ASLE talk

People, poems and place: Stromness an acrostic town.

Gabrielle Barnby

ASLE conference, 5-7th Sept, Orkney


‘There is no skill or enchantment

To make the old coat green,

There can be at best, now

A flung or fated pattern of patches’

Excerpt from An Old Man in July by George Mackay Brown, Northern Lights (1999)



The walls were painted over white. At Northlight Gallery other exhibitions have been hung, and admired by visitors and residents who walk the streets of Stromness, our town by the sea.

You can hear I don’t belong. Orkney is not the place I come from, but as they say here, it is the place I stay.

If you search on-line, you might get a clue to what’s behind the paint – there’s a poem selected by Roddy Woomble in the Scottish Poetry Library’s annual anthology of the Best Scottish Poems called Ashley Lane, written by Kate Barrett. It’s digital now.

Ashley Lane by Kate Barrett







And I wish it



I know that beneath the paint in Northlight Gallery there is a map. It has been painted over twice, the second time so that a very aptly named exhibition, Lost In Time: photos from the Middle East, Orkney and Beyond, by Annie Wright could be hung.

Before this, from 7th-19th October, there was a reprise of our exhibition of acrostic poems based on Stomness street names, illustrated with a hand drawn map.

The map was recovered through a new and developing process of gallery archaeology. The white paint was carefully sanded away, dust fleeing into every corner, released into the environment indiscriminate of where it settled, whether it was floor, or passing cat.

The map lost its clarity. It looked ghostly, bringing to mind chalk and blackboard. Lines lead away from to paper rectangles arranged around its periphery. They did not say useful things like ‘public toilets’ or ‘Local shop’ or even ‘Statue of the explorer John Rae.’ No, they were poems. They used a standard form, the only discipline that had been prescribed for our work.

Rae’s Close by Fraser Dixon

Round about

All about

Every corner

Stories abound

Come around

Look around

Over and under

Somewhere a way to

End an acrostic

At this second showing they are familiar. Familiar in a particular way, they are voices that speak the life of the town. They have a re-readable quality, a sort of popularity. They speak of the places people stay.

The streets were gradually been revealed. They had been there all along, settled between the paint. Bald and mysterious without the annotations that gave them life, even if they didn’t tell you anything useful. What’s the use of a poem? Will it feed and clothe you? Yet here they were back again, and it was good to see them, and the streets meant more with them.

Summer is the busy time in Orkney, except August. By August the buzz is wearing off and the shows are here and school is soon. It was in June that the map had been painted over in a hurry, to make way for the next exhibition. An exhausted gallery curator, who had a busy summer schedule never imagined she would be a pioneer in gallery archaeology. (This whole phase was unintentionally very close to contemporary art (Gerhard Richter – obscuring original images with acrylic boards).)

There had never been the intention to recover the map, much the same as a bottle is thrown overboard, or a ship scuttled, it was painted over. Yet it waited, did no harm as it slept. There was dust and paint. You could not get away from these small costs, not to mention labour, just so we could see it again, even knowing that it would never be quite how it was.

Perhaps it has been thoughtless to paint it over, but things had to move on. In Stromness even a road can be erased from history, Shore Road was renamed Ferry Road

Shore Road by Lucy Gibbon

Sidled along the sea shore

Hid all the rubbish

Over the wall

Reclaimed from the sea

Emerged over many years.

Renamed Ferry Road

Officially does not exist

After all it did for the port

Deserves to be remembered.

There were also a road on the map that simply did not exist. Never had. It was faithfully reproduced on the wall, but it was never there. Like some fictitious animal tale brought back by rum soaked sailors and gin riddled gentlemen explorers.

The first exhibition of the acrostic poems has been in midsummer from Friday 23rd – Thursday 29th of June, covering perhaps the busiest weekend of the year after St Magnus Festival. There was a chance to meet the writers and have refreshments on Saturday afternoon. The timing of the exhibition has been planned well in advance, early in January when the project was first discussed. The idea of a map had come very early, a visual guide for the location of our acrostic streets.

A map with all the streets was needed. This would be a new way to navigate the streets.

Before the exhibition opened copies of the book collecting the poems together was produced. Later, a copy would be deposited in the Scottish Poetry Library, Kate’s poem would be found, admired and chosen. The books were to be sold at the exhibition and Stromness Books and Prints.

The poems were one of the many projects carried out in 2017, which also included a 200 words writing competition, Haiku pamphlets, a scrawl crawl and the production of a Foy. It turned out to be a busy year thanks to two hundred years ago  campaign by Alexander Graham to free Stromness from taxation by the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall.

The poem for Graham Place does make reference to the man who campaigned for the town’s independence but the rest were not about taxes or the landmark legal victory. They are about the fishing and tourism that supports the town, there are references to building and engineering, but many are more personal.

Poems do not write themselves, at the very least they must have a conduit. These conduits usually call themselves writers, although some wear this definition as loosely as they would a dressing gown. The group responsible for these annotations to the lines and curves of the map were Stromness Writing Group.

Some of the poems are directly inspired from time and place, they are a walk down the street. Never a group to obey a set of rules slavishly, this poem is a mesostic, so that a vertical phrase intersects the horizontal text. These are poems, like acrostics, for the eye as well as the ear.

Netherton by Lucy Alsop

Narrow, meandering road,

  edged with fast-flowing ditches, some

filled in with stone


dry stone dykes, lichen-clad,

   lean in to the road, dangerously in places;

speed signs stop



The poems can be loosely grouped into: personally reflective poems, poems of movement and breath, poems about time, poems of stone, sea and sky and poems of existence.

Miller’s Close by Tom Miller


Incoming outbound


Leaving on the tides


Returning betimes



Lifting over the wind-borne spirit


Silvered seas beneath the stars


Personally reflective, the poem shares with the reader moments of belonging yet the restlessness and the compulsion to be constantly moving between places like the tide. The tropes of sea, stars and wind root the poem in the Oracadian archipelago.

As in every town there is a certain amount of coming home from school and neighbourly interest in each other’s affairs. Memories of dashes and discoveries, of the people so frequently glimpsed at a particular time and place featured in a number of poems, they live through the evocation of movement and breath. This is another mesostic.

Bailey’s Brae by Vicky Baugh

‘Don’t you Be late!’

Ma yells At the gate

But Charlie Is already gone

Let Loose from School,

Bag dumpEd in the hall,

He’s readY to see his mates.

Down the Side Street

In the house Behind his,

ConnoR is doing the same.

Dodging the pArents, who seem intent,

On ruining thEir game.

There is joy in being alive, existence that is not searching upward and outward into the universe. It is nowness.

The timescale of the poems vary hugely from the moment of a feather passing to a shower of rain, a turning tide to the moonrise, the slow growth of lichen to the wearing of stones, and back further to ancient times, to the ice ages and then the everlasting.

This seems interesting and important. While opening their poetical souls to a sense of place, the writers repeatedly experience a strong connection to a sense of time, and a perception and appreciation of themselves in relation to change.

A parallel observation can be made about the range in scale of the objects and motifs from the environment that enter the poems. The stretch from the micro: moth, dragonflies and frogs to crows and cats, boys and girls, ditches and drains, streets and lanes, the town, the sea and then the horizon and above this the moon with her tug and pull in the great sky where the sun brings season and change to the solar winds comfort in the long winter darkness. There is a perception and sensitivity of scale that island life brings, and no hesitation to claim a stake in all things big and small. My frog, my crow, my sky.

Downie’s Lane by Anna Gardiner

Dancing feather

Overtakes me: the

Wind is on my side.

Nearing the top

I turn, below is



Lichen of houses

A crust on the shore.

Noises of the town

Escape to me on the wind.

The uplifting tone of this poem and many others in the collection suggest that the Stromness Writing Group have a deluded belief in the perfection of this town. In mid-winter (and mid-summer for that mind) the elements can be truly vitriolic.

For the most part the poems follow a Wordsworthian description of poetry: the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, taking its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility. Much of the poetry gathers experience and simply leaves it there, the reader must play their part and take up the images and form their own response. Some form a narrative or perspective for the reader, gifting a sense of solidarity and shared understanding.

It should be unsurprising that very few of the poems leave the reader with a sense of disorientation. Wallace Stevens offers a description of poetry as needing to resist the intelligence, to deliberately destabilise the reader and throw their perspective repeatedly out of kilter. This can be applied to few if any of these works.

There is always a firm place to stand, a point of view, the context of place.

The same news bulletins beam into island homes as to the centre of the metropolis, there is the same (well, nearly) access to the internet, false-news, conspiracy theories, health scares. There is no protective news bubble around the islands, we are not an undiscovered tribe. 

Perhaps these writers just don’t write that sort of disruptive, disorienting poetry? Well, some get pretty close to it on other days, with other prompts.

Is it possible to draw a connection between the rooting of a creative process in a place and the impulse to write something that enriches and clarifies human experience rather than dislocates?

You might state that a place with deep history and outstanding natural beauty makes this a self-evident conclusion.

I think I disagree. There are references in the poems to loneliness, depression, physical stress,  anxiety, migration, corporal punishment, whale harvesting, drowning, self-doubt, delusion, fear, war graves, homesickness, sewerage works, traffic problems, joyriding, violence and drinking.

Stromness is not and has never been a pastoral ideal. Who would yearn to return to the days when the stench from rubbish tipped over into the harbour slicked around the town? Who cannot acknowledge that some days are very hard, their is suicide, addiction and loss. Sometimes the sea is hard as stone.

The streets inspired as they did, each writer sat on their suitcase of experiences, education and beliefs before they began to write. Some may well just have been in a particular mood and seen a particular capricious cat the evening before.

Franklin Road by Shaun Gardiner

Forward and back roof-raddled the cat,

Round and around rolled the moon

And Venus and Mars in a carafe of stars

Noodled the night’s afternoon

Kaleidoscope cat, my syrup, my fat,

Liminal linx’ – said the moon – ‘my love

I see that your eye waxes, wanes, as do I,

Now a crescent, now plump as a dove.’

Render me puss, oh answer me this:

Or my dark or my light find you nice?

Ah – I like you best when you are half-dressed.

Dim -for the sake of mice.’

Others may have produced something that seems inexplicable now, but captured some brief urgent thing.

Khyber Pass by Gabrielle Barnby

Kiss me, stop me trembling on the stair

Hush and hold the soft

Yellow moon for the dark angel ball

Break the day in two for the boy who

Eager-handed touches and sighs

Rest and keep me locked up in a heart cell

Pressgang me, love punch-drink against the wall

After moonfall, on the narrow steps

Suspended in the witch-draught from the shore

Send love into the dark, safe haven and sail away tight and full.

These poems, produced by a community of writers on the edge do not exhibit distress caused by environmental change. They are rooted in time and place, both small and large. Here there is perspective rather than disorientation. There is reference to a dream when hoof-beats drown out the noise of engines, but there is no utopia. The cobbles are slippery, the crows carp day and night but meanwhile, why not look up and as Joanna Buick puts it in her poem Grieveship Terrace ‘watch Flotta dazzle. ‘

These were our roads, our words, there is a sense of connection that hadn’t been there before.

A sense of individual sensory experience and belonging to a community underpin the sense of well-being that the poems relate. There is value in the old town and the old coat, and even as they wear and patina, personality and faults develop there is beauty and promise in the layers of new over old. Just like layers of white paint on a gallery wall.

There is a call to love the old green coat.

‘There is no skill or enchantment

To make the old coat green,

There can be at best, now

A flung or fated pattern of patches’

Gabrielle Barnby

ASLE conference

5-7th Sept, Orkney

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