The man who made the request stop
for Achanalt never left the train;
though we looked to see his foot or suitcase drop
upon the platform, no one ever came
from either carriage, not to claim
possession of the kirkhouse, rusted shed,
loch stretching out beside the rail.
Instead, there was an absence, ‘Reserved’
flapping above seat, the fact that some had seen
him stepping on the train at Kyle or Plockton,
or reading ‘Mail’ or ‘Scotsman’ at Duncraig or Achnasheen.
But after that, he’d vanished. It was as if he’d gone
to gain absolution for his role
in how empty that this landscape was, a child of those who left
or cleared its barren acres, sailing either east or west,
but now travelling back on this line to gain comfort for his soul.
We imagine obituaries for that lost
spirit stepping out at Achanalt,
believing he may have been the ghost
of an aviator who launched assaults
on cloud, when impulse sent men to risk flight
in a frail ribcage of plywood and string,
seeking epiphanies, sweet moments of delight
among strato-nimbus, hoping chance could bring
startling revelations, a bang of cymbal, drum or gong
which life had long withheld from them.
Instead it sent one tumbling, the sound of engine dawdling, going wrong
in a sudden plunge from skies so dull and dim
the pilot could not see
Dickson orbiting blow him, the unfamiliar sweep
in which that other airman was engaged. And so the velocity
of that meeting, the sudden, steep
descent which brought that man’s existence to an end,
the final landing in this cemetery which gusts and rain will mainly trend.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2021. 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 for 2021 was Hugh McMillan.
Two verses here from the wonderful long poem Achanalt beautifully illustrated by Hugh Bryden in the pamphlet by Roncadora Press that won the 2021 Callum MacDonald Prize. The loneliness of the landscape is underlined here by a ghost passenger, a symbol of ‘absolution’ for the empty landscape. An elegiac poem, and an atmospheric one: you can hear the wind blow through the lines and come out rattling on the other side.
These poems come from the poetry pamphlet, Achanalt which was illustrated by Hugh Bryden, the talented artist behind Roncadora Press. The poetry was partly inspired by my novel As the Women Lay Dreaming. This featured the Iolaire disaster which took place outside the town of Stornoway on 1st January 1919, a night in which over 200 servicemen returning from the First World War were drowned.
Part of the novel involved the train journey men from islands such as Skye, Harris and Lewis took the day before the incident, travelling from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. En route they passed through Achanalt, now a request stop on the West Highland Line. Aware that there was a large landed estate beside the railway station, I imagined it as the scene of a confrontation between the landless islanders returning from the war and the Bignold family who lived there.
It was also the burial site of Bertram Dickson, a pilot who in 1910 was the victim of first midair collision in history. Together with the grief and loss that surrounded the victims of the Iolaire, these stories became the foundations of the poetry in ‘Achanalt’.