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This article is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

Now... Brian Morton
The house has eight doors. It is the happy occupation of a school morning to work out the manifold permutations of ingress and egress. It is our homely equivalent of the Bridges of Königsberg – though there were only seven of them – a puzzle solved by our hero Leonhard Euler, who gazes down in benign sepia from the study wall. Actually, he doesn’t. His slightly wall eye is on the next interesting problem. Our topology has complex and ever-shifting rules. Can one use each door in one direction only? Does the front door – not the original one – have a different status? Should the second door to the oratory be disallowed, since it would have been stoutly bolted during Sr Therese’s time here as an anchoress? Does the attached sheep fank which serves as a greenhouse and can be approached from both sides count as part of the house? Given that we spend as much time in there as sitting down, it probably should. Does the tiny door above the kitchen count when only a hobbit could get through it without stooping low?

Eight doors sounds like grandeur. And oratories and anchoresses sound like the kind of bad Gothic Jane Austen was satirising in Northanger Abbey, though that impression is tempered a little by the non-detached sheep fank. The reality is simpler and more eccentric. Round a tiny seventeenth-century bothy grew a series of outhouses, byres and stone barns, which gradually became incorporated into a larger dwelling for ten generations of small farmers who battled with varying degrees of success and despair against red water, rampant juncus and thorny parabolas that root and spread each time the tip returns to earth. The Gaelic for the place is ‘vale of brambles’.

The only grandeur comes from a time after the farmers left when an art historian made it his summer place, and installed a modest Charles Rennie Mackintosh window (stylised tulips) and two modernist Mackintosh pillars in the library, so called because it has even more books in it than any other room in the house. These incongruous artefacts were removed legitimately from a university building in Glasgow that was being demolished to build more university buildings, this at a time when Mackintosh wasn’t yet much rated, let alone a brand.

After the art historian came the monks, or strictly a priest, monk and nun from a breakaway order that practised – or at least preached – an asceticism that made the Desert Fathers seem like sybarites. They were the only people we’d ever spoken to who used terms like ‘Romanov martyrs’ in casual conversation and went into rages about Queen Elizabeth I as if the old bitch was still burning co-religionists. Their other trigger point was Hindus, for whom they had a lethal contempt.

They had lived in several locations before coming here, always generating some friction with the local clergy. They sold us the house cheap, though, and moved on, offering Parthian blessings. God had apparently called them to the Midlands, where they lived on houseboats for a while, enraged the community and eventually the police by barracking a gay vicar and posting homophobic leaflets through front doors. They went to Orkney after that, taking the cats with them, but swapping houseboats for caravans. Last year, after calling Pope Francis a heretic and announcing that the great Ship of Faith had run aground on error and secularism, they were excommunicated.

The house is on the high bank of a permanently murky braid of hill water that is too small to be designated a river and too large to be a mere burn. Its basin is high and steep and goes back miles into the hills, so it never runs dry, even in the longest droughts, when clouds feed it, but in the frequent wet spells, it turns into a snarling torrent. The lag time is an exact hour. In even the heaviest rain, it bibbles along quietly, a lithophone at the back of the orchestra. Sixty minutes later though, its mood turns. The water rises with frightening speed, and changes from a Guinnessy red-brown to the colour and consistency of boiling cocoa.

It’s a killer. A spate took away the man who farmed a mile downstream. He had been standing on his footbridge, filming the water with his phone. No one knows whether a snag carried downstream knocked him over, or whether he slipped. His body was found a further mile downstream, caught among trees. A tiny fenced area, without inscription, marks where he came to rest. We’ve seen deer swept by us, almost always already dead, but once in the fading light of an autumn afternoon we watched a live buck fight the current, eyes wild, the legs unseen and maybe already broken but twice bringing him to within a yard of the bank. He passed us at running speed; impossible to help.

The footbridge is the only access to the house. When the water is high, we cross singly, eyes always upstream. On another day, we saw a girthy log, a good seven or eight feet long, torpedo towards us, strike a rock and stand upright for a long, slow second, like a malevolent, dripping river spirit before sinking back into the brown coils and racing away below. It’s easy to believe in kelpies when the water is high. Lie awake at night and you can hear them neigh.

We often stand and listen. The spate agitates the pebbles and larger stones, knocking them together like damped piano keys. At its height, the water produce strange harmonics, chorused sounds that might be devil choirs or angels shouting defiance. Every now and then a sub-bass note hints at something more seismic. We do feel very occasional earth tremors here, tiny shudders as the peninsula cracks a knuckle or flexes a knee. Get up in the morning and find that the bathroom door is stuck and needs a shoulder, while another swings free.

When the water is calm, the bridge is a point of rest. Almost no one – postman, neighbour, priest, Jehovah’s Witnesses (they come to us regularly, despite every sign that we might be spoken for) – crosses the bridge without stopping in the middle, even for a second and looking up and down stream. There is a sense of boundary there, of moving from one realm into another. Sometimes they’ll pause longer to watch the solitary Muscovy drake (predictably known as Francis) at his elaborate ablutions, which call for wing thrashings and random flights across the surface, surrounded by his own rainbow.

Something else we’ve noticed is that if a van approaches and we run down to greet a courier and grab Amazon parcels of books or treats, he’ll almost always pause hesitantly on the step and come no further, as if our stance at the bridge’s opposite end represents challenge. Or maybe we just look greedy and crazed. Either way, one becomes for a moment a country Horatius.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses keep coming, despite the presence, below the house and just over the bridge, of a lifesize Calvary. The monks left it behind. They claimed it was from a recusant house in Suffolk, just as they claimed the oratory door came from a monastery in France, though whether these places were being decommissioned or were the victims of niche robbery we don’t know. (Round here, quad bikes and chainsaws are the favoured prey.)

The crucifix has the slightly battered look of those routinely encountered by poets and diarists behind the lines in Flanders. There is a slipping pile of pebbles round the base of the cross, placed there each and every time we leave the house for town or beyond. The parish priest acknowledges it with a bobbing nod as he rushes up the path. Others eye it with suspicion.

The Witnesses – either a pair of older men who look like twins but aren’t related, or a pretty black girl with complex braids and elaborately painted nails who comes with her decorator husband, colour-spattered more randomly – seem to find the cross alarming. They chide us for using the ‘wrong’ name of God, but assure us that Jesus came into His kingdom in 1914, which fits the Western Front feel.

When we first arrived, we found Watchtowers wedged in four of our doors, as if we were a rural condominium. Or needed salvation more than most.

Columba and the Irish saints landed just a mile or so away, in the year 563, and rested in caves at the foot of the glen where our burn makes a strange, almost right angle curve parallel to the shore before joining the sea with every sign of unwillingness. Sea trout nudge up into the lagoon and can be taken with a fly, or a feather if you’re lucky.

The Antrim coast is only twelve miles away, but Columba sailed from near Derry, passing Rathlin Island before making the final crossing in his wicker curragh. His footprints – ‘improved’ by a Victorian stonemason, and misdated by a year – are on a pulpit-shaped rock that stands over the caves. It’s thought to be a coronation stone of some kind, though the association with Columba gains little as a result, for Columba later anointed Áedán mac Gabráin as first king of Dalriada, the first British monarch to be so sanctified and the beginning of an unbroken line to James VI/I.

Whatever drove Columba from Ireland – disgrace, exile for complicity in war, missionary zeal – he would not remain within sight of his native land but moved away and away until Rathlin disappeared below the horizon. For me, it’s the opposite. This is as close as I now choose to come to my ancestral coast. On muggy, lensing days before rain, it comes near enough almost to touch. A day later, it has vanished utterly, smoothed away by sea mist. I like them equally and need them both.

It’s pleasing to imagine Columba and his party making their early way toward Iona through our glen. A polished porcellanite axehead, definitely of Irish manufacture, was found on the hill just above the house, when foresters were trenching for trees. But overland travel is a modern aberration in the West of Scotland. The coastline of Argyll is longer than the coastline of France, and it can take three hours to drive to a place that could be rowed to in twenty minutes. It’s likely that the saints explored the hinterland and that some settled there. The frequency of ‘Kil-’ prefixes attests to the presence of monastic cells. Celtic Christianity overlaid older beliefs and practices. In one direction from the house is a standing stone, though strictly now ‘recumbent’ after the farmer skittled it over with his tractor. He has had no luck since. A mile in the other is a chambered cairn, now almost swallowed by forestry, for this is, when all is said and done, an industrial rather than a bucolic landscape, soft timber its only manufacture.

The forestry is, if not biologically dead, then certainly close to it. Penetrate deep enough and light and sound are excluded. There are cup-and-ring marked stones, if you know where to find them without GPS. Deer move nervously away and we sometimes disturb a fox or early-­rising/late-rising badger. Crossbills tolerate the very treetops where there are cones to open with their Swiss Army beaks. The local eagles avoid the trees, preferring the high tops without cover or sometimes a felled area where unwary roe deer fawns might be available. Hen harriers also have a stronghold here, mainly because there are no shooting estates, and thus no gamekeepers. The ghostly males or ‘blues’ make stealthy passes over the fields and clear-fell in the morning and at dusk; the females and juveniles, ‘ringtails’ collectively, are regularly sighted, too.

Our familiar bird is less impressive but more confiding. In the Boke of Seynt Albans the merlin is said to be a meet hunting bird for a lady. Ours is a flirt. It sits on the handrail of the bridge until either a camera lens appears at a window or a door opens. But it only flies away a little and sits and watches the chaffinches that come down to pick at any leftover hen food. It makes occasional dashes for them, but enjoys fewer success than the local sparrowhawk, who’s rarely seen as anything but a blur. Where he relies on speed, the merlin has gone for subterfuge instead. As it closes on a finch, it alters its wingbeats to look like a harmless mistle thrush. We’ve never seen the ruse actually work, but it clearly isn’t starving.

The other signature bird in the glen is the woodcock. With no one to shoot them, they thrive. At dusk on damp nights they sit on the verges looking for easy invertebrates, exploding into the air at the last moment of approach. In spring, they go on moth-like ‘roding’ flights down forest fire-breaks. Only special birds have their very own verb. You could come within feet of one in daylight and not notice it among the leaf-litter. One of the cats brought one in last summer, unhurt but disoriented and unsure whether it should continue playing dead. It sat forlornly on a window sill like a wad of camouflage with only the eyes animated before we let it out and watched it disappear into the bracken. The following week, the same cat – a mighty hunter before God – brought in a jack snipe, the smallest of that family and not recorded here, perhaps because they only flush when you are more or less standing on them. This one failed to play dead and ended up such.

Having eight doors and six chimneys, three of them not used, means that inside and outside are blurred. Two tawnies, presumably looking for somewhere to breed, came down the library flue one night and perched on chair backs, shitting meditatively and looking perfectly at ease. The larger, and thus more likely the female, flew out as soon as the door was opened, but her partner was determined to stay and spent a happy hour on the little curtained hatch into the oratory through which Sr Therese took Holy Communion from her anchor. Tawnies are unpredictable blighters. They can go for a face if threatened. That is why the great wildlife photographer Eric Hosking’s autobiography is called An Eye For A Bird, a painful double meaning. Our bird came into hand without fuss and was carried out with as much dignity as can be mustered when processing past excited children on the heavily wrapped wrist of an elderly man wearing a chainsaw visor.

Three nights later I walked into the library and immediately experienced that unfailing sense of being watched. The room was absolutely still but a faint movement at eye level made me turn and there, perched on the frame of a tiny Eric Gill engraving of the Crucifixion was a perplexed barn owl. As soon as eye contact was made, he was off, a straight, silent flight into the big plate window at the end. We thought he was dead at first, but after five minutes he was perching on a wrist, then on the bench outside. He sat there till the stars stopped spinning, then ghosted off into the night, a retreating white bow.

It was, we concluded, too much like Hogwarts. Our predecessor the priest had rigorous views on Harry Potter, shared in long, handwritten letters, alongside condemnations of the Curia, all attempts to normalise LGBTQ relationships, and Lord Krishna, but he admitted that there had been strange phenomena in the oratory, lights and other manifestations associated with the Eucharist. We have watched the skylights glow briefly when no one was in there, with a bluish, marshy luminescence.

The other strange phenomenon associated with the place is more generic. Stories abound of a large cat, described as being the size and colour of a golden labrador but capable of climbing trees. This one seems to have some basis in reality. Some claim that an American officer on the nearby airforce base, now closed, kept a pair of lynx or cougar in his quarters, but turned the animals loose when his tour of duty came to an end. Some say the cage was dumped on the forestry road above the house. We’ve only ever found a couple of rusting mangers.

I was watching the local merlin one afternoon when a lithe golden shape rushed towards me out of the bracken. I flinched, imagining the headlines: ELDERLY LOCAL MAN MAULED TO DEATH. BIG CAT SUSPECTED. It turned out to be a labrador called Roddy, non-tree-climbing, but a serial escapee, who’d evaded a holidaying couple from Wolverhampton. They admired the binoculars. ‘Merlin? You mean the wizard?’

There is a big cat in the area, a remnant of Scotland’s wild cat population, easily distinguished from your fireside tabby by the huge tail, flattened head and foreshortened ears. Also by the glare she delivers – we assume it’s a she – as she flips over a drystone wall and disappears. Time was, Scotland’s wild cats were protected by keeping distant from habitation and having no truck with domestic animals. Now, though, they hybridise freely with feral and farmyard cats, which has changed its habits and threatened the species’ future existence. We can’t tell if ‘ours’ is as pure as she looks, or a hybrid.

It’s hard land to cross on foot, which is why the Irish saints preferred to go coasting. Bracken gives way to heather, which leads into un-navigable forestry planting. Sudden ditches can cause jarring falls. You don’t want to put your hand down on the rocks that have to be scrambled. Adders bask on them on warm days, diamond-backed in warning, but hard to see with sweat in the eyes. They won’t kill you, but they can make you Covid-sick. Twin puncture scars on the ball of my thumb bring back a nauseous, headachey day in the local A&E.

The Irish saints didn’t have the option of metalled roads, but they had the right idea anyway. Navigation by water makes more sense. We apply a similar principle at home. The house is so narrow and cluttered – piles of books and papers sigh and slip sideways at regular intervals – that it would give a feng shui practitioner an instant migraine. Often, to go from one room to another, we step outside and enter by the next door. It reminds me sometimes of Mass at an Orthodox cathedral, with deacons and subdeacons flitting in and out, but more often it’s like bad farce as we chase one another round the house to say the phone is ringing or there’s a man at the (front) door with the real name of God.

Underlying the comedy is a deep sense of loss. This is, after all, our place of exile. Ten years ago, we were forced to up sticks and move, leaving behind la bonne vaux, the only place that will ever seem absolutely like home. It was the Clearances in all too personal miniature and duly updated. Ever since, I have looked like a piece of minor staffage from Lochaber No More. I speak of ‘then’ and ‘there’ constantly .

This article is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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