'Literature of the Gaelic Landscape' by John Murray (Whittles Publishing)
Over the last few months, my other tongue, the Gaelic language, has wreaked a great deal of havoc on the world. According to the press, it has placed the 'NHS in Crisis' (Mail on Sunday), convinced visitors to the Scottish parliament that Gaelic is now the predominant language of the land (Scotsman), and positively befuddled the more criminal elements in the city of Dundee by displaying the words 'Poileas Alba' on the constabulary's car doors (Dundee Courier). In all of these examples, the truth is far less dramatic than the headline.
NHS Highland has no intention of 'banning' doctors and nurses who cannot say 'abair slippers snoga oirbh' (or 'nice slippers') to their patients. Instead, they rightly argue that Gaelic is 'desirable' for those working in some of their communities. A few Gaelic toilet signs within parliament do not create some infectious disorder that flushes out the common sense of those who employ the facilities within that building. When they reach for their zips and step out of the 'taigh beag,' they are still perfectly able to work out that English is the main language spoken all around them. As for the criminal fraternity on Tayside, it appears that the Latin inscriptions on police chariots provide them with no problem. It is only Gaelic that creates perplexity as they are driven to their cells.
And so it goes on… Gaelic road signs create accidents. The average Scot is apparently not only – in genetic terms – smaller than his counterparts in Europe, he is also inferior in other ways too. While those in South Tyrol (or Alto Adige) are perfectly able to manage the trilingual road-signs found among the steep swerving roads in that landscape, the Scottish driver struggles with two. As for Gaelic railway signs, they are in danger of:
bankrupting the rail network; confusing the passenger; colonising all those who gaze upon their splendour. You pays your money and you picks your prejudice.
In the face of all this, it is a great pleasure to read a work like John Murray's 'Literature of the Gaelic Landscape.' Subtitled 'Song, Poem and Tale,' it is unlike much of the work I have read about the Gaelic language in the press recently. Quiet and meticulous in its research, it shows how much the tongue is present in both the lore and landscape of Scotland. It does this by introducing to its readers some of the work of a number of writers employing both Gaelic and English. They include Sorley MacLean, Duncan Ban Macintyre and Neil Gunn. (There is even a small section that focuses on the writings of Nan Shepherd, observing how much she has in common with the work of Duncan Ban MacIntyre, as well as a chapter on that mythical figure, Finn MacCoul.)
In its reach, the book straddles the geography of much of Scotland – from Arran and Argyll in the south-west to Caithness in the far north-east. It also performs a similar role for the history of this area, from the legends of the dark ages to the comparative light of our own time and the works of two of Scotland's finest writers of the 20th century, Sorley MacLean and Neil Gunn.
Yet for all its emphasis on literature, an activity we primarily undertake indoors, it seems to me chiefly a book that someone might take in their knapsack and read outdoors in the areas about which they had written. The excellent colour photographs in this book might introduce the uninitiated to places like Glen Shee in Perthshire and Neist Point in Skye, yet one continually feels that to appreciate the full wonder of this book, it would be best to read it in location.
This is especially true in the work of Sorley MacLean. Murray provides extremely detailed information about the landscape mentioned in his writing. We can note and record this knowledge, but we are deprived of seeing it in the manner we might have done if we stood in the island, book in hand.
Murray opens up the landscape, showing how the creators of these works saw it in their time. In the case of the 12th-century ballad, 'Acallam na Seonorach,' he brings us into the world of the Fenian hunt, providing us with a translation of the section known as 'Arran's Hunting' where we are told of:
Arran of the many red deer,
ocean reaching to her shoulders;
island where warriors are nourished,
ridge where blue spears are bloodied.
He points out that there still remain reminders of this time in the landscape of Arran today, with place-names like Caisteal an Fhinn (Castle of the Fianna) and Bealach an Fhir-Bolga (Pass of the Bowman) found among the island's mountains. Murray notes that in this work, 'there is no distinction between man and the natural world.' The poetry is 'characterised by its close observation of nature' and 'a symbiosis between man and his natural world.'
It is fitting therefore that the book ends with Neil Gunn, a writer who wanted to restore this connection – not only between himself and the Gaelic language which his father possessed but never passed on, but also between the people of his home community of Dunbeath and the places in Sutherland from which so many were cleared. (It seems particularly apt that the book's publisher, Whittles, is based in this township.) In this section, Murray comes full circle, noting how Finn MacCumhall emerges again in the pages of 'The Silver Darlings' where an entirely different hunt – for the herring – takes place.
In this section, however, Murray writes mainly about 'Highland River,' a novel that shows – among so much more – how the schooling system plays its part in this process. I recall reading the section in which young Kenn is taught to recite the places in England which are known for particular products – 'Leicester is famous for boots.' – and noting how much his schooling experience had in common with my own many decades later. The link between child and place was still being broken then, producing youngsters who are ill-at-ease and out-of-place in the land where they belong.
That might also serve as a metaphor for our entire country, a place where it is seen as vaguely ridiculous that there might be Gaelic signs in the toilets of our parliament or where the NHS spins off into a terminal crisis when an old lady asks for her 'sliopars' when stepping out of her hospital bed. All credit to John Murray for attempting to address the disconnection between our people and our landscape in this book. It is one that I am conscious of understanding at a slight and superficial level at a first reading. I will return to it again.
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