SOS MV Naomh Éanna

from breakers’ yard to breaker’s yard . . .?


Image: Andrew McNeillie                         mv Naomh Éanna in the breakers' yard

Image: Andrew McNeillie, mv Naomh Éanna in the breakers’ yard


To all who knew the Aran Islands before the Celtic Tiger came and went, leaving such havoc in its wake, the ferry MV Naomh Éanna (1956-86) is an icon in the aesthetics of the voyage and of saner times. When I went out to live on Inis Mór in November 1968 she was not in service but in Dublin for a Board of Trade Survey. I had to go out in a three-hour crossing aboard a trawler from Ros a’ Mhil in Connemara, in a Storm 10.The Naomh Éanna would not have set out in such conditions. (She was top heavy at the best of times.) Once on the island I had no intention of setting foot on the mainland again until my money ran out, which it did by the following autumn. But in that time of considerable hardship I learned to eat my words, and like the majority of the islanders realised why Galway existed. It was so that we might renew ourselves courtesy of the Naomh Éanna. I can think of nothing more stirring than a dawn departure from Galway harbour for a sailing to Cill Rónáin, via ‘the islands’ as they used to say, from the continental vantage point of Inis Mór. But subjectivities apart, the Naomh Éanna‘s story, one with many stories in its hold, is a vital part of the history of the Aran Islands, and one yet to be researched and properly told. The hour is late but it is never too late – and not too late to save her from the breaker’s yard. If you would like to support her cause, visit her via FACEBOOK, and please refer her friends to this Blog at

I have written about the Naomh Éanna and sung her praises in An Aran Keening (2001) and in two poems in Nevermore (2000), one ‘Prayer to Naomh Éanna‘ : ‘Sailing down the breakers’ yard on the highest winter tide’; and the other, as here:




26 May 2000

Lost among the Dublin quays I found you lost and might not

had I not been lost, by chance, and late about to miss my sailing.

I was your lover once but turned and lost you in the crowd

of stormy seas, and skies too strong for gulls, that day you stood me up

in wild November. They said you’d gone to Dublin then

for a Board of Trade survey. I accepted there were other

men in your life, in every port, and hit the drunken skies by trawler.

But this time, lost in my thirty-year-long labyrinth, and quays,

and old warehousing, and far from thinking of you, I turned and,

suddenly: I saw you, up against the wall. The eye is forever young.

I knew you. For proof I had a camera. But my camera had no film in.

I had to fly or miss my sailing. This was a fleeting fate who else

could share in, now, among the living, and fathom to its end,

and call to mind such sailing we had known, of waves and seabirds

at coming home or leaving: circumlunar, making headway as

making love, on any B or C sailing: home via the islands or

via the islands returning? I knew you, at first sight, unnamed,

through all decay, my sight so young. But we’ve no hope of ever sailing

now, unless aboard a poem like this, at the harbour wall,

already rusting, and both of us too late for it: not sailing, just listing,

in a basin. Dank reflection, off Pearse Street, and all Dublin

sailing past us as we fail, the breeze in your rigging frail

compared with those Atlantic gales, when the islands

heaved at their mooring, and your high prow so proud,

pitched prouder than ever, in the brunt of the weather,

that I cannot quite believe my eyes I ever saw you, then or now.


Andrew McNeillie

19 February 2014

Agog to go to Gometra



My great interest and excitement as this year opens up is to travel to Gometra, an island in the Staffa archipelago, just off Ulva, to the west of Mull. Owned and farmed by Roc Sandford it is one of those rare places off the beaten sea-roads and other tracks holding on to community as tenuously as once, not so long ago, the Erne, now commonly to be seen there, struggled but failed to survive human predation. I shall set out from Oban in late May with my journal and fishing gear, my basic food supplies, my survival kit, my bivvy bag, and all the rest. There is almost nothing on Gometra one could class as a modern convenience, I am pleased to think. With luck I will cross paths with James Macdonald Lockhart as he goes to  add more fieldwork towards the completion of his now nearly-finished book on raptors. And I will coincide with Mr Sandford, who used to farm on Dartmoor, but found it too tame there. He descends from generations of connection with Gometra. A piece by him on the island will appear in Archipelago 9 next winter.




Last year as readers might remember I explored Lewis and Harris. The year before that I travelled to Raasay via Barra, the Uists and Skye. My 304-line poem of that journey ‘By Ferry, Foot, and Fate: A Tour in the Hebrides’ forms part of a new collection, Winter Moorings, published in February by Carcanet.



Here are two extracts, I hope will whet your appetite . . .


Art itself must have begun as nature.

Come in here. Take time. Take shelter.

Wait with only the wren for company

Under the green and dripping canopy.

Stand still. Gaze patiently. Acclimatise.

Absorb the world itself before your eyes.

Feel the weight of history on her knees:

The foursquare ruin, the silver-birch trees

All past child-bearing. And hidden somewhere,

Stock still with timeless stare, the deer.

Not outer but inner turned inside out,

Evicted, cleared into a green thought

As poignant as ever the poet dreamed

Of those girls. But now time the ferry claimed

Me away to the road, where the long climb

To Clachan rose, as if to kingdom come.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Meanwhile, my video software installed,

I replay my voyage, my hard disk filled

With the poetry of departure and arrival

To keep me on course and an even keel

As November closes down and winter

Raids in its wake, storming the harbour,

And with its aftermath of winnowed light

Redeems the moment and redeems the heart.

What is this solace we all crave, the loss

That cannot speak its name? No Paradise

On Earth. No Heaven. No Good Society

But that rode roughshod over some body

Of ‘others’ time and truth will bring to light

And in whose cause again stand up and fight.

Yet still we must hold fast and try to keep

Our heads above water – however steep,

However high it climbs, by peak and trough,

To drag us down – we must keep faith

In something like an island community

That knows the spring will come, and the ferry.


And for last word: more power to CAUGHT BY THE RIVER which remains the best independent website for all who read Archipelago.


Clutag Press 10th Birthday Speakers on YouTube

Norman Ackroyd


Katherine Rundell



Archipelago Issue 8 on the horizon …

Gulls north shore spectacular IMG_2171

Gulls below Eoghanacht, North Shore, Inishmore

I was in Ireland shortly after Seamus Heaney’s death, in Dublin, then on west to the Aran Islands. Both as seen from the Poolbeg Light on the South Wall at the mouth of the Liffey on a blowy day and rising tide and from a storm-bound Aran, Ireland seemed a smaller place without his presence, somehow empty, empty as a fish-box washed up in the tidemark.


Issue 8 of Archipelago is dedicated to his memory. I’ll not repeat here what I say in its Editorial as to his support for the archipelagic venture. But the issue has for frontispiece a collaborative work by Norman Ackroyd and Seamus Heaney, in which the poem ‘Postscript’ is ghosted over an etching of Inishtearaght.




The photograph here of the two men together dates from an Archipelago/Clutag Press event at the Bodleian Library. Also here a snap showing Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin with the author of An Aran Keening in the Irish Writers’ Centre, in Dublin in 2001.


Heaney blog


Issue 8 of the magazine has been seen on the horizon. It is due to make harbour early in November and in its hold a DVD of Clutag Press’s 10th birthday celebrations, produced by Shaun Bythell and Jessica Fox of PICTO Productions. If you haven’t ordered your copy of issue 8 yet, now’s the time, before the print-run sells out. Among those starring: Norman Ackroyd, Robert Macfarlane, Katherine Rundell, Tom Paulin . . . .


The contributors to the new issue are, in alphabetical order: Norman Ackroyd, Mark Cocker, Rachael Cocker, Alan Counihan, Peter Davidson, Nichola Deane, Tim Dee, David Douglas, Douglas Dunn, Rody Gorman, Kirsty Gunn, Kerrie Hardy, Geoffrey Hill, Angus Macmillan, Andrew McNeillie, Sinéad Morrissey, Bernard O’Donoghue, Alan Riach, Helen Tookey, David Wheatley.


Andrew McNeillie

21 October 2013

Weather (not) permitting . . .



Picture: ‘Gannet’s eye view’ by Andrew McNeillie

I should have asked my friend the gannet before I set out, for a gannet’s eye view of the chances. But it was not to be and I knew it in my heart. I knew it in my bones as I stepped off the plane in Steornabhagh (21 May), though I took everything I could as a ‘sign’ to the contrary. My plan was to explore Lewis and then go south to join a party of friends (old and soon-to-be) at Tairbeart on Harris in readiness for the word from Angus Campbell to haste ye to Leverbrugh and embark. It was not to be. I knew it literally in my bones next day as I walked in a bitter northerly, lashed by sleet and hail, the two or three kilometres from Port Nis to the Butt of Lewis, the buffets enough to stop you in your tracks. I staggered on into the brunt like a man coming home late from the pub in the old days. I had not seen the Butt before. As I went along I joked to myself as to what it might be to merit the walk on such a day. I thought of a grouse butt for coastguards to peer from through their telescopes. But then I saw my first sign of beneficent providence, a little flock of Snow Buntings doing what they could to hold their own along the cliff-top. Next an Arctic Skua crossed westward at eye-level just in front of me. I had never seen either species before. I pinned my hopes on them and bade those hopes stand fast like the Butt of Lewis Light itself.

The next day, despite high winds and strong bouts of rain, I fished for trout in the only remotely sheltered corner of Loch Acha Mòr and caught four brown trout on a Black Pennell fly, as recommended to me by the man in the fishing shop. It was a fly I had in my box, a stand-by in my native North Wales too. I would have felt safer with three fish, but four would do. I had signs in abundance. All would be well. We would reach St Kilda. Though the cuckoo on the hill and called me a fool countless times.

On the Saturday I drove down early for Tairbeart. A loch on the left of the road took my fancy and I decided to stop and cast a fly at it. It was a bleak day but the water seemed in great condition. I fished without success for an hour and more, by now some distance round the first bay when I heard shouting and, looking up, saw two men, the bigger of them waving his arms, and calling ‘NO FISHING! NO FISHING!’  I hurried round to them having shouted back my apologies. I felt the big man’s hard stare on me as I came along. Then he looked away as we began to make closer eye-contact, as if to maintain his authority. ‘I am sorry,’ I said. ‘I was told …’ ‘What’s your name?’ he demanded. He was indeed a big man. I told him my name. ‘Well, Mr McNeill,’ he replied having misheard, ‘my name is Michael and I am the bailiff here. This is private water.’ Perhaps I wouldn’t make it to St Kilda after all? Perhaps I’d be up before the bench come Monday.  ‘Fishing for trout are you?’ he asked. I said I was. ‘Well this is salmon and sea-trout water, part of the river system, a class B water… Did you catch any?’ He studied my face closely. ‘No,’ I said, ‘no.’ ‘Well, of all the hundred lochs here you picked the only one you’re not allowed to fish,’ he smiled at last, a little. Then the two escorted me back to the road. As we went I told them the purpose of my trip. ‘Were you ever on St Kilda?’ I asked. ‘No,’ said Michael, ‘but my wife was – the worst sea-crossing of her life . . .’  ‘A man I met in Steornabhagh,’ I launched out, ‘told me his father had been there, for a wedding. The minister went out with them on the boat.’  ‘I knew a man was married there six years ago …’ said Michael at once. We both guessed it was possibly the same wedding. ‘Yes, he married, and then he went to Australia. A Lewis man …’ I shook his hand. His silent assistant smiled a quick unofficial smile and Michael wished me a happy holiday. I put away my gear and drove for Tairbeart.

That afternoon I took the narrow winding way to Hushinish, and on the Sunday rose early to go spotting for a golden eagle at Sròn Scourst, along the track to Bogha Glas, by Loch Scourst. There is a hide near the pass there, but I don’t like to be served up ‘Nature’ in that way, and I went off piste and lay among the heather, staring skyward for an hour or so, but nary a sign of a golden eagle. I said to myself, you’ve got as much chance of seeing one as you have of going to St Kilda. Then almost as soon as I had the thought, there the eagle drifted out above the skyline, high above the ridge, not a wing-beat but once or twice a slight closing and opening of the wings, and then away it sailed out of sight over the rocks. An omen indeed. I had first seen a golden eagle as a boy in the OBSERVER BOOK OF BIRDS and never saw one since, beyond the covers of a book or on TV, until that moment. My binoculars brought it nearer but not near enough. Still, what better sign?

Later that day, climbing to the ridge and back down again, as you will see in the poem below, I saw a mountain hare, in two-tone transition, and found a red-deer antler in deep heather. What better signs? But it was not to be. The wind turned southeasterly, the seas cavorted, we would not reach St Kilda on either of our two possible days. On the first possible day my new friends and old (Gordon Campbell and Mary) saw two golden eagles. Surely promising for the next day? But not so. I tried to make out that not sailing to St Kilda was as rich a theme as making landfall there on Hirta. But little by little disappointment prevailed and for me persisted despite the good company I found myself in: and the music and song of John Peppard and of George Thomas; and a retreat to Carol Boyd’s neo-Scottish Laird’s hoose, Crionach, designed by Ian Begg, on the shores of Loch Snizort Beag, on Skye, where the hospitality, haggis and malt kept (some of) us up beyond the early hours into the incoherencies and follies of 4am (the place is up for sale, a snip for £750,000 – what an upmarket hotel it would make).


On Not Sailing to St Kilda

The windows shut against the weather,
I climbed the hill through bog and heather.

I saw a golden eagle and a mountain hare
And found an antler of a deer.

I walked along Hushinish shore
And watched a gannet plunge down ice-cold air.

All in a southeast wind I saw forever
Nothing to my mind that might repair

The dream of sailing to St Kilda
As I had dreamt it months before.


My friends are of less melancholy disposition. They tell me we are already on for May next year . . . weather permitting.


Andrew McNeillie

2 June 2013

‘The Raw and the Cooked Collage’ from Spain by Ester Conrat, devotee of Archipelago, for the benefit of those of you ‘in the know’.

Ester Conrat's collage


A Late Voyage to St Kilda

EPSON MFP imageThe New Year is already well underway. The long-hand on the clock is stretching towards the light, as a drowning person’s hand might reach for rescue. Spring is beginning to bury its dead. The evenings delay their roosting little-by-little. And when night at last rises up in the shadows and thickens, on come the desk-lamps, out come the maps and charts, and the serious dreaming begins, in the best spirit of Baudelaire’s ‘Le Voyage’. You should not wish your life away. You only have one. But I would throw all the days between now and the end of May overboard, if I could, and put out this moment from Leverburgh, on Harris, for St Kilda. That is my plan, if the two-day window I’ve booked opens on accommodating seas. In some ways to embark for St Kilda is nowadays almost as hackneyed as setting out to climb Everest. But I’ll turn a blind eye to all that and seal myself away into the experience. Before I go I’ll glue into my notebook for handy reference a photocopy of the little map of the St Kildan archipelago from Martin Martin’s A Late Voyage to St Kilda (1698). The earliest map of the islands we have, it’s posted here (with its accompanying quaint drawings of Fulmar and Assilag (Petrel)). Martin sailed in the company of a man called Campbell and so shall I, but not in an open boat ‘to the almost manifest hazard of his life’ (Donald J. Macleod), nor ‘on a mission to pacify the recalcitrant inhabitants of the most remote island in the Hebrides’ (ODNB entry on Martin).

Meanwhile, needs must, and Clutag is busy not only commissioning Archipelago 8 for later this year – having already netted some remarkable work and being almost home and dry – but also making ready at the end of March to publish REVENANTS – Alan Jenkins’s sixth collection of poems; and John Fuller’s sonnet sequence Sketches from the Sierra Tejeda (in a new for Clutag pocket format).

Derailed a little in producing ARCHIPELAGO: THE DOCUMENTARY we have readjusted our timetable and now hope to have the finished product before the year is out or sooner, if possible, to coincide with publication of Archipelago 8.

Advance ordering functions via the website for the new publications will be available shortly. PLEASE NOTE : Clutag Press now has a Facebook page. Tell your friends.


23rd February 2013

Winter Moorings


Anchored stern and bow, sea-logged to the gunwales:

So I have moored my mind for the winter ahead.

To be the more sea-worthy if all else fails

Come better weather and spring buries its dead.


13th December 2012

Depopulated Shores

Douglas Dunn (Scotland’s greatest living poet), will be giving a reading at an occasion open to the public in the Old Library, All Souls College, Oxford, on 8 November, from 6pm. All are welcome.

Professor Dunn’s St Kilda’s Parliament (1981) and a long list of his poems about Scotland’s outer limits were an important, long-term inspiration behind the eventual founding of Archipelago in 2007.

Readers will remember that his work first appeared in the second issue of the magazine in the form of a lengthy disquisition – ‘English: A Scottish Essay’ – on the poet’s tongue and its – and his nation’s – relation to the English language. The poem ends, after more than 250 lines, as follows:

One day I’ll feel the confidence to grow

Orchids. But let my lilies flourish in

This land and tongue of rain and cloud-shadow.

Lilies and roses too are of my nation.

Thereafter he has become a mainstay to the Archipelago cause, delighting a readership that like him longs ‘for more chances to walk along depopulated shores’, away from the metropolis, ‘in the provinces, where talent is born’. Most notably, at the same time as he celebrates local and national themes, Professor Dunn knocks the parochial into a cocked hat and scourges the ready and easy way to prejudice. Issue 7 of the magazine will be launched at the same event.

 28th October 2012

Ailsa Craig

Those of you who have put out to sea aboard ARCHIPELAGO before will know she is powered by an Ailsa Craig. It’s a thing we take comfort in, as she goes plunging after Seeker Reaper  (Skipper Hay at the wheel) dirling: Long is sgioba,  long is sgioba,  gaoth is gillean, gaoth is gillean . . . Now, after so many months at sea I lose count, and down to our last gugha between us, I am pleased to tell you we have glimpsed land. Issue 7 is almost all in the hold, and we’ll be ready in good time for the men in white coats – the fish-market men – as November dawns on the harbour town and the deciduous Atlantic sheds its last leaves before crashing its branches together in earnest, like the spectre of a myriad rutting stags. What the winter seas can do is all nothing new to Ailsa.

Rumour has reached the office that the great dome – aka Paddy’s Milestone – is up for sale. The consortium that is Clutag-Archipelago is reaching into its empty pockets even as I write. I cannot think of a better spot on which to build our new headquarters: I have in mind a green-granite structure with a roof sown with wild grasses and heathers – nothing but native materials and driftwood timbers. ‘Wheelhouse Watchtowers’ of the type shown here – memorials to our shipwrecked fishing industry – will be positioned discreetly at all four main points of the compass round the rock. Once refurbished these will provide en suite accommodation for staff and readers wishing to ‘get away from it all’.

We don’t yet know what the owners are asking for the Craig but will be putting in a bid when the time comes and our hedge fund bears fruit this autumn of our deep content. But I think I have made account of our content and contributors already, last time out. So I’ll keep the rest of my salt dry for the launch.

Clutag Press is beginning to settle with Rody ‘half-bottlespectreoldsealcodboy’ Gorman (see Archipelago 7 – order in advance!) the final arrangement of his ‘inter-tongueing’ versions of the Suibhne (Sweeney) poem, to be published in autumn 2013. So too is Philip Lancaster a short step from recording Ivor Gurney’s songs, poems and poem settings: CD to be available in 2013. Meanwhile Alan Jenkins is at the threshold and nearly done at last with the text of his new book of poems Revenants. Already ahead of him is John Fuller with his pamphlet (in our new pocketable format) Sketches from the Sierra de Tejeda – meditations in a Spanish village ‘where / The mind discovers its reflections and / Decides to forget itself and somehow be them.’  Look out for further updates on these fronts.

The winner of the Clutag-Archipelago Prize will be announced on publication of Archipelago 7 on 8 November.

I am shortly to set off for the stormy Hebrides – to Barra and the Uists, and to Skye and Raasay – solo by ferry, foot, and fate . . . seeking footage for ARCHIPELAGO: THE DOCUMENTARY. I may be gone some time.

3rd September 2012

High Summer

Geoffrey Hill’s Odi Barbare (see elsewhere on this site) has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize. We send Professor Hill our congratulations and urge readers to order a copy of the book while stocks last. It will not be reprinted.

Archipelago 7 is almost all delivered. We have had to postpone at least two pieces to issue 8 having otherwise exceeded our optimum extent. That is, along the lines of the last three issues. Among the contributors: Tim Dee, John Elder, Seamus Heaney, Roger Hutchinson, James Macdonald Lockhart, Michael Longley, Angus Martin, Sandy Moffat, Les Murray, Katherine Rundell, Robin Robertson, Tim Robinson, and other treats and surprises. Among locations touched on: Kintyre, Raasay, Giant’s Causeway, Rathlin, Connemara, Co. Clare, Vermont, Coventry, London.

We regret to announce that we have been forced to raise our price for the magazine to £12.50 (UK & Ireland) £17.50 (North America & Row). This deeply regrettable measure is made to help us cope with recently hiked postal rates. Subscriptions paid prior to this announcement will not be affected.

We will notify subscribers as soon as the new issue is in the offing – by or in early November. Meanwhile, some recommended reading: Kirsty Gunn The Big Music, Kathleen Jamie Sightlines, Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways, and Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections edited and introduced by Alec Finlay.

16th July 2012