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At the Quayside

The buyers peer with hands in pockets,

black against the break of day,

and rienge their wits for jests to cheapen

our siller won from waters grey.

Down from the quay they climb to finger

what our brown nets swept away,

the hard-won harvest we have wrestled

from sea and night, from wind and spray.


What do they know, or any others,

of how the midnight wind commands,

and herds the glimmering crests to leeward

to break in ranks on hidden strands,

or how dawn shows the torn horizon

to staring eyes or frozen hands?

Only the night sea, wudd with winter,

can give them the mind that understands.


We weather foreland after foreland,

and string the bow of every bight,

where lamps in homes by windless harbours

shine warm and yellow through the night.

We face, unshielded, wind and water,

and black to leeward as we fight

we glimpse the crouching, thundering forelands

that bare their fangs there, foaming white.


Hour and hour the hammering motor

echoes through the hold below;

hour and hour the restless forefoot

soars, then belts the black to snow;

the dark sea, wounded, phosphorescent,

lashes, with icy fire aglow,

the eyes that read it, watching forward

the sliding waters as we go.


Our wives at home are waking with us.

Listening to the gale they lie.

We listen to its high crests hissing,

and mark the neighbour’s light outbye,

red now, green now, lifting, sinking,

while, unquiet, our steerman’s eye

traces the stays to where the masthead

staggers its arc across the sky.


And lights on one bright star beyond it,

above a cloud rim winking plain

like a beacon on a rampart,

and of a sudden sees it wane.

Down the wind a grey wall marches,

towering; across us leap again

the streaming spindrift and the fury,

the squall, the blindness and the rain.


And if Fortune chances on us

in the dark, and swings our keel

into the airt where shoals are swimming,

we mark them, shoot and round them wheel.

Then a foot for purchase on the gunnel,

numb hands that have lost their feel,

the ebb tide straining, the steep seas snatching

a backdrop like a rod of steel.


The buyers outlined on the quayside

ganting and peering in a line,

the half-awakened early risers

that wonder if the night was fine,

though they can look at dark seaward,

and see far out our torches shine,

what can they know of our dim battles

round Pladda, Arran and Loch Fyne?



Liz MacNab (one of only  2 principal English teachers at Tarbert Academy since the end of WW2) chose 'At the Quayside'.

Liz MacNab

"Although the poem was written with the 1930s in mind it’s still  relevant today and you could see the same scene on the quayside in Tarbert now. "