Norman MacCaig’s poetry about Assynt, collected in Polygon’s Between Mountain and Sea, are spare, simple evocations of time and place. Arrivals and departures loom large because he was mostly a summer visitor there, and how people and place live in memory is constantly up for exploration. ‘Notations of ten summer minutes’ captures a short period of village activity, but also enfolds centuries of common tradition and culture, and the feeling of a short, intense summer holiday that was over too soon but lives on forever.
Notations of ten summer minutes Norman MacCaig, April 1976 A boy skips flat stones out to sea – each does fine till a small wave meets it head on and swallows it. The boy will do the same. The schoolmaster stands looking out of the window with one Latin eye and one Greek one. A boat rounds the point in Gaelic. Out of the shop comes a stream of Omo, Weetabix, BiSoDol tablets and a man with a pocket shaped like a whisky bottle. Lord V. walks by with the village in his pocket. Angus walks by spending the village into the air. A melodeon is wheezing a clear-throated jig on the deck of the Arcadia. On the shore hills Pan cocks a hairy ear; and falls asleep again. The ten minutes are up, except they aren’t. I leave the village, except I don’t. The jig fades to silence, except it doesn’t.
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‘Two Men at Once’ is one of Norman MacCaig best known poems. He was indeed two men at once: Edinburgh, the city where he was born and lived as a teacher and poet, was his home, but no other place shaped his poetry more than Assynt in…