‘Is there any culture more remote from an understanding of its own place-names meanings than Scotland’s, thanks to the loss of Gaelic?’ mused Alec Finlay in a recent blogpost of ‘cruinneachadh’, an eco-poetic exploration of the Cairngorms.
Nowadays, Scotland’s official tongue often lurks in the background, obscure, awkward, but unquestionably relevant to not only the story of the Hebrides, but of the nation. Presumably, then, judging by Annalena McAfee’s clichéd attempt at crafting a semi-fictitious, Gaelic-speaking community, Finlay’s inference proves true.
The story follows Mhairi McPhail’s flit to a small island to write a biography of Griogar McWatt, the Bard of Fascaray – ‘Scotland in miniature’. The plot is straightforward; McWatt studied the island and rehashed Scots poetry and McPhail, a modern-day researcher, studies McWatt, preparing to open the Grigor McWatt Heritage Centre on the island.
McAfee’s world building is rife with allochthonous slips. In the concocted Isle of Fascaray, tritely formed from the Gaelic foisneach (peaceful) and the Old Norse øy (isle), place-names include Slochd ’an Clàrsair Teich (a grammatical alphabet soup made of Gaelic), Mhor Sgheir [sic] and Loch Och and Loch Aye (although, granted, there is an air of legitimacy to the last two). The ‘peaceful isle’, a quaint etymology, was inhabited by the McWatts, for which in Wikipediaesque tone she hastens to add the Gaelic is ‘MacBhàidh’ (Watt in Gaelic is ‘MacBhatair’), and the MacCaulkers, whose Gaelic version ‘MacCuilcheachdh’ is hopefully a typo. The Gaelic is of poor quality; in one list of Gaelic weather terms, McAfee includes the word for a head-cold. McWatt writes of the ‘Clach Sgian’ (which means ‘Knife Rock’ instead of ‘Clach Sgàin’, the Stone of Scone).
The novel is in many ways a celebration of the island’s dùthchas, and a scalable metaphor for Scotland. The Gaelic concept, oversimply defined in the dictionaries as the hereditary birth-tie to a place, has been a central concept in Gaelic literature for nearly two millennia and enjoys due complexity. It’s one of those concepts not easily translated, like hygge.
Yet, McAfee stumbles in her deployment of this deep-rooted Gaelic belief as she presents McWatt’s magnum opus, The Compendium of Fascaray – the distillation of the island’s very spirit. His lists of the flora and fauna of Fascaray, mimicking Macfarlane’s Landmark, are good examples of this. He provides their names and uses, always giving the Latin and Scots but only rarely rendering them in Gaelic (despite, presumably, having collected this information from the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants). The one list of Gaelic words is of trees, but names such as ‘luis’ (mountain ash) are antiquated and were clearly found in the pages of a book (doubtlessly in McWatt’s extensive library).
Simply, how would a Scots poet, with a stilted grasp of Gaelic, be able to author the ultimate authority on the dùthchas of a Hebridean isle? And how then would Gaelic-speaking islanders so strongly connect with poetry that is, in essence, composed in a non-native tongue? There’s an amusing irony of McAfee basing McWatt’s ‘Hame Tae Fascaray’ on the ‘Mingulay Boat Song’. As the story goes, Robertson composed the faux rowing song after hearing a section of ‘Òran na Comhachaig’. The 16thc song explicitly states that it is nobler to hear the rutting of stags (on land) than the spouting of whales (at sea). The Keppoch bard was no fan of rowing, but Robertson didn’t know that.
Likewise, then, if the non-Gaelic-speaking McWatt might have come into trouble comprehending the dùthchas of a Gaelic island, how might McAfee, who’s island reeks of kailyard stereotypes, have fared? Her Hebridean world-building possesses strength in its research. And while rosy-cheeked old bodachs, vindictive landlords and whisky-induced sing-songs may form a slice of authentic island life, the narrative fails to grapple with other contemporary issues such as population decline or cost of living, which would have added vastly more dynamic – and authentic – dimensions to the narrative. It’s rabidly pro-island-life. Despite being crammed with historical case-studies, the novel cries out for realism as it tumbles full-tilt into the pitfalls of tartan tweedom.
But what if the community were indeed imagined, supposedly made up of a new breed of islander who spoke Gaelic first and Scots second? The Isle of Arran might qualify at a stretch, but McAfee’s suggestion that Fascaray is reached on the Fort William train, set amidst a Commando landscape, bars it. A cursory glance at the 2011 Scottish census language maps shows the paucity of a Scots-language tradition in the Gàidhealtachd. The anachronistic simplification underpinning the novel seems to ally the Scots and Gaelic languages against English in a way that never existed, except within the heads of a few nationalist literati.
In fear of overstretching my Gaelic purism, as McAfee puts it, the failure to create a convincing setting soured the remainder. The jarring misalignment of the Scots and Gaelic languages underpins and undoes this novel. McAfee has searched for dùthchas in a world that, due to constraints of history, could not exist. If lighting a few candles while wearing your comfiest socks does not embody hygge, then a collection of Scots poetry interspersed with indigenous word lists does not mean dùthchas.
Liam Alastair Crouse was the inaugural Gaelic Books Council publishing scholar at Stirling University in 2013-14 and co-founded the first e-zine in the Gaelic language, www.danamag.org, which publishes regular reviews of new Gaelic books.