Dòmhnall MacAmhlaigh/Donald MacAulay (1930-2017), like Derick Thomson a university professor, was particularly open to formal innovations in affinity with the American poets of the 1950s and 60s, bringing to Gaelic verse an intellectual aptitude unwilling to be compromised by prioritising formal accessibility.

In a literary context so deeply protective of traditions, this was determined and courageous. To some degree it was undertaken by all the major poets of the century from Sorley MacLean onwards, but MacAulay’s poems have a formal integrity with which Aonghas MacNeacail (b.1942), Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh (b.1948), Angus Peter Campbell (b.1954) and Rody Gorman (b.1960) were also to engage.

READ MORE: Seas of opportunity: The third movement of modern Gaelic poetry

Instead of the grim cliché of the Gael being looked upon by the Sassenach as an outsider, MacAulay’s sensitive depiction of a holiday market in Turkey presents himself as the visitor observing the locals:

Thig iad a-nuas às na cnuic

Dimàirt ’s Dihaoine

tuathanach air asal

’s triùir nighean


fo chliabh is iaismac.

From the hills they come down,

Tuesdays and Fridays,

a farmer on a donkey,

and his three daughters

bowed down

with creels, and the double veil on their faces.

And although the poet is “counted among the foreigners” he can see “an ancient story” so the recognition of difference confirms an affinity of understanding. This is an old story of class, empire, power and survival and MacAulay’s evocation is also a judgement, tender but firm, a tale …

that neatly in its folds encloses

the Queen of England

and Ankara

and the town, a fortress –

that has stood there almost as long as the hills –

Familiarity with the international world and the circumstances of domesticity, an unpretentious simplicity of diction and tone, all inform Rody Gorman’s short poem, “Deich Bliadhna”/“Ten Years”, where he and his wife celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary:

’s tha a’ chlann

san lobhta-làir fodhainn ’nan laighe

’s gun de dh’fhuaim air feadh an taighe

ach an dithis againn a’ gabhail ar biadh.

– Tha seo math fhéin –

arsa mise – Se goulash a th’ ann, nach e?

and the kids

are all asleep on the ground floor below us

and there isn’t a noise about the house

but the two of us eating.

– This is really good –

I said – It’s goulash, isn’t it?

Gorman’s collection Beartan Briste agus dàin Ghàidhlig eile/Burstbroken Judgementshroudloomdeeds and other Gaelic poems (2011) takes the practice of translating his own work to extraordinary lengths. As is evident in the title, he presents not only a “primary” translation of the Gaelic but also explores associations and implications in English arising from the Gaelic words. The result is a phantasmagoria of possibilities governed by the poised disclosures of multiple meanings.

READ MORE: Born out of war: The second great tide of twentieth century Gaelic poetry

Gorman begins by telling us that in Dwelly’s great Gaelic Dictionary, we’re told that “one of the words used for moon/Means a greyhound or paunch, a loin and kidney also”. So, he says, if he describes “the very pupils of your eyes” as being like “landed mackerel” he’s simply trying to “describe you just so”. The playfulness belies the seriousness as the poems question relations of language and understanding and how understanding arrives through different structures of language.

As with poetry in English and Scots, in Gaelic the voices of women became more widely heard in the later decades of the century. Catriona Montgomery (b.1947), Morag Montgomery (b.1950), Meg Bateman (b.1959), Anne Frater (b.1967) and others, each voice distinct and different, hold a range of authoritative positions in the early 21st century. Frater’s “Question” asks about the priorities of communication beyond all writing, in a language that can’t be scripted:

A bheil do cheann cho làn

de dh’fhacail Ghallda

’s de litreachas

nan cànanan caillte

nach urrain dhut

teachdaireachd mo shùilean

a thuigsinn?

Is your head so full

of foreign words

and of the literature

of lost languages

that you’re unable

to understand

the message of my eyes?

This speaks of universal themes. The “foreign words” and “the literature/of lost languages” are counterbalanced by love’s signals, crossing all differences.

AGAINST that is the whole history of the British Empire’s violent impositions that we’ve been tracking in these essays, from the repressions and extensive evictions enforced since the 18th century, through the removals to industrial cities in the 19th century, to the further emigrations of the 20th century and to the continuing – if resisted – depopulations of communities and language deprivations of the 21st century.

In the anthology An Ubhal as Àirde/The Highest Apple: An Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature (2019), which I reviewed in The National, (“The wonders of a world almost lost”) on February 3, 2020, describing it as the most important book of 2019, Pàdraig MacAoidh/Peter Mackay has a poem entitled “Tiotalan Diereannach”/“End Credits” where this is the central paragraph:

Tha mi gus bruidhinn air Raidió na Gaeltachta,

gus ‘eólas’ a thoirt seachad ann an nàdar-de-Ghaeilge,

agus beagan saorsa agam dè chanas mi: tha gach

taobh aca mar-thà o BPA no seann-Bh-PA

(Làbarach agus Nàiseantach); tha fear-naidheachd

a’ BhBC ann airson neo-chlaonachd. Obair freelance,

beachd le saorsa na lannsa. Ach dè tha ri ràdh?

Cuin’ a bhios reifreann eile ann? Chan eil ann ach a bhith

ri gàire. “Och, rim o linn-sa. Chan eil aon dhiubh gu lèor

airson beatha sam bith,” Air an t-slighe dhachasigh,

a’ dol seachad air baidean beaga fhathast ann an teis-

meadhan deasbaid, air an suaineadh ann am iomadh bratach,

seacchad air Teàrlach II, Smith, Ferguson,

Alexander, Hume, chan eil mi idir cho earbsach.

I’m here to talk on Raidió na Gaeltachta,

to give expert opinion sort of as-Gaeilge,

and have some freedom to what I can say:

both sides are covered by MSPs or ex-MSPs

(Labour and SNP); there is a BBC journalist

for impartiality. A strictly freelance basis,

freedom like a lanza. But what is there to say?

When will there be another referendum?

There’s nothing for it but to laugh. “Och,

in my lifetime. One is never enough for any lifetime.”

Walking home, I overhear conversations

deep in huddles, still wrapped in various flags;

I pass Charles II, Ferguson, Smith, Alexander,

Hume on my way, and I’m not so sure.

The ironies and sadness in these words are multi-layered and deep – but so is the strength. Such uncertainty might slowly form into even greater resolution. Gaelic poetry of the 20th century, and now well into the 21st century, is one of the richest yields in modern Scottish literature and part of a greater story whose end is not foretold and – for better and worse – not inevitable either.