It was not a world we inherited but an island,
even though the island was a world.
Angus-Peter Campbell is an award-winning poet, novelist, journalist, broadcaster, and actor. Born in South Uist, he now lives in An Caol with his wife and children. His Gaelic novel An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn (2004) was shortlisted for the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, and was also publicly voted in 2006 by readers of The List Magazine into the top ten of the 'Best-Ever Books Written in Scotland'. His poetry collection Aibisidh was the Scottish Poetry Book of the Year in 2012.
Alexandra Campbell asked Angus-Peter about his engagement with island spaces in his collection Invisible Islands (2006) and the playful nature of language in his most recent Poetry collection,Aibisidh (2011).
From the tales of Scottish Sailor Alexander Selkirk which inspired the first Island novel, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, to R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island and travel writings, along with Muriel Spark’s Robinson and the island poetry of George Mackay Brown and Sorley MacLean it seems that islands occupy a definite space within the Scottish Literary imagination. What do island spaces mean within your own work, and do you see yourself as perhaps participating within a tradition of Scottish island writing?
I was born and brought up in the village ofSouth Boisdale at the south end of South Uist. There are a lot of ‘souths’ in there, and I mention it because I was very conscious from a young age that I belonged to South Boisdale (as opposed to the next village of North Boisdale) and to South Uist (as opposed to the neighbouring island of North Uist). Orientation mattered.
I suppose it gave me a very early awareness of what you might call ‘spatial geography’ – a sense that your way of life was framed (like a painting) by your physical environment. Later on, I realised that cultural, religious, linguistic and social factors were integral to that framing, and that your view(s) of the world were very much shaped by the window(s) though which you looked.
I think that’s why, much later, I was immediately struck by Sorley MacLean’s great poem ‘Hallaig’ which begins ‘The window is nailed and boarded / through which I saw the West’ It was a sudden lyrical explanation for my own experience: formal English-language education and the rote-learning of British History had surely nailed and boarded the window(s) to my own indigenous, Gaelic culture.
Sorley’s poem, of course, continues:
and my love is a the Burn of Hallaig, a birch tree, and she has always been
between Inver and Milk Hollow here and there about Baile-chùirn:
In other words, despite all the nails and boarding, the people’s history was still there.
Aside from that literary oxygen that Sorley MacLean’s poetry gave me, I have never seen myself (consciously at least) as working within a specific tradition.
Invisible Islands is heralded as your first published book in the English Language, was there a particular meaning behind choosing islands as the space to first explore this new literary departure?
No. The direct inspiration was simply reading Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’. After I read that, I simply thought that islands were equally invisible (fictional or fantastic) and that it was worth taking a journey through these spaces where I had lived and played as a child, and which I had imagined as other spaces. After all, when I played football with a tattered leather ball in a rocky field next to our house in Uist as a child, I was really playing at Hampden Park or Wembley. And when you played you were never yourself: you were either George Best or Jimmy Greaves or Denis Law, just as my son when he now plays is Lionel Messi. The tiny pitch is a fluid cosmos. And you never lose: you are always on the winning side when you play an imaginary game as a child.
Often when people think of the Western Isles – or any island(s) for that matter – they conjure images of something remote, pure and untouched. This is often then combined with the understanding of such cultures as ‘small’, ‘peripheral’ and ‘fringe’. Yet one can hardly call an archipelago (real or imagined) of 21 islands ‘small’. Does your work seek to engage with, or perhaps combat, this stylised image?
The thing about romanticism is that it’s true. At least in the sense that an image of an island (or a person, or an event etc) is not just invented. Islands, by definition, are ‘remote’ (what laden words! Remote from what? – ‘removed physically from the mainland’ is the answer), ‘peripheral’ etc. These are the physical realities which make them islands in the first place.
But of course people add aesthetic, anthropological, ‘spiritual’ etc. properties to the physical reality, so that they become images of our creation. Which is fine as far as it goes, but becomes distorted through various factors such as money, property, power etc. The centralist tendency then is for islands to become habitats of the ‘noblesavage’ syndrome.
Of course, relatively speaking, most islands are more untouched than cities, for example, though that doesn’t in itself make them Edens. But for an urban-dweller it is of course understandable that they are seen as havens of fresh air and clarity.
The socio-economic danger is that these islands then become retreats or places of escape for those who have extra income and can afford to buy property on them, which tends to be cheaper than in the cities. I treat this in one of my Gaelic novels ‘An Taigh Samhraidh’ (‘The Summer House’) set in Argyll. The house in the novel (which has an indigenous history) becomes an emotional garden for a couple whose marriage is crumbling. Though it dissolves anyway. For our emotional battles are as tough under a Hebridean sunset as they are in a London street. Islands, as the late great Iain Crichton Smith said, are also real places with real people.
The archipelago you’ve created in Invisible Islands is extremely vibrant and active, where even the most remote and uninhabited island is engaged with the world beyond. For example Craolaigh which is described as ‘The most loquacious island in the entire archipelago [...] on which no one has ever lived’, or even the ‘Ubhlaigh holocaust’ which occurs on the same day as Hiroshima, alongside other references to island clusters such as New Zealand. Is this continual flow between the local and the global a means of drawing the rest of the world in, or of opening the archipelago out? (Or perhaps even both?)
Both. Growing up in Uist I was very aware that the sea took you places as well as cut you off from the mainland. The place was full of merchant seamen who had just returned from voyages to Australia or to South Georgia or to the Far East; and of course also full of folk who had gone away and fought in the wars, in Korea and Burma and Palestine and North Africa and Germany.
It’s also largely a Roman Catholic island and when I grew up the Mass was still in Latin, so Rome was more real to us than Edinburgh, and the Latin language no stranger than English. I always had a sense of Gaelic being a great European language, as valid as any other.
There also appears to be a certain environmental awareness which emerges Invisible Islands, where issues regarding pollution, preservation, and conservation are attached to both the physical landscape of the Invisible Island chain, and the languages spoken across the archipelago. Are environmental or ecological perspectives important to your works?
I read and re-read Descartes and am constantly drawn to his remark that the fact of our conservation is as miraculous as that of our creation. I quote from him – ‘thus from the fact that I was in existence a short time ago it does not follow that I must be in existence now, unless some cause at this instant, so to speak, produces me anew, that is to say, conserves me’. Amongst other things, that serves to remind me that the maintenance of our existence (our physical, environmental, cultural, linguistic existence) is a constant, daily, minute-by-minute creation.
So it’s not (merely) about how our parents or grandparents tilled the land, but about how we use the land now, today; it’s not (merely) to admire the richness of Gaelic vocabulary from 60 years ago, but to use it in all its imaginative subtlety now, today. In other words our cultural and physical ecology is made (up) as we go along.
You have commented in an interview with the SRB that ‘Gaelic Literature’ is often not found in the pages of a book but rather in ‘the birds (the curlews) singing outside our house on the moor, or the sound of the cart taking the peats home, or of our neighbour Eairdsidh Beag playing the bagpipes, or of someone singing in the village.’ How do you engage with soundscapes within your texts and how do you overcome the translation of sound to page?
Now there’s a question! I suppose that’s a question of craft. I think it has to do with being aware of the manifold things that make up the land which you are exploring in the first place. Robert Louis Stevenson’s great work Treasure Island began as a map drawn up by him one rainy afternoon, long before he inhabited the island with Long John Silver or anyone else. Stevenson himself said that ‘the map was the chief part of my plot’ and rightly goes on to argue says that ‘the author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand.’
And once you ‘know’ that country I think the trick is to know it so well that you forget you know it. That you become like a wintering bird which can find its way across oceans and continents. The great challenge is to create a poem or novel in which the signals of childhood or imaginative memory act like an invisible or unconscious pulse moving you along. And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, as the most beautiful of writers said.
Similar to Invisible Islands, your most recent poetry collection Aibisidh acknowledges the influence of a well known author, Iceland’s Halldor Laxness ‘who laid things out as if they were patches of cloth drying on the rocks’ - what is it about these authors (Calvino, Borges, Laxness) which chimes with your own literary ethos?
I greatly admire the way in which each of these writers you name extracted or removed gravity from their works. Each of them was dealing with very complex histories (Italy, Argentina, Iceland) but instead of getting bogged down in the specific intricacies of these histories, they extracted the essence, in the way you refine gold, so that what remains is pure, crystal, limpid, translucent – the very distillations which them make what they’re saying universal as well as local.
I think I became increasingly aware that because of the injustices of history (clearances, depopulation, linguistic and cultural persecution etc.) Gaelic had a tendency to gravity which I wanted to avoid. We should admire our incredible lightness of being as opposed to the serious heaviness of purpose, which is why I am keen on having a great deal of fun in my writing. It is after all an art, not a burden. I think Seamus Heaney said somewhere that he was into his 50s before he too looked up from his desk and saw that the sun was shining outside and the birds singing. Maybe we’vetaken too seriously MacDiarmid’s stance when he claimed ‘A Scottish poet maun assume / the burden o’ his people’s doom / And dee to brak’ their livin’ tomb’.
My faith helps me in that – for one death, on Calvary, was sufficient.
The title poem of Aibisidh is a jumble of wonderful Scots and Gaelic traditional song lyrics while its English counterpart is a bubbling mixture of pop-song lyrics, hymns and nursery rhymes. So often your work seems to expose different cultural currencies, icons and symbols within the Gàidhealtachd, is this in part an active attempt to construct a new sort of ‘folk consciousness’?
I think it’s an attempt to apply what I’ve just said: to have fun with language, in an effort to break my own and other people’s expectations of it. I am working on a new collection of poetry for example which I think I will call ‘Spaigeataidh Heileacoptar’ from the poem of that name which plays on the tired old question which is always asked as if it’s a revelation – ‘So, what’s the Gaelic for Spaghetti? AndHelicopter?’ The Gaelic poem is very short, but the English translation of the poem is deliberately very long because I have to explain all the historic, linguistic, anthropological,sociological etc. nuances of each word translated. It would, in truth, take forever... as it would, in truth, take forever for any of us to begin to articulate what we’re trying to say, in any language.
You have previously remarked that the magical realism tradition of South America was ‘nothing new’ and had in fact been a staple element of Gaelic narratives. Do your works in part attempt to reclaim this ‘lost’ tradition of magical realism, or are you more concerned with forging new narrative pathways within your poetry and prose?
Calvino regretted that he hadn’t published each new work of his under a different pseudonym every time to give him more existential (artistic) freedom. I increasingly try to escape from the long shadow that each word one writescasts all around you, in an effort to catch a patch of sunlight.
Frequently when authors write in multiple languages, the layout of their texts (e.g. Gaelic or Scots on one page – or relegated to the margins – with the English translation directly opposite) heightens the apparent ‘schism’ or dichotomy between the mother tongue and the perceived hegemonic language. It seems however that within the construction of your works those languages emerge as an interwoven almost braided texture; is this a conscious effort to address ideas of minor/major language oppositions?
I am old enough to remember so-called monoglot Gaelic speakers, but to say that anyone is ‘monoglot’ is surely to greatly diminish the manifold ways even with one language in which the world is perceived and articulated. These old people who could speak ‘only Gaelic’ were constantly within that, of course, ‘speaking’ in all kinds of ways and tongues – singing, praying, chanting, talking, piping, etc. – so that I was never comfortable with the strict notion of monolingualism.
The Gaelic or English or Greek (or whatever) symbols we use are just that: symbols. I rejoice in the fact that folk express themselves in a thousand different ways each day, and I see no reason to reduce that glory to binary numbers. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, as the seven dwarves said, it’s home from work we go, as they moved along, singing and whistling, heigh-ho.
Alexandra Campbell is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her thesis is provisionally titled ‘Towards an Archipelagic Ecology’ and explores the cultural cartographies and political geographies present in the works of contemporary Scottish and Irish nature writers and ecopoets.