Obituary: Sorley MacLean

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"The `full-time' professional poet is not for me and never has been. If I have to do it, I brood over something until a rhythm comes as a more or less tight rope to cross the abyss of silence. I go on it, as far as I can see, unconsciously." So Sorley MacLean described his procedure for writing a poem. Poetry was too serious a matter to be considered as a profession.

When he was born 85 years ago on the island of Raasay, between Skye and Wester Ross, the Scottish Gaelic oral tradition was still strong and both the maternal and paternal sides of his family contained notable singers and pipers. Most Gaelic poems were sung and MacLean grew up absorbing a huge repertoire of songs accumulated over hundreds of years. Luckily, for us, he had no gift as a singer; he became a writer, he often said, because he could not sing. His memory for songs, however, was extraordinary, as it was for genealogies and historical material.

On to this Gaelic oral stem was grafted a modern European intellectual awareness, wide-ranging and profound. In school in Portree on Skye he was taught English poetry from Chaucer to Arnold and French literature, Racine and Corneille, and poetry from Villon to Verlaine. He confessed to a preference for Latin rather than Greek, explaining himself: "I think I had a Gaelic prejudice against the frequency of the `th' sound in Greek." In Edinburgh University his degree in English under Herbert Grierson enlarged his knowledge of that literature and encouraged him to read contemporary continental writers and philosophers.

This blend of the Gaelic oral tradition and the written European one had not happened before in the way it happened with him and it can obviously never happen again. The mixture gives a special feel to his poetry. One is reminded of sailing conditions on the West coast where the conditions of the water are affected by local winds, tides and geographical features, but also by the repercussive effects of storms far out in the deep ocean. In MacLean's poetry, mingled with the surface subject and rhythms is an under-swell of deeper connections. Sometimes at his public readings and in conversation, his eyes would be squeezed tight shut, his body would sway and he would wait in a silence or repeat a word as if waiting for the under-swell to push his thought to completion. Once at a reading of his poems the silent pause was so long that his friend Norman MacCaig was heard to murmur: "I thought he was going to read them aloud." No one who saw MacLean perform could feel that poetry was unimportant or that his poems did not rely on some kind of inspiration, some breathing through of a power.

Events from past centuries in the history of his people - and MacLean did think in terms of his people - were vividly present to him, partly, I suspect, because he had heard them recounted repeatedly in story and song from his earliest years. In conversation he could melt into other times so completely that you were not entirely sure in what sense he was still in the same room as you. Some of his poems are difficult for us because we need to have these temporal elisions spelt out more carefully. This temporal bi-location goes beyond the allusiveness and inter-textuality we have come to expect in Modernist writing after Eliot, Pound, Joyce and MacDiarmid.

Singlehandedly, MacLean wrenched Gaelic poetry out of a largely backward- looking and elegiac mode and into a confrontation with contemporary actualities on a global scale. His own moral turmoil, for example at the time of the Spanish Civil War, forced this confrontation into his poetry:

Would beauty and serene music put

from me the sore frailty of this

lasting cause,

the Spanish miner leaping in the face

of horror

and his great spirit going down


Nuclear submarines surface in his poetry, the stink of Auschwitz is included, and poems occur with titles such as "Id, Ego and Super-Ego". His poems first appeared in 1940 in 17 Poems for 6d, a small pamphlet shared with Robert Garioch, but the first major publication was his Dain do Eimhir ("Poems to Eimhir") in 1943. Between these dates he had fought in North Africa and been seriously wounded. His war poems remain a revelation, conveying the brutality of battle, the futility of individual suffering but his fierce detestation of Fascism and the inevitablity of sacrifice.

At the same time he was trying to write a long poem called "The Cuillin". It was never to be finished, although parts of it were eventually salvaged and included in his 1989 Collected Poems. His intention was grandiosely or ironically described as being to write "on the human condition, radiating from the history of Skye to the West Highlands to Europe and what I knew of the rest of the world". Perhaps it is not surprising that he discontinued the project. None the less, the poem does point to a central feature of his world: the centrality of place, of a geographical orientation.

In 1938 he had moved from Skye to Mull as a teacher. Mull, a homeland of the Clan MacLean, had been particularly devastated by clearances of its people by landlords in the 19th century. Sorley MacLean found the depletion of population and the ruination of communities almost unbearably painful. His local-historical empathy extends to an understanding of loss and exploitation elsewhere and always with a bitter awareness of the discrepancy between the natural beauty and the human cruelty:

In what eternity of the mind

will South America or Belsen be put

with the sun on Sgurr Urain

and its ridges cut in snow?

Heartbreak is about the mountains

and in the woods for all their beauty,

though the restless sportive blood

rages triumphantly in the young.

Love, war, the natural world, loss, exhilaration and heroism are explored with passion and poetic ingenuity.

In his career as a teacher, eventually as headmaster in Plockton in Wester Ross, in his experiences in political struggles and in the Second World War, MacLean came to recognise that we learn little from our mistakes and suffering:

The broken bottle and the razor

are in the fist and face of the boy

in spite of Auschwitz and Belsen.

He admired courage greatly but recognised that courage is not a monopoly of the well- intentioned. He had seen courage exhibited by Nazis as he had seen it in his militant socialist heroes James Connolly in Ireland and John Maclean in Scotland.

His poetry keeps reasserting his understanding of the complexity of human behaviour. His socialism and secularism gave him hope but they didn't provide solutions. He had detached himself from his Presbyterian upbringing when he was in his early teens, but its anguish of individual conscience remained with him.

His Collected Poems is not a bulky volume even with his parallel translations (he never published poems in English, only his translations of his own poems from the Gaelic) but it is one of the texts of our century, and not just in Scotland or Ireland where he is so highly regarded. The text will survive, if Gaelic, which he did so much to revive, can survive. But the marvellous human being is gone.

Of the people I have met, I feel most honoured to have known Sorley MacLean. His generosity and humanity were restorative to all who encountered him. A man of the utmost seriousness, he could be, of all people I have known, the most funny. A wonderful raconteur whose mannerisms and idiosyncrasies were enchanting, he carried his vast knowledge and sense of history with grace and always he was asking about you. He was a man of stern pride but profound humility.

His fame among non-Gaels grew after Iain Crichton Smith brought out a collection of translations, Poems to Eimhir, in 1971. MacLean's own translations now accompany his Collected Poems. It is a pity that the Nobel Committee did not accept the valuation of his poetry and cultural contribution made by many of his fellow poets in many countries. However, he was granted recognition in the later part of his life with many doctorates in Britain and abroad, the Queen's Medal for Poetry in 1990 and more invitations to read than he could keep up with.

With Sorley MacLean's passing into the "abyss of silence", a generation of the Modernists and particularly of the Scottish Renaissance has come to an end. In the world of the imagination which he augmented, he is still here like the "dead" figures in his masterpiece, "Hallaig":

Between the Leac and Fearns

the road is under mild moss

and the girls in silent bands

go to Clachan as in the beginning,

and return from Clachan

from Suisnish and the land of the


each one young and light-stepping

without the heartbreak of the tale.

Alasdair Macrae

Sorley Maclean inspired a generation of younger writers, writing in Gaelic, Scots or English, to be unafraid of our native traditions, to be confident that our languages and historical culture, however much they might seem marginalised, oppressed or local, have an international currency, writes Joy Hendry.

When MacLean took the decision to write not in English but in Gaelic, he knew that it would have huge implications for his career as a poet. But he took that decision because he knew what he had to say could be best said in Gaelic, whatever the personal consequences. His decision has implications for Scots too: these languages, and all languages, have a unique, untranslatable quality. They are born out of the experience of a people, and have grown and developed in a way which articulates and expresses their character. I remember MacLean on television defending this decision by saying simply, "What is once, always will be."

Ten years ago Raymond Ross and I edited a volume of Critical Essays on Sorley MacLean's work; it was then the first critical volume to appear on any modern Scottish poet apart from Hugh MacDiarmid. In the introduction, Seamus Heaney spoke about MacLean's work of having "the force of a revelation". MacLean's poetry sings with the force of all those great songs of his own Gaelic tradition which he loved so much, but vibrates too with a modern sensibility in advance of his own time.

Yet, only 20 years ago, his work was largely unpublished. In 1975, while his great long poem "The Cave of Gold", had been published in sections, in English, nobody was willing to publish the Gaelic. I immediately offered to publish it in Chapman literary magazine. In the same year, I was part of the Scottish contingent at the first Cambridge Poetry Festival. We all went along to hear him read to this international audience to whom he was unknown. They had never heard anything like it before: a poet so unafraid of the music and emotive power of words.

There are many stories about MacLean: he was so much himself that he was naturally and unselfconsciously eccentric. As headmaster at Plockton he was notorious for sitting down to work out the annual timetable only a day or so before term started. He was so democratic that he would consult each pupil in a class about whether to open a window. On the shinty field, on the other hand, he was ruthless in his keenness to defeat the opposition. He was famous for his otherworldliness; on one occasion in a hotel in St Andrews he wondered why he couldn't get the telephone to work: the telephone was in fact the room hairdryer.

MacLean's ordinary speech was virtually identical to his delivery of poetry, giving each vowel a length which can only be described as "extra- o-rdin-ary". His phrases and sentences were punctuated by terrifying pauses. This made interviewing him, for radio especially, a nightmare. One (print) interviewer tried to document the pauses by giving them a star rating of one to five. His five-star pauses were formidable.

At readings, Sorley MacLean could be seen, with Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, Hamish Henderson and others, happily sitting amongst the younger poets, swapping stories, opinions, comments, enjoying their company. He gave support to younger writers, without ever asserting his authority. Thanks to his benevolence and that of others of his generation, we became like an extended family.

Our first instinct on the news of his death was to cancel Chapman's "Tones of Destiny" event, arranged for Thursday at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh; it was intended partly as a post-85th-birthday tribute to MacLean, a celebration of Gaelic and Scots, Scottish writing and music, urban and rural, bringing together many figures from the Scottish arts - Hamish Henderson, Iain Crichton Smith, Aonghas Macneacall, Angus Peter Campbell, Sheena Blackhall, the Folk Divas, Kenna Campbell among others. But we have decided to go ahead. It will be a very emotive occasion.

Sorley MacLean (Somhairle Mac Gill-Eain), poet: born Osgaig, Raasay 26 October 1911; married 1946 Renee Cameron (two daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Inverness 24 November 1996.