Iain Crichton Smith’s literary output was remarkable in more ways than one. He wrote poems, stories, novels, essays, plays, and reviews across two languages. Na Sgeulachdan Gàidhlig is a milestone publication. It brings together for the first time the 116 stories Smith wrote in Gaelic (more, incidentally, than any other writer). These stories demonstrate how Smith (1928–1998) revitalised twentieth-century Gaelic fiction by bringing to it fresh themes and writing techniques. He explores exile, community, authenticity, education, individuality, existentialism and many other topics, utilising a clear-eyed, sometimes droll Hebridean lens, a precise, colourful eloquence, and a uniquely impressive imagination. Smith’s work is at once appealingly diverse and highly distinctive.
Perhaps it is appropriate that an author who often writes about miscommunication, whose translations are sometimes more liberal than literal, and who embraces contradictions and ambiguities the way Smith does, has been the subject of a number of misunderstandings. Some of these are fairly prosaic, such as the fallacy (repeated on several of Smith’s book jackets) that Smith was born on Lewis; in fact, he was born in Glasgow to parents from Lewis, and was moved to the Point area of the island as an infant, following the death of his father. It is interesting to note that the island that shaped Smith and his writing so indelibly was one on which he spent only fifteen, albeit deeply formative, years out of the seventy he lived. Another misapprehension that seems to adhere is that Smith wrote too much. He was certainly prolific. But how do we quantify ‘too much’? It is difficult objectively to measure literary contribution. Smith’s accolades include honorary doctorates, an OBE, the Forward Prize, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee medal, and many others. Flawed though the analogy is – writing is not a competitive sport – Smith is like a sportsman who won multiple gold, silver, and bronze medals at the highest level. That Smith struck gold numerous times across disciplines is cause for celebration, and to distort his achievements is a miserable capitulation to the cultural cringe.
This invaluable book has been a long time in the making, and it is an appropriately high-quality production – a handsome hardback, replete with an evocative piece of cover art by the late Dòmhnall Mac a’ Ghobhainn depicting a village in Lewis in 1991. A characterful photographic portrait of Smith taken around the same time appears in the book, a black and white image in which a typically besuited Smith stands smiling in his Taynuilt garden.
Two substantial forewords, by editors Iain MacDhòmhnaill and Moray Watson respectively, complement both each other and, of course, the stories themselves. MacDhòmhnaill knew Smith as a friend and admired him as a writer. MacDhòmhnaill’s piece ‘Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn: An Duine agus An Sgrìobhadair’ (‘Iain Crichton Smith: The Man and the Writer’) offers a concise yet rich biography of Smith and an informed and insightful overview of his compulsions, methods, and accomplishments as a writer. This introduction is sincere, appreciative, and illuminating. Watson’s ‘Am Bodach agus An Guth: A’ tuigsinn sgeulachdan goirid Iain Crichton Mhic a’ Ghobhainn’ (‘The Old Man and The Voice: Understanding the short stories of Iain Crichton Smith’) presents a slightly more text-centred approach, accentuating, for example, imagery, technique, and subject matter. The introductions negotiate a fine balance of the knowledgeable and the personal, just as the book itself feels both academic (in how comprehensive it is) and commercial (in that it is competitively priced, and in that the stories are inherently entertaining even as they are provocative and edifying).
Both introductions consider the works chronologically. The stories, however, are presented by theme rather than in their chronological order. I feel this is a rare editorial mis-step. The themes are not arbitrary (‘Foghlam agus Cuimhne’/‘Education and Memory’, ‘Gaol agus Conaltradh’/‘Love and Communication’, etc), but arguments could be made for choosing different themes or theme combinations if one wished to arrange the stories thematically. There is, inevitably, a ‘Sgeulachdan Eile’/‘Other Stories’ section at the end for those stories that don’t yield to the chosen subjects. I contend that chronological order gives a more coherent overview of Smith’s work – not only in terms of his development as an author of Gaelic short stories, but as a writer across genres and languages. Shaping the book in this manner would have brought Na Sgeulachdan Gàidhlig into line with the chronological order that structures the other extant Smith collections: The Red Door: The Complete English Short Stories 1949-1976. and The Black Halo: The Complete English Short Stories 1977-1998, the English-language Collected Poems (which, alas, is not quite complete, having some significant lacunae), and the collected Gaelic poems, A’ Bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig, edited by Watson. In practical terms as much as anything else, it is a shame that the stories are grouped into themes. There is the additional issue of whether Smith himself would have concurred with these particular themes, whereas chronological order speaks for its more unwavering, objective self. With all that said, another way to read the book is simply to dip in and out of it, reading stories here and there according to time, circumstance, and mood!
The narratives cover a broad spectrum of styles and concerns. They are by turns philosophical, mischievous, down-to-earth, lyrical. Sometimes they are sublime, making of the quotidian something ineffable. Granted, a few of the stories are a little weak, suffering from thin characterisation, predictable plotting, a reliance on melodrama rather than drama (see, for example, ‘An Dealbh-chluiche’). The best of these stories, however, are compelling, thought-provoking, and memorable – a prime example being ‘An Teileagram’, a narrative that achieves the ideal ending, which is to say one that is unpredicted and inevitable. It is astonishing that this canonical story, which was published in An Gàidheal in 1965, never appeared in one of Smith’s Gaelic story collections, although the English version, ‘The Telegram’, was included in the now out-of-print The Black and the Red and Other Stories and features in the aforementioned The Red Door. Publication of Na Sgeulachdan Gàidhlig means we now have access to every Smith short story ever published: a most satisfying state of affairs.
Smith wrote stories that are like scenes from a play, stories that are essentially flash fictions or vignettes, stories that constitute pieces of autofiction, supernatural tales, science fiction stories, etc. No matter which mode Smith wrote in, he forged such a distinctive style that his writing is always recognisable, an achievement in itself. The stories in Na Sgeulachdan Gàidhlig often evoke visceral reactions – surprise, laughter, a nod of appreciation, a heart-pang of nostalgic recognition. Smith’s Gaelic is clean and lucid and easy to understand, and so is suited not only to those fortunate enough to understand the language but also to mid-level or advanced learners. It is partly for this reason I believe an audiobook version of the best of Smith’s Gaelic stories would be both a useful educational tool and a source of great enjoyment.
A writer inhabits two worlds because when they are writing they exist simultaneously in the world of verbal creativity and the regular, shared, mundane world that is as solid as a desk. Bringing to life characters who are not mere ciphers but diverse, credible-in-context sentient beings involves a similar double or multiple indwelling. Smith/Mac a’ Ghobhainn embodied what might be called the ‘antaisisidsidh Gàidhealach’. He was an islander and a mainlander, a fiction writer who also wrote autobiographically, a thinker and a joker, the inheritor of a tradition but one who constantly challenged its boundaries, a forger of exquisite tropes and unforgettable plots who sometimes neglected to take time to revise his work. Smith’s capacity to be both x and y, or to be beyond both as concentrated observer, is by no means an unusual quality in a writer, but the extent to which he understood being ‘whaur extremes meet’ while transcending rather than attaching to the drama therein results in a narrative style that harbours resonating complexities. This is one reason why his work will last.
Even if we read only a portion of Smith’s prose we can identify recurring motifs, environments, and character types. While it seems Smith routinely recycled material, it’s more accurate to say he revisited it. There is limited benefit in grasping for absolutes in the work of Smith, a man who was deeply wary of dogma and who thus tended to reassess ideas with an inherent understanding of the malleable, impermanent nature of things. To take one small example, the colour yellow often signifies joy, love, beauty or happiness in Smith’s work – but it can also connote sickness, anaemia, or sourness, depending on the circumstances. Smith’s mind itself, while absolutely principled, seems more flowing tide than steadfast croft fence; he actively seeks to engage with the spontaneous procession of the multifarious moment rather than sink into the stagnant marsh of joyless doctrine. He strives for art and grace over the insular world of narrow judgementalism and harsh oppression. His best stories are vivid wonders, and they demonstrate that life is changeable, interdependent, and nuanced.
Above all, Smith’s stories showcase the nature of his creative vision, an irresistible blend of the recognisably Hebridean and the personally idiosyncratic. It is movingly apparent that Smith was motivated by an innate decency, a hunger to read widely and to share ideas generously. Voices such as his – inventive, compassionate, too infrequently encountered – very much deserve to be part of the ongoing cultural conversation. For all his success, Smith is an undervalued writer, both within Scotland and internationally. That we now have in print, for the first time, every short story he wrote, all his Gaelic poems, and most of his English poems, is something of which Scotland should take note and be proud. It is very much to be hoped a complete edition of his plays will appear one day; indeed, publication of the complete oeuvre of Iain Crichton Smith would be immensely gratifying.
A quarter of a century after his death, I wonder how a guileless, unassuming writer like Iain Crichton Smith would fare in this age of the selfie, of the personal brand, of relentless self-promotion. Smith knew that self-praise is no recommendation. Even when he wrote autobiographically, he often did so through a self-deprecating avatar such as his comical ‘Murdo’ character. Smith was humble, inordinately yet unobtrusively talented, and surely happier when writing than when ‘being a writer’.
The means through which Smith bridged the culture of the Gàidhealtachd and that of the wider world is profound. These stories are intimately and affectingly imbued with a sense of what it meant to be a questioning, perceptive, and gifted Gàidheal in the twentieth century. It can be asserted without fear of exaggeration that Na Sgeulachdan Gàidhlig is among the most valuable books published in Scotland so far this century. This volume bolsters an individual author’s reputation, fortifies a distinguished literary heritage, and enlarges a painfully diminished language.
Na Sgeulachdan Gàidhlig is published by Comann Litreachas Gàidhlig na h-Alba