The Bard, the Misty Island, and the Gàidhlig

Somhairle MacGill-Eain, © Cailean MacIll-Eain
I couldn’t miss out on this, with me being one of Somhairle MacGill-Eain‘s biggest fans. The conference Ainmeil Thar Cheudan (translated as “famous through the centuries”), organised by the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and the University of the West of Scotland, was a centenary celebration of the bard’s birth in 1911, fittingly set against the backdrop of Eilean a’ Cheò, an t-Eilean Sgitheanach (the Isle of Skye). The centenary comes at an apt time in the world of Gàidhlig and Gaelic studies, as this seems to be a crucial time to work for and set an agenda for the Scottish Gaelic language and culture, as we are trying to do currently in Ireland for Gaeilge. There seems to be a rising spirit amongst the Scots for the promotion and preservation of Gaelic culture, and this was apparent to me through the course of the conference. This was no doubt spurred also by the recent overwhelming success of the SNP in the elections, arousing a sense of national pride in the Scots.
To put this fervent spirit into a broader context, only recently BBC Alba was made available on Freeview in the UK, and I was able to catch some of it when I stayed with my relatives in Glasgow after the conference. At the start of the year, there was a campaign to get the Gaelic band from Leòdhas (Lewis), Mànran, to the top of the charts on iTunes with their catchy song in Gàidhlig, ‘Làtha Math’ (‘A Good Day’). Mozilla Firefox and its email client Thunderbird is now available in Gàidhlig, as is Open Office. Linguist Michael Bauer has contributed to these translations of modern technology, while also working on the Gàidhlig online dictionaries Dwelly-d and Am Faclair Beag. He has created a very useful web page, Akerbeltz, and recently published a book, Blas na Gàidhlig, to aid learners and Gàidhlig speakers alike with a guide to finely-tuned pronunciation of the language and explanations of grammar. (Might I also add that he has an unusual knack for making these subjects very approachable for everyone!) There is a definite push for Gaelic Medium Education, and Bòrd na Gàidhlig is offering funding for the training of Gaelic teachers. These efforts seem to be gathering momentum this year, and I wonder if this is more than a coincidence; perhaps the guiding spirit of Somhairle is still in our midst.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig
The conference took place on 15-17th of June on the distinctive campus of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, with its nautical white towers and huge windows that offer an unrivaled view out to the sea and the mainland mountains. At this time of year swallows reel about these towers, as do the numerous local gulls. Very dramatic and very poetic. And luckily, we had the good weather! The journey for me was an epic one, rising at 4am to get my flight to Glasgow, remaining here until I could embark on the scenic train journey north-westwards, that takes five and a half hours. Then the Caledonian ferry from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye. A true Hogwarts-bound journey indeed. Despite my early rise, the first evening offered too much distaction that was better than caffeine. Firstly, I was graced with the company of Prof. Alan Titley of University College Cork (UCC), an actual legend, who kept me laughing with his sharp wit and introduced me to the liquid of the gods that is Laphroaig whisky. Secondly, there was an oidhche bhàrdachd is chiùil (a night of poetry and music) in the Talla Mòr, with poetry readings from the distinguished and impressive Aonghas Dubh MacNeacail and Meg Bateman, the piping and singing (together!) of Allan MacDonald, new musical arrangements of Somhairle’s poetry by musicologist John Purser and Màiri Anna NicUalraig, and a wee session from students of the National Centre for Excellence in Music. There was a true sense that Gaelic culture is alive and well, with conversations combining Gaeilge and Gàidhlig in my circle, excellent whisky and impromtu piping from a whole gang of youngf’llas showing off to the youngwans. Above all of this was a magical moon, and I later found out that there had been an eclipse that night!
I had a bit of a sore head the following morning (unfortunate for the first day of lectures), but this was swiftly eased by the lectures of Alan Titley and Peter MacKay. Alan spoke stirringly on Somhairle and the ‘Imagination of Excess’, appealing for the appreciation of his poetry through sound, image and his revitalising use of the Gaelic language. He put Somhairle into context with comparison to the Gaelic tradition that came before him, in song and poetry. He insisted that imagination is not just some ghostly presence that hovers around us, but it is fed by writers past, reading and everything around you. Alan stood up for poetry and creative writing for its own sake, as opposed for tearing it apart for criticism, observing that “deductionism is reductionism.” On ‘Coilltean Ratharsair’, he said “I just want to walk through it [the woods], not understand it.” Peter MacKay’s lecture (‘Coilltean Ratharsair: Temptation in the woods’) really struck me as it entered the realm of mythology that was so close to conversations I had the previous night. The White Goddess by Robert Graves had come up in talk, and here he was referring to more goddess myths! Peter drew our attention to the similar setting in ‘Coilltean Ratharsair’ to that of the Diana/Artemis myth, and Somhairle’s reference to three goddesses, Actaeon and dogs. In the myth, Diana is bathing naked in a stream, and the huntsman Actaeon comes across her, and watches her, captivated by her beauty. When Diana sees him, she fears that he will boast about what he has seen, and she immediately turns him into a stag, which his own 50 hounds then hunt and tear him apart. The poem depicts a fall from grace rather than from paradise. Let’s remember that Somhairle set his own poem-hounds after the deer that was his love so that he could hunt for his expression; here, the object of love has turned his own dogs on him, and has damned him to eternal silence.
I was pretty excited at the prospect of musicologist John Purser‘s lecture on Somhairle and ‘the music of the bards’, and it was a real treat indeed! It was a feast of fine oratory, music and recitation, as John shared with us the gems he has accumulated on CD that relate to Somhairle and the Scottish tradition in general. He made the point that modern poets don’t allow time for their audience to react; the performance in delivery given by the bards past, mimicked by Somhairle, was to allow for their audience to get the full meaning and power of the poetry and for their reaction. John urges modern poets to slow down, to think of waves, think big! Gaelic poetry should function like a pibroch, which Somhairle aspired to and achieved. The multi-media experience continued with Margaret Bennett, who spoke about her son Martyn Bennett, a musical genius and wee friend of Somhairle, who was 15 when he wrote a piece called ‘Somhairle’s March’ in honour of the bard! He also put the poem ‘Hallaig’ to music that lasted 9 minutes – Margaret told us that Martyn and his friends used to mimick Somhairle and would have his poems off by heart in the manner that the poet delivered it. Wee heroes worshipping a big hero.
The highly anticipated 1939 edition of ‘An Cuilithionn’ and unpublished poems by Christopher Whyte was launched at the conference, and he gave us a preview in a lecture on the poem, in the context of ‘Choreography, Oreography and Political Responsibility’. Oreography means ‘a branch of physical geography dealing with mountains’. A new word for me! Somhairle did not want this version of the Cuilithionn published, but it offers us a clearer insight into his intention with the published version, as it is considered not to have been properly completed. From examining the text, Christoper says that Somhairle was aware that the poem wasn’t going to come across in English, and he insists that it is a mistake to treat the Gàidhlig and the English as equivalent (by placing them side by side). Political revolution is the subject of this poem, which Somhairle wanted to emanate from the Highlands outwards to the world. The lecture prompted some pretty heated political debate, but we were reminded not to judge Somhairle’s left-wing politics too harshly, as we have the gift of hindsight.
The Storm, William McTaggart (1890)
On the Friday, Murdo MacDonald treated us to a colourfully illustrated history of the relationship between Scottish art and Scottish literature/poetry in the context of the Gàidhealtachd. He used Carmina Gadelica agus Somhairle’s Dàin do Eimhir as two bookend works to this historical timeline. As Douglas Young noted, there seems to be an old Celtic habit of integration of words and image. While I was listening to Murdo’s accounts of early ‘Celtic Twilight’ authors, Dwelly and Somhairle seeking image to accompany their texts, I could only think of Yeats striving for the same marriage with his family’s Dun Emer/Cuala Press. This talk coincided with the opening of the ‘Uinneag dhan Àird an Iar’ (‘Window to the West’) mini-exhibition on the campus of SMO, with works that had been part of the original exhibition in the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. Murdo noted how the banners that hung outside on the gallery walls were a great achievement, for the size of the Gaelic words in such a prominent location! What a proud, modern Gàidhlig contrast to William McTaggart‘s painting The Storm, which depicts the disaster of emigration and loss of language and culture.
Sandra Byrne was a woman after my own heart with her discussion of Somhairle and the role of the bardic poet in the twentieth century. This is my main academic interest in Somhairle’s poetry, his relationship to the Gaelic tradition that came before him, mixing his modernist voice with the voices of those bards long hushed under the soil. The restrictive bardic forms offered Somhairle some structure to the chaos of modern life, and his success as a poet was his ability to contain explosions of honest anguish in such self-restricting bardic practice. Máire Ní Annracháin, my supervisor and the woman who introduced me to the world of Somhairle and Gàidhlig, highlighted how an image can linger in the mind of a poet when it is equated with some strong emotion or memory. One such recurring image that Maire explored was that of the honeysuckle. In the early poem ‘Abhainn Arois’, Somhairle lingers not on the words or talk of his love, but the scent of honeysuckle that surrounded him and her. Fifty years later, Somhairle reflects back on this in ‘Iadhshlat’ (‘Honeysuckle’), calling the flower’s scent ‘ìomhaigh chùbhraidh a bòidhche‘ (‘a fragrant image of her beauty’). In the first poem, the honeysuckle is an association that sparks a memory; in the second, it has transformed into a metaphor, ‘ròs is iadhdhlat a’ ghaoil‘ (‘the rose and honeysuckle of love’).
Not only did I digest all of this luscious academic food for thought, I also philosophised through the mediums of Gaeilge and Gàidhlig in a field with Alan Titley as we followed pheasants; talked about haiku with Rody Gorman and Aonghus Dubh MacNeacail; listened to stories about Somhairle from people who knew him; I heard a tawny owl and lesser redpolls; I got eaten alive by midges; we had the most epic sing-song session anns a’ Talla Mhòr; and I bought all of the five books that were launched at the conference. Yes, five books at one conference! I think this just shows the acceleration of the interest in Somhairle and Gàidhlig. The Eilean Sgitheanach and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig does feel like another world, and never fails to inspire me. I always feel very welcome, and they are so encouraging of anyone who has an interest in Gàidhlig. Though this wee area is the hub for Gàidhlig on a now English-speaking western isle, it feels like a stronghold for the language and culture; no matter how small it is and no matter how hard the English-language world presses in around it, the devotion to Gaelic is so staunch here that no threatening force could sway it. I like to think of Gàidhlig as being hardy and defiant like the thistle in Ted Hughes‘ poem:

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.


Advertisements