The Ballad of the North Minch

From Edinburgh, from Edinburgh

There drove a lady wrapped in fur:

A fox lay black about her throat,

Her feet were dressed in skin of goat,

And curling fleece of unborn sheep

Helped this lady warm to keep,

While Russian sable bonnetted

This lady's mad mysterious head.

There was no wind but falling snow;

None saw her from the Castle go,

No house nor shop on Princes Street

Heard her fire-flecked horses' feet;

No scholar, constable nor lout

Marked the hour when she set out;

No brothel in the winter gloom

Missed her from some shabby room;

No rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief

Betrayed to Scottish unbelief

Her cold departure with his grief.

Yet leave she did from Edinburgh,

All cloaked and warm in glossy fur,

And drove through snow and snow-flecked rains

From street to road to houseless lanes.

Now north or south or east or west,

Which way would suit this lady best

And ease the madness in her breast?

But west or east or south or north

It is not love that drives her forth,

For the hand of iron in her glove

Is stronger than the grip of love.

"I cannot rest in London

Nor sleep upon the Downs,

There's only coal in Newcastle

And other English towns.

There are motor-cars in Glasgow

And fools in grey Dundee,

But the green waves of North Minch

Shall wash the rage from me."

So north and west from Edinburgh

She struck the beasts to carry her,

And lathering along the road

They fled before the flying goad;

Their chestnut sides were bloody-splashed,

Their bulging eyes grew snowflake-lashed,

And tireless in her well-furred grip

She scourged them with the bleeding whip

Across the mountains fodderless

From Edinburgh to Inverness.

At Inverness she did not stop,

None saw the horses foam and drop,

None saw her flog them to their feet

And drive them on through driving sleet:

They took the hill-tops at a bound,

Their passing waked no restless hound,

They did not pause for gate or glen

But galloping from the world of men

They came at dawn to North Minch shore

And there they fell and moved no more.

"To Stornaway, to Stornaway

O who will carry me?

I have no sailing ship or raft

To cross the cruel sea.

O who will take me in his arms

Across the drowning sea?

I shall not rest till Scotland's west

Lies far to east of me."

From North Minch waters rose a seal:

His shoulders glistened grey as steel,

He snorted steel-grey bubbles out

From whiskered, water-dripping snout,

And on his head a streaming crown

Of sandy pearls and seaweed brown.

"O who is this that calls me

From my kingly rest?

O who is this with violet eye

And madness in her breast?

Why does she stand in kingly furs

All queenly draped and dressed,

With two dead horses at her feet

And rage in her bright breast?"

"I have a magic mirror

Which spoke upon my wall

In former times when I was fairest,

Fairest queen of all.

Great princes wooed me then with gold

And sacred jewellery,

And the Tzar of all the Russias

He sent these furs to me.

And slant-eyed lords of Asia

Longed to call me bride,

And kings who saw me loved me

And suffered till they died.

But now my mirror does not speak,

Yet silver-silent on the wall

Tells me that I am no more

The fairest queen of all."

"O not on any shore

Have I a fairer seen;

To me you are most beautiful

And stately and a queen.

Then come and share my kingdom

And wear my crown with pride,

And you shall have no rival

Upon the running tide."

"O king of sliding waters,

What will you give to me

If I put on your royal crown

Beside the changeful sea?"

"You shall have a coral throne

And pearls of secret hue,

And my own dear sons shall give themselves

To make a cloak for you.

And slowly drifting bergs

Shall mirror you as they pass,

And the sliding waters of the world

Shall be your looking-glass.

And fish and crab and darting prawn

And the great whales and small,

They shall acknowledge you their queen,

The fairest queen of all."

"O Come and take me in your arms

Across the splendid sea;

There I shall rest upon your breast

Who give a crown to me."

From North Minch waters sprang the seal:

His flippers grasped her strong as steel,

He crushed her to his soaking chest,

His eyeteeth raked her pearly breast,

Then spinning with his outraged bride

He dove into the North Minch tide,

Down down through depths of water green,

The seal-king and his gasping queen.

He nosed the black fox from her throat,

Her cloak, her shoes of skin of goat,

And from her radiant head he tore

The Russian sable cap she wore,

Then pearly-naked in the sea

He clapped her to him royally.

She did not feel their marrying,

She had no time for wreath or ring,

But covered by her lustful king

This lady drowned and moved no more

Two hundred yards from North Minch shore.

O many miles from Stornaway

Green cradled in the Minch she lay,

The nacreous waters dressed her well

With inner glow of oyster shell,

And she had waving weeds to wear

And minnows darting through her hair.

He took her to his rocky throne

Where splendidly she sat alone,

While fish and prawn went drifting by

Mirrored in her violet eye;

He called his dearest sons to make

A royal garment for her sake;

They snuggled round her stone retreat,

They hid her breasts, her hands, her feet,

From throat to heel they covered her

With a live bubbling coat of fur,

While on her head they set the crown

Of sandy pearls and seaweed brown,

The only queen beneath the tide.

Soon tiptoe crabs laid bare her bones

And loosed her pearly listening-stones:

Like triple dice they floated clear

In the bone-white hollow of each ear;

And when the lifting shifting tide

Sometimes touched them side by side,

Did they conduct a voice to her

From a quiet room in Edinburgh?

And did that mirror on her wall

Say she was fairest now of all?




Isabella Fey