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Sorley MacLean

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Subject: Hallaig, School of Scottish Studies, Angus Peter Campbell, Scottish Gaelic Renaissance, Literature in modern Scotland
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Sorley MacLean

Sorley MacLean
Born 26 October 1911
Osgaig, Raasay, Scotland
Died 24 November 1996(1996-11-24) (aged 85)
Occupation School teacher
Genre Gaelic poetry

Sorley MacLean (Scottish Gaelic: Somhairle MacGill-Eain, sometimes "MacGilleathain" in earlier publications) (26 October 1911 – 24 November 1996) was one of the most significant Scottish poets of the 20th century.

Early life

He was born at Osgaig on the island of Raasay on 26 October 1911, where Scottish Gaelic was the first language. He attended the University of Edinburgh and was an avid shinty player for the university team. After earning a First class degree, he returned to the Highland and Island community to teach. He was instrumental in preserving the teaching of Gaelic in Scottish schools.

MacLean turned away from the Presbyterian faith of his community in his early teens. Like many European intellectuals of that day, his sympathies moved to the far left. Much of his work touched on specifically political themes and references, and his position was overtly Stalinist until the mid-1940s, although he was never a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He was also a skilled and delicate writer of love poetry.

He served with the British Army in North Africa during World War II and was wounded on three occasions, once severely during the Battle of El Alamein.


His early poetry was in English, but after writing his first Gaelic poem, A' Chorra-ghritheach ("The Heron"), he decided that it was far better than his English work, and resolved to continue using his native language. By the mid-1930s he was well known as a writer in this tongue.

In November 1943, his first individual collection of poems was published: Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile (Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems). It became one of the most important books published in Gaelic in the 20th century.

His work in the field of Gaelic poetry at a time when very few writers of substance were working in Scottish Gaelic at all, has led to his being viewed as the father of the Scottish Gaelic renaissance. He was involved in the foundation and was a board member of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye.

His poetry articulated in Gaelic the crimes of the 20th century, and modernised and reinvigorated the language in the process, drawing clear and articulate analogies between such tragedies and acts of cultural genocide as the 19th century Scottish Highland Clearances, and the contemporary viciousness and injustice of events in places such as Biafra and Rwanda.

Major among his works was Hallaig, a meditative poem on the desolation associated with the Highland Clearances, named after a cleared village on the east coast of his native Isle of Raasay. A film of the same name was made in 1984 by Timothy Neat: in this MacLean discusses the dominant influences on his poetry, with commentary by Iain Crichton Smith and Seamus Heaney, and substantial passages from the poem and other work, along with extracts of Gaelic song. The poem also forms part of the lyrics of Peter Maxwell-Davies' opera The Jacobite Rising; and MacLean's own reading of it in English and in Gaelic was sampled by Martyn Bennett in his album Bothy Culture for a track of the same name.

Later life

He married Catherine (more often known as Renee) Cameron, the daughter of Inverness builder Kenneth Cameron of "Cameron and Munro". He had three daughters, in descending order of age, Ishbel, Catriona and Mary. He had six grandchildren, again in descending age order, Somhairle, Aonghas, Calum, Gilleasbuig, Catherine and Donald. His first great-grandchild, Uilleam Ruairidh was born in 2010.

He was creative writer in residence at the University of Edinburgh from 1973 to 1975 and was named as the first University of Edinburgh Alumnus of the Year in 1990.[1]

He died on 24 November 1996, aged 85 from natural causes, in Scotland.

Somhairle MacGill-Eain is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. Selections for Makars' Court are made by The Writers' Museum; The Saltire Society; The Scottish Poetry Library.




  • MacAulay, Donald (Domhnall MacAmhlaigh) [ed] (1977). Nua-Bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig / Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems: A Bilingual Anthology. New Directions, New York. pp. 70–115: "Am Mùr Gorm/The Blue Rampart", "Camhanaich/Dawn", "An Uair a Labhras mi mu Aodann/When I Speak of the Face", "Cha do Chuir de Bhuaireadh riamh/Never has such Turmoil been Put", "Gaoir na h-Eòrpa/The Cry of Europe", "An Roghainn/The Choice", "Coin is Madaidhean-Allaidh/Dogs and Wolves", "A' Chorra-Ghritheach/The Heron", "Hallaig/Hallaig", "Coilltean Ratharsair/The Woods of Raasay", "Ban-Gàidheal/Highland Woman", "Glac a' Bhàis/Death Valley", "Latha Foghair/An Autumn Day", "Aig Uaigh Yeats/At Yeats's Grave".


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External links

  • Profile at Carcanet Press
  • BBC Bio - Làrach nam Bàrd
  • Sorley MacLean Online - the Sorley MacLean Trust
  • in GaelicHallaigFull text of , with Sorley MacLean's own translation into English
  • Article summarizing a lecture by Heaney on Hallaig and MacLean's writing.
  • Sorley Maclean's Island full-length documentary at the Scottish Screen Archive.
  • Maclean at the Scottish Portrait Gallery
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