Sorley MacLean

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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 playing for the university team. After earning his degrees, he returned to the Highland and Island community to teach.

MacLean turned away from the Presbyterian faith of his community in his early teens. Like many Europeans of that day, he moved in sympathy to the far left. Much of his work touched on specifically political themes and references, and his position was Communist until the mid-1940s, although he was not a philosophical Marxist. 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, An Corra-Ghridheach ("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.

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.

Hallaig, a meditative poem on the desolation associated with the Highland Clearances, forms part of the lyrics of Peter Maxwell-Davies' opera The Jacobite Rising. The poet's own reading of the poem in English and in Gaelic was sampled by Martyn Bennett for his album Bothy Culture for a track of the same name.

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