The Horses

The Horses

Edwin Muir was born at the end of the 19th Century on the tiny island of Wyre in the Orkneys. Mechanisation had not come to the island: he grew up in a little world that had not changed for hundreds of years. It was a magical childhood: no doors were locked and there was a kindness and trust between people the like of which he never experienced again.

But the family fell on hard times and had to move to mainland Orkney first of all, and was then plunged into the horrors of industrial Glasgow. One after another, the closest members of his family died until he alone was left. The trauma of what he experienced in those first years never left him, nor did his yearning for the Eden of that island home. Essentially through all the rest of his life as a poet he was searching and searching for Wyre, and for all that he had lost.

In the last years of his life he wrote a deeply haunting poem entitled ‘The Horses’. It’s a poem of the new nuclear age: a devastating war has destroyed the nations, and a little huddle of people are left on what might be an island. Their tractors lie useless in the fields: their radios are dumb. They wait in the silence, wondering what will happen next.

And what happens is that a great wave of horses flows into their midst. They have come unbidden, horses having been sold for tractors long years before. But the horses come of their own volition, as though in answer to some unheard call. They come willing to pull their ploughs and bear their loads.

I believe that through this poem Muir finds his way back to the island of his childhood. The paradox is that he finds it through the imagining of nuclear winter and a post apocalyptic state. For that is the only way the detritus of our modern clutter can be cleared away and there can be a beginning again. This is what is necessary for a healing to happen, for the noise to be stilled and for listening to begin.

Find the poem and read it as an Easter meditation. And my programme on the whole story of Muir’s life, and on the poem, will be broadcast this Easter Sunday at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4. If you miss it, the programme will be available for a number of days via Listen Again.



Almost every week I travel to the west coast of Scotland by one of the finest railway lines I’ve ever experienced – that linking Glasgow and Oban. It passes through some of the most beautiful landscape Scotland possesses, until it arrives at the western edge, where an island-studded coastline begins.
It’s because of that journey it’s all the more poignant and painful to travel right past the Faslane nuclear base where the Trident submarine fleet is deployed. Were it to be unleashed, it would result in the equivalent of two thousand Hiroshimas. I find the obscenity of that horror, set against the purity and the fragility of the landscape which surrounds it, almost too much to bear.It’s one of the main reasons I am passionately committed to Scottish independence, because Scotland never voted for the deployment of the Trident fleet, nor did Scotland have any say in that deployment. It was decided in London. The nuclear base is sited just half an hour from Glasgow, the second largest conurbation in the British Isles. The people of Scotland would not have voted for Trident had they been given the choice: it’s as simple as that.In a post 9/11 world, the nuclear base at Faslane becomes the biggest imaginable target for a suicide bomber. This submarine fleet might have been appropriate (just and no more) in the bad old days of the Cold War, but in a new age of rogue states and rogue militants, it’s nothing more than a target waiting for a dart.I believe nuclear weapons, and the industry that gave them birth, to be nothing less than an obscenity. I cannot reconcile a nuclear armed world with a God who stands behind the creation of this priceless planet. To think that we would contemplate its destruction with the depression of a single button (for that is what we do when we deploy such weapons’ systems) is beyond all belief.

If a man should come now to your door
selling motorways, a rustle of money in his eyes;
do not buy his road, for it leads
to all our lost riches, our need of God.

(From A Poem for Ivars, published in Island, the selected poems of Kenneth Steven, Saint Andrew Press)

Easter Lilies

Easter Lilies

We forget all about them
in the year’s darkness, in the long winter.

Without a sound they are there one morning;
a kind of sunlight grown from the ground –

as if some call had woken them
from the underworld of their sleep,

out into the middle of March
to Easter the earth with their heads.

Flapped and flayed by the wind,
broken yolks splashing the air;

all that we had hoped for –
an answer to prayer.

From Kenneth Steven’s 2014 collection from SPCK in London, Coracle