"Western Europeans set out into nature as if to a costume party. They have a sort of waxed jacket relationship with nature." (Joseph Roth: Going for a Walk, 1921. In "What I Saw", translated by Michael Hofmann).
Coincidence isn't usually something I believe in, but a few years ago I travelled to Dalmally to take a much-needed break and stayed at the railway station; in my bag, I had two translations of Duncan Ban MacIntyre's Moladh Beinn Dobhrain, one by Iain Crichton Smith, the other — more recent — by Alan Riach. Deciding to take a walk, the owners, Graham and Liz, suggested that I walk up to the Duncan Ban monument. That was the first coincidence: I didn't even know there was such a thing. So I set off up to the monument that sits above Loch Awe. After sitting a while, I walked on a little further, entering the wood and, stopping to listen to the bird song, noticed I was being watched; a deer, almost camouflaged by a foreground of felled trees and jutting branches, was standing with its neck extended, studying me. We watched each other for a moment, then both went our separate ways. Back at the railway station I tucked in to Ben Dobhrain.
In the weeks before I went to Dalmally there had been an article in the newspaper by Brian Beacom, which to me amounted to an attack on Gaelic: the usual argument that public money should not fund a dying language. Minority language speakers constantly have to justify their right to speak their language in a way that speakers of state-sponsored majority languages, such as English, do not. Often, it is suggested that Gaelic speakers have undeserved privileges: but for me, that just jars too much with the reality of how Gaelic has become a minority language. In their minority status, some argue, Gaelic speakers constitute a privileged elite. How dare they still be visible after all attempts to make them invisible! There was my motivation to do something for Gaelic — to advocate for Gaelic in my own small way.
I told a friend about my project and he told me of a young woman from Stornoway he knew who resented Gaelic speakers; particularly those who got jobs in the media just because they speak Gaelic. I asked him why she didn't. Surely, living in Lewis, there is plenty opportunity to learn the language? Isn't the real issue here that she had been disadvantaged by growing up in a home where she was not encouraged to speak Gaelic — or where it simply wasn't an option? There are good historical reasons why a family may have decided not to pass on the language to the younger generation. If she wanted to work in the media, there is a large English-speaking media for which, like its Gaelic counterpart, one can go to college and study for a diploma; it's not, after all, the language alone that is required — there are other technical and practical skills required. It irked me that someone who grew up on an island so noted for Gaelic should feel like this. It irked me but it didn't really surprise me.
George Orwell, writing in his Tribune column As I Please, in 1947 (having been living on Jura for the past year as he worked on the novel that would become Nineteen Eighty-Four), wrote:
"At one time I would have said that it is absurd to keep alive an archaic language like Gaelic, spoken by only a few hundred thousand people. Now I am not so sure. To begin with, if people feel that they have a special culture which ought to be preserved, and that the language is part of it, difficulties should not be put in their way when they want their children to learn it properly. Secondly, it is probable that the effort of being bilingual is a valuable education in itself." (In Tribune, As I Please, 14th February, 1947. Available online: http://www.telelib.com/authors/O/OrwellGeorge/essay/tribune/AsIPlease19470214.html)
It's worth pointing out the use of the term "archaic language" — as if Gaelic was not capable of modernity (whatever that means) but is to be consigned to the past; in other circumstances, Orwell would no doubt celebrate the "archaic" lineage of English. Having no Gaelic himself, he seems to have been unaware of Sorley MacLean's Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile published in 1943, which is now considered the chief example of modernism in Gaelic poetry. The linguistic barrier, what Professor John Stuart Blackie earlier called "the partition wall" between Gaelic and English, shaded his opinion of the language. Orwell's passage is all the more interesting as it comes in the midst of an attack on a particularly repugnant form of Scottish nationalism, discussed by Orwell in relation to a letter from an unidentified Scottish nationalist and with the view that these small groups should be watched closely. Sitting Gaelic next to Scottish nationalism as though they naturally belong together still happens, coming both from its detractors and its supporters — it remains, however, a fact that people of different political affiliations speak Gaelic. But there is an element of hostility to Gaelic from some quarters who see it as an attack on the Union (with a capital or lower case U/u as you like).
Over seventy years before Orwell was writing his Tribune column, Professor John Stuart Blackie (1809-1895), Professor of Greek at Edinburgh University, decried the "partition wall" which viewed Gaels as other, and regarded them as a challenge to British identity and the British State. They were, in a sense, seen by some (perhaps by many) as internal "foreigners". And for some (hopefully not many) they still are. In 1876, when Blackie was writing, Gaelic was more widespread than today. He was himself a learner. There was a growing interest in place-names and their etymology which Blackie hoped would bring people to the language, just as the excellent book Reading the Gaelic Landscape: Leughadh Aghaidh Na Tìre by John Murray perhaps seeks to do today. But the language was still seen by many as irredeemably "barbarous". When Blackie's support for the language was challenged, he countered with:
"Again, it is asked, Why should any support be given to a language which is dying, and will be dead in a very few years if not artificially supported? To which I answer, Why should we act violently and contrary to nature by endeavouring to stamp out a language which, as a social fact, is obstinately alive...?" (In "The Language and Literature of the Scottish Highlands", 1876)
And it is still "obstinately alive" even though hostility remains. Gaelic is still seen as threat by some. To some it is elitist and divisive. There is a notion that we are all more equal if we speak the same language and that language should be English; few international socialists, I am sure, would be as prepared to argue for the abolition of English, German or French on the grounds that they are divisive. So Gaelic speakers continue to have to justify their right to speak the language, just as they did nearly 150 years ago when Blackie was writing, or nearly 75 years ago when Orwell was writing. The plea for acceptance, that Gaelic is another aspect of Scottish or British or European identity, is a constant struggle to be relevant, which will not go away. It is, in my view, a part of the motivation that led to James MacPherson's Ossian poems (published throughout the 1760s), parts of which were translated into German by Goethe in his Die Leiden Des Jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir sought to ingratiate himself with the elite of British society in the latter half of the eighteenth century; perhaps with the wider aim, or hope, that Gaelic would be accepted as a language that could, within the new British state, take its rightful place alongside English. But attempts to discourage Gaelic and to put obstacles in the way of maintaining, let alone learning the language continued into the twentieth century. Some would argue little has changed. I often get tired of having to defend the language's right to exist. I get tired too of the fact that since I began learning Gaelic in 1989 the talk, prominent in much of the literature, often comes around to language death, as if we've been taught to believe it is inevitable. How much better it would be if we, like John Stuart Blackie, could focus instead on the language being 'obstinately alive'.
So. This was the background against which I decided to make my own translation of Moladh Beinn Dobhrain. A small contribution but one I have put a great deal of time and effort into. And the second coincidence? While teaching a South American student in my English class I asked about her surname — McIntyre — and she told me she was directly descended from a famous Gaelic poet, Duncan Ban MacIntyre. She too had visited the monument at Dalmally. Just a few days before I had visited Duncan Ban's grave in Edinburgh's Greyfriars Kirkyard, along with a friend, the poet Ross Wilson. Duncan Ban's poem Moladh Beinn Dobhrain (In Praise of Ben Dorain) was first published in 1768 and is — along with Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair's Birlinn of Clanranald — one of the most important Gaelic poems of the eighteenth century. It has been translated many times by figures as eminent as John Stuart Blackie, Hugh MacDiarmid, Iain Crichton Smith, and Alan Riach. A translation into French of many of MacIntyre's poems was done by Dr. Donald James MacLeod. In the 1930s, the journalist William Power commended the French translation, adding:
"Strange, that a foreign university should attach such importance to a language that enlightened Argyll was throwing away like a pair of old shoes!" (in "Literature and Oatmeal", 1935, pg.187)
One summer's day, to escape a Royal Wedding, my friend Alan and I decided to take the train to Bridge of Orchy and climb Ben Dorain. We returned again to walk the glen at the back (Gleann Innis Chailein) and follow Allt Kinglass in the direction of Loch Lyon, where the poem is mainly set. The poem itself is about the deer forest and most strikingly about the deer themselves, describing their environment and behaviour, observing them in a way that wasn't done with such loving attention until Fraser Darling's A Herd of Red Deer (1937). I give you a flavour of the poem, in my own translation, as an invitation, an enticement to dip your hooves into a language that, for some of us, remains 'obstinately alive':
The small hind, her step faltering, her conical scalp lowered to the onrush, scales the scalloped skullcap of Ben Dorain. Heart-shaped rump and cloven hooves. Nostrils flexing as she hunts the wind. Spare and over-eagre. For fear of gun-fire, she won’t desert her congregation, nor will her sternum’s heaving slow her.
She’s swapped breath for breath with powerful ancestors, whose wraith-like echoes thrill me, as she seeks her lover with a delicate passion: The wild white-rumped stag – his own author – god-like and raucous below his crown of birch. Long resident on Ben Dorain, he knows its every secret.
Ben Dorain. Listen – the things I could tell you. So many stags seek out positions in a forest of deer where slim nimble hinds are shadowed by calves. Birch saplings string the ice-hollowed bowl of Coire a’ Chruiteir, or climb in droves through the mountain pass. Or linger in schiltrums – or,
bend like a hind’s legs. Even now, though she moves in haste, the downstrokes of her nib-like toes barely sign her presence – there. And who, of man’s dominion, might follow her, erratic, energetic, over tricky slopes of scree? That congregation on whose minds no taint of sin is written; though sultry, changeable, slender-legged and willing. Time will not burden her. No sorrow. No frailty.
They are self-composed. Beneath their dusty vestments lie strong-muscled haunches and broad ridged necks. The peatland is pitted with their confident prints. They have pledged their oaths in echoing hollows and the mountain now is wet-nurse to the speckled calf, silent in sleet, his coat snow-flecked like the high slopes. With their beating hearts, with the meadow’s milk, with garrulous prancing and round white girths, their flesh is uncorrupted, is salved with spring-water. They advance without thought through disarming glens, and were snows to hinder them, they’d ask no shelter from the uneven terrain. With its impassable rocks, the hollow of Coire Altruim will protect them. Look! They are resting in the lazybeds or by the fairy-dun of Ais an t-Sìthean.
A Gaelic essay which I wrote with the same title (but different content) is available at https://www.progressivegaelic.com/blog