Highland Hospitality

Alistair Elliot

When the two youngest Elliots,
not yet in their teens,
were sent to school at Stoer,
they lodged, like the unmarried minister,
near the kirk, with old Mrs Mackenzie
and her daughters
in a house called ‘The Rage of Cats’.

Mrs Mackenzie fed them porridge
and milk; potatoes and milk
and oatcakes; perhaps a bite
of potatoes and herring ...
This powered them through four hours of Gaelic
on Sundays; but even the man in black
must have prayed for colour in the diet.

At kirk, strangers would shake their hands,
thank them, and recall their father’s house.
These dark-clothed men were herring-fishers
who in the Eighties, even the Seventies,
had followed the shoals from the Minch
through the narrows at Kylesku
and on, up the dark loch, Glendhu.

There they would spread their nets at dusk
and a sail among the rocks:
opposite, the boys’ future father
left his house open, the table set
with land meat and a fire lit,
and sometimes didn’t wait up. What an idea!
To be his guests and not see him!

The boys could not explain the Rage of Cats,
but now we understand
the name on the map where the path is lost
among boulders, Carn Sgadan:
Cairn of Herrings, monument
to the fish, the shy dark men,
the bounty of the past.