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Song for a Tsar

(i.m Catherine Mackinnon, born Uisken, Isle of Mull, c. 1778, Died Florence, Italy, 1858. Buried St Petersburg, 1859)

by Donald S Murray


Winter's Palace, St Petersburg. The moon is full
as Catherine seeks to lull
the child to sleep with a song learned long ago in Mull.

Both years and miles have swelled
since then, but she is conscious that the roll
and pitch of tides are in that lullaby - and for all that different squalls

may stir and rock his life, its rhythms will come back
to wrap around him - in these moments he wears mourning black,
that instant he is startled by the crack

of gunshot, those hours when weight of robe and crown
bestowed upon him will bend both neck and head down.
He'll recall then the words with which she gifted him,

and all the flow and cadence of its foreign sounds.


Sometimes she would smell the reek of peat
and think this is where I come from,
these houses where blown ash sweeps
earthen floors like snow stacked deep
upon the tundra, where hunger keeps
stalking souls whose only sustenance is prayer,

and she'd note the presence of a hush
rarely in attendance when tides crushed
rock and sand at Uisken; the only sounds
the distant howling of a wolf,
the crackling of ice and frost
taking solid grip of ground and air,

and she missed the meagre meals,
richness of song her people shared.


The bright lights of a chandelier
could not hold a candle's gleam
to fir chlis or foxfire
which she on winter's nights had seen

pirouetting above Moscow,
waltzing over the Ross of Mull,
its splendour putting in the shade
the Romanovs and nobles at those balls

swirling round the Kremlin,
with Princes in pressed uniforms, Princesses in gowns,
each one only a frail shadow
of the aurora's vivid crown.

Florence 1858. A sudden chill
afflicts Catherine, as she is conscious that there will
come a day when Uisken will be only full

of memories and ghosts. And the child whose cries
were soothed and quietened by that lullaby
she learned years before in Mull will lie

near the canal that bears her forename, his body enmeshed
in snow and tattered greatcoats, broken swords, ripped epaulettes,
entrails of guard and emperor, the torn confusion of the flesh.


But before then, the song on Alexander’s tongue
granted him by Catherine while he wept when young
resounds across both stone and this iron-fisted ground
they lay the stranger in …

‘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 the sun shining,
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,
the cleared townships of the Ross of Mull
to tell the few natives who remain there
that this exile’s heart is quiet and still.

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