POETRY: The Western Isles: Checkmate

Sarah-Jane Dobner takes a trip to the fringes of the Scottish isles...

Skye and the Outer Hebrides win. Passionate as a chess game. Laid bare to light and dark and wind and rain. So unmarked by modernity you could be in any era, any epoch, any time of your life. Where desire and grief seem one and the same. A place of reckoning and memory and beauty and bogs.

The Standing Stones of Callanish.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
The Standing Stones of Callanish.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner

Deer (Rannoch Moor, Highlands)

The Ice Age was a while back

You wouldn't know it

looking at these textbook

U-shaped valleys, the moraine


Expect to see mammoth and

sabre-toothed tigers. I've laid a bet

over who'll be first to see deer

A car game along with


I-Spy and Twenty Questions

You choose illumination, I pick latex

Eventually we get here

after miles and miles and miles


of wind and rain. A field in Devon

might welcome you with buttercups

Even North Wales slips into pasture

Not here. In the Highlands


mountains block the road

far to the distance, a hinderance

Better, perhaps, to walk and sit

Maybe then a deer could approach

A derelict house.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
A derelict house.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner


Washing (Invershiel, Highlands)

Being driven alongside a small clear-bed stream

Between Altnafeadh and Ballachulish

Tell the story of bathing in a nearby brook

Naked, rinsing out hair with a camping saucepan

One April. My Ex and I sprucing up to be wedding guests

Washing off the grime from a climb in Glencoe


A long time ago. I'd lost track of days

On the road between Cluanie and Invershiel

Receive WhatsApp photos from my adult daughter

Dressed impeccably, gold earrings, perfectly made up

Attending the marriage of my Ex with his new partner

Today. The Highlands have a way of not letting go


Rack (Neist, Skye)

The nearer we get to the crags, the less we know about them

too southern, too city, too accustomed to peacetime


too used to technology: wifi, 4G, phone reception, apps

for tide times, bird bans, sea state, weather predictions, access arrangements


None of that. What you see is what you get. A fight over the sopping

earth and muck. Prospect of hand-to-hand combat. Gaze


at the mizzly windblown clifftops, waterblack

dolerite, rent patches of silver light. And rack up

Rainbow over Neist Point.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
Rainbow over Neist Point.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner


Jelly and Ice Cream (Neist, Skye)

1999, took the ferry across to Armadale on Skye

Was astounded by the fairytale, dreams-come-true beauty

Disembarked. By the time we'd driven to Portree

Clouds had pressed down as if smothering an infant

Throwing us in a Mr Whippy machine. Didn't see

A view again, failed to climb a single route

It was my birthday that week. Made the trip with a guy

On spec. Kind of liked each other. Nothing came of it


All those years I swore never to return to Scotland

Unless Met Office guaranteed wall-to-wall sunshine

How is it, in 2019, I'm parked at Neist Point, the van

Lurching in northerlies, raindrops wobbling like jellies?

Scottish Rock Volume Two and Skye Sea-cliffs and Outcrops

Closed on the bench seat. Set off north on impulse

When the guy I kind of liked went back to his wife

It's my birthday. Still making the same wishes


Peat (Skinidin, Skye)

Usually the earth is hard

A crust

I'm used to this

Where I put the past behind me


But on the Islands

Reach into the peat and

Your hands slide down through



Spooky. The undead

Exes and myths

Clasp my wrists

From the black water

A typical Hebridean road.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
A typical Hebridean road.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner


Chess (Mangersta, Lewis)

Bleak, the Highlands and Islands

No cover, no veneer, no hiding


What is important and meaningful

Standing alone like standing stones


Memory, sex, language, weather

Bones of a life laid out


In a gigantic, damp chess game

Half played. Knights


Pawns, a Queen. And, yes

Some pieces missing


Saltire (Lewis)

Flag of criss-crossed

White bones on a blue rectangle of water

Raised on the shoreline

Welcoming all the drowned souls


Pirate skull and crossbones

Lawlessness of a remote land

Scots will helm themselves

Piloted by birth and death and tidal streams


Slipped Christian cross

Crucifix for those drowned bones

Whitewashed Church of Scotland buildings

Square walled acres of gravestones


St Andrew's Cross

Saying No to the add-on ethic of St George

No to Westminster. Blue water and white cross

The sea. The dead. The barrier

Carved chessmen at Mangersta.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
Carved chessmen at Mangersta.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner


Chicken Run (Aurora Geòdha, Lewis)

Nine foot swell smashing behind the belay and into the zawn

the whole geò boiling foam

a seal, alone, tumbling in the white water


Step across a chasm to begin

with each wave the void booms and sucks

very far below


The crack leads straight up

plumb as a water drop

rock velvet-black, warm as fur


An athleticism about it, acrobatic

nifty switches and side pulls, a slinkiness

revelling in the movement and gear as the sun sinks lower


It calls for a more glorious moniker

like Cnac Dol Fodhana Gréine

or Ciabhag Suela

Aurora Geòdha (where Chicken Run is).  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
Aurora Geòdha (where Chicken Run is).
© Sarah-Jane Dobner



Community Halls, village owned general stores, honesty boxes for eggs and honey, tea room run by the Historical Society, camping organised by the Mangersta Grazing Committee. Not a place for big business or quick bucks;

Watched a sea eagle above the headland at Geòdha an Taroin. The sheep all looked up;

Ancient peat digging scars all over Lewis. No footpaths here, just metalled roads. Beyond the tarmac everything is bog. Clifftop stakes in pairs at Neist, one behind the other, pressed into the soft ground;

Tree-trunk carvings of the Lewis Chessmen scattered around Mangersta. Dozens of chess pieces were found in a stone box on a sand dune nearby. Carved from walrus ivory and dated AD 1150-1200 from when the Western Isles belonged to the Kingdom of Norway. Most of them are now in the British Museum. I need to go to London;

Callanish at sunset.  © Sarah-Jane Dobner
Callanish at sunset.
© Sarah-Jane Dobner

The Callanish Stones, on Lewis, are nearly 5,000 years old. A dominant, chisel-shaped phallus and collapsed vault lie at the centre, then a close ring of uprights and, beyond, spokes at the compass points radiating out across a grassy lawn. We approach at 21:30, walking to meet the sunset. Topping a grassy rise before happening upon the circle, my partner reads, out loud, online posts from Julian Cope's The Modern Antiquarian. Of the assembled tourists, spectators and believers, everyone is careful to tuck themselves behind the standing stones so it's possible to get photos which look as if no-one else is there;

The rock of the Outer Isles is the oldest in Britain. It has been boiled and re-boiled, pressed and eroded, jammed under a kilometre of ice. The patterns are reminiscent of Liberty's fabrics: pitch black velvet, wide-banded regency curtain-cloth, thin striped cotton twill, grey tweed, crystal veins like a wedding dress dragging its train through the gneiss.

No comments yet