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Obituary of Sorley MacLean
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Sorley MacLean - An Obituary
I wrote the Gaelic translation in 1996, shortly after Sorley's death.
It has been widely circulated as the English translation of his Gaelic
obituary. The English obituary appears first.
Obituary: Sorley MacLean
Born: 26 October, 1911, at Osgaig, Raasay
Died: 24 November, 1996, at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, aged 85 by IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
"The death of Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain) will make a colossal hole in the fabric of Scottish literature and not just in Gaelic literature, though of course he was one of the very greatest of Gaelic poets. Indeed, one might say that he was a poet who had attained world-class stature. He read his work frequently in Scotland, England and abroad and most especially in Ireland, where he was a cult figure. Students would flock like pilgrims to his readings.
"The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has described hearing MacLean read for
the first time as mesmeric. There was, he said, a 'sense of bardic
dignity that was entirely without self-parade but was instead the
effect of a proud self-abnegation, as much a submission as a claim to
"And indeed he was a wonderful reader of his work, sonorous,
rhythmical, strong- voiced. It is hard to think that we won't
hear him again - for instance, reading Hallaig, that great poem of
desolation and resurrection.
"Sorley MacLean was 85 when he died. He had been in hospital, but his friends thought that he was suffering from a minor ailment only, and consequently his death was a shock to them.
"For most of his life he had been strong and sturdy and it
seemed as if would go on forever.
"He was born in Raasay. He loved Skye and the Cuillins, about
which he wrote his great long but unfinished poem where the
Cuillins became a symbol for human endeavour. Above all, he
loved his Gaelic culture and was lucky that he came from a
family which was steeped in song and story.
"At one time he wrote that he probably would rather have
been a singer than a poet and the great songs of the 16th
and 17th century informed his poetry with their magical music
from anonymous bards. These were at the heart of his poetry
and gave them the tunefulness which is lacking for the most
part in modern poetry.
"He began writing poetry as a student in Edinburgh University, where he
gained a first-class honours degree in English. His very first poems
were, I believe, in English, but he soon realised that true authenticity lay
in Gaelic. By the end of the Thirties he was already an established
figure on the Scottish scene.
"In 1940 he published Seventeen Poems for Sixpence with Robert Garioch.
"But it was Dain Do Eimhir, a sequence of love poems, published in
1943, that made his name and is to my mind the central and most
brilliant section of his work. I remember getting this book as a
prize in the fifth year in the Nicolson Institute, Stornoway, and
realising that here was a new voice unlike any that I had heard
before. The book was illustrated with Picasso-like drawings and
this gave them a modern look.
"Since then I have never wavered in my belief that MacLean
was one of the great love poets of the world, like Catullus or
Donne or Yeats or Sappho. What attracts one in the poems
is their music. But also much more than that.
"One of the things that made them seem modern to me were the references to political figures such as Lenin, and to poets who had taken part in the Spanish Civil War, including Auden and Spender. These and even Eliot he dismissed as following 'a small dry way'.
"The Spanish War was central to him then. In it he saw the fascism which
had been seen in the Clearances.
"But at the same time as the war was taking place he was in love, and his
loved one and the Civil War became entwined in an embrace which
tested him to the limits.
"To MacLean at this time the Spanish government, and also the British
Empire, were monstrosities. He had a hatred of despotism. We find
this also in his long unfinished poem, The Cuillins, where there are
references to many of the great rebels and radicals of the past in
different countries. He records that when he was young his great
heroes were Shelley and Blake, and that in those days he was more
interested in politics than in poetry. As far as Scotland was concerned,
the great radical figure he admired most was a man from his own clan,
the legendary John Maclean, of whom he wrote:"
Not they who died
in the hauteur of Inverkeithing
in spite of valour and pride
the high head of our story;
but he who was in Glasgow
the battle post of the poor
great John MacLean
the top and hem of our story.
"Thus it is that MacLean was a great love poet (who had wished to go to Spain
but was unable to do so for family reasons), a great political poet and also a
great war poet. He served in the African Desert during the Second World
War and was wounded three times, the last time severely. He saw fascism
not only in Spain, not only in Nazism, but probably also in the Highlands at
the time of the Clearances. Possibly his best- known and perhaps his greatest
single poem is Hallaig, which is about a cleared village and which has a
strange, eerie picture of the dead haunting a place and walking there.
MacLean was also a scholar of the Highlands and had a tremendous interest
in Highland genealogy.
"He was certainly a Marxist, though he was never, as he said himself, a
card-carrying communist, and this philosophy gave him a key to explain what
had happened to his beloved Highlands. (Indeed, as he well knew, Marx had
written about the Clearances).
"By profession he was a teacher. He taught in Mull, where he felt an atmosphere
of intense gloom still somehow lingering in the wake of the Clearances. He
also taught in Edinburgh, at Boroughmuir High School, and he ended his teaching
career as a headmaster in Plockton.
"He was a friend of all the leading Scottish poets, such as Hugh MacDiarmid,
Sydney Goodsir Smith, Norman MacCaig and others. He sometimes used to
complain wryly that teaching gave him no time for writing, and this must
certainly have been the case when he was a headmaster. He was an admirer
of all these poets, especially MacDiarmid. He didn't think he himself had the
kind of imaginative variety which allowed MacDiarmid to finish A Drunk Man
Looks at the Thistle. And he used to say of Goodsir Smith that he was the most
variously funny man he had ever known.
"MacLean was a very human, down-to-earth person who had no airs or graces or intellectual or other arrogance. He came from a democratic background and though he won many honours they didn't change him in any way.
"He was the recipient of many doctorates and awards, perhaps the most important of which was the Queen's Medal for Poetry. It is extraordinary that a poet who wrote in Gaelic should have received such an award, but by that time he was well known in England as well as in Scotland.
"It may be that latterly he didn't write much, but he was a poet of great
integrity who would rather not publish than publish inferior and inauthentic
work. I admired him greatly for this silence when there must have been many
temptations for him to break it.
"His parents were steeped in Gaelic history and lore. His whole family, his brothers and sister, were and are all successful and talented people. His brother, John, was my own headmaster and he, too, was a great Gaelic scholar and piper. Others have been doctors and teachers and headmasters.
"I think if one were to ask what quality above all one should isolate in Sorley's poetry it would be the passion, and there are many people who would say that poetry without passion is nothing. MacLean admired passion above all in poetry and the greatest poetry to him was the lyric.
"In many ways, though he did partially complete a long poem, the long poem
was to him a contradiction in terms. How could one sustain passion over a long
"It is this passion which joins the young with the old in their admiration. And what was wonderful about MacLean's poetry was that it continually attracted the younger generations, to whom he was always helpful. People have differing views of most poets, but everyone was united in their admiration for MacLean.
"His body of work is comparatively thin. Spring Tide and Neap Tide: Selected
Poems 1932-72 was published by Canongate in 1972 in a bi- lingual edition.
Poems 1932-82, a collection of English translations, was published by the Iona
Foundation in Philadelphia in 1987. The collected poems, From Wood to Ridge,
were published by Carcanet in 1989. Ris a' Bhruthaich: The Criticism and Prose
Writings of Sorley MacLean was published in 1985.
"I remember when I was much younger thinking it strange that a great poet - a
great love poet - should be a lover of shinty, but this only shows my
ignorance. Great poets have to live in the world like the rest of us and
perhaps if Catullus had lived in Skye he, too, would have been a lover of
"I remember once appearing at MacLean's house and finding that he was refereeing a shinty match. This was when he was in Edinburgh many years ago. But surely, I thought, they didn't play shinty in Greece or Rome.
"He had a long and happy marriage to Renee (nee Cameron). Whenever I was at
a poetry reading, there they were together. She drove him everywhere: for many
years he would say wryly he hadn't been allowed to drive far from home. Her
easy temper and friendliness were of incalculable value to him. I am sure
that at times he was absent-minded and looked to her for help. Our deepest
sympathy goes out to her, to his two surviving daughters and his brothers and
"But they will be proud to know that for many Sorley MacLean represented the
Highlands. His voice was the authentic voice of the Highlands, of Gaeldom.
He grieved because of what had happened to them historically, and perhaps
he grieved most of all for the adulteration and partial loss of the language,
for he himself proved., in spite of any detractors, that Gaelic could be
used as a language in which great poetry could be written and in an
idiom which could take account of modernity.
"What MacDiarmid did for Scots, Sorley MacLean did for Gaelic, and it is
heartening to reflect that the two poetic geniuses of the 20th century in
Scotland wrote in Gaelic and one in Scots. It may be that Sorley's like will
not come again."
On 26th November 96, the following touching appreciation of Sorley by Ronnie
Black appeared in the Scotsman. Translation of Gaelic text by Craig Cockburn.
The translations of the poetry are Sorley's.
Saoghal gun Somhairle
[Trans: A world without Sorley; An appreciation by R. MacilleDhuibh]
Gun ach beagan sheachdainean air ais, siud Somhairle MacGill-Eain shuas air
ard-urlar an Taigh Àdhaimh an Dùn Éideann ri linn na Féise comhla ri
Seumas Mór MacEanraig agus Seán Mac Réamoinn.
[Trans: Only a few weeks ago, there was Sorley MacLean up on the stage at Adam House in Edinburgh during the festival with Hamish Henderson and Seán Mac Ráamoinn.]
Abair gun robh fonn math air. Dh'innis e sgeulachd mu rud a thachair an Gleanna Comhann. Am b'ann mun dà
shealladh no mu thaibhs Mhic 'Ic Iain? Neo mu ghrad-bhoillsgeadh bhiodagan 's eirmseachd cainnte air
oidhche a' mhuirt? Cha b'ann, ach mu dhràibhear Domhnallach, pasaidear Caimbealach agus luchdachadh
thurasaichean ann am bus a' cur aghaidh ri rathad a' Ghlinne. Sgeulachd éibhinn a thug an taigh mu'r
cluasan. (Agus nach e an taigh a bha pacte.
[Trans: He was in great form. He told a story about something that happened in Glencoe. Was it about the second sight or the ghost of the Chief of the Glencoe MacDonalds? Or even about the gleam of a dagger and expert talk about the night of the massacre? Not at all, but a story about Donald the driver and a Campbell who was a passenger and a load of tourists in a bus heading for the road through the glen. A funny story which brought the house down. (And how the house was full).]
Bus ann am beul Shomhairle MhicGill-Eain? Bus am beul an fhir a rinn
Coisich mi cuide ri mo thuigse
a-muigh ri taobh a' chuain.
Bha sinn comhla ach bha ise
a' fuireach tiotan bhuam?
Ann am beul an fhir a rinn
'Am faca tu i
ris an abrar Aon Mhac Dhé?
Ann am beul an fhir a rinn
'Bha mi 'n Leipzig le ùidh
nuair sheas Dimitrov air bialaibh cùirt..?
[Trans: From the mouth of Sorley MacLean? From the man who composed
I walked with my reason
out beside the sea.
We were together but it was
keeping a little distance from me? (From "The Choice")
From the mouth of the man who wrote
'Have you seen her,
who's called the Only Son of God? (From "A Highland Woman")
From the mouth of the man who composed
'I was in Leipzig, with eager hope
when Dimitrov stood before the court?
(From "The Cuillin", Part VI)]
Bha Somhairle, an duine tàlantach, smuaineachail, ealanta seo a bha 'na dhrochaid thar linntean, bha Somhairle làn annasan. Annas a bh' ann gun deach a chuid bhàrdachd a dhèanamh sa chiad dol a-mach.
[Trans: It was Sorley, this talented, thoughtful, artistic man who was the bridge between ages, Sorley was full of surprises. It was a surprise that the first piece of poetry which he did was this one.]
Cha robh dùil aig duine as déidh a' Chogaidh Mhóir ri dad ùr a b'fhiach a thighinn a-mach á dualchas
na Gàidhlig. Ach thàinig na h- uiread comhla - cha b'e a-mhàin an aigne, an iargain 's an gaol, ach
buaidh nan seann òran; éifeachd gach searmoin, gach sailm 's gach laoidh a chuala e gun an earbsa bhith
aige sa chreideamh; cuimhne mhionaideach air gach eucoir a rinneadh air na Gàidhil, paisean nam
poileataigs ri linn Hitler agus Stalin, agus an Roinn Eòrpa a' dol fodha ann am boglach na
[Trans: No one expected after the end of the Great War that anything worthwhile would emerge from Gaelic
heritage. But so many things came together, it wasn't just "the intellect, the pain and the love", but
the influence of old songs; the effect of each sermon, each psalm and each hymn that he heard despite the
lack of faith which he had in religion; a detailed memory on every injustice which was done to the Gaels,
a passion for politics in the century of Hitler and Stalin, while Europe sank in the morass of the
Annas a bh'ann gun tàinig Somhairle beò idir ás an Darna Cogadh - nach ann a spreadh mèinn-talmhainn
fo chasan san Fhàsach an-Iar. Annas nan annas a bha 'na leabhar Dàin do Eimhir agus Daìn eile, gu ìre
's gu bheil oileanaich Ghàidhlig mo linn-sa a' cuimhneachadh cà robh iad a' chiad uair a dh'fhosgail
iad e. An aon rud nach robh 'na annas as deaghaidh sin se gun do leanadh Somhairle le tuill de shàr
bhàird 's de shàr bhàrdachd.
[Trans: A wonder it was that Sorley came home at all from the Second World War, in that war a land-mine
blew up under his feet in the African desert. A wonder that his book "Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems"
was of such an level that Gaelic students of my generation remember where they were the first time they
opened it. The one thing that wasn't a surprise after that was that Sorley would be followed by a flood
of exceptional poets and exceptional poetry.]
Cha d'ràinig Somhairle deireadh an 20mh linn. Dèanamaid cinnteach ma- thà ann an saoghal na Gàidhlig gu bheil cothrom na Féinne aig ar cloinn an guth a thogail san 21mh linn mar a thog Somhairle. Tha e a- nis anns an t-sìorraidheachd comhla ri a dhàintean deachdte 's neo- dheachte:
'Thar na sìorraidheachd,
thar a sneachda,
chì mi mo dhàin neo-dheachdte...
an langan gallanach a' sianail
thar loman cruiaidhe nan àm cianail,
an comhartaich bhiothbhuan 'na mo chluasan,
an deann-ruith ag gabhail mo bhuadhan:
réis nam madadh 's nan con iargalt
luath air tòrachd na fiadhach,
troimh na coilltean gun fhiaradh,
thar mullaichean nam beann gun shiaradh;
coin chiùinecuthaich mo bhàrdachd,
madaidheanair tòir na h-àilleachd.'
bith coin Shomhairle a' ruith gu bràth
- R. MacilleDhuibh
[Trans: Sorley didn't reach the end of the 20th century. Let us make certain then that in the world of Gaelic there is an equal opportunity for our children to lift their voices in the 21st century as Sorley did. He is now in the eternity with his written and unwritten poems.
[Trans: Across eternity, across its snows
I see my unwritten poems....
their baying yell shrieking
across the hard bareness of the terrible times,
their everlasting barking in my ears,
their onrush seizing my mind:
career of wolves and eerie dogs
swift in pursuit of the quarry,
through the forests without veering,
over the mountain tops without sheering;
the mild mad dogs of poetry,
wolves in chase of beauty.
From "Dogs and Wolves")
- Ronnie Black.]
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