Gigha Gallery: The Hirta Portfolio

Dani and I had a lovely 4-day trip to Campbeltown,  Scotland, with our friends Iain and Shelley. It was a 10-hour drive from the London area and we all made it there and home in good spirits, so, success! 

On Saturday, in a wee window of sunlight, we took the ferry to the Isle of Gigha, where I was absolutely delighted to find a poetry-art exhibition on in their Gallery

Gigha: photo courtesy of

Poet Bill Duncan and printmaker Susan Wilson collaborated to tell the dramatic story of the Isle of Hirta, also known as St. Kilda, a wind and bird-strewn Isle lying far off the Northwest Coast of Scotland. 

The inhabitants of Hirta used to survive entirely through use of the thousands of sea birds on the island, and ‘The Hirta Portfolio’ shows this with stunning simplicity: etchings of a gannet skull as a pin for the roof material, or a thigh bone used in weaving; these, woven with Duncan’s spare words, produce a powerful tribute: for Hirta was evacuated in 1930, and all the islanders were dispersed to new and unfamiliar jobs. ‘There Were no Trees on Hirta,’ is a poetic example of a baffled islander sent to work in logging. 

The lady tending the Gallery, a Ms. Macaulay, gave us a walk-through of the exhibit, explaining the images and references in further detail. There is a limited-edition run of the gorgeous hand-printed ‘Hirta’ portfolio, which ties with a ribbon, for £20, and I bought one. This article talks a bit more about the making of the Portfolio and the contact details to purchase one.   

Every other page has one of Wilson’s etchings and then one of Duncan’s poems, and they reflect each other. There was a special copy of the large Hirta Portfolio for £350, and the prints and poems are currently displayed in the Gigha Gallery.

Hirta Portfolio: photo courtesy of St. Kilda Today

I must admit that the power of the Portfolio is enhanced dramatically with the personal explanation of the creation of the book and the story of Hirta, though I think if you read the poems you’d be inspired to look up Hirta anyhow– I was. Ms. Macaulay told the story well, and I only wish I had time to stay longer and look more at the larger prints– unfortunately we were off to catch the ferry, but I’ll get to mull over the smaller book. I love this art/poetry collaboration and I absolutely want to do something like this some day. 

It is also worth mentioning another book the Gallery has for sale, ‘The Prisoner of St. Kilda,’ which looks fascinating. It was written by Ms. Macaulay’s mother, who I believe also lives on Gigha, and is the true story of Lady Grange, an 18th-century upper-class woman who was kidnapped– by her husband!– and left to perish on St. Kilda. It’s safe to say that both Gigha and Hirta are fantastically inspirational Islands.

Linnean Society Induction

On Thursday 18 March I was inducted as a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

Signing The Book.

Dani joined me and we listened to an interesting but lengthy talk on siphonophores by Dr. Gill Mapstone. You can see the first slide in Dr. Mapstone’s talk in the background.

Also in the photo is the Linnean Society’s delightful President, Dr. Vaughan Southgate, wearing the historic tricorn hat which must be worn whilst inducting Fellows – he always needs to be reminded to put the hat on, and it always raises a chuckle from those in attendance.

Just out of the photo to my right is the famous portrait of Charles Darwin by John Collier. I wore a butterfly-laden scarf bought specially for the occassion, and afterwards Dani and I enjoyed a very spicy Malaysain dinner in Soho.

Linnean Society - appropriate scarf.

Erasmus Darwin House

Today I head to the Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield, to give a talk this evening combining discussion of ‘science poetry’ with readings of science poems. This is based on the talk I gave at the Linnean Society and grew from meeting a delightful lady, Jenny, after the LinSoc talk, who works at the Erasmus Darwin House.

On Wednesday I’m running three creative writing workshops with two different schools, focusing on writing rough drafts of science-inspired poems. We’re going to use some of the excellent resources at the Erasmus Darwin House – fossils and a DNA model – and we’re also going to look at a small example of Erasmus Darwin’s own, ah… mellifluous…poetry.

I admit I have not read all of The Botanic Garden, and the sample we’re using with the school children is about 8 lines, but I’m delighted to have been able to pull a copy of The Loves of the Plants off my bookshelf, given to me by a sweet elderly gentleman upon my first visit to the Scottish Poetry Library. I didn’t know the gentleman but he’d come to hear me read from Darwin’s Microscope, and I suppose it’s now all coming together in that pleasantly mysterious way that things tend to do…

Flambard Press launch

Launched this month.
Last week at Daunt Books, Fulham Road, Flambard Press launched Richard Aronowitz’s second novel, It’s Just the Beating of My Heart, to a sizable crowd of enthusiastic supporters.

Poor Richard had lost his voice the day before, so he asked his brother-in-law, an actor, to read the brief excerpt from the novel on his behalf, and the reading was very entertaining indeed.

Here is a brief clip about the novel from the FP site:

‘Waking each morning alone, John Stack finds solace in long, alcohol-fuelled walks through the unchanging landscape of a Gloucestershire valley. Linda, his wife, has left him and his once golden reputation as an art dealer has faded. The only glimmer of light for John comes through the weekend visits of his twelve-year-old daughter Bryony. An encounter with a beautiful and enigmatic neighbour may offer the chance of a new beginning for John, if only he can quieten his suspicions about the death of her husband. Told in sparkling poetic language, It’s Just the Beating of My Heart is a story of loss, heartbreak and hope in a world peopled by ghosts.’

Best of luck to Richard on his second novel!

Chestita Baba Marta

Happy first of March, or, more literally, Happy Grandmother March! Baba Marta is a Bulgarian tradition welcoming the coming Spring. You’ll find, in Bulgaria, everyone wearing little bracelets of red and white yarn braided together, and those bracelets get draped in bushes and on trees for luck, which I imagine results in very colourful bird nests!

Speaking of Spring, Tupelo Press is running a competition which I recommend to those of you interested in writing poetry. Even if you don’t enter the competition, the guidelines are an excellent writing prompt. I immediately wrote a new poem upon reading the details for their ‘Fragments from Sappho’ competition. Happy writing!

Below is the writing prompt, and you can find the details of the competition here.

Each submitted poem must take as its title or first line one of the following fragments from Sappho (drawn from the book If Not, Winter, Fragments of Sappho, trans. Anne Carson, Knopf, 2002.)

the one with violets in her lap (fragment 21)
if not, winter (fragment 22)
no more than the bird with piercing voice (fragment 30)
but all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty (fragment 31)
you burn me (fragment 38)
but I to you of a white goat (fragment 40)
the doorkeeper’s feet are seven armlengths long (fragment 110)
just now goldsandaled Dawn (fragment 123)
sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in (fragment 130)
gold anklebone cups (fragment 192)