‘An Introduction to Gaelic Fiction’ by Moray Watson

'An Introduction to Gaelic Fiction' by Moray WatsonIn this, “the first guide to Gaelic fiction”, Moray Watson makes a significant and long overdue contribution to Gaelic, and therefore Scottish, literary studies. Some readers of Gaelic fiction will not be surprised that this is a relatively slim volume; others will feel that it is too slender. Although Gaelic, in one form or another, has existed as a written language for a good number of centuries, were one to collect together the entire corpus of Gaelic fiction—novels and stories—it would constitute a very modest bookshelf in any sizeable library. Fewer than twenty Gaelic novels for adults were published in the twentieth century—and most of these appeared in the 1970s and the 1990s.

In 2006 the eminent Celtic scholar William Gillies even suggested that when talking about Gaelic ‘literature’ one might as well use the word interchangeably with ‘poetry’, “because most of it is poetry”.1 Watson contends that “as the present book shows, there is no shortage of prose literature in Gaelic”.2 Where, then, is the prose equivalent of Sorley MacLean? We simply don’t have one. However, if the quantity and quality of Gaelic prose fiction are both somewhat lacking overall, in the twenty-first century this situation, perhaps improbably, is changing for the better.

Watson writes with commendable candour (important because the world of Gaelic literature is very small and as such is open to accusations of clannishness) and a refreshing lack of pretentiousness (a book of this sort benefits greatly from being accessible as well as intelligent). The 200–page critical overview is written in English and quotations from Gaelic stories and novels are presented in Watson’s own English translations, sometimes omitting the original Gaelic altogether. Watson offers an interesting if insufficient comment on this practice:

Throughout the book, the translations are my own, except where specified. In many cases, I have not quoted the Gaelic at all, if a translation can convey the point perfectly well on its own. In some cases, I have not translated to English, as the translation would be unlikely to clarify the point being made.3

The Gaelic reader will sometimes therefore have to seek out the original text if (s)he wishes to contemplate how nuanced/balanced/successful Watson’s translation is. The non–Gaelic reader will occasionally be left mystified because Watson has decided that sometimes a translation is clearer when omitted altogether. This makes for an unusual and inconsistent approach.

I also wish Watson had given some explanation as to how he went about rendering his translations; that he does not provide any clarification is a disappointment. Did he, for example, show his versions to the living authors whose work he translated? If so, how did he respond to their feedback?

Watson’s uncompromising style makes the book readable and energetic; he is not afraid to offer forthright assessments no matter how controversial his opinions might be. As such, this book put me in mind of Peter Mackay’s recent Sorley MacLean, which similarly offers a highly opinionated, well–researched and ultimately indispensable addition to the Gaelic lit–crit tradition. Both works are willing to risk confronting in an open and, where pertinent, unyielding manner the strengths and weaknesses of modern Gaelic literature.

Those weaknesses are especially evident in the early works of prose fiction. The first Gaelic books (beginning with a version of the Book of Common Order in 1567) were religious in inclination and Gaelic publications in general were rare over the next few hundred years, hampered by aspects of cost, distribution, literacy levels, poverty, regional linguistic variation and so on. The rich Gaelic oral tradition and the religious sermon both had an influence on the early stories, which were often didactic or allegorical performance pieces. Watson quotes Donald Meek’s succinct and shrewd observation that “By the last quarter of the nineteenth century […] the ceilidh–house moved into print”.4

Iain MacCormaic of Mull is usually credited with writing the first Gaelic novel Dun-aluinn (1912), the first novella and a number of plays and short stories. As with most of the early Gaelic fiction, MacCormaic’s writings were flawed, often deeply so. Donald John MacLeod considered Dun-aluinn “a rather anaemic adventure yarn”.5 while Derick Thomson described it as “a mixture of sentimentality, tub–thumping and the kind of anecdotage–with–repartee that is popular with Gaelic audiences”.6 The latter description could easily apply to many of the early attempts at Gaelic fiction, whether in story or novel form.

Watson remarks: “[…] the work that was published in the first half of the twentieth century was generally weak and error–strewn. It was only in the second half of the century that the fiction truly began to come into its own”.7 The sad and humbling truth is that the first forays into Gaelic fiction were by and large conspicuous by their failures rather than their successes. The weaknesses to which Watson refers—and which he convincingly explores and exposes—include careless plotting, shallow characterisation, stilted, exposition–laden dialogue, dubious sentimentality, incredulous character motivation, an inability to evolve a clear organic premise within a dynamic text, overblown descriptions, ineffectual editing—the list goes on. One can’t help but feel the early writers rather wasted, where they might otherwise have developed, their nascent talents.

In 1951 Derick Thomson catalysed an exciting creative period of Gaelic writing by co–founding the periodical Gairm and then, impressively, going on to edit it for over half a century. Literally hundreds of short stories appeared in Gairm during the publication’s existence, including important works by Iain Crichton Smith, Donald John MacIver, Angus Peter Campbell, Mary Montgomery and John Murray.

Intriguingly, a number of the short stories from that time could be classified as works of science fiction—possibly because this was the tail–end of something of a golden age for such stories in English, possibly because writing in a declining language compels a writer almost automatically at some point to give thought to the future. Short story practitioners also began experimenting with techniques like dramatic irony, subtle foreshadowing and stream–of–consciousness narrative styles to an extent that was significantly more radical in a Gaelic context than would have been the case in a contemporaneous English context because in the Gaelic tradition these practices were that much newer and rarer. Progress was being made.

Indeed, over the next few decades, short stories in Gaelic began to shine with genuine literary sophistication. Many of the best examples of this belated advancement were provided by Iain Crichton Smith. Watson contends that the short story “came close to eclipsing poetry as the premier form of literary expression in the language at the end of the twentieth century”.8

Meanwhile, a new wave of novel–writing emerged in the 1970s, best manifested in the publication of two of Gaelic’s most successful works–Iain Crichton Smith’s An t–Aonaran (1976) and Norman Campbell’s Deireadh an Fhoghair(1979). The former, actually more of a novella or even a long short story, also exists in an English version, The Hermit, rendered (it’s not a literal translation) by Smith himself. As Watson points out, “[An t–Aonaran] is one of the most important Gaelic literary artefacts from the twentieth century and deserves to be studied at much greater length”.9 An t–Aonaran itself is only about 18,500 words long. Its brevity is not the simple result of a poet’s natural tendency towards concise, intensified language, but part of a trend at the time; Gaelic writers often wrote in various media and as they transitioned from short stories to longer narratives they seemed to do so with some caution.

The quality of the novels produced during the latter part of the century varies significantly, as does their subject matter and writing style. Watson makes a perceptive observation when he criticises the manner in which authors generally (mis)handle code–switching, i.e. the (common in real–life) practice of switching between Gaelic and English in conversation. Discussing one of Norman MacLean’s books (Cùmhnantan, which he astutely implies is akin to a play or script packaged as a novel), Watson says: “[…] the English dialogue is stilted and unconvincing in comparison with the Gaelic dialogue, and this is a failing which pervades most of the Gaelic novels that include switching of this kind”.10 Unfortunately Watson does not go on to explore why this might be the case.

Constrained, perhaps, by space, the author often shies away from investigating matters of concern to the engaged reader. For example, though the number of Gaelic novels is small, it is difficult to pinpoint how many there are because, as in the case of the aforementioned An t–Aonaran, the boundaries between the novel and novella and long story often blur. Watson concedes “This point about boundary placement is an important one that needs to be addressed […]” but again he deliberately avoids doing so.11 Similarly, when considering how to contextualise the emergence of the Gaelic novel Watson cites a few references then says “It may be that further work will succeed in giving us a fuller picture of how and why writing and publishing were going on at the time, as well as who was reading the literature and what they thought of it”.12 Leaving aside Watson’s (fairly atypical) clumsy phrasing and the fact that the title describes it as an introduction, shouldn’t this book, which proclaims that it “[covers] the full expanse of the canon […] [t]racing the history of Gaelic fiction over the last century” do just that? The author sidesteps some crucial issues within its limited pages; this would be more forgivable if those same pages didn’t contain certain repetitions, repetitions which create an effect of redundancy rather than accrescence.

That said, Watson is a skilled reader. He recognises the merits of the more talented writers and of certain short story collections and anthologies, and throughout the book he tends to justify his critical judgments with persuasive and judicious exemplifications of his assessments. He is invigorated, as Gaelic literature itself has been, by the Ùr–Sgeul initiative, a Gaelic imprint with high production values and which has published, within this past decade, books which in number alone come close to matching that of the entire twentieth century.

Watson sees quality in the best works of present–day authors like Martin MacIntyre, Angus Peter Campbell, Duncan Gillies, Catriona Lexy Campbell, Norma MacLeod, Finlay MacLeod and Alison Lang. He is assured that the Ùr–Sgeul publications have revitalised Gaelic fiction writing (and reading): “For the first time, readers of Gaelic literature can expect to see several books published within a calendar year, all of them finished in the same quality as books in English […] If the short story came into its own during the Gairm years, it may be that scholars of the future will say that prose fiction in general came to dominate the literary scene during the Ùr–Sgeul years”.13

I found myself asking why the author, even in an introductory analysis, failed to give consideration to questions such as: how do digitisation and multimedia collaborations affect contemporary Gaelic prose? How effective have the Gaelic Writers in Residence been? Admittedly, it is debatable to what degree these questions are pertinent here. But the book does seem to consider itself both introduction and detailed critical account, including within its remit an exploration of “how the critics may influence the writing, either directly or indirectly”—so it could be argued that an exploration of the impact of these (and other) external factors would have been quite appropriate.14

In fairness, Watson makes mention of some forthcoming works in which he intends to develop some of his ideas on Gaelic literature and on the strength of this publication, such works promise to make for fascinating and, in all likelihood, essential reading.

Intermittent misgivings aside, Watson has written a stimulating, commendable and readable book. It is a delight to move from the shakiest beginnings to a twenty-first century in which Gaelic fiction is expanding and, in some directions, flourishing.

In offering “the first guide to Gaelic fiction”, Watson has made a much more auspicious start than Gaelic fiction itself did.

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References & Further Information

An Introduction to Gaelic Fiction by Moray Watson is published by Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

1 Moray Watson, An Introduction to Gaelic Fiction (EUP, 2011), p.1
2 Ibid. p.1
3 Ibid. p. 188
4 Ibid. p. 20
5 Ibid. p. 38
6 Ibid. p. 39
7 Ibid. p. 36
8 Moray Watson, An Introduction to Gaelic Fiction (EUP, 2011), p.85
9 Ibid. p. 90
10 Ibid. p. 114
11 Ibid. p. 190
12 Ibid. p. 37
13 Ibid. p. 186
14 Ibid. p. 2

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Kevin MacNeil

Kevin MacNeil is a novelist, poet, screenwriter, editor and playwright from the Outer Hebrides. He is the author of books such as The Brilliant & Forever and The Diary of Archie the Alpaca, and editor of Robert Louis Stevenson: An Anthology (Selected by JL Borges and A Bioy Casares) and These Islands, We Sing. MacNeil has won numerous awards and currently lectures in creative writing at the University of Stirling.

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