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Sorley MacLean, Derick Thomson, and the Women Most Dangerous to Men

Sorley MacLean | Somhairle MacGill-Eain (1911–1996), and Derick Thomson | Ruaraidh MacThòmais (1921–2012), were the two leading Scottish Gaelic poets of the twentieth century. Although the difference in age between them was not great, it is fair to say that MacLean's era was the second quarter of the century, while Thomson dominated the fifty years that followed. Now, those are bold statements, oversimplifications perhaps, and to interrogate them we have to understand some of the dynamics at work on the language in their day, and (obviously) know a little more about these two men and their poetic output.

The eruption of MacLean in the 30s and 40s was like a volcano in a quiet wasteland. There had been no truly outstanding Gaelic poets since the death of Duncan Ban Macintyre in 1812. The first quarter of the twentieth century gave us backward-looking romanticism, an officially sponsored preference for words at the expense of meaning, and some good poets who seemed to draw back on reaching the outer edge of innovation, or were cut off on reaching their prime: Father Allan McDonald of Eriskay, Donald Sinclair from Barra, Donald MacDonald (Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna) from North Uist. Only in retrospect is it even possible to isolate these three names, because none of them was properly published in his own lifetime, and in Sinclair's case we were obliged to wait until 2014 for the collected verse that proved his worth. But knowing that some interesting developments were taking place in the first quarter of the century makes MacLean's achievement only slightly less remarkable.

The elements that gave rise to the poetic volcano are easily listed. They are: MacLean's upbringing in Raasay by a family steeped in traditional Gaelic song; the intense religious ferment of the day, which provided him with the vocabulary of personal introspection; the anger at social injustice which was inevitable in an island that had been subjected to vicious clearances; his education at Edinburgh University, which opened his eyes to the work of a wide variety of English poets from John Donne to T. S. Eliot; the unexpected rise of the populist right in Spain, Italy and Germany at a time when the left had offered the young the hope of a progressive future; a disastrous love-life; and, finally, service in the British Army in the battle against Rommel's Afrika Korps. These things merged semi-involuntarily in MacLean's brain and came out in an extraordinary gush of pure creativity during the years from 1933 to 1943. There is a dreamlike quality to it all, enhanced by a pervasive use of symbolism; it is a hard-edged, vivid dream which often marches methodically from one topic to the next, but just as frequently marries two or three of the above ingredients in endlessly varying thought-patterns, intensely rhythmical and lightly bridled by rhyme.

There are two principal sequences: Dàin do Eimhir (Poems to Eimhir), in which the central preoccupation is the poet himself and his relationships with women, poetry, politics and homeland; and An Cuilithionn (The Cuillin), an objective survey of world politics in the 1930s, in which the persona — the vantage point — is those great jagged mountains of Skye, a more dynamic symbol being provided by another island toponym, the Àigeach or leaping horse. A third and briefer 'sequence', if that is the right word, is provided by MacLean's North Africa poems of the early 40s, which are among the best verse that came out of the Second World War in any language. The sheer drama of these astonishing ten years of creativity was brought to an end, appropriately enough, by an explosion which almost ended MacLean's life; his collection Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile (Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems) was published just weeks after his final discharge from hospital in Inverness in 1943. It was very correctly said in the 1970s that 'we all remember exactly where we were on first opening the book'.

As we have seen, in terms of lifespan there is a considerable overlap between MacLean and Thomson. Indeed, there is equally an overlap between MacLean and the other major Gaelic poets who succeeded him: George Campbell Hay (1915–1984), who also served in the British Army in North Africa, and put the experience to even greater use; Iain Crichton Smith (1928–1998); Donald MacAulay (born 1930). All of them knew MacLean and were inspired by him. To explore the relationship, however, we may point to the three phases that constitute the rest of MacLean's artistic life: the era of 'Hallaig' and other late poems; the era of poetic silence, when he was a hard-working Highland headmaster, not known as a poet even by his own pupils; and, following his retirement, the era of his renaissance, not as a practising poet but as a literary celebrity. All of these phases caused irritation to some: 'Hallaig' (yes, that celebrated poem in particular) because it panders to a false stereotype of Gaelic verse and represents a betrayal of MacLean's explicitly stated counter-romanticism; the period of silence, because MacLean failed even to publish earlier work that was known to exist, especially An Cuilithionn; and his renaissance as a celebrity, because it eclipsed Derick Thomson in particular. It is this 'car-crash' to which I refer when I say very pointedly that 'MacLean's era was the second quarter of the century, while Thomson dominated the fifty years that followed'. Thomson's domination was in terms of ongoing achievement (as poet, as inspiring university teacher, as publisher, and not least as editor, from 1952, of the hugely influential quarterly magazine Gairm), but in the eyes of many members of the wider public, especially those unable to read Gaelic, MacLean's celebrity trumped all else.

There is no doubt that MacLean and Thomson were different kinds of poet, and that some of the above remarks will be regarded as controversial. For example, MacLean was certainly a poet of genius, but it is perhaps going too far to portray him as a kind of shamanistic machine which absorbed discrete influences at one end of his brain and effortlessly disgorged sublime verses at the other. The case for MacLean as a hard-working poetic craftsman has, I think, yet to be made. 'Hallaig' and the other late poems are, I feel, crucial to this argument; there are those who regard them as shamanistically sublime and those, like myself, who see them as a conscious, slightly laboured attempt to respond to the public's insatiable demand: "Give us more! Give us more!"

Thomson, on the other hand, was undoubtedly a hard-working craftsman, while no one has ever suggested that he was a shamanistic genius. And there are other differences. Thomson may have served for a time in the RAF, but he was a lifelong academic who lived in a bubble of undisturbed peace and tranquillity, penetrated only by the concerns that affected all of us as a community: the Cold War, the decline of Gaelic in its heartland, the flawed ideology of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the rise of pop culture, the iron grip of religious extremism on Thomson's native island of Lewis, far-off foreign wars or famines, and the slow, agonising steps towards Scottish home rule and independence, of which he was a passionate, inspiring, and sometimes — dare I say it — courageously silly advocate. To judge by his poetry, other than the tragic death of one of his sons, few great personal challenges ever seem to have faced him: there was a persistent rumour amongst his students, certainly, that he won his very beautiful wife in a running fist-fight with certain other future members of the Scottish establishment, but that is neither here nor there (and Sorley MacLean's wife was also very beautiful).

What we have running through successive collections of Thomson's work, from the first in 1951 to the last in 2007, is a gradually evolving dynamic, teeming with people and shot through with satire and social concern, in which the two main preoccupations are his relationship with his native island and his country. For many, he is at his best in short poems: and certainly he made himself the undisputed master of a fairly economical tripartite structure consisting of statement, development and ringing conclusion. For many, again, he is admired (or disdained) for the accessibility of much of his work, yet MacLean's may be argued to be equally accessible, albeit without the humour. There are, however, two obvious differences. One is MacLean's preference for regular metres, and Thomson's for free verse. The other is Thomson's keen eye for observing people, compared to MacLean's preference for the abstract and the introspective. On the other hand, both enjoyed polemics. And, intriguingly, both gave us numerous poems whose depths have yet to be fully explored. I will devote the rest of this essay to a couple of examples — poems that I do not fully understand, which are similar in some ways, and which have long fascinated me.

MacLean's 'Uamha 'n Òir' ('The Cave of Gold') appears at first to have been one of his late poems.1 It was written, or at least reworked, in the 1970s. It refers to a very old legend which was found in pretty much every part of the Highlands and Islands where a cave on one side of a hill or mountain was believed to connect with a cave on the other. The legend always has it that a piper marched into the cave at one end, that he could be heard playing his pipes far underground, and that the sound stopped halfway, but that his dog appeared out of the cave at the other end with its hair singed off, revealing that his master had come off the worse in some encounter with evil. In this case the cave is explicitly stated to be in Dùis MhicLeòid, 'MacLeod's Land' in Skye, and the people involved are MacCrimmons. There are basically three sections — one which describes the original legend, one which tells how another piper tries his luck in the same way, and one which draws a conclusion. The poem may be approached as history, as biography, as autobiography, or as a combination of these. As history, the first section presumably describes some early MacCrimmon, and the second describes Dòmhnall Bàn, who was killed in the Rout of Moy in March 1746. As autobiography, the first section presumably describes the poet as a young man, the second the poet in his maturity. In Dòmhnall Bàn's case the cave becomes a metaphor for foretold death, suicide even: chaidh a' ghalla 'na cheann / 's 'na chridhe, 'the bitch went into his head / and his heart'. […]


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1 'Uamha an Òir' is taken from Caoir Gheal Leumraich, White Leaping Flame: Somhairle MacGill-Eain / Sorley MacLean, Collected Poems in Gaelic with English Translations, edited by Christopher Whyte and Emma Dymock (Polygon, 2011).