In this poem, ‘Crossing the Loch’, Kathleen Jamie uses a young female speaker to tell a story through a conversation with an old friend. She reminisces about an experience she had with this friend that could have ended tragically. The circumstances of the event seem to affect her more as an adult, looking back upon a foolish decision she made in her youth. Overall, because of the conversational tone and the outcome, ‘Crossing the Loch’ is rather light and happy in tone. However, the reader clearly senses the danger and is probed to question and to think about the dangers of foolish youthful decisions, and to identify with the speaker in looking back on these memories from a mature point of view.
Crossing the Loch Analysis
Remember how we rowed toward the cottage
as though the loch mouthed ‘boat’?
‘Crossing the Loch’, which can be read in full here, begins in a conversational tone, allowing the reader to feel a direct connection with the speaker. The speaker is addressing an old friend and reminiscing on an experience they had together. They were out “on the sickle shaped bay” and they “rowed toward the cottage”. It was late at night, and they had just left the pub. The speaker describes the water of the bay as it “lipped the sides” of their boat. The use of the word “mouthed” to describe the way the bay looked as though it were saying the word “boat” gives the reader the image of the bay as a giant mouth. This causes the bay to seem mysterious and perhaps even dangerous.
I forgot who rowed. Our jokes hushed.
of deadheads, ticking nuclear hulls.
The speaker continues to use a conversational tone when she says, “I forgot who rowed”. This simply reveals that this memory had aspects more important than who was rowing the boat. The second part of the first line says, “Our jokes hushed”. As soon as the speaker utters these words, the tone of ‘Crossing the Loch’ changes. It is no longer merely a pleasant memory of a night out with a friend. Suddenly, in the midst of the bay, something ominous comes over them, and their jokes are silenced. They are so silent that the sounds of the “oars splash” and “creak” can be heard above anything else. The speaker continues to personify the bay, as it “reached long into the night”. The loch is now something alive and mysterious and unknown. They seem to be racing to get back to the cottage, and the speaker admits that she was afraid. The breeze felt like “a cold shawl” around her shoulders, and she looked out at the “hunched hills”. This description of the hills suggests that even the landscape feared the loch. Then, the speaker describes one of the reasons that the bay was so frightening to her. She claims that it held “ticking nuclear hulls” and “deadheads”. This suggests that perhaps the speaker knew that there were nuclear weapons hidden beneath the water she was on. The knowledge that the loch held the power to wipe out mankind is what has made the speaker feel so frightening of the waters. It is interesting that the feeling came upon her and her friend all of a sudden. This stanza suggests that the speaker has always known what these waters held, but for some reason had never felt afraid of them until she found herself rowing across the waters late one night.
Who rowed, and who kept their peace?
Who hauled salt-air and stars
on our fingers and oars,
the magic dart of our bow wave?
The speaker opens this stanza of ‘Crossing the Loch’ with a rhetorical question. The answer, quite obviously, is that she and her friend were the ones who rowed and “kept their peace”. They remained silent as they rowed across the mysterious waters. They breathed in the salt air, and they soaked up the light of the stars, but they “were not reassured” because when they looked out over the waters, they noticed their “phosphorescence”. Though it was late at night, the water seemed to glow. This suggests that the waters were, perhaps radioactive. This would be very dangerous for the rowers. Perhaps they were not meant to be rowing across these waters at all. This could have been a thoughtless decision made under the influence of the alcohol they consumed at the pub. But now, after their laughter has been silenced and their jokes hushed, they have realized the gravity of the decision they made to row across these waters. They realize the danger they have put themselves in. They keep their peace the best they can, but they are certainly not reassured. They “watched water shine on [their] fingers and oars”. The revelation that these waters contain nuclear weapons and are perhaps radioactive, presents a whole new sense of danger.
It was surely foolhardy, such a broad loch, a tide,
but we live—and even have children
as we shipped oars and jumped,
to draw the boat safe, high at the cottage shore.
The speaker offers relief to the readers when she opens this stanza. Though “it was surely foolhardy” to embark across such dangerous waters, they “live-and even have children”. Though the speaker and her friend could have been killed because of one foolish decision, they made it through and are now looking back on that memory. Since that night, they were able to meet more men and women they never would have met had they fallen into the waters. The speaker remembers that night as own that they “call[ed] [their] own”. Though they were soon frightened into silence as they crossed the bay, they eventually “shipped oars and jumped to draw the boat safe, high at the cottage shore”.
There are many who can relate to ‘Crossing the Loch’. Though few have rowed across radioactive waters, most people can look back at their past decisions and feel grateful that they made it through. The speaker reveals this feeling. It is a sense of gratitude and relief that the foolish decisions of her youth did not cut short her life. Many young people have made foolish decisions and suffered for it. Others have somehow scraped by. The speaker uses this story to make the point that she is grateful for the chance she was given. She is grateful that she can now look back on that night as a fond memory rather than a tragic occurrence. She is relieved that she is alive to look back on that memory at all.
Kathleen Jamie Background
Kathleen Jamie was born in Scotland in 1962. Although she is often identified as a Scottish, woman poet, Jamie does not wish to be identified this way, but wants to be seen as simply a poet. For she believes that poetry is something that should connect all people to one another whether male or female. She believes that the true poet connects people across all cultures rather than simply identifying with one culture or group of people. ‘Crossing the Loch’, though likely set in Scotland, is one that many people can identify with. Whether it is the fear of living in a world with nuclear weapons, or simply the ability to reminisce upon the foolish mistakes of one’s youth, this poem connects the reader to the speaker with its personal and conversational tone.