My Island That Likes To Be Visited

A Letter to Sibelius from Marshall Walker
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(Adapted from Dear Sibelius: Letter from a Junky, Kennedy and Boyd, Glasgow 2008. When a schoolboy in Glasgow, Marshall Walker became addicted to the music of Sibelius. After a pilgrimage to Finland, visiting places of special significance to the composer, he began to write Sibelius a letter thanking ‘the Big Man’ for a lifetime’s companionship. Here he tells Sibelius about his love for Lismore, then accompanies the composer to the island where they listen together to Sibelius’s First Symphony.)

(Click on any picture to enlarge)

Dear Sibelius,


May I tell you about my most favourite place in the world? It’s always conjured in my mind by the idea of home. I think that must be partly because my parents were so evidently happy when they were there, and I learned to be happy too. To this day I carry the island with me everywhere.


Going by dates in the photograph albums they left behind, my parents discovered Lismore in 1936. That means they only had the island to themselves for about a year before I arrived in 1937. Family legend has it that they took me there first when I was nine months old. Since it became our annual holiday destination, often Easter as well as summer for some fifteen years, it’s not surprising that the island took possession of me. It went in early and deep, becoming my ‘island that likes to be visited’, like the faery island J.M. Barrie made up for his other-worldly heroine in Mary Rose. Not that it tempted me to disappear like Barrie’s waifish Mary, though it was always a wrench to leave it when the holiday was over and we were pulled back to the mainland by my father’s job and the new school term.


            A low-lying island, its chief marvel, ribbed by folds of limestone, is its highest point, the Bàrr Mòr. It’s only 417 feet, but when you’re up there you can see almost the whole Great Glen of Scotland. You can imagine sunlight flashing on the oars of Viking invaders sweeping into Loch Linnhe – perhaps a forebear of yours among them, Sibelius – and relish the panoramic sweep from Ben Cruachan in the east to the hunched shoulder of Ben Nevis in the north and southward the Paps of Jura.


            By Loch Lomond, Loch Awe and the Pass of Brander the wartime train ride from Glasgow to Oban was sagging luggage racks, cracked leather window straps, roosters of steam, coal smuts and piercing whistles from the guard when it was time to leave each country station along the way. At Oban, chief of north-western Scottish harbours, the Helsinki of the Highlands, waited the gangway to the ‘Lochinvar’. Once aboard there was a deliciously scary visit to the racketing, oily engine-room, then up on deck to watch the island of Kerrera slip past on the port side and to starboard, poised on its crag above the sea, Dunollie Castle, ruined stronghold of the MacDougalls. Lismore was less than an hour away, a ribbon of dark green backed by the gaunt hills of Morvern.


            On my early boyhood holiday visits during the war I didn’t see much detail on Lismore. My grown-ups were impatient with me. What turned out to be rapidly progressing myopia was construed as mere clumsiness. While they worried about bombs, poison gas and the fates of loved ones in the armed forces, I was for ever miserably tripping, falling and bumping into things.

‘Look where you’re going’, my parents said.

 I was also miserable because of my father’s moustache. It was a dark smudge below his nose. Hitler had one too, a black rectangle under his greasy quiff. Why did my father adorn himself with an emblem of the monster? And later, from the front row of the picture house, squinching my eyes into slits to make them telescopic, why did Charlie Chaplin? He had to be a good person, didn’t he? He made me laugh and cry at the balletic mischief and poignancy of the little fellow. Why did he wear the same sinister growth on his lip? When the air-raid siren wailed its warning half a mile away, was it to announce the approach of a Nazi gang coming to get me? Was the gang of terror – Hitler, my father and Charlie Chaplin – linked by the code of their moustaches?



            In this island paradise of ancient limestone furrows and the stones of Picts I gained a father. When he took me to Loch Kilcheran or Loch Fiart to fish for trout from a leaky rowing boat his moustache ceased to threaten. Hitler would never have taken me fishing. The island brought me my first glasses. When he watched me take the shortest of his split-cane rods and cast a Greenwell’s Glory or Silver Butcher into reeds instead of to the side of them where the trout lay my father realized I couldn’t see well enough to do important things.

            ‘We’d better have your eyes tested’, he said.

            So the first low-powered spectacles were prescribed. I fished with my father in oil-skinned companionship and kept my line clear of the reeds.


            Our Lismore home was at Kilcheran, a bay-windowed, white-washed boarding house among trees with a view of the sea and a small island called Eilean Na Cloiche –  Island of the Rock – because of its single stack of weathered limestone. The rock was like the Sphinx from one angle, from another the conning tower of a submarine, so it was a reminder of war even in the peace of the magic island. Lismore sounds were best at Easter because of the lambs. Their voices blended with the cawing of rooks in the elms, the cattle noises, the wind and the waves breaking on the shore below the house. I told my father how much I liked this country music and how it made me think of the sounds that came from the gramophone when the white dog on the HMV label spun round. By now I’d got to know red and black-labelled 78 rpm records of Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody, selections from the Nutcracker Suite and Peer Gynt and the Glasgow-born pianist, Frederic Lamond, playing the ‘Moonlight’ sonata. My introduction to The Swan of Tuonela and all your other tone poems and symphonies was an epiphany still to come. My father took the cue and brought home more records, thinking that if his son was to be denied rugby and cricket because of his eyes, he might find occupation through his ears. Beethoven’s Pastoral was my introduction to the symphony. I loved the second movement especially, ‘Scene by the Brook’, partly for the imitations of birdsong, but mostly for the rhythms of the lower strings which made me think less of a flowing stream than of a small train always carrying me back to Lismore.


         Your music has always seemed at home in Scotland, Sibelius, but you never went there in person. Make up for it now and come with me to the northern tip of this beloved island. Let’s sit on this rock. Blending with the cries of gulls a clarinet ruminates over soft timpani, the beginning of your First Symphony. The day is still. Below us the placid gloss of sea is broken only by cormorants coming up from a dive and the gruffly spluttering heads of seals. Look north, up the rift valley sculpted by glaciers to form the Great Glen. To the east, you can see Ben Nevis just before its summit is wreathed in cloud and the pensive clarinet is answered by a power surge of strings. Your First Symphony is pacing down the Glen towards us as the wind rises.


           Sibelius, you and me, we’re both northerners, though I live in New Zealand now, and we’ve both found in the natural features of our places ‘thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’. Sometimes it seems as if they’re the same thoughts, though it took your genius to voice them. Does this suggest a mystical affinity? Something to do with earth? You could say I became dependent on my love for Lismore and, certainly, I became dependent on your music. Now a pair of flutes over strings and harp recalls us to this pastoral island and its playful seals. Before long the pacing resumes and takes on speed. Soon your Symphony will be here beside us on our rock. Listen, Big Man, look, here it comes.


The Author as an infant,
with Annabel Livingstone at Kilcheran Guesthouse





The Author as an infant,
with Miss Joan McCallum
at Kilcheran Guesthouse

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