Sorley MacLean

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Sorley MacLean
Photograph of a bust of Sorley MacLean
Bust of Sorley MacLean
Native name Somhairle MacGill-Eain
Born (1911-10-26)26 October 1911
Osgaig, Raasay, Scotland
Died 24 November 1996(1996-11-24) (aged 85)
Inverness, Scotland
Occupation School teacher
Nationality Scottish
Education Raasay Primary School
Portree Secondary School
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Genre Gaelic poetry
Spouse Catherine "Renee" Cameron (m.1946)
Children 3 daughters
Website (Gaelic) (English)

Sorley MacLean (Scottish Gaelic: Somhairle MacGill-Eain, sometimes MacGilleathain in earlier publications; 26 October 1911 – 24 November 1996) was one of the most significant Scottish poets of the 20th century. He wrote about love, heartbreak, the Cuillin, the Spanish Civil War, Hugh MacDiarmid, communism and nationalism, often several in the same poem.

Early life[edit]

He was born at Osgaig on the island of Raasay on 26 October 1911, where Scottish Gaelic was the first language. He was educated at Raasay Primary School, before going on to Portree Secondary School.[1] He attended the University of Edinburgh and was an avid shinty player for the university team. After graduating with a first class degree, he returned to the highland and Island community to teach. He was instrumental in preserving the teaching of Gaelic in Scottish schools.

MacLean turned away from the Presbyterian faith of his community in his early teens. Like many European intellectuals of that day, his sympathies moved to the far left. Much of his work touched on specifically political themes and references, and his position was overtly Stalinist until the mid-1940s, although he was never a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He was also a skilled and delicate writer of love poetry.

He served with the British Army in North Africa during World War II and was wounded on three occasions,[2] once severely during the Battle of El Alamein.


His early poetry was in English, but after writing his first Gaelic poem, A' Chorra-ghritheach ("The Heron"), he decided that it was far better than his English work, and resolved to continue using his native language. By the mid-1930s he was well known as a writer in this tongue.

In November 1943, his first individual collection of poems was published: Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile (Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems). It became one of the most important books published in Gaelic in the 20th century.

His work in the field of Gaelic poetry at a time when very few writers of substance were working in Scottish Gaelic at all, has led to his being viewed as the father of the Scottish Gaelic renaissance. He was involved in the foundation and was a board member of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye.

His poetry articulated in Gaelic the crimes of the 20th century, and modernised and reinvigorated the language in the process, drawing clear and articulate analogies between such tragedies and acts of cultural genocide as the 19th century Scottish Highland Clearances, and the contemporary viciousness and injustice of events in places such as Biafra and Rwanda.

Major among his works was Hallaig, a meditative poem on the desolation associated with the Highland Clearances, named after a cleared village on the east coast of his native Isle of Raasay. A film of the same name was made in 1984 by Timothy Neat: in this MacLean discusses the dominant influences on his poetry, with commentary by Iain Crichton Smith and Seamus Heaney, and substantial passages from the poem and other work, along with extracts of Gaelic song. The poem also forms part of the lyrics of Peter Maxwell Davies' opera The Jacobite Rising; and MacLean's own reading of it in English and in Gaelic was sampled by Martyn Bennett in his album Bothy Culture for a track of the same name.


Much of MacLean's poetry centres around love and politics. In his love poetry, we find both warmth and heat. The two themes intertwine, and even slant rhyme ("blàth and "teth" in Gaelic), such as in the poem "Am Buaireadh".

In "Gaoir na h-Eòrpa" another theme predominates – the Spanish Civil War as it was unfolding around 1936–37. MacLean is well known for his left-wing politics. From pieces like "Gealach Ùr" it is evident that his sympathies were in line with Karl Marx, and it gives a nationalist flavour to his work as well.

Later life[edit]

In 1946 he married Catherine (more often known as Renee) Cameron, the daughter of Inverness builder Kenneth Cameron of "Cameron and Munro". They had three daughters, in descending order of age, Ishbel, Catriona and Mary. He had six grandchildren, in descending order of age, Somhairle, Aonghas, Calum, Gilleasbuig, Catherine and Donald. His first great-grandchild, Uilleam Ruairidh was born in 2010.

He was creative writer in residence at the University of Edinburgh from 1973 to 1975, and was named as the first University of Edinburgh Alumnus of the Year in 1990.[3]

MacLean died of natural causes on 24 November 1996, aged 85, in Inverness, Scotland.[4]

Awards and honours[edit]

In June 1987 he was conferred as the first freeman of Skye and Lochalsh, with a ceremony held at Portree.[5]

Somhairle MacGill-Eain is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. Selections for Makars' Court are made by The Writers' Museum; The Saltire Society; The Scottish Poetry Library.



  • Seventeen Songs for Sixpence. Còmhla ri Raibeart Garioch. Edinburgh: Chalmers Press, 1940.
  • Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile. Glasgow: William MacLellan, 1943.
  • Modern Scottish Gaelic Poetry. Aberdeen: Celtic Department of the University of Aberdeen, 1953.
  • O Choille gu Bearradh. Manchester: Carcanet, 1989.
  • Reothairt is Conntraigh. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1977.
  • Somhairle MacGill-Eain. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland 1981.
  • MacGill-Eain, Somhairle. Ris a’ Bhruthaich: Criticism and Prose Writings. Edited by William Gillies. Stornoway: Acair, 1985.
  • Eimhir. Somhairle MacGill-Eain and Iain Mac a' Ghobhainn. Acair Earranta, 1999.
  • Dàin do Eimhir / Poems to Eimhir. Ed. Christopher Whyte. Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2002.
  • An Cuilithionn 1939: The Cuillin 1939 & Unpublished Poems. (ed.) Christopher Whyte (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2011) anthology with English translations
  • Caoir Gheal Leumraich / White Leaping Flame: collected poems in Gaelic with English translations. Ed. Christopher Whyte and Emma Dymock. Edinburgh: Polygon, 2011.

Poetry in magazines[edit]

  • Gairm 8 pg. 360
  • Gairm 76 pgs. 335–337
  • Gairm 76 pgs. 379–384
  • Gairm 101 pgs. 91–96
  • Gairm 109 pg. 33
  • Gairm 150 pg. 181

Writings about him[edit]

  • Devlin, Brendan P. (1977) 'On Sorley MacLean' Lines Review 61, June, 5–19.
  • Herdman, John. (1977) 'The Poetry of Sorley MacLean: a non-Gael's view.' Lines Review 61, June, 25–36.
  • Ross, R.J. & J. Hendry (ed.) (1986) Sorley MacLean – Critical Essays Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press Ltd.
  • Caimbeul, Aonghas Pàdraig (ed.). Somhairle – Dàin is Deilbh. A Celebration on the 80th Birthday of Sorley MacLean. Stornoway: Acair, 1991.
  • Thomson, Derick (1994) The Companion to Gaelic Scotland Glasgow: Gairm Publications.
  • Mackay, Peter (2010) Sorley MacLean Aberdeen: AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies.
  • Dymock, Emma (2011) Scotnotes: The Poetry of Sorley Maclean Glasgow: Association of Scottish Literary Studies.


  • 14 Poems of Sorley MacLean (audio). Report by Iain Crichton Smith. Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1980.
  • Eadar Dà Chogadh – The Early Poems of Sorley MacLean. MacDonald – Mitchell Associates.


Four Points of a Saltire, Reprographia 1971.* MacAulay, Donald (Domhnall MacAmhlaigh) [ed] (1977). Nua-Bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig / Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems: A Bilingual Anthology. New Directions, New York. pp. 70–115: "Am Mùr Gorm/The Blue Rampart", "Camhanaich/Dawn", "An Uair a Labhras mi mu Aodann/When I Speak of the Face", "Cha do Chuir de Bhuaireadh riamh/Never has such Turmoil been Put", "Gaoir na h-Eòrpa/The Cry of Europe", "An Roghainn/The Choice", "Coin is Madaidhean-Allaidh/Dogs and Wolves", "A' Chorra-Ghritheach/The Heron", "Hallaig", "Coilltean Ratharsair/The Woods of Raasay", "Ban-Gàidheal/Highland Woman", "Glac a' Bhàis/Death Valley", "Latha Foghair/An Autumn Day", "Aig Uaigh Yeats/At Yeats's Grave".


  1. ^ "Life - A Raasay Childhood (1911 - 1929)". Sorley MacLean online. Archived from the original on 2013-07-14. Retrieved 2018-01-06. 
  2. ^ Ross, David (28 November 1996). "Sorley Maclean". The Herald. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  3. ^ "Alumni in history: Sorley Maclean (1911–1996)". University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 
  4. ^ "Obituary: Sorley MacLean". The Independent. 1996-11-26. Retrieved 2018-01-06. 
  5. ^ "Freedom of Skye". The Glasgow Herald. 15 June 1987. p. 3. Retrieved 15 December 2016. 

External links[edit]