George Campbell Hay is unique among the poets of the interwar Scottish Renaissance movement in having written in all three of Scotland’s principal literary languages. His reputation rests, however, on his poetry in Gaelic, which has enjoyed a renaissance of its own in recent years as readers have come better to appreciate his achievement. Hay is very much a poet’s poet, a technical virtuoso whose command of his chosen medium is unparalleled among twentieth-century Gaelic writers. As well as English, Gaelic and Scots, Hay wrote poems in French, Italian and Norwegian, and translated poetry from a number of languages into Gaelic.
George Campbell Hay was born in Renfrewshire in1915, the son of John MacDougall Hay, author of the novel Gillespie (1914). After his father’s death, he was brought up in Tarbert, Loch Fyne, before being sent on a scholarship to Fettes school, Edinburgh, and then to Oxford University. Holidays were spent back in Tarbert, where he developed his love of the area and its language and culture, and also began to learn both the trade of herring fishing, and the Gaelic spoken by the fishermen.
An ardent Scottish nationalist, Hay was opposed to involvement in the war, and spent October 1940 to May 1941 fleeing conscription in Argyll, but was finally caught, imprisoned, and then accepted war service in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps. While in Greece, he experienced a traumatic incident which led to the onset of mental illness from which he suffered for the rest of his life, most of which was spent in Edinburgh, until his death in 1984.
Hay’s poetry first started to appear in the 1930s around the same time as that of Sorley MacLean. Between them, these two poets radically redefined Gaelic poetry, giving it an energy and ambition that had been largely missing during the previous century. Compared with the tortured self-examination of MacLean, Hay’s poetry can seem distant and impersonal. But his art aspires to a different aesthetic, one which celebrates the art over its creator, in which emphasis is placed on the poet as craftsman, the makar of Scots and Greek tradition. In this sense, Hay is a neo-Classical poet, both through his engagement with Greek and Latin literature, and his affinity with the classical Gaelic poets who practised in a common literary culture across Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, the filidhean for whom poetic form was the indispensible centre of their craft. In the ‘Envoi’ to his 1947 collection Fuaran Sléibh, Hay asks his reader to acknowledge the labour he has put into fashioning his poems:
Seadh, chaidh mi mo thìom ‘s mo dhìcheall ri dàin, fhir chòir,
gan snaidheadh ‘s gan lìomhadh sa bhinn chainnt is àrsaidh glòir
(‘Yes, I have spent my time and my greatest energies on poems, dear man / chipping them and polishing them in the sweet speech of ancient utterance’; trans. George Campbell Hay, Michel Byrne)
Hay’s skills as a linguist and his finely tuned ear for poetic form made him an exemplary translator. His translations into Gaelic from the Sonnets of Petrarch, another poet who aspired to the linguistic and technical perfection that motivates Hay’s poetry, provide ample evidence of his virtuosity. This close reading in the literature of other languages had an important effect on Hay’s original poetry, too. While he often made use of forms taken from both classical and vernacular Gaelic poetry, Hay also brought his Gaelic verse into contact with other languages and literary traditions, using these to strengthen his poetry. Perhaps his most famous poem is ‘Bizerta’, about the bombing of the Tunisian town during the Second World War:
C’ ainm nochd a th’orra,
na sràidean bochda anns an sgeith gach uinneag
a lasraichean ‘s a deatach,
a sradagan is sgreadail a luchd thuinidh,
is taigh air thaigh ga reubadh,
am broinn a chèile am brùchdadh toit’ a’ tuiteam?
Is cò a-nochd tha ‘g atach
am Bàs a theachd gu grad ‘nan cainntibh uile,
no a’ spàirn measg chlach is shailthean
air bhàinidh a’ gairm air cobhair, is nach cluinnear?
Cò a-nochd a phàigheas
seann chìs àbhaisteach na fala cumant?
(‘What is their name to-night, / the poor streets where every window spews / its flame and smoke, / its sparks and the screaming of its inmates, / while house upon house is rent / and collapses in a gust of smoke? / And who to-night are beseeching / Death to come quickly in all their tongues, / or are struggling among stones and beams, / crying in frenzy for help, and are not heard? / Who to-night is paying / the old accustomed tax of common blood?’; trans. George Campbell Hay)
Hay took the metre for ‘Bizerta’ from a fifteenth-century Italian poem by the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Each line observes a strict syllable count, with the longer lines in each section all ending with the same rhyme. But in a manner typical of Hay’s cultural cross-fertilisation, he adds to his source the internal rhyme, or aicill, characteristic of Gaelic poetry from the classical poets to vernacular songs. The effect of this formal exactness is to raise Hay’s poem beyond the status of personal witness to something more permanent and lasting, in which the image he describes becomes a symbol of the suffering of civilians in war throughout the ages.
Hay’s war-time experiences informed his internationalism, which was inseparable from his commitment to Scottish self-government. His major long poem, Mochtàr is Dùghall (1982), is the unfinished account of an encounter between a Highland and a North African soldier during the Second World War. Running to over 1,200 lines, it shows Hay to be capable of skilled poetic structuring on a large as well as a small scale, and of sustaining his virtuosity to meet the demands of such a long text. Hay’s insistence on the necessity of form in poetry and the apparent lack of self-revelation in his work made him an unfashionable figure in the latter part of the twentieth century. But the re-publication of his work has led more and more readers to appreciate the sheer technical brilliance of his poetry, his compassion as a writer about war and his virtuosity across forms, genres and languages.
A commemorative flagstone for George Campbell Hay was laid in Makars’ Court in Edinburgh in April 2017.
Read the poems
Secretary, W. L. Lorimer Memorial Trust Fund
c/o Scots Language Centre
Scots Language Centre
A K Bell Library
Manuscripts and papers
National Library of Scotland