When people talk about Gaelic poetry in the twentieth century – particularly when the discussion is being held in English – more often than not, they’re talking about Sorley MacLean. More than any of his contemporaries, MacLean brought Gaelic poetry back into contact with currents of European art, politics and philosophy from which it had been excluded since the seventeenth century. Such was the shock among Gaelic readers when his collection Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile (Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems) appeared in 1943 that many questioned whether MacLean’s poems were Gaelic enough, some denying that they were Gaelic poetry at all. More than half a century on, Sorley MacLean is widely considered to be the greatest Gaelic poet of the twentieth century and occupies a space in the wider Scottish literary canon unequalled by any other Gaelic writer.
Sorley MacLean was born on 26 October 1911 on the island of Raasay, off Skye. His father, Malcolm MacLean, had a tailoring business; his mother Christina’s family were the Nicolsons of Skye, and they had seven children, of whom Sorley was the second eldest son. Both families were notable for their knowledge and practice of Gaelic song and music.
At the age of 12 I took to the gospel of Socialism, and I believe that in my later
teens a dichotomy took me psychologically: my ‘pure’ aesthetic idols of old
Gaelic songs, and my humano-aesthetic idols of Blake and Shelley. (‘My
Relationship with the Muse’, Ris a’Bhruthaich)
He went to Edinburgh University to study English, not having read any contemporary poetry in English before then, graduated in 1933, and went on to train as a teacher. He taught in Portree, Tobermory and Edinburgh before conscription into the Signal Corps in 1940. MacLean served in Libya and Egypt before being seriously wounded at the battle of El Elamein in 1942 which led to his being discharged the following year, the same year in which his seminal Dàin do Eimhir appeared in print. MacLean returned to teaching in Edinburgh before leaving with his wife and three daughters to become headmaster at Plockton. He retired back to Skye in 1972. Between 1973 and 1975 MacLean spent two fruitful years as Creative Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University, and from 1975 to 1976 he was Filidh at the fledgling Gaelic College on Skye, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. He died in Inverness in 1996.
MacLean’s reputation rests upon two extended texts, the ‘Dàin do Eimhir’ (‘Poems to Eimhir’) that made up the bulk of the 1943 volume, and ‘An Cuillithionn’ (‘The Cuillin’, 1939), a long political poem which uses the famous mountain range on the Isle of Skye as the symbolic basis for a mediation on political commitment in a Europe that was being torn apart by competing ideologies in the middle years of the twentieth century.
The long poem was always to me a faute de mieux as compared with the lyric,
but I have come to regard it as a necessity if poetry is to deal adequately with
much of the human condition. … I think tweo of the reasons for my long silences
and burning of my unpublished poems have been my long years of grinding
school-teaching and my addiction to an impossible lyric ideal. (‘My Relationship
with the Muse’, Ris a’Bhruthaich)
Both texts are highly complex, combining references to Gaelic song, poetry, music and history with the art and politics of the rest of Europe. The famous seventeenth-century piper Patrick Mòr MacCriommon rubs shoulders with Beethoven, the eighteenth-century Gaelic love poet William Ross with Alexandr Blok and Charles Baudelaire. In doing so, MacLean asserted the right of Gaelic artists and Gaelic speakers to participate in the mainstream of European culture, and by extension claimed for his own poetry an importance that transcended linguistic boundaries.
The juxtaposition of references in MacLean’s poetry is part of a wider tendency on his part to try combining ideas that are apparently contradictory. The ‘Dàin do Eimhir’ are energised by the age-old conflict in European poetry between the competing claims of love and war. For MacLean’s speaker, the specific conflict is between his love for Eimhir – a mythical figure who takes her name from a character in early Gaelic literature – and his commitment to the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. In, ‘Gaoir na h-Eòrpa’ (‘The Cry of Europe’), the fourth of the sixty poems that make up the body of the sequence, Maclean’s speaker puts the question that underpins the ‘Dàin do Eimhir’ as a whole:
Dè gach cuach ded chual òr-bhuidh
ris gach bochdainn, àmhghar ‘s dòrainn
a thig ‘s a thàinig air sluagh na h-Eòrpa
bho Long nan Daoine gu daors’ a’ mhòr-shluaigh?
(‘What is each ringlet of your golden hair / when weighed against that poverty and fear / which Europe’s people bear and still must bear / from the first slave-ship to slavery entire?’, trans. Iain Crichton Smith)
The appeal to the fate of Europe as a whole is new in Gaelic poetry, as is the connection between the oppression of the people under fascism and the plight of those Gaels shipped off as slaves to the New World in the seventeenth century. But the poem itself exploits the abundance of rhyme in Gaelic to bring the poem to the resounding perfect cadence of its closing line. Gaelic verse is here deployed to a new purpose, re-energising itself in the process.
MacLean is a love poet in the European tradition that stretches from classical antiquity through the Provençal troubadours and the sonnets of Shakespeare to the present day. He brings to that tradition the resources of his chosen language and its associated literature, after Latin and Greek the oldest in Europe. But MacLean is also profoundly concerned with the efficacy of that tradition in the modern world, not just as a distraction from the political poetry he would prefer to write, but for the danger such poetry might pose for Eimhir herself. In ‘Coin is Madaidhean-allaidh’ (‘Dogs and Wolves’), the speaker imagines his unwritten poems chasing his beloved’s beauty across the snow, with the implication that they would destroy it if they ever caught it:
coin chiùine caothaich na bàrdachd,
madaidhean air tòir na h-àilleachd,
àilleachd an anama ‘s an aodainn,
fiadh geal thar bheann is raointean,
fiadh do bhòidhche ciùine gaolaich,
fiadhach gun sgur gun fhaochadh.
(‘the mild furious dogs of poetry, / wolves on the single track of beauty, / beauty of face, beauty of soul, / the white deer on plain and hill, / deer of your beauty, calm and bright, / they’re hunting you by day and night’, trans. Iain Crichton Smith)
MacLean’s reputation among English-speaking readers followed the re-publication of his work in the 1970s. Poems to Eimhir was published in English translation by Ian Crichton Smith in 1971, out of a conviction that MacLean was a major poet whose work most readers could not access in the original. Canongate published Reothairt is Contraigh: Taghadh de Dhàin 1932-72 /Spring tide and Neap tide: Selected Poems 1932-72 in 1977, with English translations provided by the author himself. In this process of re-publication and translation MacLean radically re-ordered his work, leaving out passages or whole poems from his early work which had come to embarrass him. The ‘Dàin do Eimhir’ were only partially reprinted, out of order and without the numbers that gave away their position in the original sequence. ‘An Cuillithionn’ (1939) was bowdlerised further. MacLean had called on the Red Army to liberate Scotland, asking ‘Có bhier faochadh dhan àmhghar / mur tig an t-Arm Deasg sa chàs seo?’ (Who will give respite to the agony / unless the Red Army comes in this extremity’, trans. Sorley MacLean). MacLean left out large parts of the original poem when it was published in 1977, saying ‘I reprint here what I think tolerable of it’.
In a letter written on 23 January 1977, the year before he died, Hugh MacDiarmid had declared to MacLean: ‘There is, I think, no doubt about you and I being the two best poets in Scotland… By definition, every good poet has something that is sui generis – something that is his alone and couldn’t be done by anyone else’. When Carcanet Press published O Choille gu Bearradh / From Wood to Ridge: Collected Poems in Gaelic and English in 1989, critics hastened to agree. The volume won both the Saltire Society’s prize for the Scottish Book of the Year and the McVitie Prize for the same in 1990, and MacLean was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
Both the ‘Dàin do Eimhir’ and ‘An Cuillithionn’ have now been published in full, annotated editions, and it will be interesting to see what effect these will have on younger Gaelic writers and on scholarly assessment of MacLean’s work. Despite or because of the contradictions and the difficulty of MacLean’s poetry, he remains the Gaelic poet who most is widely read, most frequently anthologised and most often translated into other languages. His mastery of his chosen medium and his confident engagement with European politics and the whole of the European poetic tradition make him one of the major Scottish poets of the modern era.