Friday, 3 March 2017


Donald E. Meek


My aim in this paper is to consider a very small part of a very large theme. The presentation of aspects of the Christian faith in twentieth-century Gaelic prose is a subject worthy of much deeper study and reflection than can be attempted here.  For our purposes it suffices to note that, in the course of the century, Gaelic writers adopted a much more critical attitude towards the Protestant church in the Highlands than had been evident in the nineteenth century.  This was due partly to the loss of the church's authority in key domains.  It had been the primary vehicle of Gaelic publishing in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century, and particularly in the second half of that century, Gaelic publishing was diversified and largely secularised, thus allowing new voices to challenge older ones.   Voices within the church also became more critical of its role, as is evident in the writings of the Rev. Donald Lamont, the editor of the Gaelic Supplement of the Church of Scotland magazine, Life and Work, from 1907 to 1951.  Lamont's 'Cille Sgumain' sketches, which focused on an imaginary parish and its minister, the Rev. Neil MacFarlane, B.D., included letters allegedly sent to him by parishioners.  By using such devices, Lamont was able to create 'critical distance', and to produce mildly satirical accounts of parish events.[1]  Lamont stimulated other, non-clerical, writers, most notably Finlay J. MacDonald, whose hilarious story, 'Am Basàr' ('The Bazaar'), daringly took passing swipes at communions, conventions and other church meetings.  MacDonald's main character - a talkative lady called 'Seonag' - was a development of Lamont's 'Seònaid Eachainn'.[2] 


MacDonald's theme - rather out-of-touch Highland characters trying to come to terms with new trends in church life, such as the holding of a bazaar - is echoed in the concerns of several Gaelic short stories from the 1950s, which appears to have been a decade of particular significance in the development of this genre.  In what follows, I intend to restrict myself to a trinity of modern Scottish Gaelic short stories, and to concentrate on only one of these stories before discussing some wider aspects of the theme as reflected in two recent novels.


Two of the three short stories are by well-known writers. The one is Derick Thomson's 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' ('The Minister's Wife'), first broadcast on radio in 1953, and the other is Finlay J. MacDonald's 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh' ('Before the Public'), first published in the Gaelic periodical Gairm in 1958.   Both short stories deal with aspects of Christianity in the Scottish Highlands, and particularly with the power and influence of the evangelical Protestant church.  Thomson's 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' concerns the most important family in the church's hierarchy, namely that in the manse, and explores the worldviews of the minister and his wife.  The wife is an incomer to the Gaelic community, with a love for, and interest in, the world of Nature, while her husband is the conventional Gaelic minister.  He conforms until he has a serious accident, and falls over a cliff in pursuit of his wife's dog.  During a brief period of recovery and prior to insanity, he temporarily appears to embrace his wife's perspectives.[3]


MacDonald's 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh' likewise focuses on the manse family, but specifically on the minister's daughter, Seonag.  She is very much aware of the pressures exerted by her privileged position.  She is expected to conform to the expectations of the community and of the manse family; but she becomes pregnant, and has to make some difficult decisions relative to these pressures.  Her friend and the father of her child is Pàdraig, a medical student. Pàdraig comes under the influence of her father's new-style American preaching, and, just before Seonag tells him her news, he informs her that he has made a far-reaching decision to abandon medicine and become a minister.[4]  Both stories share some common ground, since they explore the theme of community expectations and the individual's conformity, or non-conformity, while also introducing a very subtle interplay of deep human instincts and primordial pressures.


The provenance of 'Iomhar Mòr'

My main concern, however, is with the oldest of the trinity of tales, namely 'Iomhar Mòr' ('Big Ivor'), a story which first appeared in 1950 in An Cabairneach, the innovative Gaelic magazine of the Portree branch of Comunn na h-Oigridh, the young people's branch of An Comunn Gaidhealach.   Its authorship is unknown, and therefore we do not have the problem of 'privileging' the story with an authorial context.  In the case of the other two tales, we know something about Derick Thomson and Finlay J. MacDonald, and we may find it hard not to search for biographical dimensions and personal agendas in their work.   With regard to 'Iomhar Mòr', we may speculate that so assured a tale did not come from the pen of a secondary school pupil, and we may suppose that it was contributed by a mature writer.   We could suggest possible authors among the 'usual suspects' of that period, but no writer among those who have published a collection of stories has owned up. We may have our suspicions, and these may be enhanced by the present discussion, but we are not at liberty to go beyond the general mask of An Cabairneach.  The magazine was edited by the Gaelic teacher at Portree High School, Iain Steele, and appeared only occasionally - in 1944, 1945, 1950, and 1962.[5]


The publication of 'Iomhar Mòr' in 1950 is interesting in the light of later developments in Gaelic literature.  It pre-dates the founding of Gairm in 1952, and it contains within it some themes which were to appear in subsequent Gaelic writing, most notably Iain Crichton Smith's novella, An t-Aonaran (1976).[6]  I am not suggesting that Smith is the author of this tale; the stylistic evidence, in fact, rules this out.  I am, however, implying that 'Iomhar Mòr' has a very important place in the history of modern Scottish Gaelic literature, and that its significance is worthy of some acknowledgement.


The rediscovery of 'Iomhar Mòr' after some twenty years of neglect is due to Dr Donald John MacLeod, who included it in his very useful anthology of Gaelic short stories, Dorcha Tro Ghlainne (1970).  There 'Iomhar Mòr' was presented sequentially as the ninth out of thirteen stories edited by Dr MacLeod.  MacLeod's selection was organised round the theme of mothachadh an duine a' fàs, air a chumadh, is a' crìonadh ('the awareness of man as he grows, is moulded, and declines').[7]  To some extent, MacLeod's selection was a response to a new surge of interest in the short story among Gaelic writers of the late 1960s, and owed much to John Murray's contributions to the genre.  Murray's 'Feòil a' Gheamhraidh' ('Winter Meat') is the first story in MacLeod's selection.[8] I myself first encountered 'Iomhar Mòr' in MacLeod's anthology, and I never forgot it after my first spine-tingling reading.  It has lived menacingly in my mind since 1970, and recently it sprang to the forefront of my thinking when I was teaching a first-level class on modern Gaelic literature.  Here I wish to suggest alternative interpretations of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  I aim to place it within the context of the two other tales that I have summarised, but I hope also to relate it to some key themes of late twentieth-century Gaelic literature, both prose and verse.  In today's terminology, I want to re-read and re-position 'Iomhar Mòr'.



First, let me offer a very brief summary of 'Iomhar Mòr'.   The tale begins with a flash-back to a funeral in Cill Cheidh, which is that of Iomhar Mòr, recently deceased.  The author tells us of his - and, for the moment, I presume authorial masculinity! - considerable unease when attending the interment of Iomhar in a particularly hallowed part of the graveyard, Reilig nan Naomh, where only the truly great men of the faith have been buried in the past, and where no-one in the recent past has been buried.  He recollects that his grandfather told him of an occasion on which the earth of Reilig nan Naomh spewed up the coffin of a stranger who had been buried there at an earlier period.  By this stage, however, the old traditions about the graveyard had been largely forgotten or were regarded as mere superstitions.  The author, however, feels that he must warn the men of the community not to be so precipitate in placing Iomhar there, but he is over-ruled by Dòmhnall Chaluim, who has a very bad conscience about the way in which the community first treated Iomhar. Dòmhnall Chaluim relates that  Iomhar Mòr is worthy of his place of rest, having repaid the disdain of the community with kindness, and that he himself has been the beneficiary.  The author submits to Dòmhnall's view, albeit reluctantly.  He goes on to tell how Iomhar Mòr came to Geàrraidh.  Nobody knew where he had come from; he just appeared, and took up residence in a black house on Dòmhnall Chaluim's croft.  Iomhar's abrupt assumption of tenancy caused great anger to Dòmhnall, and the matter was the talk of the town.  Indeed, after an unsuccessul attempt to evict Iomhar, Dòmhnall and Iomhar fought it out, and Dòmhnall got the backing of the local youth in a sustained attack on the house.  Matters reached the law-court, but the judge ruled in favour of Iomhar's remaining in the house.  Thereafter the village was filled with fear and tension, and Iomhar and Dòmhnall were at daggers drawn.  However, a complete change in attitude occurred, and Iomhar came to be highly esteemed.  The cause of this remarkable shift was a child who had gone missing - Dòmhnall Chaluim 's child.   Every place was searched, and eventually the author and a companion found their way to Iomhar's house.  Iomhar showed immediate sympathy for the community, and changed his usual frown to a look of pity.  He also made straight for Dòmhnall Chaluim and promised to help him in every possible way to find the child.  The two men were reconciled, and went to search the shore together.  The child was not found - but a left shoe belonging to a child was discovered on the edge of the machair.  Thereafter, matters improved; Iomhar was accepted as a member of the community, and he and Dòmhnall buried the hatchet.  The author got to know Iomhar reasonably well, and went to visit him on his death-bed.  Iomhar asked him to clear the house after his death, and to return the key to Dòmhnall Chaluim.   After the funeral the author began to search the house, and began in the lower part.   As he was at work in a dark corner - not quite as dark as the rest - he found something which, he claimed, explained his feeling of unease at the funeral.  His discovery was no less than a little shoe - the shoe for the right foot of a child.  And there, with the reference to the second shoe, the story ends.


The chilling twist in the tail of this story is memorable, and all the more since it resonates with public concerns in the present time.  Though this story is set somewhere in the Highlands, it is broad in its theme, and timeless in its relevance.  That in itself is no small achievement.



How then should we interpret 'Iomhar Mòr'?   We can understand the tale in different ways, but I would suggest three possible routes to take:


(1) We can see this as no more and no less than 'a good story'.  We are given a lot of emotional ups and downs in the course of the tale; fear and unease (at the very beginning), mystery (with the stranger's arrival), conflict (between the stranger and the village and between him and Dòmhnall Chaluim), sorrow (the missing child), reconciliation (between Iomhar and Dòmhnall Chaluim and the village), and finally that spine-chilling sense of injustice, right at the end, culminating in the cliff-hanger on which the storyteller positions the possible deed of the stranger.  We ask ourselves whether Iomhar found the shoe and kept it, so as not to cause further pain in the community, or whether he is directly involved in the disappearance of the child.  We can 'enjoy' all of the various tensions created throughout the work, and leave the story there. 


(2) We may read 'Iomhar Mòr' without making too much of the identity of the main character, and confine our interpretation to the reactions of the community which is portrayed in the story.  Iomhar need be no more and no less than an incomer who has an abundant measure of the rather arrogant style that Highland people attribute to such new arrivals; his particularly overbearing manner causes tension at communal and individual levels.  This tension is resolved by a crisis; the crisis causes the stranger to pull close to the community, and reconciliation is thereby achieved. The stranger is then given a place of esteem.  Vulnerability is thus a key theme; the community is able to resist the stranger to a certain extent, but capitulates when something goes wrong.  The sympathy of the stranger at a time of crisis is sufficient to reverse previous antipathies, and to gain him lasting respect.  We may read the story as a warning to Gaelic communities not to to accept sweets from strangers.  Like children, Gaelic communities are vulnerable to the blandishments of outsiders.


(3)  Our third interpretation would carry forward the points made in the second interpetation, but it would make much more of the person of Iomhar Mòr.  He is not just an alien person; he is an alien power. That alien power can be interpreted in various ways. Is the new power personal or collective?  If the latter, is the power that of the church?  Or a new power within the church? Or a new power within society, of which the church is a part?  How, then, is that power regarded by the writer? Is it seen as benevolent or intrinsically evil, or both, wearing the mask of benevolence and concern at critical moments in the life of a community, but using the weak moments in community confidence to gain a dangerous foothold in its value-system?


The opening paragraph of the story identifies the source of the author's unease as Iomhar Mòr's funeral, and the decision to give him a resting place in Reilig nan Naomh, which was reserved for the fathers of the faith.  This suggests that we are meant to read the story as a spiritual allegory of some kind.  We may note the words that are actually used to portray Iomhar Mòr and his actions.  Dòmhnall Chaluim talks of him in terms which are reminiscent of the biblical account of Christ, 'despised and rejected of men', but repaying rejection with kindness:


Thainig e nur measg...gun daoine, gun chuideachd, gun chàirdean, agus cha be a' bhàidh a nochd sibh dha; thionndaidh sibh ur cùlaibh ris agus mhag sibh air.  Ach an uair a thainig an dòrainn an rathad a bha mo theaghlach-sa, phàigh Iomhar Mòr ana-ceartas le caomhalachd agus coibhneas, agus bhon latha sin gus an latha 'n diugh bha e na chùl-taic s na chomhartachd dhòmhsa agus dhuibhse.[9]


('He came among you...without relatives, without companions, without friends, and it was not a warm side that you showed him; you turned your backs on him, and you mocked him.  But when distress came the way of my family, Big Ivor paid for injustice with compassion and kindness, and from that day until today he has been a support and a comfort to me and to you.')


One can hear the homiletic cadences in that commendation.


Yet Iomhar is also described as an duine caol àrd dorcha ud ('that tall thin dark man').  He has na sùilean dubha nimheil ud ('those black poisonous eyes') as he skulks down the road.  The only sound that comes out of his house is bragadaich mar gum bitheadh am fear a bha stigh a' briseadh mhaidean ('banging as if the man inside were breaking sticks').  Children are immediately in fear of him:  Cha leigeadh tu leas ach Iomhar Mór ainmeachadh ris an leanabh bu mhiosa sa Gheàrraidh agus bha e cho modhail ris an uan ('You had only to mention the name of Big Ivor to the worst child in the Geàrraidh and he became as well mannered as a lamb').[10]  Unquestionably, Iomhar is seen by the writer as a bogey-man, and an evil power - but whom or what does he represent?


Those of us who know the poetry of Derick Thomson will think fairly readily of another incomer who is very similarly portrayed - fear àrd caol dubh / is aodach dubh air ('a tall, thin black-haired man / wearing black clothes').  This is, of course, Thomson's Bodach-ròcais, the title of a poem first published in An Rathad Cian (1970).  The bodach-ròcais ('scarecrow') comes into the cèilidh house and destroys or represses the natural cultural pursuits of the story-tellers, singers and card-players who are inside.   Like Iomhar Mòr, he is a destructive force, and possesses a supernatural ability to take the goodness from pastimes previously regarded as wholesome - thug e 'n toradh as a' cheòl ('he took the goodness out of the music').  Thomson's scarecrow figure is, of course, the stereotypical, evangelical Calvinist minister of nineteenth-century Lewis.[11]  Iomhar Mòr appears to carry a similar symbolic significance.  Part of his persona is religious, and it also has destructive tendencies.  But he is unlikely to be a symbolic John Calvin. Can we find a more convincing contemporary context?




The contemporary context

We have already noted that the story first appeared in 1950, and that it predates two stories, by Thomson and MacDonald respectively, which have religion and evangelical Christianity as their theme. These were written in 1953 ('Bean a' Mhinisteir') and 1958 ('Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh').[12]   The 1950s, and particularly the period 1950-55, were a time of heightened religious activity in both the Highlands and Islands and the wider Scottish mainland.  In Lewis between 1949 and 1953, the Faith Mission evangelist, Duncan Campbell, was at the centre of a religious awakening which is often regarded as the last significant religious revival in the British Isles, though there smaller awakenings elsewhere in the Hebrides in the later 1950s.[13]  We may note that Duncan Campbell was not a native of Lewis; he hailed from Benderloch in Argyll, and was technically a stranger in Lewis, even though he spoke and preached in Gaelic.[14]


Evangelical campaigning was also found in the Scottish Lowlands.  In 1955, the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow was the focus of the Tell Scotland crusade conducted by the American evangelist, Billy Graham.  The impact of Billy Graham on both ministers and people throughout Scotland was substantial.[15]  This is reflected in the story 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', in which the change of style and emphasis evident in Seonag's father is ascribed to the influence of the American evangelist.  Seonag is portrayed as being dismayed at her father's new style:


S bha gràin a beatha aice air an t-searmonachadh ùr ris an robh a h-athair riamh bho chaidh e gu coinneamhan an Amaireaganaich.  Cha robh guth air na seann searmoin chiùine, chomhartail a b' àbhaist cridheachan a bhlàthachadh; cha robh ann a-nise ach an t-iompachadh, an t-iompachadh.  Agus an èigheach.[16]


('And she truly hated the new preaching which her father had adopted ever since he went to the American's meetings.  There was no mention of the old, gentle, comforting sermons that used to warm hearts; there was nothing now but conversion, conversion.  And the yelling.')


It is of significance that Seonag's father adopts the new preaching mode at a time of family crisis, following his wife's death.  Unable to derive consolation from his 'traditional' faith, he goes to Glasgow, and comes back a changed man, with a new gleam in his eye and a new power in his preaching.[17]   Billy Graham is the 'stranger' who helps him to conquer his crisis, and whose style is absorbed into a Highland community through imitation.  The minister is thus the conduit through which new and disturbing expressions of the Christian faith enter the community, and challenge its earlier values.  The parallel with 'Iomhar Mòr' is striking, and suggests that the two stories may have been composed by the same author.


Gaelic poets as well as prose-writers were aware of new religious influences in the Highlands and Islands.  A change of emphasis in contemporary Lewis preaching in this period is noted also by Donald MacAulay in a poem pointedly entitled 'Soisgeul 1955':


Bha mi a raoir anns a' choinneamh;

bha an taigh làn chun an dorais,

cha robh àite suidhe ann

ach geimhil chumhang air an staighre.


Dh'éisd mi ris an t-sailm: am fonn

a' falbh leinn air seòl mara

cho dìomhair ri Maol Dùn:

dh'éisd mi ris an ùrnaigh

seirm shaorsinneil, shruthach -

iuchair-dàin mo dhaoine.


An uair sin thàinig an searmon

- teintean ifrinn a th' anns an fhasan -

bagairt neimheil, fhuadan

a lìon an taigh le uamhann is coimeasg.


Is thàinig an cadal-deilgeanach na mo chasan... [18]


Here the poet recollects his experience of being at a cottage meeting in which the music and prayer were in tune with the culture, but in which the sermon was hostile and alien.  Although the poet was saved (in another sense) by the pins and needles in his feet, this new, passionate evangelicalism affected many young people at broadly the same stage of life as Seonag and Pàdraig in MacDonald's story.[19]


This brings us back to 'Iomhar Mòr'. In particular, we may note the manner in which the stranger commandeers a cottage, and is potentially implicated (by the author's parting shot) in the fate of a missing child, perhaps implying that the new force has the power to steal children from the community.  If the main thrust of 'Iomhar Mòr' is religious, its primary concern is likely to be not the old-style 'Calvinism' of an earlier day, but the new evangelists and the passionate new evangelicalism, entering the Highlands and Islands forcefully in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  An Geàrraidh, the setting of 'Iomhar Mòr', already has a Christian tradition, symbolised by Reilig nan Naomh, the section of the graveyard reserved for the finest local saints.  The impact of the new evangelicalism and people's reactions to it may be one of the writer's concerns.  Thus, after an initial period of opposition and rejection, Dòmhnall Chaluim is converted (in the religious sense) to Iomhar Mòr as others were to Christ.


But could the thrust of the tale be broader than contemporary evangelicalism? The primary concern of the writer, it seems to me, is to ponder how much is gained - or lost - by both the individual and the community in the process of accommodating the stranger.  As a consequence of the new understanding between Iomhar and Dòmhnall Chaluim, old customs and time-honoured traditions are over-ruled in deference to the former enemy of the community, as the ironic burial of Iomhar Mòr in Reilig nan Naomh indicates.


Here it is relevant to recollect that the late 1940s and the 1950s were a time of reassessment in the Gaelic communities after the Second World War. The war had made these communities vulnerable to intrusion by big powers such as the British army and the Royal Air Force.  By 1950, when 'Iomhar Mòr' was composed, new initiatives were being undertaken in an attempt to preserve some of the riches of Gaelic culture in the Highlands and Islands, as the creation of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh in 1951 indicates.  These new initiatives proceeded alongside further major intrusions in the later 1950s, like the Rocket Range in Benbecula, which was stoutly resisted initially, but came to be a mainstay of the local economy, while also acting as a de-Gaelicising influence. 


We should note, in fact, the quiet symbolic subtlety with which 'Iomhar Mòr' has been written.  We have to read between the lines, and extrapolate these wider concerns from the text in a manner reminiscent of short stories such as John Murray's 'Feòil a' Gheamhraidh'.  In this respect, the story contrasts with 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' and 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', where the targets are identified clearly.  'Bean a' Mhinisteir' is more restrained and symbolically closer to 'Iomhar Mòr'.  The minister's wife, who is the 'stranger' in terms of the conventions of the village, is the catalyst for her husband's fall - a concept charged with theological and biblical significance.  The outcome of the tragedy makes us think deeply, since it results in the minister's temporary awareness of a wider world before insanity finally takes over.  'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', which leaves little to symbolism, is probably the frankest story yet written in Gaelic on a religious theme, since it uses 'shock tactics' to galvanise the reader.  It is thus at the other end of the spectrum from 'Iomhar Mòr', though the two stories do have significant points in common.


'Stranger fiction'

The theme of 'Iomhar Mòr', namely the stranger who comes into the community and causes tensions of all sorts, became a very marked feature of Gaelic writing after 1970.  It is particularly evident in Iain Crichton Smith's An t-Aonaran ('The Loner') of 1976.  The frame of Smith's novella is strikingly reminscent of 'Iomhar Mòr'. Indeed, the two are so close as to suggest that 'Iomhar Mòr' may have been something of a catalyst for Smith.  In An t-Aonaran, however, the stranger's presence is used by the author as an opportunity to explore the existential theme of meaninglessness.  The stranger has opted out of normal existence, and his impact on the village is described by a retired schoolmaster called Teàrlach. In reacting with deep mistrust and suspicion to the newcomer in their midst, he shows that such 'loneliness' is an integral part of his own existence, and that it is also a malaise found more generally within the village.  Few are devoid of its symptoms.  Even the minister suffers a loss of verbal articulation, and comes to the schoolmaster for advice because he is unable to declaim the sermon which he has prepared for a particular Sunday service.[20]  In Smith's novella, evangelicalism hovers on the edge of existentialism, and is seen to lose power as a communicative force when the arrival of the aonaran plunges the village into its fatal bout of second-guessing and self-examination.  The church and its members are almost invariably portrayed as somewhat distasteful people who are spiteful and negative in their views of others.  Indeed, one is left to wonder to what extent the author wishes to imply that the church is largely responsible for the alienation of people from one another, in terms of understanding both 'incomers' and those who are natives of Gaelic communities. It is significant that, apart from the schoolmaster himself, it is Cairistìona, boireannach dona Crìosdaidh ('a bad Christian woman') who never misses the communions, who thinks the worst of the stranger. In a manner directly recalling 'Iomhar Mòr', she suggests that he may even be a child-molester.[21]  Eventually, the schoolmaster 'arranges' the departure of the stranger from the village.   The plot of Smith's novella therefore works in the opposite way from that of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  The stranger is ejected in the former, while he is accepted in the latter, but loss and a nasty feeling of injustice accompany both processes.


The 'stranger' motif in modern Gaelic literature, and particularly the presence of the aonaran ('loner'), is thus used very effectively to comment on common modern dilemmas.  As it develops beyond 'Iomhar Mòr', the motif retains a surprisingly close link with religious matters. Religious influence in Gaelic communities is one of the strands in a much more recent story with another aonaran at its heart, namely Alasdair Campbell's short novel, Am Fear Meadhanach ('The Man in the Middle') (1992).[22] This aonaran is not a stranger to the Gaelic world but a native of Lewis, namely Murchadh MacLeòid, who is suffering from cancer and returns to spend his last days in his native community. He is therefore meadhanach ('middling') in terms of his health. The 'returning exile' has been a teacher in Glasgow, and obtains a part-time teaching post in a school not far from his village.  He belongs to a family of four, and is meadhanach ('in between') since he has two brothers, the younger a doctor and the elder a highly regarded minister in the Free Church.  The latter is Dòmhnall M. MacLeòid, regularly referred to in the novel as an t-urramach ('the reverend').   The novel is to some extent a satirical overview of a number of different but interlocking communities, notably the main character's family, his local community and the wider Gaelic world, as well as the ever-present network of the church. The speaker's elder brother, an t-urramach, is a thinly disguised caricature of a well-known Free Church minister of a similar name. Murchadh often contrasts himself with his brothers, but particularly with an t-urramach. Most importantly, Murchadh has no faith in God, in contrast to an t-urramach's dogmatic certainty. The difference between the two brothers is worked out at various practical levels.  An t-urramach is a 'high achiever', as is Uilleam, the doctor, who writes books and belongs to the 'arty' Gaelic set.  Murchadh, on the other hand, has had a humdrum existence as a schoolteacher of the kind in Iain Crichton Smith's An t-Aonaran, and regards himself as a failure.  Murchadh is unable to appreciate either Uilleam's books or an t-urramach's best-selling volume of Gaelic sermons, and all three brothers are shut out from one another's literary worlds:


Nàire air an urramach nach do leugh e a-riamh leabhar a sgrìobh a bhràthair bho cheann gu ceann.  Thuirt mi ris nach b'urrainn dhomhsa treabhadh tromhpa a bharrachd.  Bidh an t-urramach fhèin a' sgrìobhadh.  Bha laoidh a sgrìobh e anns a'  Mhonthly Record.  Agus leabhar beag shearmon, cruaidh trì notaichean, bog not' agus leth-cheud sgillinn.  Searmoin, leis an Urr. Dòmhnall M. MacLeòid, M.A.  Sin an tiotal a tha air.  Chaidh mi 'm bogadh annsan aig Searmon 1, duilleag 1, ach cha d'fhuair mi na b'fhaide na sin fhèin; ach cheannaich gu leòr chrìosdaidhean an leabhar, thathas air ath-chlò-bhualadh ceithir turais, 's tha 'n t-urramach a' dèanamh prothaid bheag às, chan eil fhios a'm an ann dha fhèin no dhan eaglais.  Ach chan e sgrìobhaiche nàdurrach a th' anns an urramach.  Tha e nas ealanta le theanga na tha e le peann.[23]


('Shame upon the reverend that he never read a book that his brother wrote from beginning to end.  I said to him that I could not plough through them either.  The reverend himself writes.   There was a hymn which he wrote in the Monthly Record.  And a little book of sermons, hard-back three pounds, soft-back a pound and fifty pence.  Sermons by the Rev. Donald M. MacLeod, M.A.   That's its title.   I immersed myself in it at Sermon 1, page 1, but I got no further than that; but plenty of Christians bought the book, it has been reprinted four times, and the reverend makes a little profit from it, though I do not know whether it is for himself or for the church.  But the reverend is not a natural writer.  He is more skilful with his tongue than he is with his pen.')


The satire in this passage will not be lost on those familiar with the writings of the real Macleod.  The speaker goes on to state that, in his opinion, the most gifted writer in the family was his sister Margaret, who wrote splendid, but grammarless, letters about her global travels until she married a widowed missionary in Malaya.  Thereafter, her grammar improved markedly, but her topics became much more serious, embracing the corruption of human nature and the plight of the world.[24]


The speaker's view of the destructive effect of religious experience is transparent.  It is particularly interesting that the Lewis Revival of the 1950s, with Duncan Campbell at its centre, is recalled in a section in which Murchadh reflects on why the Headmistress of the school in which he works never married:


Eadar dleasdanas is diadhachd, ciamar a bha dol a shoirbheachadh le fear-suirghe co-dhiù?  Thàinig an cùram oirre, mar a thàinig air iomadach tè dhe seòrs', nuair a bha Donnchadh Caimbeul air chaoch anns na h-Eileanan, aig toiseach nam 50s.  Làithean neònach, daoine mòr a' toirt na leap' orr' aig àird a' mheadhan-latha, daoine eile a' bruidhinn mun deidhinn; oidhcheannan cho murrainneach, sàmhach 's gun cluinneadh tu, air leth-siar a' bhail' againn, fuaim na h-aibhne a' dòrtadh, man morghan, fon an drochaid shìos anns a' ghleann.[25]


('Between duty [to her parents] and devotion to God, how would any suitor have got anywhere anyway?  The cùram (i.e. concern of soul) came upon her, as came upon many a woman of her kind, when Duncan Campbell was going mad in the Islands, at the beginning of the 50s.  Strange days, grown-ups taking to their beds at the height of mid-day, other people talking about them; nights so sultry and quiet that you could hear, on the far side of our township, the sound of the river pouring, like rough sand, under the bridge down in the glen.')


Yet the writer provides a warm-hearted picture of Iseabail, the Headmistress.  Despite her religious commitment, she retains her sharp wit and good humour, and is herself subjected to local criticism for her choice of hat at a Christmas service: 'Abair bonaid air tè-aidich!' ('What a hat for a professing woman!').[26]


This deft portrait and the ongoing discussion of the impact of the 'Campbell revival' on reproductive patterns (an age-old canard) reinforces the argument at the heart of this paper, namely that the religious experiences of the early 1950s stimulated not only the churches, but also a group of modern Gaelic writers who began to adopt a critical, and at times strongly dismissive, stance towards the new crusade- or revival-based brand of evangelicalism.





'Iomhar Mòr' deserves to be taken out of its somewhat obscure place in the history of Gaelic writing in the twentieth century.  The present study suggests that it belongs, at least in part, to a small but formative cycle of tales and poems produced in the 1950s which adopted a critical attitude towards evangelical experience in the Highlands, as themes and styles of preaching changed.  This was the period which helped to determine how the Gaelic poets and prose-writers of the later twentieth century viewed Highland evangelicalism, and it is important to note that they were reacting, not so much against what might be termed 'traditional Highland religion', but against the hybrid species which was being created partly through the influence of American crusade-evangelism.  This too was the period when the Highlands and Islands began to accommodate both alien intrusions for the sake of economic regeneration and  initiatives for the preservation of Gaelic culture.  The uneasy relationship between the old and the new, between the outsider and insider, is the central theme of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  It anticipates - brilliantly - many of the stresses and strains and hard choices that were to afflict the Gaelic communities in the second half of the twentieth century.


'Iomhar Mòr' is also generically important.  Appearing in 1950, it was the first in a series of modern creative interpretations of strangers in the Gaelic communities. The stranger depicted within it offered a powerful symbol which could be deployed at various levels, and was particularly useful in identifying and 'earthing' a complex range of forces which were vexing Gaelic writers and their communities.  In particular, the 'stranger/loner motif' allowed writers sufficient distance and disguise to engage in a critical evaluation of the impact of religion in the Highlands and Islands, as seen from a number of different angles.  The tension which such evaluation could create, even when using masks, is reflected in the fact that 'Iomhar Mòr' was published anonymously and the writer has never owned up.  Subsequent writers felt no such need for anonymity.  Yet, despite the freshness which each writer brought to the picture, their themes and even their images overlap, and some of these can be traced back to 'Iomhar Mòr'.  'Iomhar Mòr' thus appears to have foreshadowed and encouraged a major development in the Gaelic literary output of the second half of the twentieth century.   Pardoxically, therefore, it seems that the stimulus of contemporary evangelicalism and social change, however negative in the eyes of the poets and prose-writers, has greatly aided the growth of modern Gaelic literature.[27]

[1] Thomas M. Murchison (ed.), Prose Writings of Donald Lamont (Edinburgh, 1960).
[2] Iain A. MacDhòmhnaill (ed.), Crìochan Ura (Glasgow, 1958), pp. 28-34.
[3] Dòmhnall Iain MacLeòid (ed.), Dorcha Tro Ghlainne (Glaschu, 1970), pp. 58-65.
[4] Ibid., pp. 46-57.
[5] Ibid., pp. 73-79, 126.
[6] Iain Mac a' Ghobhainn, An t-Aonaran (Glaschu, 1976).
[7] See the fine introduction in MacLeòid, pp. 9-21.
[8] Ibid., pp. 22-25.
[9] Ibid., p. 74.
[10] Ibid., pp. 75-76.
[11] Donald MacAulay (ed.), Nua-Bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig: Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems (Edinburgh, 1976), pp. 164-5, which contains an English translation.
[12] MacLeòid, p. 126.
[13] Nigel M. de S. Cameron et al. (eds), The Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Edinburgh, 1993), p. 715.
[14] Ibid., p. 217.
[15] Ibid., p. 376.
[16] MacLeòid, p. 47.
[17] Ibid.
[18] MacAulay, pp. 192-5.
[19] For a discussion of twentieth-century Gaelic poets and the Christian faith, see Dòmhnall E. Meek, 'An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd?  Bàird na Ficheadamh Linn agus an Creideamh Crìosdail', in Colm Ó Baoill (ed.), Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig: Proceedings of the Scottish Gaelic Studies Conference held at Aberdeen University in August 2000 (forthcoming).
[20] Mac a'  Ghobhainn, pp. 67-71.
[21]  Ibid., pp. 7-9.
[22] Alasdair Caimbeul, Am Fear Meadhanach (Conon Bridge, 1992).
[23] Ibid., pp. 33-34.
[24] Ibid., p. 34.
[25] Ibid., pp. 51-52.
[26] Ibid., p. 53.
[27] I am very grateful to Professor Donald MacAulay for his comments on an early draft of this paper.

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