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Portable Rootedness and Other Contradictions: Some Thoughts on Contemporary Hebridean Poetry

In this informal, inexhaustive essay I shall reflect on continuing challenges and recent developments in Hebridean poetry, concentrating especially on the six years that have elapsed since the publication of These Islands, We Sing: An Anthology of Scottish Islands Poetry. As I wrote in my introduction to that book:

Poetry is grossly undervalued today, and even dedicated readers sometimes overlook the disproportionate excellence of 20th‐ and 21st-century poetry from the Scottish isles: a strange confluence of self-defeating injustices. I believe this is the first poetry anthology of its kind — that is, one with a remit wide enough to bring in writing from any Scottish island, but distinct enough not to include Highland or other mainland work.

That this was the first anthology with such a remit was faintly embarrassing, while it strengthened my assertion that poetry from the Scottish islands is generally and unfairly neglected.

I wish to begin by emphasising that being a poet in or from the Hebrides presents a specific set of challenges. One must grapple with helpful and hopeless contradictions. It is inordinately difficult for Hebridean poets to start with a page that is truly blank. I was disconcerted and pleased many years ago to find sober affirmation of this thorny truth in an important essay by Iain Crichton Smith, 'Real People in a Real Place' (written in 1982 and first published in Towards The Human, Macdonald Publishers, 1986). Smith's long essay, as remarkable for the strength and lucidity of its opinions as for its continuing relevance, de-romanticises insular life and culture:

Thus the islander is seen as the pawky ferryman whom one meets at the entrance to the enchanted land of summer, when the country to which he belongs is beautiful and slightly hazy, a place for a holiday. After this interlude, the real world with its constant grind and envy and ambition is waiting for us, but it is nice to think that the islanders exist behind and beyond it, as a haven beyond the sharp rocks which await us.

Many and varied types of otherness are foisted upon islanders; these can provide material for poetry, yes, but they can also be deeply counter-productive. Thus, the poet is fighting external pressures, assumptions, stereotypes, even before she has begun to put ink on paper.

Smith criticises the narrow, patronising portrayals of islanders one encounters in books such as Whisky Galore and the novels of Lillian Beckwith — simple, comical characters who speak a language no islander has ever spoken. By a process of insidious osmosis, these publications, bolstered by external perceptions of them, seep into the islander's consciousness as reminders of who we are (but never really were), and of who we are seen to be — and the boundaries dissolve with an injustice that is tacit, invisible and lasting.

Before committing words to page, the Hebridean poet must first of all make their way through a tired old labyrinth. Smith says:

The choices for the gifted islanders are more poignant and frequent than they would be in a more settled land, for each choice appears to involve allegiance or disloyalty.

The problem goes deeper still. For you can write poems of the utmost integrity — true to your heart, your mind, your worldview, your craft, your experience — but they might nonetheless be considered disloyal by a parochial reader, one who willfully or otherwise misinterprets the poem (and, likely, in an insular Scotland, misinterprets the poet). The Hebridean poet must often withstand assumptions relating to poetry, the poet's own poetry, and the poet him‐ or herself.

The general characteristics of Gaelic Hebridean poetry are summarized by Ronald Black in the introduction to his anthology An Tuil: Anthology of Twentieth Century Gaelic Verse (Birlinn, 1999). Traditional (Gaelic) poetry is typified by rhyme, melody, 'occasional intellectual inconsistency', wordiness, an audience that is primarily local. Modern poetry tends towards free verse, dissemination via print (or online), 'some artistic snobbery', 'tight logic or no logic at all', a target audience of 'anyone'. The traditional bard often lived 'at home' (poets self-evidently live at home — Black is using 'home' in the islander's sense of true/original/lasting — that is, island — home); the bard had little experience of higher education and was often non-literate (never illiterate).

By contrast, the contemporary poet is 'seldom living at home', is university-educated, literate in Gaelic, and has excellent English. The latter description certainly applies to many of the newer Hebridean poets, such as Babs NicGriogair and Pàdraig MacAoidh.

Innovations in writing form and technique do not come about easily — and it is important here to acknowledge that the islands are quietly renowned for their small-c conservatism, with its attendant benefits and disadvantages.

The crux of Smith's essay (from a writer's point of view) comes when he contemplates the 'snake pit of contradictions' that his own life has been, due to 'an accident of geography and a hostile history'. He makes an unforgettable statement, one whose resonance is still felt today by Hebridean writers:

I envy […] those poets who have developed in a stable society, who can start from there and are not constantly analyzing the very bases of their art.

Smith is partly referring here to what is sometimes called 'the paralysis of analysis' — a sense of stasis that settles troublingly over one's efforts, replacing dynamism with doubt, a fatalistic and unwanted compulsion to go back to first principles every time one attempts to write. This is substantially the human, true-life result of the 'othering' of island culture, and of the 'marginalising' and the 'silencing' that I refer to in These Islands, We Sing.

These problems are real. When one adds to them a natural concern over how the writing will be perceived by the local community — family, friends, neighbours — perhaps the wonder is that Hebridean poets exist at all. They do so in frustratingly small numbers — especially when one considers how gratifyingly many talented poets there are living and writing in, say, Shetland.

One recent, and very welcome, development in Scottish literature is the creation of Tuath, a Gaelic supplement to the free literary publication Northwords Now. This is likely to have a beneficial impact upon Hebridean writing — and indeed the first issue, edited by the multilingual poet Rody Gorman, includes contributions from Hebrideans Màiri NicGumaraid, Maoilios Caimbeul and Pàdraig MacAoidh. In her essay 'Beachdan' ('Opinions'), NicGumaraid writes:

I wonder if there isn't something inveterately skillful, if not wholly dishonourable, in the ability to faze, or freeze, out one's own intellectual heritage — in order to blend in with the opinions, and the values placed upon the opinions, of someone else. If there is, I'd say the native Gael probably has it down to a fine art. The 'I kent his faither' syndrome which so long plagued the arts and airts of mainland Scots and Scotland for decades, if not centuries, has had its equivalent in the 'offshore islands' in the form of 'Who do they think they are?' Always a difficult question. Who indeed.

Plus ça change. The difficult points Iain Crichton Smith raised in his essay in 1982 are still very much with us.

Who, then, are the exceptions, the Hebridean poets who overcome the internal and external obstacles and find their way to publication? […]

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