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TITLE
From Sea to Sea (18 of 19)
EXTERNAL ID
HC_STS_FROMSEATOSEA_18
DATE OF RECORDING
2001
PERIOD
2000s
CREATOR
Bob Pegg
SOURCE
The Highland Council
ASSET ID
2422
KEYWORDS
canals
waterways
poems
poetry
audio

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The following extract is taken from 'From Sea to Sea', an audio celebration of the history, people, landscape and culture of the Great Glen waterway - The Caledonian Canal. The project was created in 2001 by Bob Pegg.

Narrator: James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, witnessed the early workmen dabbing with picks and spades at the western end of the canal, but was pessimistic. He could not help viewing the entire enterprise as a hopeless job. But their exertions were not in vane and the stones these labourers hewed arouse admiration and inspire verse to this day.

'Elegy for the navvies who constructed the Caledonian Canal between 1803 and 1823'

'Ascending Neptune's Staircase' [by Ian Blake]

'Eight slabs of water step us from the sea,
'the narrows' and the cleanly-cut canal
confined between high, water-acned walls
of hewn red blocks so skillfully aligned.
Water - held at bay by oak-beamed gates,
sluices raised - boils black beneath our keel,
furious in its impotence.
We scarcely feel
our slow ascent towards that rectangle
of solid blue which roofs our watery cell
until we match the level of the loch;
float free above the sea we left behind,
where once blunt, butty coasters pushed and nudged
salt-bleached ocean-goers, barges big with coal,
lumpish, threading green, pine-pleated skirts
of mountain scree which sweeps down to embrace
bottomless waters, astonishing the gaze
of reticent wild-cat, marten, antlered deer.
Rafted together, fourteen pleasure craft
imperceptibly inch-up past ashlared blocks,
sole legacy of long-dead navvies whose
crowbars shouldered fresh-cut stone in place,
long-handled shovels sliced through cake-damp peat,
pickaxes sparked glaciated rocks.
Their bone and muscle dug for twenty years,
the Navigable Road, built Telford's locks,
for half-pennies an hour; across a sea,
to wives and children planting blighted fields,
it seemed a fortune, such their poverty.
Beside the channel they reamed out, these men -
'the navigators' - ate, slept, year by year,
in sodden benders formed from hazel boughs,
pervious hessian which thin, mean, mizzling rain
invaded as it drenched their sweat-ranked clothes.
Skin tanned dark by wind, sun, peaty fires,
day after day, midge-maddened, never wholly dry,
spit by spit they labour on or die -
malnourishment, exhaustion, struck by years,
consumption, accident or desperate hand -
names unchiselled.
No smooth polished plaque,
mute monument, alerts the visiting eye
to their long-lost interments, work-worn lives;
only this rippling highway, sea to sea,
Beside which those first, ragged navigators lie.

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From Sea to Sea (18 of 19)

2000s

canals; waterways; poems; poetry; audio

The Highland Council

The Highland Council: From Sea to Sea

The following extract is taken from 'From Sea to Sea', an audio celebration of the history, people, landscape and culture of the Great Glen waterway - The Caledonian Canal. The project was created in 2001 by Bob Pegg.<br /> <br /> Narrator: James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, witnessed the early workmen dabbing with picks and spades at the western end of the canal, but was pessimistic. He could not help viewing the entire enterprise as a hopeless job. But their exertions were not in vane and the stones these labourers hewed arouse admiration and inspire verse to this day.<br /> <br /> 'Elegy for the navvies who constructed the Caledonian Canal between 1803 and 1823'<br /> <br /> 'Ascending Neptune's Staircase' [by Ian Blake]<br /> <br /> 'Eight slabs of water step us from the sea,<br /> 'the narrows' and the cleanly-cut canal <br /> confined between high, water-acned walls <br /> of hewn red blocks so skillfully aligned.<br /> Water - held at bay by oak-beamed gates, <br /> sluices raised - boils black beneath our keel, <br /> furious in its impotence.<br /> We scarcely feel <br /> our slow ascent towards that rectangle <br /> of solid blue which roofs our watery cell<br /> until we match the level of the loch;<br /> float free above the sea we left behind,<br /> where once blunt, butty coasters pushed and nudged<br /> salt-bleached ocean-goers, barges big with coal, <br /> lumpish, threading green, pine-pleated skirts <br /> of mountain scree which sweeps down to embrace <br /> bottomless waters, astonishing the gaze <br /> of reticent wild-cat, marten, antlered deer.<br /> Rafted together, fourteen pleasure craft <br /> imperceptibly inch-up past ashlared blocks,<br /> sole legacy of long-dead navvies whose <br /> crowbars shouldered fresh-cut stone in place,<br /> long-handled shovels sliced through cake-damp peat,<br /> pickaxes sparked glaciated rocks.<br /> Their bone and muscle dug for twenty years,<br /> the Navigable Road, built Telford's locks,<br /> for half-pennies an hour; across a sea,<br /> to wives and children planting blighted fields,<br /> it seemed a fortune, such their poverty.<br /> Beside the channel they reamed out, these men - <br /> 'the navigators' - ate, slept, year by year,<br /> in sodden benders formed from hazel boughs,<br /> pervious hessian which thin, mean, mizzling rain<br /> invaded as it drenched their sweat-ranked clothes.<br /> Skin tanned dark by wind, sun, peaty fires,<br /> day after day, midge-maddened, never wholly dry,<br /> spit by spit they labour on or die - <br /> malnourishment, exhaustion, struck by years,<br /> consumption, accident or desperate hand -<br /> names unchiselled. <br /> No smooth polished plaque,<br /> mute monument, alerts the visiting eye<br /> to their long-lost interments, work-worn lives;<br /> only this rippling highway, sea to sea, <br /> Beside which those first, ragged navigators lie.