“Scotland and Wales are socially, and by their history, traditions, and sometimes institutions, entirely distinct from England, and cannot therefore be simply subsumed under English history or (as is more common) neglected.”
— Eric Hobsbawn
My father was an Anglican priest and thus had an irreducible love for those quiet chats, Bakewell tart and poetry. And this poetry did not have to be inspired or related to the scripture. It was he that gave me at the age of 14 what was my sixth collection of poetry. ‘From Wood to Ridge’ by Sorely MacLean… but then what was this? Something strange I had not encountered before. Next to that familiar script that was my mother tongue were the words: ‘O Choille gu Bearradh’
I can’t quite remember the face I made but I was sure the feeling was that of unending confusion. What was this text, this language, this tongue to me without a land or line? I remember reading it, enjoying the English translations that nestled alongside that mystical script. Then I placed it down in my room only breaking its steady build up of dust periodically to catch a glance at something I was inexplicably attracted to. Scotland at that time for me was the place I had the best memories with my father before he passed. But it wasn’t an ideological love then or the knowledge of my family’s ‘imperial relationship’ with Scotland. It was how most of the Southern English had seen and still see the Highlands and Isles; as a vast romantic romp without any obligation to search under the stories, songs and aesthetic. It was through rambles and camp fires; it was through poetry that I discovered all Scotland, deep Scotland.
National Collective can be credited with the accurate observation that Better Together just does not get culture. And it’s not because they aren’t suave or lack artistic or technical knowledge. We shall not be accused of high art snobbery here. It is because they fail to see that politics and cultural are directly linked and rise and fall on each other’s strengths and contradictions. To ‘get culture’ you would need to know that poetry, photography, sculpture, traditional music and other forms are key to crafting a dialogue with yourself and others. It is important not only for the sake of pride and knowledge but also in expressing the nuance that lie at the heart of identity and questions of social justice. One also has to comprehend that political autonomy and dignity must first be laid through an artistic route and this route must be grassroots-based.
It was only ten months ago that I picked up that collection and read with joy. Not only did I indulge and dissect but felt the desire to learn as many words in Gaelic as I could (with varying success). I felt jealous of MacLean at as a poet. Not only had he understood the deep emotional need to be able to write in one’s own language. As well as the need for a strong Gaelic voice in any Scottish future. But in doing so he was not wallowing in the parochialism or self pity of a defeated ideal. He did it to make something new. Sorely completely changed the world’s views on what Gaelic writing was and could be. Gone was the mystic at least in the patronising way many in England and many of the Scots Diaspora elsewhere looked on the Isles and their language. Remember he did it to make something new. This is what is occurring with the continual flourishing of arts and political consciousness in Scotland. The resurgence of Gaelic has demonstrated a nation confident in its variety. This is the message I took from his poetry. And it is a message being reinforced by events such as the Trad Music Awards last week.
MacLean chose Gaelic as his medium. Indeed it was often said that what Hugh MacDiarmid did for Scots MacLean did for Gaelic. Certainly he sparked a Gaelic renaissance in Scottish literature and, given his prominent role in the teaching profession, he proved instrumental in the preservation and the promotion also of the language in Scottish schools.
Interestingly MacLean and MacDiarmid remained firm friends exchanging letters and debating issues for some fifty years. MacLean, like MacDiarmid, was on the Left and an advocate of Scottish independence.
When people often asked me what poets I care for it is those that don’t necessarily hold the widest readership. MacLean is certainly more read then is officially given credit for and his frequency in writing in Gaelic does nothing to hinder the draw of many all around the world. My Gaelic has not exactly come on leaps and bounds but combining my love of history, poetry and linguistics I am beginning to piece together deeper meanings that English cannot grant. Those verses and their poets that show us what we do not know or what we are uncertain about. Then change that certainty and makes us believe it can be possible.
That is why I called this piece Dangerous Words. It is the ability of the poet, the painter and the novelist to stir emotions of common humanity within his or her fellow artists and citizens. That connection can be the slow drip of an eventual realisation or the tremendous tide which brings to realise an unheard truth. That is dangerous to the likes of the Better Together camp that are quick to deride such artistic awareness. It is a wondrous gift to be able to delve into another world and a world that for so long had been suppressed.
That is why I implore so many English writers and commentators to read more of the wonderful poetry and art coming from all regions in Scotland. Not just English but in Scots and Gaelic too. The conversation must flow both ways. If we keep on having these conversations like the boy at the start with his cake loving clerical father we can realise not only independence backed by cultural power but have a relationship between Scotland and England based on mutual respect, dignity and expression. Surely an independent Scotland can share this variety boldly with those outside and inside its borders. Confident that it can inspire while being true to its many selves. That is his legacy for me.
Some Nazi or other has said that the Fuehrer
Sitting dead in ‘Death Valley’
I thought of the right and the joy
of the pomp and the fame
with flies about grey corpses
Was the boy of the band
led, from the beginning of generations,
Whatever his desire or mishap,
Glac a’ Bhàis
Thuirt Nàsach air choreigin gun tug am Furair
’Na shuidhe marbh an ‘Glaic a’ Bhàis’
Smaoinich mi air a’ chòir ’s an àgh
air a’ ghreadhnachas ’s air a’ chliù
le cuileagan mu chuirp ghlas’
An robh an gille air an aaislin
a threòraicheadh bho thoiseach àl
Ge b’ e a dheòin-san no a chàs,
Glac a’ Bhàis/Death Valley by Sorley Maclean
Photograph by Graham Chandler