Clouds stream over the edge of Mullach Mòr, pouring
into the valley as we sail against the sun from Village Bay,
rounding the Point, and the Point of the Water,
north under Oiseval and the Hill of the Wind, and round
past the Skerry of the Cormorants, the Cleft
of the Sea-Shepherd, and out around the Yellow Headland
to The Hoof, and the Cleft of the Hoof, to The Gap
where the fulmars nest in their sorrel and chickweed;
and on to Stac a'Langa, the Long Stack
also called the Stack of the Guillemot, and Sgeir Dhomnuill,
place of shags, who are drying their wings like a line
of blackened tree-stumps, to Mina Stac and Bradastac
under the deep gaze of Conachair the Roarer
and Mullach Mòr the Great Summit,
and the White Summit and the Bare Summit beyond;
from there to the Cleft of the Leap, of the Ruinous Fall,
and round the promontory, and its tunnels and arches
to Geò nan Plaidean, the Cleft of the Blankets,
and Geò nan Ròn, the Cleft of the Seals, to rest
by Hardship Cave and the deep doorways in the cliffs
of wide Glen Bay; the air still, the Atlantic flat as steel.
Southwards lies Gleann Mòr, the Great Glen, which holds
the Brae of Weepings, the House of the Trinity
and The Amazon's House, The Well of Many Virtues,
and also, it's said, above The Milking Stone, among
the shielings, a place they call The Plain of Spells.
Here also, the home of the great skua,
the bonxie, the harasser: pirate, fish-stealer,
brown buzzard of the sea who kills for the sake of it.
And on past the Cleft of the Lame and the Beach of the Cairn
of the Green Sword and the Chasm of the Steep Skerry
to the crest of The Cambir, and round its ridge to Soay.
Three great sea-stacks guard the gateway to the Isle of Sheep:
the first, Soay Stac, the second, Stac Dona—also called
The Stack of Doom—where nothing lives. The third—kingdom
of the fulmar, and tester of men who would climb
her sheer sides—the Pointed Stack, Stac Biorach.
Out on the ocean, they ride the curve of the wave; but here
in the air above their nests, in their thousands, they are ash
blown round a bonfire, until you see them closer, heeling
and banking. The grey keel
and slant of them: shearing,
planing the rock, as if their endless
turning of it might shape the stone—
as the sea has fashioned the overhangs
and arches, pillars, clefts and caves, through
centuries of close attention, of making its presence known.
Under the stacks, the shingle beach at Mol Shoay,
filled with puffins, petrels, shearwaters, and on the slopes
up to The Altar, the brown sheep of Soay graze.
Above the cliffs, and round again past the Red Cleft
to the rocks of Creagan, Am Plaistir, the Place of Splashing,
under the grey hill of Cnoc Glas, to the Point of the Strangers,
the Point of the Promontory, Flame Point, and beyond that
the Skerry of the Son of the King of Norway.
Back to Hirta and The Cambir to the Mouth of the Cleft
and The Cauldron Pool and down through the skerries
to the western heights of Mullach Bi—the Pillar Summit—
and Claigeann Mòr, Skull Rock.
Between them, the boulder field of Carn Mòr—sanctuary
of storm petrels, Leach's petrels, Manx shearwaters—
and up on the ridge, the Lover's Stone.
Past The Beak of the Wailer, Cleft of the Grey Cow;
the Landing Place of the Strangers, to An Tore, The Boar,
rising from the sea under Mullach Sgar and Clash na Bearnaich,
and The Notches that sit under Ruaival
the Red Fell, pink with thrift—past the white churning
at the mouth of the kyle, and on through the mists
of kittiwakes to the serrated fastness of Dùn:
The Doorpost, The Fank, the Lobster Precipice, Hamalan
the Anvil Rock, The Pig's Snout,
The Fissures, and The Beak of Dùn.
And then north-east, four miles, to the fortress of Boreray,
rising a thousand feet out of the black-finned sea.
To the northern stack: Stac an Armin, Stack of the Warrior,
highest sea-stack in these islands of Britain, where the last
great auk was killed as a witch
a hundred and seventy years ago. On its southern edge,
The Spike, Am Biran, and Broken Point—long loomery
of the guillemot—and across to The Heel,
split vertically in two, and the Cleft of Thunder.
Round, then, the heights of Boreray,
clockwise this time, round
to high Sunadal the swimmy-headed, home of puffins,
and the village of cleits
like turf-roofed chambered cairns
looking down on the Rock of the Little White Headland,
the Bay of a Woman, the Point of the Dale of the Breast,
and round the southern tip of Boreray, Gob Scapanish
—Headland of the Sheaths, Point of the Point of Caves—
and Cormorant Rock and The Cave of Ruin and then
Clagan na Rùsgachan, Skull Rock of the Fleeces,
wreathed in banner-clouds,
the Chasm of the Warrior and the great rift of Clesgor
—to reach, in the west, the Grey Stack, the Hoary Rock,
the gannetry of St Kilda: Stac Lee.
From one side a bishop's piece, from another, a shark;
all sides inches deep with guano you can smell for miles.
A stone hive of gannets, thrumming and ticking
with the machinery of sixty thousand squalling birds.
Off the rock, they open out in perfect cruciform and glide
high over the deep swell to track the shadows
of the mackerel or the herring shoal and then,
from a hundred feet, hundreds of them drop:
folding their wings
to become white javelins—
the dagger bill,
the pointed yellow head,
white wings tipped black—
into their own white water.
All eyes stay fixed
on the great sea-citadel, this
mountain range returning to the waves,
all eyes hold the gaze of the rocks
as the boat turns east—as if
to look away would break the spell—
until a shawl of mist
goes round its shoulders,
close over it, and it's gone.
At last we turn away, and see them
leading us: bow-riding dolphins,
our grey familiars,
and thirty gannets in a line
drawing straight from Boreray:
a gannet guard
for this far passage,
for the leaving of St Kilda.