Iron Age Broch, Mousa Island, Shetland, UK (Scotland)

Brochs are iron age towers that are found only in Scotland. They appear to have been a kind of fortification when the community was under siege. These round towers that look unsettlingly like nuclear reactors had double walls with internal staircases. There were niches for food storage, hearths in the center, water storage areas. The one pictured above on Mousa Island is the best preserved one there is. Naturally, Ann and I had to visit when we found out there was a midnight ferry excursion to watch storm petrels nest in the ancient structure. The island is on the path of their commute from Antarctica, and they swoop in at midnight during the Simmer Dim because the predators can’t see them. The poem tells the story of our visit, and the treacherous walking on marshy ground during the Simmer Dim- that time of twilight that last well into the wee hours of the morning, when the ground is exactly the same color as the sky.

Mousa Boat Man and the Storm Petrels

  1. Mousa Boat Man

He speaks of the storm petrels in a hushed tone.

“Twenty-seven grams. Weight of a one-pound coin.”

His back to the dock where his ferry boat bobs,

eyes fixed on the long stretch of peaty bog

between us and the broch, the

Iron Age fortress, mysterious

tower of Norse legend.

Dark stone sentinel that

looms at the edge of this

lonely Shetland island.

Mousa boat man reaches into

the pocket of his wool trousers.

Artifact in a plastic sandwich bag

“The storm petrel flies

halfway around the world

on these wings.”

he makes an arc in the air with his

calloused fingertip

A perfect pair of peerie[1] black wings

passed around the sturdy walkers.

Storm petrels nest in the Mousa broch.

Round, windowless tower

raised high on the cliffs and

silhouetted against the sky.

Ancient tower of double

walls and secret passages.

Witness to the ages on this

misty northern island.

Mousa boat man says

“Take your time. See the birds.

They swoop under cover of dusk

past hungry raptors, into the broch.

Careful where you step.

They nest in the stairway”

II The Simmer Dim

Early in Shetland’s summer,

dusk comes at midnight.

In the simmer dim,

night holds its breath in liminal light.

Mousa boat man waits by the dock.

Ann and I head off with the sturdy walkers.

My job is to walk and to see.

Sky slowly dims, just

enough to match the ground.

I struggle along the path

etched by sheep into mud and rocks

along the cliff edge. Ann asks if I want to go on.

I say yes.

The last few feet a steep climb,

“I’ve got you,” she says,

pulls me up by the hand.

It is night but not night.

First moon since we’ve been here.

I realize how much I’ve missed it.

Storm petrels circle around the moon,

dive into the broch. Tiny winged missiles.

We crouch beneath the low-linteled entrance,

crawl into its skylit tower.

Ann climbs stone stairs that

rise like jagged teeth

between massive double walls.

I stay below, listen for

wings beating in the shadows.

The sun sinks lower, the

moon rises higher and

disappears in the mist.

In the simmer dim, faint light lingers

deep into the night.

Tonight, the wind has knives.

The ground is unforgiving.

It’s time to find our way back to the boat.

The going is slow. The

simmer dim won’t illuminate.

Ann lights our way with an iPhone.

No time to pause to

gain or regain footing.

III. Mousa Boat Man Waits at the Helm of his Ferry.

Into the half-light with a torch and a staff,

come two of the sturdy walkers

calling out, guiding us

away from the edge of the cliff

toward the dock.

One foot in front of the other.

A doctor once told me

a foot is just a bag of bones.

I place my bones gingerly

along the rain-slick path.

Fleece-wrapped walkers

huddle quietly on benches.

Straggling storm petrels

still dive toward the broch.

Mousa boat man says nothing.

He starts his engine and

turns away from Mousa island.

Ann starts the car.

We drive home to Scalloway, village

In the shadow of a ruined castle.

Porch light on the house

overlooking the harbor

Beth and Ian’s kitchen,

stories flow deep

into the simmer dim.

A dram of whisky.

A Tunnock’s teacake.

Amanda Nicole Gulla 2015

[1] Shetland dialect: diminutive

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