Rediscovering Sorley MacLean

October 27, 2011

Sorley MacLean. Photo by Cailean MacLean

It’s a hundred since Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain) was born at Osgaig on Raasay, off the Isle of Skye.  Towards the end of his life, MacLean became recognised as the greatest Scottish Gaelic poet of the twentieth and perhaps of any century. His 1943 collection Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile (‘Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems’) revolutionised Gaelic verse, bringing it back into contact with the mainstream of European art and politics. While Gaelic poets had once taken this for granted, the marginalisation of Gaelic culture in the years following the sixteenth century had barred Gaelic speakers from participating as equals in the cultural and political life of the continent. MacLean’s poetry was a radical challenge to that exclusion.

At the heart of the 1943 volume were the ‘Dàin do Eimhir’ themselves, a group of love poems addressed to Eimhir, a mythical figure from early Gaelic literature. But intriguingly MacLean had left gaps in the numbered sequence, which had to wait until after his death to be published in full. The poems take as their backdrop the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and enact the age-old conflict in European poetry between the competing demands of Love and War. MacLean’s speaker is torn between his love for Eimhir and his desire to join the International Brigades in their struggle against fascism. In the fourth poem he asks the question that underpins the sequence as a whole:

Dè gach cuach ded chual òr-bhuidh
ris gach bochdainn, àmhghar ’s dòrainn
a thig ’s a thàinig air sluagh na h-Eòrpa
bho Long nan Daoine gu daors’ a’ mhòr-shluaigh?

What is each ringlet of your golden hair
when weighed against that poverty and fear
which Europe’s people bear and still must bear
from the first slave-ship to slavery entire?

(Translation Iain Crichton Smith)

What was new here was the explicit connection between the plight of Gaelic speakers, here taken to be sold into slavery in the New World, and the fate of Europe as a whole. Echoing the Gaelic song tradition, MacLean takes advantage of the abundance of rhyme in his chosen language to bring his poem to a resounding perfect cadence in these lines. This was Gaelic verse deployed to a new and necessary purpose.

When I first read these wonderful poems, I was struck by that heady mix of erotic desire and political commitment. The unresolved tension that MacLean sustains throughout the sequence somehow makes his politics more passionate, his passion more urgent. But when they were first published, Gaelic readers were shocked by their difficulty and their dissonance, some going as far as denying they were Gaelic poems at all. The place the MacLean’s poetry has come to occupy in the Scottish poetic imagination – while richly deserved – has more to do with the persona the poet adopted in his later life, the weather-beaten representative of a dying culture who could safely be adopted by the Anglophone establishment without subjecting their hegemony to serious challenge, than with his remarkable poetry. MacLean’s acquiescence to the demand that Gaelic writers translate their work into English has damaged his own reputation – he thought his English versions ‘bald scarecrows’ compared to his Gaelic poems, and he was right – but it has also made it more difficult for those that have followed him to continue to develop Gaelic poetry on its own terms, without nervously looking over their shoulder to the expectations of an English-reading public. Today’s Gaelic poets still live in the shadow of Sorley MacLean. He negotiated a place for them in the Scottish literary scene infinitely narrower than that imagined in the ‘Dàin do Eimhir’, where Gaelic poets and musicians rub shoulders with Blok and Beethoven. This centenary year of MacLean’s birth will see the publication of new volumes of his work, with his long political poem, ‘An Cuilithionn (‘The Cuillin’) due to appear in its full original form for the first time. Now, like never before, we have a chance to rediscover Sorley MacLean’s poetry in all of its challenging beauty and complexity.

Niall O’Gallagher is a Gaelic poet and journalist. In 2009 he received a New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust / Gaelic Books Council. He lives in Glasgow. This piece was first published in our Poetry Reader issue 9.

Poetry in Motion!

October 20, 2011

Ishbel McFarlane talks us through her latest scheme of reading poetry on trains. 

Ishbel McFarlane. Photo copyright of Jamie Donoghue
I am a poetry fan. I am a big poetry fan. That much has been clear since I did my first poetry reciting competition aged six. As an adult I’m connected into a network of poetry fans: I studied literature at university, I am in a poetry book group in Glasgow  and I hang out at readings and events whenever time allows. And time would have to allow a great deal if I was to go to every event in the Central Belt, nevermind stretching out into the wider world of Britain’s enviable poetic culture.

This has NOTHING, however, on the scale of the world I connect with when I journey into the train fan world. Because over the last few years I have also become a train fan. A biggish train fan. I say biggish because it’s hard not to compare oneself with the true giants of train fandom, whose ability to store facts and whose grasp of history makes a mockery of my vague, sweeping, English-literature-degree understanding of poems.

What I like about trains is less train numbers, or rail gauges or classes of carriage, but rather rail’s impact on our history, the ease and speed it achieves and the revolutionary stories of its creation. The nice thing about this side of trains is that loads of poets have liked these aspects too. What would be more natural then, than for me to unite my two fan lives, and do a poetry recital on a train?

With the support of ScotRail and the lovely people of the SPL, in the Fringe I did a show that started in Edinburgh Waverley and ended in Glasgow Central. It was primarily about the difference between the two cities and why we presume you have to choose between them. Accordingly, the poems in that show were about the two places, and I recited the work of folk like Gael Turnbull, Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan.

My latest show, however, began in Airdrie and ended in Edinburgh. It was part of the North Lanarkshire literature festival, Words2011, and since there was not such an explicit focus on the start point and destination, I was able to turn our poetic eyes to the mode of transport that we were using.

For this show I particularly focussed on the cultural impact of the Beeching Cuts. In December of last year ScotRail  reopened the Airdrie to Bathgate line, connecting Scotland all the way from Edinburgh to Helensburgh. The ripples of Dr Beeching’s report are particularly strong on this line. In 1985 a new Bathgate station was being built, the first in the UK since the axe. On the very day the first sod was cut for the station, Dr Beeching died. Poetic justice? As a partner piece to this story I recited Robert Crawford’s rather terrifying prose poem, ‘Grim Reaper’, from Spirit Machines, in which Crawford paints Beeching as death himself. It was delicious.

Performing poems on trains has many delights and many trials. At the forefront is the joy of reminding folk of the excitement of beginning in one place and ending in another. I find that by rooting my words in the places we pass through, and being part reciter and part tour guide, I can open their eyes to things they maybe never knew about places they have always known. As the performer and writer it is a fantastic opportunity learn about a place and its poetry, and also to explain and recite poems to the many folk who got on the train with no idea there was going to be a recital. It is, after all, an ordinary train, and in as ordinary a way as possible I want to share poems with passengers and staff. And I am a big, big fan of that.

Ishbel McFarlane is an actor, writer and director currently based in Glasgow. You can hear Ishbel talking about Burns on our podcast, ‘Inside the SPL‘. 

Emily Ballou on Brussels

October 19, 2011

Does modern European poetry reflect the diversity of this multilingual and multicultural continent? And is poetry a useable tool in bringing together the diverse languages, cultures and people of Europe? Those are just a few of the questions raised by the Transpoesie project by presenting 21 poems from 21 different European countries on billboards in the Brussels metro system in 18 different languages. Each poem has been displayed in its original language, as well as in a French and a Flemish translation. —Transpoesie

Passa Porta House of Literature event: Claudiu Komartin (Romania), Emily Ballou (UK), chair Peter Vermeersch (Belgium), Morton Sondergaard (Denmark)

I have been living on apples here in Brussels. I’d imagined I’d be living on waffles or chocolate, but no, apples. Which seem the better food to accompany this journey to Belgium and Brussels to participate in the launch of poems on the Belgium Underground. Easy to carry in a bag, crisp, tart, sweet all at once, round in the hand, something you can toss and catch, like poetry, with a distinctive sound when you bite through its skin.  It has weight and flesh, and it browns when you leave it too long. Like my words do when I do not write for weeks. Some bites are sharp, you tug off a sharp angle…and then you suddenly, with a spill of black seeds, reach the core… So it is apples this week… of many flavors from many countries. Poets from all over Europe. My host at the B&B says apples are the only fruit Belgium grows well.

I have come here to read my little lizard, who was first brought out into the open, chalked on a wall in Beirut, and has now come here, to Brussels, flattened onto a wall in the underground. He is as quick as you’d expect, and seems to be determined to visit all places starting with the letter ‘B’.

I, Lizard


master of parkour

swift, efficient, heterothermal

traverser and traceur, trail-layer

of space, I negotiate

log or tree or wall or rock

equally, vaulting hills, scaling scarp.

My urban world the realms beneath bird

the realms of dune and sand

darting past the busy commuters

of beetles and ants, gliding from

carcass to hill, carcass to hill.

I am skilful, I am splendid and nimble,

my life

is my only tutor, I am

muscles and breath.

I chase, I escape, I trace

I go fast.


I take heat

then take the most direct path,

my mark, my motto

être et durer

to be and to last.

Yesterday I spent being a tourist in Bruges and took, as my host recommended, ‘one of those stupid little boats’ but how enjoyable to scoot around on the canals, touring the old Dutch buildings in this Venice-like town. It’s one big chocolate shop, and I bought my weight’s worth in shades of black and brown. The water of canals seem dashed with broken bits of emerald reflecting from the cathedral stained glass windows where I catch my boat. The cobblestones and the horses and carriages clomping past, the rhythmic clap of the hooves over them, brings me close to the Emily Dickinson biography I’m reading–her bedroom looking over the Main Street, the drum that permeates her poetry must have echoed through her house and heart.

Then, last night we had the launch of the poems with a flash-mob on the Underground (which I sadly missed) and poems from 21 poets in 21 countries on posters and I’m told, the commuters stopped shopping and peered in closely to read them.

This was followed by an event at Passa Porta, the bookshop famous for its literary events and writer residencies. Seven of the 21 poets were invited to Brussels to speak and read their work. The first group, which included myself, spoke of making public poetry and the difference perhaps in writing for the Underground versus writing for the page. Morton Sondergaard from Denmark unveiled his Poet’s first Aid Kit which consists of packets of aspirin and such, filled with poems dedicated to adjectives or adverbs, nouns or verbs, and the Belgium writer, Carl Norac showed his children’s books which he claim are secretly poems. Claudiu Komartin from Romania spoke of ‘the whisper that is louder than a scream’ which can potentially command more attention than a scream, and how poetry for him is about breath, breathing, it is more a heart beat than the drum of steps. We all spoke of writing while walking, composing to the beat of a step.

Lieke Marsman a young poet from the Netherlands who has recently won many awards for her raw, slightly surreal, metaphysical poetry spoke of translation and how strange it was to read her own poem in a language she knew, like English, but where she didn’t understand some of the words in it, so that it’s affect (“I know this poem, but I don’t know some of the words, so there were these blank spaces”) was stranger than looking at her poem in Romanian or Russian, which she doesn’t understand at all, so it is more like, “it could be a recipe, anything”. Radek Maly spoke of translating poems for children from German to Czech, and finding that Czech children didn’t like or understand them. They became poems for Czech adults, but not children.

I went on the next day to speak to high school students in the British school. Which begs the question of what the new generation of young people think about poetry. Why, their faces seemed to say, should we care? There didn’t seem to be much of a curriculum imperative to the study of poetry, though I made them try out an exercise anyway, in which you take a piece of prose and black out words until, what is left, is your poem. Or a bit like eating an apple, removing bites, until what is left is your particular, unique tooth-marked core.

Emily Ballou is an Australian poet, novelist and screenwriter, currently residing in the UK. Her first two novels, Father Landsand Aphelion, were published by Picador Australia. Her first picture-book, One Blue Sock (illustrated by Stephen Michael King), was published by Random House. Her verse-portrait of Charles Darwin was published by University of Western Australia Press in April. You can listen to Emily Ballou on our podcast.

Feel good poems

October 10, 2011

Renata Edge and that marvellous quilt

It’s International Mental Health Day, and from 1-24 October it’s also the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival. We were thinking about happy poems this morning – there’s a nice task for a Monday morning – and asking for recommendations from Twitter friends to add to our own playlists.

Poems can simply add to your sense of wellbeing, and – just like a favourite song coming on the radio, or the smell of fresh waffles, or stomping along in new red boots (thank you Kit Wright), they can lift your mood.  What poems make you happy? What poems make you feel good?  Which ones make you laugh out loud? Or snicker furtively? Which poems reassure you if you’re having a wobbly day? Or even, what poem best describes happiness?

These are some of the suggestions that came in today on Twitter:


‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’

‘The Confirmation’ by Edwin Muir but also ‘The Sea’ by Pablo Neruda & ‘Tam O’Shanter’ is a hoot!

‘One Star in the West’, George McKay Brown: peace

‘Grace and Pride’, Manus Lunny

‘O Leave Novels’ by Burns (read here by Robert Carlyle)

Elaine Feinstein, Getting Older and Raymond Carver, Late Fragment

All Things Pass –

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

Poem that makes me happy? Billy Collins’ “Litany,” esp when read by this guy: #poem #poetry #poemsaloud

it’s an odd one, but I find ‘For a Lamb’ by Richard Eberhart soothing. A reminder of the natural cycle of life & its beauty.

Hopkins, ‘heaven/haven’; Duffy ‘prayer’.

Enter a Cloud by W.S. Graham ‘And I am here as near / Happy as I will get / In the sailing afternoon.’

One of my all-time favorites is Bukowski’s “Nirvana,” read perfectly by Tom Waits on his Orphans record!

Today when we were looking for ‘happy poems’, Renata Edge brought in this wonderful quilt – an ongoing autobiography – and a poem she loves about quilting that is, indeed, happy: ‘The Patchwork Quilt’ by Elizabeth Fleming.

Read Aloud

October 7, 2011


Last night Read Aloud (a project with Edinburgh City Libraries and SPL) won the Get Up and Go Awards category for ‘products or services that make a difference’ to older people in Edinburgh. Huzzah to Lilias, Annie Bell from the Edinburgh City Libraries and all the volunteers! Below, Lilias explains more about the project.

We know how much pleasure people can have from hearing and recognising poems; lines and phrases seem to be hardwired into the brain, and remembered long after other things are difficult to recall. Annie Bell works at Edinburgh libraries, and she wanted to set up some way to bring the pleasure of reading to people who can’t borrow and read books themselves, particularly elderly residents of local carehomes.  So about a year ago, we sat down together and started to figure out what the Scottish Poetry Library and Edinburgh City Libraries would need to begin reading in carehomes.

A few months later, we had the active support and interest of our colleagues, and of three carehomes willing to try a visit once a month for three months.  We had a choice of different kinds of poems about gardens and flowers, and things like flowers and big fat runner bean seeds and some stalks of lavender for people to hold or smell or see. And we arrived at the first carehome, looked at each other thoughtfully, and rang the bell.

Since the first visit, we’ve been in no doubt that reading poems and talking is A Good Thing to do. Care workers note that some residents who are normally quite detached can suddenly respond to a few lines of a poem or even recite verse after verse, word-perfect.  Some residents like to add their own memories:  we pick poems to a theme that we hope will provide plenty of reminiscence, like Hallowe’en or Days Out or Growing Up in Edinburgh.   Some residents just like to hear poems that sound good.  Moods change, health varies:  I’ve had somebody shouting, ‘I’m no havin’ this! I’m awa hame!’, and somebody hold my hand to stop us leaving;  Leith ladies teaching me risqué playground rhymes, tips on how to fake a tan stocking, and often somebody murmuring ‘I’ve not heard that since I was..’.

After three months, we were ready to ask for a few volunteers; we were cautious about taking on many people to start, realising we would like to support volunteers as well as we could.  We currently have ten extraordinarily well-suited volunteers, who go out in pairs accompanied by a staff member to five homes.  The only apparent limit to how many volunteers we can take on is just how fast we can reasonably grow. Their company makes a huge difference to how many homes we will ultimately be able to visit, and to how much pleasure each listener can get from listening and talking. It’s early days. But a Good Thing? Leaving a carehome at the end of a session, it often like The Best Thing I’ve done all month.

If you would like to find out more about volunteering to Read Aloud in Edinburgh carehomes, please contact Lilias Fraser at the Scottish Poetry Library,, or Annie Bell at the Edinburgh City Libraries, or 0131 242 8046.



1 full-time or 2 part-time posts at £20,000 pro rata per annum.

Fixed 2 year contract based in Oban, Argyll, Scotland UK.

Fluent Gaelic is essential for either one part-time or the full-time post.

The successful applicant will be responsible for delivering a lifelong learning and events programme at the new heritage & culture centre at The 1745 House at Dunollie.

The successful applicant is likely to:

  • Have experience of working with schools and the Curriculum for Excellence.
  • Have a background in museums, archives or wider arts/cultural activities. Formal curatorial qualifications are desirable.
  • Have a background in the development and delivery of exhibitions, events and education programmes.
  • Demonstrate interest in, and have a good knowledge of, the material culture of  Argyll and the Highlands and Islands.
  • Be an excellent communicator and organiser, with good computer skills.
  • Be prepared to learn Gaelic at evening classes.

Specific outputs will include:

  • Exhibitions and wrap-around events/learning programmes relating to the Collections and Archive.
  • Schools and other targeted learning programmes.
  • Lifelong learning programmes including U3A and working with the elderly.
  • Development and delivery of regular and large events.
  • Arts and cultural events and liaising with local organisations.
  • Co-ordination of a ‘Care of Heritage’ training programme.
  • Joint working with Oban War and Peace Museum and Lismore Museum

The ideal Learning and Events Officer(s) will be energetic, enthusiastic, self-disciplined and able to work within a small team. They will have experience of managing a budget, and must expect to work flexible hours including some weekends to accommodate the programme. The Learning and Events Officer will be expected to use their own car for outreach work, and have a current driver’s licence. Disclosure will be mandatory.

Cover letter and CV to by Wednesday 12th October. Phone Catherine Gillies on 07833133928 for any further information.