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These Islands, We Sing

An Anthology of Scottish Islands Poetry


Edited by Kevin MacNeil


Edinburgh: Polygon, 2011

Hardcover. xxiv+264 pp. ISBN 978 1846971969. £14.99


Reviewed by Bernard Sellin

Université de Nantes



“Growing up in Stornoway, I sometimes wondered if my island were, to the rest of the world, a mere crumb on the map. Were we an irrelevance?” The question asked by the editor, Kevin MacNeil, is a recurring motif in his book, These Islands We Sing, An anthology of Scottish Islands Poetry , and the title itself already offers a more positive answer than some might be tempted to give.

Poetry has always been a major art form in Scotland. After all, the national icon is a poet, Robert Burns, and the most innovative writer in the 20th century was another poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. Anthologies of Scottish poetry are numerous. In 1999 Ronald Black edited An Tuil: Anthology of 20th-century Scottish Gaelic Verse (Edinburgh, Polygon) and in 2001 MacNeil, himself a poet, published another anthology Wish I Was Here: A Scottish Multicultural Anthology, but this may be the first collection of Scottish islands poetry, cutting across territory, language and culture to present a poetic expression of the islands of Scotland, at least the most significant of them out of a total of nearly 800. The book aims at reunion and the sharing of experience rather than fragmentation but anybody familiar with Scotland knows that differences exist. The Hebrides or Western Isles consist of an archipelago whose main islands are Lewis and Skye whereas the Northern Isles contain both Orkney and Shetland, each group with its own history and culture, sometimes jealous of its own identity and always proud of resisting the pressures of the modern world.

This is the territory mapped by this anthology based on the assumption that all writers represented have had a connection with the islands. Some like MacDiarmid may not have been Islanders, some came from outside Scotland: Edward Cummins was born in Sydney, Australia, and Mark O. Goodwin in Devon, but all of them lived in the Scottish islands at some point in their lives and their poetry expressed this experience in a wide range of emotion extending from deep attachment to gentle humour (“You see, I try and make sense of you, understand your cultural sensitivities, / But forgive me, I’m a slow learner”). The majority, however, are 20th-century writers who were born on an island and, for some of them, sometimes never left.

The anthology opens inevitably with the masters (Edwin Muir, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith and Derick Thomson) but one distinction of the collection is the amount of expression given to lesser known writers. At least two thirds of the book are devoted to poets of lesser reputation or those who have been showing the most remarkable inventiveness on the contemporary scene : Meg Bateman, Rody Gorman, Christine De Luca, Anne Frater, Angus Peter Campbell, to mention but a few. It is a pity that so few of them are known in France and even fewer available in translation, one exception being Christine De Luca, Mondes parallèles, poèmes des îles Shetland, éditions fédérop, Gardonne, 2007.

There is no better introduction to the amazing linguistic diversity of modern Scotland and the anthology reminds us that we are dealing with the margins of Europe, far from the English cultural capital. Some poems were originally written in English but the majority were in Gaelic—with an English translation. For a French reader, no doubt poems in Scots or Shetlandic must look singular as all of them do not appear in translation. In a few cases we have the Scots version of the Gaelic poem, an option which, once more, highlights how fundamental is the language issue in an age of globalisation. As one poet puts it, our language is “sewn into us like grains / of oats, turnip seed” and then takes root. No wonder then if all the writers selected here are passionate defenders of minority languages.

A language o wirds aften hard tae translate,

At we manna belittle or bö,

For every country is prood o da wye at hit spaeks,

An sae we sid be proud a wirs tö.                             Rhoda Butler, Shetlandic.

Writing in a specific language is a political commitment which the writers of this anthology embrace readily, most remarkably for the number of non-native speakers who have learned Gaelic and chosen to write poetry in it.

The poems cover a wide range of themes. Beside the traditional issues of the impact of religion, the haunting of the past, the disappearance of old values, social deprivation and the beauties of the natural environment, many poems confirm that writers are not the prisoners of stereotypes but remain open to influences from outside (Japanese haiku for example) and themes of current interest like the drives of commerce and the mass media, or the abolition of distances.

Like Skye, now joined to the mainland by a bridge, islands are under threat. This moving and beautiful tribute to them is a good reminder of all the talents that they contain.


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