Book review: Sorley MacLean, by Peter Mackay

Sorley MacLeanby Peter Mackay AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, 175pp, £12.99

As the year turns, we move from one important poetic centenary to another. In 2010 we saw the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman MacCaig, that sharp-eyed, quick-witted Edinburgh poet, celebrated in a variety of media, from acclaimed memoir to popular television programme. When a poet as accessible and beloved as MacCaig is honoured in so public a manner, it surely boosts the general appeal of an undervalued art-form. So I hope we will see the centenary of Sorley MacLean celebrated in a similar way in 2011. This stimulating and well-researched book by Peter Mackay is a highly promising start.

MacLean was a major poet who wrote in a minority language, a language whose very literature he permanently transformed. He was born on Raasay, by the Isle of Skye, in 1911, at which time the little island had a rich and active Gaelic heritage; song, storytelling and poetry were part of everyday life in that self-sufficient and close-knit community.

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MacLean's impassioned poetry was to engage with the great political themes of the day, while attempting to reconcile a deep-rooted literary tradition with a more modernist, dynamic outlook. His poetry of love, war, nature and identity is central to an understanding of Scotland's literary inheritance. Such was MacLean's achievement that he was ultimately nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature. There are those who claim that were the Swedish Academy fluent in the 'language of Eden' he would likely have been awarded it. I can't comment on that, but I do wonder how the celebrations of MacLean's life and work this year will impact upon a language that is still routinely disparaged by people who do not otherwise exhibit feelings of blatant prejudice or casual bigotry. I think it no exaggeration to assert that a library of Scottish literature which would omit MacLean's books would not constitute a library of Scottish literature at all.

The linguistic issue is a multifaceted one. Interestingly, MacCaig, though not a Gaelic speaker himself, emphasised the influence his Scalpay-born mother's first language had on his own verbal dexterity. "If there's any poetry in me at all," said MacCaig, "it's from her. She thought in images." Sorley MacLean's friend Hugh MacDiarmid - whose self-chosen Gaelic surname was no accident - understood that languages are no less sacred for being lesser used. It is how you use a language that counts. If we devalue language, we devalue poetry itself. Why silence a minority? To do so is to perpetuate inequality.

The great paradox is that we Scots often have a skewed perception of who we are - and there is something intrinsically Scottish about this. Our 'multiform, our infinite Scotland' as MacDiarmid called it, is, to her credit, more multicultural and more linguistically diverse than ever. Even in distressed economic times we are culturally very rich. Yet we sometimes seem to forget this.

There is also something disarmingly Scottish about the fact that it is a full hundred years after his birth, seven decades after his first significant publications, and fourteen years after his death, that the first major single-authored assessment of MacLean's work has appeared. "I wrote it because I thought it was a shame - if not scandalous - that there had been no full or in-depth critical engagement with MacLean's work, as a whole, since the mid-1980s," Mackay told me. "This lack of critical engagement meant that on the one hand Gaelic culture risked ossification and mythologisation within the culture itself (with MacLean's work reified rather than read) and on the other hand that it would be repeatedly misrepresented outside the confines of a Gaelic literary culture." While his book appears low-key, Mackay has certainly achieved his desire to redress the balance. The inexpensive look and feel of the slim blue paperback belie its contents. Sorley MacLean is a genuinely important work of contemporary literary criticism. No hagiography, it is an intelligent, eloquent and insightful examination of MacLean's work.

Mackay, a native Gaelic speaker, contextualises MacLean's life, times and critical reception before homing in on an acute reassessment of the themes, influences, techniques, innovations and, yes, the failings of MacLean's writings. He does this in a lucid, inquisitive, uncompromising and highly informed manner. Mackay is not afraid to take issue with critics and translators who have misunderstood MacLean's work, nor is he afraid to analyse weaknesses at source. Rare talent though MacLean was, not all his poems attained brilliance and the bard, quite Scottishly, sometimes compromised his own reception by providing translations that were frustratingly insufficient.

Another typically Scottish element in MacLean's poetic development is that it was not Scotland that first recognised and embraced his work. As early as 1944 an Irish literary journal proclaimed on its front page: "T sgrbhner ag Gaelgeiri na h-Alban, faoi dheire" ('The Scottish Gaels have a writer, at last"]. Mackay astutely observes, "The surprise that Scottish Gaelic was vibrant enough to produce a poet of this magnitude would be a recurring theme in the Irish reaction to MacLean's work." Even Iain Crichton Smith, who wrote fine (non-literal) translations of some of MacLean's best poems, described the constellation of events that came together to produce his poetic consciousness as "little short of miraculous". One would almost go as far as to describe this new publication along similar lines. Rarely does so lively a fully bilingual critical mind engage with a subject so dearly in need of enlightened re-appraisal.

Mackay shows how MacLean did not merely rely upon Gaelic literary tradition, but revitalised it using themes, models and motifs from European poetry, philosophy, history and politics: "His work does not offer a rejection of the previous centuries of Gaelic literature, but instead functions as a conduit between different literary, historical and cultural traditions or milieux". Such breadth and depth of inspiration is important if one is writing in a small country and/or a minority language. Without such innovation, a literature can stagnate. And it is ironic that the originality of a MacLean or a MacCaig can be so deeply admired by future generations of writers that their influence can become inadvertently restrictive.

In his study, Mackay analyses the varying extents to which the metaphysical poets, Yeats, the symbolists, MacDiarmid and others influenced MacLean's writings. Crucially, Mackay's linguistic background allows him to explore in compelling depth how the poet uses or subverts rhyme, para-rhyme, an understanding of the Panegyric Code and other elements of Gaelic language and literature. He discusses structural flaws in the longer works and occasional incoherence in poems such as "rnaigh"/"Prayer". Mackay writes with assured sensitivity (he is not afraid to use a word like "thalassocentric") and a winning lack of pretentiousness (he uses that word fittingly, in the context of "Am Bta Dubh"/"The Black Boat", which draws parallels between classical Greek and Gaelic ways of life). Sorley's brother, John MacLean, who was headmaster at the Oban school where Iain Crichton Smith taught, also saw that cross-cultural connection; he produced a quietly remarkable Gaelic translation of The Odyssey.

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Mackay's work is a thought-provoking read, a book of close-study and large implication. Gaelic-speaker and non Gaelic-speaker alike will come away from it with a more confident understanding of MacLean's brdachd.

MacDiarmid wrote to MacLean as late as 1978: "There is no question, I think, but that you'd have had much greater international recognition if you'd written in a language accessible to a greater readership." But, of course, MacLean did write in a language accessible to a greater readership - in essays and critical pieces, in translations, in the very letters he sent to MacDiarmid. In choosing to write his original poetry in Gaelic, however, he gave Scottish and world literature a gift that will last at least as long as the language will. He made a nonsense of Edwin Muir's increasingly short-sighted assertion that "Scotland can only create a national literature by writing in English". Scotland has many languages, many bilingual or polyglot readers and writers; her literature, correspondingly, is international.

As Scotland prepares to promote the Year of Scottish Island Culture, I am editing an anthology of poetry from the islands - and am constantly reminded that many of our most important poets (Crichton Smith, MacDiarmid, George Mackay Brown and MacLean among them) grew up on or chose to live on Scottish islands. In celebrating MacLean's centenary and the wider Year of Scottish Island Culture, I hope the positive cultural implications of Scotland's diverse languages and linguistic arts will not be lost on her general public. Islands are not places of 'otherness' to be mocked, feared or patronised, but part of a larger global context to which we all belong; poetry gives, and is, evidence of this, no matter what language it's written in.

• Kevin MacNeil's acclaimed new novel is A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde (Polygon)