ALAN Riach introduces the second great tide in 20th-century Gaelic poetry with the work of Somhairle MacGill-Eain / Sorley MacLean and Deòrsa mac Iain Deòrsa / George Campbell Hay through and after the Second World War.

WHEN Sorley MacLean (1911-96) went to Edinburgh University in 1929, he read English and was taught by HJC Grierson, champion of the Metaphysical poets so important to TS Eliot. MacLean’s connecting his own traditional Gaelic cultural hinterland with English-language Modernism, his early reading of Yeats and his discovery of Hugh MacDiarmid’s Scots-language poems all fuelled his unique combustible creativity.

Vatic bardic authority, the courage to deal directly with intense and intimate personal experience, war, love and loss, overt political commitment to revolutionary socialism and Scottish independence from British imperialism were all braided together.

His first publication was a pamphlet, 17 Poems for 6d [sixpence] (1939), where a small number of his poems appeared alongside a selection by Robert Garioch, who printed the pamphlet on his own hand-press, presenting the Gaelic and Scots languages side by side.

But MacLean’s first major work was Dain do Eimhir agus Dain Eile/ Songs to Eimhir and Other Poems (1943), with surrealist illustrations by William Crosbie.

This was a turning point for modern Gaelic literature, yet for decades MacLean’s work was difficult to find. I remember the eagerness we felt when Reothairt is Contraigh / Spring Tide and Neap Tide: Selected Poems 1932-72 was published in 1977. O Choille gu Bearradh / From Wood to Ridge followed in 1989 and the richly annotated Caoir Gheal Leumraich/ White Leaping Flame: Collected Poems in 2011.

In the 1940s, MacLean’s work was understood to be a herald and catalyst of new ways forward in Gaelic and Scottish poetry. Early on, in a 1942 collection entitled The New Scotland: 17 Chapters on Scottish Reconstruction, MacDiarmid warmly hailed the appearance of MacLean, George Campbell Hay, WS Graham and others.

At the end of his essay, “Scottish Arts and Letters: The Present Position and Post-War Prospects” MacDiarmid says this (and the bold at the end is in the original text): “The [Second World] war may thus have acted as a forcing-bed, bringing to somewhat speedier development what was already securely rooted in the circumstances of our nation; and in this sense it may, perhaps, be said later that: ‘The Scottish Renaissance was conceived in the First World War, and sprang into lusty life in the Second World War’.”

MacLean’s life and career as a teacher as well as a poet helped embed and extend the authority of Gaelic in innumerable and unquantifiable ways. George Campbell Hay’s story is equally memorable. His work is meticulously edited by Michel Byrne in two volumes, Collected Poems and Songs (Edinburgh University Press, for the Lorimer Trust, 2000).

In early November 1942, Hay (1915-84) sailed from the Clyde on a week-long voyage to Algiers, one of the many soldiers taking part in Operation Torch, the American-British advance against Rommel’s desert army.

While MacLean was seriously wounded at El Alamein, Hay’s company ventured further east, crossing the North African desert into Tunisia, where the fighting continued through to May 1943. Hay encountered civilians in Tunis and Bizerta and witnessed how they were caught in the crossfire and bombing.

He became an unofficial interpreter for his unit in French, Italian and Arabic, having picked up the last two languages since arriving in North Africa. His expertise was undervalued and his status as a private soldier may have been because of his history of avoiding conscription and his continuing concern with conditions in Scotland.

READ MORE: Gaelic poetry of the 20th century: Recovering from the ravages of Empire

He’d heard that Scottish women were being forcibly removed to armaments factories in England and was bitterly anxious: “I think that the maiming or extinction of the Scots as a nation is intended … I think of her as a nation against whom a white war, biological and economic, is being waged under this bloody war against Germany.”

As a boy, Hay lived in Tarbert, on the shore of Loch Fyne, going out with the fishermen and wandering in the woods and hills around the village. He was intimately knowledgeable and precise in his descriptions of the natural world, animals, birds, flowers and trees.

His literary and linguistic expertise was tempered by a social understanding of people in the community he belonged to. The fishermen grew to be close friends and their working economy became deeply familiar.

In October 1940, in his 20s, Hay went into the hills of Argyll, avoiding conscription. He was stopped in Arrochar on May 3, 1941, and imprisoned until reporting for service in June in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. At Catterick, he met Sorley MacLean and according to MacLean, they “had two splendid afternoons and evenings when we talked Gaelic poetry the whole time”.

“Why did the poets go to the desert?” The question is the opening of Edwin Morgan’s poem “North Africa” in his sequence Sonnets from Scotland (1984). He goes on to list Hay, MacLean, Hamish Henderson, Robert Garioch, GS Fraser and Morgan himself, all moving through the North African theatre of war. Hay, MacLean and all these Scottish poets crossed each other’s trails in the desert but their lives took different directions thereafter.

War polarises.

IT works by defining otherness. But for Hay, North Africa yielded a particular sense of how all cultures live across their differences. This doesn’t polarise or neutralise anything so much as partialise it. It is not simply that death levels all, but that languages deepen and extend humanity.

I this perception, Gaelic, English, Scots, Italian, French and Arabic, the African language-worlds he encountered, bring other dispensations, different from the arbitrary absolutes and polarities of war. For Hay, no language could have absolute power. Writing his own poetry in Gaelic, Scots, English and other languages, Hay knew viscerally that any one language was only a partial realisation of humanity’s potential.

When he witnessed the destruction of Bizerta, he had heard the voices of people there, their languages silenced in the bombs exploding in city streets and bringing the buildings down. This is the force of the vision of devastation in “Bizerta”:

C’ainm a-nochd a th’ orra,

Na sràidean bochda anns an sgeith gach uinneag

A lasraichean ’s a deatach,

A sradagan is sgreadail a luchd thuinidh,

Is taigh air thaigh ga reubadh

Am broinn a-chéile am brùchdadh toit’ a’ tuiteam?

What is their name tonight,

The poor streets where every window spews

Its flame and smoke,

Its sparks and the screaming of its inmates,

While house upon house is rent

And collapses in a gust of smoke?

For MacLean, three different recognitions are essential in his war poems: the necessary struggle against Fascism and Nazism, engaged by the British Empire, which MacLean also abhorred; the Scottish Gaels’ history of military tradition; and the weight of Scottish Calvinism.

For Hay the priorities were different. The same human drive to power was as characteristic of British as of German imperialism, and the military tradition of Gaeldom held no appeal. Hay’s father was a Church of Scotland minister and a novelist but Calvinism, with its notions of the elect and the damned, was not part of Hay’s sensibility.

Yet the poetry of both MacLean and Hay stays with us, an eternal opposition to barbarity. Its pertinence is horribly close today.