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Kirbuster Farm Museum, Orkney

by James Graham 

Posted: 04 September 2005
Word Count: 130

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Kirbuster Farm Museum, Orkney

Peat-incense drifts towards the roof-vent,
much of it lingering, milder than acrid
coal-smoke, sweeter even than wood.

Like the stoic love
of the last family here, this fire
is at the centre of the room,
founded against a grand old stone.

Peat lies to hand in the neuk.
A settle and an Orkney chair tall-backed
and deeply curved like a half-barrel
drew children, wife and husband
into the sooty circle of love.

Soft flesh beneath this carapace,
far safer than any ancient turtle,
slept in a bed of three stone sides and roof
wrought from the very cliffs of Yesnaby.

Gales sigh against these walls.
'I'll huff and I'll puff',
sighs the dog-tired wind.

The boot of God
could stamp on this and it would stand.

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Comments by other Members

lang-lad at 01:47 on 05 September 2005  Report this post
It feels like a restored ruin this - and it may be but, considering where it is, with the generations who still farm the same land and live on the same foundations where their ancestor's built the first family home, this could be a lived in house today. Were it not for the references to the last family and the stone bed and the central fire - although an Aga or a Raeburn could be also so described - I'd have taken it for a ruin, full stop. So taking the setting into account, that "could" and "would" in those last two beautifully measured lines,defiant even with the conditional, add an echo of Edwin Muir - as if such refuges, inhabited or not, are lying and will lie, patiently in wait.
Or am I reading too much into it? Possibly.
I enjoyed it greatly.

James Graham at 10:26 on 05 September 2005  Report this post
Hi, Eliza, thanks for your comment. I sense some confusion - created by the poem, not by you! Does the change to the title help? I could add that they keep a peat fire burning in the central hearth, so the sweet smell of peat-smoke was real and I didn't conjure it up.



I don't think it needed much restoration. It was lived in until the 1960s, and the guide book says the peak of the roof was restored to reinstate the 'smoke-hole'.

lang-lad at 11:01 on 05 September 2005  Report this post
Well yes it helps. It does. And of course it was pretty clear that was what you were writing about really; the title change puts a tin lid on it though I suppose. I don't think the peat smoke seeming conjured up or real matters - the reader smells it anyway.

Mind you, that ambiguity - not necessarily confusion - came as much from the way you finish the poem with a deceptively decisive sounding yet at the same time open-ended finality - good, full of insight, and appropriate to the place you're writing about, as of course it should be - makes the difference between the contemplation of an old Black House or the village on St. Kilda, say, the remains of which hold a different, resolutely past tense story, IMNSHO.


tinyclanger at 13:11 on 05 September 2005  Report this post
Lovely , solid feel, punctuated by things like the 'sweet' smoke and the wind's 'sigh'.
I didn't notice the change of title and wondered if this was a real or imagined family...but in a way the question is redundant...it continues and therefore gives them permanence, or at least for me it does.

You communicate the fellowship and love so effeectively, and even though the turtle image, amongst all that literalness (?) threw me for a while, I think its presence is perfect...'carapace' captures the embracing, protective nature.

peat...I love the mention of it, that 'bounce' it gives the earth when you walk on it that let's me know I'm 'home'..

Lovely piece James, glad your trip was inspiring.



the "boot of God" is an image that will stay with me...

Ticonderoga at 15:47 on 05 September 2005  Report this post
Well, that was a worthwhile holiday. Robustly delicate poem; palpable, redolent, immediate and historical, tender and unsentimental. And one of the best endings I've read in years:

The boot of God could stamp on this
and it would stand.

Would that we could all claim that! True of this wonderful poem, though.......

Mitakuye Oyasin,


Tina at 07:24 on 07 September 2005  Report this post
Dear James

Evokative writing - the longevity of such places and all the shadows of the past swirling about in the - you can almost smell the peak smoke

I especailly liked your curved, 'holding' images : -

deeply curved like a half-barrel

reflecting the idea of the family held together within this small space - safe against the wind - like a turtle inside its shell- wonderful - the 'stoic' love becomes almost tangible - and not enven the 'baddies' from fairytale could 'huff and puff' it away.

Very much enjoyed this

joanie at 08:53 on 07 September 2005  Report this post
James, I keep returning and thought that I had responded to this. It reminded me instantly of a similar place here where I live. I get a very safe, secure feeling whenever I read; I, too, love the idea of the family held tight against the elements, especially the turtle comparison.

I like the change of tense, which reinforces the timelessness of the place (is that the right word?) The last two lines are wonderful.

Very evocative and enjoyable.


SmithBrowne at 10:06 on 08 September 2005  Report this post

Orkney is a mysterious and aluring place for me (or places, it may be more correct to say). For those who have been there, it seems your poem rekindles memories; for the likes of me, who have never set foot there, you reinforce the rugged romance of the place (but unsentimentally, as has been rightly said above).

All the kudos above I agree with, so ditto here. Particularly the strength of your final strophe.

The only pause I had acutally was with the repetition of 'sigh' here:

Gales sigh against these walls.
'I'll huff and I'll puff',
sighs the dog-tired wind.

I do like the mythic, chant-like nature of repetition that is woefully underused in poetry today, but here, because the word was repeated in two not three (maybe?), it didn't have resonance but just made me linger and long for some other expression to fill out the image of the weather working against the structure.

But other than that one moment of pause, I was delighted with this.



James Graham at 19:55 on 08 September 2005  Report this post
Thanks to all for commenting. I'm glad the poem more or less 'comes across'. When you write about a particular place which many readers will never have visited, you have to find ways of making the picture as clear as possible. There can be problems with things that are almost unique to the place.

The central hearth, for example - a fireplace in the middle of the room, so that you can walk all round it. Instead of a chimney, a hole in the roof to let (most of) the smoke out - but the hole not placed directly above the fire, otherwise rain might put the fire out. To spell this out perfectly clearly, you have to do a travel article, but in a poem you have to try to put in enough pointers to let the reader work it out. Is there enough in the text of the poem to convey that the hearth is in the middle of the room space?

It probably wouldn't matter very much if someone took it to be a fireplace in the centre of one wall. But I think I would be more satisfied with the poem if nearly all readers could get an accurate picture where the fire is in the room.

Smith, good to hear from you again. The repetition of
'sigh(s)' was meant to suggest the futile repeated efforts, as it were, of the wind to do anything to the house. It's as if the wind is jaded, all it can do is sigh and sigh. Still, I can see the repetition might jar a little.

Tina, the Orkney chair was one of those images that are handed to you gratis, and don't have to be made up, just described as they are. It's a traditional design, an armchair with quite a straight back, but its peculiarity is this deep curve - deeper than any wing-chair I've seen. It's very enfolding, a great chair for a stormy night anywhere.

tc, the family was real. I mean, when I mention 'the last family' I'm talking about the Hay family who are mentioned in the museum brochure. The time their children were small would have been the 1920s, I think; the parents lived on in the house until the sixties. Their 'stoic love' I can't be certain about, but I imagine it might have been so.

Mike and Joanie, glad you found the last two lines telling. I thought the poem was finished at 'sighs the dog-tired wind' and was leaving it at that, then these lines came unbidden. You know how it is sometimes?


SmithBrowne at 21:26 on 08 September 2005  Report this post
Is there enough in the text of the poem to convey that the hearth is in the middle of the room space?

Yes, yes, that is perfectly clear.

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