Sorley MacLean (4525 words)

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Sorley MacLean was born in 1911 at Osgaig on the small island of Raasay, immediately adjacent to Skye. He is the central figure in the twentieth century Gaelic literary renaissance, and his book Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile (1943) was the principal influence in modernising Gaelic poetry. In spite of this reputation as a literary moderniser and innovator, MacLean was born into a family of tradition bearers, and this cultural heritage is discernible throughout his work. MacLean was one of seven children of Malcolm and Christina MacLean. Malcolm, although a Raasay man, had North Uist links, and Christina was a Nicolson from Skye. There were tradition bearers in both families, and MacLean grew up with a deep awareness of the oral culture and an appreciation of his place within the local cultural continuum. Like most of his peers, he had to leave his Gàidhealtachd (Gaelic area) home in order to be educated, and, in Edinburgh University, he was taught by the famous Donne scholar Herbert Grierson. After fighting in the Second World War, MacLean returned to Edinburgh and became an English teacher, before eventually becoming Headmaster of Plockton Secondary School in the Highlands. Although he had begun publishing his work in the early 1930s, and his genius had been recognised by the cognoscenti since at least the publication of Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile in 1943, his reputation burgeoned most especially during the 1970s, when he began to achieve international recognition as a writer of timeless significance.

MacLean’s earliest poetic influences came to him by oral transmission, and especially through his remarkably talented family. Throughout his childhood, he was surrounded by the music and rhythms of piping and Gaelic song. Joy Hendry has stated that “the importance to MacLean of this inheritance cannot be overestimated” (Hendry 10). MacLean described himself as “a traditional singer manqué...born into a family of traditional singers and pipers on all sides” (MacGill-Eain, 1976: 6). If he could not match the singing ability of many of his family members (he was tone-deaf), it is no surprise that MacLean found another outlet for the music he thus inherited. He noted that “Most of the songs were that ineffable infusion of music and poetry in which the melodies seem to grow out of the words and be a simultaneous creation” (MacGill-Eain, 1989: xi). This fondness for the inextricable interweaving of words and music is mirrored in his admiration for the seventeenth and eighteenth century Gaelic poets, most notably perhaps Duncan Ban MacIntyre, and in his repeated insistence on the untranslatability of much poetry. It is also something that the reader can sense in MacLean’s own work, especially perhaps in a poem like “Coin is Madaidhean-allaidh” [Dogs and Wolves] (one of the “Dàin do Eimhir”), in which rhyme, rhythm and meaning are intricately inter-layered. Among the other influences he first encountered in childhood was the song-poetry of Mary Macpherson (known as Màiri Mhòr nan Òran), a formidable Skye poetess of the late nineteenth century, whose politically-tuned work helped reshape the way Gaels thought of themselves. A similar political and radicalised view of Gaeldom and the world can be traced throughout MacLean’s writing. Mary Macpherson’s anti-establishment /anti-capitalist themes parallel MacLean’s own socialist, nationalist, and some-time communist tendencies.

MacLean attended Raasay Primary School between 1918 and 1924. His experience of primary schooling seems to have been largely positive, in spite of the emphasis on Calvinistic evangelism in many lessons. The school gave him access to English poetry for the first time, as well as the chance to familiarise himself with more of the wider Scottish cultural references, including Aytoun’s Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, which he especially enjoyed because “the MacLeans were on the side of the ‘Scottish Cavaliers’” (MacGill-Eain, 1989 xiii).

Because Raasay is small and has few facilities of its own, MacLean had to attend secondary school in Portree on the neighbouring island of Skye, from 1924 until 1929. Due to the distances involved, it was not possible for him to travel home in the evenings, and so he stayed in Portree during the week and went home only at weekends. (This sort of pattern was not unusual for Gaels of his generation, and, in many cases, it was not possible for school pupils to go home even for weekends.) While at Portree Secondary School, MacLean began reading more English literature, including Shakespeare and Georgian poetry. A lasting influence on his imagination was the study of Latin, taught by the Headmaster of the school. In particular, he came to admire the work of Virgil and Horace, along with some French writers, such as Villon and Verlaine.

In addition to exposing him to internationally-known greats such as Shakespeare and Verlaine, Portree Secondary School also gave MacLean an opportunity to study the major Gaelic poets in more academic detail than before. While in secondary school, he studied the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poetry collected in William Watson’s seminal Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig: specimens of Gaelic poetry 1550-1900 (1918), although he was not greatly affected by much of the poetry at the time. He developed an especial admiration for many of the anonymous post-classical Gaelic poems of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however. These were “poems of unknown or obscure authorship owing much to the bardic school traditions, but orally transmitted, and sometimes spoiled but sometimes improved in transmission” (MacGill-Eain, 1989 xiii). It is noteworthy that MacLean felt this way about oral transmission, as he was a member of the first generation of vernacular Gaelic poets who routinely wrote their poetry down upon composition and whose poetry would automatically be thought of first-and-foremost as ‘literature’ rather than written-down oral culture.

During his time at Portree Secondary, MacLean began to feel increasingly alienated from the Free Presbyterian religion that had surrounded him since childhood in Raasay. He was particularly perturbed by the notion of ‘the elect’: “since only about 2 or 3 per cent, even of Seceders [his pejorative term for Free Church adherents], were to be saved (judging by communion table statistics) it was impossible that any more than one or two of the people I loved most would also be ‘saved’” (MacGill-Eain, 2002 141), he wrote in a letter in 1941, explaining his discomfort with the church even from an early age. To imagine that he might experience eternal life without his loved ones was a “desolate prospect” (MacGill-Eain, 2002 141). Moreover, it was clear to him that there were many people around him who were very much to be admired and yet were certainly not in line for salvation, even though there were those among the most likely to be saved who had little to commend them beyond their adherence to their Presbyterian practices. As an interesting contrast, however, both MacLean and a number of scholars commenting on his work have noted the positive influence that the language and rhythms of the Free Presbyterian sermons and song had on his poetry.

It was while he was at Portree Secondary School that MacLean began to write a good deal of poetry, much of it influenced by the writers he admired, such as Wordsworth. He was writing in both English and Gaelic at that time, and had not made any decision as to which language should be his primary medium. During his school years, he intended to become a politician and make radical changes to the way the country was governed. Naturally, some of the sense of radicalism is discernible in his poetry, although the writing he did at that time has not survived.

Between 1929 and 1933, MacLean studied English at Edinburgh University. Having distinguished himself at secondary school in History and English, he was uncertain which subject he should take at university. He was also tempted to study Gaelic (widely known, then as now, in Scottish universities, by the more generic term ‘Celtic’). Although he was interested in only some English poetry, he made the decision that he should take a degree in English, as that was the subject most likely to enable him to establish a professional career after graduation, having been led to believe that History would steer him towards the Civil Service, which did not appeal to him, and that Gaelic would lead to destitution. It is clear that he came to regret this decision, intellectually, if not professionally, and that he wished he had been in a position to have the confidence to study Gaelic (like his brother Calum, who became a respected Gaelic scholar). Even rather late in life, he still felt compelled to justify his decision, explaining in an interview that it would have been “economically disastrous for [him] to do Honours Celtic, because there was no prospect of any work” (Neat, 1984). Although he was studying English for his degree, there was space in his curriculum to take one class of Celtic, and Professor Watson was willing to allow him to add an Honours Celtic year to his degree after graduation if Moray House teacher education college had permitted it, but the permission was not forthcoming. The Professor’s son James Carmichael Watson, a friend of MacLean’s at Edinburgh, helped MacLean renew his enthusiasm for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Gaelic poetry; MacLean made the most of his association with J.C. Watson, as well the Matheson brothers, each of whom went on to be important Gaelic scholars.

On the other side of his university curriculum, MacLean encountered modern English poetry for the first time. He noted that he “soon fell in with the prevailing habit of undergraduates taking English to exalt the early Eliot and Pound and Hopkins” (MacGill-Eain, 1989 xiv). Under the tutelage of Herbert Grierson, MacLean also came into contact with the Metaphysical poets, and his poetry came to be influenced especially by Donne, along with Eliot and Pound. He later stressed in a 1941 letter to Douglas Young that, although he could see some of these influences in his poetry, “Auden etc” meant nothing to him: “I have never been able to memorise a single line of any of them and I take away poems by Yeats, Grieve [MacDiarmid] and even Eliot and Pound whole” (MacGill-Eain, 2002 144-5). Yeats and Eliot continued to exert an influence on his work—in Eliot’s case, in spite of MacLean claiming not to be all that fond of his work.

Although he did not meet Hugh MacDiarmid (pen-name of Christopher Murray Grieve) when he was at Edinburgh University, MacLean did encounter James Caird and George Davie, who introduced him to MacDiarmid’s work. It is clear that he was immediately impressed with what he read and that he came to think of MacDiarmid as the most significant Scottish writer in generations. In fact, he ranked MacDiarmid one of the most important poets of his generation, at the very least. He rated MacDiarmid as Blake’s equal (of all poets, second only to Shakespeare) in a 1941 letter (MacGill-Eain, 2002 148), and, in 1976, wrote: “I think it extremely unlikely that there is a poet equal to MacDiarmid living in Europe today” (MacGill-Eain, 1976 9). He befriended MacDiarmid while training to be a teacher in 1934, and collaborated with him on translating some of the classics of vernacular Gaelic poetry.

MacLean had been writing for some years by the time he was an undergraduate student, and had written a good deal from the age of about 16. But, when he wrote “A’ Chorra-Ghridheach” (The Heron) in 1931, it was a turning-point. The poem begins (with MacLean’s own translation beneath; poem and translation from MacGill-Eain, 1989):

Gealach fhann bhuidhe air fàire,
cridhe ’n fhuinn gun phlosgadh gàire,
aognuidheachd a’ dèanamh tàire
air uinneagan òir an cuan snàgach.
[A pale yellow moon on the skyline,
the heart of the soil without a throb of laughter,
a chilliness contemptuous
of golden windows in a snaky sea.]

He considered this poem to be considerably better than his English work and undertook to write only in Gaelic from that point onwards (although scholars might dispute this and suggest that many of his ‘translations’ of his own poems could be as easily described as English ‘versions’ of the poems). He even destroyed most of the English poetry he had written up to that point, partly motivated by “patriotic reasons”, and possibly partly from a sense of guilt over his choosing to take a degree in English instead of Gaelic.

Throughout the 1930s, MacLean continued to write when he had the time, but he found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on his poetry during a period that was turbulent both internationally and personally. Following his training as a teacher, MacLean returned to Skye and took up a job at his old school in Portree. During this time, he continued to be fascinated with politics, and with the philosophies and ideologies of socialism and the resistance of fascism, which he saw as a great evil that might overcome all of Europe. He renewed his friendship with MacDiarmid and continued to be inspired by the other man’s writing and by Gaelic poetry and song.

One of the most influential moments in MacLean’s life came in 1936, when many intellectuals rushed to join the International Brigade to resist Franco and his allies in the Spanish Civil War. MacLean could see that this was a critical moment in European history and his conscience urged him to accompany his friend Jack Stuart, who had resolved to go to Spain. By 1936, though, his income had become indispensable to the family. His mother was chronically ill and his father’s tailoring business was in steady decline, while his younger siblings were still in education. In the end, he decided he could not afford to go to fight with the International Brigade.

Shortly after this, in 1937, MacLean first met an Irish woman who became the inspiration for much of the next wave of his poetry. This woman, and a Scottish woman MacLean had known for some years, coalesced into the mythic figure of ‘Eimhir’ in his poetry of the late 1930s and early 1940s. MacLean’s love for ‘Eimhir’ was apparently not reciprocated, at least to the same level of intensity, and these two women became the Maud Gonne in his poetry. In his poetry, MacLean later attributed his failure to win his lover’s heart to his feeling that he was undeserving, because he chose not to fight for his principles in the Spanish Civil War (MacLean’s translation below; poem and translation from MacGill-Eain, 1989):

Cha d’ ghabh mise bàs croinn-ceusaidh
an éiginn chruaidh na Spàinn
is ciamar sin bhiodh dùil agam
ri aon duis ùir an dàin?
[I did not take a cross’s death
in the hard extremity of Spain
and how then should I expect
the one new prize of fate?]

MacLean spent about a year teaching in Mull, which allowed him more time to work on his poetry, and gave him another inspiring landscape (both historically and geographically) in which to work. At the same time as inspiring him, though, Mull depressed him, because he saw how quickly a Gaelic stronghold could be reduced to a remnant. It was all the more disheartening for him, since the MacLeans were the clan predominantly associated with Mull, and it was clear that Mull would soon be a Hebridean island with next-to-no Gaelic.

By the time he moved to Edinburgh to teach in Boroughmuir High School in 1939, MacLean had completed a good deal of work on both of his most famous large-scale masterpieces: the “Dàin do Eimhir” [Poems to Eimhir] and the long poem “An Cuilthionn” [The Cuillin, the mountain range that dominates the skyline of Skye]. Working in Edinburgh and Hawick between 1939 and 1941, inspired by his ongoing love affair and his passionate opposition to the advance of fascism, MacLean completed most of the remaining work on the “Dàin do Eimhir”. Meantime, in a book shared with his friend and fellow poet Robert Garioch, MacLean achieved his first major publication, 17 Poems for 6d (1940).

Prior to the Second World War, MacLean developed friendships with Douglas Young, a poet and Professor of Greek at Aberdeen University, and Dr John Macdonald, Reader in Celtic at Aberdeen University. Young, in particular, was encouraging of MacLean’s writing and was eager for him to publish more of it. When he was called up to fight in the war, MacLean left manuscripts of many of his poems with Young and Macdonald. One version of the manuscripts was only recently rediscovered, having been entrusted to the Special Collections archive at Aberdeen University Library by Young in 1941 (Whyte, 2002). Young had promised MacLean that he would try to publish the poems, which included versions of most of the “Dàin do Eimhir”. However, as a committed Scottish Nationalist (he was later leader of the Scottish National Party), Young was determined that he would not himself be conscripted to fight on behalf of what he considered a foreign power. Knowing this, he realised he was likely to face imprisonment, and this may be why he deposited one set of the manuscripts, including poems and other materials, in the library at Aberdeen University. Certainly, according to Christopher Whyte’s critical history of this manuscript (Whyte, 2002), MacLean himself appears to have had concerns about the potential reception of the political content of some of the poems, their having been written at a time when he considered Stalin to be a great man, and their being full of what the poet described as “Bolshevism”. Indeed, as a supporter of Scottish independence, MacLean was, like Young, unhappy about supporting the British Empire by fighting as a British soldier, but he wanted to resist fascism and saw Britain as the lesser of two evils. It was most likely the German attack on the Soviet Union that made up his mind to go to war, as he could then convince himself that he was fighting for communism.

With help from Rev. John Mackechnie, Reader in Celtic at Aberdeen University, Douglas Young managed to prepare a version of the “Dàin do Eimhir” for publication, along with a number of ‘other’ poems, some of which had originally been written as part of the sequence. MacLean’s affections for the various Eimhir ciphers had vacillated over the years, and he had changed some details in the poems, as well as the sequence, in order to hide the identities of the two main women, or to obscure the fact that Eimhir was indeed a trope for more than one person. In 1943, Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile [Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems] was published for the first time, along with an introduction by Douglas Young and what some readers at the time saw as startling and breathtaking illustrations by William Crosbie. Having been wounded in North Africa and demobilised, MacLean was back in the country in time to read the proofs of the book and to receive the published version.

By the time Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile appeared in print, it was becoming clear to MacLean that there was no likelihood of a long-term relationship with an ‘Eimhir’ (most writers have perceived there to be more than two ‘Eimhirs’, and Christopher Whyte at one point held there to be four, although he later revised this thinking). One of the women, in particular, had deceived him and probably changed what he has described as his ‘relationship with the Muse’.

MacLean returned to Edinburgh and to Boroughmuir High School in 1943. Shortly thereafter he began to see the reality of the Soviet version of communism and lost faith in his earlier political views, partly as a result of arguments with his friend and fellow writer Sydney Goodsir Smith. In 1944, MacLean met Renee Cameron, and they were married two years later. Their friendship with Smith was so close that the two families even shared a house in Edinburgh for a time.

Alongside the “Dàin do Eimhir” and “An Cuilthionn”, the poem most closely associated with MacLean is undoubtedly “Hallaig”, which was written during this latter period of residence in Edinburgh, and which appeared in print in 1954. In this poem, MacLean sees the people of Raasay as trees who have suffered Clearance and devastation (MacLean’s translation below; poem and translation from MacGill-Eain, 1989):

Uaibhreach a nochd na coilich ghiuthais
a’ gairm air mullach Cnoc an Rà,
dìreach an druim ris a’ ghealaich –
chan iadsan coille mo ghràidh.
Fuirichidh mi ris a’ bheithe
gus an tig i mach an Càrn,
gus am bi am bearradh uile
o Bheinn na Lice f’ a sgàil.
[Proud tonight the pine cocks
crowing on the top of Cnoc an Ra,
straight their backs in the moonlight –
they are not the wood I love.
I will wait for the birch wood
until it comes up by the cairn,
until the whole ridge from Beinn na Lice
will be under its shade.]

MacLean’s desire to return to the Highlands was finally fulfilled in 1956, when he secured a post as Headmaster of Plockton Secondary School. He was to remain there for the rest of his career. The job was very demanding on his time, especially as, in such an isolated school, he often had to fill in when teachers were absent or posts could not be filled. Among the most moving poems he ever wrote, which pertains to this period in his life, was “Cumha Chaluim Iain MhicGill-Eain” (Lament for Calum Iain MacLean). Calum MacLean was one of the poet’s brothers, a folklorist of prodigious talent, who died in 1960. The poem begins with the lines “Tha an saoghal fhathast àlainn / ged nach eil thu ann” [The world is still beautiful / though you are not in it], and goes on to consider the many ways in which the other MacLean touched and added to the world, and especially the Highlands.

For a number of years, MacLean had been concerned by the rapid decline in the number of speakers of his native language, Gaelic. His short stay in Mull, which had, until recently, been a Gaelic stronghold, had shown him how quickly a community could lose its language. Part of the reason for his desire to return to the Highlands was a wish to return to a Gaelic-speaking area. Plockton had been a Gaelic-speaking area even until MacLean’s youth, but, by the time he went there as the Headmaster of the local school, it was only marginally so. His brother John, Headmaster of Oban High School, felt that teaching Gaelic to pupils who were not native speakers of the language would go some way towards addressing the decline in the number of Gaelic speakers. John MacLean and others were involved in a campaign to widen access to Gaelic education. When MacLean took up his headship in Plockton, he realised that the position gave him an opportunity to lend his weight to those who were trying to use education as a means of reversing the damage done to the language in the preceding century. In the 1986 book of essays about MacLean and his work, the Gaelic poet Aonghas MacNeacail details MacLean’s role in pushing for a new qualification designed for non-native speakers of Gaelic. MacLean took on both the education authorities and indifferent Gaels in his stinging attacks during the 1960s. In the end, MacLean’s wish was granted, whether as a result of the pressure from him or not, and a Higher certificate for non-native Gaelic speakers was introduced into the Scottish examination curriculum.

Shortly before MacLean’s retirement, his celebrity as a poet reached new heights. In 1970, two publications brought his work to a new audience. The first of these was Four Points of a Saltire, containing poems by George Campbell Hay, William Neill and Stuart MacGregor, as well as MacLean’s. The second publication was a special issue of Lines Review, dedicated to MacLean’s poetry. Not long after this, Iain Crichton Smith published his translations of some of the “Dàin do Eimhir” poems, which some scholars still regard as better translations than MacLean’s own. This suddenly brought MacLean’s poetry to a much wider readership. By the time MacLean retired in 1972, his fame was greater than it had ever been.

After his retirement, MacLean moved to Skye, and resided there for the rest of his life. He was able to write more during his retirement, and was in considerable demand for public readings of his work. He travelled internationally during the 1970s and ’80s, and received honorary degrees from the University of Dundee (1972), the National University of Ireland (1979), and the University of Edinburgh (1980). He prepared a selection of his poetry for publication in 1977, entitled Reothairt is Contraigh [Spring-tide and Neap-tide]. In spite of the poet’s earlier assertions that poetry was impossible to translate, the book appeared with translations he produced himself. Similarly, Donald MacAulay’s 1976 anthology Nua-Bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig: Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems also featured MacLean’s poetry with his own translations alongside it.

Further recognition in book form followed during the 1980s. In 1985, MacLean’s prose writings were edited by Professor William Gillies and published as Ris a’ Bhruthaich [To the Bank/Slope]. In 1986, Raymond J. Ross and Joy Hendry edited a volume of essays (Sorley MacLean: Critical Essays) about the man and his work. Among the friends, scholars and poets who contributed to that book was no less a figure than Seamus Heaney, a committed admirer of MacLean’s. In 1989, the bulk of MacLean’s poetry was published in O Choille gu Bearradh [From Wood to Ridge]. Once again, this last volume featured line-by-line translations, and it is therefore possible for those with no Gaelic to gain some insight into most of MacLean’s work via translations that he himself has prepared or approved. This kind of recognition continued, with Máire Ní Annracháin’s monograph about MacLean’s work, Aisling agus Tóir [Dream and Quest], in 1992, and Christopher Whyte’s edition of Dàin do Eimhir in 2001. Numerous other scholars have written about MacLean over the years (most notably, John MacInnes), making him possibly the most-studied Gaelic poet of all time.

Sorley MacLean died in 1996, aged 85. His legacy was a greatly reinvigorated Gaelic literary scene. Along with George Campbell Hay and a small group of others, MacLean reinvented Gaelic literature and brought it recognition from a much wider audience.

Works Cited

Hendry, J. (1986). “Sorley MacLean: The Man and His Work”. Appears in Sorley MacLean: Critical Essays. (1986). Ed. by Raymond J. Ross and Joy Hendry. Edinburgh. Scottish Academic Press.
MacGill-Eain, S. (1943). Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile. Glasgow. William MacLellan.
- - - (1976). “My Relationship with the Muse”. Appears in Ris a’ Bhruthaich. (1985). Ed. by William Gillies. Stornoway. Acair.
- - - (1985). Ris a’ Bhruthaich. Ed. by William Gillies. Stornoway. Acair.
- - - (1989). O Choille gu Bearradh/ From Wood to Ridge: Collected Poems. Manchester and Edinburgh. Carcanet/Birlinn.
- - - (2002). Dàin do Eimhir. Ed. by Christopher Whyte. Glasgow. ASLS.
Neat, T. (1984). Hallaig. The Island House Film Workshop.
Ross, R. J. and Hendry, J. (eds.) (1986). Sorley MacLean: Critical Essays. Edinburgh. Scottish Academic Press.
Whyte, C. (2002). “Sorley MacLean’s ‘Dàin do Eimhir’: new light from the Aberdeen holdings”. Litreachas & Eachdraidh: Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 2. Ed. by Michel Byrne, Thomas Owen Clancy & Sheila Kidd. Glasgow. 2006.

Watson, Moray. "Sorley MacLean". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 21 March 2008
[, accessed 22 July 2017.]

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