Postcard from Wyre

Such pocket-sized worlds, these islands - Rousay, Egilsay and little Wyre - the latter more an oversized ship than an undersized island, as top-heavy as its neighbours with history and the relics of pre-history.

To arrive is to have the stark round tower of the martyr's church in Egilsay at one's back, one's feet on a little ship simultaneously ferry and landing-craft, as it makes its way through the toy ocean between the three islands, on the voyage out the sea and sky as blue as Wyre is emerald green, and on the way back a boisterousness in the sea, a heavy grey in the sky and light rain on Wyre.

No shortage of orientation points here. The tower that marks the Orcadian variation on the Cain and Able story, the castle of Muir's General on Rousay, far off on the mainland the huge modern wind turbine, and on Wyre itself, the remains of Cubby Roo's castle. Only in a dense fog, or low cloud, can one cease to be permanently aware of one's coordinates in space and time.

A smaller triangulation: between the ancient castle of the Viking strong man, the farm of his poet & bishop son and the roofless St Mary's chapel in its kirkyard. The playground of Muir, his child friends, and imagination. This was also Troy, and no mean pretender: one senses that the Trojan shades would happily decamp here, free of the tour groups and tacky souvenir stalls that now besiege their city. With no cameras and gawkers, Hector & Achilles can daily run along the little road along the top of Wyre, the one with the little strip of grass at either side.

A century since the unprepossessing farm of the Bu was home to it's second great poet, and life has run on, with the ease of regular ferries, telephones and electricity. The Bu has no poet now, but the kirkyard of St Mary's still records its history: the bridegroom drowned on his wedding eve and mother shortly following him below. The visitor is spared the explanations and artist's impressions with which the history of Cubby Roo's castle are presented. There is here no mark of Muir's few years here: the visitor brings his work, dreams and history over on the ferry and leaves the island again as unmarked as did Muir. No writer's desk, no loop of hair within a case, no Schliemann scars on this little Troy. The island, the farm, the castle and the chapel have their own private histories and glories; the world Muir makes of them is subsumed within those histories - the Bu no Bronte Vicarage.

There are more traps for the visitor than the bog between the Bu and the castle - it is tempting, sitting on Cubby Roo's old walls, to fit the poems into the landscape, to forget that there were no poems written here, that the Wyre of the dreams and poems is a Wyre recalled, a Wyre relived in the imagination. The visitor too shares only the visual Wyre with Muir - the island he experienced is always already lost for us, the distant isle of childhood, the distant isle of the eve of the Victorian era, an island not unconnected to the outside world, but at several removes from it. That other temptation - to find an Eden in Wyre: even for Muir, the paradise was founded on ignorance of the everyday realities of his father's struggle, to make even fertile land satisfy the grasping landlord the General in his castle across the Sound, and ignorance too of the already-existing already-fallen Glasgow far to the South. And as the fresher stones in the kirkyard remind the visitor, life is easier here now but Eden remains a dream, the stories are still written crooked.

A pocket-sized island, arguably constraining to inhabit, but ideally suited to taking around with one about the world. Whether a match for Troy a matter best left to drunken contests between the shades of Valhalla and Elysium. An Eden? No, but a place from which Eden was imagined.

Douglas Mackay, 1995
Return to index