LAST week we took an overview of Gaelic poetry of the 20th century, following Ronald Black’s suggestion in An Tuil: Duanaire Gàidhlig an 20mh Ceud/Anthology of 20th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse (1999) that there were four high tides beginning with Alexander Carmichael’s collection of traditional work in Carmina Gadelica. The second tide arose through the poetry of the Second World War and is centred on the work of Sorley MacLean and George Campbell Hay; the third with Derick Thomson and Iain Crichton Smith; the fourth from Donald MacAulay through to the present day.

These four “high tides” are helpful but they’re not closed off. Many poets move across them and their experiences of war and understanding of the conditions of culture within international imperial conflicts form a long threnody.

Donnchadh MacDhunléibhe/Duncan Livingstone (1877-1964) of Mull left for South Africa in 1903 and settled in Pretoria. Earlier poems include festive celebration, but later work reflects on, and protests against, racism and imperialism. For example, from “Feasgar an Duine Ghil”/“The Evening of the White Man”:

Fhuair an duine geal a chumhachd, is thugar ceanna dha le Dia;

Innleachd chum an t-saoghail a chumadh air a bhuileachadh air gu fial.

Ach bhrath e Dia agus an tàlann a fhuair e chum math an t-saoghail gu léir;

Is rinn e an cinne-daonna a thràilleadh; ’s an toradh uile ghléidh e fhéin…

The white man got his power from God, who gave him his authority;

A strategy to shape the world that was generously granted him.

But he betrayed God and the talent that he got for the sake of all the world;

And he enslaved mankind; and he kept all the proceeds for himself…

In “Bean Dubh a’ Caoidh a Fir a Chaidh a Mharbhadh leis a’ Phoileas” / “A Black Woman Mourns her Husband Killed by the Police” we read:

Am fear bòidheach laigh ri m’ thaobh-sa

An-sin ’s a mhionach ás a’ slaodadh.

Baba Inkòsi Sikelele, Baba Inkòsi Sikelele.

Aichbheil, aichbheil, sgrios is léireadh

Air an luchd a rinn mo cheausadh.

Baba Inkòsi Sikele, Baba Inkòsi Sikelele.

The handsome man who lay beside me

There with his intestines trailing loose.

Baba Inkòsi Sikelele, Baba Inkòsi Sikelele.

Vengeance, vengeance, grief, destruction

On the people who’ve had me crucified.

Baba Inkòsi Sikelele, Baba Inkòsi Sikelele.

The familiarity of this is a signal of our own condition today. This is a poetry about racist South Africa but its pertinence here and now is inescapable, and contrasts with earlier poems, celebrating the company of Gaelic and Scots folk in Pretoria.

After the death of his wife in 1951, Livingstone’s poems were passionately engaged with politics and society: no longer benevolent confirmations but anguished resistance to immediate injustice. Yet in form and mode of address, they draw directly from the Gaelic tradition. After all, extremes of prejudice and violent oppression in early 20th-century South Africa were hardly unknown in the Gaelic world of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

The two priorities characterising 20th-century Gaelic poetry and song, the adherence to tradition and the development of print-based Modernist poetry intended for silent reading and contemplation rather than oral performance are both evident in Livingstone’s work, arguably, in the subjects rather than the forms of his poetry. Poems of this period cannot ignore the impositions of violence. Ciorstai NicLeòid/Christina MacLeod (1880-1954), ends her poem “Cuimhneachan 1914-1918”/“In Memory of 1914-1918” like this:

Nuair hoinnicheas sinn càch aig clachan no tràigh

Bidh luaidh air gach sàr bhios ’àite falamh;

Is togaidh sinn càrn mar chuimhneachan gràidh,

An euchdan air clàr don àl a leanas.

When we meet others at township or ebb

There’ll be talk of each hero whose place is empty;

And we’ll raise a cairn as a monument of love,

Their deeds on a tablet for the next generation.

And Dòmhnall Mac na Ceàrdacich /Donald Sinclair (1885-1932), in “Slighe nan Seann Seun”/“The Way of the Old Spells” provides one of the most concentrated poems of lament and commemoration of an era rich in the genre. Here is its conclusion:

Cha neònach cill mo shluaigh an cois nan cuan bhith balbh,

Chan iongnadh uchd nan tuam bhith ’n tòic le luach na dh’fhalbh,

O shaoghail, s truagh nach till aon uair a shearg.

’S nach tàrr mo dheòin, ge buan, aon fhios á suain nam marbh!

It’s not strange that my people’s graves at ocean’s edge are dumb,

It’s no surprise for the tombs’ outsides to swell with the worth of what’s gone,

O world, alas that that which withered once will not come back.

And that my will, though lasting, will evoke no word from dead men’s slumbers!

AT the end of the First World War, more than 200 soldiers returning to the Isle of Lewis drowned when the steamship Iolaire went down within sight of Stornoway harbour. Horrific in itself simply as historical fact, the event has entered myth as a potent evocation of irrecoverable loss. In a census of 1891, the Gaelic-speaking population of Scotland was recorded as 210,000. In 1991, it was 65,000. In 2011 it was c.58,000.

After the First World War, the role of village bards or local poets diminished, as did the publishing of Gaelic books. Songs might be heard among the Gaelic communities, scholars might continue to research and recover ancient texts, but a lively commerce of literary interest was becoming sparse and thin.

The formation of the Gaelic society An Comunn Gàidhealach in 1891 and its annual festival, the Mod, helped sustain verse-recitation, dance and music and other forms of Gaelic culture.

Stories were published in the monthly magazine An Gaidheal but the intellectual rigours and austerities of international Modernist literature were not a priority for a movement essentially preoccupied with retrieving and protecting an ancient culture.

And this is an essential point to understand about modern Scotland.

If Modernism was an intervention and fragmentation of imperial cultural certainties, that fragmentation had already happened in Scotland. The imperialist certainties that underscore and give regulation and authority to the English laureates such as Alfred Lord Tennyson were exactly what radical modernists like Ezra Pound and TS Eliot were blasting into fragments.

But Scotland as a cultural identity, especially in the Gaelic and Scots languages, in the nation’s cultural diversity and its political dividedness, had already suffered that destruction. It had been delivered in the enforced disintegrations of cultural life enacted throughout the centuries of Empire.

Imperial financial wealth benefits only a few and comes at great cost to many. Scotland was already a proto-Modernist culture of broken narratives and fragments before Modernism happened. So modern Scottish writing was an attempt to reconnect with an ancient constitution, to retrieve and renew. To break the pentameter meant reclaiming a wounded inheritance.

If this was true of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poems in Scots, it was even more so in Gaelic culture. Traditional songs in the early decades of the century were not reactionary so much as recuperative.

From such foundations, a greater freedom of literary expression might arise. And with Sorley MacLean and George Campbell Hay, through and after the Second World War, we can see that beginning to happen.