MEG Bateman is well known and much loved for her poems, collected in Aotromachd agus Dàin Eile/Lightness and other Poems, Soirbheas/Fair Wind and Transparencies.

She is admired and highly respected for her scholarship, in works such as the co-edited anthologies Gàir nan Clàrsach/The Harp’s Cry, Scottish Religious Poetry, Duanaire na Sracaire/Songbook of the Pillagers: Scotland’s Gaelic verse to 1600, and Bàird Ghleann Dail/The Glendale Bards.

Her colleague at the Gaelic College in Skye, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, John Purser, is well known to readers of The National and internationally respected for his work as a pioneering musicologist in his radio series and book Scotland’s Music: A History of the Traditional and Classical Music of Scotland from Early Times to the Present Day, now approaching its third, much-expanded edition.

John is a composer, with CDs of his work available, a playwright and a poet whose collections There Is No Night and This Much Endures, are among the small sackful of swag I’d want with me on the proverbial desert island, whenever I get to it.

Considered in their own achievements, the work of these two poets and scholars lifts them both into the realm of a community whose company anyone who cares about Scotland will want to know and gain from for decades to come.

But working together they have produced a book of singular value that reaches beyond their individual achievements into a collective understanding that has bearing on us all, and this is what I want to focus on here.

The first fact is polis: people: polity, politics, the company of the community. To hell with individualism, think of what’s shared. Material reality and a sense of the spirit. By that last term I’m not being fanciful but practical.

You know what spirits are – they can raise your heart or lower you into a deep depression. The state of British and even Scottish politics can plummet you into an apathy or curdling revulsion at times. What’s the antidote? Learning. And this new book is full of it.

Window to the West: Culture and Environment in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd is one of the most valuable books I know of. But it’s not a book. Or rather, it’s a book that is only available – and entirely free – online.

This is an enormous virtue and a gift to us all. But it’s also a liability. It’s a gift, literally. All anyone need do is go to this site where the publisher, Clò Ostaig, has made it available:

Download this and once you have it you can keep it in your computer or your external hard drive or memory stick or wherever you need to find it – and keep the link handy to email it out to friends and colleagues, acquaintances and any members of the opposition you think might have the wit to get into it and the intelligence to stay with it.

When I opened it for the first time, I didn’t get out again for three hours. It is a new world and an entrancement of knowledge lies everywhere within it.

Since then, I’ve gone so far as to have a hard copy of the whole thing printed out and ring-bound for my personal use, so that I can scribble on the margins, dog-ear certain pages and apply sticker notes, mainly because my eyes cross over themselves after too long staring into the computer screen and I need to have my fingertips on paper to be in touch with the trees.

But reading the book online is also a virtue, because the search engine is quick, the cross-referencing is built into the text, and the illustrations, many in colour, are all of them designed page-by-page to go with the text. These things make each section of the book an intellectual exercise and exhilaration and acquisition of knowledge – a constant and unfailing pleasure, an uplift of spirits.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and its publishing house, Clò Ostaig, should be gratefully acknowledged and the appropriate thankfulness registered to the work’s dedicatees, the art historian Murdo Macdonald and the artist Will Maclean – without such a centre of learning and the means to make such learning accessible, and without such scholars of cultural identity and creators of vision refreshed, humanity is diminished to a mere zoological species. These are the people and institutions that really help keep us alive.

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But online publication is also a liability. Without the physical substance of the book taking its space, its presence in the world may be badly neglected – and it has been. There have been as far, as I am aware, only two reviews, both by Gaelic scholars of immense knowledge, expertise and erudition, both praising the book to the stratosphere and both in relatively obscure periodicals, read mainly by people who know what they’re looking for.

So what about those who might not know about this at all, but who know that they’re looking for something? Well, I’m hoping what I have to say about this book will reach at least some of such readers through the pages of The National.

The first review was by Ronald Black, in West Highland Notes and Queries, Series 5. No 2, July 2021, pp.27-29. His summary is a good place to start: “It is a richly-illustrated history of the people of the Highlands and Islands over the past 2000 years, including their language, literature, folklore, beliefs, artefacts and music. It therefore has some of the qualities of an encyclopaedia, and its breadth and depth are astonishing.”

While the promised purpose of the book is to ask “whether there is anything distinctive about how the Gaels through the ages have looked at the world”, Ronnie Black’s judgement on this is severe: it’s “modest to the point of self-effacement”. The truth is that the book is “nothing less than a rounded portrait of Scottish Gaelic civilisation”.

JUST pause on that and take away the singularity of the authors and think about what that means – here’s a gauntlet thrown down the size of the arm of a giant, hitting the marble floor with a shattering clatter, if you’re not so deaf you can’t hear it.

The Gaelic-speaking population of Scotland might be small to the point of tiny in proportion to the totality of people living here but that fact means absolutely nothing when you’re thinking about the quality and quantity of history and culture to be learned about and learned from, that Scottish Gaelic culture has generated over the last few millennia.

And in any case, we should bear in mind the answer to the census-taker who asked a Gael how many folk were on his island: “Do you mean only people living at the present time?” Because there’s always more to it than them.

Presenting the contents of the book is the best way to straightforwardly indicate its range. It’s in six sections, with various sub-sections:

Chapter 1: The Environment and Sight, including “Divisions of the Year” and “Cartography and Illustration”.

Chapter 2: Ways of Seeing in the Gaelic Language, including “Naming”, “Colour” and “Script”.

Chapter 3: The Inhabited Landscape and Seascape, including “Hunting” and “Heraldry, Emblems and Totems”.

Chapter 4: Material Culture, including “Cairns, Standing Stones and Crosses”, “Weapons, Armour and Chariots”, and “Boats”.

Chapter 5: Marking Place, “Race” and Time, including “Place-Names and Geographical Vocabulary” and “Visual Aspects of a Celtic Church”.

Chapter 6: Cosmology, including “Pagan and Christian Interplay” and “A Celtic Philosophical Thread?”

Now, all of these warrant lavish attention and a lot of unpacking, and I want to come back to some of them in detail but the first and most essential thing to say is that every part of the book is immediately accessible, readable, attractively and brilliantly illuminated and leavened, sometimes with anecdote, personal experience, cautionary tales, and always, consistently, with that sense you have of the pleasure of being in good company.

You know how it is perhaps when you’re dining with people who are so full of themselves they don’t pause to let you say anything and never ask your opinion? And you know how it is when you’re with people who pause carefully, invite you to be part of the conversation, the politeness of that give-and-take, that generosity?

Reading this book is like the latter experience and has nothing of the former about it. It is nowhere insistent or shrill. It is always throughout companionable, friendly, a sharing, sometimes a cajoling, sometimes a japing but equally, consistently and always, throughout, carrying a ballast of serious scholarship second to none and better than most.

Black gives us a sobering reminder: “‘We’re rubbish, let’s pretend to be someone else’ has always been a powerful slogan in Scotland.” And it beggars belief that the book hasn’t been taken up in a hard-backed print version. As Ronnie says, it may be only available online, yet “It’s designed and typeset like a 960-page coffee-table book, however, and if it were a real one, I’d be recommending it as a Christmas present. With a change of name to The World of the Highlanders and a foreword by Diana Gabaldon, it would sell like hot cakes on the US market.”

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A really astute and careful (in both senses of that word) marketing strategy could make that work. But leave the critique to one side now. Let’s open the window.

And where to begin best? Try this, from the Foreword: “Gille-brìghde, the name for the oystercatcher in Gaelic, may provide us with an example of cultural continuity. English, French, German and Latin see a bird that catches oysters; Gaelic sees a bird that is ‘the servant of [the goddess] Brigid’.

“It requires a stretch of the imagination to see the cross on its back with which the bird was marked for saving Christ, according to Gaelic folklore. Far clearer, however, are the white chevrons on the edge of its wings, a mark which Marija Gimbutas equates with the goddess throughout Neolithic Europe.

"If these marks caused the bird to be linked with the goddess Brigid long before Brigid became a saint in Christian times, the Gaelic word preserves a particular way of seeing that is thousands of years old.”

Again, just pause on that: “thousands of years old” – we’re talking about a way of seeing that predates Christianity for as long perhaps as the period from the lifetime of Christ until today. A persistence and pertinence across a sense of linear time which makes the idea of linear time itself insufficient.

Progress isn’t inevitable or even real. There are cycles of renewal, generations of time, variations on a ground bass. All arts testify to this, all writers. This is, to most of us, I suspect, a new way of seeing.

THE individual is not the measure of time but his or her position within it is the vantage point, the arbitrary fact supplied by birth. The privilege of being alive is what makes it a gift, and a responsibility. And our own position, as Scots, is specific.

Our authors continue: “While the Irish are neither ignorant of nor frightened by their own cultural realities, the Scots and Scottish Gaels frequently are and are encouraged to downplay their cultural distinctions – with one notable exception: the tourist trade, where the acquisition of money and the presence of superficiality offer no threat to the political and cultural status quo.

“Well, not quite: David Cameron asked for, and was granted, the postponement of the screening of Outlander until after the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, fearful of a Braveheart effect.”

It’s easy to forget or overlook the nasty chicanery and malevolent mischiefs that infest the mass media that we all take as part and parcel of our present condition. The atrocities of murderers, rapists and paedophiles make horror sensational news but the political biases in which they are reported are socially destructive both through and far beyond any individuals.

And it’s that social value, which is always under attack by the forces of exploitation, that burns so brightly throughout this book, acknowledging distinct individuals without romanticising them, seeing in clear air the encompassing vision. Forget about the “mass” in “mass media” (the lowest common denominator) and think of the collective good (the highest common factor, open to all).

And everything counts. Everything is part of the story. Nothing is neglected. And this is why the comprehensiveness of this book is such a valuable redress.

Noting that the work of Michael Newton, especially in Warriors of the Word (2009), and Robert O’Driscoll, in The Celtic Consciousness (1982), has gone some considerable way towards providing a coherent overview of our Celtic heritage, our authors set out to follow and expand upon it: “We trace a Scottish Gaelic cultural identity, exhibited in a continuum with its roots in prehistory, that is still evident in some respects in the Gàidhealtachd today. We identify the particularities that distinguish that culture and, crucially, the environment in which it was seeded and has grown.

“Our sources are wide-ranging: archaeological, mythological, linguistic, written (in whatever language, including Gaelic and Old Gaelic), oral, architectural, artistic and pastoral. The approach therefore is determinedly holistic. Through the sea of constant cultural exchange, we conclude by tracing a philosophic thread, further evidence of a Gaelic way of seeing.”

The cover image of the Cave of Gold by Sean Purser might symbolise the authors’ experience – waves of enquiry, time after time, tidal, recurring, again and again, reaching into the treasures protected by mountainous rock, deep in shadow, accessible only through the fissure, but open to the effort, researching and sharing and discovering and rediscovering.

I know – and it still seems fairly miraculous – that Meg Bateman and John Purser worked over more than 10 years together on this, never fell out into argument, and eventually finished the work and emerged back into the daylight.

In the book, each keeps her and his contributions separate, each section initialled accordingly at the end, though they both had much input into each other’s work. There is never a clash of approaches. Accordingly, it all coheres. Over to you now. Enter the Cave.