RECOGNITION and appreciation of Gaelic drama in the broader context of Scotland and internationally is growing.

In the preface to her edition of eight plays in Gaelic from the start of the 20th to the early 21st century, with the Gaelic followed by English translations – Dràma na Gàidhlig: ceud bliadhna air an àrd-ùrlar: A Century of Gaelic Drama (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2020) – Michelle Macleod says this: “Gaelic drama although popular with audiences from its beginning has not enjoyed a similar readership success and until fairly recently has not been the subject of scholarly criticism.”

Her introduction summarises the essential story: “Gaelic society has always enjoyed the spoken word and performance culture. In medieval Scotland and Ireland one of the most honourable professions was that of the poet who, like the harpist, could enjoy an enviable position in the employment of nobility. Performance of verse was equally valued in ordinary society as the rich body of Gaelic vernacular poetry and song demonstrates.

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Storytelling and storytellers have likewise been an important part of Gaelic tradition: folktales demonstrate the oral performance skill of the narrator as he winds his way along complex alliterative runs, used as a mnemonic and as a device to please the audience. Elements of performance can also be found in other aspects of Gaelic culture for example in preaching, prayer and rituals”, but the “staged play” was not a secure aspect of Gaelic culture until the early 20th century.

Macleod notes that the development of Gaelic drama in a modern form is connected with the influx of Gaels into Scottish cities, especially Glasgow and Inverness.

The range of modern Gaelic drama can be noted in a brief list of plays, starting in the 1960s. Iain Moireach’s Snìomh nan Dual contains six plays, from Feumaidh Sinne Bhith Gàireachdainn (1967) to An Treas Fàd (2007). An Ceistear, Am Bàrd’s Na Boirionnach / The Catechist, the Poet and the Women (1974) draws on the dramatic performance traditions of the Gàidhealtachd, utilising historical stories and songs. And Anna Chaimbeul / Ann Campbell (1977), while presenting traditional song, also makes use of the Japanese Noh theatre as transmitted by Yeats. Rèiteach (2007) presents the developing relationship between Ealasaid, a young Gaelic woman from Canada, and Uisdean, a middle-aged islander living with his mother.

Two posthumously published collections should be noted: Eist: Sia Dealbh-chluichean (2005) by Donaidh Mac’ill’eathain and Solas na Gealaich: Deich Deilbh-chluich (2001) by Pòl MacAonghais.

Anxiety about the future of Gaelic is a recurring theme, as in An Sgoil Dhubh / The Dark School (1974). In Mac’ill’eathain’s An Dall, the central character becomes so obsessed by watching television that he loses all connection to the world around; the onset of blindness comes as both curse and blessing. Sgoil-Dubh deals with the threat to traditional culture by splitting the stage into two halves, one in darkness with a son and his mother, the other brightly illuminated, a modern family home: the son moves from one side to the other. And this surreal, absurdist element is there too in MacAonghais’s An t-Aiseag (2001), where what seems like a Caledonian MacBrayne ferries waiting room takes on the semblance of an existential vestibule in the context of an indifferent eternity. (Perhaps it’s not too far removed from reality at that!)

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Moving to the plays printed in the new anthology, Rèiteach Mòraig by Iain M MacLeòid / Morag’s Betrothal by John MacLeod, is a dramatization and variation of the Gaelic betrothal tradition in which the marriage is opposed by the mother of the bride-to-be. In Am Fear a Chaill a Ghàidhlig by Iain MacCormaig / The Man Who Lost His Gaelic by Iain MacCormick, the Gael leaves his native territory for Glasgow and begins to understand the disintegration of his own language, allowing both tragic and comic elements to come into play.

Ceann Cropic / Ceann Cropic, by Fionnlagh MacLeòid / Finlay Macleod (sometimes referred to as “the play where nothing happens”), presents a Beckett-like dialogue between two people prioritising dilemmas of language and communication that have urgent, practical application as well as delivering the aesthetic pleasures of an absurd tragi-comedy, or comic tragedy.

In Tog Orm Mo Speal / Give Me My Scythe by Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn / Iain Crichton Smith, the central character is the same Murdo from its author’s short stories, whose actions and words again carry that double burden of innocence and incredulity which makes him simultaneously a clown, a victim and a subversive saboteur of rationality, obstinately resisting what seems to be inevitable.

Macleod tells us: “Smith used bilingualism both as a symbol of a broken self and as opportunity for humour; he wrote about his use of the jester figure to show just that.” For example, when the psychiatrist tries word association to help him understand Murchadh’s problems:

PSYCHIATRIST: Facal eile. “Gorm”.


PSYCHIATRIST: Feur? Feur? ’S ann a tha am feur uaine.

MURCHADH: Chan ann ann an Gàidhlig. ’S ann a tha feur gorm ann an Gàidhlig.

PSYCHIATRIST: Cò chunnaic a riamh feur gorm?

MURCHADH: Chunnaic muinntir na Gàidhlig feur gorm...

PSYCHIATRIST: Another word. “Blue”.


PSYCHIATRIST: Grass? Grass? The grass is green.

MURCHADH: Not in Gaelic. The grass is blue in Gaelic.

PSYCHIATRIST: Who ever saw blue grass?

MURCHADH: Gaelic speakers saw blue grass…

“The psychiatrist cannot comprehend that the Gaelic colour spectrum is different to English and even when Murchadh cites the famous Gaelic lexicographer Dwelly, the psychiatrist remains unconvinced. At the end of the play it is simple companionship with his friend Tormod which lifts Murchadh’s spirits and persuades him to get back to work, although there is a degree of giving in to futility when he utters at the end ‘tog orm mo speal’ (give me my scythe) as prepares to get back to reaping in the croft.”

This play is followed by Òrdugh na Saorsa / Order of Release (1991) by Tormod Calum Dòmhnallach / Norman MacDonald, one of the most under-rated modern Scottish writers, partly because so much of his best work in Gaelic drama has not reached wider audiences or readerships – or rather because so many of his potential readers and audiences remain ignorant of Gaelic.

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But within his own community and among Gaels it was deeply appreciated. His sense of the value of the human lives that constitute such a community is profoundly engaged in this play, set in the aftermath of Culloden.

A revival would court appreciation, and in the era of the television popularity and commercial success of the Outlander series, might provide an attractive corrective. Sequamur by Donald S Murray, translated into Gaelic by Catriona Dunn, is set in Lewis at the time of the First World War, its themes universal and timeless.

Scotties by Muireann Kelly and Francis Poet utilises Gaelic alongside Irish, English and Scots, foregrounding the mix and diversity of linguistic identities that form the speech of the characters, both a modern family living in Glasgow and a group of Irish farm labourers of the early 20th century, with the central character slipping between time-periods as he carries out a research project to discover what became of the labourers.

Finally, Bana-Ghaisgich / Heroines by Màiri Nic’IlleMhoire / Mairi Morrison also opens a door into history, focusing on the sinking of the Iolaire off the coast of Lewis, when 201 service men returning from the First World War on January 1, 1919, drowned within sight of their homes.

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Along with their individual excellences, these plays offer an overview of the history of the genre in one of the major languages of Scottish literature. Macleod’s anthology delivers an invitation to see more deeply into what she describes as a “domain of creativity in which so much innovative and emotive practice has taken place and which has been enjoyed by relatively large audiences for a minority community”.

Published in one sturdy volume by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, with Macleod’s lucid and illuminating introduction and a substantial, rich bibliography, the book is indispensable for anyone interested in modern drama, Scottish literature and whatever we might mean by cultural identity. It is a threshold to riches.