Speaking in Tongues

Robert Crawford

  • The Poetry of Scotland: Gaelic, Scots and English 1380-1980 edited and introduced by Roderick Watson
    Edinburgh, 752 pp, £19.95, May 1995, ISBN 0 7486 0607 6

No anthology offers us the full spectrum of Scottish poetry, but Roderick Watson’s comes closer than any other. This is the first big, general anthology to offer us work in Gaelic, Scots and English (note the word order) from the medieval period to the present. Catherine Kerrigan’s Anthology of Scottish Women Poets (1991), Douglas Dunn’s Faber Book of 20th-century Scottish Poetry (1992), and Daniel O’Rourke’s Dream State; The New Scottish Poets (1994) all offer work in the three languages, but, as their titles indicate, select from specific sectors of Scottish poetry. When we compare Watson’s volume with its main competitors, the Penguin and Oxford anthologies, it is clear not only that these are out of date, but that they are products of an age when cultural imperialism among publishers seems to have demanded the exclusion of Gaelic verse.

John MacQueen and Tom Scott, who edited the 1966 Oxford anthology, were aware of the lack of Gaelic and squirm a bit in their Introduction. When Penguin had Tom Scott edit their Scottish anthology (published in 1970) again there was no Gaelic. Recently, Penguin have commissioned Mick Imlah to edit a new Scottish anthology. Will he allow Sorley MacLean’s voice to accompany MacDiarmid’s? To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been asked to do a new Oxford anthology, though the youngest poet in their extant volume, Iain Crichton Smith, is now a sprightly 68.

Watson’s model is not the Oxford or the Penguin, but Hugh MacDiarmid’s Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry, first published in 1940 and reissued by Canongate in 1993. This was the first anthology of Scottish poetry to recognise that the term should include verse in Gaelic and Latin as well as in English and Scots, but wartime conditions meant that its scope had to be limited. Surrounded by the barbed wire of polemic, MacDiarmid’s anthology may have seemed an angry piece of book-making. In retrospect what stands out is its inclusiveness. Here (in English translation) are the great Latinist George Buchanan and the Gaelic poet Alexander Mac-Donald. Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s expansive 18th-century Gaelic poem on deer (echoes of which can be heard in Crichton Smith and Les Murray) is juxtaposed with John Davidson’s ‘A Runnable Stag’. This should have been the book which set the agenda for all future collections of Scottish poetry, but we have had to wait over half a century for a comprehensive anthology which followed MacDiarmid’s lead.

What is so impressive about Scotland is its variety – the sometimes minute, sometimes great differences one encounters in traveling only a short distance. Nowhere is this truer than in literature, and Watson’s anthology communicates this pleasure, as one passes from ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’, the refrain which shepherds the winding cortége of Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makaris’, to the anonymous Gaelic bard exhorting ‘Ar sliocht Gaodhal ó Ghort Gréag’ (‘The Gael’s race from the Field of Greece’) on the eve of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. That is followed immediately by a nearly twenty-page selection from Gavin Douglas’s great translation of the Aeneid ‘written in the language of Scottis natioun’, completed in that same year. This juxtaposition of Latin, Gaelic and Scots may point to different Scotlands; yet there are shared features. The Gael, bonding his culture to that of Greece, is doing something that relates to Gavin Douglas’s Scotticising of the Aeneid. Writing this review in Douglas’s old university five centuries later I feel an emotional rush when I look out of my window at the North Sea, ‘In this congelit sesson scharp and chill, / The callour ayr, penetratyve and puyr’. I also perceive in medieval Scottish poetry a sense of linguistic pluralism, of occasional relationships across languages and of separatist pulls between them, that relates to the linguistic excitement of so much modern Scottish poetry. For some purists this may be a forbidden emotion, and it would be wrong to remake all medieval work in a modern image, yet to deny the enjoyment of this language-crossing would be to betray what is most important about the multilingual assembly of Watson’s anthology.

The richness that comes from criss-crossing language borders in a tardis-like culture is present again strongly in the 18th century, when we move from the vegetative juiciness of Alexander MacDonald’s Gaelic ‘Song of Summer’ with its heavy dews: ‘’S i mar chùirneanan daoimein, / Bhratach bhoillsgeil air làr’ (‘like spangles of diamonds, / a sparkling cover for earth’) to the carnivalesque Scots of Robert Fergusson, who hymns ‘Caller Oysters’ and harangues ‘the Principal and professors of the university of St Andrews, on their superb treat to Dr. Samuel Johnson’. When Fergusson rounds on his former teachers he subjects their Scotophobic guest to a linguistic as well as a culinary drubbing as the famous definer of oats is made to eat his words. Fergusson wants the great lexicographer to be fed, among many other oatmeal-rich dishes, ‘white and bloody puddins routh,/To gar the Doctor skirl, O Drouth!’ Here Watson’s line-by-line glossary will assist the uninitiated, who may feel that they have come a long way from the Latinate English of ‘the frost subdu’d, / Gradual, resolves into a weeping thaw’, though Johnson’s admired James Thomson, author of these lines, came close to being Fergusson’s contemporary.

That sense of linguistic jolting and, not infrequently, of cross-linguistic connections lends Watson’s anthology its revelatory potential. Ossianic translatorese, the Burns who modulates in and out of Scots, Scots-English and English, synthesising dialects, and the arch-synthesiser MacDiarmid – all seem so much more at home in a book which reveals them to be part of a long, distinguished tradition of speaking in tongues. In this genealogy Edwin Morgan’s poem of translation, ‘The First Men on Mercury’, seems as much a key part as Norman MacCaig’s ‘Aunt Julia’, with its profound sense of being ghosted by another language.

What this book offers is a Bakhtinian Scotland where ‘one’s own language is never a single language.’ As one of a number of contemporary Scottish writers and critics attracted to Bakhtin, Watson is well aware of this, and his generally chronological ordering of the poetry, moving us across the terrain among Gaelic, Scots and English, helps us appreciate why such a way of reading seems appropriate. To relish this fully one needs to read the volume from cover to cover, experiencing the crossovers from language to language, poet to poet: a Post-Modern reading experience. As Watson points out, it seems likely, for instance, that Robert Fergusson and his Gaelic contemporary Duncan Ban Macintyre were unaware of each other’s work, though both lived in Edinburgh. Certainly not a few of the lowland poets would have scorned the Gaelic tradition. But in grouping together poets who were complete strangers, as well as poets (like MacDiarmid and MacLean) who were friends, Watson enables us to look back on traditions of linguistic pluralism in Scottish writing that are many centuries old.

From the generation of James Macpherson to that of Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, these poets are increasingly aware of coming from a heteroglot culture, whose words could be both familiar and foreign. This awareness is heightened today, when only some sixty thousand Scots speak Gaelic and when so many non-Gaelic speaking poets are alert to poetic achievements in that language.

This anthology also makes us aware of the way Scotland’s verse has lived on borders – not just between languages, but between the oral and the written. So much of the Gaelic heritage, the songs of Burns, and the ballad tradition, here substantially represented, is suspended across just such a border, while in Burns, Hogg, Stevenson and many others right up to Tom Leonard, there is a powerful sense of the way in which the spoken word in Scottish poetry empowers the writer. All poets draw on oral as well as written sources, but few traditions are so driven by vernaculars as that of the Scots.

One of Watson’s principal weaknesses, however, is that he doesn’t go far enough. Instead of starting with ten pages (too much) of Barbour’s Bruce his book should open with St Columba’s impressive abecedarian ‘Altus Prosator’ and ought to go on to include, as MacDiarmid did, at least a sprinkling of Scottish Latin poetry. A work such as George Buchanan’s elegy for Calvin clamours for inclusion. At the other end of the book, what’s happened to the younger generations of Scottish poets with much of whose work Watson’s polyglot anthology is so in tune? They’re missing entirely – no Kathleen Jamie or W.N. Herbert or Don Paterson. Liz Lochhead is the only poet under the age of 50 to be included. The youngest Gaelic poet here is nearly 70. The forked tongues of the newer Scottish poets have been brutally chopped.

Watson is strongest in the area of the Makars and in the 18th century. There is sufficient Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas (about twenty pages each) to make this a really strong collection; Burns gets over forty pages. Yet, oddly for someone who has written a book on MacDiarmid, Watson offers us a mean selection, omitting, for instance, ‘On a Raised Beach’, perhaps the most splendid and daunting achievement of Scottish Modernism. MacDiarmid gets about the same amount of space as James Hogg. Several of the modern selections are disappointing. Watson includes George Bruce but he excludes Muriel Spark; there’s nothing from Douglas Dunn’s Elegies (Dunn is allowed only two poems, and is confused with Ted Hughes in the Introduction). At times the theory which seems to underlie this book is stronger than its actual contents. This is an anthology of Scottish poetry without ‘Auld Lang Syne’ or ‘Home is the sailor, home from sea’; without William Drummond (an obvious omission) and Alexander Hume (less obvious, but significant). Economics in the shape of permissions fees may be blamed for some of these deformities, but not all. Modernists have a right to hold the editor responsible for the 20th-century inclusions and exclusions, while medievalists are likely to be uncomfortable with the vagueness of ‘I have followed the texts of the best editions.’

Watson, whose Literature of Scotland (1984) remains the best one-volume history of Scottish literature, provides a disappointingly skimpy Introduction, as if he did not wish to repeat earlier labours. His presentation of so much Gaelic poetry with a parallel English translation makes use of translators such as lain Crichton Smith and Derick Thomson whose versions read very well. But there seems little point in including translations like those of Ian Grimble which (however accurate) read poorly: ‘The shieling is a sad place for me, when the present company in it / – rather than the company who used to be there – are near to me.’ It’s a pity that new translations of some of the Gaelic work were not commissioned. Despite these criticisms, this big, enticing volume is a milestone in the history of Scottish poetry anthologies. It merits an excited welcome; it sets a new agenda that future anthologists cannot ignore; I would like to be one of those anthologists who try to surpass it.