Sorley MacLean: A Salute to the saviour of Gaelic verse

Poets and academics gather to mark Sorley MacLean's centenary year with a conference on his beloved Skye

'MESMERIC" was how Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate, described the distinctive voice of Sorley MacLean - whom many believed should also have been recognised with a Nobel prize. Heaney recalled his first hearing of the Scots Gaelic poet, at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, as having "the force of a revelation … The voice that I heard was heightened and mesmeric and weathered and seemed to come in close from far away … rather like the drone of a pipe."

MacLean died in 1996, but his magisterial poetic vision endures, having demonstrated that his Gaelic tongue could grapple with the modern world and create an intellectually engaging body of poetry of international standing. Many regard him as the most important poet ever in the Gaelic language, and in this his centenary year his legacy is very much ripe for reassessment, hence a major conference to be held this week at Sabhal Mr Ostaig, the Gaelic cultural centre on Skye.

Titled Ainmeil Thar Cheudan - "Renowned over hundreds" - it features such distinguished participants as Scots Makar Liz Lochhead and Gaelic poet Aonghas Macneacail, while keynote speakers include Professor Douglas Gifford, Emeritus Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, film-maker and author Timothy Neat and Mire N Annrachin, Professor of Modern Irish at University College Dublin.

Steeped in the bardic culture of the Gael, MacLean nevertheless took a modernist approach to confronting 20th-century social and political issues, at the same time intertwining them with his own emotional turmoil and a sensibility of the monumental landscape of Skye. So the Spanish Civil war (in which he was prevented from fighting by domestic commitments) becomes intertwined in his poetry with his own emotional turmoil, while his eventual participation in the North African campaign prompted some movingly humane war poems. And over it all towers, iconic, the great jagged ridge of the Cuillin - "Rising on the other side of sorrow."

For many Gaels, MacLean delivered the realisation that their literary culture wasn't inextricably stuck in the past. One of a younger generation of poets whom he inspired, Aonghas MacNeacail, will read at the conference, and recalls Maclean's impact: "Dylan Thomas made me want to be a poet; Sorley MacLean convinced me I had to be a Gaelic poet. My education gave me to believe that Gaelic literature was dead."

MacNeacail followed in the footsteps of the older poet as an early writer-in-residence at Sabhal Mr Ostaig. "Bardachd Ghaidhlig, the main anthology we had access to, ended in the early 19th century," he says. "I'd be writing poetry in English, and when I read Sorley MacLean, I just thought, 'Wow. I want a taste of this.'"

Others inspired by MacLean included the Highland rock band Runrig, who had the poet, then touching 80, join them on stage at Edinburgh Castle. "Getting Sorley Maclean to support us was without doubt one of our career highlights," recalls the band's Calum Macdonald. "It said a lot for him to agree to read his poetry in what for him was a totally alien environment. I remember being so anxious about how he would be received. In the end, we needn't have had any worries. Having one of the most significant poets of the 20th century come from the same cultural and geographical place as yourself was something that you were immensely proud about." Many thought MacLean should have received the Nobel prize for which he was nominated, with some suggesting he would have had he not been writing in a "minority" language. His Irish admirer, Heaney, who did indeed become a Nobel Laureate, felt MacLean should have been similarly honoured.

"The Nobel prize could have recognised that here was the most passionate and eloquent speaker for a minority language ever," says Glasgow University's Douglas Gifford.

Conscious that he'll be addressing the conference as a non-Gaelic speaker, Gifford believes that "it's still not recognised what a major Gaelic, Scottish, British and international poet Sorley Maclean was". So far as appreciating his work in translation is concerned, he says: "All I can say, looking in from the outside, is that if the translations only give an idea of MacLean's stature, it must be a very high stature indeed."

Arguably Maclean's best known work is Hallaig, with its meditation on time and loss, and its famous introductory prelude: "Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig." One cannot stand amid the skeletal ruins of Hallaig, the cleared village on MacLean's native Raasay, without imagining his eerily elegiac evocation of the dead walking amid their long silenced community.

Appropriately, the conference includes a pilgrimage to Hallaig, where delegates will doubtless pay their respects to the shades of the dispossessed, and also to the visionary spirit of the writer who while invoking the dead in such haunting verse, helped bring new life to Gaelic.

• Ainmeil Thar Cheudan runs from today until 18 June at Sabhal Mr Ostaig at Sleat, Isle of Skye. For details, see www.smo.uhi.ac.uk