STARN: Scots Teaching and Resource Network
Gaelic and Scots in Harmony
George Campbell Hay: Nationalism With a Difference
It is very hard to define just how much liberty a writer has in the choice of his themes. If we consider the more explicitly formal aspects of poetry, such as metrical patterning and the structure of rhyme and stanza, it is clear that each new poet must come to terms with an inherited repertory which can be modified only to a limited extent. Even if he or she should decide to break entirely with tradition, that break will nevertheless be interpreted in the light of the tradition itself.
Turning to thematic material, we are still all too often influenced by a mechanistic conception of form and content, in which the form would be the glass beaker which allows us to perceive more or less clearly the content which has been poured into it, with all the propensity of liquids to fill out an offered shape while remaining firmly themselves. (We are careful to choose for such metaphors solids and liquids which do not interact chemically with one another. Otherwise we might find the beaker disintegrating on contact with the liquid it contains.)
If, on the other hand, we see the relationship between form and content as organic, or even go so far as to abolish any valid distinction between them, we are forced to the conclusion that the things a poet talks about may be as derivative and as rigidly conditioned as the way he chooses to treat them. Within a highly self-aware poetic tradition, it may be possible to break down a single composition in such a way as to find a previous literary source for each of its constituent sections. This is as much the case with the lyrics of Robert Herrick as with Iain Dubh Mac Iain 'ic Ailein's "Oran nam Fineachan Gàidhealach" (1). So the choice of particular thematic focuses for poetry is collaborative and public at least as often as it is individual or private.
Tensions of this kind are very relevant to George Campbell Hay's treatment of nationalism, which can be seen as a theme imposed on him rather than being chosen. If he reveals a keen sensitivity to the rain-washed, wind-beaten freshness of the Kintyre landscapes he grew up among, rather than attributing this to some kind of Celtic essentialism, a closeness to and sensitivity about nature which the Celt has because he or she is somehow unspoiled, uncivilised and by definition powerless, we can simply say that they were the kind of thing the Gaelic poets he knew had tended to write about and therefore a natural focus for his own creative energies.
The same may apply to something very like nationalism in the earlier Gaelic tradition. By this I mean a lively interest in the military conflicts which condition the exercise of political power within and on the confines of a community defined by its use of the Gaelic vernacular. There is a grim appropriateness in the fact that the first published collection of Gaelic poetry, Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's Aiseiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich, should begin with a poem in praise of the Gaelic language, and should, according to legend, have been publicly burned in what had only recently ceased to be the capital of an independent Scotland. Both issues, the potential of the language and the feasibility of its continued use given the political and national circumstances, are co-ordinates against which much subsequent Gaelic poetry could be plotted. We may well ask just how free any Gaelic poet is to avoid either of these issues in his work.
To speak of Gaelic nationalism sounds very much like an anachronism, not least because it is problematic, to say the least, to approach the history of the Celtic peoples in terms of the concept of a nation state. A traditional poetic model, which certainly goes back to bardic poetry in Ireland of the Middle Ages and further, has the poet addressing an actual or potential wielder of political power and urging him to a course of action with respect to a specific issue. Very often the issue is the status of poetry, and of its practitioners, within a Celtic society where the impact of neighbouring cultures has not yet become traumatic. At one remove from this we have a poet such as Ian Lom, in his "Cumha Morair Hunndaidh/Lament for the Marquis of Huntly", addressing a ruler beyond his immediate cultural sphere, the young king Charles II, who has been deprived of his inheritance:
Ach a Theàrlaich òig Stiùbhairt,
'S bochd an dùsal a th'agad,
On is fhada gun sùnnd thu
'S còir do dhùsgadh o d' chadal;
Ma tha t'aire gu dìlinn
Air do rìoghachd a thagradh,
Na leig dhìot 'san droch uair i
Ma tha cruadal air t'aignidh. (2)
But young Charles Stuart, deplorable is this slumber of yours;
since you have long been listless you ought to be awakened from
your sleep. If you have any intention whatsoever of claiming your
kingdom, do not abandon it in an evil hour if there is any hardihood in your spirit.
If this leader is outside the poet's own linguistic community, it is at least still feasible that the appeal should have some effect, and that the action eventually taken should he favourable towards his Gaelic subjects. In the eighteenth century, with the definitive shifting of political power to London and the increasing Anglicisation of a once Gaelic aristocracy, both suppositions lose any effective foundation. The chances of being heard beyond the linguistic frontier are negligible, and there is almost no focus of political, power within it. Thus political poetry on the old model is no- longer possible.
The predicament is clear in William Livingston's treatment of the Clearances. "Fios thun a' Bhàird" has the message coming to, rather than emanating from the poet:
mar a fhuair 's a chunnaic mise,
thoir am tos seo thun a' Bhàird.
As I saw and heard, take this news to the poet. CW (3)
The extended semi-epic "Na Lochlannaich an Ile/The Vikings in Islay" opens with a prologue between one of the last seanachies and a figure whom we may interpret as a young déraciné on a return visit from Glasgow. In a very real sense, they have only each other to talk to, and little more than a nostalgic and slightly grotesque fiction to share:
Sìn gu grad a' chruit a-nuas
's feuchaidh sinn buaidh na ranntachd
air euchdan Lochlannach is Ileach
a dh'innseas tu fathast do chàch,
's bithidh òran no dhà againn do chòrr
mun stad an ceòl 's nach bi sinn ann. (4)
Reach down the fiddle to me at once; we shall try what verse can do
with the heroic feats of Norsemen and Islaymen, and you may tell
them to the rest. We shall have a song or two more before the music
stops, and we no longer exist. CW
Another reason for the breakdown of the old model may have been a conceptual shift whereby sovereignty was no longer seen to reside in a ruling figure, but in the people, who elected their own representatives to a governing assembly. This is the background to much of the political poetry of Màiri Mhòr. "Brosnachadh nan Gàidheal/An Incitement to the Gaels" was composed for the parliamentary elections of December 1885:
Cuiribh Teàrlach suas te cliù,
Oir dhearbh e dhuibh a dhùrachd cheana,
Is gheibh sibh cead air fèidh nan stùc,
Is còir ás ùr air bhur cuid fearainn. (5)
Give Charles a resounding victory, for he has already demonstrated
his good will towards you, and you will get access to the deer on the
hills, and retrieve your rights to the land that is yours. CW
This is not tremendously distant from the verse Hay produced in his capacity as unofficial Gaelic bard to the Scots Independent during the run-up to the referendum of 1979:
Chaidh guth thairis air cùisean ar dùthcha sa' chathair mu dheas
gun fhacal gun dùrd s gach dùil 'dol air ais sa' ghreis.
Tha caban s iad dùinte is sùilean gun aithn' air neach.
Bhith 'gan crathadh s 'gan dùsgadh o'n dùsal,
b'e rathad ar leas. (6)
They have let it drop about the matter of our country in the city in
the south. There's not a word or a cheep and every expectation has
faded out for the moment. There are gabs which are shut and eyes
which do not recognise a person. To be shaking them and wakening
them from their snooze, that would be the right way for us.
His writing at this juncture touches on very delicate and still relevant topics, such as the increase in the English component of the Scottish population, in an unpublished piece preserved in manuscript:
Na muillionan tha 'n Sasainn fheuraich,
S mòr a meud iad, uain.
Tha iad ag iarraidh, ma 's fìor am beul seo,
bloigh Lebensraum mu thuath. (7)
The millions that are in grassy England, they are proud of size,
lamb. They are seeking, if this mouth speak true, a spot of
Lebensraum up north.
The verse considered so far is certainly political, but neatly sidesteps some of the major problems of dealing with nationalist aspirations in poetry. Poet and addressee are clearly defined, and the lines have an explicit practical end in mind. The necessity to explain what makes a national community, how one decides who belongs and who does not, or what is the basis of this community's claim to recognition and appropriate treatment, is not yet felt. Yet the following lines, from Hay's work of the same period, imply shared membership of a community and, through the traditional image of the tethered beast, attempt to explain in poetic terms the predicament which that community faces:
thà sinn air raon an tsamhraidh
is taod umainn teann air a shnìomh.
Am fuasgail sinn an tsnaidhm le suairceas,
no uabhar a' chip an spìon? (8)
We are on the meadow of summer, and a tight twisted tether
around us. Will we undo the knot with urbanity, or will we wrench
out the haughty pride of the stake?
The question of action to be taken is still uppermost, yet the terms of the question have subtly changed. In effect, Hay is asking how appropriate the ballot box is as a means of realising Scotland's aspirations to effective nationhood. He depicts it in more sanguine terms in "The Ballot not the Bullet - a Victory with no Defeated":
Suas gun sìos, buaidh gun bhualadh,
buannachd gun chall, gun dìth;
nì ùr a th'ann san tseann shaoghal,
buidhinn saorsa le sìth. (9)
Up with no down, victory with no blows struck, gaining with no
loss or deprivation; it is a new thing in the old world, winning
freedom by peace.
This shifting in signification was already there in Màiri's "Brosnachadh nan Gàidheal", and these lines are remarkably close to some of the Skye poetess's, from a song celebrating the election of Charles Fraser Mackintosh as Liberal member for the Inverness Burghs in February 1874:
Nis seinnibh cliù nan àrmunn
Chuir am blàr aig Clach-na-Cùdainn,
Gun chlaidheamh thoirt à sgàbard,
Ach le'n tàlantan 's le'n dùrachd. (10)
Now sing the praises of the warriors who gave battle at Clachna-
cudden without drawing a sword from a scabbard, but with their
skill and determination instead. CW
Gaelic poetry had at its disposal a vocabulary for dealing with the assertion of perceived rights, which was military in nature. This vocabulary seduced, as it were, William Livingston into an archaising and backward-looking celebration of Celtic self-assertion, whereas Màiri Mhòr and, more explicitly, Hay, took it over while redefining it in a way relevant to the political situation of their time.
It would be a mistake to assign any absolute value to the word nationalism, or to deny the predominantly negative connotations it has acquired as currently applied in Europe. Self-assertion is rarely viewed positively by those who witness it, as it almost always takes place in open disagreement with prevailing distributions of cultural and political power. We reserve the word for groups which we perceive to be, temporarily or irredeemably, unsuccessful in creating some kind of correlation between linguistic, cultural and political boundaries. Seen in this perspective, nationalism is intrinsically a rearguard action, the protest of a community whose identity is in some way threatened or placed in doubt. One consequence of this colouring of the term is that we may find ourselves requiring from actual or potential losers a self-justification which is almost never required of those we perceive as historically victorious. A Gaelic or a Scottish writer must demonstrate his or her right to the definition in a way rarely required of English or French writers.
The quality of Hay's nationalism then, will depend on the extent to which he succeeds in exploiting Scottish and Gaelic history and culture without being trapped by them; in arguing a case for self-assertion without championing some imaginary ideal of absolute Scottishness or Gaelicness, rather than the basic urge and right to self-definition.
"Ar Blàr Catha/Our Field of battle" (11) is defined by Hay in both an historical and a progressive sense. Historically there have been two battlefields: overseas campaigns in which Scottish forces served the cause of Empire,
màlrsal s dol sìos fo bhrataichean
nach d'fhairich gaoth ar n-àirdean
marching and charging under banners that never felt the wind of
and the labour of colonising conquered territories:
Tha 'n treabhaiche taobh thall nan cuantan,
toirt beath' à gruaim nan coilitean aosda;
The ploughman is beyond the oceans winning life from the gloom
of the age-old forest
With the advantages of hindsight, Hay makes clear an irony that had consistently escaped Livingston:
buadhach an smùid nan còmhrag thairis,
is smùid an fhògraidh tiugh an Cataibh,
smùid an fhòirneirt feadh gach baile.
victorious in the smoke of the battles beyond the seas, while the
smoke of eviction lay thick over Sutherland, the smoke of
oppression drifted through every township.
He takes over the imagery of nineteenth-century poetry of the clearances in his evocation of the neglect Scotland has suffered as a result of emigration, and recharges it by characterising the new society that must come into being there as a village galvanised by the return of its offspring:
tha àite do gach buaidh a th' annainn
'na gleanntaichean is 'na bailtean;
tha feum air smuaintean s air tapachd
eadar an stairsneach s ceann a' bhaile.
There is room for every quality that is ours in her glens and her
cities; there is a need for thought and courage between the
threshold and the end of the township.
But the dominant redefinition in the poem is of Scotland as the appropriate battlefield for its people's energies, no longer employed in slaughter or imperialist expansion but in the transformation of a civil society. Scotland is "the bonny land that our fathers entrusted to us from God", in a highly traditional statement of what constitutes a community's claim to its own territory, but is also, in a putative explanation for past mistakes, the mother who seemed to thrust her children from her, and thus provoked in part the neglect she was so long to suffer. (If we consider that rejection,or a perceived excessive detachment on the mother's part is an important element in the choice of exile on an individual level, Hay's imagery acquires a very special significance.) The eschewal of both Gàidheal and Gall, words for the Gaelic and the non-Gaelic speaking Scot, and the enthusiastic adoption of the term Alba, ambivalent in that it can hardly be restricted to a single linguistic community, are further pointers to Hay's intention in this poem to go beyond any narrowly Gaelic or Highland sphere.
Military metaphors also sustain "Feachd a' Phrionnsa" (12), Hay's elegy to the doomed armies of the Young Pretender in the 1745 campaign. They have only just crossed the border into England when they turn to look silently on Scotland "le dùrachd dhainginn/with steady purposeful devotion". What matters is not the success or failure of their enterprise, but the quality of their self-affirmation, the fact that they maintained their vow. Such integrity stands somehow beyond military or political success, and also allows Hay to see the incident as exemplary for contemporary Scotland:
Aon chuairt, aon chuairt gheibh sinn air thalamh
a nochdadh an fhaghairt a th'annainn,
a dheuchainn faobhar ar tapachd,
a chosnadh cliù do 'r tìr no masladh.
One spell, one spell only do we get on earth to show the temper of
the metal in us, to test the edge of our courage, to win fame for our
country or shame.
The redefinition of traditional imagery need hardly be underlined. The sword edge stands initially for the potential for action inherent in each individual, and then becomes
seann lann lasairgheal ar dùthcha;
s a liuthad bliadhna meirg' is dùsail
a mhaolaich i san truaill dhùinte.
the old flaming-white sword of our country - so many years of
rusting and slumber it has been growing blunt, set fast in its sheath.
The existential point of this poem concerns a hidden potential which is dependent on a sense of belonging, of identity conditioned by a geographical place. It is linked to Scotland by the historical incident which functions as a pretext, yet the implications of the poem move beyond any single nationalism.
Much the same could be said of "Na Trèig do Thalamh Dùthchais/Do Not Forsake Your Native Land" (13), which repeats the title in each of its six stanzas, placing this refrain, in the simplest of oppositions, against a series of nouns all preceded by "air" meaning "for" or even "in spite of". These concepts change constantly, and are. extremely varied when placed beside the monotonous iteration. Many of them are extremely attractive:
air ghràdh, air sith, air dhùrachd;
air bhàigh, air speuran ciùine
na trèig do thalamh dùthchais.
for love, for peace, for good wishes,
for kindly regard, for tranquil skies
do not forsake your native land.
The implication is that being in the place one originates from outweighs all these pleasures. Hay couples opposites ("air onair no air siùrsachd/ for honour or for harlotry"), as if moral distinctions somehow blurred into insignificance against a standard that reverberates beyond moral choice.
What we are working towards is the philosophical position underlying Hay's nationalism, and outlined in a number of poems not directly concerned with Scottish or political questions. "An t-Eòlas Nach Cruthaich/The Knowledge That Does Not Create" (14) is on one level a dispraising of the critical as against the creative intelligence:
Seallaidh e le cinnt itn cunntas,
mar ionnsramaid le gràdaibh mion;
slat-thomhais e gun anam-fàis ann,
nach toir nì ùr gu blàths is bith.
Cha n-eil òrd ann, gilb no clàrsach;
cha snaidh, cha ghràbhail e, cha seinn;
cha n-eil sguabadh fuarghuth sìn' ann,
cha n-eil grìosach ann no greim.
He shows with precision his recording, like an instrument with
delicate degrees; he is a measuring rod without any soul-of-growth
in him; he will bring no new thing to warmth and being.
There is no hammer or chisel or harp in him; he will not carve or
engrave or sing; there is no sweeping of tempest's cold voice in him;
there is no hot ember in him or gri.
Overall, the poem is a paean to commitment, to headlong action and passion as against detachment, discrimination and evaluation, which are conceived as sterile. The critic's mouth is able to appraise the bitter and sweet of what it tastes, but has no "gall or honey in it of its own." Hay does not say that detachment is an illusion but rather that it can bear no fruit. Qualities can only validly be perceived in so far as the self contains and produces them. That which in itself is neither hot nor cold, neither bitter nor sweet, is condemned to barrenness in a world without difference.
Perhaps Hay's most convincing championing of self-definition and self-realisation in their widest sense is to be found in "Prìosan da fhèin an Duine?/Man His Own Prison?" (15), which must be counted among his most powerful lyrics. It takes up where "An t-Eò1as Nach Cruthaich" left off, describing the kind of behaviour Hay sees as life-enhancing:
An cridhe fialaidh misneachail,
na bu chiomach e am fròig,
ùraich cridh' an tsaoghail leis -
cuir mu sgaoil e - cuir gu stròdh.
The generous, spirited heart, let it not crouch, a prisoner, in a nook.
Freshen the heart of the world with it. Unleash it. Be spendthrift
What is within must be expressed, bodied forth. To show us what he means, Hay takes as his example the way a bird puts "all its being into its music": in his view, creatures of nature do not exercise falsely moral choices with regard to their innate qualities, approving some and suppressing others. The affirmation Hay seeks is comprehensive, all-inclusive, and the poem's refrain identifies this total affirmation with life itself: "Bi iomlan is bi beò/Be complete and be alive". Man's potential is unlimited if all his qualities can work together harmoniously. The promptings of natural instinct will not lead us astray provided we maintain a balance between heart and head, body and soul, because individuality is God-given and infinitely varied. Against this vision Hay sets "an troichshluagh dàicheil rianail,/nach robh riamh ach lethbheò/ the plausibic orderly dwarf-people, who were never but half living", whose self-realisation is hemmed in by their respect and fear for the opinions of others, as well as cases where the head tyrannises the heart, or the mind stands guard over a prisoner body. Nature is imaged as tartan cloth, a combination of many different colours, which "the slow seeping of the habitual" is in danger of reducing to an insipid, uniform grey.
This, then, is a poem in praise of difference, which can as easily be the difference between cultures and languages as that between individual personalities. Hay's sense of the brief, ephemeral nature of human life (and therefore identity) is still present, though in tones more muted than those of "Feachd a' Phrionnsa". The soul is the body's guest only for a short while ("air aoigheachd ann car tràth"). This tendentially pessimistic vision is most fully expressed in the remarkably archaic "Clann Adhaimh/Adam's Clan" (16), a reworking of the allegorical ship of fools or Narrenschiff. Superficially, the poem is a lament on human lack of awareness and inconstancy, seen against the background of eternity:
tha Amaideas is Gliocas, Naomh is Peacach
air a stiùir mu seach is càch 'gan èisteachd.
Folly and Wisdom, Saint and Sinner take her helm in turn, and all
Note how easily and naturally Hay adopts the personified abstractions from an older, more mechanistic way of thinking, combining them with a marine imagery which was congenial to him, (though this journey is not so minutely evoked as that of "Siubhal a' 'Choire'/The Voyaging of the 'Corrie'"(17)). Our interest in nationalism, however, will lead us to discern a more subtle meaning behind the lines, and one that is more characteristic of the writer. In so far as the poem is a vision of human life, what matters is not so much the constant shift in leadership on board (indeed, Hay seems to set remarkably little store by the identity of the helmsman) as the contrast between the ship and its surroundings. On board there is bustle, conflict, exultation, above all difference. As so often, Hay groups nouns and adjectives in pairs of opposites - "gul is gàireachdaich ... clais is cìrein/weeping and laughter ... trough and crest". The great expanse of sea around is uniform, monotonous and undifferentiated like the faded cloth of "Priosan da fhèin". The passage of the ship is an image of death ("a h-ùpraid ghuth 'dol bàs 'na dèidhse/her tumult of voices die astern of her") and the close of the envoi strikes a profoundly pathetic note - "is cop uisge a stiùrach a' dùnadh s 'ga chall 'sa mhuir mhòir/and the foam of her wake closing and losing iselin the great sea astern". Human life is a brief, transitory but colourful uproar, eternally moving but directionless and ill-controlled, with nothingness before and after. The same vision informs Hay's graveyard poem, "Aonarain na Cille" (18), with its ranging of opposites and its mourning of the passage of turbulent life:
cha tig neul no fras no gaoth,
gormadh an là no 'n dùthrath,
sith no ùspairt, gràin no gaol.
no cloud comes, or rain, or wind; no day's dawning or dusk of
evening; peace or tumult, hate or love.
"Fàire/horizon" is a key word in "Clann Adhaimh", and a key element in Hay's imagery of what it means to be human. The ship is "alone within the distant circle of the horizon" ("leatha fhèin an cearcal cian na fàire"), one which "neither stem nor eye yet overleapt" ("nach do leum saidh riamh no sùilean".) Hay devotes a whole poem to in O Na Ceithir Airdean, and its outward and inward movement offers a further perspective on the kind of nationalism he advocates (19). It falls into three sections, of which the first concerns the traveller's insatiable thirst for new sights and new places:
Uair is uair, còrsaichean ùra,
is cùinneadh ùr 'ga chur a cheannach
blais ùir a dh' fhìon; is sriut de chòmhradh,
nach tuigear deò dheth, taobh a' chalaidh.
Time upon time, new coastlines, and a new coinage spent to buy a
new tastc of wine; and a flood of talk, not a word of it understood,
along the side of the harbour.
What we have here is constant stimulus, a sense of difference which is repeatedly energised and renewed. Interestingly, what makes landing so exciting is the incomprehensibility of the language encountered. The experience of hearing a language we do not know, which provokes impatience and insecurity in so many people, is crucial to Hay's sense of being alive. There is no aspiration to learn or understand, a mere acknowledgement and consenting to this pure manifestation of difference. The second part of "Fàire" turns to Kintyre, Hay's homeland, insisting that two promontories there contain enough to sate eye and heart and mind. But the assertion is a brief and ineffective act of pietas:
Ach, tha tos agam, ged chì mi
Cluaidh s Loch Fìne mu dheireadh,
tha fàire 'n sin deas air Arainn
a bhios 'gam tharruing uair eile.
But I know, although I see the Clyde and Loch Fyne at last, there is
a horizon yonder south of Arran, that will be pulling at me again.
On one level, the horizon is the point at which the monotonous expanse of water gives place to something else, the point where land, or another ship appears, and differentiation commences. The horizon is the closest thing to a destination the ship of Adam's children has. On a more general level, Hay seems to be saying that, no matter how strong his attachment to his own homeland, however great the inspiration it offers him, it can never be sufficient. There will always be a need to depart and to return as only through difference can Kintyre achieve identity.
Hay's nationalism, his sense of Scotland as a place, is rooted in Kintyre. "Luinneag/It was the hardness of the wind" (20) describes how its sights and sounds haunt him in England, coming between himself and sleep, between his eyes and his book. In "M'Oilein is M'Altrum" ("My education and my upbringing" (21)), he asks which has had the greater influence on his poetry, teaming or natural environment:
Na doireachan s boladh
na roide sna glacan;
na leabhraichean, s eòlas
na Ròimhe s nan Aitein;
cò aca fo'n ghrèin
bu mhò èifeachd air m'ealain,
no an loch is na slèibhtean,
no a' Ghreugais s an Laideann?
The copses, and the scent
of bog myrtle in the hollows;
books, and the learning
of Rome and of Athens;
which of them under the sun
had more effect on my art,
the loch and the hillsides
or Greek and Latin? CW
Later in the same poem he comes down unequivocally on the side of environment, of place:
Gach cainnt is gach cultur
a chunnaic s nach fhaca,
aiste is nobhail
sonaid is saga,
ceòl stàtail na Gearmailt
is na dealbhan dathte
is cumhachdaiche 'm monadh
is motha c agam.
Every language and culture
I saw or failed to see
essay and novel
sonnet and saga,
the stately music of Germany
and painted pictures
the moor is more powerful
and nearer to my heart. CW
In the long poem "Air Suidh' Artair Dhomh Mochthrath" ("Early one morning on Arthur's Seat" (22)) Hay is seen comparing the beauties of Lothian with those of Kintyre, when there is a sudden interruption:
Is ann de t' àbhaist bhith moltach
mu 'n t-Sloc Dhomhainn 's mu 'n Ordaig;
mu Chruach Doire Lèithe
is Cnoc Na Mèine cùl mòintich;
mu Rubha A' Ghrianain,
is mu chian Lagan Ròaig.
Cluinnear glaodh bho Dhùn Iubhair
a bheir an diog às an òran.
He is chanting placenames from around Tarbert Loch Fyne when a voice intervenes to remind him that his own ancestry is mixed, that he is not a pure Gael: his ancestors had come to Kintyre from Ayrshire, and this means that he himself is a hybrid of Highlander and Lowlander (and, one might add, a learner and not a native speaker of the language he is writing in). He proudly answers that
chuir iad sgothan air acair,
's b'e sin an dachaigh 's an eòlas.
Sin a' chomain a mhaireas,
is gur Cainntrich fadheòidh sinn.
they anchored their skiffs
and that became their home, the place they knew.
That is the Lasting debt,
and when it comes down to it we are Kintyre people. CW
Kintyre was colonised from Ayrshire as early as the seventeenth century, and this makes it an appropriate symbol of the kind of Scotland Hay envisages, one which is not -uniform but richly differentiated. This is why he introduces himself (24) as
Deòrsa Ciotach mac Iain Dheòrsa,
sin e mar is eòl dhaibh mi;
'nam dhalt' aig Gàidheil is mi leth-Ghallda;
fuinn is rainn is dàin mo dhriop.
Left-handed George son of John son of George.
that's how I'm known to them;
a stepson to the Highlanders since I am half a Lowlander;
my business is with tunes and verses and poems. CW
"Fhearaibh s a Mhnài na h-Albann/Men and Women of Scotland" (25) makes the same point with greater seriousness:
air a mhachair, air na monaidhean
dheoghail sinn a cìoch,
ma's Goill, a ghaoil, ma's Gàidheil sinn
dh'àraich ise sinn.
On plain and on upland we have suckled at her breast. Be we
Lowland, my dear, or Gaels, it was she that nurtured us.
Hay's nationalism, then, does indeed reveal a more superficial and pragmatic political side; yet the depth of his commitment to Scotland and to Gaelic can only be assessed within a discourse which has deeper and more carefully pondered roots. To be human means to have a character, a "gnè", which is itself varied and contradictory, and which has to be externalised in its entirety, transformed by conscious choice into something we may call an identity, which can only be perceived in terms of difference. At this stage, national identity is unlikely to be oppressive because the attempt to assimilate other cultures to itself would be self-destructive.
The Arab world offered Hay perhaps his crucial context for the affirmation of Gaelic, and Scottish identity. Why did he need to go so far afield? The confrontation with English culture could not have been fruitful in this sense. In so far as, in present-day Scotland, English language and English identity are intrusive and threaten to supplant, in the short or the long term, the existing culture, they will do this by denying any effective difference between themselves and what they replace, by claiming that the distinction between Scottishness and Englishness is insignificant, or alternatively that Scottishness is a subset of Englishness. (The success of such strategies is evident in the way, until recently, the Scots language could still be represented as a form of English, a dialect of the intrusive language and therefore, according to current (mistaken) usage, a derivative and distorted form of it). Hay could not construct a nationalism, a Scottish identity, in a void, but rather by contrast with a culture sufficiently alien for any hegemonistic overlapping to be impossible. Among the Arabs of Northern Africa he found such a culture. This is why the accuracy of Hay's representation of Arab culture is of secondary importance. What matters is his perception of it as different, as other.
"Meftah Babkum Es-Sabar?" (26) is constructed on this model. It opens with a café scene in which an Arab interlocutor preaches submission to destiny, a philosophy which Hay at once connects to the climatic environment which produced it:
Ghin aintighearnas na grèine lasraich,
is ainneart speuran teth na h-Aifric,
gliocas brùite sgìth nam facal.
The tyranny of the flaming sun and the violence of the hot skies of
Africa had begotten the bruised, tired wisdom of these words.
He rejects such a philosophy for his own people, and introduces the polar opposites of which he is so fond. The fate of Scotland is to choose between "peace and death, or struggling and life". Next we are told the kind of cultural products not to expect from contemporary Scotland: "soft, downy things" or "nice, habitual, certain opinions", everything that is safe, static, insipid, and which the poem gradually identifies with the impotence and servility of the Arab before his god. A new climatic reference enters ("Is fuar a' ghaoth thar Ile/gheibhear aca an Cinntìre" ("Cold is the wind over Islay that blows on them in Kintyre")), and Hay defines the culture he hopes for in terms of opposites:
Iarraibh gàire, gean is mìghean,
càirdeas, nàimhdeas, tlachd is mìothlachd,
iarraibh faileas fìor ar n-inntinn.
Ask for laughter, and cheerful and angry moods, friendship,
enmity, pleasure and displeasure. Ask for the true reflection of our
A culture of this kind is in perpetual movement between opposing poles and therefore resists stereotyping or definition. While the English threat to Scottish identity is never explicitly mentioned, it is clearly indicated at the close of the poem, which warns of the danger of being taken over and exploited by another culture, with consequent draining of content and selfhood:
b'e sin ar tìr. No, mur an gleachdar,
rud suarach ann an cùil 'ga cheiltinn
a thraogh s a dhìochuimhnich sluagh eile.
such will be our land. Or, if there be no struggle, a mean thing of no
account, hidden away in a corner, which another people drained
dry and forgot.
The poem Hay regarded as his major work, drawing a parallel with Sorley Maclean's An Cuilithionn, survives only in fragments. What we have of Mochtàr is Dùghall supplies a rough idea of the form the whole was to take, although the plan might well have undergone considerable alteration had the author been able to carry it through. Basically, Hay sets side by side two young soldiers who have fallen in the North African campaign of the Second World War. One is an Arab, the other a Gael, and their only meeting with one another has been in death:
Mhochtàir is Dhùghaill, choinnich sibh
an comann buan gun chòmhradh. (27)
Mokhtâr and Dougall, you have met in an everlasting fellowship
Hay sees their death as extending forwards and backwards so as to involve both their ancestors and the children they might have fathered:
Bhàsaich am fear a bha ri 'uilinn,
dhubhadh às a shinnsreachd uile;
mhortadh a chlann nach do rugadh. (28)
There died the man who lay at his elbow. All his ancestry was
blotted out. His children were murdered unborn.
What died in each man was not just the individual but a culture, the culture that can find no fuller expression than in living, moving beings:
Chaidh an domhan beag a bhruanadh,
a dh'fhàs ann fhèin 'na earrach uaine;
a ghin, gun fhios, na bha mun cuairt dha,
is a rinn e 'chumadh le a smuaintean
air na chunnaic e 's na chual' e (29)
There was reduced to dust the little world that grew within him in
his green spring time, which was created, unknown to him, by
everything around him; which he formed by his thoughts on all that
he saw and heard.
The double movement here, the working of impressions on the growing child and the elaboration of these impressions through thought, is a very clear definition of the process of identity on which much of this paper has focused. Hay directs our attention to the blood relatives of the two men, in an attempt to construct an image of what has been lost. Only very limited material dealing with the Gaelic side survives. On the Arab side, Hay begins with Mochtàr's great-grandfather, Ahmad, and this division of the poem peters out having come down as far as his father Obaid. There may just be an intended parallelism in the histories of Arab and Gael, moving from the heroism and military defeat of Ahmad to Obaid's religious obsessions. For the present we shall concentrate on a single episode in the poem's most extended and impressive section.
Mochtàr's grandfather Omar is returning across the desert from the Sudan with a rich convoy of slaves and other merchandise, when his encampment is surrounded by Tuareg raiders. The confrontation with the alien could hardly be depicted in more striking terms. Where "Clann Adhaimh" showed a fragile ship traversing the featureless ocean, here it is the desert that stands for the monotony of non-identity. The Arabs are surrounded by animate but alien beings, in a context of utter non-differentiation. Omar reacts to the Tuareg leader's speech with an ethnocentrism which must bring a smile to the reader's face:
Lean e a' cluich a làimhe 's uchd air,
s a phlabartaich 'na sruth 's 'na sriut as;
bu mhanntach, briste, tùchte, tiugh i
mar chàrsan duine, 's a chìoch-shlugain
air at 's ga thachdadh. (30)
He went on gesturing with his hand and swelling out his chest,
while his blabbering streamed and poured from him; it was
stammering, broken, stifled and thick like the hoarseness of a man
whose uvula is swollen and is choking him.
Our point of view is Omar's, but the very use of Gaelic imposes a distance between him and the reader. This has an effect very different from that of a text dealing with the same incident in the language of either of the protagonists, or even translated from these languages. So Omar's ethnocentrism is relativised right from the outset, as well as being made slightly comic by his situation of total powerlessness. Two distinct identities confront one another in a void, and the solution is an exquisitely cultural one. Mint tea has its place and context in Omar's culture, but to the Tuareg chief it is a marvel, something outside his world. One single sign has comically different meanings for two ethnic groups. "Is maith an gobhar a shil a leithid,/ge b'e càite no co leis e", he cries. ("Good is the goat that gave such milk, wherever it might be and whoever might own it").The gift of the herb both mystifies and mollifies the Tuareg, and saves Omar from despoliation and death.
Mochtàr and Dùghall may seem far from the world of more conventionally Gaelic poetry, but I think it can be shown to be very relevant to Hay's view of the nature and purpose of cultural difference, and therefore central to the concerns which had informed so many of his shorter pieces. (Significant in this respect is the figure of the interpreter, a pathetic Arab forced to undertake this task in the interests of survival, condemned never to return among his own people, eternal exile and eternal foreigner. The tragedy of his difference is that it can never be perceived as communal, but only individual, within the world of the Tuaregs.)
Hay's nationalism goes far beyond a commitment to Scotland or an exaltation of Scottish qualities and traditions as in some way superior or preferable to those of other nations. What he offers us is a meditation on the nature and necessity of identity as a function of conscious choice, an essential prerequisite of creativity. His discourse is not political in the conventional sense. His nationalism has no leftist colouring, or indeed any party colouring. He is as far from Derick Thomson's astringent, topical satire as from Sorley Maclean's overriding concern for the defeat of fascism on the European scale. He is not one of those who would vote for an independent Scotland provided that Scotland were securely socialist. His plea for autonomous cultural activity in a self-defining nation has deeper, existential roots, and offers extremely fruitful material for observation and meditation by all those whose responsibility it must be to realise such a vision, in Scotland and elsewhere in the world.
I am extremely grateful to Michel Byrne, of Edinburgh University, who is currently preparing an edition of George Campbell Hay's poetry, for making available to me the material he has gathered, and for his advice and encouragement in the preparation of this paper. Where I have had to supply my own English translations, these are marked CW.
(1) John Mackenzie (ed.) Sàr-obair nam Bard Gaelach (Edinburgh 1907): 80. See also Derick Thomson An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry (London 1977): 148.
(2) Annie M. Mackenzie (ed.) Orain Iain Luim (Edinburgh 1964): 50.
(3) Uilleam MacDhunlèibhe Duain agus Orain (Glasgow 1882): 152.
(5) D. E. Meek (ed.) Màiri Mhòr nan Oran (Glasgow 1977): 94.
(6) Scots Independent 84 (March 1987): 3.
(7) National Library of Scotland, Accession 9082/1.
(8) Carn 18 (Summer 1977).
(9) Scots Independent 68 (November 1976): 8.
(10) Op. cit.: 48.
(11) Deòrsa Caimbeul Hay O Na Ceithir Airdean (Edinburgh 1952): 26-29.
(12) Ibid.: 20-21.
(13) Ibid.: 37-38.
(14) Ibid.: 16-17.
(15) Deòrsa Caimbeul Hay Fuaran Sléibh (Glasgow 1947): 38-39.
(16) Ibid.: 20.
(17) Ibid.: 12.
(18) Ibid.: 2 1.
(19) 'Fàire' in O Na Ceithir Airdean: 35-36.
(20) Fuaran Sléibh: 17.
(21) Gairm 102 (Earrach 1978): 158-159.
(22) Gairm 38 (Geamhradh 1961): 127-130.
(23) 'Gu'm Chur an Aithne', Gairm 102: 157.
(24) Fuaran Sléibh: 30.
(25) O Na Ceithir Airdean: 22-25.
(26) Deòrsa Caimbeul Hay Mochtàr is Dùghall (Glasgow 1982): 5, 46.
(27) Ibid.: 44, 59.
(28) Ibid.: 44-45, 59.
(29) Ibid.: 21, 53.
(30) Ibid.: 25, 55.