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

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The equivalent Thomson poem whose depths have yet to be fully explored is 'Gormshuil', published in 1991.2 It has 175 lines and is therefore only half as long as 'Uamha 'n Òir', which has 352. Again it is based upon a legend, if that is the right word. Down to Thomson's generation Gormshuil was a popular girl's name in Lewis. In that spelling it means 'Blue-Eye', and it was anglicised as Gormelia. In origin, however, it is Gormla or Gormfhlaith, which means 'Blue Aristocrat' or 'Noble Princess', blue being the colour of nobility (indeed we still speak of 'blue blood').

The most celebrated Gormla in medieval Gaelic tradition was a daughter of Flann Sinna (Flann of the Shannon), a high king of Ireland who died in AD 916. She was married to three kings in a row — Cormac, who was both king and bishop of Cashel and died in 916, his conqueror Cerball mac Muirecáin who died in 909, and Niall Glúndub (Niall the Black-Kneed), who fell in battle against the Vikings in 919. After that she died in poverty. She had been quick to transfer her affections to Cerball when he defeated her first husband in battle, and she is the assumed author of a sequence of poems about her husbands, her riches and her poverty. One of them begins (in translation): 'I've loved three times thirty, / I've loved nine times nine; / I could have loved twenty men, / But that would not attract a woman — / I forsook them all for Niall, / For what I wanted was his love'. And another ends (again in translation): 'Cerball of the sword gave me three hundred cows and two hundred horses. Cormac gave twice as many as Cerball, and that was no mean act. But why should I hide from God the wealth I got from Niall? In one month Niall gave me three times as much as all that put together.' Gormla's name (and reputation) were picked up by Geoffrey of Monmouth as Goneril, and passed on into Shakespeare's King Lear. It is perhaps no surprise that in later Scottish Gaelic tradition she was known as a famous witch, Gormshuil Mhór na Mòighe whose home was at Moy in Lochaber. If we add to all this the very distinct possibility that when Thomson wrote the poem he was remembering a Gormshuil that had been known to him, we have, once again, a case of multiple identity. How is it handled?

The poem is in free verse, in fourteen parts, and again the poet has translated it himself (very helpfully this time). First we have the early medieval Gormshuil in her own words, moving quickly through her life from pride in her beguiling eyes to regret at her downfall. Then section two begins:

arsa tusa 'na do sheann chòta drògaid

('"No Englishwoman could dance like her", / you said, dressed in your old drugget skirt') On the face of it this seems to be a memory of a woman speaking about a woman called Gormshuil. And the 'Englishwoman' reference is clear to anyone familiar with the recent history of Lewis. Around 1900, countless girls were leaving the island every year to go as gutters of herring to fishing ports all around the United Kingdom, especially Great Yarmouth. They worked hard, were well paid, had money, enjoyed their nights out, and loved competing for the men's attention. But the poet's memory is fixed not on the dancer but on the woman who is talking about her. He goes on:

'Cha robh tè a Sasainn a sheinneadh rithe',
arsa tusa, ach tha do cheòl fhèin
air falbh às mo chuimhne,
cha chluinn mi
an ann àrd no ìosal a bha e 'n oidhch' ud,
ged a chì mi do bhilean a' gluasad.

('"No Englishwoman could sing like her", / you said, but your own music / has slipped away from my memory, / I cannot hear / whether it was high or low that night / though I see your lips moving.') What the poet means by 'high or low' I do not know — sacred or secular, perhaps? And he speaks of her eyes (bha teine a' lasadh 'na do shùilean, 'fire shone in your eyes'), which makes us think, no, Gormshuil is the woman speaking, not the woman spoken of, and the 'Englishwoman' remarks are fragments of speech randomly recollected: a trick used by Thomson elsewhere.

Section three is a quick sketch of the environment in which Gormshuil lived: the single window of her black house, the chickens, the potatoes, and not many of those. In section four the description of the woman becomes subtly confused with the imagery of death: although hands are a' slìobadh an aodaich, 'stroking the cloth' as aged hands are wont to do, and breath is a' plathcadaich fo na plaideachan, 'coming in gusts under the blankets', the bed is growing narrow le bruthadh na h-ùrach 'with the pressing-in of earth'. There is logical continuity, it seems, between the bed and the grave.

In section five the imagery switches to the going out of a fire, reminding us of Gormshuil's eyes:

dìth cheap air an doras-iadht',
dìth grèine air sruth na fala

('shortage of turfs for the closing-door, / lack of sun in the blood-stream'). The doras-iadht', literally 'door of surrounding', is I think the little box-like structure of peats that traps the fire and keeps it alive until morning. Sections six and seven, which are short, continue this image, while adding to it what looks like another memory of the woman herself, a detailed, painterly description of her hand resting on the table and a' stobadh meur ann an imleag tìm', 'jabbing a finger in time's navel'. Section eight begins with this imagery of hands, but marks an extraordinary departure; here it is in full:

Le làmhan paisgte
a' tighinn bhon a' chomanachadh:
pasgadh na h-àbhaist,
is àbhaist na Càisge,
's an comann, an co-chomann,
an dlùthadh, an sgaradh,
a' chuimhne, an dìochuimhn',
an deuchainn, an t-socair,
an locair, a' chnuimh,
a' chuing, an laoidh,
an Gàrradh, an salm,
an t-òran, an iodhlainn,
an iollach, an t-slabhraidh,
an teine, an gràdh,
an gràs, an teine-dè,
an t-ubhal, Àdhamh,
an leabaidh-phòsda,
an eileatrom.

('Hands clasped / coming from communion: / customary clasping, / custom of Easter, / and the company, the companionship, / the nearing, the parting, / memory, forgetfulness, / hardship, ease, / the plane, the maggot, / the yoke, the hymn, / the Garden, the psalm, / the song, the cornyard, / the cry, the chain, / the fire, love, / grace, St Anthony's fire, / the apple, Adam, / the bridal bed, / the bier.') The communion sounds to me like a Catholic one, but the ensuing starburst of themes and symbols seems to embrace the life and death of every Gormla or Gormshuil who ever lived, thus emphasising their common humanity.

The rest of the poem is related in the first person singular, and we appear to have reached a synthesis between Gormla and Gormshuil. In section nine she lies in the heather, but the coverlet on her face is purple. In section ten a bit of Lewis pop song comes into her head: Cha b' ann dubh a bha mo leannan, 'He wasn't dark, my sweetheart'. She prays to Christ not to be sent back dhan a' chlais, 'to the pit'; then section eleven begins in inverted commas 'Ach bha mi uair 'na mo bhàn-righ' (''But once I was a queen''), as if to make it suffice for both (or all) women, and moves into reflections on lost beauty, wealth and happiness.

Section twelve is a little like Gormshuil's response to Gormla: here the memory is not of a queen but of a night in the barn. Section thirteen is something of a surprise, as the narrator confesses that she will come barren and childless before her maker on Judgement Day. And in section fourteen the poem ends with Gormshuil's defiance of sermons and neighbours' talk:

tha mise fhathast
mar a bhà mi,
lasair m' èibhleig air chrith
anns a' chagailt chiand,
mo thein'-aigheir gun smàladh.

('I am still / as I was, / my ember's flame shivering / in the self-same hearth, / my bonfire unquenched.') This is, we conclude, a real woman whom the poet knew, whose spirit he admired, and whom he wishes to honour by comparing her to the famous queen of long ago.

These two long poems of MacLean's and Thomson's are typical of their authors. One is subjective, the other objective. Both employ legend and symbolism. Both are challenging, MacLean's more so than Thomson's. MacLean's work was made for himself as some sort of confused catharsis, then patchily revised many years later. Thomson's was made in a controlled way for others to read and enjoy.

And in the end, for all their multiple personae, these poems offer a wonderfully contrasting view of the type of woman who is most dangerous to men.


Ronald Black is a former Senior Lecturer in Celtic in the University of Edinburgh and the editor of An Tuil: Anthology of 20th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse (Polygon, 1999). His latest book is The Campbells of the Ark: Men of Argyll in 1745 (John Donald, 2017).

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2 'Gormshuil' is taken from Smeur an Dòchais, Bramble of Hope: Dàin le Ruaraidh MacThòmais, Poems by Derick Thomson (Canongate, 1991).