Alan Riach takes us from Deòrsa mac Iain Deòrsa / George Campbell Hay into the third movement in modern Gaelic poetry with Ruaraidh MacThòmais / Derick Thomson and Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn / Iain Crichton Smith.

WHEN he returned from the war, George Campbell Hay recaptured in his poetry the youthful qualities of speed and engagement, in the living terrain of Tarbert and Argyll, its forests and seas. “Seeker, Reaper” is quick and brilliant, a breathless celebration of a motor fishing boat in constant action:

When my gunnel’s worn wi’ raspin’ nets,

and my sides are white wi salt,

when my ropes unlay wi haulin’

and my steerin’s aa at fault;

when my seams are chinked and strakes are crushed,

and the decks are tramped tae spales,

when the length o me is sterted

wi hammerin intae gales,

when my motor scarce can drive me

from off some loud sea-shore,

then anchor me in Tarbert,

gie me chain. And no afore.

Aa the points o Scotland

Wi their wheelin’ lights in turn

I’ve raised them bright ahead,

and I’ve sunk them fast astern,

scourin’ by the heidlands

where new lights burn.

Hay is a great poet not only of war but of boats and the sea and the men who work at sea. The determining fact of his life was an unwavering dedication to Scotland’s independence. His knowledge of languages speaks of the extent of his conviction and authority. But the war left him shattered, living reclusively in Edinburgh, sometimes in conditions of mental disturbance. We would call it post-traumatic stress disorder. Only after meeting Derick Thomson in 1978 did he reveal the surviving fragments of the radical epic he had begun decades before, “Mokhtàr is Dùghall”, bringing Gaelic and Arab worlds together. Thomson published what there was of it in 1982. This connection with Thomson carries us into the third tide of modern Scottish Gaelic poetry.

Ruaraidh MacThòmais / Derick Thomson (1921-2012) was Professor of Celtic at Glasgow University and publisher and editor of the periodical Gairm (Call, or Cry), author of various reference books on Gaelic, including An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry (1974) and The Companion to Gaelic Scotland (1987), as well as a poet of depth, commitment and sharp, poignant evocation. A native of Lewis, his poetry rises from his experience of that place, while international travels and commentary on the changes of the later 20th century inform his wry humour. His life’s work was therefore multi-faceted: a champion of younger writers, publishing new work, encouraging others through extending critical awareness of the Gaelic world; a public figure, in scholarly research and teaching; an introspective poet enriching depictions of landscape and place with reflections on the people who inhabit them. The poems ring true because he is of the people about whom he writes, often with personal detail, warm or satirical. The poems might deliver strong political judgements but their humanity is characteristically generous.

“Clann-Nighean An Sgadain” / “The Herring Girls” begins: “An gàire mar chraiteachan salainn / ga fhroiseadh bho ’m beul...” / “Their laughter like a sprinkling of salt / showered from their lips...” and complements this: “Ach bha craiteachan uaille air an cridhe, / ga chumail fallain...” / “But there was a sprinkling of pride on their hearts, / keeping them sound...” Their tongues are sharp as gutting-knives. Television programmes of the 1970s and 1980s contrast with abiding care for the old, the infirm, the diminishing public presence of Gaelic and the erosion of Scotland’s cultural distinction. Apocalypse in Glasgow has both horror and humour in “Deireadh an t-Saoghail” / “The End of the World”:

[…] tuitidh an t-adhar ’na chnap

air Sràid Earra-Ghaidheal

a’ cur Boots is Lewis’s ’nam màl,

le ìsbeanan is clòimh-cotain is cloimh-cotain

an amhaichan a-chèile,

is peant dearg air an talc,

’a bidh na diathan-brèige’bromadaich

anns a’ BhBC ’s aig STV,

’s gun facal a’ tighinn ás am beul.

[…] the sky will fall suddenly

on Argyle Street

throwing Boots and Lewis’s into confusion,

with sausages getting all mixed up

with cotton-wool,

red paint spilt on the talcum,

and the false gods farting

in the BBC and STV,


Thomson can be moralistic, self-disciplined and strict but equally comic, quick and compassionate. The tidal, rocky landscape of his childhood, the austerities of religious orthodoxy, the warmth of family, the diktats of economy, are keynotes in his work.

Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn / Iain Crichton Smith (1928-98) grew up in the same part of Lewis as Thomson. Austere religion permeated social convention, forming a hard stratum of judgement which both poets turned to their advantage. Smith’s poems celebrate the colourful and transient things extreme Calvinism considers frivolous, but he also reckons the human cost, the raging alongside the grace. He can be very funny but the comedy and joy in his work always abets a serious argument. Austerity is paramount in “Poem of Lewis”:

Here they have no time for the fine graces

of poetry, unless it freely grows

in deep compulsion, like water in the well,

woven into the texture of the soil

in a strong pattern.

Even “the early daffodil, purer than a soul” will, the poem promises, be “gathered into the terrible mouth of the gale.” Beginning in such austerity, Crichton Smith developed a fluent, exploratory poetic style which sometimes seems careless but in fact is invigorating, risky and immediately accessible, arising linguistically from his own Gaelic foundations. Also a novelist and short story writer, his classic novella Consider the Lilies is a lucid, limpid presentation of the Highland Clearances. Dark depression gripped him in the 1980s but in the Murdo stories a quizzical, comic aspect emerges, particularly in the sometimes absurd juxtapositions brought to the world by modernity.

In “An TV” / “The TV”, a series of laconic, three-line stanzas offer miniature snapshots of the impact of small-screen media on traditional culture:

Tha e nas fhaisge air Humphrey Bogart

na tha e air Tormod Mór –

on fhuair e an TV.

He’s closer to Humphrey Bogart

than he is to Tormad Mór –

since he got the TV.

And in a miniature lament for traditional love poetry, he writes with reference to the black-and-white television:

Thainig nighean a-steach do rum

gun bholtrach gun fhiamh –

ás an TV.

A girl came into the room

without scent or colour –

out of the TV.

Many poets of succeeding generations would gain from Crichton Smith’s sharpness, humour and openness to the contemporary. Serious portent is carried in his light quizzicality. The apparent carelessness and prolific output are themselves a repudiation of notions of Calvinist predestination and economic austerity.

In the overlap and continuities from the work of Sorley MacLean and George Campbell Hay to that of Derick Thomson and Iain Crichton Smith, the lived experience of the Second World War recedes as a new tide in modern Gaelic poetry rises.

The traditional Gaelic world is still close but the conditions of the later 20th century are entering the sensibilities of these younger poets in new ways. And they have their own steely, sharp precision instruments by which to measure the value of these new conditions, and gauge its worth or worthlessness, and praise or condemn. There’s more to come.