Speed brings us to our goal, time-defying
outboards slashing swell and tide to take us
round the islands, to the saddest, best of all.
Belnahua, Mouth of the Cave, and population nil.
Between the Gaelic and this desolation, hundreds –
blasting, cutting, slivering the deep grey rock
to slates of purest quality for cities and cathedrals,
castles, homes. The Great War took away the men.
And that was that – the quarries closed, emptiness
moved in to fill the homes, the deep-cut pools.
We step onto its rocks, which rise up from dark seas,
its jetty having perished in some storm, and seize our
phones for what will be a rich reward of shots and
careful views. And so it proves. The pictures almost
say it all – but, thanks to an emerging sun and lunch
in view, avoid the ghosts, the sense of something
having come and gone. We walk upon the beach,
the grey sand holds our steps as ransom
to a faithless one’s return. Everywhere the sea
has forced its love upon the land lie discs
of slate like giant coins – that mime the wealth
that went across the sound; that still remains.
Seeing how the water’s work has shaped them
so exact, our host returns to take some hundreds home
for table markers at her daughter’s wedding feast.
Pictish Gaels could make them platters just the same.
These hundred years have taken many things.
For isle of slate, no trace remains of any roof
that kept the families safe beneath, the tiny
grates now only view the open skies.
Today the sun has made a diamond basket
of the sea. On winter days, when rain drove in
across a cauldron of cold spite, those smokey
hearths would struggle to keep heart in homes
and lives, or dry the peoples’ sodden clothes.
For us, bright spring charms everything; wild
flowers sprinkle galaxies of colour through the grass;
a spray of pink that grows at what was once a door
presents a wreath that marks a silence, and a lack.
Birds cry at our intrusion on their family lives.
Of those machines that hauled and raised the slate,
just artwork groups remain – the cogs like fists,
the wheels that do not turn, the rods and bars
that don’t connect. Upright, standing guard
and mute about their tasks or owners, and what the scrapmen
took away, to leave them poignant and unsolved.
So one more scene of work and power that’s gone.
Our lawyers, bankers and insurance men are kings,
they drive the engines of our wealth along
and often own these sites for play, or their portfolios.
The Slate Isles, edged on Scotland’s ocean rim,
once Roofed the World, are one more tale of past
success that leads to failure in the end. As if a pride
in what was once must always be the final aim –
with ruins, records, graves, looked over
and picked bare by community researchers, their children
gone away, or left to dissolution, careless, and unclaimed.
See Belnahua Gallery