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Gaelic and Scots in Harmony

Douglas Young and Sorley MacLean

J. Derrick McClure

Though I am sufficiently well-acquainted with Gaelic to read Sorley MacLean's poetry in the original, with the help of a dictionary, I am far from qualified to venture any critical commentary on it. What I propose to do in this paper is to compare Douglas Young's Scots versions of MacLean's poems with their originals, examining the methods Young has used to convey their meaning in a very dissimilar language and estimating the success or otherwise of his attempts.

Auntran Blads, Young's first volume of poetry published in 1943, contains renderings of thirteen poems by MacLean: Calbharaigh, 'Ne d' Mhiann, Gealach Ur, Ban-Ghaidheal, and numbers 54, 43, 28, 33, 34, 51, 53, 55 and 42 of the Dàin do Eimhir. The translations form a group, which after the introductory poem Thesaurus Palaeo-Scoticus opens the anthology. Auntran Blads is dedicated to MacLean and George Campbell Hay (and also includes a translation of the latter's Grunnd na Mara), and one of its avowed aims was to bring their work to the attention of the Lowland Scots poetry-reading public. Young had also expended much effort in first persuading MacLean to agree to the publication of a collection of his poetry and then in finding a publisher and an illustrator for the book: the edition of Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile, which appeared in the same year as Auntran Blads, owes its format and in some measure its very existence to Young.1 His collaboration with MacLean was clearly a matter to which the Lowland poet was intensely committed; and the affinity between the two has some obvious reasons: besides being personal friends, both were radical in their social and political beliefs and both were dedicated to the independence and the linguistic and cultural regeneration of Scotland. However, though Young's enthusiasm for the challenge of translating MacLean's poetry into Scots can easily be appreciated, the natures of the two languages ensured that his task would involve far more difficulty than the general problems of poetic translation.

Gaelic and Scots differ profoundly in many ways that are directly relevant to their literary potential. Phonologically, two characteristics of Scots are a vowel system of moderate size (larger than that of Italian but somewhat smaller, at least in most dialects, than that of conservative Paris French, and noticeably smaller than that of RP-accented English), with few diphthongs and no phonemic distinction between long and short vowels; and a consonant system in which high-energy consonants - plosives and fricatives, of the voiced and voiceless varieties - appear in abundance, both singly and in clusters. Gaelic has a huge vowel system, allowing for over thirty distinct syllable nuclei, with numerous diphthongs and long monophthongs; and in its consonant system a preponderance of approximants, nasals and laterals and a relative dearth of consonant clusters and voiced obstruents. Each language affords to its poets definite possibilities for sound effects, and these, but especially in Gaelic, have been exploited with great skill in poetry of all periods; but the phonaesthetic qualities of the two languages are about as different as they could be.

Faced with a Gaelic poem containing an abundance of alliteration, assonance, vowel harmony and other devices of sound patterning, the course which will naturally suggest itself to a Scots translator will be to use similar devices to adorn the language of his translation. The paradoxical consequence of the dissimilarity of the languages on the phonetic level, however, is that the more closely the translation approaches the original in technical merit, the more unlike will be the actual effects gained.

As an example, consider the following four lines from Dàin do Eimhir LI:

Laigh mo spiorad breòite
an ònrachd a phèin,
a' plosgartaich roimh uilebheist
nan tuiltean fuaraidh geur...

The repetition of [(:] in the first half of this and of [u] in the second, the preponderance of [l] and [r], and the two bilabial plosives in the first line, contribute to a delicate patterning of sounds. Young's rendering is as follows:

Brubbit and lane, my spreit
liggit, bruckil and frush,
trummlan at the muckle bysen
o thon cauld sherp flush.

Here the insistence on a single repeated vowel [/\], and the abundance of plosives and of clusters containing [r], has resulted in an at least equally striking, but totally dissimilar, patterning of sounds; and therefore on the phonetic level a very different aesthetic effect. Some readers might wish to argue that Young's sound patterns are here unsubtle and obtrusive compared to MacLean's: I am not concerned at the moment, however, to evaluate the effect, but simply to demonstrate by a fairly extreme example that the characteristics of the languages necessitate vast discrepancies between the originals and the translations as poetry.

The same is true on a different level: the semantic. A remarkable feature of Gaelic appears to be that its words often exhibit a degree of polysemy unknown in Scots. Any user of Dwelly's Gaelic Dictionary is bound to be startled by the frequency with which a given word appears to have several possible meanings. As a couple of examples of such words from MacLean's poetry, borb, according to Dwelly, means

  • "1: fierce, furious, violent;
  • 2: passionate, raging;
  • 3: outrageous;
  • 4: strong;
  • 5: savage;
  • 6: turbulent;
  • 7: cruel;
  • 8: rude, ignorant;
  • 9: haughty, proud."

Still more extreme in its semantic diversity is cianail:

  • "1: melancholy,mournful, sad, lamentable;
  • 2: pensive;
  • 3: solitary, lonely, lonesome, dreary;
  • 4: mild, gentle;
  • 5: loving;
  • 6: weary, fatigued, fatiguing, tedious, forlorn;
  • 7: (with another adjective) exceedingly;
  • 8: amazing."

This phenomenon cannot be explained by a suggestion that Gaelic has a small vocabulary so that a given word has to stand for a large number of concepts, as is said to have been the case with Japanese during the great literary efflorescence of the Heian era: on the contrary, Gaelic has a very extensive vocabulary; and the shifting and variable meanings of words appears to be simply a feature of the language itself. Even the fact that a given word is often found to have different meanings in the various dialects, and the ad hominem point that Dwelly was a careful lexicographer who included all the information he could find from many different authorities, cannot explain it away entirely. The implication of this for poetry is that though of the various possible meanings for a given word one alone will be appropriate in its specific context, overtones of others, or at any rate their emotional suggestions, may also be present, leading to subtle but powerful literary effects.

Scots cannot match this: on the other hand, a noteworthy and highly individual feature of Scots, and one which has offered limitless opportunities to both its poets and its ordinary speakers, is the intensely onomatopoeic nature of its words. No other European language, it is safe to say, can compete with Scots for the wealth of words in which a powerful semantic force is accompanied by a distinctive and striking phonological shape. In his rendering of 'Ne d'mhiann, Young translates the last line

air a shàrachadh 's a riasladh

as "jurmummlit and forfochen" - reversing the order of MacLean's words. Jurmummle and riasladh coincide closely enough in meaning; but the Scots word has the edge over the Gaelic in onomatopoeic force: it is a rare and local word of Border origin, both of Jamieson's illustrative quotations being from Hogg, but Young has used it in apparent confidence that readers will understand it through the sounds' speaking for themselves. Forfochen, though perfectly appropriate, particularly in that its etymological connection with fecht is more strongly and literally present than as often used, has nothing of the semantic complexity of sàrachadh, which combines the ideas of "oppressing" "doing violence" "harrassing" "wearying" wronging" "injuring" and "perplexing"; but again its onomatopoeic power is sufficient to compensate, in another direction, for this lack. Of the two words first cited, borb is used in the phrase 'na m'chridhe borb in the first stanza of Mur b'e thusa (Dàin do Eimhir XLIII). MacLean's own translation in Dàin do Eimhir is "barbarous", in Reothairt is Contraigh "fierce". Young renders the phrase "my ramstam hert", using a word which, though perhaps lacking the more menacing overtones of borb, admirably conveys by its sound structure the sense of headlong impetuous violence. Cianail occurs in a superb passage in Na Samhlaidhean (Dàin do EimhirXXVIII):

'S ann, a ghaoil, bho na taobhan
fad as, cianail a bhios an glaodhaich,
ag iargan, ag èigheach air do ghaol-sa.

Young translates this as

Frae far awa their keenan's be,
frae dowf shores, luve, ayont the sea,
thinkan lang, outcryan for ye.

The syntax is altered somewhat in Young's version, but the word which represents cianail is apparently dowf. Here the appropriateness of the word is open to question: the sense of dull, heavy gloom which it conveys, and which is strongly reinforced by the sound, is not exactly that of cianail. On the other hand, keenan, a more precise and more emotive word than glaodhaich "cry", which it represents (and, fittingly a word of Gaelic origin, albeit Irish rather than Scottish) was probably suggested by the sound of cianail. Keenan, too, contributes to the patterned repetition of [i] by which Young has endeavoured to provide a counter for that of [( :] in the original. (It should be noted that Young does not always use the same Scots word to translate a given Gaelic word wherever it occurs: in Chan fhaic mi (LV) cianail is rendered as waesome, giving a vowel harmony in waesome space.)

There is, of course, never any question of exactly or even closely replicating the effect of a work in any language by a translation into another: however, as between two languages as intensely individual and as dissimilar as Scots and Gaelic, the impossibility is more manifest than in other conceivable cases. Young's translations vary in the extent to which he has departed from the suggestions of his originals; but even when the actual word-by-word equivalence is at its closest, the impression conveyed is clearly distinct from that of the Gaelic.

A detailed look at the first of Young's translations, Ye were the Dawn, rendering Camhanaich (LIV), may show what is lost, and how that loss is compensated for, in the creation of a Scots poem suggested by a Gaelic one. The first stanza is a very close rendition of the Gaelic: at first sight it looks as if Young had done no more than to take MacLean's English prose version, Scotticise the language by the alteration of a few spellings and vocabulary items, and arrange it into verse. However, the result is undeniably a carefully-wrought and attractive piece of Scots poetry. The word hills in the first line, though semantically redundant and clearly brought in primarily for the meter, by its syllabic length and its consonant harmony with Cuillin adds to the sound-music of the line. The archaism flume alliterates with fleur (which can only be pronounced [flur], despite Young's peculiar spelling) in the next line, thus preserving MacLean's sound linkage, in his case by a vowel harmony, between òr-shruth and ròs geal; and the rhyme arisan - horizon, in which the first word has no equivalent in the Gaelic, ingeniously reinforces the dawn imagery. Lost without trace is the near-rhyme of uilinn with Cuilthionn: elbucks is absolutely nothing but a literal translation; but a partially compensating effect is gained by the vowel harmony of bousom and fleur. The two rare vocabulary items in Young's verse each have a definite value in the sound patterning.

The word gesserant is actually a noun meaning a kind of armour made of small plates or strips of iron, and Young's use of it as an adjective meaning "sparkling", to translate lainnir, is highly idiosyncratic; though the Gaelic word is often used of light reflecting off a polished surface. But it contributes to the effect of the repeated [s]'s: an effect very different from the interweaving of laterals and nasals in MacLean's line, but memorable enough in its own right: and to a dactyllic rhythm contrasting with the predominantly anapaestic movement of the first stanza. Skinklan is not the meaning of grianach; but a sea which was grianach would in truth be skinklan, and the term is another of the strongly phonaesthetic words in which Scots abounds. Luft is in itself a less impressive word than iarmailt, which is ultimately from Latin firmamentum; but the monosyllable is necessary for the pleasing rhythmic balance of Young's line. The third and fourth lines of this stanza are rhythmically less felicitous and contain no particularly interesting vocabulary items except blee: another instance of a rare word, this time archaic English rather than Scots, chosen for its contribution to a sound effect: partial alliteration with bonnie and vowel harmony with clear.

Leug is mentioned by John McInnes, in an excellent article on MacLean's language,2 as a fairly rare word which is a favourite of the poet's: its basic meaning is "precious stone", but it can be applied to a beautiful or beloved woman. Young's corresponding word gowdie likewise merits some discussion. Despite his gloss "jewel", there is strictly speaking no Scots word with this form and meaning: he has combined the sense of the Middle English word gaudie (c.f. the Prioress's beads),3 which is not related to gold but to the Latin gaudium, with the spelling and therefore by implication the etymology of an existing Scots word of which one of the senses is a term of endearment. (Its other senses, a treasurer and a kind of fish, have to be carefully disregarded.) Coibhneas is a complex word, ultimately meaning "kinship" but associated through similarity of sound with caomh "kind" and hence in ordinary usage meaning "kindness". Gentrice shares something of this complexity: it actually means "good breeding", but to a lay reader is certain to carry suggestions of "gentle" in the modern sense, and is therefore more acceptable as a translation of the Gaelic than its strictly literal meaning suggests. In both these lines, too, Young has avoided the most obvious translations of certain words - oidhche becoming the derk and aodann becoming brou - for a sound pattern: alliteration with dawn and vowel harmony with loesome.

Glas means "pale, wan, dull" as well as "grey", the word which MacLean uses for it in his translation: like other Gaelic colour words, it has strong emotional associations.. Young's use of dullyart, a doubtful word attested only in Jamieson and glossed by him as "of a dirty dull colour" is again for reasons of sound patterning: it provides a consonance with the much more familiar word dule, further emphasised, like dòlais which it coincidentally resembles, by being placed at the end of its line. Stang and thirlit convey closely the sense of bior and sàthte, though the venom of stang is not present in bior, and the necessity of bringing the last line to the requisite length has been neatly met by adding sair: a simple word indeed, but one which by coming at the very end and contrasting pointedly with its rhyme-word rare serves to underline the unexpected emotional twist with which the poem concludes.

Young has on any showing, therefore, fulfilled the requirements of a poetic translation: Ye were the Dawn faithfully conveys the literal meaning of its original, and is worthy to stand on its own merits as a poem in Scots. The difficulty of composing, like MacLean, in rhymed verse with regular four-beat lines has not only been surmounted but turned to excellent effect. The only major loss in the poem is of MacLean's repetition of òg-mhadainn, first meaning literally "dawn" and then the morning of life.

In other poems besides this one, Young's decision to follow MacLean in writing rhymed verse has presented him with specific challenges, not all of which are satisfactorily met. The words cràidh and bhàs, which end 11. 6 and 8 of Calbharaigh, have provided him with the fortuitous gift of the rhyme skaith - daith. In 'Ne d'mhiann, to rhyme with the word forfochen already discussed he alters blàth a'cìochan to her breasts sac fair and sauchin: if his definition of sauchin as "supple, tender" is accepted, he has at the cost of losing MacLean's metaphor greatly increased the enticing sensuality of the line (and the ironic force of the rhyme). In fact he has exercised some poetic licence here: the word is derived from sauch "willow", and neither Jamieson nor the SND has any attestation of its use in this particular sense; but the licence may be granted. A suggestion of the similar word souchin "sighing, gasping" adds to the sensual effect. The first and second verses of Tràighean (XLII) in the Scots version open with

Were we thegither, me and you,
On Talisker shore, whaur the great whyte mou...


And were we thegither, you and me,
in Mull on the shore o Calgarie,

- a slight elaboration of the Gaelic, but a most attractive one. (Young's translation of this magnificent poem is certainly one of his best. The restrained choice of Scots words, avoiding flamboyant or unusual items, maintains the hushed tone of MacLean's vision of timelessness, and numerous specific details show Young's ingenuity as poet and translator: the heavy prosody, with onomatopoeic force, of "...the great whyte mou... the hard chats twa"; the masterly translation, for a rhyme, of the place-name Rubha nan Clach 4 as "the Staney Skaw" (using a rare Norse-derived word meaning a, low promontory, found as a toponymic element occasionally in Shetland but not, to my knowledge, in the Gaidhealtachd); the partial retention of the sound linkage in the rendering of bruan air bhruan and braon air bhraon as draff by draff and dreg by dreg; the interpolation of an accurate descriptive word in "were we on Moidart's shore sae whyte" to rhyme with the expansion of a nodhachd ùidhe to "thou unco ferlie o new delyte"; the placing of eternitie, qualified by two emotive Scots words, at the very end of the poem.) By contrast, in

Lassie gin ye'd made me your lad
aiblins ma sangs waid never had...,

his version of the opening of Na samhlaidhean (XXVIII)

Nan robh mi air do ghaol fhaotainn
theagamh nach biodh aig mo dhàintean...

the anticlimax of using as semantically weak a word as had for a rhyme cannot be ignored. (It is the past participle of hae, in a construction which is of course perfectly grammatical in Scots; not the cognate of hold, which Young spells haud.) This is the most serious flaw in another of Young's finest translations. The friendly, intimate tone of the opening line is certainly at odds with the mood of the Gaelic; but it may be said in Young's defence that he has added an effective element of surprise in allowing this line with its air of easy affection to lead into such a powerful, grandiose and mysterious poem.

In Gealach Ur, no such excuse can be offered for the line "Sic blasphemie God wald gar me rue", enjoined by the need of a rhyme for throu, which so gravely weakens the audacious tone of the original is canadh Dia gur h-e an toibheum as to be a clear falsification. One of his worst lapses of both inspiration and poetic taste occurs at the beginning of An uair a labhras mi... (XXXIV), when to eke out the line he brings in the word natur, corresponding to nothing in the Gaelic, and then for a rhyme translates mo ghaoil ghil as "o my whyte dear cratur". A few lines on he renders

air a' bhoglaich oillteil ghrànda
's am bheil a' bhùirdeasachd a' bàthadh:


thon hideous flow, reid and broun,
whaur the bourgeoisie slounge and droun.

- memorable lines certainly, in which the choice of rhyme words contributes much to the disturbing effect; but ones in which he has taken fairly extreme liberties with the Gaelic. Slounge "plunge with a splash" is a very expressive word, combining onomatopoeia with a hint of the condemnatory overtones of the homophones word which means "to move in an idle, lethargic or stealthy manner": indeed, Young could almost equally well have intended the latter as the primary sense: but it has no equivalent in MacLean's line. The Gaelic adjectives suggest extreme disgust and repugnance but carry no implications of colour: term and brown", though conveying an appropriately unpleasant image, can only be regarded as a strange and unwarranted embellishment. (Though interestingly, whether Young thought of this or not, there is an appropriateness in that the corresponding Gaelic colour words dearg and donn have the secondary implications of, respectively, violence and madness, and sullen ill-temper: suitably negative connotations.) Later in the same poem, however, he redeems himself with his translation of

chunnaic mi òradh lainnir grèine
agus boglach dhubh na brèine


I've seen the sun's gowden glitter
and the black moss o soss and skitter,

where the startling collocation of grèine with brèine is equalled or even intensified by that of Young's rhyming words. Glitter for lainnir, which suggests a steady brilliance, could in itself be questioned; but glitter has, in modern usage at least, overtones of speciousness and superficiality: the same sense as is conveyed by MacLean's previous word, which is not òrach "golden" but òradh "gilding". The conclusive justification for the use of the word is the devastating effect of the rhyme with skitter "wet excrement", a more specific but for that reason still more repellent concept than MacLean's. The excremental image has already been introduced in the phrase shitten puirtith; and it is perhaps to emphasise his insistence on a greater degree of physical repugnance than is present in MacLean's poem that he uses this as a translation for breòiteachd duilghe. MacLean himself translated this as "the weakness of sorrow", and Young's phrase is less sympathetic in tone as well as more disagreeably concrete in imagery than this. But breòiteachd, besides meaning "weakness" in the sense of frailty or infirmity, has a secondary sense of rottenness or putrefaction, possibly by association with the similar-sounding breothadh, so that Young's translation is not altogether false.

His use of the same word shitten in Calbharaigh has been criticised by Ronald Stevenson,5 who finds Young's Scots "coarser and cruder" than MacLean's Gaelic. Stevenson is referring to its suitability for musical setting, but Young's use of shitten lays him open to the charge in another sense. However, in this poem too, the effect of his rendering is to change an abstract expression in MacLean's poetry into a more concrete one: shitten for grod, which means (as its primary sense) "rotten" or putrid", is a change of the same kind as backlands for cùil, which simply means "corner". Young has replaced a vague and general word with a definite and veracious image from urban life; as in the same way he immediately afterwards enlarges seòmar an Dun-èideann to a stairhead room in an Embro land. MacLean's translation of cùil ghrod is "foul-smelling backland": could this have been suggested by Young's word? As in An uair a labhras mi, Young is placing greater stress than MacLean on the physical repulsiveness of the imagery. That this is deliberate and not inherent in either his language or his method is shown by his conclusion of this poem, where he does precisely the reverse. Diseased, MacLean's translation of creuchdach, may seem blunt enough; but creuchd, which basically means "wound", is also used of scabs and sores. Young's shilpit in no way conveys a strong physical image of disease as the Gaelic word does, and shilpit bairnikie, with the compassion implicit in the double diminutive, is a much more pathetic and less shocking image than an naoidhean creuchdach. The suggestion of fits or convulsions in aonagraich, which MacLean translates by the two words writhes and wallows, is also absent in Young's "gaes smoorit doun til daith". Smoor normally means "suffocate", but the suggestion here is surely of a feeble last gasp, reinforced by the unemphatic gaes doun.

Young's choice of vocabulary items is often highly individual: not only in his Gaelic translations but throughout his Scots poetry he shows a greater fondness for archaic and unusual words than any other of the major post-MacDiarmid poets. Nearly always in his translations of MacLean, however, his rare words are judiciously chosen to give an effect suggested by, or at any rate appropriate to, his originals. In Gealach Ur, MacLean uses three words meaning a banner or standard: brat, suaicheantas and meirghe, which Young renders by three imposing archaisms: gumphion blasounrie and ensenyie, conveying a sense of pomp and pageantry. Whether this, or indeed the use of archaisms in general, is apposite for a piece of revolutionary propaganda is open to question; but if Young's translation seems overwritten here the blame is not entirely his: in this poem MacLean may be at his most defiant but he is not at his most subtle or most perceptive. Archaisms also contribute to the effect of a much finer poem, Mur b'e thusa (XLIII), where machicolate "battlemented", though not an exact translation of eagarra ordered, regular", accords well with the merch-dyke (balia-crìche precisely) of the next line; and fullyerie with its poetic resonance (the dictionaries suggest that Young's immediate precedent was MacDiarmid, who got it in Jamieson, whose authority was Gavin Douglas) .likewise is appropriate to the "tree of strings", a striking poetic metaphor which MacLean has taken from the title of a pibroch.

A very different effect is gained in Chan faic mi fàth mo shaothrach (LV), where the vocabulary, though densely Scots, is predominantly familiar, colloquial and Germanic: trauchlan, leid, whuredom, lowp, a wee bittock, smeddum - even the interpolated exclamation och. Tholemudness is a concoction from the Middle Scots tholmod "patient"; but as the familiar word thole is at once recognisable its meaning presents no difficulty. In this poem Young's words impart a physical energy and dynamism not present in the original: particularly the line "lowps up in a brulyie o sturt and dreid", which with its suggestion of violent action and its clashing plosives has a far more forceful effect than the Gaelic.

One of the finest of Young's translations, in which the balance between learned and colloquial, and between archaic and modern, in the Scots is most skilfully maintained to give consistent and expressive poetic language, is Na samhlaidhean (XXVIII) or The Ghaists. Eternitie and perpetuitie are of course no less and no more Scots words than they are English words, but they are not of a register which has been regularly exploited in post-mediaeval Scots poetry; and Young's free use of them, in collocation with traditional and familiar Scots words, is an assertion of the status of his Scots as a language containing a full vocabulary and range of expression and not - what written Scots had been in danger of becoming in the period between Burns and MacDiarmid - a dialect restricted to a limited set of registers. The few genuine rarities - bord in the Older Scots sense of a mountain ridge, conveen as in haud conveen "meet", sheene for bright or shining (translating loinn-gheal) - unobtrusively contribute to the mysterious atmosphere of the poem. This is further enhanced by the invariable use of Scots for words associated with death: wauk the deid, yirdan-kist, graff: and by the use of the MacDiarmidism dumb-deid - perfect in its context - to translate the simple word oidhche. Gleid, with its associations, of the supernatural, heightens the ballad-like atmosphere: here once again Young has used a word with different overtones from his original, MacLean's boillsgeadh suggesting brightness rather than an actual flame or spark; but these overtones harmonise admirably with the mood of the poem. In other cases too Young has used a rather more precise word than MacLean: they'll sclim for gabhaidh iad, they'll pad (go on foot) for falbhaidh iad, they'll spell for, again, falbhaidh iad: not particularly interesting words in themselves, but ones which both make the motion suggested more definite and demonstrate the power of Scots to achieve restrained as well as spectacular effects. The necessity of filling out the lines to the requisite four beats has enjoined on Young an occasional expansion of a word in MacLean or an outright addition, but in this poem such devices are used with great tact: o mony bairntimes, heich sma hill-tracks, moch and wan, say rather more than ginealach, rathaidean àrda and glas, and ayont the sea, dreich and in sang have no equivalents in the Gaelic; but all are wholly in accordance with the impression MacLean is conveying.

The poet whose position in modern Scots literature most nearly resembles that of MacLean in Gaelic is, it goes without saying, not Young but MacDiarmid. In the great twentieth-century revivals of poetry in the two languages, Young is not a prime mover, as MacLean is. (This in itself, of course, has no bearing on Young's actual poetic stature: Burns was not a prime mover in the corresponding revival of the eighteenth century.) The Scots Renaissance was vigorously in being by the date of Auntran Blads: William Soutar, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Robert Garioch, among others, had already published major Scots poetry in MacDiarmid's wake, and like him had experimented with new methods of developing the language. Nonetheless, Young's motive in translating MacLean was not only to bring the Gaelic poet's work to the attention of a wider audience but to advance the Scots tongue still further into hitherto uncharted literary territories. Translations, including translations of great literature which are major Scots poems in their own right, had been a feature of Scots poetry since the Middle Ages; but no Scots poet had as yet undertaken precisely Young's task: that of translating a contemporary, a great poetic innovator with a highly individual and overwhelmingly powerful voice, working in a widely dissimilar language and cultural background. To find or create a register in Scots capable of expressing the unique imaginative range and emotional power of MacLean's poetry was the challenge which Young faced; and even had he not succeeded, his artistic courage would have been worthy of respect. In my judgement, despite some undeniable flaws and lapses he does succeed, as he does not in his later attempt to translate Valery's Le Cimetière Marin:6 his skilful and judicious blending of archaic and familiar Scots words, his use of the onomatopoeic resources of the language, and his expert handling of its segmental and prosodic patterns, combine to make of his translations not only poems which convey - when at their best, better than any English translation has done - the power of their originals, but collectively make an important contribution to the development of Scots. Young's more remarkable when we consider his fidelity not achievement is all the only to the sense but to the verse structure of his originals: the proud claim of the youthful James VI that he had rendered Du Bartas' Uranie into Scots with line-for-line exactitude7 could almost be matched by Young. In the translation of a great poet by a lesser but still highly distinguished one, to produce work which deliberately and successfully sets out to vindicate the resources of the Scots tongue, Young has worthily played Gavin Douglas to MacLean's Virgil.


Auntran Blads: An Outwale o Verse by Douglas Young (Poetry Scotland Series No. 1) and Dàin do Eimhir agus Dain Eile le Somhairle MacGhille-Eathainn were both published in 1943 by William MacLellan, 240 Hope Street, Glasgow. Neither book has been reprinted and there is no collected edition of either Young's or MacLean's poems;* some of the Gaelic poems discussed are included, in a different arrangement, in Spring Tide and Neap Tide: Selected Poems 1932-72/Reothairt is Contraigh: Taghadh de Dhàin 1932-72, Sorley MacLean/Somhairle MacGill-Eain, Edinburgh (Canongate) 1977.

*Since this paper was written, Sorley MacLean's From Wood to Ridge: Collected Poems has been published by Carcanet Press (1989).

1. See Joy Hendry, "Sorley MacLean: the man and his work", in Raymond J. Ross and Joy Hendry, eds., Sorley MacLean: Critical Essays, Edinburgh (Scottish Academic Press) 1986, 9-38.

2. "Language, metre and diction in the poetry of Sorley MacLean", in Ross and Hendry 1986, op. cit., 137-154.

3. Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, A 159.

4. Many Scottish places and topographical features have accepted names in both Gaelic and Scots (and/or English), but this particular feature has no official name other than its Gaelic one.

5. "MacLean: musician manqué (and a composer's collaboration)", in Ross and Hendry 1986, op. cit., 176-183.

6. Other critics have expressed a more favourable view of Young's The Kirkyaird by the Sea; but see J. D. McClure, "Three translations by Douglas Young", in C. Macafee and I. MacLeod, eds., The Nuttis Schell: Essays on the Scots Language presented to A.J. Aitken, Aberdeen (University Press) 1987, 195-203.

7. See James Craigie, ed.,The Poems of James VI of Scotland, Vol.l, Scottish Text Society Third Series 22, Edinburgh and London 1955, p. 17.

Naturally, the following reference works were consulted:

  • W. Grant and D. Munson, eds., The Scottish National Dictionary, Edinburgh 1925-1976.
  • John Jamieson, An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, Edinburgh 1808.
  • Edward Dwelly, The Illustrated Gaelic Dictionary, Fleet 1918.
  • Alexander MacBain, An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, Stirling 1911.