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Norman MacCaig Centenary Poetry Competition

Top Left Corner is delighted to be running this commemorative competition in partnership with Hi-Arts. All entries were governed by the Competition Rules. The competition closed on 31 July 2010. The results are below and the winner is featured on this video of the MacCaig celebration.

We are delighted to have received 279 entries, full of delights and many worthy of prizes. We thank all of the poets for their creative participation in the MacCaig centenary celebration.

The two judges were Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, and Alexander (Sandy) Moffat, former head of painting at the Glasgow School of Art.

Professor Alan Riach said, “Judging the Norman MacCaig poetry competition was a pleasure. So many poems were so evidently the work of self-determined, individual voices, taking the poems in unexpected directions and exploring areas of what language can do that I could not have predicted. Some were inevitably a bit more under the influence - and the influence of major poets, such as MacCaig, is not always a bad thing. But it is almost impossible to emulate a major poet: you always end up showing that derivation. However, you are always in the process of learning from such a poet, and there is so much to learn. Perhaps with MacCaig there are two things, predominantly, that the winning poems demonstrate in their own terms: precise observation of actual things, and an acute sensitivity to the resources - and limitations - of language itself. You are sensitised, made aware of the strength and capability, and the vulnerability, of language and of people, in different circumstances and situations.

“Competition is hardly the word, though: the finest poems are all complementary to, and different from, each other.  We read them completely anonymously and judged them on what we took to be their intrinsic merits, and I'm grateful for having had the opportunity to do so. What a range of things poetry can do! I think Mr MacCaig himself would have approved.”


First prize: Pippa Little, ‘Coalend Hill Farm 1962’.

Second prize: Nancy Campbell,  ‘The Night Hunter, Upernavik’.

Third prize: Angus D H Ogilvy,  ‘Wetlands’.

Other highly commended poems:
•    ‘Calling the Kettle Black, Nevada’ by Jennifer Footman;
•    ’Lochinver Harbour’ by Jane Aldous;
•    ’The Lewis Herring Girl’ and ‘The Tin Whistle’ by Michael A Mackay;
•    ’The Museum of Tiny Shoes’ by Barry Taylor;
•    ’Glen Nant’ and ‘Pennygown, Isle of Mull’ by Lorn Macintyre;
•    ’Makkin’ by Stephanie Green;
•    ’On a Shoulder of Canisp’ by Rhoda Michael;
•    ’The Screen’ by Ruth Aylett.

The poems

Coalend Hill Farm 1962

Pippa Little

I don’t remember the Beanley orra-man,
his boots down the lonnen black as a wet day, his caravan
under a butchered elm’s imaginary wingspan,
rusted, cantankerous: ‘all that can’s been done’,
my mother said, then, low, ‘he’s God’s own one’.
I can’t recall his singing of the Kingdom come,
or whispering from underneath his hands
‘if my soul the Lord should take’, or how he crept away
like Billy Blin, awake long hours before the blackbirds, eager to begin
carving off a dead lamb’s skin to roll one  barely-living in
under a dazed ewe, force tongue to tit, tit to tongue :
mole-blind he’d move, from east to western sun, more whole
in his Gomorrah than the doucest thing, but slow,
immortal, helpless as his beasts to conjure up tomorrow.


The Night Hunter, Upernavik

Nancy Campbell

I am a poet. I am writing about Aua, the night hunter
and how his feet compact the snow and leave deep traces
as he passes my door destined for the harbour
where his boat is moored. I never see him. He might be a ghost
but that his feet compact the snow and leave deep traces.
When he is sleeping, as if by agreement, I go to the shore
where his boat is moored. He might be a ghost. I never see him
emerge from the long darkness. In the brief daylight,
when he is sleeping, as if by agreement, I go to the shore.
I see drops of blood, and strange soft ochre things
emerge from the long darkness in the brief daylight.
The ice shelf bears the mark of sled and knife –
I see drops of blood, and strange soft ochre things.
All through the night none may yawn or wink an eye.
The ice shelf bears the mark of sled and knife.
The shaman tells the village, bound to him by hunger:
‘All through the night none may yawn or wink an eye.’
I am a poet. I am writing about Aua, the night hunter
who is bound to the water, as I am bound to him by hunger.
I hear him pass my door, destined for the harbour.


Angus D H Ogilvy

Cloud wipes the moor like a scullery cloth
that never dries; a mildewed caravan
huddles by a breeze-block byre, disused, and
casting slates into the burn's fermenting froth.
Fences rust on the peat bog; pastures pocked
by marsh grass; ancient run-rigs rut the land,
their ditches full of dim. Like a webbed hand,
a tipped tree reaches roots in rigor, locked.
Grieved spirits of the undeparted drape
the stunted hills, and tempt the midday stones
to glisten should a lustre but escape
the lidded sky, allow the land atone
for troubles done; for I could not mistake
that cottage with its plywood blindfold groan.


Calling the Kettle Black, Nevada

Jennifer Footman

I amble round Reno bus station
waiting for the bus to the airport.
Cops float, loose hands on holstered guns;
drunks shamble to the edge of the pavement
in a mist of alcohol; a couple of men interrupt a conversation
in Spanish to shout in English that they hate whites, man, they hate whites.
To this pale northerner they look as white as white
as the insipid snow that will be waiting for me
when I return home.
I sit outside on a cool stone wall.
A woman joins me. I guess she too, is Hispanic
because of her black, black hair,
so rich it could be the glittering body of a raven.
She's about thirty and God, so beautiful
I have to force myself not to stare, not to worship.
She shines, golden-skinned,
ripe as a persimmon about to burst;
her lips bud full, juicy, red without any lipstick;
her eyes glisten a clear, pure, innocent emerald green.
The kind of beauty that is without sex, but is just alive.
A rose in the morning, fresh, mature at the same time.
When she smiles she shows rotten stumps
and three decayed teeth in the upper.
This grey woman, when she smiles, show perfect white teeth
given to her by luck and the National Health Service.
Though I'm a familiar of the stink of poverty
I enjoy the teeth of the wealthy. The lady in That Play,
she too, knew the acrid fumes as she scrubbed her hands,
scrubbed her hands, scrubbed her hands, trying to erase
the prints of murder. Smile, the world's a happy place.
We chat about buses and her job, her two children
and how buses come, sometimes they don't,
how the evening is the nicest time in Reno.
She says it smells sweet, as honey-like, as golden, as good sex,
the Reno evening. Candied by flowers and night.
The bus arrives in a haze of diesel. We have nothing more to say.
She sits in the front and talks to the driver and I sit in the back.


Lochinver Harbour

Jane Aldous

Fortitude and Spinningdale, Dorothy Ann and Bressay Bank,
from Ullapool, Fraserborough, Fleetwood and Boulogne.
Four trawlers and four hundred ghost ships.

Metallic sea laps against concrete harbour walls.
Vast fishselling sheds,washed out and empty,
ice spilled and crushed, fish boxes,creels,ropes.
Moving shadows people the quayside.

Fortitude stands dry docked and freshly painted,
pungent marine lacquer merged with fish.
Spinningdale's preparing to return to sea,
the crew shouting as boxes are stacked,
bilges spit and regurgitate oily water,
churning in response to the engine's insistence. 

Meanwhile Dorothy Ann waits in the lee of the harbour wall,
impatiently roped for her next trip, the Bressay Bank already gone,
as grieving ghosts observe the tide.

The Lewis Herring Girl

Michael A Mackay

There can be no possible survivors now among those
Whose images are caught on postcards such as these:
Boxed, or displayed in plastic pouches, for those who trawl
Or drift among them looking for a catch. I fish one out
And find I’ve caught a silver darling: a working girl
From eighteen-something, typical of what I seek:
Pretty, absorbed in toil – she’s busy pouring brine
Into barrels stuffed with herring, wears a scarf, an oilskin apron
Soiled with silver scales and slime, and, no doubt, the smell
Of pickle-blood is in her clothes and hair – and still she smiles.
And this is surely all that’s left of her, this image on a traded card.
I wonder who she was; imagine her a sexual thing, and ponder,
Too, on how all the tumult’s gone that rose and fell in her like tides 
That sweep at night across the bay to dash against the cob.

Behind her the sea itself, perhaps, or a misty hill-scape;
The background’s blurred, just as her history is, so I must
Invent to resurrect. She’s a highland lass, travelling the fishing
And far from home.  Forever here, in this south Yorkshire port,
Once busy, now as modest and demure as she
Was when first she boarded here with other island girls,
Sharing a room above the herring sheds that overlooked,
Not the sea itself, but a stiff swell of roofs around a spire.
She is here, with no sense of her loveliness, yet spooked
By feelings that rise in shoals; her great surprise and puzzle,
Her body’s urges, which she neither understands, nor has
A language for, but knows when they began - by chance
One Sunday after church, when a young man fumbling
With his cap and tongue had walked her home.

Undressing by candle-light, her image swims into the mirror’s deep;
She hardly glances up, and, certainly, does not stop to view
Her nakedness, nor try to gut, from what the mirror’s caught, knowledge
Of her loveliness. She has no sense of how her pearly form
Has pitched a young man into squalls of love. Practical to a fault,
She thinks only of what she’ll earn for those back home,
Of something, too, to keep her from the coming North Sea’s cold.
Already, her hands are rough, red-chapped and washed in pain, despite
The strips of flour-sack she binds them in each day. Sometimes her hands
Brush against her breast’s smooth skin or curving thigh, making
Of them alien things, stranger than anything the sea gives up
To the Lewis men’s long nets. But, more alien still to her,
The recent fever of the boy’s embrace, his awkward, urgent fishing
Beneath a foam of petticoat – that, and his harsh, imperial tongue. 


The Tin Whistle

Michael A Mackay

There it lies still, propped against his books:
much neglected now, but, then - no whistle
was ever played like this. And still its lacquer’s
sheen, black as jet, has kept its rich
patina of use, despite the long years since
it warmed to his hands, to his breath.

She did it with so little ceremony -
no more than had she merely passed the salt,
or brushed away a wayward strand of hair -
she passed it to me: a simple funnel of tin
that once had shaped his whisky breath, was once
the platform on which his fingers danced.

I did not want, by what I said, to hint
I wanted it. I didn’t – only to connect
with him, a man I barely knew. And so,
I praised the way he’d played back then.
She told of how they’d gather when he played
at weddings, ceilidhs, wakes and island mods.

She spoke of how their wedding night was filled
with music; how she’d danced his jigs and sung
the old songs in the old tongue, of how
his skill was such that every grace-note played
Was gold-leaf pasted on the peat-filled air.
He played until, at last, their guests had gone.

And then, as she undressed in front of him.
his fingers faltered and his breathing failed:
his love-lilt silenced by a single glance.
He held the whistle in his upraised hands,
and all along its darkly varnished length
the peat fire’s reddish glow leapt and danced.

And now, again, there is silence. She turns
To watch the restless machair on the dunes;
Beyond them both, a narrow band of sea
almost, but not quite, merges with the sky.
She hears the wind’s persistent song, and notes
the sea’s long, long, impersonal lament.


The Museum of Tiny Shoes

Barry Taylor

for Rebecca Kidd

The Museum is open every
alternate year, the second
Tuesday after Whitsun.
All through the grave-quiet interim,
the tiny shoes persist, serene
in their dust-free compounds, 
policed by scholarship
and lasers. They glint
in their laconic rows,
preserved from the sly assaults
of breath and flesh.

The shoes stand gloomily
lit, like cargo fallen
through a mile of buckling sun
to the ocean floor.
They have landed cleanly,
as if disposed by careful
giant hands. There are brogues
and loafers, pumps and flats,
and sneakers, the size of plump,
retracting slugs, rain-polished
chanterelles, or a maiden’s thumb. 

A patina of loving daily use
still shines on them
in the Spring light pooling
in the galleries’ corners.
The cognoscenti sway back
on their heels, dangle their specs
and smile, as they might
at a promising niece, or a puzzle
involving ziggurats and oatmeal.
Others mutter, stepping away
affronted. They have not paid
good money for this.

Looming attendants rein in dreams
of seven-league boots (their own)
crashing down on the tiny
despots who confine them
to their silent stations.
On tip-toe, wary toddlers
peek, imagine shrunken parents
tottering, too much an image
of themselves.

Closing up, five evenings
every decade, the Museum rings
to the fall of a few last feet
converging on the only exit,
diminishing, step by step.


Glen Nant

Lorn Macintyre

It was like a wood in Celtic legend, naked children
laughing, flashing like sprites among the trees,
smoke pouring from the charcoal mound
as if a dormant dragon had its lair underneath.
The metronome of the cuckoo set the pace
for the coppicing blades, some wielded by women.
They lived in huts fashioned from foliage
and needed no mirrors in that nether place.
Windblown trees their pews, the congregation
heard the Gaelic preacher warn of hellfire
awaiting those who yielded to desire,
skirts kilted against the accommodating ash.
A string of garrons hauling wagons
carried the charcoal to the blast furnace
at Bonawe, where they poured cannon balls
to unseat the Emperor from his horse at Waterloo.

The wood is silent today, neither axe nor cuckoo.
The oak, not coppiced for five generations,
has asserted its ascendancy. The mounds
where timber burned to brittle black are tumuli,
resting places of heroes fathered by Ossian.
But you will search in vain for the graves
of those felled by blood poisoning
when the blade bit into the flimsy shoe.
In this place of shades a patch of light becomes
a woman sewing a shroud, bees hum
like keeners at a wake, and midges swarm
like smoke round the tumescence.


Pennygown, Isle of Mull

Lorn Macintyre

On a day of driven rain my cousin brought
the ashes of his father, a noted piper,
in an Air Canada travel bag
to this chapel which has never kept a roof
because, the island legend avers,
a Maclean chieftain and his spouse,
buried outside in unconsecrated ground,
consorted with the Devil, the house
of God violated on this wild island
where storms come crashing down the sound
and clans clashed in constant feuds.

My cousin knelt, using a pen
to make a hole for his father’s remains,
his cagoule inflated like a sail,
the eagle circling round the ben
as he poured in the grey powder
of Hector, hereditary piper
to the Macleans at Duart,
who had inherited the fingering
of his Ross of Mull forebears.

The wind was a pibroch in the glen
as he closed the ground with his palm.


Stephanie Green

I knit one word after another,
plying one whilst holding the next
like a thread of wirset wound round  my  finger.
At first,  my work looks like  abstract dots.

The pattern will not emerge  for several rows.
Two colours wound  in and out:
that's the secret.  Two is more than one,
transforms the other, like magic.

I don't  follow  paper patterns.
They're in my head. Passed down
from my grandmother and her mother and hers,
time out of mind. I write the skein of women,

my nib flashing like  needles,  the  wool cloo
of my thoughts  in my  pocket.  Whilst doing the chores,
I'm still counting back  to childhood memories,
checking the tension, unpicking knots, 

 like the women walking the hills with kishies
 of paets tied to their backs,                                   makkin,
even when blethering with their neighbours,
 their hands are never idle                                     makkin,  makkin

 for when the hairst  is spoilt by a hail o' shoors,
or the men are away,  press-ganged
 by multi-nationals,  oil or I.T.,
 picked up, then spat out, redundant,

 I too must knit the poem of our lives,
 the gloves and socks, the ganseys and  hats,
hap up my babies in shawls, lacey as the scoom
of waves, for when the cold winds blow . 
 But I'm also knitting for myself.                                                                                          
 Sometimes a  dropped stitch becomes a  happy surprise.
 I discover unlooked for patterns, or colours
 and out of mistakes, I make something that's mine.

Shetlandic Glossary: makkin- knitting; wirset - worsted, a type of yarn; cloo- ball of wool; kishies of paets - rush baskets full of peat; hairst - harvest; shoors - showers; gansey - jersey; scoom - spume


On a Shoulder of Canisp

Rhoda Michael

July, and I am shy still
of my new love, as he, I guess,
is still not sure of me, of this 
not quite, as yet, familiar love,
on this bright evening 
on this high shoulder of the hill.

The colours of the evening drift across
the undulations of the land.
A flush of deer define themselves,
hinds, tight-bunched about with calves.
Purposeful with thirst, they stream,
fast-moving, towards a  river
that curves below us out of sight.

They have dissolved themselves
into the land, hide into bracken, hoof
into tussock of grass. In the haze
of the evening, where we had seen them,
all that’s left is a quiver in the air.

This witnessing, it is a binding thing
a clasping, a wedding of hands,
mine, not now so shy, to his; his,
more surely now, to mine
on the shoulder of the mountain
on this high evening in July.

The Screen  (after: Arthur Melville, An Arab Interior, 1881)

Ruth Aylett

He sits composed and calm
Within this room of his, mellow
With richly coloured fabric.
Bearded, in flowing robes,
His long gold pipe to hand,
Mint tea and sherberts on the table,
Ready for his friends.
A tessalation of the Euclidean
Plane in black wood,
The Musharabeyah screen
Projects a rectilinear grid
Of dark and light upon him.

The light of learning; all those stars
They named - Altair the eagle,
Deneb, Aldebaran.
Gifts of Aristotle from Byzantium,
Numbers from India, algebra.
He does not look behind the screen
Into the darkness.
Just outside this
Nineteenth century room,
The British warships
With their greedy guns
Are firing on Alexandria.
His friends will never come,
They’ve gone to fight and lose,
And in the patterns yet to form
A flat Leeds voice
Without a pipe or flowing robes
Presents a deadly video,
Invokes the Caliphate
With rucksack bombs.


Congratulations to all!

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