In Alasdair Maclean’s second and final poetry collection Waking the Dead (Gollancz 1976) he grapples with the death of his parents (who both died in 1973), his mother Elizabeth’s in particular, and in the poem ‘To Resurrect the Dead’ the speaker asks how a poet might perform such an impossible feat. The haunting, unsatisfying answer is:
It is not by their touch that you recall
the ones you loved but by recorded acts.
If you would beat the coming darkness back
forego your share of kisses; pile up facts.
In less than a decade, Maclean would have done just that – ‘pile up facts’ – when he published his poetically charged ‘journal’ Night Falls on Ardnamurchan (Gollancz, 1984). This book was Maclean’s final major publication, apart from a few separately published poems in magazines such as London Review of Books. His first and only foray into book-length prose, it made his name and brought him, for a while, minor fame as a writer. The book quickly went into multiple reprints and remains in print (from Birlinn). It is considered a modern classic – recently Hilary Mantel recommended it in The Guardian (in June, 2009) as a ‘sharp, thoughtful, eloquent memoir’. The book focuses on a crofting family (Maclean’s own) in a declining crofting community in the tiny settlement of Sanna, Ardnamurchan and uses Maclean’s father’s surviving diary entries from 1960 and 1970 to capture a sense of this dying way of life. Here Maclean tried to ‘resurrect the dead’ by piling up the facts to form a ‘monument’ to his parents and their coevals out of a ‘debt of conscience’. The book tries in vain to protect indigenous culture against the rise of tourism, holiday homes and ersatz Highland tartanry, but must ultimately concede that old ways of life have passed and are at risk of completely disappearing. That said, it is possible to chart the beginnings of a number of Maclean’s poems in this book and it contains many morsels of information about his own life.
Alasdair Maclean was born in a ‘Glasgow slum’ (his own words for Govan at the time) in 1926 and educated at Bellahouston Academy. He had two brothers (the younger called Ian, the older, James) and one sister called Janet. The family had lived in Glasgow since the end of WW1 when Maclean’s father came ashore after a war spent in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Here, Maclean’s father worked as Deputy Harbour Master in the Greater Glasgow docks system. Despite the exalted sound of his father’s title, it was a job that offered more in way of status than wages and the family was and remained poor, sometimes to the point where Maclean believed poverty ‘gnawed’ away at his father and the younger Maclean felt ‘rage’ on account of the injustices inflicted on his father and family. Upon his retirement in the 1950s, the family moved back to the ancestral croft in Sanna, to take over from Maclean’s then ailing grandfather. The hardships of trying to eke out a living in this rocky, windswept and declining community are painfully captured in detail in Night Falls on Ardnamurchan. After leaving school at fourteen like his father before him, Maclean then spent the first two decades of his adult life as a ‘wild rover’ trying to find a living and travelling the globe, often in the capacity of a National Service infantryman or in the Merchant Marine, which took him to India and Malaya (the former he described as an ‘unhappy but fascinating’ place).
Although there is some uncertainty as to when Maclean began to write, it is certain that he began to write in earnest, publish his work and consider himself a writer, upon enrolling to study English Literature at the University of Edinburgh in 1966 (he was a mature student by then at 40 years of age). He was later to admit that he only did so in order to give himself time to get started as a writer, and when he graduated with a 2nd Class Honours degree he confessed to feeling shame for both himself and for his mother, who had expected more of him. However, Maclean soon made up for his academic shortcomings. In 1972, a generous selection of his poems was published in Faber and Faber’s Poetry Introduction 2, followed swiftly by his first collection From the Wilderness (Gollancz 1973). This collection was widely critically embraced, despite a few grumblings about the anxiety of influence (such as those of Alexander Scott, writing in Akros, April 1974), and Maclean was showered with awards as a result. Not only was the book a Poetry Book Society Choice, it won Maclean a Scottish Arts Council New Writing Award and the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. In 1974 Maclean was also awarded the prestigious Cholmondeley Award.
Reading this collection, it is easy to see why it garnered such accolades. In it, Maclean achieves a dry and wry lyricism that somehow both embraces and distances itself from the traditions of the Highland community by which many of the poems were inspired. Austere and elemental, Maclean captures the brutality of the natural law of the wilderness and writes in tones that are simultaneously those of preacher, soothsayer, doubter, gossip, memorialist and folklorist. The speaker here treats the reader as a ‘foe’ who he must ‘lead astray’ (rather like the incomers and tourists during the summer in Sanna) and often the poems lure us in to disturb us. Here is an extract from the eerie ‘Some Rules for Visiting a Deserted House’:
Avoid the mirror on the landing.
It will be thirsty.
Check the bedroom.
If there is only one impression on the pillow
If there are two erase one.
Similarly, in ‘Death of an Old Woman’ we are perhaps most unnerved by the tiny, alarming details (the ‘upside down’ Bible) in the discovery of a dead woman in her cottage in the wilderness:
She had an English Bible in her hands,
upside down. The doctor who examined her
stated that her mouth was full of raw potato.
The ‘English’ Bible seems to represent the incursion of English ways (tourists, holiday-home owners and so on) into Maclean’s vision of the wilderness. He notes in Night Falls on Ardnamurchan that upon his father’s coffin was a brass plaque that anglicised his Gaelic name Ian to the English John. In the same book, he describes the incongruity of a Bible being placed on his mother’s body. This idea is echoed in an uncollected poem from 1982 entitled ‘A Marxist visits Lewis’, first published in The London Review of Books (January 1982):
In Ireland they shoot to kill.
In Wales they burn down houses.
In Lewis there is one old man
who paints out English road signs artistically.
This is just one of the many tensions that power his work. Night Falls on Ardnamurchan is in many ways about the clash of two forms of illiteracy – of Maclean’s inability to speak his father’s language and his father’s inability to speak Maclean’s as a poet. Perhaps the major driving force of his work was of being caught ‘on the lintel between love and desolation’. Anne Scott, a friend, wrote a short memoir of Maclean which appeared in Lines Review 133 (June 1995). In this piece Scott claims he elected ‘darkness and aloneness’ as being his only way forward as a poet, and when he published his second collection Waking the Dead (Gollancz 1976) he was to grandly claim that ‘death [is] the noblest and most profound of the great themes of poetry, or what love poets turn to when they put away childish things’. This was an uncompromising stance and Maclean’s second collection risked making death seem monotonous and ubiquitous. As such, the collection has never acquired the praise and following apportioned to its precursor From the Wilderness. The poems in Waking the Dead seem both more rushed and yet less urgent, often happy to use gallows-humour, mock-heroic tones or even melodrama, as evidenced by the poems ‘To My Reader’ and ‘Coffin Commercial’. In spite of this, snippets of love do bubble to the surface, as in ‘Fiona with a Fieldmouse’ which is a poem aware of its debt to Burns:
Unrecognised, perhaps unwanted then,
the memory of this day
will flood out over husband, lover, child, whoever
has the good luck to have chanced upon her
and to be standing in her way.
After the publication of Waking the Dead in 1976 and Night Falls on Ardnamurchan in 1984 it is tempting to speculate that the darkness Maclean had sought out as a poet and the aloneness he needed to create, became the dominating themes of his life and a gloom descended on his work, followed by a long silence. As is known, and can be read in many of his poems, Maclean was wary of love (‘I am what I am […] and love’s what art despises’ – from ‘The Virgin, the Gypsy and the Poet’) and a ‘confirmed bachelor’. Little is known about the last decade of his life, when he moved from a flat in ‘noisy’ Gallatown in Kirkcaldy to the more peaceful Falkland in Fife. In the 1980s he continued to review books and write plays for BBC Radio Scotland. It is also not known whether he had compiled, or even begun, a third collection. Maclean died in 1994. He had previously confessed that he thought death, although it inspired much of his work, made him ‘very angry’ and that when the time came for him to die he would do so backed into a corner ‘with my teeth bared’ and ‘not reconciled to the worm’ (‘The Worm’). In ‘My Cat Asleep’ the speaker talks of being prey to a poem that awakens and desires him, and even though Maclean joined the numerous dead commemorated in his poems, those poems survive and deserve to be more widely read.
Article written by Richie McCaffery, 2016