Billia Croo

This long poem features in Ebban an Flowan, the world's first poetic primer on marine renewable energy, by myself and Laura Watts, with photographs by Alistair Peebles, two of which feature here. The book focusses on the Orkney Islands. Billia Croo is a bay on the west coast; it hosts the main EMEC test site of for wave energy devices. 

Billia Croo test site; Alistair Peebles, 2009


after Barry Cunliffe

culture is richest where there’s
the greatest ratio
     land : coast


this patch of the western
ocean’s coruscating garden

recalls my favourite song
(mishearing) the sea’s very hum-

drum … – but no, there’s not
one ocean, not when such an

infinite mix of blues can
outshine the maps cerulean


the sea is there for a solan
to push his wings against

or plunge in, reinventing
the medium – when the light

comes right through them
the waves lets slip wrack

and tangle, pitching round
until they go breaking on

the boulder beach, crashing
under Row Head, hassling

brittlestars and urchins, or splash
near the shelduck’s dozing

on their green sun shelf –
there’s no need to worry

that any wave is wasted
when there’s all this motion


along the bay there’s
the promise of a new world

from each new device connect-
ed to the cable that runs

out under the wild rocks,
into the diamond space

inside those three buoys –
this is where the metal

gets salt-wet : and that’s
the only true test – the problem

is elastic : what kind of roots
will grip fast with moorings

subject to ebb, flood, flux,
in a surge of such force?


what’s solid was once liquid
as with rock and sand

which nature divided –
like us – these waves were

tugged and formed, in
slowness, slowness that

we’ve lost, for there’s no
way to relearn the tide’s

happy knack of infinitesimal
growth, except by sloshing

around, or waiting, stranded,
on the heave of the moon

Oyster wave energy device, EMEC test centre; Alistair Peebles, 2009
ebban an' flowan
a primer for marine renewable energy
Alec Finlay and Laura Watts, with Alistair Peebles
pb, 56 pages, morning star, 2015; edition of 500 copies

10.00 GBP
13.00 EUR

ebban an' flowan can be purchased from our online bookshop
or from Amazon
Listen to the interview featured on Radio Orkney here, starting at 16:05 minutes.


a better tale to tell

A poem is ‘a form to hold the language of another’ (Brian Teare). In this new work the poem itself contains nothing but the language of others.

A better tale to tale is composed entirely from submissions to the Smith Commission. All but two of the sources are letters from individuals – I tacked around political and civic organizations, and lobby groups. It is a found poem and an attempt to shape a historical record from material that is unique. I cannot think of another consultative process – ‘vox pop’, mass observation, letter campaign – of a similar scale since 1945. By the time that submissions closed over 11,000 people had taken the time to contribute.

A better tale to tell will feature in an exhibition, symposium and digital publication, 'The Shock of Victory', at CCA (Glasgow). This curated programme is an active response to the first anniversary of the Independence Referendum of 18 September 2014, and it seeks to speculate on possible artistic approaches and motivations in what the curator defines as a "post-referendum reality in Scotland and beyond”. There is an open call for the project. Extracts from my – or better, your – poem will be read at the opening and on each day.

All of the conversations, in shop doorways, on buses, in cafes – all of the argumentative threads on social media – all of them still buzzing away, resolving into new policies, changed parties, altered mindsets: what makes Smith different is that these were letters, and they were not written by politicians or paid campaigners. I ignored anything that read like standard political organisational or institutional discourse: let the people's voice be heard.

The letter may be an out-moded form of address, but it does require a different experience of writing – a particular mode of attention. The authors had to negotiate an attitude of relation, illustrated in the different ways in which they addressed ‘Lord Smith’ – liveried in totemic red, white and blue in the photograph above – is a figure of power and high repute (Commonwealth Games), or dispute (fracking) – ‘To’, ‘Dear’, ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’ – and how they signed off – ‘yours’, ‘thank you very much’, ‘le deagh dhurachd’, ‘TTFN’.

That wee bit of cheek underlines what has changed in Scotland. TTFN is arguably more important as a marker of change than SNP, or any other acronym: it reflects the way people are no longer cowed; and how they refuse to offer a blank cheque of respect towards authority.

The Empire’s Death March down Sauchiehall Street was a big moon directed at entitlement. It will become a mythic event, as surely as Bruce’s duel with de Bohun at Bannockburn. It was a recognisably Burnisian moment of wit and panache. As a historical occasion Smith is more complex, as writing a letter to a Lord requires the negotiation of power and language, producing the different registers of voice and tone that I’ve alluded to. Burns struggled with the same issues in his songs and poems.

Why these letters matter is that they catch the language of a diverse range of people – let's ditch the word ‘ordinary’ – who are attempting to describe – passionately, amusingly, desperately, recalcitrantly, hopefully – the future of their home, land, community or nation. All are anonymous, though one can pick out traces of articulacy, hesitancy, gender, and attitude. Some of the phrases may be seen as dull, not material for poetry, but I believe they deserve the respect that this work intends.

Of course, I have included all shades of opinion: consciously interweaving the argufying and disputatious, so that the reader has to consider the entanglement of certainties and doubts we all have our part in. Whatever you believe, whichever way you voted, what is undeniable is that the use of language is changing and, it seems to me, this change is being accelerated, on the politico-cultural level, in Scotland.

Working on the project I was partly guided by Charles Reznikoff’s two long poems based on found material, Testimony and Holocaust, composed from found material. I was also, naturally, thankful for Tom Leonard’s example of the ethical commitment of the listening ear.

Other work that I have produced in this manner includes the book and blog, today today today, on the theme of illness, wellbeing and death.

Selections from a better tale to tell


             we must have
     our own powers

             there are no advantages
                for us here


however tiny
   my contribution
      I feel more

         of my place

in this democratic   society
   than ever before


nobody in power
   wants to give it up

politicians must become
   better messengers

with a better tale
   to tell


   who voted Yes
   did so

              not through
   some fantastical

   Scottish nirvana
      of Brigadoon

   tartan and

nor through
   any anti-English


No must mean No


I wonder
   what happens
      to those
         with no-one

         to help them?

   are to do with
      the moral life

   in companionship
      with other people

they are not derived
   from a nationalist
      or unionist


change is risk

we could
get it

we have
to fear

we are better
than to be seduced

by heroic problem

a better tale to tell can be purchased from our bookshop

blog: To Live in an Independent Scotland



Morning Star Folios

The Morning Star Folios were a series of poet / artist collaborations that I published in the 1990s. I was interested in the small press tradition and the project was an apprenticeship in terms of possibilities and approaches. Most were produced by letterpress, by an independent printer in Guildford, Peter Knee; some were litho.

3/1: Fragments
Attila Jòzsef, translations of twelve poems by Edwin Morgan
Illustrated with drawings by John Byrne

For each of the quarterly publications I would invite an artist and poet: usually they didn’t meet, and the work evolved through correspondence – this was in the days before email, and I was working with people in Japan, USA, as well as Europe. Each folio was a limited edition of around 250, with 26 copies signed and lettered by a contributor.

4/4: Buoyage
Five poems by Ian Stephen
Illustrated by Will MacLean

They seem very far from what I do now, but I can see the beginning of my interest in shared consciousness, and with combining different art forms. I thought it would be good to make them available again. Some are out of print, however the available editions from Series Two (1991) to Series Six (1995) are listed on the Morning Star Folio page here.

6/4: Catasters
Five poems by Norma Cole.
Collage by Jess Collins.

Morning Star Folios can be purchased from Studio Alec Finlay, by sending an email to info@alecfinlay.com with the publication title, quantity, and your name and billing/delivery address in the email. We will then send you an invoice (including postage) with payment details; once payment has been received, we will dispatch your order.


‘poetry is still beautiful’

This essay was first published in a booklet, to accompany five poem-objects, an exhibition at Ingleby Gallery Edinburgh in 2012.

(I) father is the war of all things

Although their sources are unrelated, placed together these five poem-objects draw themselves into intimacy. The first text, 'father is the war of all things', transposes one of the fragments of the pre- Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. When I was at primary school, a signpost bearing the inscription the way up and the way down is one and the same appeared at the foot of our road. Every day that Ailie and I went down to meet Ramsay’s minibus in the morning and back up in the afternoon, I was less inclined to agree.

A few years later I encountered an equivalent, walking up the track in the pitch dark when the torch batteries failed, as they always seemed to, exchanging the world of eyes – fence posts, wireless-poles, sleeping sheep, molehills and thistles – for the lone I of the black Pentland night.

I followed the footsteps of my daytime self, feeling for the texture of loose gravel through the soles of my boots to tell where the ruts of the road led up, imagining where the gate would be, reaching out a hand for the cold metal of the top bar, keeping on until I could see the single low star of the front porch light.

Family walks at Stonypath followed a settled route. Dad would say, let’s go a walk to see the vale, and off we went. I hadn’t a clue what the vale was but, over time, a poetic fret settled over the asperity of the moor. We followed a sheep-trod close to a narrow, nameless burn with water-grasses floating in arrows across its surface. As we approached dad would give one of his wee smiles and, dipping his wellie-boot, say, you can never step in the same burn twice. Grown-up I learnt that, like the sign at the road-end, this phrase came from Heraclitus. His waters are elemental, but it was the grasses, in the manner of their floating, pointing downstream, that were the local revelation of time and flow.
Burns were IHF’s fondest things, for their gentle containment and for memories of fishing trips. At each new home his first letter to friends began with a description of the local burn and his hopes for the trout its pools and overhanging banks may conceal. Our walk to the vale returned home via a circular sheep-fank, down the eastern boundary of the Anston Burn, by sycamores where herons nested, suckered hazels and one wee pool that could take a two stroke swim. The burn hurried on to the River Medwin, which defined the valley’s different world of old woods, hump-bridges and red tarmac roads, remote from the poet’s hillside garden.
There is another burn at Stonypath, conducting the water into the garden, which IHF made by hand, laying a bed of stones filched from the dykes on the hill, planting grasses and ferns, in memory of the rills of the Boltachan that flows and falls by his Perthshire cottage, Dunira, where he lived in the 1950s.
If the Heraclitean burns at Stonypath are associated with childhood idylls, then the embroidered poem father is the war of all things recalls a contrary fragment: 'War is the father of all and king of all; and some he shows as gods, others as men, some he makes slaves, others free' (Kirk & Raven); to which we can add the emphatic: 'It is necessary to know that war is common and right is strife and that all things happen by strife and necessity' (Kirk & Raven). The poem, father is the war of all things, seems an autobiographical confession – though one which leaves open the question as to whether father is the subject or the source of war – but, together with its companions, it also reveals itself as a fragment
of philosophy altered. Performing a revolution, the text turns the ‘strife’ of the philosopher topsy-turvy: father and war demand to be exchanged, their dialectic symmetry renders the transposition inevitable.
The contention of the Heraclitean universe is refracted through our Darwinian and Freudian inheritances. The text resonates, but we have learnt from bitter experience – from the destruction that hid behind known knowns and known unknowns and unknown unknowns, things we don’t know we don’t know – to be suspicious of linguistic operations. They run the risk of nullity; a doubt remains whether this generation is capable of overcoming the cycle of conflict. It is left to the texts that
follow to attempt a resolution.


(II) mother’s word is ward

The source of the second embroidered text, 'mother’s word is ward', is a line in Paul Celan’s memorial poem ‘The Travelling Companion’.

            Your mother’s soul hovers ahead.
            Your mother’s soul helps to navigate night, reef after reef.

            Your mother’s soul whips on the sharks at the bow.

            This word is your mother’s ward.

            Your mother’s ward shares your couch, stone by stone.

            Your mother’s ward stoops for the crumb of light.

            (translated by Michael Hamburger)
In April 1970 the incommensurability of memory drove Celan to throw himself into the River Seine. The poet had already sought to escape his tragic inheritance, altering the ‘natural’ order of his name by the generative means of an anagram: Antschel / Ancel / Celan, as if such an act could reverse history. To friends, Celan spoke of a monstrous event, one embellished by guilt: holding his father’s hand through the barbed wires of a Transnistrian transportation camp, he was forced to let it fall when a guard bit fiercely into his fingers. Both his parents would die in the camps.
It is to the ‘mother‘ that Celan awards the muse-like gift of speech. The dyad ‘Mutter‘/‘Mündel‘, becomes, in translation, the surety of the mother’s ‘word‘ and the guardianship of ‘ward‘. It is she who, through her words, provides reassurance and protection.
From parliamentary elections and hill names – Ward Hill appears on maps of Orkney and Shetland – we know that a ward is a measure of the human world, an enclosure. From word to ward we catch language in metamorphosis, just as on the hillside at Stonypath the exchange of a single letter translates curfew into curlew, as the bird’s call tolls the tocsin bell for evening across this patch of earth.
To Celan, poetry revealed itself to be divinatory; a rite of speech in which words spill, reveal and prefigure; the poem, a message in a bottle which may someday wash up on heartland. He pictured his own unfathering and unmothering in the perilous reefs and menacing sharks of ‘The Travelling Companion’, imagery inherited from an earlier poem, ‘Love Song’, a shipwreck in which the lovers drown alone at home, peering through the translucent deck of a war-damaged flat. Such poems are written for the other, the one who comes after. Texts may be oracular, but the poem is fated to appear in time – in the strife of history and the deluge of wartime slaughter – fated to land among us as a remembrance.

(III) family is a shipwreck

This scene of dispossession sweeps us on to the third poem, 'family is a shipwreck', which reduces cosmological strife to a singular event. Given its position in the series, the text inherits the melancholy of Celan’s familial loss. The source is an essay by the Brazilian poet and theorist Haroldo De Campos, in which he characterizes the poem as 'a shipwreck in time and space'. The image is suggestive of a poem warding meaning into a fitting matrix, constellating words, identifying poetry with the plural form of human relationship, family.
De Campos inherited his image from Mallarmé, whose Un coup de dés was one of the inspirations for his Noigandres comrades in their revolution of the poem-constellation. In the pages of Un coup de dés blank space assumes the translucence of an immense sea, in which the phrases of Mallarmé’s poem float like the ribs and joists of a sepulchral shipwreck – a culmination of the wreck images that appear in 'Brise Marine', the sonnet 'A la nue accablante tu', and in the notes for the memorial poem for his son, 'Pour un tombeau d'Anatole', in which the eight year old boy figures as a sailor setting out on his final voyage. Over time wrecks loosen themselves from the catastrophic event of their foundering and, scoured by sand, bleached by salt, embed themselves as littoral, even loved, memorials.
The five poems are embroidered on handkerchiefs, with the same homely charm as the linen squares my mother would stich into sails of blue and brown for my father’s model boats. Being read in their familial context, De Campos & Mallarmé’s wrecked boats call to mind IHF’s fleet of vessels, the clinker-hulled fishing-boats, Fifies & Zulus, the sleek technological menace of the destroyer, the gasoline-honeyed island of the aircraft-carrier. His wooden toys and stone models shelter from storms and battle actions; look at their reproductions in books and cards, they are never scratched, damaged, nor sunk. The boat’s form was solace and shelter in the face of the ocean’s void, a curative for agoraphobia, a poem-vessel to tack through time.
Melancholy as the family poem may be, there remains the care of thread and sentiment of the handkerchief. The embroidered texts reflect upon and distinguish themselves, one from another; the five poems assume assigned places and, as they do, the texts themselves, with their interpenetrating meanings, become familial, renewing the possibility of a shared sense of belonging and relationship.


(IV) children are the revolution

To complete the coeval pairing of father & mother, the third poem, family, stands opposite a fourth: children are the revolution. Alone among the texts, this one has no source. It springs from the others, writing itself, as it were, by dint of the different positions they press one another into. The child is agent of memory; children learn to remember through song, rhyme and poesis, the technologies of language.
In the mythical account of history, fathers beget wars and children inflame revolutions. Here though, alert to the ways in which the texts work upon one another, we allow the pun, for it is children that revolve the familial wheel.
There is a playful echo here with an earlier poem-object, a small ‘tirlo’ windmill-turbine, the blades of which bear a circular text after John Cage:

            turning / toward / living

When the wind blows the poem disappears into a blur; when the breeze drops and the turbine is unproductive, the poem asserts itself, as an energy.


(V) our lives are a carrying stream

The fifth poem, 'our lives are a carrying stream', gathers the other texts into its current, immersing them in an awareness of time beyond individual or familial life. What is sewn may also be unpicked; each thread is a trace of the time in which the poem was patiently made, but, with the right needle, the text could flow in another way.
The text came via my mentor, the folk-singer Hamish Henderson, who characterized the tradition bearers and anonymous lineage of folk-song as a carrying stream, and the great songs as licked into shape like pebbles by the waves of countless tongues.

            Tomorrow songs
            Will flow free again, and new voices
            Be Born on the carrying stream

            ‘Under the Earth I go’

Hamish gave me an empathy for song and poetry, as he did for so many. When I first moved to Edinburgh I would do odd jobs at his home, fetching lunch and, as he had a gammy hip from an injury he’d taken at El Alamein, helping him get in and out of the bath. I’ve never forgotten a conversation we shared during one bath-time, reflecting on the war in the desert and the tide of history that flowed through the ruined tombs and the single column, 'die eine', at Karnak, a scene he recorded in the Eighth of his Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. That afternoon Hamish was moved to recite the Tenth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies in German, from memory, tears welling in his eyes.
'There were our own, there were the others': more than anyone I’ve known, Hamish sought to go beyond the inheritance of contention. Being himself ‘fatherless’, he tried to elude the rhyme that bonds father to war. From the wound of his illegitimacy he embellished myths regarding his paternity, wrapping himself in the mantle of old ballads and the lives of the outcast tinkler-gypsies. Like Celan, with his Bukovinian polyglot tongues – Swabian, Yiddish, Ukranian, German and Romanian – Hamish insisted on the hybridity of cultural inheritance, growing up with English and Scots, hearing relict Perthshire Gaelic, to which education added German, French, Italian, and later, collecting songs in the fields, he caught on to traveller cant.

(VI) ground, river and sea

The stream of my own memory begins and ends in water. Its source is at Stonypath, outside the bounds of the garden, by the spring that rises on the moor which feeds the burns and lochans and provides the peaty water we drank. Over time, as accounts of the garden detach the landscape from the reality of our lives, the spring came to symbolize the familial spirit of the place. Few critics have cared to follow the burn upstream to that original spring, overhung with ferns and rushes, from which the farm
and garden were born.
These two summers past I’ve made journeys through the highlands and islands and, along the way, tied paper wishes to burnside alders, hazels and birch, in memory of friends. Following Basho’s Oku-no-hosomichi, one day I found myself exhausted – shipwrecked, if you like – in an enclosed glen part-way up the Inverianvie River, able to get beyond the waterfall, but still far from Loch a Mhadaidh Mor. When I got back I found that the namelessness of the glen resonated with Tom Lubbock’s brave memoir of living and dying, as he recorded the fading of language from the effects of a brain tumour.

            poetry is still beautiful

            taking me with it

            quiet but still something

            ground, river and sea

            my body my tree

            after that it becomes simply the world   

Later I discovered that some of these riverside sites were associated with the first goddess of Scotland, Annait, Anaitis, whose name was brought to these lands by semitic tribes from Anatolia, long after the ice had receded.

Annat – Annet – Andat – Anaid – Annatland – Anatiscruik – Annatstoun – Annatfield 
Longannat – Craigannet  – Ernanity – Coire na h-Annait – Alt na h-Annait
The first site was Balnahanaid, by the River Lyon; the second, the well Tobhar na h-Annait, at Kilbride, and the nearby temple at High Pasture cave, where archaeologists recently discovered the wooden bridge of a 2,300 year-old six-stringed lyre; the third site, a temple mound by River Bay, Waternish. The goddess is traditionally represented by a votive stone which the river has smoothed into a female form. These Annait were ritually washed in the water, and at these sites the community cast the ashes of their dead into the river to be carried under the earth, down to the underworld. Annait, travelling companion, Earth Mother, Bride, who John Latham recalled in Niddrie Woman, whose new name is Gaia: there are no sacred texts describing her mythology and yet, in little burns and springs, She is the source from which the carrying stream flows on.


            shafts of winter light
            pink the hoar
            on Beinn Na Caillich
            and glint a sun ring
            over the garnet aureole
            of Beinn an Dubhaich
            catching Annait’s
            river-worn form
            laid by a hazel burn
            in which bone & ash
            were cast to wash
            down the chthonic sink

            (High Pasture Cave, February 1)


Kirk & Raven, Heraclitus: the Cosmic Fragments (Cambridge, 1954)
Michael Hamburger, Poems of Paul Celan (Persea Books, 2002)
Haroldo de Campos, Novas (Northwestern, 2007)
Hamish Henderson, Collected Poems and Songs, (Curly Snake, 2000)
Stéphane Mallarme: Poems in Verse, translated by Peter Manson (Miami University Press, 2012)

 The linen handkerchiefs were embroidered by Jean Malone

With thanks to Peter Manson, Luke Allan and Richard & Florence Ingleby

photography Ingleby Gallery, 2012


Wittgenstein in the Cabrach

(from III: no. 8)

Wittgenstein bestrides the summit of Beinn a’ Chaoruinn

“Gibt es eine ‘Naturgeschichte der Farben’, und wieweit ist sie analog einer Naturgeschichte der Pflanzen?”

“Is there such a thing as ‘a natural history of colours’, and to what extent is it analogous to a natural history of plants?”

“A bheil leithid a rud ann ri ‘eachdraidh nàdarra dhathan’, agus gu dè an ìre a tha samhla aige sin ri eachdraidh nàdarra lusan?”

(from III: no. 59)

Wittgenstein scowls at the Cà-dubh

“Wir sind im gewöhnlichen Leben beinahe von lauter unreinen Farben umgeben.”

“In everyday life we are virtually surrounded by impure colours.”

“Nar beatha làitheil tha sinn an ìre mhath cuairtichte le dath neòghlan.”

(III: no. 135)

Wittgenstein stands stock still on the Hill of Snowy Slack 

“Eine Naturgeschichte der Farben müsste über ihr Vorkommen in der Natur berichten, nicht über ihr Wesen. Ihre Sätze müssten zeitliche Sätze sein.

“A natural history of colours would have to report on their occurrence in nature, not on their essence. Its propositions would have to be temporal ones.”

“Dh’fheumadh eachdraidh nàdarra dhathan aithris a dhèanamh air mar a tha iad a’ tachairt ann an saoghal nàdair, chan ann air am brìgh. Dh’fheumadh a smaoineasan a bhith tìmeil.”

 (III: no. 100)

Wittgenstein points towards a stone on Cnapan Or

Goldig ist eine Oberflächen-farbe.”

Golden is a surface colour.”

“Is dath air an uachdar dath òrail.”

(III, no. 231)

Wittgenstein is alone at the Bridge of Guestloan

“Erschiene mir in der Nacht ein Gespenst so könnte es mit einem schwachen weisslichen Schein leuchten; sähe es aber grau aus, so müsste das Licht von woanders zu kommen scheinen.”

“If a ghost appeared to me during the night, it could glow with a weak whitish light; but if it looked grey, then the light would have to appear as though it came from somewhere else.”

“Nan nochdadh taibhse dhomh tron oidhche, dh’fhaodadh e deàrrsadh le solas fann geal; ach nam biodh e a’ coimhead glas, ma-thà, dh’fheumadh an solas a bhith mar gum biodh e a’ tighinn às àiteigin eile.” 

(from I: no. 72)

Wittgenstein clambers up the Hill of Blackroads, hunched against the wind

“…aus Dunkelheiten kann sich kein Helles zusammensetzen…” 

“…no lightness can come out of darkness…”

“...chan urrainn soillse sam bith a thighinn a-mach à dorchadas ..”

(from I: no. 55)

Wittgenstein has come back again to Cairnargat

“Eine Farbe ‘leuchtet’ in einer Umgebung. (Wie Augen nur in einem Gesicht lächeln.)”

“A colour ‘shines’ in its surroundings. (Just as eyes only smile in a face.)”

“Tha dath ‘a’ deàrrsadh’ na àrainn fhèin. (Dìreach mar nach dèan sùilean gàire ach ann an aodann.)”


photography: James Dyas Davidson; images may not be reproduced without permission.

Gaelic translation: Maoilios Caimbeul
original concept inspired by David Wheatley

source: Bemerkungen über die Farben (Remarks on Colour,  Iomraidhean air Dathan)
Ludwig Wittgenstein; English tr., Linda L. McAlister & Margarete Schättle

An additional project, for Some Colour Trends, Alec Finlay, 2014, for Hielan' Ways, commissioned by Deveron Arts