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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
To obtain the free booklet of winning entries and commentaries,
please email: info@stephenspender.org


James Knox Whittet

‘Hallaig’
by Sorley Maclean


The hind of time stalks Hallaig's woods

The window is blinded and boarded,
through which the West shimmered
and at the rushing Burn of Hallaig,
my lost love, clothed in birch leaves,

shivers between Inver and Milk Hollow,
flits in and out of Baile-chuirn,
now she’s a birch, now a hazel,
then a willowy young rowan.

In Screapadal of my family,
of Norman and Big Hector,
whose children are transfigured into trees
along both banks of the burn.

The pine cocks sound haughty
as they crow on the peak of Cnoc an Ra,
their backs ramrod in moonlight –
they are not the woods of my heart.

I will listen for footsteps of birches
until they reach the broken cairn
when the entire ridge from Beinn na Lice
will dissolve into deepest shadow.

If they do not, I will descend to Hallaig,
to the unending Sabbath of the dead,
where my people once congregated,
every one of them now gone.

But they will forever haunt Halllaig:
MacLeans and MacLeods,
all those in the days of MacGille Chaluim,
the dead have risen from their graves.

The men who couched in lush grass
at the gables of each house,
the girls a copse of birches,
firm backs with bowed heads.

Between Leac and Fears,
mossed lanes whisper with their steps
and girls wind stealthily
the long faded path to Clachan,

to and fro from Clachan
by the living lands of Suisnish,
still young and supple and lithe,
not bent double with sorrowful tales.

From the Burn of Fearns to the raised beach
whose outlines are revealed through mists of hills,
you can see the silent psalms of girls,
walking, always walking,

returning to Hallaig each evening
in the translucent gloaming,
the pibroch notes of their laughter
echoing through the caverns of my ears,

their loveliness like trout pools on lochans
before the last light is stolen from the kyles,
and the sun gives up the ghost beyond Dun Cana,
pellets will scatter from the shotgun of Love,

and a lone deer will stagger in bewilderment,
drowning in scents of burial mounds of homes,
his eyes turned to staring pillars of stone:
his blood will run through the veins of my memory

Translated from the Gaelic by James Knox Whittet
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Hallaig


‘tha tìm, am fiadh, an coille hallaig’

tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig
trom faca mi an àird an iar
’s tha mo ghaol aig allt hallaig
’na craoibh bheithe, ’s bha i riamh

eadar an t-inbhir ’s poll a’ bhainne,
thall ’s a bhos mu bhaile chùirn:
tha i ’na beithe, ’na calltainn,
’na caorann dhìrich sheang ùir.

ann an sgreapadal mo chinnidh,
far robh tarmad ’s eachann mòr,
tha ’n nigheanan ’s am mic ’nan coille
a’ gabhail suas ri taobh an lòin.

uaibhreach a-nochd na coilich ghiuthais
a’ gairm air mullach cnoc an rà,
dìreach an druim ris a’ ghealaich –
chan iadsan coille mo ghràidh.

fuirichidh mi ris a’ bheithe
gus an tig i mach an càrn,
gus am bi am bearradh uile
o bheinn na lice fa sgàil.

mura tig ’s ann theàrnas mi a hallaig
a dh’ionnsaigh sàbaid nam marbh,
far a bheil an sluagh a’ tathaich,
gach aon ghinealach a dh’fhalbh.

tha iad fhathast ann a hallaig,
clann ghill-eain ’s clann mhicleòid,
na bh’ ann ri linn mhic ghille chaluim:
chunnacas na mairbh beò.

na fir ’nan laighe air an lèanaig
aig ceann gach taighe a bh’ ann,
na h-igheanan ’nan coille bheithe,
dìreach an druim, crom an ceann.

eadar an leac is na feàrnaibh
tha ’n rathad mòr fo chòinnich chiùin,
’s na h-igheanan ’nam badan sàmhach
a’ dol a chlachan mar o thùs.

agus a’ tilleadh às a’ chlachan,
à suidhisnis ’s à tir nam beò;
a chuile tè òg uallach
gun bhristeadh cridhe an sgeòil.

o allt na feàrnaibh gus an fhaoilinn
tha soilleir an dìomhaireachd nam beann
chan eil ach coitheanal nan nighean
a’ cumail na coiseachd gun cheann.

a’ tilleadh a hallaig anns an fheasgar,
anns a’ chamhanaich bhalbh bheò,
a’ lìonadh nan leathadan casa,
an gàireachdaich ’nam chluais ’na ceò,

’s am bòidhche ’na sgleò air mo chridhe
mun tig an ciaradh air na caoil,
’s nuair theàrnas grian air cùl dhùn cana
thig peilear dian à gunna ghaoil;

’s buailear am fiadh a tha ’na thuaineal
a’ snòtach nan làraichean feòir;
thig reothadh air a shùil sa choille:
chan fhaighear lorg air fhuil rim bheò.

©Sorley Maclean
From Wood to Ridge, 1999 Carcanet Press Ltd.

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Translation commentary


Sorley MacLean was born and brought up in the Hebridean island of Raasay and I was born and brought up in the Hebridean island of Islay. Unlike MacLean, I am not a native speaker of Gaelic as my parents only moved to Islay the year in which I was born. However, Gaelic lessons were compulsory in primary school and since leaving school, I have kept up with the study of Gaelic.

I have long felt drawn to 'Hallaig' which is a heartbreaking account of the impact of the Highland Clearances on one particular community. I love the poem for its sonorous lyricism and the way in which grief is embodied in mystical descriptions of the natural world. It is of course also a poem about time and how the past, the present and the future coalesce.

In his introduction to From Wood To Ridge, MacLean writes about the profound importance of music in his Raasay childhood, not only the playing of pibroch – classical bagpipe music – but the singing of traditional Gaelic songs. In MacLean’s words:

Most of the songs were that ineffable fusion of music and poetry, in which the melodies seem to grow out of the words and be a simultaneous creation.

I was fortunate enough to attend a reading by Sorley MacLean and I was struck by the Yeats-like manner in which he chanted his poems which created a hypnotic effect on his listeners, rather like listening to the Gaelic psalms sung in the Free Church on the Hebridean island of Harris where I once lived.

I have followed Maclean's own example in not attempting to put the rhymes and half-rhymes into English but I have tried to retain that ineffable fusion of music and poetry of the original.

James Knox Whittet
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