Donald Shaw, accordionist and co-founder of the renowned folk band Capercaillie recalls first meeting the poet Aonghas MacNeacail on a ferry from Stornoway: “He said to me he had a couple of poems he thought of as songs but didn’t have the melodies , and I said I had some melodies that might be interesting. So I went home with this bit of paper with words on it and dug out a melody with a slightly unusual chord sequence. They just worked as if they should always have been together.”
Shaw is talking about the intensely beautiful love song, Breisleach – “Delirium”, the title track of the band’s 1991 breakthrough album, with MacNeacail’s lines given sublimely ethereal voice by their vocalist, Shaw’s wife Karen Matheson. The pair will perform it at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on 7 June at a concert to mark the poet’s 80th birthday.
Titled Sgeirean, Sguabadh, Seòlan-mara – “Skerries, Trawlings, Tides”, a line from his fine poem Winter Visitors, Carluke, the concert will assemble notable fellow poets, academics and musicians, saluting a figure whose work – sharply observant, sometimes angry, always eloquent – has helped revitalize Gaelic poetry and been translated into numerous European languages.
Also taking part are MacNeacail’s wife, actor and poet Gerda Stevenson, as well as poets Meg Bateman, Aonghas Phadraig Caimbeul and Paddy Bushe, musicians Mary Ann Kennedy, Anna-Wendy Stevenson, Savourna Stevenson, Brìghde Chaimbeul and composer William Sweeney, among others.
The range of participants reflects what Michel Byrne, of Glasgow University’s Department of Celtic, describes as MacNeacail’s “level of artistic and cultural collaboration probably more than any other Gaelic poet – with folk musicians, modern classical composers and also with visual artists.” He points to Sweeney’s widely praised An Turus, regarded as the first full-length Gaelic opera, for which MacNeacail wrote the libretto, and the poet’s work with the artist Simon Fraser.
Byrne continues: “The word ‘re-energizing’ comes to mind because in so many ways that is what Aonghas has done. His poetry by him is rooted in the Gàidhealtachd, with passing references to myth, but redeployed in a totally modern way. ”
MacNeacail’s awards include an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University and the Saltire Society’s 2015 Fletcher of Saltoun Award for his contribution to arts and humanities. He has read in such diverse situations as the UN building in New York and before an audience of some 25,000 at Runrig’s farewell concert at Stirling.
Speaking from his home in Carlops, the Skye-born bard professes himself bemused and amused at his imminent three-score years and 20. He has had health issues and the black hair and beard which earned him his nickname of Aonghas Dùbh are now white, but he still cuts an imposingly bardic figure.
Growing up in a Gaelic-speaking family on Skye, he was taught exclusively in English at primary school and in secondary could only study Gaelic through English, as a foreign language. At Glasgow University an important encounter was with Philip Hobsbaum’s famously productive writing group which also included the likes of Liz Lochhead, James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. Initially I considered English the language of his “serious” poetry by him, but a writing fellowship at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig switched him back on to his mother tongue.
For someone who claims he personally “can’t hold a note”, MacNeacail has written extensively for musicians, not least for Sweeney, with whom his first collaboration was a setting of the wonderful Psalm of the Land, which MacNeacail wrote in traditional psalm meter , a reflection of the uniquely heterophonic Free Church Gaelic psalm singing with which he grew up and which, despite his own non-belief, he regards as “one of the miracles of our culture”.
MacNeacail dedicated his 1996 collection, Oideachadh Ceart – “A Proper Schooling”, which won the Scottish Writer of the Year Stakis Prize, to “every bard, known and anonymous, who ever made the Gaelic language sing…” He himself has indeed made his language sing, in more ways than one.