Birches on the quarry floor, slim,
half naked, shadow the creviced rock
with black lines like flowing ink.
Casual boulders loll at their roots.
This man-made canyon is easily missed.
A few dog walkers know it, a few
madcap bikers who roar over the rim.
But this morning is still as ditch water.
Whins mask the scars of picks
and dynamite. The silence is almost
a mockery, as if the crag-built city
doesn’t exist, as if history is void
and the present a muffled, imagined
world. Sometimes deer drift up
through the trees. Sometimes I stand
on the edge as if turned to stone.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2004. 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 2004 was Hamish Whyte.
A nice piece on the symbiosis of city and country, nature and civilisation – simple but effective.
I often walk the dog on Craigie Hill, which is between South Queensferry, where I live, and Edinburgh. It doesn't look like much from the road, but it is pleasantly wooded, was once the site of a Roman fort, and has a large quarry cut out of it. Until you emerge from the trees onto the summit of the hill's rocky ridge you are unaware of the River Almond, the airport and the railway.
One sunny late autumn morning the dog raced after a deer, deaf to calls and whistles, and I stood at the quarry's edge waiting for him to return. I found myself looking more keenly than I'd taken the time to do before at the rock and trees and bike tracks. That was when the poem took shape. Occasionally a poem arrives almost entire, as this one did. More often I have a line or two, a sensation, an idea, which may or may not grow into a poem. In terms of the quality of the end result I am not sure if it makes any difference how I get there. Often I set aside something I'm dissatisfied with and return to it months, sometimes years later and I find when I work on it again that it takes a totally new and more promising direction.
A lot of my poetry reflects place and landscape. The magazine island, with its environmental perspective, seemed a highly appropriate outlet for the first publication of 'Quarry'. It appeared in an issue with the theme 'Song of Stone'. I find it difficult to write in response to a particular request or subject but 'Quarry' was already there. I incline towards simple verse forms, although I take liberties with them. Looking at 'Quarry' again I realise how assonance, internal rhymes and echoes help to concentrate the language and perhaps disguise the fact that the lines are not as metrically regular as they might seem. Revising a poem is usually a process of paring away the surplus, sometimes with the result that the lines or ideas that started it all are sacrificed. I try to be rigorous, and make sure every word has earned its place, but on occasion something eludes me and I'll only spot the redundancy after it's in print. This hasn't happened – yet – with 'Quarry'.
It seems to me that Scottish writing generally, as well as Scottish history, has a particularly intimate and resonant relationship with the landscape. Although my own background is mixed, I like to think that this is something I share with many of the Scottish writers, of prose as well as poetry, I most admire. Walking is also sometimes a trigger for poetry. Words take shape, rhythms assert themselves. Internal as well as external perspectives change.