In the Highlands of Scotland I love,
Storm clouds curve down on the dark fields and strands,
With icy grey mist closing in from above –
Here Ossian’s grave still stands.
In dreams my heart races to be there,
To deeply breathe in its native air –
And from this long-forgotten shrine
Take its second life as mine.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2017. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2017 was Roddy Woomble.
A number of years ago I was invited to dinner in Moffat in the Scottish Borders to talk to representatives from the Moscow State Library about their wish to see the poetry of Mikhael Lermontov newly translated into English or Scots to mark his anniversary and make his work more widely available to a broad readership. So persuasive were the Russians that by the end of the first course I had agreed to translate the Complete Works before I left that evening, from a standing start of knowing no Russian. After the initial enthusiasm had tempered a little, I took the prospect to Robyn Marsack, former director of the Scottish Poetry Library, and Peter France, formerly of Edinburgh University and a specialist in Russian literature. The project that followed involved Peter looking after a set of close translations and notes on the vocabulary, poetic structures and rhythmic imperatives of the original poems and Robyn liaising with a whole range of contemporary Scottish poets to produce an anthology of new translations of Lermontov. This was published by Carcanet Press to considerable acclaim. I translated a few poems for this but ‘Ossian’s Grave’ was the one I most wanted to make. It’s a summary of a Romantic notion of Scottish identity, removed from reality a number of times. The original language is one remove, Lermontov’s biography another, the whole context of Russian and European ideas of Ossian and Scotland another still. And yet there is a piercing beauty about the imagery and the sense of why it appeals I thought might be conveyed in simple, quite stark language and restrained rhythm. Ossian, of course, doesn’t go away. The image of ‘Ossian after the Fianna’ is a classic and essential trope in our literature – the idea of the wanderer returned to the new world and another generation, say, from prehistory to Christian times, from which all his previous friends and companions have departed. That image is inherent in the poem but the poignancy it expresses is in the lonely first-person singular, the distant witness, thinking only of a marker of a grave that signifies more than might be said, more than could ever possibly be said. There was one hesitation I paused on a long time. In the third-to-last line, ‘To deeply breathe in its native air’: should there be a comma after ‘breathe’? The emphasis on the rhythm and clarity of meaning would be given by such a comma, but the hovering quality of the line, the ambiguity of the meaning, seemed to me part of what the poem is about, so, no comma. The world of the imagination can be focused into a kind of secure ambivalence like this. And anyone might wish such a ‘second life’ to be theirs. Who wouldn’t?