Alec Finlay – I Will Make My Love a Bower

Alec Finlay – I Will Make my Love a Bower

 Duke’s Wood (I)




Duke’s Wood, poem and photograph AF, 2012

The first thought that I had in terms of Duke’s Wood, before I’d visited, was to follow up my interest in an ancient woodland form, the bower.

During the road north, a journey around Scotland guided by the Japanese poet Basho, Ken Cockburn and I visited Glen Etive, which branches south-west from Glencoe. We had paired the glen and the mountain at its head, Buachaille Etive Mor, with Basho’s Mount Gassan, and were following the traces of Naoise and Deirdre, as far as the mouth of the loch, where she would have looked out for his sail returning from Eire. Now there is a jetty there for felled spruce.

On the way back up the glen we took a little walk toward Deirdre’s Tigh Grianan, ‘sun-bower’. Ken poemed this episode, playing on the Badlands scenario of the runaway lovers:

the loch bends deep
between the mountains
towards the glen’s fastness

Deirdre and Naoise
exiles happy a while
in the badlands

thriving as trees
on steeps beyond
the deer’s reach

as berry-laden rowans
sheltered in the gorges
cling with sturdy roots

as birches’ gusts
bend and harry
minting leaves of gold

betrayals and sorrows
and deaths and it’s said
they returned

as swans
a muted assembly
at Camas na Cùirte

‘i.m. the apple trees / of the sons / of Uisneach’,
poem & photograph Ken Cockburn, 2010

I was touched when Ken took out an apple that his ex-wife, Tamsin, had given him, grown on her Pilrig allotment, and suggested we plant three seeds in memory of the apple trees that were said to grow by Deirdre’s bower.  On the journey we visited many such places of myth – nadokoro, Basho calls them, places of name – and found their ordinariness. In the same way, the act of planting was everyday, over in a trice, poking my fingers in the peat, feeling the chill bog swell up. Later I poemed the planting:

we pick three tawny pips
from a ripe red apple
for the three sons of Uisneach


poking finger-holes
in the peaty ooze
wetted by Allt Fhaolain
in the lee of a rock
among rowan and birch
for arbours and ardours
we plant three apple seeds
for the love of
the three brothers

There’s no bower to be seen here; the hillside is wild and treeless, with deer fences and scree. And what of the ‘sun’ aspect of this mysterious shelter, what does it mean? In some texts it is just a rock for sun-bathing, by a waterfall, in others a summer house, “thatched on the outside with the long-stalked fern of the dells and the red clay of the pools, and lined within with the pine of the mountains and the downy feathers of the wild birds; and round it was the apple-garden of Clan Usna, with the apple-tree of Deirdre in its midst and the apple-trees of Naisi and Ainle and Arden encircling it.”( The Boys’ Cuchulain, Eleanor Hull)

In ‘North of the Tweed’ MacDiarmid celebrates another ancient glen where Deirdre is said to have had a bower, somewhere in Glendaruel, : ‘’Thinkna’ that I’m ungratefu’, wi’ nae mind / O Deirdre and the fauld o’sunbeams yet, / Or canna on bracken slopes abune the bog / The orchis smellin’like cherry-pie’ (To Circumjack Cencrastus, 1930). The fold is a beautiful image, a secrecy which itself still holds its secret. No-one knows for certain what these sun-bowers denote – they are no more than names on the map – but it is possible that they relate to a seasonal rite of fertility. They tend to be on slopes or rises, offering a calendrical or transhumant view; perhaps they signify a grove, a place to harvest crab apples for the summer herdsman – although the association hints at a female rite – or are they place to gather? Are bowers a female equivalent to the male ‘grove’ of the druids, each true to a body of knowledge?

45 hokku-label (Grianan nam Maighdean) 2 copy
Grianan nam Maighdean, sun-bower of the maidens, Skye
Photograph Ken Cockburn, 2010

On a later trip to Skye, working on a new project about viewing, I climbed An Dùn Beag, the remains of a fort set beneath the Quiraing. Two years before my friend Maoilios Caimbeul, who lives in sight of the fort, had guided Ken up the nearby path that passes Grianan nam Maighdean, the sun-bower of the maidens.

sun cradle, photograph AF

Another friend, Eddie Stiven, who lives near Dun Grianach, ‘The fort of the sun’, in Glenelg, thinks of bowers as trysting places; their shelter protecting lovers and outlaws – as in the old ballad, ‘Betsy Bell and Mary Gray’ who, ‘built them a bower on yon burnside / 
They theeked it all o’er wi’ rushes’.

Stepping away from the mytho-poesis of these Neolithic Highland landscapes, I liked the seeming modesty and ordinariness of Duke’s Wood.  It’s conceit is the way it hides its technology – oil – as if in a fold. Could this be a place to find out more about bowers?

When we went for our first walk I was reassured; the wood felt the right kind of place to investigate the tradition. I also realised that the bower would only exist when it belonged to lovers.

As we walked along the path Aaron pointed out an old hawthorn that had grown entwined, one smaller trunk curling tight to the main trunk. I chose to see that twist as the wood agreeing. To begin then, in words and into woods, with a definition and some old poems about wood and and trees.

‘I will make my love a bower’, trad., photograph AF, 2012

Noun, a pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood; literary a summer house or country cottage; literary a woman’s private room or bedroom.

Verb, shade or enclose (a place or person): (as adjective ‘bowered’) the bowered pathways into the tangle of vines

Origin: Old English búr ‘dwelling, inner room’, of Germanic origin; related to German Bauer ‘birdcage’

for Duke’s Wood

b  o  w  e  r

bow down & enter


the tree grows
by long division
& logarithm


there’s nothing to their shapes
but what the trees themselves made


Potter saw the branches
put forth blossom

though he didn’t live
to taste the fall’s plum


the branches
share their quiet
liking for lichen


                          the hazel’s for dividing

                               bows that bend                                    a wand to point


Cushat Wood

(neighbour to)

Crow Wood


trees shrink
from sunrise
til evening
& then they swell
in the night


the pine stands
inside the cone


which came first,
this path
or those trees?


the more trees
the fewer flowers.

the more flowers
the fewer trees


other people
are lights

the dark trees

drawing bower (crop)
word-drawing (bower), AF, 2012


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