SONGS AND TALES FOR A NEW CEILIDH:
THE GAELIC WRITINGS OF IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
Donald E. Meek
It gives me much pleasure to be present at this conference in memory of a a distinguished writer who was also my teacher, when I was a pupil in Oban High School in 1965-67. Iain Smith's inimitable style remains vividly in my mind - the unending flow of humour, the many puns, the fits of helpless laughter as the teacher wrapped himself round the wastepaper basket and enjoyed his own jokes at least as much as his pupils did. Humour often interrupted - or should I say, enhanced? - the day's classes, but the fact that our teacher was also one of Scotland's leading literary figures was not allowed to interfere with regular teaching; the syllabus took precedence over the artist, the curriculum was more important than the poet. Only now and again, and in the strictest confidence, would Mr Smith (as he then was) reveal that he was a writer. Once that confidence was established, the more trusted pupils might be given weekend reading, as I was on several occasions, consisting of wadges of transparent copy paper, blasted through with heavy typewriter bombardment, which contained drafts of poems, short stories and unpublished novels, in both Gaelic and English. Here was creativity indeed, and a sense of cameraderie in the great art of original composition. Trusted pupils were permitted to assess their teacher's homework.
Iain Smith valued the friendship and companionship of creative minds, of both pupils and poets. On certain weekends, as he would disclose later, he would go to Edinburgh to enjoy the company of fellow poets, such as MacDiarmid, MacCaig, MacLean and Brown. It was from Iain that I first learned of these mighty men of modern Scottish verse. His visits to the literary pubs of the capital were his intellectual ceilidh time, when he and his friends regaled one another with creative gossip and new compositions. On these occasions, Iain was in the midst of his creative soul-friends, and his 'ceilidhs' with them were one of his personal delights.
Iain also frequented other, more traditional forms of ceilidh in Oban itself, and brought Monday-morning reports of these. At the emotional level, he took great pleasure in Gaelic songs, and revelled particularly in the work of Duncan Ban MacIntyre. The annual Donnchadh Ban ceilidh was one of his special delights. However, he was also fairly critical of much of the traditional output of Gaelic verse. After an English class, if there was time to speak, he would sometimes talk about poets such as the popular nineteenth-century song-writer, Neil MacLeod, whose verse he did not appreciate. He found MacLeod, as I remember, particularly shallow and unsatisfying; MacLeod composed some of the best known songs in Gaelic, like 'An Gleann san robh mi Og'. As I can now appreciate much more clearly, Iain had a great dislike of romanticism, and of false facades, whether in poetry, people or place (and I will develop that later as the main theme of my talk). The Gaelic poets whom he admired were those whom he considered to have broken through to the reality of human existence. Thus, among the eighteenth-century poets, he liked Donnchadh Ban, but he also valued Rob Donn MacKay, and translated major poems by both of these poets into English. Of the nineteenth-century poets, he enjoyed the work of Mary MacPherson, and often enthused about her song 'Nuair bha mi og'. The twentieth-century poets were, however, his special friends - Sorley MacLean, Derick Thomson and Donald MacAulay.
When it came to Gaelic prose, as distinct from Gaelic poetry, Iain was much more reticent, and when pushed into a corner he had little to say of a complementary nature. I cannot remember him ever enthusing about a Gaelic prose writer. In reviews in the periodical, Gairm, however, he would occasionally let his feelings show. I gained the impression that Gaelic prose was a big disappointment to him. He particularly disliked the school texts which he had to read as a boy; he found little to admire or to enjoy in the ponderous prose which was often presented in large black print in Blackie's Gaelic readers. For him, the style and language took precedence all too often over the thought, and that was unacceptable in his eyes. As his reviews make clear, Gaelic prose ought to be concise, clear and simple in style, and it ought to carry an intellectually satisfying, and enjoyable, message. His own Gaelic short stories were constructed with precisely those aims; no Gaelic prose writer ever wrote such simple and unadorned prose as Iain Crichton Smith, and few have ever probed the dilemmas of human existence with such a sharp eye. Despite the intellectual perspective, however, he was also one of the first writers to appreciate the need for good, attractive children's writing in Gaelic, with themes and styles that would appeal to children. (I will speak later about his children's fantasy novel, Iain am-measg nan Reultan.) In his prose, the sparseness, the bareness of the style and the sharply analytical focus, the emphasis on the mind rather than the body, the enjoyment of the metaphysical rather than the physical, were (I am sure) intended as a deliberate challenge to traditional Gaelic writing. There is a similar sparseness in the style of his Gaelic poetry, compared with traditional models; it is not the complexity of the metre or the profusion of language typical of the traditional poets that we find in Iain's verse. Rather, it is a rejection of metre and style of that kind. Language for language's sake (that is to say, rhetoric), or metre for metre's sake (that is to say, verse), was not Iain's primary concern, though he loved to play with language, and had a pun-gent wit; language was a vehicle for the expression of thought, and so too, insofar as it was relevant, was metre.
Thus the traditional Gael, reared in the old ceilidh house or familiar with its conventions, and used to richness of language as a primary constituent of 'good' Gaelic literature, would probably find Iain's output 'bare', if not 'barren', devoid of aesthetic appeal, difficult to enjoy and hard to understand, and he or she would probably brand it as 'un-Gaelic'. Again, some of the themes that he pursued - his concern with the mind, with philosophy, with psychology, with the meaning of existence - would not have been attractive to the average man or woman on the croft. The conclusion of the average Gael often was that 'his poetry is beyond me'. My own feeling is that Iain's work has yet to be fully appreciated. As time moves on, it will appeal most naturally to 'new Gaels'; to the pupils who have gone through the Gaelic-medium units, and whose worldview has not been shaped by the croft or the creel; to those adults who have learned the language and identify with a non-Gaelic culture in the first instance; and to those who have moved from the traditional concerns of the Gaelic community to a more global view of literature.
Here we encounter something of a conflict - one of many conflicts, I would say - at the heart of Iain Smith's Gaelic work. On the one hand, Iain was writing for the Gaelic community, and he belonged to that community; but, on the other hand, he was coining new literary styles, and subverting some of the most important stylistic hallmarks of the traditional Gaelic community. He was concerned to provide new, original approaches to literature, whereas the conventional Gaelic community admired imitation of earlier models, or worked in well worn tracks. His connections with the Gaelic world remained strong, but he was not wholly part of that world; he was 'of that world, but not in it' (if I may reconstruct a well-known phrase). His work includes satire as well as sympathy, powerful defences of the Gael and Gaelic, as well as merciless attacks on the Gael's 'sacred cows', including the church. He was, by any standards, a complex individual.
The complex relationship between Iain Smith and the Gaelic world finds one of its symbolic centres, so to speak, in his frequent allusions to the ceilidh - and I want to make that my theme in this talk. In Iain's work, both in his critical writings and his creative pieces, the ceilidh symbolises aspects of the traditional Gaelic world. Iain had something of a love-hate relationship with the ceilidh. On the one hand, he enjoyed ceilidhs hugely, but on the other he often disliked them; he was, as he said, a 'double man', living with two different cultures and struggling to accommodate them. His views of the ceilidh show his bi-valency, so to speak. The gregarious side of him longed for the companionship and the friendship of the ceilidh, but intellectually he rejected much of ceilidh culture. His enjoyment, or lack of it, depended on what was in the ceilidh, and what kind of ceilidh it was.
If you read his splendid essay, 'Real People in a Real Place', you will find that Iain has a lot to say about ceilidhs, and distinguishes two types. He draws a distinction between the 'old ceilidh' of the traditional Gaelic community - the one that Derick Thomson considered to have been destroyed by the evangelical Calvinism of Lewis - and the 'new ceilidh' of exiles in the cities. With the traditional sort of ceilidh he could empathise; as he saw it, it was a cohesive act of the community, and had a mix of songs and tales which came from the community itself. His most dismissive comments were, however, reserved for the exiles' ceilidh. He regarded the city ceilidhs, which often gave precedence to romantic songs, as acts of self-delusion. This is what he says (p. 23):
'The new ceilidh has now become a concert, with "stars" in kilts twinkling from platforms in great halls in Edinburgh or Glasgow. The songs have become nostalgic exercises, a method of freezing time, of stopping the real traffic of Sauchiehall Street, a magic evocation of a lost island in the middle of the city. The traditional ceilidh which was held in the village in the village ceilidh house was a celebration of the happenings of the village, it was alive, it was a diary and a repeated record. The ceilidh as it is now practised is a treacherous weakening of the present, a memorial, a tombstone on what has once been, pipes playing in a graveyard.'
To understand the prominence of the 'new ceilidh' in Iain's work, we have to bear in mind that he himself was an 'exile', in the sense that he lived and worked away from Lewis. That created tensions for him. He was acutely aware that the state of exile could produce misleading views of the original homeland, and that these could be recycled by the folk at home. Nostalgia of this kind could also divert people from the real tasks around them. Just occasionally, however, I wonder if Iain Smith himself was not being a trifle romantic in his perception of the traditional ceilidh. For one thing, this would have been the very place where the traditional tales about the Gaelic heroes - Fionn, Cu Chulainn, Conall Gulban and the rest of them - would have been recited with vigour and gusto, with their many prolix 'runs' and rich vocabulary. Here too we would have found Gaelic poetry and song which would have reinforced traditional models. Iain's prose and verse challenge and ultimately reject these models. Consequently, his concept of the 'new ceilidh' which he himself wanted is at once very different from that of both the exile and the native. His preferred 'new ceilidh' - the target audience of his own songs and tales, rather than the exile's 'new ceilidh' - is a ceilidh of the mind, where intellectual freedom, rather than slavish imitation of existing models, is practised. It is devoid of romanticism, and encourages the search for reality rather than a retreat into self-delusion. It is global rather than insular in its worldview.
Iain uses various devices, including satire, to show the irrelevance of the exile's ceilidh to the contemporary world. Despite the general view of him as a relentless intellectual, Iain had the ability to write for young people, and did so in a couple of books, one of which is his children's fantasy, Iain am-measg nan Reultan. In this story, two youngsters, Iain and Rita, arrive in Mars, in the company of some very untraditional Gaelic heroes, Dan Dare and Desperate Dan - the comic characters of Iain's boyhood and mine. When they reach Mars, they are first taken to a 'Mod', which has contextualised itself in the Red Planet, and is going full swing when they enter. For Iain Smith, the Mod is an extension of the exile's pointless ceilidh, and the Mars Mod is a confused experience (p. 40):
Chaidh iad a-steach gu sàmhach is shuidh iad aig a' chùl. Bha fear le tartan dearg is aodann dearg a' seinn oran.
B'e ainm an òrain 'Thugainn do Mhars'. 'S e seo a chiad sreathan:
'O thugainn a leannain gu dùthaich nam planaid
Gheibh thu dambaddy is górav...'
'Se 'dambaddy' seòrsa de bhiadh is 'górav' seòrsa de fhìon.
Bha triùir dhaoine 'nan suidhe a' sgrìobhadh.
Ars a' chailleach, 'Tha iad a' toirt comharraidhean dha.' Bha am pàipear air an robh iad a' sgrìobhadh dearg, is am peann dearg cuideachd. Ars a' chailleach, 'Dh'fhàg sinn an Talamh o chionn iomadh bliadhna air ais, ach mar a chì thu tha sinn a' cumail suas nan seann nòs. Air oidhche na Bliadhn' Uire bidh Andy Stewart againn cuideachd ach tha e gabhail móran airgid airson a thurais.'
Nuair a bha an t-òran crìochnaichte thubhairt fear na cathrach: 'Tha mi duilich nach tàinig Tormod fhathast. Bha dùil againn ris as a' phlanaid Venus ach dh'éirich rudeigin don t-soitheach aige. Chan fhada gus an tig e a dh'aindeoin sin.'
They went in quietly and they sat at the back. There was a man with a red kilt and a red face singing a song.
The name of the song was, 'Come to Mars'. These were its first lines:
'O come, my sweetheart, to the land of the planets
You will get dambaddy and górav...'
'Dambaddy' is a kind of food, and 'górav' is a kind of wine.
There were three men sitting writing.
The old woman said, 'They are giving him marks.' The paper on which they were writing was red, and the pen was red too. The old woman said, 'We left the Earth many years ago, but as you see we still keep up the old customs. On Hogmanay we wil have Andy Stewart also but he takes a lot of money for his trip.'
When the song was finished the chairman said: 'I am sorry that Norman has not come yet. We were expecting him from the planet Venus but something happened to his spaceship. However, it wil not be long until he arrives.'
The song which is being sung, 'Thugainn do Mhars', is a parody of popular Gaelic songs in which the poets invite their sweethearts to visit their native islands. The first line echoes 'Tiugainn, a leannain, do Scalpaidh na Hearadh', while the second imitates the catalogue of 'delights' which the sweetheart will find in the island. The Gaelic of Mars has evidently produced new words, which, when translated by the author, turn out to be terms for food and drink. The second item 'gorav' seems to echo the Gaelic adjective, 'gòrach' ('foolish'). This clever little joke makes the point that intellectual satisfaction cannot to be found in such songs; they descend too easily into meaningless, formulaic catalogues, imitative of one another and easily carted around the Gaelic solar system, with its stars and moonshine. Iain also takes a swipe at Scottish entertainment more generally, and gently satirises some well known Scottish entertainers: Andy Stewart represents the couthy but colossally expensive variety, while Norman (Who?) represents the funny but hugely unpredictable variety. Andy's expenses are astronomical, while Norman's non-appearance in Mars is explained by a spaceship accident.
The hò-rò-gheallaidh in Mars is the reductio ad absurdum of the exile's 'new ceilidh', but what of the ingredients of Iain Smith's own 'new ceilidh'? If Iain were organising a ceilidh, what songs would he put on the programme? My own intuition is that he would, in fact, attempt to balance old and new, and that he would provide a set of new songs to be sung alongside the old, and thus provide some intellectual fibre. His concept of the songs which might be appropriate in his 'new ceilidh' is put on display in his collection, Biobuill is Sanasan-reice ('Bibles and Advertisements'). Here he has an important sequence entitled 'Ochd Orain airson Ceilidh Uir' ('Eight Songs for a New Ceilidh'), which has been anthologised in other collections. The last poem in the sequence - Poem 8 - takes the 'invitation formula' that he has satirised in the context of Mars (pp. 21-22). In this song the sweetheart is invited to visit, not some Hebridean island such as Uist or Lewis, but Japan, where she is to reflect on the destruction wrought by the dropping of the atomic bomb, which destroys not only people but 'sense'. The traditional 'escapist culture' is here identified with the ceilidh halls of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and Iain makes the point that, in the way that they are sung, even the songs of Duncan Ban MacIntyre are sanitised to some extent, in the interests of 'the lies that make clouds around our generation'.
The sequence contains other poems which make essentially the same point, namely that it is not possible for anyone with an active mind to seal the islands and Gaelic culture off from the wider world, to retreat irresponsibly into romanticism, and to lock the door on the atrocities of the twentieth century, including the holocaust. We are in the world of the 'global village' here, and the 'global village ceilidh'. Indeed, in Poem 3 in the sequence Iain sees himself standing in a concentration camp, and taking part in the execution of the Jews in a gas chamber, in which the gas is 'mar cheo Leodhais air creagan fuar'' ('like the mist of Lewis on cold rocks'). Here, the mist which is so often magical and mystical in Gaelic song (Skye is traditionally 'Eilean a' Cheò', for example) is being associated with the cold-blooded horror of Hitler's policies in far-away Germany. Far from obscuring the past, the mist brings a terrible tragedy closer to home, and the poet shares in the corporate responsibility for what has happened.
In the light of that responsibility, and particularly the destruction of war, Iain feels that he has to set a question mark against commonly accepted aesthetic values, such as natural beauty, whether in people or in the physical world. External matters cannot be accepted at face value. He cannot compose a love-poem to order, so to speak; it has to arise from his own experience; he has to feel the real agony of love within himself. Traditional Gaelic poets admired the physical, and described it in detail, whether in terms of the human form or the shape of the land, its mountains and lochs. Although he is well aware of the beauty around him, Iain Smith rejects physical sources of inspiration for his verse, whether these be mountains, stars, an overseas voyage or the cultural delights of London. He makes this clear in his 'Eight Songs for a New Ceilidh'. He prefers what he can see and feel inside his own heart; although this makes for a dangerous and isolated existence, it is by this means (paradoxically) that he will touch universal themes. The contribution of Lewis to that process of self-probing and self-analysis has been the very opposite of what the island has done for the romantic exile, since it has given an unromantic edge to his poetry, though it has given him an internal musicality: 'but it was the bareness of Lewis that made the work of my mind like a loom full of the music of the miracles and greatness of our time'.
It is very evident from this sequence of poems alone that Iain Smith found music very attractive; he was pulled inexorably towards the songs of the Gaelic world, including the great songs of war-time romanticism, such as Domhnall Ruadh Choruna's 'An Eala Bhan' ('The White Swan'), which was his particular favourite. In his volume Biobuill is Sanasan-reice, Gaelic songs have a very prominent place. He writes his own poetic commentary on 'An Eala Bhan', for example, in which he sees the swan as the inevitable symbol of romantic hope and warmth and creativity at a time of destruction (p. 37). He makes his own remarkable response to 'beanntan na Hearadh' ('the mountains of Harris'). His poem 'Nochdadh ri Beanntan na Hearadh' (p.25) superimposes on the bare landscape of Harris the modern, 'external' commercial world of neon lights, eventide homes, cafes, advertisements, guitars, nylon, and Woolworth's shops. This grotesquely incongruous picture - a peculiar double exposure in which Oban seems to be have fallen on top of Harris - makes its own point very forcefully; the islands cannot be isolated from the 'big world out there'. It will come to them, bringing its own value system, and its own challenges to the mind as well as the body. The ominous closing lines of this poem - 'the green that is not the green of the sea swimming on the face of a sailor' - are a pointer to the distemper which the new world will bring to the islands. This volume, it may be noted, was published in 1965, and almost forty years on we can see that Iain's grimly ironic reworking of a romantic motif had more than a hint of prophecy in its lines.
This prophetic glimpse of a changing world in the islands - a world which is no romantic hideaway but one that is relentlessly connected to the malaises of the modern day - brings me finally to prose, and to one of the most fascinating of Iain's stories, An t-Aonaran ('The Loner'), published in 1976. It is a novella, or a long short story, just about the right size for a ceilidh of the traditional style. It seems to me that the plot - the arrival of a mysterious loner in the village - is probably not original, though an event of this kind did apparently happen in Bayble; Iain has almost certainly been inspired by a powerful Gaelic short story called 'Iomhar Mòr', which was published in An Cabairneach, the magazine of Comunn na h-Oigridh, in 1950, and was reprinted in an anthology of Gaelic short stories in 1970. The theme is, of course, much older than 1950; the arrival of a stranger of some sort - a Norseman, a fairy visitor from the otherworld, an enemy of the kindred - is a well known motif in many traditional Gaelic stories that would have been told and retold in the old-style ceilidh house across the centuries. The heroes of the community were able to take their stand against him, or do whatever was necessary to honour traditional values.
The original type of 'stranger' tale was meant to send a shiver through your spine, but Iain is concerned to send a shiver through your mind. In Iain's extended version, we have no heroes, only anti-heroes. Dougie, one of the first characters we meet in the book, owns the local shop and is a source of news, but he has been a soldier in the army, and often speaks of tanks and Fascists, but this has not prepared him to cope with the challenge in the story. The story is set in Lewis, in a community which the author knows well, namely Bayble. The trouble begins in a Nissen hut, which has become home to a mysterious stranger whose intrusion into the community triggers a whole range of reactions, most of them hostile, to his appearance. The story is told through the eyes and words of a retired schoolmaster, with whom the author can obviously identify. Not one of the local characters in the story actually succeeds in conversing with the stranger; he remains a largely unknown quantity throughout the book, dwelling apart from the rest of the village. He is a drop-out, we assume, and he has left the rat-race in order to commune with nature. Yet, although he has left one place and fails to enter the life of another, he has a potent effect on the village. He is a catalyst towards self-examination on the part of the schoolmaster, who is forced to reflect on his own life, which has been one of dullness and tedium. His wife, whom he met as a student in Edinburgh, has died of cancer, and when she went to the island with her husband, she abandoned some of her earlier skills and interests, notably her violin playing. The violin, gathering dust and now unused, is a leitmotif in the novella. The transition to Lewis has stifled her artistry; the beauty which her husband saw in the sea and moor killed her innate beauty.
In this way, Iain takes a highly traditional theme - and old-style ceilidh theme at the heart of Gaelic creativity across the centuries - and redirects it in order to explore the meaning of beauty, and ultimately the meaning of life itself, for that is the main theme of the book. All the main characters, including pre-eminently the narrator, are shown to be 'loners', divorced from others, and communicating largely with themselves; their only point in common is their dislike of the stranger, their blundering attempts to second-guess him and to understand his motive in coming to the village. They consistently think the worst of him. As they do so, they are affected by the same existential disease, and become alienated from themselves and from their callings; even the minister is unable to preach the sermon that he has prepared for the Sabbath day, and comes to seek the advice of the schoolmaster. Finally, they succeed in driving the stranger from the village on a trumped-up charge. They have lost their sense of being human, as part of a wider family of human relations; and they are themselves lost in existential anonymity and ambiguity. They are all 'loners' looking for meaning. There is no ceilidh in this book, no Highland hospitality, no tolerance, no meeting of minds; only suspicion and failure and a kind of perverted voyeurism, preying on other people's failings and waiting to see who will 'crack' first in this tension-ridden place of unfulfilment. It is as if Iain Smith has written a creative commentary on one of the famous lines of Murdo MacFarlane, the Melbost Bard, who, when he went to Canada, complained in his famous Gaelic exile song that 'there was no ceilidh on the prairie'. There is no ceilidh in Bayble. Without the ceilidh, as Iain states in 'Real People in a Real Place', the community becomes a void. An t-Aonaran portrays that void, and could be read as a plea for real and realistic ceilidhing in a broken world. The ceilidh has to be put back into the soul-destroying flatness of the postmodern prairie.
There are many ironies in this book, many conflicts and contradictions. One is the comment that it makes on the state of exile. One need not leave Lewis to be an exile; it is possible to be exiled from one's real self, and that is surely part of the message of An t-Aonaran. All this goes to show that, despite the romantic external image of the islands, life there - the internal reality - is no different from that in other parts of the world. The characters are just as much lost in their existential nightmares as are the people of London or Edinburgh or Los Angeles. Thus, although An t-Aonaran is a story set in a village in Lewis, it has a universal application. It takes the lid off Bayble, so to speak, and but it reveals the bigger Babel within the human condition, the Babel in which a deep communicative disorder is only just below the surface. Despite their use of language, it is not possible for these twentieth-century islanders to communicate effectively with each other or to accommodate another person. It is a frighteningly realistic book - frightening in what it has to say about leading double lives, about hypocrisy, salaciousness and noseyparkerism. It is, for better or worse, about real people in a real island - not romantic people in a romantic island.
And that sums it up. Iain Smith's Gaelic writings, both prose and verse (and I have touched on only the merest fraction of these in this paper), are intended to be relevant to the Gaelic world, but to be a challenge at various levels - a challenge to make Gaelic styles more flexible, a challenge to dump romantic dreaming about the islands, a challenge to avoid escapism, a challenge to 'get real', as we would say today, and to face real issues. Behind the challenges, however, was a deep concern to take Gaelic literature forward - to pull it out of its concern with itself, with its own narrow world, and to make the Gaelic writer central to the wider literary world, rather than 'off the edge of things' in some romantic cul-de-sac. Nowadays, we talk about the need to 'normalise' or 'equalise' the Gaelic language by bringing it up to a par with English in the life of the Scottish nation. Iain Smith's aim from the very outset was, I believe, the 'normalisation' and 'equalisation' of Gaelic literature in terms of the wider literary world. The ceilidh, in his view, had to be taken out of the hands of the exiles, out of the music halls of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and repatriated to the Highlands and Islands - repatriated, that is, among real people in a real place, who would sing real songs and tell real tales. But it had also to be repatriated intellectually and chronologically. It had to deal with the here and now, and not merely with the dead and gone. It had to be able to function cross-culturally, and its best pieces had to be able to stand on both sides of the linguistic frontier separating Gaelic and English.
In approaching Gaelic literature in this way, and by providing what I have called 'songs and tales for a new ceilidh', Iain Crichton Smith was an undoubted pioneer, unique in many respects. His ability to compose prose and verse on similar themes in Gaelic and English, and his desire to use both languages, set him apart from his contemporaries. In his hands, the Gaelic ceilidh became multicultural, and Gaelic literature was dragged singing into the global ceilidh house.