Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Languages are like people. They have their past, and their hopes for the future, written in their faces. Gaelic is no exception to the rule but, given the special nature of its history over the past four centuries, the expression on its face is rather different from that of most western European languages. The industrial revolution has stayed on the margins of this language, never truly integrated into it, and it has never been adopted by a bourgeoisie, so that the peculiarly bourgeois vice of indicating by not naming is unknown to it. It is rich in words for the landscape, for natural phenomena, and for differing degrees of love and attachment. The sundering of poetry from song, in this language, dates back less than a century. Only recently has it returned to the schoolroom, after a period in which its archives, more than libraries, were living human beings, and the written form remains self-conscious, as if it looked on itself as a violation of words whose true location is in the body.
If their use of Gaelic gives them access to what seems a past, but is merely a different present, it also offers a taste of the future. A tradition where industrialisation is alien has no place for the romantic sentimentalisation of landscape which, paradoxically, made its destruction possible. Where the natural mode for praising a man is to speak of him as a tree, the scission of what is human from what is not, endemic to so many western cultures, has never come about. Rather than standing out against a natural background, the human is part of a continuum, and blends imperceptibly with birds, plants and stones.
These poets are used to seeing their work appear with a facing English text. They are confronted by another language and culture, often by more than one. Here, too, they are telling us about the future. Monolingualism, in Europe as a whole, has always been anomalous. Even in western Europe it now seems set to become a thing of the past.
The work of Sorley Maclean brought modernism and the matter of Europe into Gaelic poetry with a suddenness and violence only matched by his mastery. George Campbell Hay and Derick Thomson consolidated this advance in a less sensational manner, expanding what was often traditional imagery in symbolic and allegorical contexts, so that it resonated endlessly in the reader's mind. Donald MacAulay and Iain Crichton Smith are more intellectual poets, worrying at the interface between language an thought, the former material and, at least in the poem, stabilised, the latter shifting and relentless, never conceding itself wholly to the word.
The brilliance of that generation, and the watershed it marked in Gaelic poetry, might lead one to think that those coming after must be mere epigones, the tradition having exhausted itself for a while and needing to mark time, to repeat the new patterns until they were drained of value. The eight poets in this book show that something very different has happened, and that the tradition has in no way exhausted its capacity for transformation.
Air a thoirt bho An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd Polygon, 1991