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The poetry of Sorley MacLean
The poetry of Sorley MacLean

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1 Sorley MacLean

1.1 British poetry and language

To begin this course, look at the sheet of references linked below. You will see that the list includes books by Sorley MacLean and by two other important Scottish poets, Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan. Not one title was published in London. None of these writers has ever published a collection of poems in London. Yet the prizewinning work of Edwin Morgan is widely used in Scottish schools, and Sorley MacLean's work has been translated into several foreign languages. By the 1980s, a shift of the centre of gravity of poetry publishing had occurred, with Carcanet and Bloodaxe, based in northern English cities, accounting for a very high proportion of acclaimed new books. The day when one major Scottish writer, Hugh MacDiarmid, languished out of print for years on end, and another, Edwin Muir, relied on the recognition of his quality by T.S. Eliot at Faber, were clearly over. The power of the ‘metropolis’ in British poetry had significantly weakened. This corresponded to the political weakening of the London centre with the end of empire.

Click to open the sheet of references [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

In the twentieth century there has, in fact, been a conflict of two forces within British culture – one centripetal, making for a greater standardisation of language and attitudes, the other centrifugal, involving the assertion of national and regional differences within the United Kingdom.

Arguably, imperialism was at its apogee in Britain not before 1914, but from the 1920s through to the 1950s (see Mackenzie, 1984). Geographically the empire was larger than ever. The colonial civil service expanded markedly. And new means of communication – the aeroplane and, above all, radio – drew metropolis and possessions closer. While BBC broadcasts to the empire radiated the metropolitan viewpoint abroad, the BBC at home disseminated the ‘BBC accent’. Such eminent Victorians as Gladstone and Tennyson, as early gramophone records show, had strong regional accents (Lancashire and Lincolnshire respectively). Now the bland BBC voice became the badge of respectability.

Furthermore, there was a strong drive in education to elevate English literature from the 1920s – to impose a canon of Oxbridge approved ‘classics’ on the captive audiences in schools and universities. It is no accident that ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’ (the pen-name of C.M. Grieve) began a crusade on behalf of Scottish culture at just that time, nor that one of his chosen platforms was the Scottish Educational Journal.

Of MacDiarmid's most important contemporaries in the so-called ‘Scottish Renaissance’ (a label attached to a very divergent body of work by men who often disagreed strongly with each other), the novelist Neil Gunn wrote in Standard English, as did the poet Muir. But ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’ (J.L. Mitchell) wrote fiction in modified Scots, and – perhaps, in the long run, most momentously – Sorley MacLean proved that Gaelic could be the vehicle for powerful poetry fully engaged with contemporary politics and society.

An important outcome of MacDiarmid's renaissance was the growing widespread adoption of a pluralistic view of language and culture in Scotland. MacLean's first pamphlet was produced jointly with Robert Garioch (1909–81), who wrote in Lowland Scots (Seventeen Poems for Sixpence, 1940). But neither was necessarily more ‘radical’ or more ‘Scottish’ in attitude towards language than their friend Norman MacCaig (b.1910), Edinburgh-born but of Gaelic extraction, whose work is in elegant Standard English. The existence of fully accepted alternatives makes Standard English itself experimental! Other poets who have followed through the breach made by MacDiarmid include Edwin Morgan (b.1920), who writes as he pleases, in English, Scots and languages of his own invention.

Morgan's ‘First Men in Mercury’ can be read as a witty parable about language and imperialism. There are two voices. The leader of the Earth men seeks to communicate with the Mercurians. At the outset, his Standard English is calm and assured:


– We come in peace from the third planet.

Would you take us to your leader?


– Bawr stretter! Bawr. Bawr. Stretterhawl?


– This is a little plastic model

of the solar system, with working parts.

You are here and we are there and we are now here with you, is this clear?


– Gawl horrop. Bawr. Abawrhannahanna!


Faced with Mercurian truculence, the Earth man moves into pidgin:


– I am the yuleeda. You see my hands,

we carry no benner, we come in peace.

The spaceways are all stretterhawn.


– Glawn peacemen all horrahanna tantko!

Tan come at ’mstrossop. Glawp yuleeda!


Atoms are peacegawl in our harraban.

Menbat worrabost from tan hannahanna.


Eventually it is the Mercurian who speaks assuredly, the Earth man who mouths gutturally:


– Banghapper now! Yes, third planet back.

Yuleeda will go back blue, white, brown

nowhanna! There is no more talk.


– Gawl han fasthapper?


– No. You must go back to your planet.

Go back in peace, take what you have gained

but quickly.


– Stretterworra gawl, gawl…


– Of course, but nothing is ever the same,

now is it? You'll remember Mercury.

(Morgan, 1982, pp. 259–60)


This represents in miniature, one might say, the process by which the colonised learn to handle the English language better than their increasingly muddled and demoralised former masters. But the poem also suggests the situation in Morgan's home city, Glasgow, where a proletarian version of Scots is spoken that the English (and even many Scots) profess to find uncouth and incomprehensible.

Attempts to impose ‘BBC Standard’ through the educational system, on Glaswegians (or Geordies, or Liverpudlians, or Aberdonians) replicate the efforts of British colonialists educating elites to serve them in Africa. Nothing brings out the ruler–ruled factors of distance and domination better than the following poem in Glaswegian by Tom Leonard (b.1944):


Unrelated Incidents


this is thi

six a clock

news thi

man said n

thi reason

a talk wia

BBC accent

iz coz yi

widny wahnt

mi ti talk

aboot thi

trooth wia

voice lik

wanna yoo

scruff, if

a toktaboot

thi trooth

lik wanna yoo

scruff yi

widny thingk

it wuz troo.

jist wanna yoo

scruff tokn.

thirza right

way ti spell

ana right way

ti tok it. this

is me tokn yir

right way a

spellin. this

is ma trooth.

yooz doant no

thi trooth

yirsellz cawz

yi canny talk

right, this is

the six a clock

nyooz. belt up.


So resistance to the south-eastern metropolis within the United Kingdom is not by any means conducted solely in the surviving Celtic languages.

Nevertheless, Sorley MacLean's work in Gaelic is particularly apposite to our theme of ‘end of empire’. From the sixteenth century, the drive of rulers in London (and Edinburgh) against Celtic cultures in the British Isles wore an aspect of cultural genocide. You may be aware of the animus displayed by that pioneer of Standard English, Edmund Spenser, against the Gaels whose land he was stealing in Ireland. At about the same time, James VI of Scotland attempted to colonise Lewis, in the Gaelic-speaking Hebrides, with Lowlanders. As Scottish Gaelic-speakers see their own history, they were deprived of their land, through the nineteenth century ‘clearances’ of people in favour of sheep and deer, by English and Anglicised capitalists, following which attempts to extirpate Gaelic culture intensified. Through acculturation and emigration Gaelic, a language once spoken over most of Scotland, is now reduced to some 80,000 speakers, chiefly resident in the Isles. Gaels find it easy to compare the fate of their people with those of West Indian Caribs, North American Indians and Australian Aborigines. Sorley MacLean, as the most famous of living writers in Gaelic, therefore represents not only a poetic tradition, but also direct resistance to capitalist imperialism. To use the language is to reject the empire and the muscle-bound metropolitan state which has survived it.

But that cannot be the only reason for using it. Protest can be expressed in English. Through that medium it will reach more readers. Why should a small language have any right to survive? What would be lost if it disappeared? After all, tongues spoken across the whole land mass from Ireland to Bangladesh have evolved from one used in the Volga basin less than 5,000 years ago. During that relatively brief time uncountable languages have died out as the groups which have used them have succumbed to new or more successful cultures. Even endurance into the age of print technology did not preserve Cornish – or Pruzzian, which was spoken in part of Eastern Europe until the eighteenth century.

Pruzzian was commemorated by the German writer Joannes Bobrowski (1917–65) in a poem which seems (to me) largely to answer my question. The italicised words are among the surviving fragments of that tongue:


Dead Language

He with the beating wings

outside who brushes the door,

that is your brother, you hear him.

Laurio he says, water,

a bow, colourless, deep.


He came down with the river,

drifting around mussel

and snail, spread like a fan

on the sand and was green.


Warne he says and wittan,

the crow has no tree,

I have the power to kiss you,

I dwell in your ear.


Tell him you do not

want to listen –

he comes, an otter, he comes

swarming like hornets, he cries,

a cricket, he grows with the marsh

under your house, he whispers

in the well, smordis you hear,

your black alder will wither,

and die at the fence tomorrow.


What Bobrowski's poem suggests powerfully is that in our modern environments we are haunted by extinct languages. Only an extreme sentimentalist could argue that one language alone is appropriate to any one environment. But the fact is that cultures abiding for some time do create a language especially for the settled place. This has important implications for literature, especially for poetry. As a poet from Orkney, George Mackay Brown, has put it:

If words become functional ciphers merely, as they are in white papers and business letters, they lose their ‘ghosts’ – the rich aura that has grown about them from the start, and grows infinitesimally richer every time they are spoken. They lose more; they lose their ‘kernel’, the sheer sensuous relish of utterance… We are in danger of contenting ourselves with husks. For example, nowadays we say ‘it rains’. The old Orkneymen had a range of words for every kind and intensity of rain – a driv, a rug, a murr, a hagger, a dagg, a rav, a hellyiefer. This is a measure of how language has coarsened in a generation or two.

(Brown, 1973, pp. 21–2)

A fortiori, Mackay Brown's point applies to Gaelic. To lose the language would be to lose not only the Gaels' sense of their own history and culture, which is conveyed in its oral and sung traditions, but also the meaning of places, the ‘character’ of landscapes. MacLean's distinction had been not only to conserve but to extend the significance of Gaelic; to give tradition and locality new ‘aura’, and language fresh purchase on experience.