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The Northumberland Set

Below are a lovely collection of poems called The Northumberland Set by the Rev Ewan MacPherson.



The rain falls fast and silver on the land,
Which rolls, outside of time, down to the sea;
As if the saints and Vikings lived here still;
All prayers and killing in the blood red sun
And holiness, like hidden valleys, deep
From Redesdale all the way to Lindisfarne;
And I so full of joy that I could weep,
My heart a little chapel cut in stone,
With markings on it that the Romans knew.
Inside, a single simple shaft of light,
As if my life was somehow touched by faith.
Around for miles, the dry stone walls and sheep,
The wind, the North Sea and the distant beach;
God’s love to hand; eternity in reach.


The Farne Islands 

The air all blustery; grey, shining light;
A pair of starlings on the jetty wall
And sailors thin; made wiser by the sea,
Tied up their boat. The trip began for me.
I left the land; the walls of well kept stone;
The herring gulls; the men who stand alone
Facing the wind; the tightly angered storm;
Their wives and children comfortable at home.
They were another race, this northern kind.
The white-flecked swell; the shoreline far behind.

Out in the bay in sight of Lindisfarne
I saw the Farnes. The guillemots aloft
Flew over, like a squadron in the war,
In close formation, winter grey and white,
I watched them pass; the spray blown on my face
And turned to see the shag, all cobweb green;
The northern tern; sheer cliffs; the evening light;
A hundred golden plover came to rest
Before the longer flight to winter sun.

On shore, a little sheltered from the wind,
St. Cuthbert’s Chapel with its call to prayer;
And, in the sea, the grey seals bobbed about
The ancient currents seemed to pull us home.
I was made new; my cares all swept aside
Called far from me across the rising tide.



The early morning light; the North Sea cold;
Its currents swirling; yet to feel the sun
And Cuthbert, Mattins said, stood chanting psalms
At one with God. The grey seals warmed his feet.
He stood there quite beyond the pulse of life;
Only a beating heart and God who loved.
It was a desert; silent; frozen; bare.
Only the mewing gulls; the lapping waves
And always the low music of the wind,
Self-will was lost; love purged him of his sin.
Here Cuthbert fought each drawn out Northern day.
The Psalter chanted, God warmed up his clay
And we, still yet unborn, how we were blessed,
Who walk the pilgrim path and take our rest.


Autumn Storms

With snapping jaw, the autumn storms attacked 
And people woke to sheets of falling rain.
The settled order of their daily lives,
Turned hurdy gurdy as the rivers rose.
I watched the river Coquet flowing fast,
All foam and debris from the distant hills;
And on the Warkworth side, near to the Church
The water wildness went its wanton way.
Its vigour wrecked the order of the day.
In local news, I saw Rothbury lost.
A Viking tide shook Morpeth like a shark.
Abandoning the safety of its streets, 
The town lay lost beneath the rising tide,
With homely artefacts all strewn about.
The Northern people; courage in their bones
Drew humour even here; their hope unbowed.

I woke; sleep dragged from me in that dark night.
A wall of rain; the rivers sullen roar;
It was so close. I turned to God in prayer,
Partly to trust and partly to placate
The force that lay beyond our cottage gate.
Within the rhythm of the holy words
There came the starting of a sudden peace,
As if the Lord of life gave us shalom
And I, within my prayer, at rest; at home;
Was suddenly at ease within the storm.

The storm ran out its time; its courage done;
The sun returned, the land and people one. 



In Lindisfarne, across the grey North Sea,
The brooding silhouette of Bamburgh
Has something of the power it must have had
When Saxon Kings ruled all our land from here.
They looked across the water to the Church,
Where Irish monks brought Christ to English hearts
And gospel words brought hope to men of war
And jewelled script on new made vellums wrote.

Across the causeway, when the tide is down,
The cars come over and the people walk
On this small island; laughing; free of care.
Down these small streets they walk. The autumn sun
A benediction for them as they go.
They eat ice cream; forget the hours of work;
And yet in sudden moments they are still
As if they hear the noon day plainsong chant
That started here a thousand years ago.
They bow their heads, uncertain why they do.
Unseen above, the slender white dove flew. 


The Vikings

How many mothers mourned in these great hills
When Viking ships all sea-wolf savage came
To murder in a land new won for Christ.
There was such sadness then. The long ships beached;
The Churches pillaged. Monks lay on the shore.
Christ’s holy body spilled from its own house
And carefully written texts thrown in the sea.
Saints torn from graves. Crows circled up aloft
Watching the killing of the mothers’ men,
The women also and the children died.
These Vikings navigate a great, black sea
To find somewhere to live with land to farm,
Still came and desecrated all they found,
Spilling Christ’s blood upon the Saxon ground;
And yet, in time, Christ worked to save them all.
They came to love this land and heard His call.
Their houses built, their corn filled every barn.
They lived with us from York to Lindisfarne.


Border War

In dead of night, when Percy lifts his sword,
The North wind howls and Douglas is abroad.
Men quake with fear. The moon is streaked with blood.
There’s violence all around them like a flood.
The breasts dry up. War keeps the bairns from food;
Their cradles empty as the mothers hide.
So many times they tried to start a prayer,
Which caught like fish bone in the throat that night.
Then eyes, which could not weep stared terrified,
Whilst madness ripped apart their little lives.
The blood soaked in the land and men forgot
Which limb was English and which limb was Scot.
Men struggled on and their proud banners fell.
What this accomplished really, none could tell.



Behind the marble altar, through the door, 
In Durham’s great cathedral, there’s a shrine
Far from the Viking ships at Lindisfarne;
Far from the pillage; where I came to pray.
I knelt before St. Cuthbert’s simple tomb;
This Saxon priest, taught by the Celtic monks,
Whose souls, shaped in Iona, lived for God.
A child, he watched the sheep on these old hills,
When in the dark night sky he saw a fire;
The soul of Aidan, angels all around
Rose up to heaven. Cuthbert was the man
Who taught Northumberland the way of Christ,
Which he had learned from Aidan and the rest,
As puffins learn from mother in the nest.

I knelt alone, in deep prayer, in that place
And, in my mind, I saw a fine old man.
He’d been a shepherd in the Redesdale hills,
Who stood in battle with the fusiliers.
I saw the courage in his weathered face,
His gait unstooping and his eyes still sharp,
As if his forbears in the Iron Age
Ran with the long horned cows at Chillington;
Learned from the Romans; married with the Danes;
Built stone farmhouses in the border wars;
They never lost the gentle peace of Christ.
He stood, his wife and family at his side
And, as it seemed to me, he turned and smiled
As if we tasted friendship for a while.
I felt that I had come to understand
The holy beauty of Northumberland.