Wednesday, 5 August 2009

On the deadly beauty of Screapadal, Raasay

Patrick Wright
reflects on literary landscapes, exploring Sorley Maclean's 'Screapadal'.

The easiest way to reach the site of Sorley Maclean’s poem ‘Screapadal’ (1982) is to drive towards a place named Brochel, on the inner-Hebridean island of Raasay, and then walk in a southerly direction along the island’s eastern coast. After struggling through through the wreckage of a felled Forestry Commission conifer plantation, you arrive at a bright area of grassland, which comes sweeping down from a towering inland crag to the rocky shore below. Without the guidance of Maclean’s poem, you might easily mistake the ridges and grassy mounds in this entrancing wilderness for prehistoric residues. Yet the crofting settlement known as Screapadal was actually only extinguished in the 19th century, its people turfed out by a landowner named Rainy, who ‘cleared fourteen townships’on Raasay in order to make way for sheep, and who also, as Maclean writes, ‘left Screapadal beautiful’.

Maclean’s poem reserves its bardic cadences for Gaelic readers, but his English translation still thunders through this emptied scene like an earthquake: shaking up the birches and bracken; galvanising the deer, the soaring golden eagles and the quick-flowing burn. In Maclean’s poem, every element of this place mourns a Gaelic history apparently reduced to residues. Maclean was, perforce, an elegist, yet he was also a veteran of El Alamein, and by no means inclined to overlook the modern installations to be found on the rocky shore beneath Screapadal. Like many of Britain’s wilder places, the Inner Sound between Raasay and the mainland is now a military resource. The basking sharks have had to adjust to the coming of a torpedo testing range. The ancient tower of Brochel, that teetering relic of clan warfare, now looks out onto the ‘sleek black sides’ of the submarine conning tower. As for the infamous Rainy’s evictions, the Cold War turned them into an anticipation of the more devastating clearance that might come with ‘deadly rocket,/ hydrogen and neutron bomb’.

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