tell us a story they said
he thought a long time
unsure, like someone
searching blind in a cave
these are pieces of story, he said
like the charred ends of burned wood
and odd glow of ember
lighting like an eye when blown
Sunniva, an Irish princess
lusted after by some chieftain thug
fled with her followers
across the sea into fragments of islands
blown wherever God would
into the gnarled edges of western Norway
in and out of storm
a place driven by flocks of snow
a blue wind all summer
in time they heard whisperings of her again
sought to root her out as a bear
claws wild honey from a stump
she prayed the rocks might fall
rather than be carried off alive
buried under mountain rubble
however many years after
in the half darkness of winter
they came to Selja, saw strange light
glowing underneath the rocks
there the monastery was built
of broken stone
above the place where she had never died
About this poem
This poem was included in the Best of the Best Scottish Poems, published in 2019. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of our annual online anthology Best Scottish Poems, the Library invited broadcaster, journalist and author James Naughtie to edit a ‘Best of the Best’ drawn from each of the annual editions of Best Scottish Poems.
A mysterious fragment, from a long-lost story of voyaging monks in what people used to call the Dark Ages, and a poem to set you thinking about discovery and about story-telling itself. Kenneth Steven turns this episode into something that gleams on a dark night, as it sails off into the unknown.
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2012. 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 2012 were Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh.
Steven’s ‘imaginary fragments of a lost manuscript’ relate the journey of 6th century Celtic Christian monks between Scotland and Iceland. This poem is about storytelling, and it shows the way in which an ‘odd glow of ember’ can ignite ‘like an eye when blown’. A beautiful evocation of place, and of faith.
The poem is part of a sequence that tells the imagined story of Celtic Christian hermits making the voyage from Iona to Iceland in the 7th or 8th Century. This particular fragment of the sequence comes at a point when the men are out on the open sea in calm waters; they ask the one who has brought them on this voyage to tell them a story, perhaps in order to find comfort, to take their minds from thirst or the relentlessness of the swell. The monk’s story is based on the Norwegian legend of Saint Sunniva; my attempt was to swirl together the bones of the legend in as succinct and dramatic a way as possible.