Old Woman in a Storm

Her voice rides the wind
and chases the slates
glass shatters
and gulls wail.

Her bed slaps water
then turns out to sea
flying along with shutters,
door frames, pots, pans
cats, gulls and fish.

She was a gutting quine
with the fairest hands.
The herring-glint,
silver coins
in her eyes.

Her fingers were bound
when she gutted the fish,
bound with sacking
to keep back the knife
that cut a shriek
as the salt settled in.

At night she unbound
and soaked away blood
soaked away scales
so her hands could be dried
and smeared in lard
till soft, till soft.

The sea wall is down
her house a scrappers’ yard
and the tide rings a bell,
washed clear and wild
for the slate-grey dead.


Note: From the peak of the herring boom in the late 19th century until around the mid 20th century, the ‘gutting quines’, some as young as fifteen, would follow the fishing fleet from port to port. These young girls travelled from as far North as Shetland to as far South as Yarmouth and Lowestoft. As the herring season progressed the ‘gutting quines’ would gut and pack fifty to eighty herring per minute. See www.banffshirecoast.com