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Sorley MacLean

Edward Mackinnon's third collection, 'Heartland Germany'

Edward Mackinnon's second collection, 'Killing Time in Arcadia'

Edward MacKinnon's first collection, 'Wising Up, Dressing Down'

Sorley MacLean, the Universal Gael

To reach a wide audience as a poet, Sorley MacLean (Somhairle Mac Gill-Eain) had to translate his own work into English from his first language, one that he described as being in “steady unbearable decline”.

Those of us who do not speak Gaelic must assume that much is lost in translation. A Gaelic poet has a considerable frame of reference, for Gaelic draws on the oldest European literary tradition outside of Latin and Greek. Moreover, from an upbringing that instilled in him a profound love of Gaelic songs, from his own knowledge of Gaelic literature and his early contact with Calvinist preaching, Sorley MacLean (1911-1996) was familiar with the full richness of the Gaelic lexicon and with all registers and dialects of the language.

Sorley MacLean was in no doubt about the quality of his literary heritage:

“I am convinced that Scottish Gaelic song is the chief artistic glory of the Scots ... and one of the greatest artistic glories of Europe”

“... neither I nor anyone else can ever hope to persuade the non-Gaelic world that William Ross’s last song is comparable in quality to the best of Shakespeare’s sonnets”

We must also assume that it is above all the sound, the musicality, of his first language that cannot be rendered in translation. That is certainly the view of Sorley MacLean:

“I could not be primarily a Gael without a very deep-seated conviction that the auditory is the primary sensuousness of poetry”

In the following lines on Skye from the poem Tràighean (“Shores”), we can perhaps get a sense of the sound of MacLean’s poetry, even in the English translation:

Eilein Mhòir, Eilein mo dheòin,
Eilein mo chridhe is mo leòin ....

Great Island, Island of my desire,
Island of my heart and wound ....

There is surely a strong echo here of the opening lines of John Cornford’s poem To Margot Heinemann:

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
....

This is more than conjecture, for Sorley MacLean spoke of the powerful impression that Cornford’s poem made on him. *

MacLean’s work displays the same political commitment as the few poems by the communist John Cornford. What is different in MacLean’s work is the symbolist influence and the elegiac tone, the latter undoubtedly derived from his awareness of the tragic history of Gaelic Scotland. We can discern these aspects a few lines later in the poem quoted above:

Pity the eye that sees on the ocean
the great dead bird of Scotland.

The Scotland that MacLean is referring to here is the Gàidhealtachd, though I see nothing wrong in equating the part with the whole, especially when one considers how abominably English-speaking Scotland, together with England, has treated the Gaels.

The history of the Scottish Gaels may be central to MacLean’s poetry, but the poet of Raasay and Skye never indulges in backward-looking “Misty Isle” romanticism. On the contrary, those who are best placed to judge have stated that MacLean brought Gaelic poetry into the 20th century. Iain Crichton Smith, for instance, wrote of the excitement and shock he experienced on first reading MacLean in Gaelic. In A Highland Woman the theme is degrading poverty and the complicity of the Church, and in The Clan MacLean it is the 20th century revolutionary Glaswegian John MacLean, rather than famous Gaelic warriors of the past, who is celebrated as the crowning glory of those who bear the poet’s name.

In addressing without compromise the harsh truth of the degradation of a Celtic people and its culture, Sorley MacLean can be compared to R. S. Thomas, who was as aggrieved by the threat to the Welsh language as MacLean was by the decline of Gaelic. MacLean is of course a more political poet than R. S. Thomas (though Thomas was far from being unpolitical) and in this respect seems like a writer from an earlier generation, though he was born only two years before Thomas, who moreover began writing poetry relatively late.

There are parallels and differences between the two poets. Both poets identify with the cause of a minority language and culture and with the very landscape of this language and culture. With MacLean, however, the attachment to the inhabitants of this landscape is stronger than with R.S. Thomas, presumably because for MacLean the Gaelic language is not mediated in the way that Welsh is for Thomas. Thomas would not have written, as MacLean did in his poem Hallaig, where people, living and dead, become totally conflated with nature, a line such as “In Screapadal of my people”. With MacLean there is total empathy with “his people”, whereas with Thomas one senses a distance, an impatience, a quarrel. Where Thomas saw, above all, linguistic and cultural destruction, MacLean also saw social and political oppression of “his people”. The depopulation of the Gàidhealtachd, marked by brutal clearances or evictions, has been more dramatic perhaps than the gradual trickle that the Welsh-speaking part of Wales has experienced.

Moreover, while for Thomas the cultural-political battle that is being fought is (explicitly or implicitly) between Wales and England, MacLean places Gaeldom in a more universal context. Gaelic history is part of world history: Odysseus and Ithaca are juxtaposed with Clanranald and Uist (in The Black Boat). And world history is mediated through the experience of the Gaels, as we see in MacLean’s poem Going Westwards on the North African campaign of the Second World War, while in another poem set in the North African desert, Heroes, the death and the heroism of an unprepossessing, unheroic-looking Englishman are placed in the context of both European and Scottish Highland history.

This “world-historical” perspective is also in evidence in another of MacLean’s war poems, Death Valley, which is about a dead German soldier. It is a perspective that is not to be found, for instance, in the fine poem on the same theme by the English poet Keith Douglas, Vergissmeinnicht. In Douglas’s poem the dead enemy soldier is humanised by reference to the photo found on his corpse, a photo of his beloved girl. While MacLean also elicits sympathy for the dead soldier by providing some sparse descriptive physical details, he views him also in a contemporary political context – was he one of those Germans who espoused anti-Semitism and anti-communism? – and then in a more generalised context – or was he one of the many who throughout the ages are used and sacrificed in war by their rulers?

Empathy and detachment go together and conclude in ironic understatement:

Whatever his desire or mishap,
his innocence or malignity,
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.

MacLean’s involvement in the Second World War, during which he was wounded in the Battle of El-Alamein, followed a period of emotional crises and self-doubt when he found it hard to write. But he was never a prolific poet. His collected works contain less than a hundred poems. Whether one writes much or little, MacLean himself reflected, “depends on the chances of life. The chances are very much against the 20th century Gael, who has always had to make a living in other ways, and too often he has to do it by what must be one of the most exhausting of all ways, school teaching”.

Sorley MacLean, the universal Gael, saw himself, therefore, as the literary equivalent of the crofter.


* “It was significant that the English poem produced by the Spanish war that impressed me most was Cornford’s ‘Heart of this Heartless World’ [sic]. Compared with it, Auden’s “Spain” seemed superficial, and still does”.