on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers


Gaelic haiku

Alistair Young

I live on the Isle of Skye where I wander the hills and mountains of the northwest highlands, documenting landscapes with photography and Gaelic poetry. A software developer for 25 years, a university lecturer for 14 but a walker and mountaineer for 40 and always with a camera and notebook to hand.
Occasionally the bathroom doubles as a darkroom for trips with the Bronica, reliving the moments as the prints emerge into the light.


Photography in the early days for me was always a way of documenting my mountaineering trips. Snatching it from the rucksack at the height of a storm to capture weather blasted summits in violent or moody light, the images on film illustrated my climbing journals, which over the years told the stories of my adventures. They held my thoughts and interpretations of the landscape, the tales of the climbs and chaotic tantrums of the weather, both summer and winter on mountains remote both in place and time.

A few years ago I discovered Chinese mountain poetry, beautiful landscape portraits in sparse words from the 9th century and the travel diaries of Basho with his famous haiku, the compact three line interpretation of a moment. The wonderful eighteenth century English poet John Clare thought that nature herself contained poetry, waiting to be heard and written down and I realised my photographs and journals were doing just that. As I read these poems I started to realise what I had been doing with my early photography, combining image and text to allow me to interpret an experience, to see the poetry inherent in nature.

Around the same time, my photography became more focused, working with light and composition but diverged from my writing. Articles for magazines with images purely as documentation to illustrate the routes or as examples of the views to be had from the summits. The poetry of the landscape was missing. How could I reconnect my internal wiring and get back to how I used to feel when photographing in the mountains? That is what I began to explore when, under an autumn sky I saw a skein of geese coming in from the north, arrowing high above the Sleat moorlands on the Isle of Skye and I knew the haiku would be the route back to that poetry of landscape. Being a Gaelic speaker I decided to write them in that language to accompany my photographs and the ‘Gaiku’ was born.

Alistair Young - Sgurr Alasdair, highest of the Cuillin mountains on the Isle of Skye.

Sgurr Alasdair, highest of the Cuillin mountains on the Isle of Skye.

taigh-solais ‘son anam air chall
feumach air naidheachd ait
rìgh an eilein fo cheò

lighthouse for the lost soul
in need of glad tidings
king of the misty isle

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