Somersaulting out of a Cave of Gold: thoughts on the current and future condition of the Gàidhealtachd

Words by Iain Mackinnon. Illustration by Pearse O’ Halloran.

“Let me begin by stating something that might seem obvious: isolation is an important tool, and a devastating result, of colonization. …the colonized society as a whole is made to think of itself as entirely alone in the universe – completely vulnerable and unprotected. At the individual level colonised people learn to hide their real feelings and sincere beliefs because they have been taught that their feelings and beliefs are evidence of ignorance and barbarity. … This strategy of colonialism is designed to break down any resistance by persuading the colonized people that not only are they powerless to resist, but that they would also be naïve to attempt to do so.” – Erica-Irene Daes, The Experience of Colonization Around the World

In this essay I consider two important poetic invocations of the Gaelic Otherworld that deal with isolated figures struggling – and without human support – to understand and bring back to reality their own and their culture’s sincere beliefs and feelings. One is Sorley MacLean’s Uamha ‘n Òir [‘The Cave of Gold’], a poem of resolute struggle and despair which has variously haunted, plagued, and inspired me for fifteen years.

The other is Myles Campbell’s Agus Mar Sin Car a’ Mhuiltein [‘And so Somersault’], which was published in a limited edition run last year through the good offices of two Skye-based organisations: arts promoter SEALL and arts group Atlas. The human ecologist and land reformer Alastair McIntosh has argued that not only is Campbell’s poem heart-rendingly beautiful, but that it “merits a place amongst Scotland’s most distinguished mythic and religious poetry.”

I agree, and I am grateful to Alastair, to Myles and to Catherine MacPhee of Harlosh on Skye for our discussions last summer on what the poem brings to the world.

I also would like to thank Meg Bateman, Liam Campbell, Ryan Dziadowiec, Decker Forrest, Ullrich Kockel, Alastair McIntosh, Michael Newton, and Andrew Wiseman for conversations over the years that have helped clarify some of the views I take responsibility for here. I particularly want to thank Chrissie Gillies of Raasay for sharing some good and forthright views on Gaelic poetry during a land reform and ecology training session held at the Shieling Project in May 2022. It was her contribution that finally, I think, pushed me to publish my own thoughts.

My essay has a strong masculine bias. In this instance, it is the case that the poetic struggles analysed here to reclaim the ‘hill’ – the creative crucible of the Otherworld power of faery – from cultural invasion were both carried out by men. I have elsewhere focussed on the poetry of a woman bard from Skye, Catriona Montgomery, who has, in her own particular style and register, delineated in subtle ways that have yet, I believe, to be fully recognised how cultural invasion devastates the social and self-understanding of a colonised person and people.

I began this essay by quoting Erica-Irene Daes, a United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous peoples and a key figure in the preparation of what became the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, because her words also emphasise the condition facing poets of colonised groups who are nevertheless moved, compelled to contribute to recovering and reconstituting their people’s lifeworld, the ground of their being.

In her contribution to the collection of essays Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision, Daes holds that “one of the most destructive of the shared personal experiences of colonized people around the world is intellectual and spiritual loneliness.”

“From this loneliness comes a lack of self-confidence, a fear of action, and a tendency to believe that the ravages and pain of colonization are somehow deserved. Thus, the victims of colonization begin, in certain cases, to blame themselves for all the pain that they have suffered.”

This process of internalising blame may be one means of understanding “the tragic nature of daily life in Aboriginal communities: unemployment, self-rejection, addiction, family violence.”

In the case of Scottish Gàidheil, personal loneliness and social brokenness have been compounded by a complicating psychological factor. According to one enduring critic at least, we have turned ourselves against spiritual, or Otherworld, forces that have power to support revitalisation of an indigenous lifeworld. In the book of essays in which the idea of a ‘Celtic Twilight’ was first expressed, WB Yeats remonstrated against Scotsmen who were “too theological, too gloomy” in their dealings with “the world beyond” and who had “discovered the fairies to be pagan and wicked.” “You have made the Darkness your enemy”, he concluded. In short, Yeats believed that we ill-treated the Otherworld people because we had lost respectful intimacy with them. But Yeats’ criticisms, while capturing an important truth in Scotland’s relationship with the fairies, were misplaced in their assessment of the breadth of Scottish Otherworld tradition.

The hero of Myles Campbell’s Agus Mar Sin Car a’ Mhuiltein [‘And so Somersault’] walks that wider, more generous fairy-path that has been well-trodden in the tradition, as can be seen by the gleanings collected by folklorists such as Alexander Carmichael, Rev. John Gregorson Campbell, and Rev. Kenneth MacLeod, among others. This is a path of often humorous, instructive, and, in the case of Campbell’s poem, transformative Otherworld encounter of a kind that Yeats could not see in Scotland. Yet this path was not marginal but central to the way that traditional society conceived of the world. The importance of faery has perhaps been most succinctly captured by native scholar John MacInnes who described it as “a metaphor for the imagination”: “From this shadowy realm comes the creative power of mankind.”

In fact, in walking this fairy path, Myles Campbell and his poem’s hero instruct Yeats in the transformative possibilities of faery. After all, didn’t Yeats’ wandering Aengus, having once seen the fairy woman “with apple blossoms in her hair”, spend the rest of his days “wandering through hollow lands and hilly lands” to find out “where she [or, perhaps, sìdhe] has gone”?

Yeats’ famous poem concludes with the bereft but still striving Aengus dreaming of kissing her lips and holding her hand, tasting “the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun” for eternity. It’s not clear what kind of a gift Aengus would ultimately gain from the Otherworld apples of the fairy woman, but the poem is clear that she’s kept them from him until now. Perhaps he reminds us a little of RD Laing’s injunction towards “the young man who sets off in a yacht in search of God” or of “the poet who mistakes a real woman for his muse and acts accordingly.” Laing concludes: “Let us cure them.”

Except it is not us that can provide the cure for young men like Aengus; it is them.

And so it is with the ultimately generous, life-giving Scottish fairies that take Campbell’s hero William deep into the hollow hill for a year and a day. A little the worse the wear for drink, William is on his way home over the moor from a wedding and tries to borrow a horse which takes off and finally throws him to the ground precipitating his Otherworld encounter.

The adventures he endures in the fairy hill are wild and often excruciating, true enough, although the pain is always tempered by the narrator’s saving humour and an uncanny sense that, as readers, we, and William, are in safe hands. Unlike Yeats’ wan, desirous, searching Aengus, the hero of Campbell’s poem returns from the fairy realm, being transformed and vitally alive, and with the faery gift of wisdom that he needed; for him, acceptance – to be able to accept the fullness of reality, of flood and calm, and of people, here and there. But even after the return there is a rub. Life goes on; the sheep need fed, and William’s new guide “the little green man” horrifies the folk back in the ‘real’ world. Yet, for William, still the stream bubbles…and so somersault, and so somersault. In this way, Agus Mar Sin Car a’ Mhuiltein is an extraordinary lesson of and from the transformative power of the hill.

I also read Agus Mar Sin Car a’ Mhuiltein against another story of creative descent into the Scottish Gaelic Otherworld. This is the poem of Sorley Maclean that I consider to be his most important statement, Uamha ‘n Òir [‘The Cave of Gold’]. Yeats, of course, used the existence of the Uamha ‘n Òir story in Scottish tradition – of the piper hopelessly struggling in the cave with an overwhelming Otherworld power in the form of a fairy hound – to give weight to his argument that we consider the fairies to be wicked.

In the original story and song, the piper bewails his lack of three hands, two for the pipes and one for the sword, in order that he can defend himself from the fairy hound. One of the ways that I read MacLean’s symbolically and psychologically profound development of the Uamha ‘n Òir story, is to see MacLean himself endlessly doing battle in the cave with the fairy hound of death that represents all the forces that MacLean sees invading, intruding upon and destroying the ground of Gaelic being, leading to a Gaelic Otherworld realm so contaminated with alien elements that it perversely contributes to the destruction of its own ontological basis.

MacLean set his poem in Dùis MhicLeòid – the land of MacLeod, which includes his home island of Raasay – and when the piper first enters the cave of gold the place that he leaves behind him, Dùis MhicLeòid, is the place of bread, flesh, and wine, of honey and spices on the lips, of bees sounding in the ears, and “love-making, the praise and the music, the sweet promises and the rewards, and the soft eloquent words of the drink.”

No wonder, then, that MacLean asks again and again, why would a person “leave the land and go away at all?” Exemplified by Dùis MhicLeòid, MacLean’s traditional Gaelic ground of being is familiar, loving, and nurturing.

But as the poem unfolds it becomes clear that in the time since the piper entered the cave all that is familiar, secure, and nurturing has been subjected to a scorched earth policy, and that we have contributed to it – probably related to what MacLean once harshly called “the notorious, moral cowardice of the Highlanders”. These days there is “a mean churl lord in the Dun, and the old community broken”. Maclean’s concluding lines in the version of Uamha ‘n Òir that he approved for publication speak to the crisis of being that he feels. In the end, and in spite of his four arms [“two for the pipes, one for shield and one for the sword”], and in spite of inspiration by music [“the sword and the shield were useless, it was the music itself that strove”] MacLean the warrior knew that he possessed “the weakness above all weakness”; he knew that the fairy hound he faced was “of the eerie dogs of death” and the situation was truly hopeless. Sùil, the Gaelic word for ‘eye’, also means ‘hope’, and – tellingly now written in the first person – the poem concludes bleakly:

My lack, my lack

with head and heart,

dim eye in the head

no eye in the heart.

The poem’s argument of cultural devastation and ontological elimination and hopelessness is compelling and horrific, and its music still casts an awful captivating spell today, one that Yeats would surely deplore. The human consequences of this devastation are explored in Iain Crichton Smith’s essay ‘Real People in a Real Place’ and, even more directly, in Norman MacLean’s unsparing autobiographical self-examination The Leper’s Bell. This most talented and most wasteful of Gàidheil tells how his own mother had described him as a ‘changeling’. Sometimes, when the fairies steal a human child, they replace them with a changeling, a creature that appears to be the child but below the disguise is really an ancient hateful fairy which takes and takes from the parents and gives nothing in return. Norman MacLean’s creative achievements were blighted by a lifetime of alcoholism and self-destructive behaviour, the result of what he called “a hairline crack in my sense of belonging.”

He had been brought up, on the one hand, in the most traditional of settings in an extended family in Uist and at the head of Loch Arkaig in Lochaber permeated by a very rich oral history and literature, much of it place-specific. In The Leper’s Bell he wrote that recollecting from old age his childhood days by Loch Arkaig time brought him into a state where his “being was no more than another stone in the eternity of the glen.” On the other hand, after the family moved to late-industrial Govan he experienced what he called “culture shock”, being violently attacked by other boys. Before long he had internalised and was replicating the aggression and the violence he received.

The writing of John Lorne Campbell ultimately helped him understand his plight, caught between two forms of consciousness and fully immersed in neither. Campbell wrote:

“Communities where an oral tradition predominates are so much out of the experience of the modern Western world that it is extremely difficult for anyone without first-hand knowledge to imagine how a language can be cultivated without being written to any extent, or what an oral literature is like, or how it is propagated and added to from generation to generation. The consciousness of the Gaelic mind may be described as possessing historical continuity and a religious sense; it may be said to exist in a vertical plane. The consciousness of the modern West on the other hand, may be said to exist in a horizontal plane, possessing breadth and extent, dominated by a scientific materialism and a concern with purely contemporary happenings. There is a profound difference between the two attitudes, which represent the different spirits of different ages, and are very much in conflict.”

Norman MacLean repeatedly renegotiated his “status between the mainstream (Scottish Lowland) culture and Gaelic culture.” He added: “I did this frequently and my oscillations proved confusing.” As he studied Celtic at Glasgow University he struggled to reconcile a pride in his gallus Glaswegian identity with his strong memories of and attachment to growing up traditionally in Uist and Lochaber.

“The vertical plane of old Lorne Campbell was birling like a U-boat commander’s periscope. The descent into madness had begun. There I was, ostensibly drinking from the pure stream of Gaelic culture in my studies, but secretly wanting to be a townie, a boulevardier among the raffish crew who inhabited the West End of the city.”

Ultimately, he reached “the conclusion that this dual consciousness laid the foundation for the cultural schizophrenia that I’ve suffered all my life, and still suffer to this day.” As well as being a singer and piper, Norman MacLean was a stand-up comedian. His edgy humour was enormously popular in the west Highlands and Islands. His popularity may have been as much a reflection of social experience as that of his own personal experience.

Norman MacLean’s was perhaps a severe case, but the prevalence of binge drinking and persistently high levels of alcohol related deaths in the islands where Gaelic language and culture is least weak but rapidly contracting suggest that his disclosures may be indicative of wider cultural trauma.

Could it be, then, that Dùis MhicLeòid and the Gàidhealtachd as a whole have become a cave of gold? And, if so, how can we escape from the endless futile struggle and suffering that is generated there?

As Peter MacKay has recently shown in an insightful analysis of Sorley MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmid’s responses to their understandings of the Celtic Twilight, MacLean sought in his poetry “a native symbolism” independent of “purely foreign non-Celtic development[s]”. Whether or not this was a futile, unnatural quest does not diminish the brilliance of his verse. But it does have ontological implications. He detested the Celtic Twilight (or what he could see of it) not only as “pretentious dishonest stupidity” but also as the insertion of foreign material. For him the Celtic Twilight represented “a romanticism of the escapist, otherworldly type, a cloudy mysticism” which never “bore any earthly relation to anything in Gaelic life or literature.”

This may be true of some of the material that he railed against and his reasons for doing so may have been sound – the focus of much of his ire was on the work of Marjory Kennedy Fraser and a song project which might, in sympathetic terms and given her collaboration with Rev. Kenneth Macleod, be considered an act of cultural translation. But what comes across is his writing about the twilight is a total rejection of it as a creative force. Might MacLean’s concerns about cultural purity and the avoidance of “non-Celtic development” in his poetry have left him battling the already infiltrated forces of his own Otherworld in the cave of gold – a self-enclosed, radiant, and spectacular amphitheatre suffused with all the victimhood and agency of capital, empire, racial, and cultural prejudice and all that had brought Dùis MhicLeòid to its knees and throes – in the very manner that Yeats had warned against: captivated by the idea that the Otherworld was essentially an enemy to be defeated?

Moreover, might a rejection of “non-Celtic development” leave MacLean without recourse to the universal knowledge that Yeats returned to again and again in his struggles to see that dim twinkling light through to a new morning? One student of Yeats described that knowledge as “not empirical but imaginative knowledge” which resides “at the core of reality itself, with which the supernatural worlds of folklore, legend and myth are intimately connected.” The key to a poet’s creativity may be not so much the way in which they are able to manipulate those worlds in their work; but the culturally derived, spiritually sourced awareness and attitudes which establish their way in the first place.

Yeats the anti-materialist said: “I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renaissance – the revolt of the soul against the intellect – now beginning in the world.” He gave, in his time, an Irish awareness and attitude to that larger revolution of the soul. As the enduring and relevant criticisms of the Twilight make clear, there are many ways in which the soul can stray and its revolution dwindle to what MacDiarmid called “the delightful taste of a pink sweet filled with snow”; yet as the Twilight’s enduring and relevant appeal also appears to attest, a world that deadens the soul will always face spiritual revolt.

Sorley MacLean himself was not immune from beguilement by foreign influences. He bemoaned that he “was foolish enough” to have once preferred John Keats to William Ross. In Agus Mar Sin Car a’ Mhuiltein, Myles Campbell quotes from both MacLean and Keats. This is in the sixth section of the poem in which William’s transformative suffering really begins. Although later he will endure the torments of fire in the flesh in what seems like our common imaginary of Hell, in section six William first suffers a Celtic Hell, in which his flesh and his spirit become stone, cold and unfeeling. Here, in what appears to symbolise a profound and anguished psychic transformation, he quotes from Keats’ Hyperion, which describes the sorrow of the Titans, the old gods of Greece, after their overthrow by the Olympians. Interwoven with Keats are two quotes from MacLean’s Dàin do Eimhir XVI. It may be significant that in MacLean’s original work, what immediately follows Dàin do Eimhir XVI are verses in which MacLean denies the existence of God. Indeed it seems to be MacLean’s Godless world – “cold, far off, bright, beautiful … a universe moving silently and a mind alone in the environs” – from which William wishes to escape back to conversation, cèilidh, and the familiarity of home.

Campbell’s juxtaposition of Keats and MacLean appears to me to be part of an imaginative reconciliation achieved in the fairy hill that allows him to transcend the isolation of “a mind alone in the environs”; an isolation that is, of course, the condition of the piper struggling in the psychological crucible of Uamha ‘n Òir.

If this was Campbell’s intent, his poem achieves this reconciliation without becoming lost in “cloudy mysticism” or diversionary confection. Campbell’s hero William suffers the same “loneliness and terror” in the fairy hill that Sorley MacLean, in a poem dedicated to Alexander Carmichael, describes as being at the core of MacLean’s own creative process. That is true. However, for Campbell the fairies are not a horrendous, evil extinguishing power; they are spiritual teachers, bringers of new life and understanding.

And this understanding of the fairies is no foreign importation. It has long, long provenance in Gaelic tradition. After analysing a series of medieval Irish Gaelic texts on the relationship between the fairies and Christianity, the eminent scholar John Carey concludes:

“Here, in closing, we have a still more audacious defence of the deities of the old religion, unique so far as I know in the literature. They are the guardian angels, the messengers of God. The pagan Irish, we are to understand, were not devil-ridden or deluded, ‘for they were faithful to the truth of nature’.”

In what might be considered an act of intergenerational bardic healing, Campbell has been able to pass through the tormenting illusory gold of the cave in order to realise and recover the original restorative power that is at the heart of the Otherworld hill. In doing so he completes the journey that MacLean had begun to return to “the truth of nature”.


Uamha ‘n Òir has worked on me for some fifteen years as the main ground of my understanding of how it is for the Gàidhealtachd and for Gàidheil in Scotland today. The brilliance of the poem’s depiction of that condition – which Erica-Irene Daes describes in terms of spiritual and intellectual loneliness – has an awful sense of finality, and is not an easy place to live. Agus Mar Sin Car a’ Mhuiltein has disturbed that sense of finality, somersaulting me towards the possibility of an acceptance of that condition that does not bring resistance to an end, and leaves hope alive too for Gàidhealtachd futures. For that, I already feel deep gratitude.

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