Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Twentieth-century Gaelic (and Hebridean) literature: 'Portraying and Positioning the Hebridean "Fringe"'



Donald E. Meek


Peripheries and centres are very much a matter of perception.   For those of us brought up in the Hebrides, as I was in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea that we were somehow peripheral was hardly worth a second thought.  We would not have known then, of course, what the word ‘periphery’ meant, and if we had heard its Gaelic equivalent, ‘iomall’, we would have thought of something else – the edge of a garment or the edge of a plate of porridge.  Many a morning, when I was confronted with that delightful substance before going to school, I would plunge into it with the wild abandon typical of young people.  Then, having scalded myself, I would spit it out, and my aggrieved old relatives would say, ‘Ith e on iomall’ (Eat it from the outer edge).  Sometimes ‘iomall’ could mean the ‘remaining scrap’, which was left when the centre of a cake was eaten out by an earlier enthusiast.  The vocabulary which is now the special property of those advanced thinkers on Gaelic economics (usually based in Inverness) was very personal and domestic to me in those far-off days.  I still cannot conceive of ‘edges’ and ‘peripheries’ in geographical terms when I think of the Hebrides.  If there was a ‘periphery’ at all, it was the land mass of the Scottish mainland, which seemed mysterious and remote.   I remember how sorry I felt for those distant members of my family who had the misfortune to live off the edge of things in smog-filled Glasgow, and could not share the delights of my island paradise at the centre of the universe.  I had everything that I could have wished for, including an abundance of food, almost all of it home-grown.  It was only later in life, when I myself had migrated to the aforesaid smog-filled metropolis, that I began to realise that there was another view of the islands which tended to see them as peripheral.  That was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the end of the twentieth century, however, the concept of ‘marginalisation’ had become endemic among those who planned the destiny of the Hebrides.  The term ‘The Celtic Fringe’ had been invented by Michael Hechter in 1975 (Hechter 1975), and it began to pop up everywhere, accompanied by a haze of popular misconception and Celtic romanticism.  By 1970, too, the islands were being opened up to so-called ‘incomers’ and ‘white settlers’, and a new vocabulary of remoteness and inaccessibility was finding its way into the area.


As I prepared this paper, I was comforted to find that I was not alone in my  perspectives.   Poets down the centuries, far from feeling isolated and remote, affirmed the centrality of the Gaelic world in its own terms, and even those who had left the area lived with a very real awareness of their former island homes. The nineteenth century, in particular, witnessed a great deal of migration and emigration from the Highlands and Islands, but the migrants did not suddenly lose touch with their native heath.  They retained their links through their families, and formed associations in the cities to maintain their territorial loyalties – the Islay Association, the Tiree Association, the Lewis and Harris Association.  There was, admittedly, a romantic dimension in such recollection and reconstruction.  It is evident in the work of many poets and songsters, as they idealised, and idolised, the homeland that they had forsaken.  But, however difficult and decisive the physical separation may have been, the original homeland travelled with them, and they were compelled to explore their relationship to it (Meek 2003).


The same is true of the twentieth century.  Twentieth-century Gaelic writers and composers who have left the Hebrides have a very strong sense of belonging to the area, and they are in no doubt about its symbolic significance.  Admittedly, the styles of composition have been diversified, and the themes likewise, since the nineteenth century.   The relationship to the homeland has come to be explored in a much more analytical manner, particularly by the more ‘academic’ poets, who have been influenced by English literature and its philosophies, and have turned from song and quatrain to free verse.  For those who remain in the Hebrides, however, the islands have continued to be the centre of a self-sustaining world, which they have been pleased to describe and affirm in song and verse, formal and informal, light and profound. We will look at specimens of twentieth-century Gaelic verse, traditional and more modern, in a moment, but before doing so, it is essential that we consider Gaelic prose.  


Prose writing

It is a significant fact that there is very little Gaelic prose, from the twentieth century or any other, which describes the Hebrides, either in whole or in part, as a geographical unit.  I can think of only one book which describes a Hebridean island, and is actually written in Gaelic.  It is Hiort: far na laigh a’ ghrian (St Kilda: where the sun went down), by Calum MacFhearghuis (Calum Ferguson), a native of Portnangiuran in the Point district of Lewis.  It was published as recently as 1995 (MacFhearghuis 1995).   It is noteworthy that this book should be about St Kilda, an archipelago which lies west of Harris, and which was evacuated in 1930.  The sad fate of St Kilda has given this remarkable outcrop of small islands a particular resonance, and the number of books about it in English is legion.  Memorialisation is common, but the later twentieth-century volumes often have their own agendas, portraying the archipelago as either a utopia or a dystopia.  Such writing is not new, however.  St Kilda has had a special niche in literary consciousness from the time of Martin Martin in the seventeenth century, as it was the Ultima Thule of the traveller seeking remoteness and the ‘Other’ (MacDonald 2001).  Ossianic romanticism gave it an indelible place as the uttermost and grandest expression of the Sublime on the very edge of the Hebridean 'fringe', with its massive cliffs towering out of the surging Atlantic billows, and offering a home to clouds of fulmars which became food for the St Kildans.   Its inhabitants were sometimes compared to seabirds, or portrayed as animal-like, living in a primitive zoo.  In keeping with the travellers’ cultural identity, writing about St Kilda, as about the Hebrides, has been almost wholly in English.


It is perhaps an indication of the penetration into Gaelic of that wider fascination with desolate and formerly inhabited islands that we now have a Gaelic book about St Kilda, and none about any of the other islands. This is not, however, a traveller’s account, nor that of the sociologist researching for a Ph.D. about the ‘natives’.  MacFhearghuis is no cultural or intellectual tourist.  He writes with the eye of a skilled film-maker, producing a documentary history of the archipelago.  The scenes shift from the earliest inhabitants to the last, from folk belief to austere Christianity, from emigration to evacuation. The book is interspersed with songs and  tunes, accompanied with relevant photographs, and sketches.  In this splendid ‘docu-book’, it seems to me that what MacFhearghuis does superbly is to repossess the ‘St Kilda experience’ from a Gaelic perspective, and to reclaim the island for the Gaelic world, to which it properly belongs.  The island becomes surprisingly normal in the process.  The island that we see is not the human zoo that titillated the romantic travellers of the nineteenth century (Cooper 2002).  It is an island that once throbbed with Gaelic life, a paradigm of the Hebrides, raising profound questions for other Hebrideans about the sustainability of their own cultural units.


MacFhearghuis’s work is remarkable because it is in Gaelic. I have a very large shelf of ‘island books’ in my study, but only one of these – MacFhearghuis’s – is in Gaelic.  Even when the writer is fluent in Gaelic, he or she may well opt for English as the language of Hebridean description.   There are various reasons for this code-switch. Volumes of this kind – like their nineteenth-century predecessors – are evidently aimed at enlightening an English readership in the first instance.  We may cite Finlay J. MacDonald’s trilogy – Crowdie and Cream, Crotal and White, and The Corncrake and the Lysander – on his boyhood in Scarista, Harris, as a particularly good example of work in English by a fully fledged Gaelic writer who evidently chose not to use Gaelic (MacDonald 2001).  Finlay J., as we call him, was a pioneering radio and television producer based in Glasgow, and he was at the forefront of the development of twentieth-century Gaelic literature.  He frequently wrote Gaelic short stories which were set in the islands, but he evidently did not see the need to describe his own island in Gaelic for the benefit of other Gaels.  His upbringing would not have been unusual in the Gaelic context, and therefore he may have assumed that it was hardly worth his while writing about it in Gaelic.  Finlay J. may also have reasoned that what he had to say would be more interesting for the non-Gaelic reader.   So English was chosen.  Perhaps the contract from the publisher determined the choice of language, but it is nevertheless true that this is part of a general pattern.  


By writing in English about the Hebrides, it appears that Gaelic authors gain certain advantages which are denied to them in a Gaelic context.  They gain, for instance, some critical distance, but perhaps the most important thing that they gain is the opportunity to cash in on a more appreciative and, of course, larger readership, gasping for the ‘Castaway’ experience which has thrust the depopulated island of Taransay into recent general awareness.  The ‘Other’ and the ‘peripheral’ tend to go together for mainstream Scottish and British readerships, and this external perspective lends itself more readily to being conveyed in English. I have to confess that Finlay J.’s English writing makes me very uneasy, as it seems to me to be in a quite different league from his Gaelic writing, since it makes a pitch for the attention of non-Gaels, and has a touch of caricature, occasionally reminiscent of Lilian Beckwith, whose supposedly 'funny' books (of the 1960s and 1970s) about islanders ridiculed their naivety and simplicity, and made 'Tonald' speak in a mock Highland dialect.  Finlay J. is very far from being a second Beckwith (thank goodness!), but he occasionally touches this exploitable vein of insular simplicity, as he shows islanders who gradually emerge from the evasive shadows of tilley lamps into the full glare of electric light. Sometimes, particularly in its frankly crude descriptions of sexual encounters, Crowdie and Cream reminds me of Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie (Lee 1962).  The Laurie-Leeification of the Hebrides does less than justice to the area or the author. MacDonald is a highly sophisticated and immensely skilful writer, but he is perhaps too deferential to external models, and prone to blotting his indigenous canvases with imported fiction.


In short, when writing about their own islands in English prose, the more self-conscious authors who are aware of expectations are inclined to adopt external perspectives and styles.  This immediately positions their islands in a different mental map.  It is one which exploits, often for the benefit of the publisher, the implied distinction between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’.  The Hebridean ‘Fringe’ inevitably appears to be quaint, remote and in a time-warp. ‘Fringe’ can all too easily produce cringe.


There is, however, another kind of less popular, less polished, writing in English which describes Hebridean islands, and sits on a rather sharp bilingual cusp. This is not because 'The Writer' is eyeing the big world out there; it is because the writer lacks the confidence and the ability to write in Gaelic – a telling comment on the educational system which prevailed for all too long in the region. An example of this is Angus Edward MacInnes’s account of Eriskay Where I Was Born (MacInnes 1997).   MacInnes’s book lacks the stylistic smoothness of Finlay J.’s work.  Instead, it has a ruggedness which is convincing, both in its somewhat chaotic structure and in its wonderful portraits of Eriskay people.   It is plain, unvarnished stuff, filled with rough and tumble, all hugely readable.  It is sometimes grim, sometimes angry, sometimes very funny.  Eriskay, like St Kilda, has frequently been romanticised, but MacInnes, a retired Caledonian MacBrayne Captain who travelled the world as a sailor, has turned his back on the romantic recipe of ‘Otherness’ which sells so well.  His adventures in different ports put islanders in a global perspective, rather than a cul-de-sac.  MacInnes is a marvellous storyteller, and he writes exactly as he speaks, with Gaelic idioms woven effortlessly into his gloriously Hebridean English (and the publishers had the good sense to let the book stand as it was).  Eriskay is at the centre of his mental map, despite his many global travels.   MacInnes is writing about community, and not really about himself as ‘self’ in any consciously autobiographical way; he writes about himself in the context of various communities, including that of Eriskay, that of the Merchant Navy and that of other sailors from different cultures.  This is a voyage of self-discovery in which the writer collides with others who are travelling round their own global islands.


It is important to note that we do have prose writers in Gaelic who describe, or portray, different aspects of island life through their native language.   The perspective which is gained thereby is a much more immediate one, and it is directed at the Gaels themselves.  Gaelic, the mother tongue, is the language of intimate connection between the writer and the native island.  It is the language of personal analysis within the island frame, and more specifically the analysis of the relationship between the writer and the community.   When Angus Campbell, from Ness, Lewis, wrote his autobiography, Suathadh ri Iomadh Rudha (Rubbing against Many Headlands) (Caimbeul 1973), he did not offer the standard writer-centred autobiography that one might expect.  The ‘self’ for him (as indeed for Angus Edward MacInnes) is a vehicle for engaging with the community on the one hand, and with you, the reader, on the other.  It is clear from his preface that Campbell battled with an inadequate grasp of the finer points of Gaelic literacy to produce this remarkable book, which is an insider’s critique of a Hebridean community across a range of events and experiences, from social engineering to spiritual remaking through the power of the church.  An essential degree of critical distance is achieved largely by making the ‘self’ ambiguous and non-central.  This is the biography of a community rather than an individual, and stands largely alone in its self-effacing power and honest observation.


The Campbells of Ness - the northern tip of Lewis, and of the Hebridean archipelago, as it happens - have been remarkable for their literary skills.   Angus’ relatives, Norman and Alasdair Campbell, have written very effectively about Lewis life, through Gaelic novels, essays and short stories.  Their concern is to provide snapshots of island life, as in Norman Campbell’s black comedy, Deireadh an Fhoghair (The End of Autumn) (Caimbeul 1979), in which he portrays a very small and isolated Lewis community in its death-throes, and sustaining and entertaining itself by living on recycled materials of all sorts, including memories of basic, and sometimes very trivial, events. Poems and songs to things such as washed-up casks figure in the narrative. The cask is admired for its technical excellence and heroic qualities, and for the memories of the worthy ancestor who rescued it from the shore and hauled it home.  A good meal of chicken with the neighbours provides ritual power, and reconstructs fleetingly the dynamics of the dying community. This evinces stories, genealogies, and reminiscences. The mental map represented in this kind of writing is much more detailed in terms of local observation, and may contain a considerable amount of local Gaelic dialect.  Satire and humour intermingle too, and these function at a level which a non-Gaelic reader could not grasp readily, if at all.  The book is thus beyond adequate translation into any other language. At times even the Gaelic reader, and especially the reader from another dialect area, feels almost overwhelmed, if not excluded, by the relentlessly local perspectives.  The critical nuancing of such books is sewn into the language in such a way that one is not conscious of external evaluation; it is 'friendly fire' from the inside.


Gaelic verse

Prose, then, has not been fully exploited as a medium for describing or analysing island life in the Gaelic context, but there have been very significant contributions from the Campbells of Ness. Verse has been the main medium for exploring the relationship between Gaelic people and their native islands.   We can distinguish two types of verse.  First, there is what may be loosely term ‘traditional’ verse, employing quatrains and commonly intended for singing.  This is the form which the resident islander will normally use.   The traditionally-minded exile will also employ song.  Then, there is modern free verse, employed mainly by exiles who have been educated at mainland universities, and are often academics themselves – poets such as Donald MacAulay, formerly Reader in Celtic at Aberdeen and latterly Professor of Celtic at Glasgow, and Derick Thomson, his predecessor as Professor of Celtic at Glasgow, and a very important figure in the revitalisation of Gaelic literature in the twentieth century.   Iain Crichton Smith is also in this category.  All three men come from Lewis, two (Smith and Thomson) from Point in the east, and one (MacAulay) from Great Bernera on the west side.


As might be expected, there is a considerable difference between the approaches of the two types of poet, though there is a certain amount of common ground.   If I were to put it in nutshell, I would say that the traditional Gaelic poet affirms the islands, using a well recognised and time-honoured rhetorical code, while the more modern poet raises questions about his relationship to the islands, using codes which belong to a wider stream of contemporary verse in English and other languages, but which nevertheless have a close connection with Gaelic rhetoric of various kinds.  As Iain Crichton Smith put it in the English poem, ‘Lewis’, which gives this paper its title (Stephen 1993:44-5):


It follows me, that black island without ornament,

which I am always questioning.


For the traditional poet, affirmation, rather than interrogation, of the islands is of the essence, and there is often a focus on individual islands.   The rhetoric of affirmation stresses fecundity, beauty, flower-covered machairs, abundance of wild life, and pre-eminently self-sufficiency.  ‘Uibhist mu Thuath’ (North Uist) by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna (Donald MacDonald) of North Uist represents this genre (MacAmhlaidh 1995:92-3).   A theme touched on in this song is loyalty to the island, and it is only when loyalty is affirmed that there is any reference to the location of the island within Scotland.   The poet claims (v. 4) that North Uist is preferable to the whole of Scotland.  The poet does not want to be an exile, however attractive the prospects.  The extent to which this affirmative rhetoric can be used of other islands is well illustrated by ‘Uibhist nan Sguaban Eòrna’ (Uist of the Barley Sheaves), composed by the South Uist poet, Dòmhnall Iain Dhonnchaidh (Donald John MacDonald) (Innes 1998:80-1).  There again you will see that Scotland is mentioned only to affirm the qualities of the native island (v. 2).   Scotland serves for both poets as a ‘value additive’, reinforcing a sense of identity which has little to do with physical geography, and everything to do with the qualities of the homeland.  Scotland is the periphery, and the periphery is invoked to validate the superiority of the insular centre.


The focus in such verse, as I have said, is usually on individual islands, but occasionally it can be broader. Donald John MacDonald of South Uist composed a long ‘epic’ poem in praise of the Hebrides (Innes 1998: 86-93).  This is a fine example of poetic positioning which allows us to see South Uist as part of a wider Hebridean panorama.   The poet’s concept of the Hebrides is very much a northern one, taking in the Outer Isles, from Barra to Lewis, but excluding the Inner Hebrides. (We may say in passing that poets from the Inner Hebrides worked in the same way, positioning their particular island in terms of their immediate neighbours. To Inner Hebrideans, St Kilda was, and is, utterly remote - a place to send naughty children!) The poet takes pride in what the Hebrides have done for the wider world, and his vista extends far beyond Scotland (which is not mentioned once in the entire song).  There is no sense of inferiority; rather, the message is the opposite, as the poet claims that the defence of the wider world was dependent on the contribution of the brave men from the isles.  He is thinking particularly of the First and Second World Wars.   He himself was a prisoner of war, and has left us a fascinating account, in fine Gaelic prose, of his incarceration in a German concentration camp (MacDhòmhnaill [1998]). 


Donald John’s poem is a proud celebration of the Outer Hebrides, but it is far from insular.  The Hebrides are mapped globally.   Scotland is missed out as a point of reference, as it is irrelevant and not necessary for the argument.  Like the rest of the world, it is dependent on the islands, and not vice versa.  In such poets’ minds, then, the islands are self-contained, self-sustaining units, whose riches sustain other areas.   The poets have no place for the language of economic subservience which has become so much the hallmark of modern discourse about the islands.  The islands are enduring and powerful, independent and proud.


When we turn to the academic poets, such as MacAulay, Thomson and Smith, affirmation is more muted, but the themes of enduring, powerful islands are still very  evident.   Their power and influence are, however, portrayed very differently. The islands endure in the sense that they are ever-present in the poets’ minds, in their mental geographies, so to speak, and they are powerful in wielding an ongoing influence in shaping their outlooks.  Donald MacAulay’s poem, ‘Comharra Stiùiridh’ (Landmark) (MacAulay 1995:210-11), is a particularly poignant and incisive examination of the exile’s relationship to the island, which he revisits and leaves year after year.  The picture is shot through with irony.  The poet leaves the island in sorrow, but renounces the conventional remedies for sadness, such as drinking and singing sentimental songs on the MacBrayne steamer.  The normal palliatives will not suffice for him. Each time he goes back, he returns to an island that has changed, but he departs from an island that refuses to leave him, and sails his mental ocean like an iceberg.   There is a hint of ‘Titanic’ imagery here, as the island is also threatening. The poet has lost the island, but it is still there nevertheless, submerged in himself and acting as a kind of magnetic menace in his soul. MacAulay makes it clear that for him the island is certainly not peripheral; rather it is very much central to his experience, and to his self-awareness.  It has, however, been inferiorized and marginalized by others.  The position is a mosaic of paradoxes, which cut across one another in a splendid medley of conflicting emotions which those of us who have shared MacAulay’s experience know only too well.  The mapping is a personal one, which is drawn by the pencil of inner self-analyis.  Thomson’s ‘An Uilebheist’ (The Monster) likewise explores this theme (Thomson 1982:126-7).


In verse, as in prose, there is a bilingual tension at the heart of the poets’ presentations of their island experiences, and this reveals itself particularly clearly in anthologies, which often provide the poets’ own translations into English.  All the poetry that I have mentioned is available in translation in readily accessible texts, and this makes a concession to external readers who are interested in Gaelic verse but cannot read it for themselves.  The periphery, it seems, needs to ensure that the centre knows that it is there, and that it is aware of the quality of the local production!


Only one writer – Iain Crichton Smith – wrote comfortably in Gaelic and in English about his native island, namely Lewis.   The poem which gives this paper its title was written originally in English, and has no Gaelic equivalent, though Smith frequently has Gaelic and English versions of the same poem or short story.  What is fascinating is that when Smith presents a word picture of Lewis in English rather than in Gaelic, the choice of language and artwork is rather different.  In English, his pictures of Lewis tend to be more romantic and less gaunt than his Gaelic ones.  In ‘Lewis’ (Stephen 1993:44-5), the picture is one that is much closer to traditional Gaelic verse when celebrating the homeland, and in this way we encounter another paradox, which reminds us of the problems which I identified in Finlay J. MacDonald’s English prose.  When writing in Gaelic about Lewis, however, Smith tends to eschew the romantic palliatives of the exile, and he goes out of his way to confront the insularity of the islands by referring to the crises of the wider world, such as the nuclear threat (MacAulay 1995:174-5).



For most writers who describe the Hebrides and who belong to the area, the islands are central, rather than peripheral, to their experience. Yet there are considerable differences in presentation and approach. The more traditional composers of Gaelic verse are firmly rooted in their own communities.  They do not ask questions; they affirm certainties, at least rhetorically.  Their concern is to keep the morale of their communities high within these communities themselves.  Their rhetorical codes, handed down through the centuries, bind the islands into their own physical and cultural archipelagos, with their own centres and peripheries (the Inner Hebrides versus the Outer Hebrides, St Kilda versus the rest of the world).  Scotland is a remote concept, which, when occasionally invoked, usually serves only to strengthen (by contrast) the value of the islands concerned.  The writers of Gaelic prose, on the other hand, are prepared to be more critical than the traditional poets, and to offer critiques of their own areas, while affirming community values.   The liberated power of prose, however, has not been fully exploited in Gaelic, as there is a general tendency to turn to English when describing localities in detail.


The frame of reference for ‘non-traditional’ writers is much more complex and ambivalent.  We can see the tensions fairly clearly, in both prose and verse.   Gaelic writers who operate between cultures are commonly exiles, functioning in an adopted culture beyond the islands.  This means that they have to face up to the demands of  a variety of maps before they begin to compose.  The geographical map is submerged in a range of other drawings, imposed from the inside and the outside. The creative tension in this complex fusion nullifies any meaningful distinction between core and periphery.


As a result of their position outside their own communities, such writers face considerable challenges when presenting their native islands to themselves and to their readers.  They have to confront the issue of which language(s) they will use - Gaelic, English, or both?  This in turn helps to determine the positioning of the islands on the creative map (or maps).  Which readership should they address; Gaelic intellectuals like themselves, the Gaels back in the islands, the general Scottish readership, or can they address all communities at once?  Should they pander to romantic external interest, and titillate the palates of the Home Counties in the hope of selling their work?  How they travel according to their linguistic and rhetorical charts will determine who sails with them; who is on the outside of the experience, and who is on the inside.


To sum things up, one might say that, while the islands are never presented as a remote Hebridean ‘fringe’ in the work of the modern exile poets, any more than in the work of the traditional poets, the centre in which the exiles operate is much broader, much more ambiguous, and much less secure than that which sustains the traditional composers.  The centre, like the periphery, is also infinitely portable and easily expandable. For any Gaelic writer, at home or abroad, there may be no periphery which is not central to his or her experience. 





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Cooper, Derek, Road to the Isles: Travellers in the Hebrides 1770-1914.  London: Macmillan, 2002.


Hechter, Michael, Internal Colonialism:  The Celtic Fringe in British National Development. Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1975.


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Thomson, Derick, Creachadh na Clàrsaich: Plundering the Harp: Collected Poems 1940-1980.  Edinburgh: MacDonald Publishers, 1982.


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