Ainmeil Thar Cheudan: A Centenary Celebration of Sorley MacLean

23 Jun 2011 in Highland, Showcase, Writing

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Sleat, Isle of Skye, 15-17 June 2011

FROM start to finish this celebration of the life and work of Sorley MacLean, which was jointly organised by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and the Scottish Centre for Island Studies at the University of the West of Scotland, was an absolute triumph.

From the moment I sat down at the opening poetry and music night last Wednesday and joked with Sheila Robasdan about ‘the invisible man’ whose seat she was keeping until I saw the minibus departing for Raasay on Saturday morning, this was a delightful gathering of poets, musicians, scholars, broadcasters and members of Sorley’s family who shared a love of the man and his work.

At the concert, poets Aonghas MacNeacail and Meg Bateman movingly read their work in Gaelic and English, pipers Allan MacDonald and Decker Forrest excelled on pipes, and singers Mary Ann Kennedy and Màiri Sìne Chaimbeul sang beautiful Gaelic songs, including a lovely version by Mary Ann of Sorley’s poem ‘Camhanaich’ (‘Dawn’).

Sorley MacLean's daughter, Ishbel, addresses the conference

Sorley MacLean's daughter, Ishbel, addresses the conference

But it was the youngsters of Sgoil Chiùil na Gàidhealtachd, the National Centre for Excellence in Music at Sorley’s old school in Plockton, and old hand John Purser, with a new composition in honour of the poet, who practically stole the show.

Twelve year old Robert MacInnes, who fronted the Plockton band on vocals and percussion, has the confidence and ability to go far, and he spryly encouraged sparkling performances from the others on fiddles, accordion and clarsach.  Proof positive, if any more were needed, of how right it was not to close the Centre.

John Purser leaned persuasively into his viola as he stretched several young musicians and Mary Ann Kennedy’s not inconsiderable vocal range to their limits in a new classical work written for Sorley. He made another important contribution to the event at one of the Parallel Paper Sessions the next day in his talk on ‘Sorley and the music of the bards’ when he argued that Sorley epitomised the bardic tradition in which the sound of words is fundamental to the poetry and suggested that the Gaelic bards’ marriage of poetry and music may have been influential in creating modern opera.

Another national treasure, Margaret Bennett, continued this musical theme in her own matchless way in the Session that followed, when she told the marvellous tale of how at a tender age her son, the late Martyn Bennett, befriended Sorley, how he played at his 75th birthday celebration night, composed ‘Sorley MacLean’s March’, and wrote a multi-instrumental soundscape which we heard in the film Hallaig by Neil Kempsill.

Thursday’s proceedings were kicked off in dazzling style by Douglas Gifford, Emeritus Professor, University of Glasgow, in a typically wide-ranging keynote address (complete with handout of poems) which demonstrated common humanist concerns and brilliant technique in the War poems of Hamish Henderson, George Campbell Hay and Sorley MacLean, which were all set in North Africa, touched on how they were excluded from BBC broadcasting for political reasons, and deployed his encyclopaedic knowledge of Scottish literature to contend that the literary renaissance championed by Hugh MacDiarmid had withered by the 1950s. His was a veritable tour de force that set the bar high for the rest of the conference.

Equal to that challenge, though, were Ray Burnett, Honorary Research Fellow at the UWS Scottish Centre for Island Studies, whose brainchild the whole event was, and Timothy Neat, award winning author, film-maker and biographer of Hamish Henderson.

Ray Burnett dusted down some neglected episodes in Scottish cultural history and revealed to an astonished audience the remarkable roll call of literary, musical and visual arts greats, including Sorley, who took part in a teach-in he organised on The Culture of Scotland back in 1970. This raised the intriguing prospect of a similar event in the future which might bring together at this crucial juncture in Scotland’s history today’s luminaries in the context of the radical ideas on culture and politics of Antonio Gramsci.

Since Gramsci was first brought to our attention by Hamish Henderson, it was a theme which segued well into Timothy Neat’s engaging talk about Sorley’s speech at the unveiling of the Hugh MacDiarmid Memorial Sculpture near Langholm in 1985. He read out the speech itself, which clearly demonstrated Sorley’s mastery of the panegyric and his considerable ability as an orator, and that evening he introduced the 1986 Gaelic version of his film Hallaig which showed Sorley in full flow on the big screen, talking and reciting some of his poems against the unforgettable backdrop of Raasay and the Cuillin.

Sorley MacLean

Sorley MacLean

Other personal reminiscences of Sorley were provided by a discussion panel of friends who knew him when he was head teacher at Plockton High School, and they brought out his abiding love of shinty, his passionate interest in people and his generosity of spirit. Another panel of authors, which included poet Tessa Ransford who founded the Scottish Poetry Library, discussed his high moral seriousness, his work as resembling ‘a controlled explosion of energy’, his creativity that came from love of the earth, the importance of his critical essays for an inter-disciplinary approach to Island and Highland studies, and the need to ‘re-imagine socialism’ at this time.

In his Plenary Lecture, Christopher Whyte referred to Sorley’s politics as revealed in the new edition of ‘An Cuilithionn 1939’ and other previously unpublished poems which he has edited and which was later launched at the celebration.

Towards the end of his detailed analysis of the poem and its various editions he quoted André Gide’s conclusions about the dictatorship of Stalin after his visit to Russia in 1936 and suggested that Sorley must have known about the evils taking place in Russia yet his first draft of the poem (which he later amended before publishing it nearly 50 years later) referred to “the strength and courage of Stalin”.  This sparked a lively debate which continued informally and in later panel sessions and will no doubt feature prominently in reviews and discussion of the new book.

Murdo MacDonald’s illustrated lecture brought to our attention the rich visual tradition of Highland Art from William McTaggart to the Celtic inspired designs of Mary Carmichael in Carmina Gadelica, from William Crosbie’s striking artwork in MacLean’s Dain do Eimhir of 1943 to Will MacLean’s more recent paintings in response to ‘Hallaig’, ‘Screapadal’ and other poems.

He paid tribute to the unsung contributions of publishers Walter Blaikie and William MacLellan (who published early editions of MacDiarmid and MacLean) and suggested that their work too should be researched and celebrated more widely.

His own important research and curatorial role in taking the highly successful Uinneag dhan Àird an Iar –Window to the West exhibition of Highland Art to the Edinburgh City Art Centre earlier this year has done much to raise awareness of this vital tradition. Its title is taken from the first two lines of ‘Hallaig’:

“Tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig

troimh ‘m faca mi an Aird an Iar

The window is nailed and boarded

through which I saw the West”

and Murdo explained that the project aimed to un-nail that window and open its artistic treasures to everyone. The selection of work from the exhibition which focuses on portraits of Sorley MacLean and contemporary artists’ responses to his work which Murdo opened at the event is well worth catching.

Another sign of the high level of interest currently in Gaelic literature and art was that no less than five books were launched at the event, including Dain do Shomhairle Poems for Sorley with new poems by Seamus Heaney, Maoilios Caimbeul  and others, and a beautiful cover image by Cailean MacLean which is published by Urras Shomhairle, The Sorley MacLean Trust and the Scottish Poetry Library; an Association of Scottish Literary Studies Scotnotes book The Poetry of Sorley MacLean by Emma Dymock, which provides an invaluable introduction for students and those new to his work; and two new collections, Ceangailte and Beartain Briste, by SMO poet in residence Rody Gorman.

Conference participants at one of the book launches

Conference participants at one of the book launches

The fact that SMO now also has a musician and an artist in residence as well as an arts development officer demonstrates its strong commitment to the arts as a crucial element in the regeneration of the Gaelic language and culture. As its first writer in residence and one of its early trustees, there is no doubt that Sorley played a vital part in that regeneration and this was highlighted by Boyd Robasdan, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig Principal, in his opening address to the conference.

It turned out that he was ‘the invisible man’ I sat beside at the opening concert, but in truth there was no more visible presence throughout the event. Unlike most heads of academic institutions on such occasions who greet you with a welcome and a cheerio, he took an active part in the plenary and parallel sessions, good-naturedly encouraged us to keep to time, and even went on Saturday’s minibus trip to Raasay.

The warmth of the Highland welcome we received and the informality and undoubted success of the celebration were in no small measure due to his input and that of his colleagues such as Mark Wringe, who introduced the concert and some of the Sessions, as well as the large contingent of staff, researchers and students from the University of the West of Scotland led by Kathryn Burnett, who ably chaired the rest of the Sessions, and its Head of the School of Creative and Cultural Industries, Anne Gifford, who also took a full, active part in the proceedings. Some of their students even filmed the whole event so let’s hope that as much as possible of it becomes available online.

Here was a real partnership in action which set the standard for other institutions and bodes well for their future ongoing cooperation.  Irish universities and the world of Irish Gaelic were also well represented at the conference by Máire Ní Annracháin, Professor of Modern Irish in the School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore & Linguistics, University College Dublin, and Alan Titley, University College Cork who both spoke on interesting aspects of Sorley’s poetry, and by writer and poet Pádraig de Buis from Kerry who read his translations of ‘Hallaig’ and ‘The Bolshevik’ in Irish Gaelic.

However, unlike some academic conferences, this was no precious examination of obscure facets of some esoteric theme but a lively gathering of like minds celebrating the most significant Gaelic poet of our time whose work is of international stature, and meeting old friends and making new ones.

It was a real pleasure for me to meet for the first time Sorley’s sister Mary, his daughter Ishbel and grandson Gilleasbeag, who, I was not surprised to learn, is a shinty player and is researching the Gaelic place names of the Braes. Ishbel explained to the delegates the background to the decision by the family to agree to the publication of the first draft of An Cuilithionn together with many previously unpublished poems, and to a new Collected Poems which will come out in October.

There will be a rich legacy of this event which confirmed that the future of Gaelic scholarship is in good hands, if the papers given by young contributors Peter Mackay, Emma Dymock and Sandra Byrne are anything to go by. The Gaelic concept of duchthas, a sense of belonging to a place, I believe is the key to understanding Sorley’s work, and there was no better place to hold this celebration than Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.  There was a real sense of Sorley coming home and living once more amongst his own, like the people of ‘Hallaig’.

I shall carry two abiding memories of the occasion with me: the image which Donnie Munro gave us of Sorley’s haunting voice drifting over Edinburgh from the Castle as the evening mist came in from the Forth, and the playing of a newly composed pibroch in honour of Sorley by Allan MacDonald which floated over the impressive College atrium and went all around and through us.

Sorley’s great tribute to his brother ‘Cumha Chaluim Mhic Gill-Eain Elegy for Calum I. MacLean’ begins with

Tha an saoghal fhathast àlainn

Ged nach eil thu ann

The world is still beautiful

though you are not in it

and there is no doubt that the world is even more beautiful for the life and work of Sorley MacLean.

© Norman Bissell, 2011