Category Archives: Poetry

Poetic Remembrance of the Fallen Soldiers of the Great War and the Tragedy of the Iolaire

In the early hours of New Year’s day 1919, HMY Iolaire sank just off the coast of Stornoway, the harbour lights could be seen from the deck. The boat was carrying soldiers returning from the war, some of whom had not been home or seen family and friends in years. 174 of the islanders on board perished in the icy sea.

In the morning many of the men were found, home at last, washed up on the shore.

Although this took place in peacetime and has been recorded as one of the most tragic British ship disasters since the Titanic sank in 1912, tributes have been made in poems and songs in remembrance of the men of Lewis and Harris that fought and survived the horrors of the First World War only to perish on the sea with home in sight.

The following poem, ‘Last Night the Iolaire Was Torn’, by Murdo MacFarlane, tells the heartbreaking Beneath Troubled Skiesstory of the island women getting ready: baking bread and lighting the home, peat fires longing to see their boys home again only to wake to hear the tragic news and to find them washed up on the shore.

This poems is taken from Beneath Troubled Skies: Poems of Scotland at War, 1914–1918, published by The Scottish Poetry Library and Polygon.

Last Night the Iolaire Was Torn

The lassie sang sweetly
in Lewis last night,
baking her bread
with a heart full of light
and thoughts of her darling,
longing for the sight
of her true love
come safely home.

The war is now over,
won by the heroes
who come home tonight:
the Iolaire’s cargo.
Put peat on the fire
and tea from the jar; Oh,
I’ll not sleep, sweetheart,
’til morning comes.

They’ll tell their tales
and we’ll listen to them,
to the feats of the sea-faring
tartan-clad men;
of the brave ones who fell
and will not rise again,
so many fine lads
who were brought down.

Hear the wind moaning –
Oh, hear it blow,
hear the sea’s mocking cry
come from the depths below.
The poor lads who must battle
the sea and the foam!
Spread your wings, Iolaire,
haste with my love.

As the day breaks
our hope fades away,
the kettle on the chain
pipes a sorrowful lay;
she stops going to the door
with more peats for the flame;
hear the wind’s harsh whistle:
Ochone, Ochone.

The lassie wept sorely;
in the morning they found,
lying in the seaweed,
her love’s body, drowned,
without shoes on his feet
as they brought him aground;
she bent down and kissed
his lips so cold.

Last night the Iolaire was torn,
her brood drowned at the oars;
from Harris to Ness
our fair soldiers we mourn.
Since you won’t bring them live
bring them drowned to our shores;
to the sea’s hungry mouth
we’ll look no more.

Murdo MacFarlane
(translated from Gaelic by Niall O’Gallagher)

The Gaelic word ‘iolaire’ means ‘eagle’.

Beneath Troubled Skies is available online and in all good bookshops.

Michael Pedersen in Ponderment – A thousand words on StAnza (and surrounding issues)…

A shame faced statement of admission opens this feast of findings on the mighty StAnza International Poetry Festival – let’s call it a double dip in your yolk from a perfect stranger (the trespassing toast of all statements):

(I) The 2014 StAnza Poetry Festival was my inaugural visit!!!

I could proffer a veritable buffet of excuses (living in London and Cambodia; an irrational trepidation experienced from visiting towns without train stations; a wariness of golf; it reminding me of my mid teens (15-16) when I used to camp in St Andrews and capitalise on the Freshers’ Week bar leniency – deftly disguised as a freshly squeezed undergraduate with my new cashmere I was able to obtain colourful liquors in excess despite my suitably juvenile appearance and mindset) but even collectively they don’t really cut it (okay, so I did just offer a few).

(II) Due to bad timing once again I only attended a couple of additional events outside the shows I participated in. C- must improve grading for a rookie performer / attendee.

Now we’ve got that out the way, for those of you still continuing to read this (thanks for that), blushed red and slightly the fraudster, I’ll progress.

The first event I participated in was Border Crossings on Thursday 6th March at The Town Hall, Queens Gardens.

On arrival in St Andrews I bumped into a particularly jovial Colin Will (a fine poet and one of the founding pillars of StAnza) leading a gaggle along one of the town’s shore side roads in a poetry walk.

Next up was check-in at the Byre Theatre – the foyer was simply effervescent, both STV and BBC were already attendance capturing snippets from the Festival Director, volunteers, vim full participants and passers-by. Post registration I was ushered along to the Town Hall by two spry volunteers, feeling much more like a pop-star than is normally the case when shamble down Leith Walk on a Thursday morning.

The show was compered by Jim Carruth – another of StAnza’s guiding forces – and was a joint reading with Hannah Lowe. It was the first time I’d heard Hannah read, although I had caught wind of her collection Chik, which was published by Bloodaxe and shortlisted for the Forward and Aldeburgh Best First Collection Prizes. She read a spread of poems from this book which focused on her late father – known as Chik by his gambling buddies; it seems the old boy had a penchant for cards games and managed to make a – perhaps tumultuous – living from it; oh and factor into that her father being a Chinese-black Jamaican migrant in East London, now there’s a curious mix. The poems carried a playful yet penetrative narrative; whilst being densely personal they retained a brave objectivity, effortlessly seasoning in humour amidst pathos and alarm. Something that struck a chord was the intriguing concept of working backwards in formulating our opinions of some of the most influential people in our lives – on the one hand it carries the verve of a detective story – making up the man from fragments from his past; on the other it’s piercingly tragic, the facts are historical and we’ll forever be unable to interact with the dear ones who sculpted them. Anyhow, get the book. I did. Oh I also, in stolen moment, got time to chinwag with her partner Richard Wright – I’m a fan of his work, so that was an added bonus.

I went onto read a full set from my début collection Play With Me and quite enjoyed that; the audience seemed to as well. It being noon I concentrated on the character poems within the collection and then moved onto a small cartel of some of the more visual Cambodia themed poems. Less performative but hopefully just as exuberant. The reading was well attended and books were sold – always the much sought after conclusion to any show.

After this I made my way to The Poetry Café in The Byre Theatre – again (tail between the legs, this was also the final event I caught this day). This featured the man behind the moniker McGuire (I knew him way back when he was the sharp tongued Colin McGuire, either way he’s long been a favourite performer of mine) and Texan born Scottish Slam Champion Carly Brown – whom I didnae ken!

First up was Carly Brown: Texan accent = excellent on the ears; servings of humility, colourful cadence and well crafted wit all in tow; plus she pulled off some paragon facial poses (positions?) that would draw envy from most of our country’s screen and stage stars.

Second up was McGuire – he flapped his limbs and read from his knees like no other man could. I’ve seen McGuire read countless times and still ain’t bored by him in the slightest; rather I’m starting to feel near parental over some of his more read poems – plus it’s good to see he can still draw the odd shocked / disgusted gasp in amongst all the laughter and fervent nodding.

This show also came with treats – these being the first steak pie I’ve had in years (and one of the finest to date) and a sturdy bottle of ale. I’d already nipped a corona prior to entry so left juicy and jubilant. This space also had tremendously comfortable seats. What?! I appreciate ergonomics.

The next day I read in Dundee High School to 150 kids in an Assembly Hall. Again this was a joint reading – this time with Botswana poet TJ Dema –

I was picked blithely up at Dundee station by Zoe Vendittozzi – a novelist and the StAnza Education Officer. On the journey I enquired as to the use of cuss words, expletives and references to adult content (drugs, masturbation, reflections on my own teenage perversion – these sort of things). Midway through a conversation on the benefits of a liberal approach to such matters I stumbled upon (rather I was rudely digging through the back seat CD collection in the car) the music of Nathan Carter, who swiftly became the focal point of all our conversations.

Nathan’s cover shot for the album ‘Wagon Wheel’ features a cowboy confident pose with a Southern states arable backdrop – think Shane Ward meets a countrified Justin Bieber with a Hollywood glint in his eyes (and a caramel tinge to his skin). It really was quite an astonishing find. It turns out he is one of Ireland’s Contemporary Folk Sweethearts and the CD was a misguided (yet well intended) gift from Zoe’s in-laws. We came dangerously close to TJ taking this home as an example of contemporary music well listened to in Scotland. I caveat this statement and highlight that all of Zoe’s self-purchased musical packages were of an exceptional calibre (Aztec Camera among them).

See more on Nathan here: Wheel features the hit song Pub Crawl which really is quite fun.

School time. We got an effervescent introduction by the teaching staff and quickly took to stage. My initial alarm at the number of army uniforms in the audience was (mildly) put at ease when informed that Friday was in fact an army cadet day at Dundee High School – rather than the alternative which was we were due to be gunned down upon delivery of an unsatisfactory performance.

I focused on poems that recalled (mainly embarrassing) incidents encountered during my schooling years and was rewarded by the type of applause and giggly behaviour I relish. Bear in mind many of the young whippersnappers donned more signs of facial hair than I had and were certainly of a more mature demeanour.  This was my first school reading and it was delightful – plus the military uniforms make it the closest thing I’ll get to reading to an army barracks full of soldiers.

TJ Dema was next up and was tremendous – superlative poems with fascinating stories, each was a mini monument of performance poetry at its acme. Detailing life in her native Botswana; introducing us to a range of characters of charm and intrigue; and unshackling humanitarian concepts from within the belly of an almost hip-hop beat – this was a poet to stand up and take note of. It’s no wonder she’s been reading internationally and StAnza had her on alongside Carol Ann Duffy the next day. Plus she was charismatic and fair striking – just saying likes!

Anyhow, I’ll wrap it up there. StAnza I’m sorry I’m such a late arrival to your sensational poetry party – but I’ll be back with a vengeance and (rest assured) I’ll be aw in aboot it.