Fiona MacLeod

Inability to accept the mystic experience is more than an intellectual handicap, lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination.

-Alan Watts

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Still snow on the ground in Portland. Went on a great walk last night with Rowan, Mary and Sophie. We discovered that Sophie adores the snow, and loves snowballs! Throw a snowball, she chases it and then proceeds to bite it into non-existence… Wild Dog! The weather could go on like this for a few more days from what I understand.

Today we are featuring the writer – poet Fiona MacLeod. More info on her later….

Have a good one!


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Earth, Fire and Water

The Poetry of Fiona MacLeod


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Earth, Fire, and Water

-Fiona MacLeod

In ‘The Sea-Madness’ I have told of a man – a quiet dull man; a

chandler of a little Argyll loch-town – who, at times, left his

counter, and small canny ways, and went out into a rocky wilderness,

and became mad with the sea. I have heard of many afflicted in some

such wise, and have known one or two.

In a tale written a few years ago, ‘The Ninth Wave,’ I wrote of one

whom I knew, one Ivor MacNeill, or ‘Carminish,’ so called because of

his farm between the hills Strondeval and Rondeval, near the Obb of

Harris in the Outer Hebrides. This man heard the secret calling of the

ninth wave. None may hear that; when there is no wave on the sea, or

when perhaps he is inland, and not follow. That following is always to

the ending of all following. For a long while Carminish put his fate

from him. He went to other isles: wherever he went he heard the call of

the sea. ‘Come,&quot; it cried, ‘come, come away!’ He passed at last to a

kinsman’s croft on Aird-Vanish in the island of Taransay. He was not

free there. He stopped at a place where he had no kin, and no memories,

and at a hidden, quiet farm. This was at Eilean Mhealastaidh, which is

under the morning shadow of Griomabhal on the mainland. His nights

there were a sleepless dread. He went to other places. The sea called.

He went at last to his cousin Eachainn MacEachainn’s bothy, near

Callernish in the Lews, where the Druid Stones stand by the shore and

hear nothing for ever but the noise of the waves and the cry of the

sea-wind. There, weary in hope, he found peace at last. He slept, and

none called upon him. He began to smile, and to hope.

One night the two were at the porridge, and Eachainn was muttering his

Bui ‘cheas dha’n Ti, the Thanks to the Being, when Carminish leaped to

his feet, and with a white face stood shaking like a rope in the wind.

In the grey dawn they found his body, stiff and salt with the ooze.

I did not know, but I have heard of another who had a like tragic end.

Some say he was witless. Others that he had the Friday-Fate upon him. I

do not know what evil he had done, but ‘some one’ had met him and said

to him ‘Bidh ruith na h’Aoin’ ort am Feasda, ‘The Friday-Fate will

follow you for ever.’ So it was said. But I was told this of him: that

he had been well and strong and happy, and did not know he had a

terrible gift, that some have who are born by the sea. It is not well

to be born on a Friday night, within the sound of the sea; or on

certain days. This gift is the ‘Eolas na h’Aoin,’ the Friday-Spell. He

who has this gift must not look upon any other while bathing: if he

does, that swimmer must drown. This man, whom I will call Finlay, had

this eolas. Three times the evil happened. But the third time he knew

what he did: the man who swam in the sunlight loved the same woman as

Finlay loved; so he stood on the shore, and looked, and laughed. When

the body was brought home, the woman struck Finlay in the face. He grew

stange after a time, and at last witless. A year later it was a cold

February. Finlay went to and fro singing an old February rhyme

beginning: Feadag, Feadag, mathair Faoillich fhuair!

(Plover, plover, Mother of the bleak Month.) He was watching a man

ploughing. Suddenly he threw down his cromak. He leaped over a dyke,

and ran to the shore, calling, ‘I’m coming! I’m coming! Don’t pull me –

I’m coming!’ He fell upon the rocks, which had a blue bloom on them

like fruit, for they were covered with mussels; and he was torn, so

that his hands and face were streaming red. I am your red, red love,’

he cried, ‘sweetheart, my love’; and with that he threw himself into

the sea.

More often the sea-call is not a madness, but an inward voice. I have

been told of a man who was a farmer in Carrick of Ayr. He left wife and

home because of the calling of the sea. But when he was again in the

far isles, where he had lived formerly, he was well once more. Another

man heard the sobbing of the tide among seaweed whenever he dug in his

garden; and gave up all, and even the woman he loved, and left. She won

him back, by her love; but on the night before their marriage,

in that inland place where her farm was, he slipt away and was not seen

again. Again, there was the man of whom I have spoken in ‘Iona,’ who

went to the mainland, but could not see to plough because the brown

fallows became waves that splashed noisily about him: and now he went

to Canada and got work in a great warehouse, but among the bales of

merchandise heard continually the singular note of the sandpiper, while

every hour the sea-fowl confused him with their crying.

I have myself, in lesser degree, known this longing. I am not fond of

towns, but some years ago I had to spend a winter in a great city. It

was all-important to me not to leave during January; and in one way I

was not ill-pleased, for it was a mild winter. But one night I woke,

hearing a rushing sound in the street – the sound of water. I would

have thought no more of it, had I not recognised the troubled noise of

the tide, and the sucking and lapsing of the flow in weedy hollows. I

rose and looked out. It was moonlight, and there was no water. When,

after sleepless hours, I rose in the grey morning I heard the splash of

waves. All that day and the next I heard the continual noise of waves.

I could not write or read; at last I could not rest. On the afternoon

of the third day the waves dashed up against the house. I said what I

could to my friends, and left by the night train. In the morning we

(for a kinswoman was with me) stood on Greenock Pier waiting for the

Hebridean steamer, the Clansman, and before long were landed on an

island, almost the nearest we could reach, and one that I loved well.

We had to be landed some miles from the place I wanted to go, and it

was a long and cold journey. The innumerable little waterfalls hung in

icicles among the mosses, ferns, and white birches on the roadside.

Before we reached our destination, we saw a wonderful sight. From three

great mountains, their flanks flushed with faint rose, their peaks

white and solemn, vast columns of white smoke ascended. It was as

though volcanic fires had once again broken their long stillness. Then

we saw what what it was: the north wind (unheard, unfelt where we

stood) blew a hurricane against the other side of the peaks, and,

striking upon the leagues of hard snow, drove it upward like a smoke,

till the columns rose gigantic and hung between the silence of the

white peaks and the silence of the stars.

That night, with the sea breaking less than a score yards from where I

lay, I slept, though for three nights I had not been able to sleep.

When I woke, my trouble was gone.

It was but a reminder to me. But to others it is more than that.

I remember that winter for another thing, which I may write of here.

From the fisherman’s wife with whom I lodged I learned that her

daughter had recently borne a son, but was now up and about again,

though for the first time, that morning. We went to her, about noon.

She was not in the house. A small cabbage-garden lay behind, and beyond

it the mossy edge of a wood of rowns and birches broke steeply in the

bracken and lonroid. The girl was there, and had taken the child from

her breast, and, kneeling, was touching the earth with the small

lint-white head.

I asked her what she was doing. She said it was the right thing to do;

that as soon as possible after a child was born, the mother should take

it – and best, at noon, and facing the sun – and touch its brow to the

earth. My friends (like many islanders of the Inner Hebrides, they had

no Gaelic) used an unfamiliar phrase: ‘It’s the old Mothering.’ It was,

in truth, the sacrament of Our Mother, but in a far, ancient sense. I

do not doubt the rite is among the most primitive of those practised by

the Celtic peoples.

I have not seen it elsewhere, though I have heard of it. Probably it is

often practised yet in remote places. Even where we were, the women

were somewhat fearful lest ‘the minister’ heard of what the young

mother had done. They do not love these beautiful symbolic actions,

these ‘ministers,’ to whom they are superstitions. This old, pagan,

sacramental earth-rite is, certainly, beautiful. How could one be

better blessed, on coming into life, than

to have the kiss of that ancient Mother of whom we are all children?

There must be wisdom in that first touch. I do not doubt that behind

the symbol lies, at times, the old miraculous communication. For, even

in this late day, some of us are born with remembrance, with dumb

worship, with intimate and uplifting kinship to that Mother.

Since then I have asked often, in many parts of the Highlands and

Islands, for what is known of this rite, when and where practised, and

what meaning it bears; and some day I hope to put these notes on

record. I am convinced that the Earth-Blessing is more ancient than the

westward migration of Celtic peoples.

I have both read and heard of another custom, though I have not known

of it at first-hand. The last time I was told of it was of a crofter

and his wife in North Uist. The once general custom is remembered in a

familiar Gaelic saying, the English of which is, ‘He got a turn though

the smoke.’ After baptism, a child was taken from the breast by its

mother, and handed (sometimes the child was placed in a basket) to the

father, across the fire. I do not think, but am not sure, if any signal

meaning lie in the mother handing the child to the father. When the

rite is spoken of, as often as not it is only ‘the parents’ that the

speaker alludes to. The rite is universally recognised as a spell

against the dominion, or agency of evil spirits. In Coll and Tiree, it

is to keep the Hidden People from touching or singing to the child. I

think it is an ancient propitiary rite, akin to that which made our

ancestors touch the new-born to earth; as that which makes some

islanders still baptize a child with a little spray from the running

wave, or a fingerful of water from the tide at the flow; as that which

made an old woman lift me as a little child and hold me to the south

wind, ‘to make me strong and fair and always young, and to keep back

death and sorrow, and to keep me safe from other winds and evil

spirits.’ Old Barabal has gone where the south wind blows, in blossom

and flowers, and green leaves, across the pastures of Death; and I . .

. alas, I can but wish that One stronger than she, for all her love,

will lift me, as a child again, to the Wind, and pass me across the

Fire, and set me down again upon a new Earth.


The Poetry of Fiona MacLeod

The Valley of Silence

In the secret Valley of Silence No breath dothfall;

No wind stirs in the branches;

No bird doth call:

As on a white wall A breathless lizard is still,

So silence lies on the valley

Breathlessly still.

In the dusk-grown heart of the valley

An altar rises white:

No rapt priest bends in awe Before its silent light:

But sometimes aflight Of breathless words of prayer

White-wing’d enclose the altar,

Eddies of prayer.

Thy Dark Eyes to Mine

Thy dark eyes to mine, Eilidh

Lamps of desire.

O, how my soul leaps –

Leaps to their fire.

Sure now if I in heaven,

Dreaming in bliss,

Heard but a whisper,

But the lost echo even of one such kiss –

All of the soul of me would leap afar

If that called me to thee

Aye, I would leap afar

A falling star.

The Rose of the Night

The dark rose of thy mouth

Draw nigher, draw nigher!

The breath is the wind of the south,

A wind of fire!

The wind and the rose and darkness,

O Rose of my Desire!

Deep silence of the night,

Husht like a breathless lyre,

Save the sea’s thunderous might,

Dim, menacing, dire;

Silence and wind and sea,

They are thee,

O Rose of my Desire!

As a winded dying flame

Leaping higher and higher,

Thy soul, thy secret name,

Leaps thro’ Death’s blazing pyre!

Kiss me,

Imperishable Fire,

Dark Rose,

O rose of my Desire!

The Vision

In a fair place Of whin and grass,

I heard feet pass

Where no one was.

I saw a face Bloom like a flower—

Nay, as the rainbow-shower

Of a tempestuous hour.

It was not man, or woman:

It was not human:

But, beautiful and wild,

Terribly undefiled,

I knew an unborn child.


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