The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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On seeing Orcas in Burra Sound

This free form poem was first published, in a slightly different version, in 2009, and is based on a personal experience, and on the great economic crash of 2008 and 2009. At the time I couldn't have envisaged the momentous events we may be on the brink of in Scotland 2014, but reading it again it seemed to have a certain resonance for these times.  I'll leave it to readers to decide that for themselves, but I will thank writer, activist and friend, John Aberdein, without whom these poetic reflections would never have become.

- Steve Arnott 


On seeing Orcas in Burra Sound, 2007


steel Orcadian sky

salt morning wind

steady chug of diesel.


All the talk had been of death -

empty boat tied up in Stromness

young pilot shrouded in night;

a local son

lost to the irreducible sea.


Then: “Whales!” “Whales!”

halfway to Hoy, the cry went up

the rush to the rail, pointing fingers


the moment’s gift,

timely, Nietzschean

metaphor made flesh.




Quick fumblings in cases and handbags;

the clicks and whirrs of attempted capture.

I caught with no camera

Other than that which evolution bequeathed.


There they were:

not just whales, but Orcas

five…six…seven! Adults and young

flying in formation,

feeding perhaps…

their yin yang bodies



arcing in sinusoidal motion

through air and cresting sea

just a few boat lengths away.


I recollect

tingle in my primate spine,

soundless swelling in mammal chest;

a narrative sense – how unique

to be here?

At this point in space.

At this point in time.


“I have been crossing this stretch of water

for twenty five years,” said my travelled friend

“and have seen nothing like this before.”


Later, the Orcas behind us

sparkling the grey,

we approached the jetty, saw the seals   

- a hundred or more –

huddled in the shallows,

backs to the shore, bobbing like buoys,

brown eyes fixed outwards

in primal terror.

Fixed on the black and white conquistadors.


Who, there and then, on that boat

                  - children all, of our postmodern

                  and multiply -

                  linked -   

                  world -

                  did not make the Attenborough connection?

                  Sly, sliding Orca, taking seal from the beach?

                  Or, far out at sea, playing with bloodied pup

                  like a kitten with its toy?


       All the dichotomies were present and correct

                         in that ensouled, singular

                         drop of time:

                         the mediated and unmediated,

                         contingency and synchronicity,

                         the wild and the civilised world,

       man and beast,

                         death and life.


The planet moved again in its orbit

one and a half times around the sun.


None of us had seen anything like it before

when the crunch came. The bubble burst;

the very kings of the world

stood in line to be saved

by the alms of the poor,

and the hard won gains of working folk

- who’d feed a family for the week

on what a Master might pay

for a lunchtime bottle of wine -

were mortgaged to the futures

of the comprehensively obscene.


It was both absurdity and an augur

I think –

no, nothing much has changed…yet.

Stocks are up, heads are down,

the dole queues longer and longer.

Big Brother box still squawks and squawks,

keeping most - most of the time -

corralled in baitballs, or listless

in the dull and limited pools.


“Work to live! Live to work!

arbecht macht frei

consume, consume, consume,”

then, emptied, die.


Killers still rule, and sing their songs,

in our primordial waters.


When you are born

We will eat you

When you swim

We will eat you

When you hunt

We will eat you

When you love

We will eat you

When you are old

We will eat you

We will suck on the marrow

Of your bones

and your soul


Still, it moves…


What is a single life worth?

And how should it be lived?

All of politics and philosophy

unbounded in a nutshell.


steel orcadian light

steady thrum of diesel

salt spray, spattering.


That first and final camera inverts the world;

and re-invents a still young dream.

Other masses, purposeful and sleek, that play,

feed, sing, and break the circle of the sea.


In time, other seas

in which to carouse;

limitless rainbow valleys

and unseen mountains;

Other melodies keened

amongst the bubbles

and stories writ in turquoise corals


But patience:

All crossings take place in real time.

Enough now to glimpse  

the mere beginning:


Consider again, conquistadors and prey,

seen through the rain and distances of grey.


Past epochs spent,

great flukes rising and crashing

rent the storm howled waters



They pod pressed in fear;

Their compass narrowed

and sheared to shallow water;

Their backs to the wall of the shore;


And we Leviathan.



Steve Arnott

August 2009


External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Viridis Lumen