Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain), teacher, poet and soldier, was born on the 26th of October, 1911.
Sorley MacLean was one of the greatest and most important Scottish poets of the 20th Century. After a slow start in terms of recognition, he became a widely acclaimed poet of truly international stature. He wrote in English and Gaelic, but it is for the latter that he is particularly remembered. He was without doubt the most distinguished of all Scottish Gaelic poets and with his body of work representing quality over quantity, it contains some of the best known Gaelic poetry of any age. MacLean was a highly influential figure at the heart of the renaissance of Gaelic culture in Scotland and he remains a key figure in modern Scottish literature. Moreover, he was instrumental in preserving and promoting the teaching of Gaelic in Scottish schools and indeed revitalising the language. He was responsible, along with his friend, Hugh MacDiarmid, for having brought Scottish Gaelic poetry into the modern era. What Hugh MacDiarmid did for the Scots language, Sorley MacLean did for Gaelic.
MacLean’s wonderfully lyrical poetry can sound good to even non-Gaelic speakers, but for those who speak the language, it abundantly demonstrates the facility of such an ancient and eloquent tongue. Sadly, much is lost in translation and it is above all the lilting musicality of the language that cannot be rendered in English. As MacLean said, “I could not be primarily a Gael without a very deep-seated conviction that the auditory is the primary sensuousness of poetry.” He was also convinced that Scottish Gaelic song “is the chief artistic glory of the Scots.” Continuing the finest Gaelic oral tradition, MacLean used his first language to express contemporary political and social themes, rather than just the traditional tales of olden glory or loves lost amongst the heather. His seminal work is often considered to be ‘Dain do Eimhir agus Dain Eile’ (‘Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems’), which combines all the finest elements of his craft. It conveys emotions of love, choice, suffering and injustice, whilst at the same time covering the seismic political events that shook Europe to its foundations – the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. He was also able to present analogies between the ‘crimes’ of the 20th Century and earlier acts of cultural genocide, such as the Highland Clearances.
Sorley MacLean was born at Osgaig on the island of Raasay, which lies off the east coast of the Isle of Skye, on the 26th of October, 1911. He went to the University of Edinburgh from 1929, where he studied and gained a first class honours degree in English, and played shinty for the University Team. Whilst at the University, he first encountered the work of Hugh MacDiarmid, with whom later he was to correspond. After University, MacLean returned to the Highlands and Islands to teach, although at various times, he held posts on Mull and in Edinburgh before settling into life as the Head Teacher at the High School in Plockton, which lies near the seaward end of Loch Carron, just around the corner from the Kyle of Lochalsh. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, MacLean had to wrestle with conflicting desires; between down-to-earth, family commitments on the one hand and on the other, the romantic idealism of an embryonic, left-wing poet. He did have a strong desire to join the International Brigades, which he nevertheless managed to resist, but the Soviet treatment of Poland eventually put paid to any Marxist leanings. He remained on Skye at that time, but he got more than his fair share of conflict during the Second World War. MacLean fought in North Africa, where he was wounded three times, and took part in the Battle of El Alamein.
His early attempts at poetry were in English, but after he wrote his first Gaelic poem, ‘An Corra-Ghridheach’ (‘The Heron’), he resolved to continue using his native language. By the mid-1930s he was well known as a Gaelic poet, but for widespread national and international recognition, he had to wait until the 1970s. His public readings at events like the Cambridge Poetry Festival and the fact that he translated much of his own work into English were what established him as a major poet. He went a purpose, from having a potential audience of just 80,000 Gaelic speakers to one of global proportions. However, he never became a full-time writer as he continued to teach, but he was also a scholar of the Highlands with a vast knowledge of genealogy. That should be seen as nothing unusual for a rhyming teller of ‘the Tell’ from the heartlands of Gaeldom.
MacLean’s friendship with MacDiarmid began with an exchange of letters in 1934 and the relationship became one of mutual admiration. MacLean once praised MacDiarmid’s version of Alexander Macdonald’s ‘The Birlinn’, saying there was “No translation from the Gaelic to be compared with it” and MacDiarmid wrote to MacLean in 1977, suggesting, “There is, I think, no doubt about you and I being the two best poets in Scotland today.” He wisnae wrang as these lines from MacLean’s ‘A Highland Woman’ (with its theme of degrading poverty and the complicity of the Church) testify:
“Hast Thou seen her, great Jew,
who art called the One Son of God?
Hast Thou seen on Thy way the like of her
labouring in the distant vineyard?
Thou hast not seen her, Son of the carpenter,
who art called the King of Glory,
among the rugged western shores
in the sweat of her food’s creel.
And Thy gentle church has spoken
about the lost state of her miserable soul,
and the unremitting toil has lowered
her body to a black peace in a grave.”
Sorley MacLean died from natural causes on the 24th of November, 1996.