It was the colour palette that persuaded me that this collection of poems would make perfect reading during the cold greyness of February. And look there was Saturday’s sky, bang on cue, to accompany me through Norman Bissell’s poetic journey from Glasgow to the Isle of Luing.

Slate, Sea and Sky backgrounded by the Lanarkshire sky of 4.02.23

That said, this collection is anything but grey. It’s a wonder from first poem to last. Bissell’s poetry is accessible, evocative, real. A pleasure that earns the first 5 stars rating of 2023.

A short prose poem summarises the intent to follow “the journey of a man who begins his life in a city and finds humour in its daily rituals and beauty in the faces of its people, then moves into different places and mind spaces where he learns how to forget the self, coming at last to an Atlantic island of slate, sea and sky where light and life are one.” The journey consists of 44 poems. It is possible to track the route in the poem Following The River’s Flow with an atlas (or google maps) to hand.

We begin in Glasgow, with a poet impossibly longing for silence.

day and night
cars and buses screech past my door
house music for the city dweller

(extract from Street Sounds)

A selection of poems charts the hustle, bustle and irritations of city life, visits to a favourite secondhand bookshop (Caledonia Books – I’ve sold books there), paints fond and humorous portraits of the people in the bus queue, requests a smoker on the bus not to light up for the sake of his neighbour (remember those days anyone?) But even in this busyness the poet finds something that is silent.

Leaves Falling Silently Falling

It is inevitable that the poet travels northwards through the woods and forests, the lochs and glens of Scotland on his way to the coast. A landscape foregrounded in the poetry, one where the light, the air, the sounds, the pace are different.

All day I’ve wanted
a day such as this
to lie back
and do as little as humanely possible.

How can you capture all of this?
in words, snaps or film?

(extract from Blue Sky, Still Pines)

It’s an impossibility concludes the poet. In the context of this volume that’s slightly ironic, given 32 poems are paired with the iconic black and white photography of Oscar Marzaroli who does indeed capture all of this: the character of both urban and rural inhabitants of Scotland, the unique light of the lochs and corries, the majesty of the mountains, the saltiness of the coast line. The photographs also reflect the honesty and thoughtfulness of the poetry.

Onto the coast where we return to the sound palette of a Scottish February:


Can poetry be anymore simple or effective? It’s exactly like that!

As the poet travels down the coastline, there’s joy in the wildlife, the dolphins and seals. Sadness at the death of a seagull, garrotted by a telephone wire. Even the midges get a mention. The poems become more reflective and philosophical.

Watching a lone seal swimming along the coast the poet

… took to thinking
of that playful journey home
that we all make alone in the end
wandering the coast leaving no trace
but the lapping waves on shore

(extract from Lone Seal Travelling South)

And finally having arrived on Luing, thoughts of individual mortality turn to that which endures. What a contrast between the trivial concerns of the poet in his tenement flat. How far the journey through the two Scotlands, the urban, the rural, two entirely separate worlds, has brought him.


Slate, Sea and Sky is published by Luath Press, which was founded in 1987 and took its name from Robert Burns, whose little collie Luath tripped up Jean Armour at a wedding, and gave him the chance to speak to the woman who was to be his wife and the abiding love of his life

Luath Press operates from offices on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.