The School Bag




from Clanranald’s Galley

Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair 

Sun unhusking to gold-yellow
   from its shell,
the sky growing seared and lurid,
   amber bell.

Thick and gloomy and dun-bellied,
   surly curtain,
vibrating with every color
   in a tartan.

Rainbow in the west appearing
   tempest-born,
speeding clouds by growing breezes
   chewed and torn.

So they raised the speckled sails
   wind-tight, towering.
They stretched the stiff ropes against
   her sudden flowering,

timbers of the resin red
   tapering proudly.
They were knotted with fierce vigor,
   neatly, firmly,

through the eyes of 
   iron hooks
and round the
   ring bolts.

Every rope of their equipment
   was adjusted.
Cooly each took his position
   as accustomed.

Windows of the heavens opened
   blue-grey, spotted
with the banging of the tempest
   fierce and haughty.

The sea gathered round about it
   a black cloak,
a rough, ruffled, swarthy mantle
   of ill look.

It swelled to mountains and valleys
   shaggy-billowed,
the matted lumpy waters rearing
   up to hillocks.

The blue waves were mouthing chasms,
   horned and brutish,
fighting each other in a pouring
   deadly tumult.

It needed courage to be facing
   such tall towering
phosphorescent flashes sparking
   from each mountain

Grey-headed wave-leaders towering
   with sour roarings,
their followers with smoking trumpets
   blaring, pouring.

When the ship was poised on wave crest
   in proud fashion was needful to strike sail
   with quick precision.

When the valleys nearly swallowed us
   by suction
we fed her cloth to take her up to
   resurrection.

The wide-skirted curving waters,
   bellowing, lowing,
before they even had approached you,
   you’d hear roaring,

sweeping before them the small billows,
   onward sheering,
There’d be a massive deathly water
   hard for steering.

When she would plunge from towering summits
   down pell-mell
almost the ship’s heel would be bruised
   by the sea-floor’s shells,

the ocean churning, mixing, stirring
   its abyss,
seals and huge sea creatures howling
   in distress.

Impetuous tumult of the waters,
   the ship’s going,
sparking their white brains about
   an eerie snowing!

And they howling in their horror
   with sad features
pleading by us to be rescued,
   ‘Save your creatures.’

Every small fish in the ocean
   belly-white
by the rocking violent motion
   killed outright.

Stones and shell fish of the bottom
   on the surface
mown by the relentless threshing
   of the current.

The whole ocean in a porridge
   foul and muddied,
with filth and gore of the sea-monsters
   red and bloodied,

the horned splay-footed vast sea-creatures
   clawed, misshapen,
their many heads in ghastly screaming,
   mouths jammed open,

the deeps teeming with hobgoblins,
   ghostly pawing,
monstrous crawling, phantom seething,
   vague out-clawing.

Loathsome their abhorrent groaning
   and their raving:
they’d have driven fifty soldiers
   wholly crazy.

The crew entirely lost their hearing
   in the maelstrom,
the screaming discord of the demons,
   beastly wailing.

Crashing of water and its smashing
   smiting planking,
the prow’s rushing as it dashed
   the ghastly monsters.

Breezes freshening from windward
   from the west,
 torment everywhere from ocean
   and from beast.

Blinded by the pouring spindrift
   sky unbrightening,
incredible thunder during nighttime
   flash of lightning.

Fire balls burning up our tackle
   and our gear
acrid smell and smoke of brimstone
   everywhere.

The elements above below us,
   seeking slaughter,
water, earth and fire and air,
   a hostile quartet.

But when the ocean could not beat us
   make us yield
she became a smiling meadow,
   summer field. 

Though there was no bolt unbending,
   sail intact,
yard unwrenched or ring unweakened,
   oar uncracked.

There was no stay that had not sprung
   or gear undamaged
no shroud or halyard without ripping.
   Snapping, cracking!

Each bench and gunwale all gave witness
   to the storm.
Every timber, every fitting
   suffered harm.

There was no angle-piece or rib
   which wasn’t loosened.
The wale and stern sheets all were damaged,
   smashed, unfastened.

There was no rudder without splitting,
   helm unwounded,
sob and groan from every timber
   sea had pounded.

There was no tree-nail left unpolled,
   or board in use,
every single well-clinched washer 
   had been loosed.

There was no nail that was untwisted,
   there was no rivet without bending,
there was no part that still existed
   that wasn’t worse at the storm’s ending.

The tranquil sea benignly saw us
   in Islay Sound,
the bitter-voiced breezes were appeased
   by God’s command.

They left us for the upper regions
   of the heavens
and made for us a noiseless even
   level plain.

We gave thanks to the great Father
   and Creator
that Clanranald came unharmed
   from brutal water.

But we furled then our thin sails
   of linen woven
and we lowered her red masts
   across her floor boards.

We put out melodious oar blades
   finely tinted
of red pine that had been cut
   on Isle of Finnan.

We rowed with smooth and springy motion
   not neglectful
entering harbor at the heights
   of Carrickfergus.

We anchored easily and calmly
   in that roadstead
and we ate and drank, unstinted,
   and abode there.

18th century Scots Gaelic - trans. Iain Crichton Smith