The Stories In The Land

Bass Rock, a mile and a half off shore from Dunbar in the Firth of Forth is just seven acres in total. In its time, it has been home to a hermitage, a chapel, a castle, a garrison of 100 soldiers and a prison. Now it is the closest sea bird sanctuary to the mainland, home for birds - northern gannets. Quite a lot of them – 120,000 occupied nest sites during the peak season.

Robert Louis Stevenson spent several summer holidays at the farm opposite the Bass as a youth. The  main character in his novel Catriona is imprisoned on Bass Rock.  The Stevenson connection continued into the 1900s when his cousins built the lighthouse. This was manned until 1988, when the last keepers left, leaving an automated service. There are stories in the landscape to be told.

Last summer, while out walking, I met a Spanish-Scottish woman sitting along the rocks of East Beach, writing and looking out to sea. We got talking and she told me about Bass Rock and Baldred, the evangelist and hermit sent by St Mungo to spread Christianity to the Lothians in the sixth century.  She talked with authority on the subject turning around to take in Traprain Law in the telling.  She said that the huge rocky outcrops that dominate the summit of the Law are called the Maiden Stone and Mother Rock. It is believed that they have magical properties. Squeezing through the narrow crevices is supported to improve your fertility.  She also mentioned the story of a woman being thrown down this huge volcanic mound.

She had me there. It was only much later, this year in fact, that I did some reading around this history and found Thenaw, St Mungo’s mother. The story goes that Thenaw was thrown from the Law by her father King Lot when he discovered that she was pregnant by Owain Mab Urien. She survived the fall, and managed to journey across the Forth to a place near Culross, making her new home there and she giving birth to Mungo.  

I became interested in this woman’s story, and how it always seems to be the women who are punished for the mistakes that happen. Travelling in between Edinburgh and Dunbar recently, I was mesmerised by the Law and the stories that surround it. This is the beginning of a series of poems I hold to develop while in residence think about Thenaw and women’s place in history.




The time I was thrown down the heights of Dunpendyrlaw, down,

cast out and shamed, what did I know of love, of my lord,

                                                                                                                 of motherhood?


You will be born into winter, the time when afternoon moon

meets bronzed sun. We will make the long walk

                                                                                                over the hills through


the creamy beige bracken to a coracle where we will drift for days

across the sea to Culross. You will slip into

                                                                                   this world like ice.


Amongst the harsh white birch trees with branches glowing red, here,

I will tell you who you will become. You will restore

                                                                                            life to the robin.