Meg Bateman

Meg Bateman (b. 1959)
Photograph of Meg Bateman © Robyn Grant
Meg Bateman © Robyn Grant

Biography

Summary

Meg Bateman has been bringing new qualities to Gaelic poetry since her first publications in the 1990s. 

Full Biography

A sense of novelty struck many readers when Meg Bateman's first collection Òrain Ghaoil / Amhráin Grá was published, with facing Irish translations by Alex Osborne, in 1990. Here was a young, private and slightly insecure voice which took her readers into confidence on matters of love, its disappointments in particular. There is something conspiratorial about the book, something made possible by the author's choice of language.

Readers of these poems were already part of a small group connected to the author by language and could, presumably, be trusted not to breach her confidence. Publishing poetry in Gaelic in Scotland is a subtly less public activity than publishing poetry in English or Scots. Like a diary shared among friends, these poems could be passed around without fear of their being read by the wrong person. In the Edinburgh of the late twentieth century, Gaelic was a means to avoid both censure and censorship.

Meg Bateman was born in Edinburgh in 1959 and grew up in the city’s New Town. She studied Gaelic at Aberdeen University and went on to achieve a doctorate in Classical Gaelic religious poetry. She began to write her own poetry in Gaelic at the same time. She taught at Aberdeen University from 1991 to 1998 before moving to Skye, where she lives with her son and teaches at the Gaelic college there, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

The title of her first book ('Love Songs') took on the cliché of the debut collection about love, where the poet lacks the technical ability or maturity to address this most well-worn of subjects. But despite the persona adopted by Bateman in Òrain Ghaoil, there is nothing immature about the execution of her early poems. The mask she wears here belies a strict, even ruthless sense of form. Her work often achieves its poignancy from the distance between the merciless perfection some of her finely-chiselled poems aspire to, and the all-too-human lovers who fail, inevitably, to measure up. This contrast, between the real and the ideal structures one of her best-known poems, 'Aotromachd' ('Lightness'):

B'e t'aotromachd a rinn mo thàladh,
aotromachd do chainnt is do ghàire,
aotromachd do lethchinn nam làmhan,
t'aotromachd lurach ùr mhàlda;
agus 's e aotromachd do phòige
tha a' cur trasg air mo bheòil-sa,
's 's e aotromachd do ghlaic mum chuairt-sa
a leigeas leis an t-sruth mi.

('It was your lightness that drew me, / The lightness of your talk and your laughter, / The lightness of your cheek in my hands, / Your sweet gentle modest lightness; / And it is the lightness of your kiss / That is starving my mouth, / And the lightness of your embrace / That will let me go adrift', trs Meg Bateman)

The Bateman of Òrain Ghaoil is unusual among her contemporaries in her use of rhyme, which links her poems to the tradition of popular Gaelic song. In these songs, Bateman finds a precedent for a feminine voice in Gaelic poetry. While entry into the professional caste of poets who dominated Gaelic culture until the seventeenth century was entirely closed to women, the anonymous, vernacular song tradition that survived the destruction of the bardic system often spoke with a female voice. In 'A' chionn 's gu robh mi measail air' ('Because I was so fond of him'), the refrain at the end of each stanza mimics the form of a working-song, in which a repeated line would be sung by a group of women, the rest by the solo singer:

Thigeadh e thugam
nuair a bha e air mhisg
          a' chionn 's gu robh mi measail air.

Dhèanainn tì dha
is dh'èisdinn ris
         a' chionn 's gu robh mi measail air.

Sguir e a dh'òl
is rinn mi gàirdeachas leis
        a' chionn 's gu robh mi measail air.

Nist cha tig e tuilleadh
is nì e tàir orm
        a' chionn 's gu robh mi measail air.

Little of the musicality of these early poems survived translation into English when they were republished in Aotromachd agus Dàin Eile in 1997. What was lost was the sense that the poet's voice was joined by those other anonymous voices who echoed through her rhymes. Meg Bateman in English was a much lonelier poet than her counterpart in Gaelic.

Ten years separated Aotromachd and the publication of Bateman's third collection, Soirbheas, in 2007. But the earlier publication of many of the poems in her second collection, obscured the distance in time between the composition of Bateman's early and later poetry. The Bateman of Soirbheas is a different poet to the Bateman of her early work. In her third collection, free-verse largely replaces the melodic rhyming of her first two books, reducing in the process the distance between her Gaelic poems and the English versions she writes to accompany them. Gone too is some of the idealism of her younger poetry. Where previously the flawed nature of human relationships was a cause for regret, in Soirbheas Bateman is more philosophical. In ‘Ceòl san Eaglais’ (‘Music in Church’), Bateman makes a virtue of human imperfection in the face of the divine:

Ach is annsa leam an coithional nach seinn ach meadhanach –
an seinneadair nach buail air na puingean àrda,
an tè a cheileireas os cionn nan uile,
an t-òrganaiche a thòisicheas air rann a bharrachd

(‘But best I like indifferent singing, / the soloist who gets the high notes flat, / the warbler who makes herself heard over all, / the organist who embarks on an extra verse’)

Meg Bateman is among the most popular of contemporary Gaelic poets, and is much in demand at readings and literary festivals. The persona she presents in her poems has attracted readers from within and outwith Gaelic Scotland, who continue to value the qualities she has brought to Gaelic poetry since the 1990s.

 

2012

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

Orain Ghaoil / Amhráin Ghrá (Baile Átha Cliath: Coiscéim, 1990)
Aotromachd agus Dàin Eile / Lightness and other Poems (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1997)
Soirbheas / Fair Wind (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2007)
Transparencies (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2013)

As editor / translator:

Gàir nan Clàrsach / The Harp’s Cry, ed. Colm Ó Baoill, trs Meg Bateman (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1994)
Scottish Religious Poetry from the Sixth Century to the Present: an anthology, eds Meg Bateman, Robert Crawford, James McGonigal (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2000)
Duanaire na Sracaire / Songbook of the Pillagers: anthology of Scotland’s Gaelic verse to 1600, eds Wilson McLeod and Meg Bateman (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2007)
Bàird Ghleann Dail / The Glendale bards ; a selection of songs and poems ..., edited by Meg Bateman with Anne Loughran (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2014)

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