Gaelic in modern Scotland
Gaelic in modern Scotland

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Gaelic in modern Scotland

6.4.1 Poetry

The Gaelic poetry of the 17th century is interesting more for the light it throws on the clan-based society of the time than for its literary merit. Comprising mostly praise of chiefs, it is an example of verse used for propaganda purposes and of poets as the spin-doctors of their day.

The 18th century saw the Highlands opening out to the outside world, as education spread and the travel became easier (especially after the failure of the Jacobite Rising of 1745/6). A recognisably modern form of society was beginning to emerge and this is reflected in the poetry of the time, which is marked by new styles of writing and a wider range of subjects, including the nature poetry of Donnchadh Bàn (Duncan Macintyre), the love songs of Uilleam Ros (William Ross), and the satire of Sutherland poet Rob Donn (Robert Mackay).

Rannan às an eadar-theangachadh Bheurla aig Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn air ‘Moladh Beinn Dòbhrainn’ le Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir.

Greadhainn bu gheal cèir,

Faghaid air an dèidh –

’S laghach leam an sreud

A bha sròineiseach.


’S aigeannach fear eutrom

Gun mhòrchuis

Thèid fasanta na èideadh


Tha mhantal uime fhèin,

Caithtiche nach trèig –

Bratach dhearg mar chèir

Bhiodh mar chòmhdach air.

This image of the deer as the nobility of the glens is from Iain Crichton Smith’s free translation of Donnchadh Bàn’s tour-de-force, ‘Praise of Ben Dòrain’.

Herds with white rumps race -

hunters in the chase.

O I love the grace

of these noble ones.


Spirited and delicate

and shy,

in fashionable coat

he goes by

in mantle well arrayed,

suit that will not fade,

dress of waxen-red

that he's wearing now.

The 19th century and the first half of the 20th century – an era of much poverty and social upheaval in the Highlands – produced little of merit in Gaelic poetry, although some of the subjects and styles of the great 18th century poets has survived, through this period and up to the present day, in the work of the local poets known as ‘village bards’ (some of whom are much more than that).

Then, out of the blue, a slim volume was published in 1943 which brought Gaelic poetry at one fell swoop into line with the best writing of its time in English and other languages. Sorley MacLean managed to bring together in Dàin do Eimhir the best of the Gaelic tradition and of world literature and he did so with an infectious enthusiasm that has inspired generations of Gaelic writers up to the present day.

MacLean the poet was torn between the demands of love and family on the one hand, and his sense of duty and political ideals on the other, of which socialism and the Spanish Civil War are the keynotes. He interweaved this inner conflict with other themes to produce, in Dàin do Eimhir, a multi-textured sequence of poems which is highly-wrought both artistically and emotionally.

Figure 48 Sorley MacLean

Click on the audio clips below to hear a interview with Sorley MacLean.

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Sorley I heard you once saying something about that it's very very difficult to translate Gaellic poetry into English.
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 Gaellic 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 Gaellic 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.
Yes, I suppose that it what we have to remember about poetry that you are translating not just words but complete units of sound and words.
I think if you're doing a line by line translation it is very desirable to have approximately the same number of syllables, in a line, but that is terribly difficult.
And there's such a lot of assonance in Gaellic there, there is a lot of music which English really cannot get at and it sounds natural in Gaellic doesn't it? Assonance actually sounds more natural sometimes in Gaellic than in English.
Yes, mind you it's very offen inevitable in Gaellic because there are so many fewer vowels than consonants. And therefore it is at once more natural I think and stands out more too because of the relative length of the vowel.
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.
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.
Well, I suppose, even someone who doesn't know any Gaellic would notice that reading the Gaellic 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 l6ts of nouns and so on, this is something that we find traditionally in Gaellic isn't is, certainly in earlier Gaellic.
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 inspite 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.
Yes. I suppose really that the closest you might get to something like this in English would be, may be 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.
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.
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".
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.
Oh Yes
I think. You see you have to say a word for "seangachd", "small-belliedness", you see that word "seangachd" in Gaellic, 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 ...
Yes, yes, yes. It's quite specialised ...
... You see this first word seang, the adjective "seangachd", small-bellied, and it's used more of horses than of human beings, though it can be used of human beings too, and of course, it's a word that expresses great approbation.
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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.
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.
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 Gaellic tradition, I suppose they would want to know first of all why in particular you might have chosen these two. In Gaellic 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 Gaellic 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.
Well, Napoleon's Marshal1 Lannes was very very famous for his physical courage, he wasn't evidently the most clever of Napoleon's Marshalls, but his physical courage was a by-word, and of course Browning's poem, you know, "We French Stormed Ratisboone" mentions him, at the storming of Ratisbonne. Now MacLennan at the battle of Aulderan between the Royalists under Montreuse, and the covantanters, the MacKenzie, Earl of Seaforth was on the covananting 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 Glensheil who were the hereditary banner men said this banner has never gone back in the hands of one of my people and it's not going back today. And the MacLenn? stood and were absolutely desimated and it is borne out by the Red Rose of Kintail. That was in 1645. Now Gillies MacBain was second in command of the Glanhuttor 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, died about 1720 and about whom there are a speight of Gaellic elegies attributing every possible physical and moral virtue, even widom, and of course the most famous of them and the best is by a distant relative Cicerly of Julia of daughter of the chief of Kepoff 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 One1 l ic- snecial Cael l ic historv.
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 this 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 Gaellic and the last line in the English. In the Gaellic it says
is thug e gal beag air mo shuilean
and in English it says
and he took a little weeping to my eyes.
Would you say that was a particularly Gaellic expression?
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 for "little". Perhaps it would have been better if I had said "he took a small weeping" but that would be rather articifical wouldn't it?
Oh Yes, yes, yes, yes.
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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. Page 18 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 £0 Dhruim Ruidhiseit.
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. Page 20 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
I like this poem very much because I think it shows a kind, what you might almost call a Greek justice especially in the last verse there.
Whatever his desirer or mishap, his innocence or maglignity, he showed no pleasure in his death below the Ruweisat Ridge
It's very strongly focussed, I presume this was an actual individual that you actually saw?
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.
You decided to put this epigraph at the top.
Some Nazi or other has said that the Fuehrer had restored to German manhook the 'right and joy of dying in battle'.
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.
Yes. Sorley is the epigraph common in Gaellic poetry? I know that you've used it in "Hallaig" I think.
I can't think it is common at all in older Gaellic poetry.
I can't bring to mind very many myself, no. The other thing is there are two verses here run into each other without a break
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.
Is it common for Gaellic 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 Gaellic poetry?
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.
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?
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?
I suppose in this one again we come back to this relationship between nature imagery and people.
When this poem came out of very very unusal circumstances whichrleft 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 Raisay 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 is 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.
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
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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.
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.
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.
Tha cluaineag ann an iomall sleibh far an ith na feidh lus biolaire; 'na taobh suil uisge mhor reidh, fuaran leugach cuimir ann.
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?
I don't think it is based on a real incident.
Remember that I mentioned about your way of humanising landscape. I notice tht in this one for instance you've got
in its side a great unruffled eye of water
Is this something that happens in Gaellic poetry previous to your own?
I think it is a perfectly natural thing, I mean it's a very Gaellic thing, but for instance, if you take the word "ridge" in English, the Gaellic for that is "dhruim", and
"dhruim" of course meaning, meaning
"the back",
"the back"
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 Gaellic but I think. . .
It's not exclusively Gaellic.
It's not exclusively Gaellic, but I think the Gaels are more inclined to it than other languages that I can think of.
I was wondering looking at this poem again, when you're writing your poems were there any particular poets that influenced you either in Gaellic or in English, even though you're writing in Gaellic.
Well, I find it very difficult to say, when I wrote English as well as Gaellic 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 Gaellic it was more the anonymous song and probably William Ross.
I suppose one of the differences that people would notice if they could actually read Gaellic 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?
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 inclinded. For instance when you think that practically all Gaellic poetry up to this century, practical1 all was meant to be sung or in the case of the old herioc ballards to be chanted. It's a very, very, very, very strong tradition in Gaellic, until this century and after all it's awfully difficult to get out of your roots altogether.
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Among the other notable Gaelic poets of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are Derick Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith, Aonghas Macneacail, Catriona Montgomery, Meg Bateman, and Myles Campbell.

Thomson, in particular, has written and published poetry over six decades, changing his style and preoccupations over time but retaining the qualities that make him an outstanding poet, namely:

  • a subtle intellect, emotional depth and the ability to seamlessly blend the two
  • free verse which has the musicality of the traditional song metres – but more flexibility
  • robust, yet precise, use of language
  • a wry wit and a sharp sense of irony.

The following poem is a typical example of that sense of irony:

Alba v. Argentina, 2/6/79

mìos às dèidh Taghadh na Pàrlamaid, 3/5/79

Glaschu a’ cur thairis

le gràdh dùthcha,

leòmhainn bheucach

air Sràid an Dòchais,

an Central

mùchte le breacan,

cop air Tartan bho mhoch gu dubh,

is mùn nam fineachan air a’ bhlàr;

iolach-catha a’ bàthadh bùrail nam busaichean –

Sco-o-t-land, Sco-o-t-land –

Alba chadalach,

mìos ro fhadalach.

Scotland v. Argentina, 2/6/79

a month after the General Election, 3/5/79

Glasgow erupting

with patriotism,

growling lions

on Hope Street,

the Central

choked with Tartan,

foaming from dawn to dusk,

and clansmen’s piss on the battlefield;

the battle-cry drowning the buses’ drone –

Sco-o-t-land, Sco-o-t-land –

sleepy Scotland,

a month late.

An example of the work of the younger poets, Aonghas Macneacail’s ‘Marilyn Monroe’, can be seen in Section 4. Written in Gaelic and English, it has a more modern feel than Thomson’s work but is equally skillful and insightful.


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