When a man makes love to a St Kildan woman,
her moans and sighs are like the cries of birds –
a cooing and screaming that seems scarcely human
but has been fashioned never to disturb
those who might mistake the sounds their passion makes
for flocks circling Village Bay at night.
Scanning skies for wings when morning breaks,
neighbours wake unaware that soaring flight
had taken place in Main Streets walls
as a man and woman coupled to break free
from an island’s bonds and strictures, all
that conspired to tie them down. Gravity
was shed along with trousers, skirt and shawl
as they touched the heights the birds could reach
with their bodies’ power and beauty, rise and fall,
arms charged to wings by the tumultuous air they breathed.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2008. 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 editors in 2008 were Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor.
The whimsy of this poem is uplifting. There is an invigorating rebelliousness in the couple who break the rules of the noises they make when having sex, thus allowing them to slip free of the noose that is trammelled, law-abiding, repressive island life. One doubts St Kilda has ever been written about in such a way (even now it would be too risky, no doubt, to treat the populated Outer Hebrides like this). Magical realism is thin on the ground in Scottish literature, but here it is vividly invoked to express the desire in all of us to escape convention and fly in the face of disapproval.
I have always been interested in the bird-life of areas like the Hebrides. Ever since I was young, my eyes have been drawn by the sight of gannets on the horizon or tractors on the island moor scattering terns and lapwings before their wheels. This poem was partly sparked by a visit to St Kilda, forty miles west of the rest of the Outer Hebrides, where I spent a week a number of years ago but also by the thought of how those living in small island communities often lack the small privacies that mainlanders take for granted. This was clearly an even greater problem early last century. Husbands and wives lived with their large families in small, cramped houses like those in Main Street, St Kilda. How did they find the time and peace to share physical love and intimacy with one another?
This poem offers its own solution to that problem, finding it in the sounds of the birds with which these islanders shared their lives.