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Brave New Words

Peter Mackay

Dreuchd an Fhigheadair/The Weaver’s Task: a Gaelic Sampler, edited and introduced by Crìsdean MhicGhillebhàin/Christopher Whyte, Scottish Poetry Library, 64 pp, £5.00, ISBN: 978-0953223589

out here in front of a tiny audience

of halfhearted seals applauding

It is almost obligatory when talking about Scots Gaelic to begin with a number. In 2001 it was 58,652. Writing ten years ago, you would have got to bandy about a bigger figure – 65,978; in 1911, the heady – and bafflingly precise – heights of 202,398. These are, of course, the numbers of speakers of Scots Gaelic, according to the relevant census figures. Given this starting point, the number of readers of Gaelic poetry is not exactly gargantuan. When challenged, Sorley MacLean – the greatest Scots Gaelic poet of the twentieth century – denied that the number of people who could read his poetry in the original was less than forty; however he did grudgingly admit that his readership was “limited”. And one of the dangers of having such a “limited” audience is that, like the halfhearted seals in Robert Crawford’s translation of a poem by Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh, they will applaud almost anything.

The position of the Scots Gaelic language is, at the moment and for the foreseeable future, in the balance. It is one of the national languages of Scotland, and has been spoken everywhere on the territory of Scotland at some point or other (although never everywhere at the same time) since it was brought over by emigrants from Ireland in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. However, the language has suffered centuries of neglect, political setbacks and periods of outright government suppression, from losing its place as the language of the Scottish court during the reign of Malcolm III (following the machinations of his wife, Margaret), through the loss of the Lordship of the Isles in 1491 and the repeated failure of the Jacobite uprisings of the eighteenth century to the present day obscurantism and obstinacy of the civil service in Edinburgh and London (rumours of which are never far from the surface in Gaelic gossip).

However, the perilous current state of Gaelic largely stems from the social, political and cultural changes that followed the defeat of the Jacobite uprising at the battle of Culloden in 1746. The military defeat and the government reprisals following Culloden were brutal and horrific; what the “Butcher” Cumberland, who led the government troops, lacked in military acumen – which was a great deal, as he would later repeatedly and ignominiously prove – he made up for in inhumanity. (Culloden was, of course, in no way a straightforward fight between Scotland and England, or indeed Highland and Lowland Scotland, but Cumberland’s reprisals on the Highland communities paid little heed to who had been loyal to the British crown and who had followed the Young Pretender.) The internal changes in Gaelic society which followed the defeat were, however, probably of more long-term damage than the violence of the Duke of Cumberland. The clan system, following pressure and bribery from the government, rapidly dismantled itself, with many clan chiefs quickly anglicising themselves over the course of one or two generations away from their kinsfolk into the position of feudal absentee landlords.

The collapse of the system of patronage, which had for centuries protected the status of poets within Gaelic society, began following the earlier failed uprising of 1715 and was only exacerbated by the events following Culloden. Although poets were still being retained by chiefs at the end of the eighteenth century, this was a consciously antiquarian act, arising, as Ronald Black notes in An Lasair, “out of the ‘modernism’ of the Disarming and Disclothing Acts, of the Act abolishing hereditary jurisdictions, of sheepfarming, of emigration. Such appointments had little to do with the needs of society, much to do with the whim of over-powerful individuals.” Within two generations, the skills of poets had been lost and – so the story goes – ancient manuscripts that the population had lost the skill to read were at risk of being used as kindling.

The distancing of the landlord from the people would, in the eighteenth century, expose the communities of the Highlands to the whims and vagaries of world markets and the incompetence of their traditional rulers. The people were slow to understand the social and cultural changes that were sweeping them along, or indeed simply sweeping them away. Although the structure of the clans changed irrevocably, loyalty to the chief remained strong. At first, rather than blaming the landlords and their market speculations for the changes in land use in the Highlands – which saw the people cleared and squeezed from their land and livelihoods in favour of sheep, forestry or the inappropriately named “deer forests” (in fact barren hillsides and moorlands), or forced into seaweed manufacturing as market conditions dictated – the people, save in a few exceptional cases, aimed their anger at the more obvious targets of the “big sheep” and the Lowland and English shepherds who brought them following “The Year of the Sheep” in 1792.

The vestiges of clan loyalty simply rendered the people helpless in the face of the social changes of the nineteenth century. The collateral (or indeed desired) outcomes of the policies of the landlords – the famine of the 1840s, the brutal clearances of entire villages and the dispersal of huge numbers of people – ravaged the Highlands. Loyalty to their leaders – and by extension to their king or queen – meant that the region was a plentiful source of soldiers for service overseas; and it was not uncommon for soldiers in Highland regiments to return home to find that the factor and his men had simply been waiting for them to leave before they evicted their families from their homes.

The answer the landlords offered to any social problem was emigration (by which they never meant their own). From the eighteenth century onwards hundreds of thousands of people left the Highlands. Some were bound for the Lowlands, others emigrated to Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand; of these, many left voluntarily, following promises of a better life, but many others left against their will. Highland communities flourished in North America, and Gaelic is still spoken in Canada to this day (a remarkable film tracing the involvement of Scots Gaelic speakers in the fur trade, Ìompaireachd nan Gaidheal/Highland Empire, premiered in April in Belfast as part of a conference on the links between Scots Gaelic and Canada). For those who stayed in the Highlands, life was not easy, especially as landlords often coveted the most fertile land for their own business ventures, forcing the population out from their traditional glens onto the stony shorelines.

It would only be in the Crofters’ Commission hearings of the 1880s that the people would be able to free themselves of the psychological burden of what had happened to them over the previous 150 years and mark the beginnings of self-determination. By this time, however, Gaelic was no longer either the sole preserve or the sole language of the area. English had, on the back of education policies, the erratic tendencies of the churches, the need for commerce outside the Highlands and the desire for positions in the expanding British Empire, gained an unshakeable foothold; following southern migrations Gaelic also established a strong presence in the Lowland cities, especially in the slums of Glasgow. It was to Glasgow that the people of St Kilda were evacuated in 1930, following years of decline and famine; the culture shock, and the conditions they found there, led some of them to mourn for their island for the rest of their lives. Glasgow today still has a thriving Gaelic community, many of whom spend much of their time lost in the Bermuda Triangle of Glasgow’s West End, the three corners marked by the pubs The Park Bar, The Snaffle Bit and the Islay Inn. The contemporary Gaelic community is to some extent a hybrid, neither rural nor urban. Most native speakers would typically be from a rural area but have experience of living in big cities; many learners would be from urban areas but have some experience of the traditional homelands.

Despite the many reasons for pessimism, and the continuing decline in the number of speakers, in many ways the language’s prospects have improved greatly in the last couple of decades, with great progress made in terms of Gaelic-medium education, Gaelic broadcasting and official recognition especially. However, nothing ever prospered by bureaucracy alone. The international profile of Gaelic literature has, during the last fifty years, been one of the main factors bringing prestige to the language; this is most evident in the reception and fame of Sorley MacLean, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1992, only to be beaten by another islander, Derek Walcott.

This profile is not, however, always reflected in the status of the language within Scotland itself. In 2005, the Gaelic novel An Oidhche Mus do Sheòl Sinn by Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul was voted eighth in the The List/Orange selection of the 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time, a considerable triumph, not least because it was also the only twenty-first century novel on the list. Caimbeul’s triumph was, however, largely undermined by the fact that none of the panel who attended the event at the Edinburgh Festival to announce the list had read the novel, or indeed was able to pronounce its title. Instead, to avoid embarrassment they used an (unofficial) English translation, The Night Before We Sailed. One of the panellists, Zoe Strachan, even expressed “astonishment that a ‘Gay-lick’” book should get anywhere near such a list, unable to imagine to whom the book might appeal in the twenty-first century, other than “five people at an Adult Education Class”.

The Highland journalist Roger Hutchinson, who was attending the event, was furious: “I looked around the audience. I know people – decent, ordinarily law-abiding people – who would at that point have leapt onstage and strangled Ms Strachan with her microphone cable. None of them appeared to be present. I considered standing in for them, but was in the back row – and anyway am too cowardly. This will be a matter of intense personal regret for the rest of my days.” Luckily, despite Hutchinson’s faux-machismo, there are relatively few murders related to critical comments about Gaelic literature (though had they actually read the novel the panellists might have had a good deal more ammunition for their criticism). However, as their bemusement makes obvious, the place of Gaelic literature in the literary and cultural mainstream of Scottish life is far from secure.

That is why a new collection of poems, Dreuchd an Fhigheadair/The Weaver’s Task: a Gaelic Sampler, edited and introduced by Christopher Whyte (or Crìsdean MhicGhilleBhàin, depending on how you approach him), is so welcome. This collection aims to fortify the connections between Gaelic poetry and the other poetries of Scotland. It features fourteen Gaelic poems from the last fifty years, with translations into English and Scots by some of the leading poets writing in Scotland today. (This collection is part of a mini-trend in the publication of Gaelic literature. Meas air Chrannaibh/Fruit on Bra(i)nches, the first collection of poems by Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul –of An Oidhche Mus do Sheòl Sinn infamy – is also published this year, with translations into Scots and English.)

The collection (and Caimbeul’s) mark a departure in how Scots Gaelic poetry is published. Unlike in Ireland, where Irish language poetry is generally published in monolingual collections or with translations into English by other poets, it has been most common in recent decades for poets in Scots Gaelic to publish their poems with their own facing translations. This is perhaps testament to a more relaxed attitude on the part of the poets to their bilingual status and their dual cultural heritage; however, it has recently led to a great deal of uncertainty about the status of the poems. Is the English text of equivalent status as an “original” poem (especially if, as the old joke goes, something is lost in the original)? Do the two poems together – Gaelic and English – constitute a single text (when even native Gaelic readers look to the English text to help understand the Gaelic)? Is it acceptable – or even necessary – to include English language translations on financial grounds? Even, which side of the page should the Gaelic text go on – left or right? (This collection opts for placing the Gaelic on the eye-catching right.) These uncertainties are largely avoided in this collection by including translations, or, as Whyte takes great care to call them, “responses” by other poets. Having different authors, there is no doubt as to which is the “original”, or that the original and the response are distinct texts. Any tensions between Gaelic and English are mediated by the presence of WN Herbert’s Scots response to a poem by Derick Thomson, allowing a three-way debate on the status of Gaelic texts within the mainstream of Scottish literature to emerge.

The synthesis of Gaelic, Scots and English in the present collection is largely a reflection of Whyte’s professional career. A learner of Gaelic, he has published poetry in Gaelic and English and a series of novels in English (with dialogue in Scots), as well as teaching for a long period in the Department of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University (the only one of its kind in the country). His position, bridging the Gaelic and English/Scots literary communities, may well also account for the highly impressive list of contributors to Dreuchd an Fhigheadair.

On the Gaelic side are George Campbell Hay, Iain Crichton Smith and Donald MacAulay (all of whom have now gone, in Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s terms, to the great Gàidhealtachd in the sky), [see correction below] Derick Thomson, Aonghas MacNeacail, Myles Campbell, Fearghas MacFionnlaigh, Meg Bateman, the Dublin-born Rody Gorman and Whyte himself. Each of these poets features in one or other of the two seminal selections of Gaelic poetry, MacAulay’s 1976 Nua Bhardachd Ghàidhlig or Whyte’s 1991 An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd, and each writes in a style that is more modern and worldly-wise than traditional or local; none of them could be classed in the category of the “baird bhaile” or “village poets”, which is now used more or less dismissively (though for others it is a term of approval) to refer to poets who write in traditional metres and are associated with a specific community. That being said, each of the Gaelic contributors does respond to and interact with the traditions of Gaelic poetry to some extent.

The shortage of women poets, Meg Bateman aside, is one of the few concerns with this line-up. Such high-profile figures as Anne Frater and Catrìona and Mairi NicGumaraid are not included, but this may be attributed to the choices of the “translators”: each of the poets chose two poems from a selection of thirty-six literal translations prepared by the editor against which to hew their own responses; editorial decisions were then, obviously, only partially definitive. This may also explain the absence of Sorley MacLean from the collection, but it is an absence that is, anyway, strangely fitting. MacLean was extremely well-served by translators of his work, both into English and Scots (though the jury has long been out on his own translations). The Scots translations of MacLean’s poetry by Douglas Young, Robert Garioch and Sidney Goodsir Smith in the middle of the last century signal the last great collaboration by poets across the two languages; this current collection attempts, to some extent, to offer a modern resurrection of this collaboration (although, sadly, it did not appear to involve as many hours of drunken arguments in Edinburgh pubs).

Providing the Scots and English responses is an equally stellar cast: Tracey Herd, Jackie Kay, WN Herbert, Robert Crawford, David Kinloch, John Burnside and Kathleen Jamie. Their poetic responses are largely in English, with thirteen English poems to one Scots (the single poem in Scots, by WN Herbert, risks becoming a token gesture; that it doesn’t is largely testament to the different brands of English on display as well).

The wonderful thing about this collection is that – in requiring responses rather than translation – it allows for experimentation and divergence from the original. Some of the responses stretch beyond the poem they are dealing with to other poems by the same author, such as Tracey Herd’s “To My Mother”, which appears to refer beyond Iain Crichton Smith’s ‘Do Mo Mhàthair’. Herd describes how “The sails take up their slack”; this surely takes note of Smith’s famous and hugely powerful poem “Na h-Eilthirich”, in which the sails of the emigrant ships are “white wings” making for Canada. At other times the responses draw on the wealth of English language culture to provide a counterpoint to the Gaelic: John Burnside’s “As it happens” specifically locates a reference in Maoilios Caimbeul’s poem to the weather as being the “Ceefax weather”; similarly, Robert Crawford turns Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh’s generic “clown in a TV cartoon” into “Krusty the Clown from the Simpsons”. And, given the opportunity to jump onto a metaphor of writing, responding to Aonghas MacNeacail’s “dàn”, David Kinloch does so with a fair amount of mischievous glee and offers perhaps the best – and certainly the freest and raciest – response in the collection.

The title of Kinloch’s response, “poem/song/destiny”, picks up on the ambiguities in the Gaelic word dàn, but the poem itself is not tied to the Gaelic even in this multiple or contingent way. Kinloch’s language is alive and challenging, turning writing into “spraycanning” and “a bitch without soul” into a “heartcore bitch”, on top of such wonderfully complex phrases as “a brand new/ john’s syntaxoscopic interface”, “your guff clings on eternally”, “heat dogg, heartmonger, boy/ bitch”, “I won’t howk out your beauty”, “palimpsest tattoo” and “grindcore at my throat”. Such playful violence of language is an ideal English counterpoint to MacNeacail’s work, which is probably the most challenging and prickly produced by any writer in Gaelic today.

The complexity of these responses, and the manner of their debate with the original Gaelic, is, of course, only obvious to a reader who has some competence in the language. In some of the closer responses, such as WN Herbert’s Dundonian “Sat in the café” or Jackie Kay’s “Think of a flood”, the Gaelic text is made more accessible (for those with a modicum of Gaelic) through the response; with other poems the Gaelic remains a mysterious other on the right-hand side of the page. That is not to say that this collection is of interest only to readers with Gaelic – it most certainly is not – but the reading experience is certainly radically different. Part of the fun of reading translations or versions of poems from a language that you do not know is the challenge of tracing the outline of the translation back onto the original: with some of these poems that is more of a challenge than others (you would be hard-pressed to discover a Gaelic for “syntaxoscopic”, say). The responses are certainly, however, testament to the linguistic diversity and health of Scottish literature.

There are a couple of drawbacks in the collection, however. The relationship of the responses to the Gaelic poems is, necessarily and unfortunately, second-hand; despite Whyte’s desire that the collection encourage Scottish poets to learn Gaelic, he did have to supply the poets with literal translations. (His may indeed have been a rather optimistic desire, especially as many current Scottish poets are not blessed with Whyte’s linguistic skills.) There are also a couple of general trends in the responses which I am personally unsure about, and which probably stem from this dependence on literal translations.

The first is a tendency towards repetition in the responses, which is not present in the originals. In Jackie Kay’s “A white road”, a response to Derick Thomson’s “An Rathad”, reams of related participles engulf the poem – “a reel’s singing and spinning,/ Battering, rushing, crushing, pounding”, “a stripe of sweat belching bursting gushing rushing” – as if, after Kay (or the translator) has looked up the Gaelic words in Dwelly (the Scots Gaelic equivalent of Ó Dónaill’s Irish language dictionary), every possible meaning finds its way onto the page. The looked-for cumulative effect is extraordinary in this poem and justifies the wide divergence from the original. However, in some others the repetitions are more mundane, as with Robert Crawford’s “again and again and again” and “it rained and rained and rained” in “When we were young”, his response to Iain Crichton Smith’s “Nuair a bha sinn òg”, or indeed David Kinloch’s repetition of “over and over and over” in “On the beach at Bosta”, the response to Donald MacAulay’s “Air Tràigh Bhostaidh”.

The repetition may be an attempt to get closer to what is perceived to be the tone of the original. In Gaelic, continuous tenses predominate: “I eat the young of the solan goose” would be rendered as “I am eating guga.” This is, of course, an unwieldy structure to imitate continuously in English – the repetition of other clauses may be meant to take the place of the continuous verbs. One side effect is that it tends to render the responses less precise than the Gaelic originals (although the precise references to Ceefax and Krusty the Clown do work in the other direction). At worst it could lead to an understanding of the Gaelic poetry as being generally ritualistic or incantatory. Two of the poems in the collection do indeed have strict, repetitive structures: “Nuair a bha sinn òg” is built around the repetition of the title, while the stanzas of Maoilios Caimbeul’s “Rudan a nì uisge” all start with the instruction “Smaoinich”, translated by Jackie Kay in “Think of a flood” as “Think of”. This is not, however, the case with the majority of the poems in the collection, or indeed the majority of poetry in Gaelic from the last fifty years; and to introduce repetitions on a regular basis into “translations” of Gaelic poetry risks making the poems – and the language – appear more mystical and opaque than they would otherwise be.

The second general trend is related. There is a risk as a writer in Gaelic – or indeed any endangered minority language – that your writing is primarily read as being, at least metaphorically, about the language itself. It is of course the case that all poetry is to some extent “about” or concerned with language; this is exacerbated when the language you are writing in is in ever-increasing danger of becoming a meta-language, a language only used to talk about itself. Some of the poems in the collection are explicitly about this phenomenon, notably Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh’s “An Sgrìobhaiche Gaidhlig”; Robert Crawford’s response to this poem, “The Gaelic Writer” provides the epigraph above. “Language issues” (whether they are the same issue each time is another matter) are implicit in various other of the Gaelic poems, such as Maoilios Caimbeul’s “Rud a thachair” (turned into John Burnside’s “As it happens”) or Aonghas MacNeacail’s “dàn (responded to by David Kinloch in “poem/song/destiny”), or even – at a push – in the image of the birds attempting suicide in Rody Gorman’s “Sgàilean” (which John Burnside rewrites as “This evening”).

However, in the Gaelic poems they generally remain implicit. Metaphors of writing or of language are relatively – and I would suggest self-consciously – rare, and are certainly less common than in the English responses. In Tracey Herd’s “To My Mother”, a response to a poem by Iain Crichton Smith, where Smith refers to “new [university] courses”, Herd has “brave new words”. This wonderfully evocative phrase echoes later in the images of the poet feeling guilt towards “present and past worlds” and the poet’s mother cleaving herring “without words”, both of which correspond only obliquely to what is in the Gaelic text. David Kinloch’s “The Crib”, responding to Meg Bateman’s “Leigeil bhruadaran dhìom”, imagines “ghost words/moving westwards” and “each bare-headed Celtic syllable” stepping “through the grave stone walls”. It is inevitable, though, that such a focus occurs; the act of translating, or of responding to a text in another language, will always bring to the fore questions of text and language, and these will feed into the poetic response. But when Kinloch or Herd offer a focus on language and textualisation that isn’t in the original, the ghostly apparition of Gaelic as a meta-language rears its head once more.

Generally, however, the collection’s aim to help fortify links between the “national languages” of Gaelic, Scots and English is in itself admirable, and is extremely successful. There have been a few publications in recent decades in which Gaelic responses have been written to contemporary poetry in the other languages of Scotland, such as part of Derick Thomson’s 1990 collection of translations Bardachd na Roinn-Eorpa an Gaidhlig, and Roderick MacDonald’s 1992 translation of the collected works of Burns into Gaelic, Bardachd Raibeart Burns an Gaidhlig. Unfortunately, there remain precious few who would be able to read these works.

Perhaps this collection ushers in a new era in which the publication of Gaelic poetry gets more ambitious. I would love to see a future collection in which these poetries interact with the other, newer languages of Scotland, such as Urdu or Polish for example, translating “made from girders” into Urdu as it were.(1) Whether such a collection would meet approval from a publisher hoping to make money is another matter. However, any attempt to increase the readership of Gaelic poetry which does not simultaneously dismiss the value of that poetry is undoubtedly a good thing. When Sorley MacLean acknowledged that the readership for Gaelic poetry was “limited”, he may well have known that in the dialect of English spoken on the Isle of Lewis “limited” traditionally meant “successful, getting on in the world” (sure if you had Ltd after your name there was no doubt but that you were doing well for yourself). It is perhaps this kind of limited audience that Gaelic should be aiming for after all.

(1). “Made from Girders” is the traditional slogan of the Scottish soft drink “Irn Bru”, whose distinctive bright orange colour can often be seen in the teated bottles of children in pushchairs around Glasgow. Rich in sugar (and not much else), “Irn Bru” is a famed hangover cure. I am unsure whether the slogan is a promise or a health warning.

Correction: I am very glad to hear that Donald MacAulay is not in fact in “the great Gaidhealtachd in the sky” and has a new collection coming out this year; also, Rody Gorman does not feature in the collection An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd.


Peter Mackay is a Research Fellow in the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Queen’s University Belfast, and is also a poet and filmmaker. He is currently working on a book on the poet Sorley MacLean.

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