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  • Alistair Braidwood

This Island Earth: A Review of These Islands, We Sing…

“She turned into an island song

And died. They sing her ballad yet,

But all the simple verses tell

Is, Love and grief became her well.”

An Island Tale, Edwin Muir.

The highlight of this year’s Aye Write was hearing Kevin MacNeil read from the, as then yet to be published, anthology of Scottish Islands poetry These Islands, We Sing. The poems, and MacNeil’s gentle delivery, worked beautifully to remind those attending that there are few things as compelling as great poetry.

The anthology has since been published by Polygon, and although it coincides with ‘The Year of Scottish Island Culture’, this is a collection for the ages and one which is long overdue. Many will be familiar with some of the names included, such as Sorley Maclean, Edwin Muir, Ian Crichton Smith and George Mackay Brown, all of whom have appeared in many previous collections of Scots’ poetry as well as being well read and received in their own right. They are the heavyweights who made it, but many of them did so only after heading to the mainland before respect was duly given. What makes this anthology stand apart is that it is, as with the best literary collections, about inclusion rather than exclusion. As MacNeil, who has also edited the book, says in his introduction they wanted; ‘a remit wide enough to bring in writing from any Scottish Island, but distinct enough not to include Highland or other mainland work.’ Many may have thought that these islands alone could not justify a collection such as this. Think again. The title is a nod of the head to George Mackay Brown’s autobiography For the Islands I Sing, and the press release has a quote from the poet which is worth repeating here:

“No man is an island, and all that we ever say or think or do – however seemingly unremarkable – may yet set the whole

web of existence trembling and affect the living and the dead

and the unborn” – George Mackay Brown.

There are also contemporary voices who will be new to many, and who more than deserve their place on these pages. These include Edward Cummins, Angus Peter Campbell, Alison Flett, Barbara McGregor, Meg Bateman and Alex Cluness. If you are reading this assuming you know what sort of work and themes are waiting to greet you then place them to the side and be prepared to be challenged and surprised. Of course there are depictions of landscape, leaving, love and life apart, but there are also references to Iraq, the death of Music Hall, flea ridden hedgehogs and a shrinking Scotland. This is a literature and culture that not only has a past, but a vibrant present and healthy future.

If anyone needed convincing that poetry is superior in its mother tongue then compare the Shetland/Scots of Mark Ryan Smith’s Unsindered with the English translation. Don’t mistake me, the latter is a fine poem, however the original is so rich in language and imagery that you can taste and touch it. Other highlights include the magnificent Hamnavoe from the aforementioned George Mackay Brown, Sorley Maclean’s The Island, Derick Thompson’s At Callnish Stones, everything by Jen Hadfield and Aonghas MacNeacail’s a proper schooling whose final lines:

history in my memories,

history in my memories.

poignantly sum up many of the poems contained within. And if there is a more concise summary of the passing of time than Roseanne Watt’s Haiku then it has not reached me as yet. But there is so, so, much more to contemplate and consider. Even if you are familiar with the canons of those poets who once supped in the ‘Poets Pub’ there is a whole new world to discover and take to your hearts.

Kevin MacNeil states his belief that ‘Scotland’s island literature is ever evolving’. On this evidence, and when you consider the recent novels from the likes of Karin Altenberg, Robert Alan Jamieson, Richard Neath and not least MacNeil himself, this seems evidently true. I would suggest that this is yet further proof that Scottish literature is similarly in a state of evolution, and this celebration of the poetry from one of Scotland’s most misunderstood and under-represented cultures adds further fuel to that apparently unstoppable fire.

”this island


in and out

in and out

like this”

Island Song, Alison Flett.

The Islands, We Sing can be bought from only the best bookstores and can be found at The Scots Whay Hae! Local Shop. I honestly can’t recommend it enough.


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