories


I’ve always prided myself on having a good memory, yet today, I wondered. I was on YouTube, playing eighties music and came across a link to a song called “Broken Land” by The Adventures (1988). It sounded familiar, so I clicked on it. As soon as it started I was flooded with a powerful rush of feeling. It was instantly familiar, I recalled how much I had liked it at the time, and I was able to accurately sing along. I’ve written before of the power of music to evoke feeling and memory, and this was a good example of it. So what’s so surprising? Until today, I probably hadn’t heard the song for twenty-five years. I had neither bought it nor taped it from the radio (apparently it was the most played song on Radio 1 that year) yet I’d forgotten all about it. It had fallen through a hole in my memory.

Yet this rush of renewed memory was so powerful, was brought so suddenly close, I could almost touch it. I was instantly borne away on a warm river, back to being a nineteen year old away at university. How could I have forgotten this song? It seems incomprehensible. But forget I did, though that has made the rediscovery all the sweeter: it’s a pity I can’t hold on to the feeling I got when I first re-played it, turn it into some sort of pill… A rush? Quite probably. Hearing it again certainly lifted me, and I could do with more of that.

Comfort me through this stormy weather/From where I stand/I see a broken land

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