Biography

Sorley MacLean (1911 - 1996) : Sorley MacLean (his Gaelic name is Somhairle MacGill-Eain) was born on the island of Raasay, near Skye, in 1911. He was brought up speaking Gaelic and only began to learn English when he started school at the age of six. His family was well-versed in Gaelic song and music: his father and his uncle were pipers and his grandmother and an aunt were Gaelic singers.

MacLean went on to study at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with a first in English, then took up teaching as a career. He worked in Skye, Mull and Edinburgh and eventually became head teacher at Plockton High School, retiring in 1972. He served with Signals in the Second World War, returning seriously wounded from El Alamein.

While at university he began writing poetry, at first in English, but when he translated one of his poems into Gaelic he immediately felt his poetic voice to be stronger and truer in his first language. He would continue to write in Gaelic for the rest of his life, translating much of his work himself into English. His poetry is distinguished for its inventiveness and its scope and breadth. MacLean represents a break with Gaelic tradition, bringing in many modern elements. He showed that the Gaelic language, although one of the oldest in Europe and inextricably associated with an ancient way of life which was steadily passing into oblivion, was as flexible and as subtle as any modern language and its poetry was as capable of dealing with complex and contemporary issues. His work reflects a profound passion for his culture and his people, his language and his literary heritage. His themes range from a raging sense of injustice at human greed and cruelty, to soaring expressions of love; from the devastation of the Clearances, to the horrors of modern warfare.

He was never a prolific poet – his teaching duties hobbled his creative output – and he was never a professional ‘career’ poet. He wrote as it suited him, as the rhythms came to him, not for glory or fame or material reward. Even though he was widely published – in fact his first poems were published in conjunction with Robert Garioch – his audience was mainly confined to the Gaelic speaking community. MacLean also benefitted from the sturdy advocacy of Douglas Young, who sought a broader audience for the work of his friend by translating his poems into Scots. Widespread recognition was slow in coming but by the 1970s he was firmly established as one of Scotland’s leading poets, due partly to an appearance at the Cambridge Poetry Festival where his distinctive and sonorous reading voice alerted an influential new audience to his verse.

Sorley MacLean has earned a place as one of Scotland’s most important poets – he is responsible for bringing Gaelic literature into the twentieth century and breathing new life into a language that had long been on the verge of extinction, and was considered more or less irrelevant in the history of Scotland’s literature. MacLean encouraged the Scottish literary establishment to reappraise this erroneous view. Consequently, the positive influence MacLean has had on the resurgence of Gaelic in recent years can justly be described as incalculable.