Robyn Bolam, born in Newcastle, brought up in Northumberland, and now based in Hampshire, describes her quest to find more about her ancestral connections with Scotland’s Northern Isles.

The poem comes from her new collection Hyem (Bloodaxe Books, £9.95), her fourth with the publisher.

Among other literary distinctions, the Emeritus Professor at St Mary’s University edited, in 2005, Eliza’s Babes: four centuries of women’s poetry in English, 1500-1900.

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                    TWICE REMOVED

It took a hundred years to establish the name

of my grandfather’s family in Orkney;

they travelled further north from the pit that claimed him,

to fish open sea under colder skies.


My grandmother’s family may have reached Shetland earlier,

yet she stayed in County Durham to be a miner’s wife,

both strands of ancestors lost among the islands

in salt-wind, lobster creels, thrift springing underfoot.


He was a tall man cramped, crawling through creaking shafts,

hot, black dust in nose and throat, eyes darting like trapped birds.

A bonxie takes off into my hair; its chick, soft brown down

on the grass by my feet. That old woman on her knees grubbing for tatties


may know the ones I seek – or the farmer, replacing thirty years

of fencing, who won’t be doing it again. Everyone,

from puffins in precipitous crevices to the girl creating

co-operative crafts, moves constantly: sea to burrow,


fish to beaks, laptop to needle and rough-weave,

attaching stones from the beach. Out there, distant genetic links,

with dark hair and widows’ peaks, turn calm eyes toward the haaf,

the clean cold freshening as the haar creeps.