• Dr.Pragya Suman

Poem of the Week

Return to Scalpay


The ferry wades across the kyle. I drive

The car ashore

On to a trim tarred road. A car on Scalpay?

Yes, and a road where never was one before.

The ferrymen's Gaelic wonders who I am

(Not knowing I know it), this man back from the dead,

Who takes the blue-black road (no traffic jam)

From by Craig Lexie over to Bay Head.


A man bows in the North wind, shaping up

His lazy beds,

And through the salt air vagrant peat smells waver

From houses where no house should be. The sheds

At the curing station have been newly tarred.

Aunt Julia's house has vanished. The Red Well

Has been bulldozed away. But sharp and hard

The church still stands, barring the road to Hell.


A chugging prawn boat slides round Cuddy Point

Where in a gale

I spread my batwing jacket and jumped farther

Than I've jumped since. That's where I used to sail

Boats looped from rushes. On the jetty there

I caught eels, cut their heads off and watched them slew

Slow through the water. Ah - Cape Finisterre

I called that point, to show how much I knew.


While Hamish sketches, a crofter tells me that

The Scalpay folk,

Though very intelligent, are not Spinozas...

We walk the Out End road ( no need to invoke

That troublemaker, Memory, she's everywhere)

To Laggandoan, greeted all the way -

My city eyeballs prickle; it's hard to bear

With such affection and such gaiety.


Scalpay revisited? - more than Scalpay. I

Have no defence,

For half my thought and half my blood is Scalpay,

Against that pure, hardheaded innocence

That shows love without shame, weeps without

shame,

Whose every thought is hospitality -

Edinburgh, Edinburgh, you're dark years away.


Scuttering snowflakes riddling the hard wind

Are almost spent

When we reach Johann's house. She fills the doorway,

Sixty years of size and astonishment,

Then laughs and cries and laughs, as she always did

And will ( Easy glum, easy glow, a friend would say)...

Scones, oatcakes, herrings from under a bubbling lid.

Then she comes with us to put us on her way.


Hugging my arm in her stronger one, she says,

"Fancy me

Walking this road beside my darling Norman!"

And what is there to say? ... We look back and see

Her monumental against the flying sky

And I am filled with love and praise and shame

Knowing that I have been, and knowing why,

Diminished and enlarged. Are they the same?


Norman MacCaig


Analysed by Peter Green


"Return to Scalpay" is a poem filled with love by Norman MacCaig for Scalpay, a tiny island off the east coast of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.


It is a poem that acknowledges changes in the landscape since last he visited: "...I drive/ The car ashore/ on to a trim tarred road. A car on Scalpay? / Yes, and a road where never was one before". Mainly, however, it is a nostalgic poem redolent of childhood memories - "...That's where I used to sail / Boats looped from rushes. On the jetty there/ I caught eels, cut their heads off and watched them slew/ Slow through the water".


Norman MacCaig loves the hospitable nature of the people in Scalpay - "...greeted all the way- / My city eyeballs prickle; it's hard to bear/

With such affection and such gaiety". He recognises that Scalpay "...shows love without shame, weeps without shame".


Johann is the most memorable character in MacCaig's poem. "... She fills the doorway,/ Sixty years of size and astonishment,/ Then laughs and cries and laughs, as she always did". As he takes his leave of her, "... I am filled with love and praise and shame".


"Return to Scalpay" is a very affectionate poem where the poet celebrates life with happy memories of his favourite island - "Where every thought is hospitality - / Edinburgh, Edinburgh, you're dark years away." It also celebrates love and friendship - "Knowing that I have been, and knowing why,/ Diminished and enlarged". In that respect, it is a true epiphany of life.


Biography: Norman macCaige was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 14 November,1910. He was a fellow in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh. Though he spent most of life and career in Edinburg, MacCaig’s mother’s ancestry was important to him. He wrote only in English but his poetry frequently drew in the highland landscape and Gaelic culture which he loved. His style is direct and plainspoken which made him famous.

He died in Edinberg on 23 January, 1996.


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