Moonlight becomes blades, blades moon-
light as they lilt and pivot out of shadow
into yellow pools: I make a point and stop:
steam breath into air that cracks like ice,
close eyes upon a world that gleams
and scrapes and rasps; ‘Look out!’
Brown, behatted, a figure grasps
my arm and birls me about; I make a run:
circling to the centre of the loch –
cross stroke, chassé, cross over slip – turn
and look back across the white and shining
field: the huddle of ‘ingénues’
practising their 8’s, the cries of ‘off!’
and ‘change!’, the silver scales
of safety ropes slithering from baskets;
silence set off by distant swish.
And so I see the scene again: late
afternoon; the little minster, still svelte
but on the verge of portliness, breasting
the ice with a frank and open stroke;
his friends, the painters, smiling, betting:
which one could lay down just that shade
of lilac shadow cast by the suburban
Mercury, silhouetted ‘contre jour’?
Then, the sudden hush as water tensed
at his instruction, trout gazed up at his incisive feet.
I felt that God must be in clarity like this
and listened to the valley echo
the striations of his silver blades.
Far out on Duddingston Loch
our true apostle sped with twice the speed
of Christ who walked the waves.
I saw him harrow ice with grace of the elect
and scar the transubstantiation
of wintered elements. At once I heard
a tapping from the hills
as if a tiny hammer big with work
sought to split this world: the shelf
of ice with all its merry skaters
cracked from side to side then tipped
like a sinking ship; loch made
meadow loch as little cows,
aristocratic blades, the Reverend
and his painters clung to trees
above a sundered castle, floated off
to villages, new towns, enlightened
schemes and sunken moonlit pastures.
With a sense of real presence
he crossed my vision: and I wondered
if it mattered which man would win
the bet: Raeburn or Danloux?
Both helped him to untie
the fine pink inkles strapping blade
to boot and walked away with him
arm in arm towards the village.
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.
This is one of a suite of poems David Kinloch wrote in response to various paintings. This one was inspired by ‘The Skating Minister’ whose attribution has lately been disputed. Is it by Sir Henry Raeburn, Scotland’s foremost portrait painter, or by Henri Danloux, a French artist who was briefly in Scotland at the time the picture is believed to have been done? Wisely, Kinloch does not venture into that hornets’ nest; his poem is sparked by what appears on the canvas, one artist responding to the work of another, like Keats to the Grecian urn.
Does it matter who painted the iconic minister? Not, it seems, in Kinloch’s book.
‘Young Blade’ is part of a series of poems I’ve been writing about Scottish artists who were influenced in some way or came into contact with French culture. In particular, it revisits in gently satiric mode the vociferous disagreements that took place fairly recently regarding the authorship of what has become an icon of Scottish culture, ‘The Rev. Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch’. Was this painted by the Scotsman, Henry Raeburn, or – heaven forfend – was it actually painted by a Frenchman called Henri-Pierre Danloux who was active in Edinburgh around the time the work was created? This argument even reached the dailies a few years ago exercising the minds of journalists and scholars alike. At the time I wrote the poem large tracts of the UK were being battered by torrential storms and floods and the issue of global warming is there in the background as well. In some respects I don’t see this as a poem about a specific painting: the painting is rather simply a jumping off point for a poem about human relationships and our relationship to Nature.
Having said this, there are actually two paintings in the poem. It begins by reimagining a scene from another painting depicting Duddingston Loch by the 19th century artist Charles Lees. This one shows the frozen loch by moonlight and members of an Edinburgh skating society practicing their moves. I wanted to create a poem that glided with the motion characteristic of a skater and one that moved from scene to scene rather as a camera might do: longshot, tracking shot, close-up and then out again.