Poet and scholar

Born: May 21, 1930;

Died: February 28, 2017

PROFESSOR Donald MacAulay, who has died aged 86, was a first-rate and much-loved scholar and poet known for the landmark publication in Gaelic literature, Seòbhrach as a’ Chlaich (Primrose from a Stone).

He was born and brought up on the island of Bernera in Lewis – an island within an island, a geographic reality which shaped part of his poetic and linguistic sensibilities. From childhood he would have been aware of the ties that bind and separate communities within communities.

As he expressed it himself in a wonderful late poem, Circeabost: an Ceann a Deas 2000 (Kirkibost: the South End 2000):

"cha bu dhligheach dhomh àicheadh / gu bheil mi dhàimh ris an dùthaich s’ / (a dhealbh dhomh m’ fheist is mo shaorsa) / cho dlùth ris a’ bhàirnich air a’ charragh, / ris a’ bhuidheann air na clachan;

"it would be unthinkable to deny / that my attachment to this land / (that devised my tether and my freedom) / is as fast as the limpet on the rock, / as the lichen on the stones;"

Like all island children of the time, secondary school education tore Donald away from that elemental land of his childhood. He took a boat to the bigger island of Lewis, then a 40-mile journey to the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, where he excelled. He was very close to his grandparents and some years ago told me that his Gaelic was enriched by being brought up surrounded by the vocabulary and idioms of a previous generation from the 19th century.

That love of language stayed with him, and after leaving the Nicolson Institute he went on to study at Aberdeen University, graduating with first class honours in Celtic and English. He was then awarded a scholarship to Emmanuel College Cambridge. After graduating there he taught Old Middle English and Medieval Scots at Edinburgh University, before moving to Trinity College Dublin as a lecturer in Irish.

From 1963 to 1967 he was a lecturer in applied linguistics at Edinburgh, moving in 1967 to become senior lecturer in Celtic and head of the Celtic department at Aberdeen University. He completed his distinguished academic career as Professor of Celtic at the University of Glasgow in 1993, before retiring to Edinburgh.

He had a keen, analytical mind, aware not just of the immediate meaning of any word, but of the complexities of meanings within each of these words. He was rooted in the rich Gaelic vocabulary of previous generations, yet he was able to thoroughly modernise the language to make it fit for purpose towards the 21st century. He was rather like a man given a very fine old taraisgeir (peat-plough), but who used it to divine the stars.

He established his reputation as a poet with Seòbhrach as a’ Chlaich (Primrose from a Stone). The poems in the book have tremendous clarity – gone were the obfuscations of traditional Gaelic metre, replaced by words that were translucent and vehemently accurate. It was clear that great intellectual rigour lay behind the choosing of the words, and for my generation it was as if someone had (finally) removed the heavy burden of gravity from Gaelic poetry and replaced it with lightness and translucence.

That 1968 collection contains many poems which – half a century on – remain utterly contemporary. The most well-known of these poems is Comharra Stiùiridh (Landmark) which has become an existential text for all of us who love, or live on, or have left islands:

"There goes the island out of sight / as the boat sails on, / as seen by many a bard

through sorrow and beer / and by others, tongue under tooth, / and tears blinding –/ an ill-defined shadow and windows fading.

"But the matter is not so simple / to the one who’s a yearly pilgrim: / out of returning sorrow rises / from a region the world has derided.

"And, that is not my island: / it submerged long ago / the greater part of it / in neglect and tyranny – / and the part that submerged in me of it, / sun-bower and iceberg, / sails the ocean I travel, / a primary landmark, / dangerous, essential, demanding."

Donald MacAulay wore his great erudition lightly. He was a humble and handsome man. He married Ella Sangster from Rothiemay in Moray in January 1957, which meant they were able to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary together two months ago. They had two children, Cathlin, who is an archivist at Edinburgh University, and a son Iain, who predeceased his parents, dying of cancer in April last year. His father wrote a gorgeous poem for him when Iain was a child, titled Iain A-Measg Nan Reultan (Iain In Space) which was published in that seminal 1968 collection.

A few years ago I recorded a television documentary with Donald MacAulay about his life and poetry. I remember interviewing him for a whole morning about his work, but quickly realised I would be no wiser at the end than at the beginning for he – rightly – refused to “explain the meaning” of any of his poems. “The meaning is in the text,” he said. “And it’s up to each reader to extract her or his meaning out of them.”

But when I went home to Bernera with him I understood their meaning: they were rooted in and grew out of the rocky soil of his native land and his people. Primroses out of stones, as he so eloquently expressed it.

Professor Donald MacAulay is survived by his wife Ella, his daughter Cathlin, his grandchildren Sorcha , Jamie, Paul, Daniel and Rose, daughter-in-law Donna, Sorcha’s partner Neil, and two great grand-daughters, Anna and Jessica.