“ I walked home after school; bent double in the wind; with the rain pouring horizontal from the north. In Uist, nothing ever fell down.”
Angus Peter Campbell was born and brought up in South Uist, a fact that is clear in his writing. Maybe not necessarily South Uist itself - unless it is stated, as in ‘Gravity’ from which the above quote is taken - but the islands at least. The ocean, the land, the weather and the way of life are all present in his words. He speaks of boats and islands, birds and waves, not to mention language and its changes over time – showing Campbell’s emotions towards the changes in not only the Gaelic language but in life itself.
He reminisces about stories of old times, whilst using more modern poetic techniques – for example in ‘Marina Tsvetaeva’ he uses vast, random spaces between words to represent movement and fragmentation. He brings in dialogues (whether it be with a person, a bird or himself) he once had, to bring a sense of history to his writing. He even brings in a conversation with the late Sorley Maclean (to whom the poem ‘Between the Cuillin and the Minch’ is dedicated) which gives the reader almost a sense of foreboding, as if you’re reading something you shouldn’t – “The last words I ever heard from you…” – because it seems too personal, but that makes it all the more beautiful.
There is so much feeling in each poem (sometimes it’s more apparent than other times, but it’s always there), and throughout the collection of poems – some serious, some more light-hearted – he covers a vast number of themes. There aren’t only the island-inspired topics but those inspired by the working world, romance, history, politics and the world outside of South Uist - he went to secondary school in Oban, and university in Edinburgh, but there are also mentions of further-flung places, like France, with smidgens of French, and Italy, including a poem which is written in Gaelic and Italian, with no English. Campbell is obviously an avid lover of language in any form – it is so clear in every poem that each sentence has been put together with care, attention and excitement – the topic of language is also a running theme throughout the collection.
Often when poems are written in two languages, a lot of meaning is lost in translation, but as Angus Peter Campbell is a master of the English language as well as the Gaelic language, this is not the case. I’ll admit it made me wish I understood Gaelic but not because I felt particularly hard-done-by. It has appeal to islanders and mainlanders, young people and old people, Gaelic-speakers and non-Gaelic-speakers alike, and I’m not sure there are many poets out there who can so much as claim to be able do that.
In the poem “The Story”, Angus Peter Campbell speaks of the loss of the spoken word. Once, speech was the primary medium by which stories, poems and songs where passed along, but now, this is almost unheard of. You never know, maybe Aibisidh will encourage its revival.
Book: Aibisidh (150 pages)
Author: Angus Peter Campbell
Published by: Polygon, £9.99
These Islands, We Sing
Poetry has the power to take you somewhere else. It can take you into the poet’s mind, the poet’s childhood or the poet’s dream world, but it can also take you back.
It seems to me, poetry (good poetry) has a memory of its own, and the ability to make you relive the day you first read the words that are once again in front of you. So, when I opened up ‘These Islands, We Sing’, and saw that the first poem was ‘Childhood’ by Edwin Muir, I got taken back to school, to the classroom where I first read that poem. And, really, if a piece of writing has the ability to hold onto a moment in time for you, then it’s worth a read.
Established author, playwright and poet, Lewisman and poetry enthusiast, Kevin MacNeil, is the editor of ‘These Islands, We Sing’ – An Anthology of Scottish Islands Poetry. He is the author of the renowned Stornoway-based novel ‘The Stornoway Way’, and the more recent – and equally fantastic – novel ‘A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde’. His earlier works include: ‘Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides’; ‘The Callanish Stoned’; and ‘Be Wise, Be Otherwise’.
Kevin compiled this collection, bringing together 60 of the most fantastic poets who were either born on one of the Scottish isles or have spent a considerable amount of time there. Said poets include: – Edwin Muir, Sorley Maclean, Ian Crichton Smith, Ian Stephen, George Mackay Brown, Jen Hadfield, Barbara MacGregor, James Knox Whittet, Rev. John Macleod, Edward Cummins and Pamela Beasant.
Within the anthology is a wonderful range of poems, not only in language – English, Gaelic and Scots – but in theme: the shocking story told in Rev. John Macleod’s ‘The Death of a Township’ in which he speaks of the unkind reactions of the city folk towards a family from the country; Sorley Maclean’s touching, sea-rhythmic words in ‘Spring Tide; and the comical Scots poem ‘Aesy for Some’ by Stella Sutherland, to name just a few.
This is the kind of collection that will stay on your bedside table for years. You may never read the entire thing – although it’s entirely plausible that you will; poetry gives the freedom to choose – but it will stay there, while you dip in and out of it every once in a while, for years to come, because already, (for me, at least) ‘These Islands, We Sing’ is a classic.
Book: These Islands, We Sing
(An Anthology of Scottish Islands Poetry) (264 pages)
Edited by: Kevin MacNeil
Published by: Polygon, £14.99
Isles at the Edge of the Sea
St Kilda is one of those places you hear about, you see the photos and you wonder whether you could survive the boat journey (and you decide you probably couldn’t), so it’s understandable for someone to dream of going there.
It’s understandable for someone, especially someone born and raised in a city, to want to experience ‘the islands at the edge of the world’, and the islands along the way, because, really, there’s nothing like them. That’s clearly what Jonny Muir thought, as he set off on his journey across the islands off the west coast of Scotland.
In his book, ‘Isles at the Edge of the Sea’, Jonny Muir tells us of his experiences in: Arran; Holy Island; Bute; Colonsay; Islay; Jura; Mull; Coll; Tiree; Eigg; Rum; Canna; Skye; Barra; Berneray; Lewis; Harris; and finally, St Kilda. He tells his stories in a wonderfully chatty, been-there-done-that kind of way – because he literally has been there and done it, and, quite clearly, he loved it. You are taken along with him on his travels, and are left with half your mind feeling as though it were actually there, and the other half yearning to get out and follow Jonny Muir’s footsteps.
Book: Isles at the edge of the sea (238 pages)
Author: Jonny Muir
Published by: Sandstone Press, £8.99
St Kilda Snapshots
This is a book based around the collection of photos that belonged to the late Lachlan Macdonald who was born on St Kilda in 1906 and left during the evacuation. The photos give us a real insight into, not only, what life was like on St Kilda before it was evacuated in August 1930, but also what it was like after.
The pictures are accompanied by information about St Kilda, detailed information about the last people to live there and what the St Kildans’ lives were like after the island was evacuated.
This book gives you an idea of what it was once like on this extremely intriguing island: it tells us of the families that lived there, the kind of life they led and the troubles that befell them, leading to the evacuation and, ultimately, the creation of the island that is there now.
Book: St Kilda Snapshots (84 pages)
Written by: David Quine
Published by: The Islands Book Trust, £16.99
Stroma – an island in the Pentland Firth – is a place about which I knew nothing, not so much as its name. Upon opening the book “Stroma”, the reader gets an insight into both the island it is now, and the island it once was.
This book tells of its history, including personal accounts of people’s memories of the island. However, before reading the words, you are practically obliged to look at the breath-taking photos. Each one has such depth of colour and atmosphere that they inspire you to imagine what the island was like; the photos also demonstrate its present beauty despite the current state of the buildings that were once the homes of the inhabitants.
Placed beside some of the photos is poetry by George Gunn, inspired by the island’s wildlife, weather, buildings and the surrounding sea. The poetry is rather dark in places – representing the decay of the buildings and the loss of the life that once was on the island.
Book: Stroma (64 pages)
Written by: Roddy Ritchie,
Alistair Murray and George Gunn
Published by: The Islands Book Trust, £20