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The Idea of Island in Gaelic Fiction

Homi Bhabha writes about a homogenising attempt to deprive 'minorities of those marginal, liminal spaces from which they can intervene in the unifying and totalizing myths of the national culture'.1 While this statement should evidently be taken as (at least partly) figurative, we could also stubbornly read it more literally in the case of Gaelic writing. The Gaels, as an imagined community (to borrow another commentator's term for a moment) often write about what we could describe as marginal or liminal spaces. I have previously pointed out the line from the Iain Moireach story 'Am Partaidh' ('The Party')2 , where his main character claims that Gaels are only at home while travelling between places.3

Specifically, indeed, as well as often writing about the journeys themselves, Gaelic writers also write a great deal about the islands: islands where they themselves live, islands where they grew up, and imagined islands of a fantasy Gàidhealtachd that perhaps never truly existed. If a sense of marginality or liminality has been projected onto even some facets of the Gaelic literary consciousness, this would help to explain why writing about the islands is so prevalent. More prosaically, of course, Gaelic speakers write about islands because many of them are islanders and they write about what they know. Nevertheless, it is a point of some interest that islands have featured so prominently in the literature, even during a century in which the 'imagined community' gradually moved in large part away from the islands.

Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, more Gaelic-speakers live in mainland towns than in the Hebrides. And yet, we still see a fascination with what is frequently depicted as a kind of Gaelic 'first environment'. We may wonder to what extent this writing about islands is an attempt to intervene in the unifying and totalising myths of the 'national' culture or if it is, in fact, a rather obvious symbol of a need to isolate the community from such external myths; whether it is, in a way, a process of self‐othering'. At different points in the fiction, both synchronically and perhaps especially diachronically, we see islands being used as metaphors of isolation, with the sea being the barrier that necessitates 'otherness'; but we also see islands being depicted as the confident centres of their own cultural significance, with the sea regarded as a vibrant conduit allowing for the to-ing and fro-ing of intercultural communication, as well as the movement of people, goods and ideas. In other words, the symbolism that attaches to islands in Gaelic writing features a rich and textured plurality. Let us take a few examples from the past century, to explore some of the ways in which writers have addressed the connection with the islands and ways in which they have used them figuratively, to progress towards understanding whether they play a part in any kind of unifying myth.

First, let us turn to the early period in Gaelic fiction writing, from around a century ago, when prominent writers included Iain MacCormaic, Iain MacPhàidein and Henry 'Fionn' Whyte, all of whom left islands at comparatively young ages and moved to the cities. A useful example for our purposes is MacCormaic's 'Troimh Chruadal' ('Through Hardship').4 'Troimh Chruadal' has many features typical of MacCormaic's writing, including unsophisticated plotting and shallow characterisation. However, also in common with much of MacCormaic's other work, it excels in the area of descriptive writing. Where MacCormaic really shines is in his description of the natural world, something which is equally true of many of his early twentieth-century contemporaries. In some of MacCormaic's fiction, the depiction of the natural world takes such precedence that it becomes a central interest. This is certainly the case in 'Troimh Chruadal', where the plot is transparently thin and the main character, Calum, has no depth or development and so the reader's interest is held primarily by the description of Calum's journey through the island: MacCormaic tries to make Calum the 'hero' by investing him with almost superhuman determination and ruggedness, which is a mistake he commonly makes in writing his main characters.

Calum must take a letter from his landlord in Mull to the mainland town of Inveraray and return with the response before some kind of financial disaster will befall. The journey through Mull is the main manifestation of the hardship suggested in the title, but several other hardships are suggested in the course of the story, to the extent that we begin to realise that Mull is being used as a metonym for life's struggles in a more general sense. Calum's landlord is currently struggling with considerable financial difficulty and has survived the terror of a shipwreck, having miraculously swum what appears to have been a great distance to save himself. He has, in this incident, lost both his wife and his fortune, the latter of which means he has trouble paying debts he has inherited on the land. What is notable is that the metaphor MacCormaic uses to describe the landlord's overcoming of his many tribulations is 'Fhuair e rudha an déigh rudha chur seachad' ('he managed to get past headland after headland')5, a particularly insular figure of speech if ever there was one!

It is significant that the journey from Oban to Inveraray and back (perhaps close to eighty miles of walking in all) is glossed over in a few lines, whereas the bulk of the narration focuses on the walk from Knockvologan to Grasspoint, a similar total distance. What we see here, therefore, is part of what becomes in the story as a whole a localisation of significance: only the journey through Mull matters in this adventure, and the rest of the journey is irrelevant. Throughout the story, there are numerous references to local lore and the perceptions of the people of the area, including the importance placed on weather knowledge. For instance, it is expected that a local will understand the signs of coming weather and respond accordingly. The island comes to stand for its own kind of totality of human experience:

B' e meadhon a' gheamhraidh a bh' ann, agus geamhradh eile cho doineannach cha robh cuimhne aig an neach bu shine 'san Ros uile.6

(It was the middle of winter and not even the oldest person in the whole Ross could remember such a stormy winter)


Cha do sheas air leathrach mairt am Muile riamh a chothaicheadh a leithid de shìd7

(There was not a cow on Mull that could ever battle such weather)

This localisation of significance is augmented by the way that the characters in the story are known primarily by their connections to places. Their identities are tied to the island. And, ultimately, even their salvation comes in the form of an island, albeit a different one. […]

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1 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 2007 [1994]), p. 358.
2 Iain Moireach, An Aghaidh Choimheach (Glasgow: Gairm, 1993 [1973]).
3 Moray Watson, An Introduction to Gaelic Fiction (Edinburgh: EUP, 2011) p. 124.
4 Iain MacCormaic, Oiteagan O'N Iar (Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1908); see also Watson 2011.
5 Ibid., p. 34.
6 Ibid., p. 35.
7 Ibid., p. 44.