The poetry of Sorley MacLean
The poetry of Sorley MacLean

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The poetry of Sorley MacLean

2.2.1 The recordings

Click 'play' to listen to the interview with Sorley MacLean (Part 1, 7 minutes).

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Transcript: Interview with Sorley MacLean - Part 1

IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Sorley, I heard you once saying something about that it's very very difficult to translate Gaelic poetry into English.
SORLEY MACLEAN
Well, I think fundamentally, there is the difficulty of the sound, because on the whole, and especially with our Skye dialect, there is a tendency for the vowel to be longer than it is in English, and therefore even the assonances stand out more than vowel assonances would do in, in English. Of course there is another syntactical difference, because I think Gaelic is wonderfully good at expressing degrees and places of emphasis with the use of natural inversions, and particles, than English is nowadays at any rate. I think that is a big difficulty, besides, of course so much Gaelic poetry is outside the main European traditions. I try myself to be as literal as possible, I mean, logically, but of course, the sound is awfully difficult.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Yes, I suppose that is what we have to remember about poetry, that you are translating not just words, but complete units of sound and words.
SORLEY MACLEAN
I think if you're doing a line by line translation, it is very desirable to have, you know, approximately the same number of syllables in a line, but that is terribly difficult.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
And since there is such a lot of assonance in Gaelic, there is a lot of music which English really cannot get at, and it sounds natural in Gaelic doesn't it? Assonance actually sounds more natural sometimes in Gaelic than in English.
SORLEY MACLEAN
Yes, mind you, it's very often inevitable in Gaelic, because there are so many fewer vowels than consonants.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
That's right, that's right, yes, yes, yes.
And therefore it is at once more natural, I think, and stands out more too, because of the relative length of the vowel.
SORLEY MACLEAN
CEANN LOCH AOINEART
Comhlan bheanntan, stoiteachd bheanntan, corr-lios bheanntan fasmhor, cruinneachadh mhullaichean, thulaichean, shleibhtean, tighinn 'sa' bheucadch ghabhaidh.
Elrigh ghleanntan, choireachan udlaidh, laighe 'S a'bhuirich chracaich; sineadh chluaineagan, shuaineagan srulach, briodal's an dubhlachd arsaidh.
Eachdraidh bheanntan, marcachd mhullaichean, deann-ruith shruthanach cathair, sleamhnachd leacannan, seangachd chreachainnean, strannraich leacanach ard-bheann.
Onfhadh-chrois mhullaichean, confhadh-shlios thulaichean, monmhar luim thurraidean marsail, gorm-shliosan Mhosgaraidh, storim-shliosan mosganach, borb-bhiodan mhonaidhean arda.
SIMON MACKENZIE
KINLOCH AINORT
A company of mountains, an upthrust of mountains a great garth of growing mountains a concourse of summits, of knolls, of hills coming on with a fearsome roaring.
A rising of glens, of gloomy corries, a lying down in the antlered bellowing; a stretching of green nooks, of brook mazes, prattling in the age-old mid-winter.
A cavalry of mountains, horse-riding summits, a streaming headlong haste of foam, a slipperiness of smooth flat rocks, small-bellied bare-summits, flat-rocks snoring of high mountains.
A surge-belt of hill-tops, impetuous thigh of peaks, the murmuring bareness of marching turrets, green flanks of Mosgary, crumbling storm-flanks, barbarous pinnacles of high moorlands.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Well, I suppose, even someone who doesn't know any Gaelic would notice that – in reading the Gaelic version – that there are all these similar sounds like "mhullaichean", "thulaichean", and "chluaineagan", and "shuaineagan" and so on. This gathering together of lots of adjectives and lots of nouns and so on, this is something that we find traditionally in Gaelic, isn't it, certainly in earlier Gaelic?
SORLEY MACLEAN
This poem is fundamentally semi-surrealist, with a confusion of the senses. I mean, in the sense of that things heard, things seen in terms of things heard, and vice versa, and there is also the fact that it is on a day of wind and rain and swirling mists, where mountains – tops – appear and disappear, and seem to move. Now in this poem, I've been asked again and again by Gaels where on earth the rhythm came from, and I think myself that the rhythm is, in spite of the great number of assonances and all that, that the rhythm is fundamentally original, and by the way, there is a bigger congregation of nouns than of adjectives.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Yes. I suppose really that the closest you might get to something like this in English would be, maybe some of the poems of Hopkins, where he draws from the Welsh. I think sometimes he has a series of nouns or a series of adjectives and so on.
SORLEY MACLEAN
Douglas Young always used to tell me that there's an awful lot of sprung rhythm in my verse. But I didn't agree with him, however it may be something like that.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
I notice also that in this particular poem, and I've noticed also in some of your other nature poems, that you've got quite a lot of comparison of mountains and so on to women, especially a kind of sexual mountains, like "impetuous thigh of peaks".
SORLEY MACLEAN
I wouldn't quite agree that it's here. You see I think there, you see, it was more the suggestion of the horse rider there, you see.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Oh yes.
SORLEY MACLEAN
I think. You see you have to say a word for "seangachd", "small-belliedness", you see that word "seang" in Gaelic, you know, is often used of a horse, the small belly of a horse, and it's a terribly difficult word to get an equivalent in English …
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Yes, yes, yes. Because it's specialised …
SORLEY MACLEAN
… You see this word seang, the adjective "seangachd", small-bellied, and it's used more of horses than of human beings, although it can be used of human beings too, and of course, it's a word that expresses great approbation.
End transcript: Interview with Sorley MacLean - Part 1
Interview with Sorley MacLean - Part 1
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SORLEY MACLEAN
CURAIDHEAN
Chan fhaca mi Lannes aig Ratasbon no MacGill-Fhinnein aig Allt Eire no Gill-Iosa sig Cull-Lodair, ach chunnaic mi Sasunnach 'san Eiphit.
Fear beag truagh le gruaidhean plulceach is gluinean a' bleith a cheile, aodann guireanach gun tlachd ann - comhdach an spioraid bu troine.
Cha robh buaidh air " 'san tigh-osda 'n am nan dorn a bhith 'gan dunadh", ach leoghann e ri uchd a' chatha, anns na frasan guineach mugach.
Thainig uair-san leis na sligean, leis na spealgan-laruinn bearnach, anns an toit is anns an lasair, ann an crith is maoim na h-araich.
Thainig flos dha 'san fhrois pheileir e bhith gu spreigearra 'na dhuilnach: is b'e sin e £had 'S a mhair e, ach cha b' fhada fhuair e dh' uine.
Chum e ghunnachan ris na tancan, a' bocail le sgriach shracaidh stairnich gus an d' fhuair e fhein mu 'n stamaig an deannal ud a chuir ri lar e, bial sios an gainmhich 'is an greabhal, gun diog o ghuth caol grannda.
Cha do chuireadh crois no meadal ri uchd no ainm no g' a chairdean: cha robh a bheag dhe fhoirne maireann, 'S nan robh cha bhoidh am facal laidir; 'S CO dhuibh, ma sheasas ursann-chatha leagar moran air a shailleabh gun dui1 ri cliu, nach iarr am meadal no cop 'sam bith a bial na h-araich.
Chunnaic mi gaisgeach mor a Sasuinn, fearachan bochd nach laigheadh suil air; cha br Alasdair a Gleannan Garadh - is thua e aal beaa air mo shuilean.
SIMON MACKENZIE
HEROES
I did not see Lannes at Ratisbon nor MacLennan at Auldearn nor Gillies MacBain at Culloden, but I saw an Englishman in Egypt.
A poor little chap with chubby cheeks and knees grinding each other, pimply unattractive face - garment of the bravest spirit.
He was not a hit "in the pub in the time of the fists being closed", but a lion against the breast of battle, in the morose wounding showers.
His hour came with the shells, with the notched iron splinters, in the smoke and flame, in the shaking and terror of the battlefield.
Word came to him in the bullet shower that he should be a hero briskly, and he was that while he lasted but it wasn't much time he got.
He kept his guns to the tanks, bucking with tearing crashing screech, until he himself got, about the stomach, that biff that put him to the ground, mouth down in sand and gravel, without a chirp from his ugly high-pitched voice.
No cross or medal was put to his chest or to his name or to his family; there were not many of his troop alive, and if there were their word would not be strong. And at any rate, if a battle post stands many are knocked down because of him, not expecting fame, not wanting a medal or any froth from the mouth of the field of slaughter.
I saw a great warrior of England, a poor manikin on whom no eye would rest; no Alasdair of Glen Garry; and he took a little weeping to my eyes.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Sorley, I think one of the obvious things here would be who MacLennan at Auldearn was, who Gillies MacBain at Culloden was, because I suppose for a reader outside the Gaelic tradition, I suppose they would want to know, first of all, why in particular you might have chosen these two. In Gaelic tradition of course, one would understand why you chose Alasdair of Glen Garry at the end, because he is of course mentioned in a great Gaelic poem, and one of these poems which says that the hero is always blue-eyed and very handsome and very generous and so on. I wondered why in particular you chose MacLennan and Gillies MacBain?
SORLEY MACLEAN
Well, Napoleon's Marshal Lannes was very very famous for his physical courage, he wasn't evidently the most clever of Napoleon's Marshals, but his physical courage was a by-word, and of course Browning's poem, you know, "We French Stormed Ratisbon" mentions him, at the storming of Ratisbon. Now MacLennan at the battle of Auldearn between the Royalists under Montrose, and the covenanters, the Mackenzie, Earl of Seaforth was on the covenanting side, but he was thinking of turning his court, and when he saw that the deal was likely to go with the Royalists, he ordered his men to retreat.
Now the head of the family of the MacLennans and Glen Sheil, who were the hereditary bannermen, said this banner has never gone back in the hands of one of my people, and it's not going back today. And the MacLennans stood and were absolutely decimated, and it is borne out by the Red Rose of Kintail. That was in 1645. Now, Gillies MacBain was second in command of the Clan Chattan regiment at Culloden, and his feats were almost unbelievable. I believe when he was found dead he had about 30 bayonet wounds. Of course Alasdair of Glen Garry refers to a man who lived about, died about 1720 and about whom there are a speight of Gaelic elegies attributing every possible physical and moral virtue, even wisdom, and of course the most famous of them, and the best, is by a distant relative, Cicely – or Julia – of, daughter of the chief of Keppoch, who begins and ends a poem "Alasdair of Glen Garry, today you brought weeping to my eyes". So one has to know quite a lot about Gaelic. Special Gaelic history.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Yes, I think this poem is fairly clear, that you've got this poor person who is physically very small and not at all handsome looking in comparison with someone like Alasdair of Glen Garry, but at the same time he had his courage, he had his kind of courage, so I don't think there's any other major problems of any kind in this particular one. The other thing in translation that you might get references in translation that you have to understand – or you could maybe get them footnoted – but it's better I think to get from the author himself, the idea why he chose these particular people.
Oh there is one other thing, the last line in the Gaelic, and the last line in the English. In the Gaelic it says:
SORLEY MACLEAN
is thug e gal beag air mo shuilean
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
and in English it says:
SIMON MACKENZIE
and he took a little weeping to my eyes.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Would you say that was a particularly Gaelic expression?
SORLEY MACLEAN
Ah, well, it is really almost a quotation. Of course the difficulty about that is, you see, "little" and "weeping" are both disyllables, whereas "gal" is a monosyllable and so is "beag", you know, for "little". Perhaps it would have been better if I had said "he took a small weeping" but that would be rather artificial, wouldn't it?
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Oh yes, yes, yes, yes.
End transcript: Interview with Sorley MacLean - Part 2
Interview with Sorley MacLean - Part 2
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SORLEY MACLEAN
GLAC A' BHAIS
Thubhairt Nasach air choireigin gun tug am Furair air ais do fhir na Gearmailte 'a' choir agus an sonas bas fhaotainn anns an arich'.
'Na shuldhe marbh an "Glaic a' Bhais" fo Dhruim Ruidhiseit, gill' og 'S a logan sios m' a ghrusidh 'S a thuar grisionn.
Smaoinich mi air a' choir 'S an agh a fhuair e bho Fhurair, bhith tuiteam ann an raon an air gun eiright tuilleadh;
air a' ghreadhnachas 'S air a' chliu nach d' fhuair e 'na aonar, ged b' esan bu bhronaiche snuadh ann an glaic air laomadh
le cuileagan mu chuirp ghlas' air gainmhich lachduinn 'S i salach-bhuidhe 'S lan de raip 'S de spruidhlich catha.
An robh an gille air an dream a mhab na h-Iudhaich 'S na comunnaich, no air an dream bu mhotha, dhiubh-san
a threoraicheadh bho thoiseach a1 gun deoin gu buaireadh agus bruaillean cuthaich gach blair air sgath uachdaran?
Ge b'e a dheoin-san no a chas, a neoichiontas no mhiorun, cha do nochd e toileachadh 'na bhas fo Dhruim Ruidhiseit.
SIMON MACKENZIE
DEATH VALLEY
Some Nazi or other has said that the Fuehrer had restored to German manhood the 'right and joy of dying in battle'.
Sitting dead in "Death Valley" below the Fuweisat Ridge a boy with his forelock down about his cheek and his face slate-grey;
I thought of the right and the joy that he got from his Fuehrer, of falling in the field of slaughter to rise no more;
Of the pomp and the fame that he had, not alone though he was the most piteous to see in a valley gone to seed
with flies about grey corpses on a dun sand dirty yellow and full of the rubbish and fragments of battle.
Was the boy of the band who abused the Jews and Communists, or of the greater band of those
led, from the beginning of generations, unwillingly to the trial and mad delirium of every war for the sake of rulers?
Whatever his desire or mishap, his innocence or maglignity, he showed no pleasure in his death below the Ruweisat Ridge
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
I like this poem very much because I think it shows a kind of, what you might almost call a Greek justice, especially in the last verse there:
SIMON MACKENZIE
Whatever his desire or mishap, his innocence or maglignity, he showed no pleasure in his death below the Ruweisat Ridge
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
It's very strongly focused, I presume this was an actual individual that you actually saw?
SORLEY MACLEAN
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. He, I was almost obsessed with the face of the boy. There wasn't a mark on him, and he looked so young. He was killed, obviously, by a bomb blast, or mine blast. The point is he was sitting up straight, which was curiously piteous in its way.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Yes. You decided to put this epigraph at the top:
SIMON MACKENZIE
Some Nazi or other has said that the Fuehrer had restored to German manhood the 'right and joy of dying in battle'.
SORLEY MACLEAN
I thought it was desirable at the time, because, you see, I had been struck by the phrase that I saw translated somewhere, before, before this.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Yes. Sorley, is the epigraph common in Gaelic poetry? I know that you've used it in "Hallaig" I think.
SORLEY MACLEAN
I can't think it is common at all in older Gaelic poetry.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
I can't bring to mind very many myself, no. The other thing is there are two verses here which run into each other without a break:
SIMON MACKENZIE
of the pomp and the fame that he had, not alone, though he was the most piteous to see in a valley gone to seed
with flies about grey corpses on a dun sand dirty yellow and full of the rubbish and fragments of battle.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Is it common for Gaelic verses to run into each other like that, and not be self-contained? Though I suppose it is quite common in modern English poetry, but is it common in Gaelic poetry?
SORLEY MACLEAN
Well, I suppose it has become fairly common nowadays. This was written in '43, or perhaps even in the end of '42, and certainly it wasn't common then.
SORLEY MACLEAN
AN TE DH'AN TUG MI …
An te dh' an tug mi uile ghaol cha tug i gaol dhomh air a shon; ged a chuirradh mise air a sailleabh cha do thuig i 'n tamailt idir.
Ach tric an smuaintean na h-oidhchr an uair bhois m' aigne 'na coille chiair, thig osag chuimhne 'g gluasad duillich, ag cur a furtachd gu luasgan.
Agus bho dhoimhne coille chuim, o fhrairnhach snodhaich 'S meangach rneanbh, bidh eubha throm: carson bha h-aille mar fhosgladh faire ri latha?
SIMON MACKENZIE
SHE TO WHOM I GAVE
She to whom I gave all love gave me no love in return; though my agony was for her sake, she did not understand the shame at all.
But often in the thoughts of night when my mind is a dim wood a breeze of memory comes, stirring the foliage, putting the wood's assuagement to unrest.
And from the depths of my body's wood, from sap-filled root and slender branching, there will be the heavy cry: why was her beauty like a horizon opening the door to day?
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
I suppose in this one again we come back to this relationship between nature, imagery and people.
SORLEY MACLEAN
Well, this poem came out of very, very unusual circumstances, which left me for over two years in a kind of perplexity. It is true that from the time I was a young boy, I was obsessed with woods and mountains. You see, we had those wonderful woods of Raasay when I was a young boy, with every kind of tree imaginable. Well, I suppose they're almost obsessive images in, in my verse. You will notice here, I think, the restraint of the assonances. And something almost like a dying foal, which I think actually suits the mood of the poem. There is about this poem a kind of hesitancy. A kind of coming down, a hesitancy suggesting, I think, a perplexity, and it was written in a time of great perplexity.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Yes, I think I understand what you mean, because in some of the other poems that you've done, some of the love poems, you get a kind of harmony which is given by the assonances, whereas here you don't actually use in the fourth line any kind of harmony with the second line in any of the verses. So I suppose this, this really replicates, in a way, the lack of harmony in the poem itself. I can understand that.
End transcript: Interview with Sorley MacLean - Part 3
Interview with Sorley MacLean - Part 3
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SORLEY MACLEAN
FUARAN
Tha cluaineag ann an iomall sleibh far an ith na feidh ius biolaire; 'na taobh suil uisge rnhor reidh, fuaran leugach cuimir ann.
Air latha thainig mi le m' ghaol gu taobh a' chaochain iomallaich, chrom i h-aodann sios ri bhruaich 'S cha robh a thuar fhein tuilleadh air.
Rainig mi a' chluaineag chein a rithist liom fhein iomadh uair, agus nuair choirnhead mi 'san t-srulaich cha robh ach gnuis te m' ulaidh innt'.
Ach bha na glinn is iad a'falbh is calbh nam beann gun fhuireach rium, cha robh a choltas air na sleibhtean gum facas m'eudail ulaidhe.
SIMON MACKENZIE
A SPRING
At the far edge of a mountain there is a green nook where the deer eat water-cress, in its side a great unruffled eye of water, a shapely jewel-like spring.
One day I came with my love to the side of the remote brook. She bent her head down to its brink and it did not look the same again.
I reached the distant little green many a time again, alone and when I looked into the swirling water there was in it only the face of my treasure-trove.
But the glens were going away and the pillared mountains were not waiting for me: the hills did not look as if my chanced-on treasure had been seen.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
This poem of course shows again these assonances very strongly, I think, in this particular poem. I think this one, probably more than any of the others, shows these kind of assonances.
SORLEY MACLEAN
Tha cluaineag ann an iomall sleibh far an ith na feidh lus biolaire; 'na taobh suil uisge mhor reidh, fuaran leugach cuimir ann.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Is this incident, if we can call it a particular incident, is this based again on a real incident, or something that you actually imagined as a poem?
SORLEY MACLEAN
I don't think it is based on a real incident.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Remember that I mentioned about your way of humanising landscape. I notice that in this one for instance you've got
SIMON MACKENZIE
in its side a great unruffled eye of water
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Is this something that happens in Gaelic poetry previous to your own?
SORLEY MACLEAN
I think it is a perfectly natural thing, I mean it's a very Gaelic thing, but for instance, if you take the word "ridge" in English, the Gaelic for that is "dhruim", and--
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
"dhruim" of course meaning, meaning--
SORLEY MACLEAN
"the back".
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
"the back".
SORLEY MACLEAN
And how you use the word for a neck and for an arm, the forearm, and the upper arm, and the knee, is so very often used, and the shin, for what you might call topographical features. I think it is very Gaelic but I think …
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
It's not exclusively Gaelic.
SORLEY MACLEAN
It's not exclusively Gaelic, but I think the Gaels are more inclined to it than other languages that I can think of.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
I was just wondering, looking at this poem again, when you're writing your poems were, there any particular poets that influenced you either in Gaelic or in English, even though you're writing in Gaelic?
SORLEY MACLEAN
Well, I find it very difficult to say, you see, when I wrote English as well as Gaelic I was affected by people like the early Pound and Eliot, and people like that. It's curious that I had a kind of youthful mania for Shelley, but I don't think he influenced my own verse in the least. Blake I think did, and of course in Gaelic it was more the anonymous song and probably William Ross.
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
I suppose one of the differences that people would notice, if they could actually read Gaelic in comparison with modern English poetry certainly, is the musical quality of your poetry. Obviously you believe strongly in the oral side of poetry don't you?
SORLEY MACLEAN
Oh yes. Yes, I believe very strongly in the oral side of poery. I always have, and I think it is difficult for a Gael to be otherwise inclined. For instance, when you think that practically all Gaelic poetry up to this century, practically all, was meant to be sung or, in the case of the old heroic ballads, to be chanted. It's a very, very, very, very strong tradition in Gaelic, until this century, and after all, it's awfully difficult to get out of your roots altogether.
End transcript: Interview with Sorley MacLean - Part 4
Interview with Sorley MacLean - Part 4
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