A GREAT Scottish soul passed away just before Christmas, and his family have now lain the mortal remains of Aonghas MacNeacail to rest at Achnaba Cemetery on Loch Etive’s beautiful shores in Argyll.

As his family wanted, the burial of this remarkable Gaelic poet was a private matter, but his widow Gerda Stevenson intends that there will be a memorial service to celebrate his life and work some time soon, most probably in Edinburgh.

The National’s editor, Laura Webster, has kindly allowed me to pen a few words of appreciation ahead of that event.

But first some heartening news – since Aonghas’s burial in Argyll, his latest collection of poetry in English has found a highly respected publisher, Shearsman Books in Swindon. This is through the efforts of the excellent Scottish poet and editor Colin Bramwell, who has been working with Aonghas on editing the collection over recent years.

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Gerda told me: “The collection will be published soon – we don’t yet have a definitive date but we understand it will be in the next couple of months and we now intend to tie the book launch in with the memorial. I wish I could tell Aonghas – he would have been so delighted, this being a long-cherished project for him, but we didn’t know before he died.”

Aonghas’s body is at rest in Achnaba because it’s where the couple’s first child Marsali is buried. She died when she was 10 days old, in the first year of their marriage, when, Aonghas was Writer in Residence with An Comunn Gàidhealach in Oban, and they lived in a council house just a bit further up the loch from Achnaba cemetery, in the village of Bonawe.

The National: Aonghas MacNeacail 1 SA : Herald Poetry competition winner Aonghas MacNeacail with his three year old dog Uta, take a walk near their home in Carlops, near Penicik in the Scottish Borders. ..Picture By :- Stewart Attwood.

He is physically gone but the exuberant soul of Aonghas (below) MacNeacail will live on in his children, Rob and Galina, and in his legacy of words for generations to come, as shown by the news of his latest collection being published soon – he continues to matter even beyond the grave.

There have been plenty tributes to Aonghas in the last few weeks, but I don’t think any single one of them quite nailed down the entirety of the man.

Nor can I do so today because Aonghas is simply too vast a subject, a multi-talented, multi-faceted personality who touched so many lives in his 80 years. He inspired great love and devotion, not least in the Gaelic community he served so well for so long.

The people of his home village of Carlops in the Borders have already paid him a quite astonishing tribute. Over four days more than 70 people came to the village hall to decorate his cardboard coffin with their memories of Aonghas, including a beautiful lid painted by his daughter Galina with the help of her teacher, Anna Wiraszka.

The National: Aonghas MacNeacail’s daughter Galina painted the lid of her father’s coffin with the help of her teacher, Anna Wiraszka, while more than 70 local people also worked on its decoration, which reflected the poet’s life. Photographs courtesy of Gerda StevensonAonghas MacNeacail’s daughter Galina painted the lid of her father’s coffin with the help of her teacher, Anna Wiraszka, while more than 70 local people also worked on its decoration, which reflected the poet’s life. Photographs courtesy of Gerda Stevenson

Others wrote lines from his poems and there was a contribution in French that came from a neighbour of the family. The whole effect was magical, as the photographs show.

I first met Aonghas 38 years ago when I went to work in Edinburgh as a local government press officer. He was working as a journalist for a news agency and enlivened many a press conference with his questions, some of them quite barbed as I recall.

I remember being told his nickname was “Aonghas Dubh”, or “Black Angus” and it was easy to see why – he had the most enormous shaggy mane of jet black hair. I have to say he was a fine journalist, always accurate and succinct in his reports, and we had the National Union of Journalists in common.

But even back then in the mid-1980s it was clear his future lay outside everyday journalism and I soon learned of his desire to write and promote Gaelic poetry, though I must say I always thought his work in English was just as good.

I recall his involvement with the early days of the Scottish Poetry Library in particular, working with its founding director, the late and much-missed Tessa Ransford.

We both moved on but our paths crossed occasionally in Edinburgh and it was always a pleasure to see him. It was no surprise to me when he won the Stakis Award as Scottish Writer of the Year in 1997 for his third collection of poetry Oideachadh Ceart (A Proper Schooling and other poems).

Ten years ago I moved to West Linton, just south of Carlops and Gerda Stevenson’s original home village, and practically the first person I bumped into was Aonghas.

Only now he was not Dubh but Geal (white). He was always fun to chat to when we met in the village or on the bus and latterly I know how bravely he faced his last illness.

His death was no surprise but was still a shocking event for all who knew him. I have since learned much from Gerda about aspects of his life. She told me how Aonghas was born and brought up in Uig on the Isle of Skye, went to Uig Primary School and Portree High School.

His mother was a crofter, widowed when Aonghas was eight years old. His father was an able seaman.

WHEN his parents went to register his birth in Uig in 1942, the whole transaction with the registrar, who was a Gael, was conducted in Gaelic, including his name, Aonghas MacNeacail, but without a word of Gaelic being spoken the birth certificate was written in English, including his name – Angus Nicolson.

As Gerda says, this Orwellian doublethink was part of the British establishment’s continued historic erasure of a culture.

Gerda takes up the story: “He left high school with no Highers, did marine radio training briefly at college but left, became a clerk with British Rail for several years, went back to college to get his Highers, and then went to the University of Glasgow to study English literature.

He edited Glasgow University Magazine magazine there with Tom Leonard and joined a writers’ group run by Professor Philip Hobsbaum, who was a key influence on Aonghas and a great encourager of his work.

After Glasgow, Aonghas moved to London for a spell, working as a housing officer and becoming involved with the English poetry scene. His poetry (in English) was first published by Gollancz, under the name Angus Nicolson, along with four other poets, in a volume entitled A Poetry Quintet.

“It was only when he returned to Scotland to take up the post of Writer in Residence in the early days of the Gaelic College, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, that he began to write in his native Gaelic, having changed his name by deed poll to Aonghas MacNeacail.”

I have for a long time realised that Aonghas was possibly more recognised in other countries than he was here. His poetry has been published all over the world and he also read his work in Japan, Trinidad, the US (at the UN), Italy, Israel, Ireland, Croatia, Slovakia, Poland and Germany as well as countless book festivals and Gaelic events including the Royal National Mod. A candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature? He should have been.

Gerda told me: “He wrote opera libretti in Gaelic – Sgathach with composer Alasdair Nicolson, and An Turus with composer William Sweeney. Sgathach was the first opera ever to be written in Gaelic, as far as I know.

“He wrote TV scripts for the Gaelic drama series Machair, for which his song Breisleach/Delirium, (with music by Donald Shaw and sung by Karen Matheson) was the title track and which has become a contemporary classic. He also wrote radio drama scripts.

“He wrote the lyrics of many, many songs, collaborating with many musicians – Donald Shaw, Ronald Stevenson, Phil Cunnigham, Dee Isaacs, Andy Thorburn, Mary Ann Kennedy, Margaret McAllister, Phamie Gow and the list goes on … “He also collaborated with various artists in word and image, notably Calum Colvin and Simon Fraser. He held posts as Writer in Residence with many institutions, including Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the University of Glasgow, and the Brownsbank Creative Writing Fellowship based at Hugh MacDiarmid’s house of that name.”

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Aonghas was nominated for the Saltire Society Book of the Year award in 2012, with his poetry collection Deanamh Gaire ris a’ Chloc (Laughing at the Clock), along with Irvine Welsh, Carol Ann Duffy, Kathleen Jamie, James Kelman, Alan Warner and Ewan Morrison.

The following year I watched as he received an honorary degree from Glasgow University, on the same day and in the same ceremony as his son Rob received his MA in philosophy, Aonghas calling it “a most satisfying day”.

Aonghas was awarded the Saltire Society’s Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun Award in 2015 for contribution to the Arts and Humanities. I know how much that award meant to a true Scottish patriot.

There was so much more to Aonghas MacNeacail than I’ve been able to tell. Hopefully in the long term he will get greater recognition of his extraordinary contribution to Scotland.