THIS week will see the 25th anniversary of the death of Sorley MacLean, Somhairle MacGill-Eain, Scotland’s greatest modern Gaelic poet and a man many experts feel should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for the genius of his poetry and his efforts to preserve and promote the Gaelic language.

It was on November 24, 1996, that MacLean passed away at the age of 85 in an Inverness hospital after a short illness. Many people like myself who do not have the Gaelic and only ever read him in translation still mourned this great Scot, and the tributes to him were many and heartfelt. How much greater was his loss felt among the Gaels, for he was their national bard, their inspiration.

For the details of his life, I have referred to the website of the Sorley Maclean Trust and those wishing to know more about him should head in that direction later.

As ever I leave literary appreciation to the likes of Professor Alan Riach, but suffice to say that earlier this year in The National the good professor wrote: “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.”

READ MORE: Born out of war: The second great tide of twentieth century Gaelic poetry

Sorley MacLean was born on Raasay on October 26, 1911, to Malcolm and Christina MacLean, both members of the Free Presbyterian Church and both noted scholars and poets. Sorley was the second oldest of seven children, and was educated at Raasay Primary School and then Portree Secondary School, now the High School.

As a boy he came under the influence of his paternal grandmother, Mary Matheson, Màiri ‘ain ‘ic Sheumais ‘ic Dhòmhnaill Ruaidh, of whom MacLean once said: “I think that the first great artistic impact on me was my father’s mother singing some of the very greatest of Gaelic songs, and all in her own traditional versions.”

In 1929 he won a bursary to study at Edinburgh University. According to Riach at Edinburgh MacLean “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.”

After university and teacher training, during which he met and became friends with MacDiarmid, MacLean returned to Skye to teach at his old school at Portree (below).

The National: Portree, Isle of Skye

He once explained: “The full time professional poet is not for me and never has been. If I have time to do it, I brood over something until the rhythm comes, as a more or less tight rope to cross the abyss of silence. I go on with it, as far as I can see, unconsciously.”

A brief unhappy period on Mull ended when MacLean moved to Edinburgh in January 1939 to teach English at Boroughmuir High School. There he and his friend Robert Garioch co-published 17 poems for 6d.

MacLean joined the Royal Signal Corps in September, 1940, but it was with the Royal Horse Artillery that he saw active service in North Africa where he was wounded three times, the last most seriously. A land mine exploded near him at the Battle of El Alamein in November, 1942, and he spent nine months in hospital before being invalided out of the army in August, 1943. Shortly afterwards his first full volume of poetry, Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile, was published.

Back teaching at Boroughmuir, he met his wife Renee Cameron from Inverness. They would have three daughters and six grandchildren.

In 1956, MacLean became head teacher at Plockton High School and from there he campaigned to have Gaelic exams introduced in Scottish schools. He also promoted shinty, his boyhood sport, and was very pleased when his school won a major shinty tournament.

His output of poetry fell during his later teaching years until they began to be translated into English which put him in great demand for poetry readings and literary occasions. In 1977, he published Spring Tide and Neap Tide, a bilingual edition of his work from 1932, described by The Irish Times as “one of the most important collections of poems to appear in the second half of this century”.

His most famous poem was the mystical Hallaig about a village emptied in the Clearances with its memorable first line: Tha tìm, am fiadh, an coille Hallaig, or Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig

He also created a body of war poetry with poems such as Death Valley:

’Na shuidhe marbh an ‘Glaic a’ Bhàis’

fo Dhruim Ruidhìseit,

gill’ òg ’s a logan sìos ma ghruaidh

’s a thuar grìseann.

Smaoinich mi air a’ chòir ’s an àgh

a fhuair e bho Fhurair,

bhith tuiteam ann an raon an àir

gun èirigh tuilleadh;


Sitting dead in ‘Death Valley’

below the Ruweisat Ridge,

a boy with his forelock down about his cheek

and his face slate-grey;

I thought of the right and the joy

that he got from his Fuehrer,

of falling in the field of slaughter

to rise no more;

Riach explains that war poetry: “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.”

Other poets recognised his greatness. Iain Crichton Smith in 1973 said: “When confronted by this kind of poetry, one can only marvel that it exists… For this poetry is not simply verbalisation: it is both words and music together, it is what one wants poetry to be.”

As he entered old age, MacLean was hit hard by the deaths of Hugh MacDiarmid (1978) and his own daughter Catriona at the age of just 41 in 1993.

He received countless awards during his lifetime, and his legacy is still being felt 25 years on.