Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn have now reached Raasay on the Road North. Their most recent post pays tribute to Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain), the great poet of Raasay, and his poem 'Hallaig'. They include a map, a Borgesian signpost and three hokku labels pinned to trees - 'she is birch', 'she is rowan', 'she is hazel'. These refer to the lines 'tha i 'na beithe, 'na calltuinn, / 'na caorunn dhìreach sheang ùir'. Maclean translated these lines into English as 'she is a birch, a hazel, / a straight slender young rowan' and Seamus Heaney's version has 'A flickering birch, a hazel, / A trim, straight sapling rowan'.
In a 2002 lecture Heaney wrote about how impressed he had been by 'Hallaig', a poem that arose 'out of MacLean's sense of belonging to a culture that is doomed but that he will never deny. It's as local as anything in Thomas Hardy and as lambent as Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus'. 'Hallaig' is a landscape emptied by the Highland clearances. The poem is 'set at twilight, in the Celtic twilight, in effect, at that time of day when the land of the living and the land of the dead become pervious to each other, when the deserted present becomes populous with past lives, when the modern conifers make way for the native birch and rowan, and when the birch and rowan in their turn metamorphose into a procession of girls walking together out of the 19th-century hills. The poem tells us that in Hallaig there is something to protect, and goes on to show that it is indeed being protected, which is the reason for the uncanny joy a reader feels at the end.'
'Hallaig' is this month's featured poem on the Sorley MacLean Trust website. They quote John MacInnes, who says that in 'Hallaig' 'both the Gaelic sense of landscape, idealised in terms of society, and the Romantic sense of communion with Nature, merge in a single vision, a unified sensibility.’ The same could be said of another Sorley MacLean poem, 'Coilltean Ratharsair' ('The Woods of Raasay'), which begins like a Gaelic version of The Prelude (as Terry Gifford says in Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry). In its early verses the poem recalls the woods in motion, in blossom, in sunlight and shade, many-coloured, many-winded, serene and humming with song. But the imagery becomes darker ('O the wood! / How much there is in her dark depths!') and there is a growing recognition that idealised woods are as unattainable as perfect love. 'What is the meaning of worshipping Nature / because the wood is part of it?' In the end, wood itself is simple - 'the way of sap is known' - but 'there is no knowledge of the course of the crooked veering of the heart' or 'of the final end of each pursuit.'