Scottish Review of Books (Volume 5 Issue 4) – Samhain 2009

An Claigeann aig Damien Hirst


What’s exciting about any anthology is the likelihood of both revisiting the familiar and discovering the new – and this collection wins points on both counts. While Gaelic has a rich and ancient tradition of storytelling, and around a century of forays into fictional writing, the first flowering of contemporary prose belongs to the second half of the twentieth century. In her introduction, Jo MacDonald persuasively identifies John Murray’s ‘Briseadh na Cloiche’ (‘Breaking the Stone’), which appeared exactly thirty years ago, as the keystone short story in modern Gaelic literature.

Weaving together science fiction, fantasy and the surreal, the anthology provides its own sense of continuity without compromising imaginative richness. Thematically, it offers perspectives on alienation, separation, revenge and death – timeless motifs approached with a freshness and energy that engage the reader with ease.

The book opens with Alasdair Campbell’s ‘Iudmhail’ (in Dwelly’s Dictionary: fugitive, coward, or low, feeble fellow), where a broken marriage, second sight and transvestism are the components of a tale of betrayal and ultimate revenge. With Lewis and Glasgow settings, ‘Iudmhail’ contrasts with the author’s kinsman Maoilios Caimbeul’s contribution, a story of bourgeois Surrey, where Hirst’s famous skull reveals a surprising history – that of a medieval Barra Macneil’s brother!

If the two Campbells successfully bring such traditional Gaelic supernatural elements as premonitions and ghosts into their contemporary settings (while another of Alasdair’s relatives, his niece Catriona Lexy, writes about mermaids), others blend science fiction and the everyday with equal persuasiveness. Lincolnshire native Des Scholes, walking the Pennine way, encounters a community that reveals itself as more cyber than human. Alison Lang visits a dystopian near-future, while broadcaster Iain Mac Illeathain’s atmospheric ‘Keppler’, with its solitary interplanetary survivor, brings Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris to mind. Alaskan Chuck Tripp enters Jack London’s alternative world of wolves. Mona Claudia Striewe incorporates a virtual funeral into a teenage world of screens and keyboards.

There’s also a strand which remains firmly anchored in the quotidian world, past or present, told through a variety of original perspectives. Donald John MacIver’s disaffected islander has survived Iraq. Iseabail MacLean (one of the youngest contributors) places her poetic exploration of relationships within the context of a confessional. Michael Klevenhaus story of a 1970s teenager discovering rock and roll on his Nazi uncle’s gramophone – which is more accustomed to martial music – is a subtly moving acknowledgement of the monstrous we may all have to come to terms with. Gaeldom’s wittiest writer, Mary Ann MacDonald offers a tidy sketch on the perils of eavesdropping, while Mairi E Macleod neatly measures a life in upgrades in a tale that might reasonably be subtitled ‘The Revenge of the Righteous Embezzler’.

If the early twenty-first century seems determined to reprise old conflicts, crashes, and crises, this collection reflects the unease of our time and offers alternative ways of seeing the world. The authors and their subjects are related through dissatisfaction with the familiar. An Claigeann Aig Damien Hirst asks who we are, and what our place is in this unsettling world. It raises questions, and provides one unambiguous answer: those wondering about the health of Gaelic prose will discover here that it is in a robust state.