From 1956, Scotland’s foremost Gaelic poet, Sorley Maclean, was Headmaster at Plockton High School. He worked tirelessly to improve the situation of the Gaelic language and was also a champion of shinty, a sporting tradition still proudly upheld in the school. He retired in 1972 to Braes on Skye, poetically tightening one of the lines we have thrown between our Highland stars.
Alderamin was the obvious choice of star for Plockton to celebrate this period at the school. It is 49 light years from Earth, and sparkles between Polaris and Deneb.

Plockton basked in sunshine in early June and the world seemed to be on holiday there. Doors and windows were flung open, long trousers abandoned for shorts, and the harbour glittered with white yachts. Rhododendrons bloomed, ice-creams dripped onto toes in the street, and the harbour front was flagged with ‘No vacancies’ signs. There were voices outside the pub late into the night as smokers battled with midges.

Our hostess, Miriam, bought a bucket of prawns from a fisherman and we spent an evening cracking them plumply onto our plates to dip in oil and eat with hunks of bread. Later, in the long pale evening light, I walked up to the headland to the north-west of the village, where there is a 180 degree view across Lochs Alsh, Carron and Kishorn. Mountain, island, water. At my back, the reassuring edifice of Plockton crags rose, a lumpy high horizon footed by birch woodland in which hides the railway line. To the south-west was the blue zig-zagging skyline of the Cuillin realm. A light wind ruffled the sailing boats on Loch Carron, and I looked beyond them to the north, tracing the distant rise of the road from Kishorn towards Bealach na Ba, the pass of the cattle, a name no doubt from droving days, that promises the jewel of Applecross away below on the other side.

As the gulls wheeled, I looked west to the southern slopes of the Isle of Raasay, where Sorley Maclean was from and about which he wrote one of his best-loved poems, Hallaig.
In Hallaig, he envisages the inhabitants of the township, who were cleared from the island to make way for sheep, as stately trees, moving mysteriously. The poem is redolent of displacement, but also seems to bring a more hopeful promise for the future of the land and community. By naming places and people, the poem evokes a long and deep ‘knowing’ of a place, and reminds me how we make places our own when we name them. Names in themselves make a kind of poetry.

I waited on the headland for some kind of darkness to fall, for a possible bright showing of Venus. It was well beyond 10.30pm. But it refused to get dark. The layers of blue hill became more finely graded by distance, scatterings of cottongrass brightened against dark heather, the sky of the far west was touched pink and the east purpled to blaeberry. The network of places we had visited so far, the stars we had chosen, the human experience of the Highland landscape which has done so much to inform art and creativity, settled on me as I waited, as the contrast between water and land deepened.

The next day we walked up the hill above the holiday crowd to where the road and railway line converge and the school sits, to meet the Third Year. This collection of observations were chosen by them to send to Alderamin.

From Plockton to Alderamin

We give you
the kiss of sun on a summer’s morning
the feel of sand between toes
a wisp of white cloud on a bright horizon

We give you
stars twinkling through the darkness
the slow trickle of a sun-kissed stream
a slice of happiness
the smell of bacon as it crackles in the pan

We give you
a flash of white lightning
black cows in the dark
the whinny of a horse at the break of dawn

We give you
the sound of lawn mowers in the morning
sheep mehehing
the Rector’s footsteps down the hall

We give you
the itch of a midge bite
the feel of a punch in the face
fresh blood dripping down an arm
a pointless gasp of breath at the depths of the ocean

We will send our sensations
from Earth to Alderamin
in a parcel shaped like a butterfly wing
- a dream enclosed in a silver lining -
with Mercury, messenger of the Gods.

3A Plockton High School

One group went outside to look for stars of the daytime. We didn’t have to look far. The pupils found them in the hub-caps of cars, in the insignia of a Mercedes truck, in the tip of a gorse branch.

These discoveries led us into stories – how finding a star on Earth could be meaningful at a particular time in someone’s life. In this extract, a girl finds hope at a time of misery in a starfish washed-up on the beach:

A smile spread across her face. This starfish was alone like her. The stars and the moon shivered in the water like a second sky. She looked up and saw a million dazzling diamonds sitting on a black velvet cushion. One star brighter than all the rest, twinked. She felt a warmth spread over her. It was a small sign, but a sign none the less.

Steff, Plockton High School

In another story, a boy finds a group of like-minded friends by following a trail of stars that starts on the side of the Inverness train. Freya Young thought of snowflakes as stars, and called them ‘starflakes’. We all asked ‘what if?’ to get our imaginations going, and Pamela pondered, ‘what if snowflakes really are alive and like people they all have different personalities and an individual story to tell?’

Amy McCue developed her story both in cartoon style and in writing, about a girl who becomes drawn to, and is comforted by, a five-pointed star left by the play of a chain-saw blade on the end of a chopped log in the forest.

The Wooden Star

As Claire was walking her dog through her local forestry trail, she was wondering what to do about her recent bad luck, like the fact she didn’t have many friends apart from her dog who she took almost everywhere.
She stopped for a snack and noticed a pile of chopped logs on the side of the path, so she decided to use one as a stool to rest on. Her dog started sniffing at one of the logs so she went to see why. Nothing seemed to be wrong, but the core of the log had an unusual pattern. It wasn’t just the usual rings, it had a star-like shape on it too.
The next day she took her camera to take a picture of it but it had gotten bigger. It looked even more star-like.
As usual she continued coming back for walks with her dog and stopping on the way to admire the star until… IT WAS GONE. It had just disappeared. She couldn’t understand what had happened. She looked on the other side of the log, on other logs, even on live trees, but it was nowhere.
That night Claire noticed a beam of light in the sky and it seemed to be above the forestry where the star used to be. She quickly put on shoes and a jacket and snuck out to see if something had happened. But when she got there it was just the biggest, brightest star she had ever and will ever see.
Every night she gazes at the radiant star through her bedroom window and wishes on it. And it always and still always gives her good luck.

Amy McCue, Plockton High School

Out walking in woodland in mid April, and enjoying Spring, I was struck by a field of wood anemones, each opening their six white petals against dark green foliage. I found then that I could truly walk through stars.

Stars have often been compared to flowers. In Evangeline, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), saw night fall like this:

‘Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels’.

Nineteenth century Scottish poet D M Moir saw this:

‘Stars are the daisies that begem[i]
The blue fields of the sky.’

Emma MacCuish developed this idea into a lovely story for younger readers, about some subterranean creatures - the ‘plant borrowers’ - who burrow upwards to pull plants and flowers down below Earth’s surface. One day they find some ‘big shiny luminous flowers in the sky’.

Plant Borrowers Stealing Stars

Shocked and amazed, the plant-borrowers head to bed, for their day has been one of excitement and amazement.
Daisy, Dandelion and Bluebell, the well-known ‘plant-borrowers’ set off on their day of glory and borrowing as normal. They had planned to steal the biggest, most beautiful marigold in all the land. So off they went!
Daisy and Dandelion the more callous two, were always ahead and more in charge than Bluebell. Although they were callous, Bluebell was more sneaky, knew all sorts of ways to steal the plants. They threaded their way through gorges and bushes until they came across a huge bulb. A smile from ear to ear came across each of their faces, and a butterfly feeling came across their stomachs. This was what they had been planning for all year.
Out of their pockets they took shovels and began to dig upwards. They dug and dug for hours till the sun beamed into their midday faces. One by one they climbed out around the marigold and worked at it until dark, but they were shocked at what they saw.
‘Look!’ exclaimed Bluebell.
‘What, Bell? What?’ replied Daisy.
‘Look at the big shiny, luminous flowers in the sky,’ she said gleefully.
All three plant-borrowers looked up, speechless, gob-smacked even. They had never seen anything so sparkly, so precious.
‘Wow!’ shrieked Dandelion, in amazement.
‘Let’s steal the shiny, luminous flowers,’ insisted Daisy eagerly.
So the muddy plant-borrowers jumped. They jumped and jumped, attempting to steal the flowers from the sky. They tried and tried all night but couldn’t reach. They got really puzzled at why they couldn’t get them.
Day came and dawn broke and of course the stars faded away.
‘Where have they gone, Daisy, where?’
‘I don’t know. I just don’t know,’ cried Daisy.
Grudgingly, they all turned back down the hole, and started tugging the Marigold by the roots through the hole. They were pleased with the marigold but disappointed they didn’t get the flowers from the sky.
When they got back home they told all their plant-borrowing friends the extraordinary adventure of the luminous flowers in the sky. Their friends were shocked and amazed in disbelief. It was a story which was legendary, with a little twinkle!

Emma MacCuish, 3C Plockton High School

It reminds me a little of the story from Djibouti about a woman who sees and covets a magnificent camel in the night sky, and immediately gets rid of her own weak one. But when she tries to collect the camel she has so admired, she finds that she cannot reach it and is left with none. There is a learning point to this story, a moral, as is carried by many of our constellation myths and by other sayings relating to the stars. A Tanzanian proverb says, ‘I pointed out to you the stars, and all you saw was the tip of my finger.’ It is a reminder to us to be expansive in our understanding and openness to the world. The very idea of space and infinity encourages human humility.

The ‘cosmic’ painting that pupils did with Gill always yielded creative results. At Plockton, the addition of music made the responses spectacular. To extend this, I tried music with creative writing. We listened to Brian Eno’s Apollo and listed words and images relating to what we heard. The celestial judderings, gurglings, sighs and shrieks seemed to emphasise the loneliness of the cosmos for many of us, and one main idea caught on. One of the sounds made the pupils think of the singing of a ‘space whale’. With no prompting the metaphor of the sea had returned. ‘Weightless whales warbled through the Milky Way,’ was written and rewritten by different pupils. Then, after a reading of the rich sounds of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’, Max Reiter poured his ‘Space Melody’ onto paper.

Space Melody

The endless vacuum wicker wacks
and sprondleflops in space,
the crazy hogspit nebula
sporefecks all over the place.
The sun nearby called sethaphor who lives its final days
burns and pops and rips and rots and never
ceases to amaze!
The aliens from planet Sprog fly merrily by
they’ve come from forty light years away
just to see the old sun die.
The comets shoot by really fast
it’s awesome to behold!
There’s fast things and slow things
and things that look like mould.
Wiz pop, wiz bang, foosh and flop,
goes the comet proudly.
Shoops, nosh, wiz, bop
yells the comet loudly.
So there you go we’re at the end
I hope you will agree
this poem is not that bad
a proper space melody.

Max Reiter, 3C Plockton High School
picture: Rachel Wood

Finally, the cosmos was summed up in this short poem:

Floating timelessly
darkness wraps around burning balls of fire

Iona Berry, 3D Plockton High School

[i] begem: to adorn with gems

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