A Westray Prayer

A Westray Prayer
i.m. Mike and Barbara Heasman

Let us now give thanks
for these salt-blown

wind-burned pastures
where outgrass and timothy
shrink from the harrow of the sea

where Scotland at long last
wearies of muttering its own name
where we may begin

to believe we have always known
what someone in his wisdom
must have meant

when he gave us everything
and told us nothing.
John Glenday

from Grain (London: Picador, 2009)

Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
John Glenday

A poet who combines the everyday and the transcendent, John Glenday has four collections of poetry.

Read more about this poet
About A Westray Prayer

This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2009. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2009 was Andrew Greig.

Editor's comment:
Reading this in Edinburgh whirled me back to Orkney. The poem has the stripped to essentials, the bare and revelatory quality, of those islands. The absence of trees and the absence of punctuation. The sense there is of 'Scotland' being somewhere to the South – a helpful shift of perspective. John Glenday's poetry never fails to move and haunt me, and this poem is representative of the concerns, the quality and the tone of the new collection, Grain, from which it comes. If you haven't been there already, go - to the place and the poetry.

Author's note:
In early April 2004 I spent a weekend on Westray, running poetry workshops. It was dour, cold, windy – real Orcadian weather. After a fraught, grey crossing on the Kirkwall ferry, two days of gale, mizzle, smirr and sleet. It never let up. And everywhere, the sea busy and insistent. But the poor weather seemed to enhance rather than diminish the beauty of the place. I remember passing derelict houses, hollow farms, tumbled dykes, mouldering tracks, but all the while astounded at the richness of it all. Such a sense of being right at the centre of the edge of things.

This poem is poor payment for the debt I owe the dear, dead folk who first taught me the names for the beasts and flowers, from common to binomial - white arse to wheatear to oenanthe oenanthe. Naming demands we examine and discriminate when we look into the world; it forces innocent bystanders to become material witnesses. I thank them again for that.