MAIM (Gaelic word meaning panic; terror; alarm; an outburst, pronounced like mime)
An gabh neach àrachadh le eilean? Can someone be raised by an island?
This line from MAIM is inspired by a Gaelic song composed in the late nineteenth century by a man from the island of Muile / Mull who was known within his community as Dòmhnall Eachainn and, within an English-speaking milieu, as Donald MacGillivray. The song, whose title is ‘Gur fad ’am thàmh mi gu tostach sàmhach’ (‘Long have I remained silent’), begins:
“Gur fad ’am thàmh mi gu tostach sàmhach
Mun eilean àghmhor a dh’àraich òg mi”
(‘Long have I remained silent
About the blissful island that raised me’)
The idea of the island raising the man is a profound one, particularly within the context of Gleann Forsa / Glen Forsa, the part of central Muile about which Dòmhnall specifically composed his song in 1896. Dòmhnall felt the need to break his silence about the effect of the Clearances on a glen once home to hundreds of Gaelic-speakers and now populated only by their ruined settlements. It had been sixty-two years since Clann Phàil, the MacPhails of Gleann Forsa, had been able to call the glen home, as Dòmhnall tells us in one of his verses.
If you haven’t heard of Gleann Forsa or Clann Phàil, I’m not surprised. They have been all but eradicated from memory by cultural genocide. Gleann Forsa symbolises the systematic persecution of the Gaelic language, those who spoke it and their culture, locally. I was brought up in An Sàilean / Salen, a village around a mile west of the mouth of Abhainn Forsa / River Forsa at the foot of the glen. I didn’t hear Gleann Forsa’s story in school but, gradually, growing up singing local Gaelic songs with the encouragement of my mother, hearing my father talking about gathering cattle in the glen as a young man and, later, through my research of its place-names at the University of Glasgow, I’ve got to know this story. I’ve sung about the MacPhails of the curly hair; I’ve heard about cattle grazing in Bradhadal; I’ve learnt about the settlements of Corrachaidh, Gaoideil, Ròthaill and Teamhair and what their names mean. I’ve found out about the Clearance of these settlements when the glen was possessed by Lachlan Macquarie, later the celebrated governor of New South Wales in Australia.
Local songs and local place-names tell us about the symbiotic relationship the Gaelic-speakers of Gleann Forsa held with their land. They tell us about agricultural practices passed down through the generations. Where crops were once grown and animals once reared, there are now large plantations of non-indigenous Sitka spruce and bracken. In some places, like Corrachaidh, the spruce has been planted on top of ruined settlements: symbolic. Bracken is at its pervasive and pernicious worst on the most fertile ground.
I’m not sure how many people in Muile know about the dark history of Gleann Forsa but what I do know is that very few local people now speak the language the people of these settlements spoke natively. Their songs are rarely heard. The names of their places are foreign. MAIM is in some ways an homage to the people of Gleann Forsa and similar glens across Scotland but MAIM is not defeatist. It is a call to action to make sure that children across Scotland have every opportunity to learn about the depth and wealth of Gaelic culture in the place they call home. It is a call to place more emphasis on ionad-eòlas: local studies. Teaching of the Gaelic language cannot exist in isolation from its songs, stories and place-names. The Gaelic language cannot survive without the connection to previous generations of speakers. Within and outwith the classroom, we must grasp the opportunity to foster connections between Gaelic-speakers and their local environment. Where possible, this must include the strengthening of ties between generations of Gaelic-speakers. In areas where this is no longer possible, we must make the most of recordings of local, native Gaelic-speakers and present them and their content in innovative ways and by using the latest technology. The Gaelic place-names that exist in almost every part of this country, in particular, provide us with a unique opportunity to achieve something of global relevance: to reconnect local people with their environment and re-establish something of the respect the people of Gleann Forsa had for their land. We can learn much from them and their stories. Our survival no longer depends on living off the produce of local land, as it once did, but, intellectually, we have an opportunity to feed off the land and the stories it holds. This should go hand in hand with learning to live more sustainably by returning to local produce.
As a Lord Kelvin/Adam Smith Research Fellow in Celtic Onomastics at the University of Glasgow, I have a responsibility to exchange knowledge and engage with local people about the place-names of Muile and Ulbha / Ulva. I will be doing my utmost to bring the story of Gleann Forsa and other areas like it to as wide and as diverse an audience as I can. These are stories which I believe have profound local and global significance and relevance. MAIM is one opportunity I have to work towards achieving that objective and I’m thrilled to have it.
Can someone be raised by an island?
I think so. My island continues to nourish me with its songs, stories, names and perspectives therein.
An Dr. Alasdair C. MacIlleBhàin / Dr. Alasdair C. Whyte is the Scottish Government’s Tosgaire na Gàidhlig 2019-2020 / Gaelic Ambassador of the Year 2019-2020, a member of the Gaelic-language band WHɎTE and a writer and cast member of MAIM.
Tickets are available here: https://www.theatreguleor.com/-maim
11 – 14th March + Saturday matinee, Tron Theatre, Glasgow
17- 18th March – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh