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

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Aonghas 'Dubh' MacNeacail, Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul, Rody Gorman, Anna Frater, Maoilios Caimbeul, Dòmhnall S. Moireach, and Babs NicGriogair are among the writers who explore these problems against the vast theme of diaspora in a bilingual collection of essays and commissioned poems called Struileag: Cladach gu Cladach/Struileag: Shore to Shore. Most of these names, of course, are familiar — writers whose voices are distinctive, whose contribution is assured.

The poets in the Struileag anthology must negotiate their relationship with tradition and innovation ('make it new'), local issues and global interdependence, history and, to one extent or another, autobiography. The poems are diverse — encompassing secular psalms, raps and that all-too-rare Japanese form incorporating prose and haiku, the haibun. The result is a refreshing mix of the familiar and the provocative; an accompanying CD, which sets the poems to music (folk, rap, etc) has a similar atmosphere of passion, edginess and innovation.

One of the themes explored in the Struileag project is exile; historically, of course, this is a loaded word. In current times, even in a digital age, it is often incumbent upon poets to leave their home island and acclimatize to a new place, a new culture. A poet, native Gaelic speaker and peace activist from Lewis, Babs NicGriogair refers to herself as an urban Gael, or a Stornoweegie (cleverly juxtaposing Stornowegian and Weegie, an informal term for a Glaswegian). 'My external points of reference are different, but the moral compass remains very much the same,' she says. 'I feel strongly that urban Gaelic poetry can have a revitalizing part to play in Scotland's identity at this particular juncture in time, and hope that I may be able to contribute to its flourishing — in a contemporary cityscape that has a vibrant Hebridean diaspora amongst many others.'

This level of self-awareness, and accompanying sense of portable rootedness, is not uncommon among contemporary Hebridean poets. Pàdraig MacAoidh, originally from Lewis, now lectures at the University of St Andrews. He has written a fine (and non-hagiographical) academic book on the work of Sorley Maclean (Sorley Maclean, AHRC 2010), a pamphlet From Another Island (Clutag Press, 2010) and a full collection Gu Leòr (Acair, 2015). His is one of the most lively and informed of voices in the world of contemporary Hebridean poetry. MacAoidh has recently co-edited, along with the multilingual Canadian Gael, poet Iain S. Mac a' Phearsain, an anthology of transgressive Gaelic poetry (An Leabhar Liath: 500 Years of Gaelic Love and Transgressive Verse, Luath 2016). Transgressive, yes — and progressive, too.

Arguably the most impressive recent breakthrough in Hebridean poetry is the publication in 2014 of Niall Campbell's Moontide (Bloodaxe Books). A Poetry Book Society recommendation, Moontide is a (monolingual, English) collection that genuinely marked the emergence of a major poetic talent. The book — rich with Hebridean tropes and an emotional profundity — is exceptional not only in its high-calibre poetry but in that it has achieved the recognition it deserves. Campbell (an Uibhisteach, or Uist man, now resident in Leeds) has been awarded an Eric Gregory Award, a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, the Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize and the Saltire First Book of the Year Award. It is not just that Niall Campbell demonstrates great potential, but that he is actively fulfilling his promise — which is gladdening and encouraging to witness.

In These Islands, We Sing I ventured to make a few predictions about the future of Hebridean writing. I imagined we would see poets writing more works of prose (as has happened — for example, recent non-fiction works have appeared from Dòmhnall S. Moireach, Ian Stephen, Maoilios Caimbeul). Regrettably, we have not seen an upswing in the publication of novels by Hebrideans (but that's another essay in itself). Performance poetry has grown exponentially in popularity within Scotland over the last few years, and Hebridean performance poets are emerging — see, for example, Kirsty Nicolson's poem about Multiple Sclerosis, as featured on the BBC's website.

I don't have space to discuss, or even name, all the Hebridean poets who are publishing occasionally in magazines, though I have high hopes for the likes of Karin Slater and for the as yet unknown Niall Campbells of tomorrow.

The current state of Hebridean poetry, then, is cause for guarded dismay and open joy. Dismay because old problems are proving more deeply entrenched than would be desirable, joy because there are poets achieving success despite these.

In Douglas Dunn's words, 'poetry's cost is always exorbitant'; maybe, then, the best poets are inevitable.

I'd like to finish by celebrating the work of a brilliant and under-appreciated poet who died in March of this year, aged eighty-six. Donald MacAulay has always been revered by those who appreciate his work. Iain Crichton Smith called MacAulay 'an exceptionally sensitive and complicated man' (one might use the same words to describe ICS himself). Unlike Smith, MacAulay was not a prolific writer. He wrote a careful, measured poetry that had, and has, lasting depth. One of MacAulay's final poems appears in the debut edition of Tuath, alongside an admiring salute from Rody Gorman.

'Do Chuilean dhan Ainm Oscar'/'To a Dog Called Oscar', which references Lermontov, is a compassionate and moving poem about a characterful dog. It ends:

Gaisgeach thu gun teagamh —
de ghaisgich ar latha
You're a hero for sure —
one of the heroes of our time.

Donald MacAulay's work is long overdue a full appraisal. MacAulay was not an unsung hero — he sang and was sung, but was, is, heard by too few.


Kevin MacNeil is a novelist, screenwriter, editor and poet. He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling. His most recent book is the Saltire Award shortlisted The Brilliant & Forever.

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