Renga in Birsay

In 2017 The GMB Fellowship collaborated with the RSPB to devise an event for the Orkney Nature Festival. The session was led by Yvonne Gray of the GMBF, Alison Nimmo of the RSPB and David McNeish, Chair of Orkney Pilgrimage. It explored themes of landscape, pilgrimage and time through walking and writing in the stretch of coast between the Point of Buckquoy and St Magnus Kirk, Birsay.

In Birsay, centre of ecclesiastical power at the time, the surrounding landscape is rich in natural heritage: seals watch from the bay, Arctic terns nest nearby and the rocks of the shore expose fossils that predate such human happenings.

Taking inspiration from these layers of place, the participants created a renga, a collaborative form of poetry that is itself 1000 year old. As the day went on the verses grew to form a group piece following the cycle of seasons.

Renga in Summer

Below a lark-split sky

序 Seals in the arc                                                                                                                                                  of the bay follow us                                                                                                                                                        along the shore.

Inky grey                                                                                                                                                             a curlew bubbles overhead.

Below a lark-split sky                                                                                                                                       the old song echoes                                                                                                                                        along path and strand.

Liquid eyes.
Blind fossils.

破 A concrete ribbon
cleaves the sea. Lifolf's axe
shears death from life.
Grass jewelled with flowers –
food for sheep and cows.
Bairns gleefully play
in sand and sparkling water 
search for groatie buckies.
Mustard lichen clings to headstones
along slate roofs and boundary wall.
Sounds of pilgrims' feet –
clouded eyes see the light again
and dull minds shimmer.
So many misremembered griefs
among the dying embers.

No leaves to fall
but the crackling fire 
makes my heart swell.

At sea the year's fledglings
meet waves like claws.
Then leave me
to cry and call and hear again
your haunting voice.
In any season
there is turning to be done.
Cathedral the colour of a fading rose 
upheld by a broken skull – 
witness of changing times.
So from darkness and despair
to embrace long nights, short days.
急 Rasp of a keel 
on the shore – shoulders strain
to drag the boat to the noust.
An ancient sound from the saga
as ravens roll on shifting wings.
Scurvy grass, travelled feet.
Sea foam blooms 
on sand.
This crocus from Turkey's mountain slopes 
brightens palace grounds.

Babette Barthelmess, Graham Brown, Fraser Dixon, Yvonne Gray (Master), David McNeish, Alison Nimmo, Jenny Sturgeon

Orkney Nature Festival, Point of Buckquoy & St Magnus Church, Birsay Monday 15 May 2017

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