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by Stephen Ellams

For Helen Adams and John Manson, former residents of the Island,
whose television interviews provided the inspiration for this poem.

Two miles from the mainland,
where the sea meets the sky,
a deserted emerald isle
lies buried in grave mist,
along with our former lives.

Beaten by savage storms,
gulled by treacherous tides,
we tried hard to persevere;
until the strain of isolation
proved too much to bear.

For our brave crofter-fishermen,
with hearts as big as any clan,
reeled in their last lines. Aye,
ancestral hearths extinguished
by long, tearful goodbyes.

Leaving behind the Mansons,
the last family standing
on Stroma’s hallowed earth;
whose bones remain exiled,
but whose spirit is still there

amid crumbling cottages,
a decommissioned phone box
beside the church and manse;
on the Great Wars memorial,
in all that we have sacrificed

And lest we forget the schoolhouse
where our proud motto once was
to never let ourselves rest,
until our good was better
and our better, best. And yes,

the pain of separation
continues to haunt us;
like the souls of the shipwrecked,
who brought us their bounty
in more perilous times. Yet,

standing on this cliff face,
before the Pentland Firth,
with senescent eyes closed;
makes me feel young again
and restores my soul.

Note to the 6th stanza: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest till your good is better and your better is best” is a saying commonly attributed to St. Jerome (ca. 347-420). Its historical accuracy is disputed by some scholars.

Historical note: Stroma is an island off the northern coast of mainland Scotland, close to John o’ Groats. It is the most southerly of the islands in the Pentland Firth, located between the Orkney Islands and the county of Caithness. It was home to 375 people in the early 20th century, but the population vanished within 60 years. The settlement has sat empty since 1962.

Copyright © 2021 by Stephen Ellams

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