‘The Bone Trowel’ is one of a number of poems I have been working on that explore my paternal family’s migration from the remote Scottish archipelago of St Kilda to the Inner Hebrides in the early twentieth century, and then later to Canada in the aftermath of World War II. Each of these events entails its own set of difficult circumstances – the permanent evacuation of St Kilda in 1930 brought to an end a unique way of life traced back to the Bronze Age, while the practice of inheritance in crofting communities had often meant that younger siblings, such as my grandfather, were forced to leave in order to earn a living and build a life.
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to receive a grant that helped fund a visit to St Kilda, becoming the first family member in nearly a century to step foot inside our ancestral home, one of the couple dozen small stone houses that form a dilapidated line along the narrow path known as Village Street. On this visit I spent time exploring the village ruins, the edges of Britain’s tallest sea cliffs where St Kildans abseiled and climbed in their hunt for birds and eggs, as well as the small museum housed in one of the few rebuilt homes. Inside the museum I came across a variety of artifacts and displays, including information on the array of agricultural tools hewn from the bones of local animals such as sheep, birds, and whales.
Although much of the poem ‘The Bone Trowel’ is built from lived experience – the memories of my grandfather’s garden, of riding on his tractor and listening to his stories – this particular bone trowel is a fictional creation, an object of mythic qualities forged in an attempt to better reckon with the loss of a loved one and connect to a time and place that has long felt like some unmapped part of myself. In this way the poem is a kind of dual elegy, lamenting not only my grandfather’s death but the well of ancestral knowledge that departed with him before I could ever ask the types of questions that would later seed my own research and writing.
Read Tarn MacArthur’s ‘The Bone Trowel’, first published in the spring 2021 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 111, No. 1. © The Poetry Review and the author.
Tarn MacArthur is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews and is at work on his first collection of poems.