He saw the weather written on the pane
as he buckled on his gaiters,
shouldering the hammer to walk the lane
spooked with his breath, to the pond
at the extremity of his acres.
The hammer bounced on the ice
a dozen times before he was certain
that it would bear the weight.
He took the pungent moth-balls
from the pockets of his plus-fours
before sending the serving-man
with a message round the doors:
‘Bonspiel at Murdo’s pond, tomorrow, noon.’
They came on foot, on horseback, by trap,
ladies in breeches, ploughmen with twine
lashing their shins for the only game
in the district. The shelves in the brick shed
were lined with stones like ancient cheeses,
each one owned by a chalked name.
Men down on a knee, as if proposing,
send the stone slithering across the ice,
its way hastened by scrabbling brooms.
Stones clash, and by the pond’s edge
a brazier offers searing chestnuts.
The pond has leached into the earth now,
reverting to a bog. In the bracken
I uncover the brazier’s rusted remains,
like a cauldron from an abandoned coven.
The door of the shed hangs off its hinges.
I lift down a stone from the dusty shelves,
the granite cracked from the collision
in the forgotten bonspiel. As I send it
spinning across the floor I hear
the roar, and through the broken window
see a beauty brushing up her game.
About this poem
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.
In my lifetime there have been only four Grand Bonspiels at Lake of Mentieth, and I’ve been at all of them. It is unlikely there will be another, for they require a minimum of eight inches of ice, and Health and Safety insurance concerns spread their blight as far as global warming. Farmers in particular still play this game outdoors when possible, as my grandfather did (the sole surviving photo of the patriarch is of him on the ice at his last curling match, preparing to give out the prizes). I can see and hear it all again in this poem. I love ‘lined with stones like ancient cheeses’.
I was inspired to write Bonspiel because I take regular walks to a disused curling pond in a wood near my home outside St Andrews in Fife. The brick building in which the curling stones were kept on shelves is still there, though dilapidated. Local farmers who curled on this pond recalled for me matches in former times, when players would congregate from a wide area.