BooksAugust 17, 2018

The Friday Poem: ‘Beside Loch Iffrin’ by Robin Robertson


New verse by Scottish poet Robin Robertson, who will appear at the Christchurch WORD literary festival and at LitCrawl in Wellington.


Beside Loch Iffrin


for Catherine Lockerbie


Late January, and the oak still green, the year

already wrong. The season miscarried

– the lambs in the field, and the blossom blown –

the whole year broken before it began, and me

standing where winter should have been:

a reived man, a man forspoken.


A woman’s kiss will lift you all morning.

A woman’s curse will grave you to hell.


By the well-spring on the high moor I saw the day

change colour:

watched lightning root in the far woods;

the sky blink.

Fire-shocks, then a scour of rain, a skail-wind

nagging in through the mirk, scuddering,

dishing it down, rain

turning to sleet, to hail, to snow.

And then

the cold

– which had been waiting –


The green heath silvered:

every leaf

singled out like rosemary.

The well went milky as a dead eye,

smoked with ice,

though I caught sight of something

as the surface froze –

a clay doll, a corp criadh, busied with pins –

and I started down for home.

Where far below I saw the loch-water

going from grey to white: its long fetch

shaved by draw-knife, scythe and sickle,

into ice, with the whipped spray turning hard in the air

and splintering on the shore.


The next day, the ice so thick

we cut holes in it so the fish could breathe,

and we gathered round to watch them –

the trout rising – crowding tight

up into a gasp of mouths, silver and pink,

these bright sheaves, alive there in the ice.


Then the cold went down too deep,

and the fish were locked, like till, in the glass.

Birds fell stiff from the sky; every lamb died.

The cows that were left gave more blood than milk.


They found young Neil MacLean, the stammerer,

roped to a tree, libbed, with his tongue

shelled out of his head, dressed in red icicles;

Betty Campbell frozen solid in her bath,

forehead scored with the cross. I saw

Macaulay’s mare with the bleed on the brain

going round her field faster and faster till she bolted

straight into the stable wall.

I saw a fox

with a firebrand tied to its tail

going over the high cliff, bundled in flames.

And off to the west, a funeral procession

on the side of a hill where no road lay.


Three months under winter; until winter broke.

They tested the loch with their toes:

the blister of air squeezed

white under the ice, wobbling back

like a spirit levelling.

It took their weight for a while,

till the loch creaked and a mile-long crack appeared

and they couldn’t tell what was ice and what was shore:

watching their footprints soften, sink, dissolve,

their hard and perfect world falling to thaw.


A woman’s kiss will lift you all morning.

A woman’s curse will grave you to hell.


The thing in the well-spring is gone: the clay

worn away to a bed of pins.

I am taken. I am not right; only barely

in the likeness of a man, walking from Loch Iffrin

in a pang of birdsong,

carrying myself

on a hill where no road lies.



Robin Robertson, 2018

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