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Première partie : Montagnes poétiques et esthétiques

"In the Hills on my own": 20th Century Scottish Poetry, the Writing of Perception

Stéphanie Noirard
p. 71-78


A la combinaison Ecosse, Montagne, Littérature, on associera volontiers le Romantisme britannique, notamment Walter Scott qui, dans Waverley ou Rob Roy exprime les passions amoureuses ou nationalistes de ses protagonistes au travers du paysage des Trosachs. Or, se limiter à cette association, c’est méconnaître le rôle fondamental que joue la montagne dans la culture et la littérature écossaise. Symbole de l’esprit, de l’imagination et de la mémoire pour les Gaëls, source de vie puisqu’elle est à la fois refuge, barrière naturelle contre l’ennemi et réserve de gibier ou de plantes médicinales, mais aussi source de mort qui traîtreusement surprend le voyageur égaré, elle fascine depuis toujours ceux qui la côtoient, depuis Duncan Bàn MacIntyre jusqu’à Sorley MacLean en passant par Robert Burns, Stevenson, Nan Shepherd, pour ne citer que les plus célèbres.
A l’heure de la mondialisation, de l’industrialisation, du voyage facile et de la remise en question de la capacité du langage à décrire le monde, que reste-t-il de cette fascination dans la poésie écossaise du XXe siècle ? La montagne a-t-elle conservé le pouvoir de stimuler l’imagination ou est-ce sa capacité à engendrer un questionnement sur le Moi qui a pris le dessus ? Le miroir de l’âme qu’elle était s’est-il brisé ou voilé devant les angoisses et les interrogations suscitées par le monde moderne? Autant de questions qui seront soulevées à travers l’étude de poètes de culture aussi divergente que Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, Sorley MacLean ou George Bruce et qui permettront une tentative de définition du rôle que peut jouer la montagne dans la conception d’une nouvelle esthétique poétique de la perception

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1It seems the Scottish mountain has been suffering from the attribution of too many clichés: purple hills and white-capped summits, misty highland glens, the monster of Loch Ness and all the other paraphernalia seem to have contributed to its being discarded as just another tourist attraction unfit for serious literary consideration. It is therefore surprising to discover that it somehow remains a recurrent theme in 20th century Scottish poetry. This raises the question of whether nature is only a memory and the references to the mountains purely nostalgic or whether mountain landscapes have become sources of a new poetic reflection.

2The Scottish lie of the land really started to change after the ꞌ45 when the first military forts and roads were built in the Highlands. Then came the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the Highland Clearances, the discovery of oil off the coast of Aberdeen. This resulted in many changes that left traces in the poetic landscape of 20th century Scotland where Nature, though still present, gradually seems to fall into the background as exemplified in "The Return" by George Bruce (Bruce 131), a poem which retraces the history of Fraserburgh. From a small fishing town at the beginning of the 20th century, Fraserburgh grew, owing to globalisation, into one of the largest Scottish ports dedicated to herring fishing now surrounded by oil refineries. Today its prestige has been lost and the town is the scene of much unemployment, dereliction, vandalism and drug traffic. The poem opens with a memory and the description of Fraserburgh as it was in the early 20th century. In a luminous and airy landscape, air, water and light circulate freely, undisturbed, which enhances an overall impression of purity. Even the presence of man is no obstacle to this: on the contrary, nature is everywhere; in the houses, ("light breaking in a shuttered room,") and in man himself ("salt on the lips", "air swinging in the head.") But the memory is erased by the numerous changes the town has undergone and everything is soon reversed. All motion suddenly stops, and the absence of freedom and movement is enacted in the image of a gull caught in oil. With regard to prosody, it is, as a matter of fact, easy to get caught in the line "the dead gull’s wings weighted with oil", whose slow, heavy rhythm is created by five stresses, four of which are in a row and the mirroring effect created by the alternation and repetition of similar letters. Along with the image of the gull, it is the image of death itself which enters the poem, haunting as it does this new world dirtied with oil, detergents ("cleansols") and "faeces". This is a world ruled by man and industrial society.

3The ecological problems of their country however are not the sole preoccupation of Scottish modern poets. Owing to improved access to information and new means of travel, becoming more open to the world beyond Scotland and shedding their label as regional poets have been their chief concerns and they have proved anxious to tackle themes as wide-ranging as the Spanish War, World War II, the Vietnam War, or communism. Iain Crichton Smith’s "Eight Songs for a New Ceilidh" (Crichton Smith 1995, 179-181) or Sorley MacLean’s "Cornford" (MacLean 36-37) are cases in point although they were admittedly looked upon and resented by nationalist and traditionalist critics who thought these themes alienated from Scottish, not to mention Gaelic, poetry. But the winds of change were blowing and even an earlier poet such as Norman MacCaig, who willingly described himself as a "Home Bird" (McNeill 40), had started to write about Italy ("The Streets of Florence" MacCaig 146) or America ("Coral Island"; "Last Night in New York", MacCaig 122; 184).

4And yet traces or a reappearance of a Scottish tradition can still be perceived in all modern Scottish poets, whether it takes the form of references to Gaelic culture or to the Scottish romantic tradition, or whether it stems from a will to reappropriate the landscape. Poets belonging to or bearing a strong interest in the Gaelic-speaking world juxtapose the referents of this culture to more classical symbols. Thus in poems by Iain Crichton Smith or Norman MacCaig, references to salmon are to be understood as symbolising knowledge, an approach incidentally made explicit in MacCaig’s "Always First Morning" (MacCaig 94) where the lexical field of scientific demonstration is used to describe the fish:

Salmon deduced themselves from what
Became a brown froth over stones.
They winked and sidled into thought,
Wavering their long monotones.

5As for mountains, they are as much a symbol as a source of inspiration for the Gaels. According to lain Crichton Smith, it is "the mountains which darken and brighten like ideas in the mind" (Crichton Smith 1995 212). In his series of short stories, Murdo and Other Stories, he characteristically describes Murdo, his literary double, sitting at his writing table and gazing at "the white mountain" which he dreams of climbing, for to reach the top of the white mountain allegorically means acquiring inspiration and the ability to write.

6Sorley MacLean goes even further when he endows the mountain with a reflection of its own. The landscape is hence anthropomorphised until it becomes a "memoryscape". The mountains of Raasay have indeed been witness to many a violent action, starting with clan wars, through the massacre of the islanders suspected of having hidden Bonnie Prince Charlie, to the Highland Clearances and the training of the British Navy during World War II. Impregnated with these memories, the mountains soon become oppressive and barbarous until, in "Kinloch Ainort" (MacLean 44-47), they turn into soldiers, an army ready to fight.

A company of mountains, an upthrust of mountains,

Comhlan bheanntan, stòiteachd bheanntan,

a great garth of growing mountains,

còrr-lios bheanntan fàsmhor,

a concourse of summits, of knolls, of hills

cruinneachadh mhullaichean, thulaichean, shlèibhtean,

Coming on with a fearsome roaring.

Tighinn’s a’bheucaich ghàbhaidh.

A rising of glens, of gloomy corries.

Eirigh ghleanntan, choireachan ùdlaidh.

a lying down in the antlered bellowing;

laighe’s a’bhùirich chracaich;

a stretching of green nooks, of brook mazes,

sineadh chluaineagan, shuaineagan srùlach,

Prattling in the age-old mid-winter.

briodal’s an dùbhlachd àrsaidh.

A cavalry of mountains, horse-riding summits,

Eachraidh bheanntan, marcachd mhullaichean,

a streaming headlong haste of foam,

deann-ruith shruthanach càthair,

a slipperiness of smooth flat rocks, smallbellied bare summits,

sleamhnachd leacannan, seangachd chreachainnean,

flat-rock snoring of high mountains.

Strannraich leacanach àrd-bheann.

A surge-belt of hill-tops,

Onfhadh-chrios mhullaichean,

Impetuous thigh of peaks,

confhadh-shlios thulaichean.

the murmuring bareness of marching turrets.

monmhar luim thurraidean màrsail.

green flanks of Mosgary,

gorm-shliosan Mhosgaraidh,

Crumbling storm-flanks,

stoirm-shliosan mosganach,

Barbarous pinnacles of high moorlands.

borb-bhiodan mhonaidhean àrda.

7While it was translated into English by the poet himself, the poem still partly follows the rules of Gaelic alliterations and assonances, thus allowing the military lexical field to be reinforced by the accumulation of plosives. In a mimologic perspective, the alliterations could indeed be interpreted not only as ways of mimicking the hard bare rock, but also as echoes of the violence that emanates from the place.

8A romantic interpretation is not to be discarded either and the poem might as well be read as an evocation of place—both picturesque and terrifying—in front of which the poet becomes aware of his own insignificance. This interpretation is induced through the subtle presence of a typically romantic vocabulary, whether typically Scottish,—as with the bucolic "green nooks", or the "high moorlands" which, in this context, also evoke Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, or with over-used metaphors such as "brook mazes,/prattling in the age-old mid-winter" or "murmuring bareness". While these metaphors certainly have a more classical value to a Gaelic ear, referring as they do to the 18th century of Duncan Bàn MacIntyre, they also evoke Walter Scott and John Keats to the English reader, a thing MacLean could not but be aware of. As such it is not unreasonable to infer that the poet plays on these two levels: that of the memory of places, with the references to the classical Gaelic 18th century, and that of the sublime in nature, corroborated by the lexical field of fear: "gloomy", "fearsome", and the adjective "great", both praising and purely descriptive, referring at the same time to height, in a down-to-earth acceptation of the word, and to strength, in a more spiritual understanding.

9Nevertheless, modern poems are not so much infused with the notion of the Sublime as with scientific accuracy through faithful descriptions of geographical and also zoological and geological details. This is the case in the poem by MacLean who, in spite of his use of metaphors, never neglects place names, such as the very title of the poem "Kinloch Ainort", or the reference to "Mosgary" and place topography. But despite MacLean’s linguistic resources, the translation is not as evocative as the original poem as far as topography is concerned, owing to the richness of the Gaelic tongue when it comes to describing mountains. Substantives naming vary not only according to height, expressed through the distinction between "hill" and "mountain", but also according to shape. Note the translation of "mullach", a relatively flat mountain top to "summits", the translation of "tulach" to describe a lower round-shaped top to "knoll", the translation of "biod", meaning "needle" to "pinnacle" or the translation of "leacannan" to describe rocky wastes similar to steps to "smooth flat stones". The Gaelic tongue finally distinguishes between rocky peaks, "creachann", which is submitted to a process of dilution when translated into the English "bare summits", from heathery hills, "monadh", translated into "moorland". Places are also sometimes named according to fauna, but there is no instance of it in this poem and animals do not abound in MacLean’s poems.

10On the contrary, Norman MacCaig’s bestiary is extensive, but although he was so fascinated by frogs as to fear he would be remembered as "the frog poet" (McNeill 120), he never forgot other Highland animals such as adders, roedeer, red deer, buzzards, owls, eagles, ptarmigan, lochan salmon or trout. His geological details are however of a fierce precision as shown in the first stanza of "A Man in Assynt" (McCaig 224-230). The specialised description of glacial phenomena and the motion of glaciers that shaped north-eastern Scotland,

Glaciers, grinding West, gouged out
these valleys, rasping the brown sandstone,
and left, on the hard rock below—
the ruffled foreland—
this frieze of mountains (...)

is followed by a systematic survey of the mountains of the area: "Stac Polly, / Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven, / Canisp." Then pictorial arts and literature take the place of science until real and impressionistic landscapes merge:

this frieze of mountains, filed
on the blue air- ...
... .
… a frieze and
a litany.

11George Bruce’s mountain cannot be separated from the sea and soon becomes a cliff against which the waves of the North Sea break. The acoustic landscape is thus diversified and sibilants and plosives alternate where air, water and earth meet to fight (Bruce 16). Indeed a true Eros-Thanatos relationship is established between the cliff and the sea, for while the cliff of Kinnaird seems able to fight the water back ("Rejecting the violence of water"), the waves unceasingly erode it, and when the verb "plug in" ("The water plugs in the cliff sides") is used to describe this, the image of a rape is brought into the poem. It is, however, impossible to overlook the fact that "plug in" also has a positive connotation evoking as it does the idea of connection, of compatibility, hence some kind of harmony leading to union ("This is the consummation of the plain"). And while the shrill cries of gulls ("The gull cries from the clouds") seem to be a reminder that this is a marriage of convenience if not a forced marriage, the union is far from childless ("Where the spindrift in storm lays its beads").

12The poets will draw from the experience of the confrontation, and "Kinnaird Head" might as well be read as a reflection on the art of writing and even a metapoetic manifesto. About this, Edwin Morgan points out that one must do justice to this poem, which is one of Bruce’s best known, and that establishing the equation "Hard rock; hardy person" is not as important as showing that the environment where he lived gave the poet "a fine eye and ear and nose for detail" (Bruce XV). His intention to turn towards the cold North and a waste land described as "a promontory... /Irregular to the top of thin grey grass", shows a desire for soberness, a will to "yield nothing" to the flow of images, symbols and metaphors that could make up for such a barrenness, and this in order to, as J. M. Maulpoix puts it, make the place happen, ("donne[r] lieu au lieu.") A jagged landscape produces a distorted poem: "Un poème est ce tissu troué dont la fonction n’est pas de costumer notre existence, mais de montrer tout à la fois ce qui l’habille et la dévêt, sa chaleur et sa pauvreté" (Maulpoix 45).

13Unlike Argyll and the West Highlands, which are covered with lush vegetation, the rest of the country and the Isles show barren and stony landscapes towards which the poets would therefore rather turn. Under the influence of these barren mountains, poetry then becomes more and more spare. Despite our analysis, this was already the case in Sorley MacLean’s poem, which is written like a catalogue of nouns, adjectives and some nominalised present participles, and from which verbs and syntactic markers have disappeared. The impression of violence and ongoing motion was only created by semantics and by some Gaelic prosodic rules that play on metaplasms or word ladders, thus creating the illusion of gliding as in the move from "mhullaichean" to "thulaichean" then "thurraidean".

14This motion is gradually erased from the poems of lain Crichton Smith. A case in point can be found in the first stanza of "At the Sale" (Crichton Smith 1995, 70), a poem which describes a bric-a-brac shop:

Old beds, old chairs, old mattresses, old books,
old pictures of coiffed women, hatted men,
ministers with clamped lips and flowing beards,
a Duke in his Highland den,
and, scattered among these, old copper fire-guards,
stone water-bottles, stoves and shepherds’ crooks.

15While the literary list can be considered as a way to reorganise reality, the stanza rather reflects disorganisation, as far as both the signifier and the signified are concerned. Ministers, old women and old men, of which it is hard to decide whether they are just photographs or real customers wandering among the objects, mix with mattresses, stoves and books. As for the attempts to glide from "stone" to "stoves" or from "books" to "crooks", they are not so much to be read as a harmonious forward motion as as a collapsing of the pile of objects and of the rhythm of the poem. This is confirmed by a gradual dislocation of the lines. The first two iambic pentameters sound almost classical owing to the promotion of the last syllable of mattresses (1.1) and the double off-beat ("pictures of") compensating for the succession of two stressed syllables ("coiffed women" 1.2.) But this constrained hyper-regularity in fact announces the irregularity of lines three to five and the tongue-twister-like last pentameter, whose own regularity is only visible after «stone» has been identified as an adjective. The reflection this requires at first may induce a break in the scanning of the line.

16Psychoanalysts, particularly Julia Kristeva, argue that barrenness in writing soon goes hand in hand with such a progressive loss of meaning:

[l]e surplus d’affect n’a [...] pas d’autre moyen pour se manifester que de produire de nouveaux langages - des enchaînements étranges, des idiolectes, des poétiques. Jusqu’à ce que le poids de la Chose originaire l’emporte, et que toute traductibilité devienne impossible. La mélancolie s’achève alors dans l’asymbolie, la perte de sens: si je ne suis plus capable de traduire ou de métaphoriser, je me tais et je meurs. (Kristeva 54).

17Such a fragmentation, such an erosion even, is epitomised in this stanza from Iain Crichton Smith’s Deer on the High Hills (Crichton Smith 1995 35-46):

deranged, deranged, a land of rain and stones
of stones and rain, of the huge barbarous bones,
plucked like a loutish harp their harmonies.

18The epizeuxis insists on disorder and is here reinforced by the chiasmus, potentially disorganising syntactic structures. Meanwhile the jagged mountain landscape is synesthetically described in terms of "loutish" chords which the accumulation of plosives make all the more discordant. The chords seem to be reverberated as so many echoes that could as well be reflected by the epizeuxis, and the chiasm which, though it is a way of reorganising structures, also creates repetitive mirroring effects.

19And is there a phenomenon more revealing of the diffraction of sounds or voices than the phenomenon of echo? In the poems it is to be found in all the figures of speech involving repetition notably the epizeuxis, which has just been discussed, and anaphora which may be found at the end of part two of the same poem:

tyrants who cannot dance but throw stones,
tyrants who can crack the finest bones:
tyrants who do not wear but break most ancient crowns.

20Finally it should be noted that many cases of autopalimpsest are to be found in the writings of Iain Crichton Smith, not only as far as plot is concerned but also in his very titles, as may be proved by the number of poems entitled "old woman". These voices coming back to him are going to enable the poet to listen to his own self.

21First of all, the echo is not perceived as self but as other, hence the multiplicity of voices and of personae in the poems. In Norman MacCaig’s "A Man in my Position" (MacCaig 210-211), for instance, the echoing voice is first acknowledged and addressed as "you" ("Hear my words carefully," "my love for you.") Then it is gradually distanced to a further position, that of a "he" who is more and more perceived as alien ("Some are spoken / not by me, but/by a man in my position," "What right has he / to use my mouth?" "this appalling stranger.") Even "I" becomes a non-person, a "fourth person singular" ("quatrième personne du singulier") to borrow a word of J. M. Maulpoix (Maulpoix 240), tugged this way and that and unable to act of its own accord: "[he] makes windows of my eyes. / You see him looking out." "who is talking now?"

22Another is talking now, another who repeats but does not reply or at least gives incoherent answers that need to be deciphered. They take the form of "litanies", according to Norman MacCaig; of proverbial sentences in the poems of Iain Crichton Smith ("This is what the stone told me: ‘... The longest river will reach its end. The brightest spirit will reach its conclusion’" Crichton Smith 1995, 197) and of anagrams in the poetry of George Bruce ("engendered in the generations" Bruce 211). All are synonymous with echo. Indeed, litanies are repetitions in their own rights while proverbs are both semantic repetitions of acknowledged truths, and formal repetitions of other proverbs. As for anagrams, they involve purely formal repetitions. Furthermore, it has to be underlined that these formulas also reveal an elocutory disappearance: litanies because they involve the fusion of individual voices into a unique yet multiple and impersonal voice; proverbs because they belong to folk traditions and are never uttered by any one in particular; anagrams because, although as play on words they may be unique, they may also become popular commonplaces, without an enunciative voice.

23So when the echo fades away, voices disappear and the poet remains alone: "I am very gregarious," admitted Norman MacCaig during a 1987 interview with Jennie Renton, "but I like to be in the hills on my own." But why do Scottish modern poets need to retire to the mountains in order to be alone and meditate there? Certainly because the mountain belongs to those privileged places where the perception of the world is so intense that it soon prevails over the very presence of the poet himself. It is thus possible to look again at Sorley MacLean’s poem from which not only the first person singular but also all other forms of address have disappeared. The only thing left is the aurally perceived panorama, free of all introductory phrases such as "I can see" or "you can hear." The forward motion we had mentioned could thence be attributed to eyes looking round at things, and to a slight rotation of the head enabling the field of perception to widen. But these are privileged perceptions devoid of interpretation or subjectivity, as indicated by the nominal, meaning antepredicative, and paratactic structure of the poem. No need to demonstrate again the deep cohesion and inner functioning of Gaelic nominal syntagms linked to case endings and the verbal anteposition, but it is crucial to emphasize the absence of "be" which is a way of actualising the existence of things, using a structure Synge immortalised in his plays ("It’s sad herself will be tonight"). Without any enunciative presence to actualise it, the landscape is self-existent and doesn’t interact but just exists alongside the poet. This co-presence is indicated by endings in "ing" which turn verbs into nouns, thus depriving them of their predicative abilities but not of their autonomous movements which still belong to the substantives that have been created.

24From a phenomenological point of view, poets therefore no longer use mimologic ways of writing but rather a writing of experience from which the enunciative agency is erased to give way to the immediacy of perception and the contact with things. It is in the poem’s very space that the interaction between phenomena and logos occurs and now is the time to come back to the idea of a connection between jagged landscapes and poems. The connection is effective in the first stanza of "A Man in Assynt", an example of what Michel Collot would describe as a "page paysage" (Collot 186) on which perceptions are aurally translated. The apposition ("grinding West,") the noun group between dashes ("—the ruffled foreland—") as well as the three enjambments ("gouged out / this valley/, "filed / on the blue air" and "frieze and/a litany"), are both rhythmic and typographic breaks that are superimposed onto the uneven landscape. Summits line up under the poet’s eyes and on the page: horizontality is found in their enumeration, verticality in their being placed over three lines and perspective in the creation of a toponymic vocabulary whose elements are then placed at the end of line 6, at the beginning and at the end of line 7, and at the beginning of line 8, with a resulting blend of epizeuxis and symploce. To quote a phrase now much in use among landscape critics, "topology has turned into tropology" (Collot 399).

25With the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty in mind (Merleau-Ponty 481), it may be argued that the mapping and management of the land thus parallel the structuring of the signifier and the signified so that the words and the world are finally reconciled. In this light, it becomes clear that although traditional Gaelic and romantic archetypes are not to be discarded, the Scottish mountain has been modernised insofar as it has evolved to reflect the authors’ metapoetic quests—or maybe it is the other way round—instead of remaining a cherished, self-centred kailyard.

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BRUCE, George. Today Tomorrow, ed. L. Prestige, Edinburgh: Polygon, 2001.

COLLOT, Michel. Paysage et poésie du romantisme à nos jour. Paris: José Corti, 2005.

CRICHTON SMITH, Iain. Collected Poems, Manchester: Carcanet Paperback, 1995.

CRICHTON SMITH, Iain. Murdo and Other Stories. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001.

GENETTE, G. Mimologie. Paris: Seuil, 1976.

KRISTEVA, J. Soleil Noir. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

MACCAIG, Norman. Collected Poems, a New Edition. London: Chatto & Windus paperback, 1993.

MACLEAN, Sorley. From Wood to Ridge. Manchester/Edinburgh: Carcanet/Birlinn, 1999.

MAULPOIX, Jean-Michel. Le Poète perplexe. Paris: José Corti, 2002.

MCNEILL, Marjory. Norman MacCaig A study of his Life and Work. Edinburgh: Mercat Press 1996.

MERLEAU-PONTY, M. Signes. Paris: Gallimard NRF, 1961.

THOMSON, Derick. An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989.

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Bibliographical reference

Stéphanie Noirard, « "In the Hills on my own": 20th Century Scottish Poetry, the Writing of Perception », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 71-78.

Electronic reference

Stéphanie Noirard, « "In the Hills on my own": 20th Century Scottish Poetry, the Writing of Perception », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 15 June 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Stéphanie Noirard

Université de Lyon

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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