Finding the parallels between Stornoway and St. Petersburg in prose: “Red Star Over Hebrides” by Donald S. Murray4 min read
In Donald S. Murray’s latest collection Red Star Over Hebrides, the poet and novelist looks back on his formative years on the Isle of Lewis, where a fascination for ‘Russian’ literature and memories of the Russian Revolution persisted among the local population. Through 19 short stories and poems, written over the course of his life, Murray explores the dense web of connections — both historical and otherwise — that exist between the regions.
Today, it may seem strange to compare the Hebrides, those narrow strips of land surrounded by the mercurial sea, with the immense vastness of the Russian Empire and, later, Soviet Union. Historically, however, there has been a huge trading link between the Outer Hebrides and the Russian Empire. Stornoway, the main town of the Western Isles and the capital of Lewis and Harris, was once the leading herring port in Great Britain, if not Europe, with sailing vessels carrying this crucial cargo as far as Riga and St. Petersburg. In the 1920s, the October Revolution inspired more revolutionary thinking amongst the local population, perhaps exemplified by the land raids, a political protest wherein some World War I veterans seized the land they believed due to them. The Revolution’s other effect, however, was the decimation of the herring industry, with ships only once again anchoring near Stornoway and Ullapool in the 1970’s. It is this time that Murray remembers most: “One of the highlights of my late teenage years was seeing ‘Russian’ and ‘Polish’ notices sellotaped to shop windows in that small town, limiting the number of visitors from these parts stepping within their doors.” Murray recalls several people in both his village and elsewhere possessing a “fascination” for ‘Russian’ literature, noting the connections between the spirituality on the islands and that found in the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. He also observes the repressiveness and harshness of the islands’ Presbyterian environment. He recounts all of these links in his poem “Prelude: Mother Russia”:
I can see these islands mirror Russia.
The machair’s sweep reflect the steppes
while moors multiply tenfold,
transformed into tundra,
with houses squat in Arctic winds
that shake the fragile edges
of both tree and man.
And the people, too,
clinging to the orthodoxies of Kirk or State
or singinging songs sonorous with sadness—
the Volga boatmen crossing seas
some cailleach’s coat
covering Krushchev or Cherenkov’s wife;
Yeltsin reeling through the Kremlin
or the council chamber’s doors;
Vlad bare-chested on the machair
with a fishing rod in hand.
In his most striking, and witty, short story, “The Listeners,” Murray assails the repressive nature of the islands’ religious communities. In this four-part tale, the Open Presbyterian Church of Scotland decides to build a new Temperance Hotel for ministers and elders visiting Edinburgh. After speaking to the builders, the Church uses micro-concrete in the hotel, the same material used by the construction firm in Eastern Europe consisting of 50% concrete and 50% secret microphones. Much like many of these totalitarian communist states, the Church cannot just stop at bugging the concrete — soon the ministers’ shoes, buckles, breakfast bowls, ashtrays, and whatever else one can imagine are made up of listening devices. Yet, as time passes, a younger, more rebellious generation of ministers come, and the bugs begin to lose their power. In the end, a so-called Singing Revolution, reminiscent of the path taken to re-establish Estonian independence in 1991, is held by the Reverends MacLeod. As they sing a psalm, the micro-concrete hotel begins to crumble, “the walls toppling as they collapse across the city of Berlin a few years later, earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”
Murray’s writing is alluringly lyrical, whether styled as poetry or prose. Some of his musicality likely comes from his Gaelic mother-tongue, which he thinks in, as well as incorporates throughout his work. For example, in his poem “Song for a Tsar”, Murray imagines the life of Catherine Mackinnon; born c.1778 on the Isle of Mull, she became a children’s nurse in the household of Alexander I. Murray envisions Mackinnon teaching her charges some of her native Gaelic, her words lasting in their memories long past her death in 1858:
‘Nuair thèid mac mo righ-sa
fo làn èideadh
gu robh neart na cruinne leat
‘s neart na grèine
neart an tairbh dhuibh
‘s àirde leumas . . .’
When the son of my king
steps out in full robes,
may he have strength of the globe
and force of shining sun,
the power of the dark bull
that leaps most high . . .
Those Gaelic words are left
to travel across taiga and the steppes
and wash up near Fionnphort, Bunessan,
and cleared townships of the Ross of Mull
to tell the few natives who remain there
that this exile’s heart is quiet and still.
Red Star Over Hebrides is a great reminder of the interconnectedness of our modern world and the links and attachments that, once made, can stretch over centuries and continents alike.
Book details: Murray, Donald S., Red Star Over Hebrides, 2023, Taproot Press. Buy it here.