Some notes on Macdiarmid’s “Gaelic Idea”

I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on MacDiarmid’s late poem In Memoriam James Joyce, and I’ve been struck as to how often it alludes to the “Gaelic Idea” MacDiarmid described in the early 1930s. I’m of the opinion that the Gaelic Idea is present in one form or another throughout more or less all of MacDiarmid’s work, and that it is continually evolving as circumstances change: as an intellectual, MacDiarmid is always seeking a single, unifying “big idea”; and as a politician he is happy to use whatever is to hand whenever he needs to.

What follows is taken from a piece on To Circumjack Cencrastus I wrote as part of my PhD. I haven’t rewritten it at all, so it opens with a bit of a non sequitur and the tone throughout is a bit academic and dry. It’s also missing a set of references, but many of these are pretty obvious. If I get time I’ll fix all of these problems.

If an attempt to rewrite history in this way will ultimately fail, then the poet-speaker can be seen to suggest another solution later in the Gaelic bard section:

If we turn to Europe and see
Hoo the emergence o’ the Russian Idea’s
Broken the balance o’ the North and Sooth
And needs a ounter that can only be
The Gaelic Idea

To mak’ a parallelogram o’ forces,
Complete the Defence o’ the West,
And end the English betrayal o’ Europe. (222)

In one sense this is a more explicit statement of the theme suggested in the first three stanzas of the section. However, it is more readily recognised by critics as an expression of the “Gaelic Idea” expounded in MacDiarmid’s essay of 1931-2, “The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea”. Buthlay draws this parallel, for example, arguing that “at least as early as 1927, [MacDiarmid] could see the main hope of a Scottish revival not in Lowland Scotland but in the Gaelic heritage which Scotland shared with the other Celtic countries, most notably Ireland” (62). For Buthlay, “what emerges so obliquely in Cencrastus is a statement in vaguely political terms of [MacDiarmid]’s commitment to the revival of the Celtic ethos in Europe: not just a Scottish but a Celtic renascence”: indeed, this “was intended to be the new major theme of Cencrastus” (Hugh 63). Catherine Kerrigan goes further, arguing that the snake-symbol of Cencrastus itself is a symbol of the “bring[ing] together [of] Gaelic and Lowland backgrounds into a single heritage” (150). I have argued, however, for a broader interpretation of the snake-symbol that follows Laura O’Connor’s identification of Cencrastus as a Scottish-Gaelic uroboros and MacDiarmid’s own claims for the symbol in his 1939 letter to Helen Cruikshank (61, Letters 128). In this context it is difficult to see how the snake-symbol connects directly to the Gaelic Idea, as Kerrigan claims. Moreover, while Buthlay’s identification of a shift in MacDiarmid’s outlook is partly accurate, it fails to fully address the origins or development of what was to become the Gaelic Idea in MacDiarmid’s prose work. The examination of these aspects can be seen to provide new understandings of Cencrastus and its position within MacDiarmid’s broader output. One of MacDiarmid’s earliest prose pieces outlining the aims of the Scottish Renaissance, “Introducing ‘Hugh M’Diarmid” (1922) is concerned exclusively with the ways in which Scots should and should not be used and makes only passing mention of “[t]he literary cultivation … of the Gaelic” (10). “A Theory of Scots Letters” (1923) maintains this theme, providing detailed arguments in favour of the use of Scots as a modernist literary language but making no mention of a similar role for Gaelic, despite drawing a comparison between a potential revival of Scots and “the revival of Irish Gaelic (in which novels as well as poems and plays are now being written)” (23).

Indeed, the earliest extended reference to Gaelic in MacDiarmid’s prose writing was in his article for the Scottish Educational Journal on Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr, later collected in Contemporary Scottish Studies. Erskine, a fluent Gaelic speaker, had been the vice president of the devolutionist Scottish Home Rule Association, which had been established after the introduction of the First Irish Home Rule Bill in 1886, but by the early years of the twentieth century Erksine was calling for an Independent Scottish state which he envisaged as part of a Celtic federation, as advocated by his bilingual Gaelic/English periodical Guth na Bliadhna. Like MacDiarmid, Erskine was greatly influenced by the Russian Revolution and the Easter Rising, and by 1921 he had formed the Scots National League, which was to be one of the organisations to merge into the National Party of Scotland in 1928. MacDiarmid was in contact with Erskine at least as early as March 1923, and would travel with him to the 1928 Tailteann Games in Dublin as a guest of the Irish Free State (New Selected Letters 18). In his article for the Scottish Educational Journal, MacDiarmid describes Erskine as having “maintained intact in himself, if nowhere else, the indefeasible unity of Scotland, its sovereign independence, and a centre in which the ‘Anima Celtica’ has lain in no spell-bound trance, but continued to function, if not freely, faithfully”, and as being “the very core and crux of the Gaeltacht” (Contemporary 284-5). MacDiarmid goes on to draw parallels between his understanding of Scots literature and Erskine’s use of Gaelic, arguing that “Gaelic letters have been cut off, pretty much as Braid Scots have been but to somewhat different effect” and complementing Erskine’s “experimental Gaelic arts and letters” and the way in which this has been “related to appropriate elements of European culture elsewhere” (285-6).

By 1927 MacDiarmid’s respect for Erskine’s ideas had evolved to become what appears to be a strategic change in direction for the Scottish Renaissance. In Albyn, MacDiarmid claims that “[t]he Scottish Renaissance Movement is even more concerned with the revival of Gaelic than Scots”, despite his suspicion that “it is questionable whether Gaelic has any similar alignment with the ‘becoming tendencies’ in Weltliteratur” that were a key element in MacDiarmid’s support for the use of Scots as a literary language. By this point the Scottish Renaissance regarded “Scotland as a diversity-in-unity to be stimulated at every point”, both linguistically — “it is prepared to develop along trilingual lines” — and politically: it is the “recognition of [the] interdependence” of “Scottish Nationalists, Catholics and Socialists” upon which not only “the realizable proportion of the ideals of each but a Scottish Renaissance of international consequence” depended (4-5; 37). Albyn also includes the first description of what was to become the “Gaelic Idea”: a “Scottish Idea” that is “complementary to Dostoevsky’s ‘Russian Idea’” (Selected 22; 18). By the December of 1927, MacDiarmid was claiming that the “Scottish Idea” could only be developed by recovering Scotland’s “relinquished potentialities” (53). In Scottish Gaelic Policy The way forward was clear:

what is stultifying our efforts is our absence of tradition. We cannot get deep enough down to distinctive grounds to throw up major form of our own … [i]t is this lack of …. A sense of continuity and tradition can only be recovered by ‘connecting up’ again with our lost Gaelic culture … [w]ithout realizing our relationship, however disguised linguistically, politically, and otherwise, to the Gaelic traditions, we will be unable to rise into major forms. (Selected 50)

MacDiarmid’s argument here carries a striking resemblance to his argument five years earlier regarding the need for the “conscientious literary artist” to “think himself back into the spirit of the Doric”, to “recover it in its entirety, with all the potentialities it once had” and “carry it forward with him, accumulating all the wealth of association and idiom which progressive desuetude has withheld from it” (Selected 11). But while Gaelic received only a passing mention in these earlier writings, by this point “‘connecting up’ again with our lost Gaelic culture” is the only way in which the “sense of continuity and tradition” that MacDiarmid perceives as necessary if the Scottish Renaissance is to flourish and the “Scottish Idea” is to be realized. Scottish Gaelic Policy also marks the first emergence of MacDiarmid’s belief that “[t]he Gaelic Commonwealth suggests solutions to many of our social problems”, and this idea was to re-emerge three months later in “Gaelic Poetry”, a short article written by MacDiarmid for The New Age (51). In this article, MacDiarmid claims that both “belatedly seeking to emulate Ireland’s literary revival” and suggests that “[t]he ultimate issue may well be a triple entente — amongst Irish, Scots, and Welsh at home and throughout the Empire — to overthrow the Anglo-Saxon hegemony in ‘English culture’ and establish a paramouncy of neo-Gaelic elements” (30). By 1929, MacDiarmid was arguing that “[i]t is time to conceive of Scots not as an intermediate step on the way towards English, but on the way back to Gaelic” and that “the national potentialities of Scots … are limited, and that a basis for major forms — for a culture in the real sense of the term, of not only national but international consequence — can only be secured by a return to Gaelic and a resumption and modern application of the classical principles of Gaelic culture” (Raucle 2: 79). Here, MacDiarmid’s position with regards to Gaelic has changed again. Writing in Albyn two years before, MacDiarmid had questioned “whether Gaelic has any similar alignment with the ‘becoming tendencies’ in Weltliteratur”; similar, that is, to the alignment he had perceived in Scots in 1923 that he had expressed as the “moral resemblance … between Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language and James Joyce’s Ulysses” (18; Selected 20).

MacDiarmid’s ideas relating to Gaelic seem, then, to crystalize gradually throughout the late 1920s — that is, during the period when Cencrastus was composed — before appearing in 1931-2 in The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea and English Ascendancy in British Literature. The two essays are to a great extent intertwined, with Gaelic Idea explicitly referencing English Ascendancy while the latter essay concludes with a reiteration of the Gaelic Idea itself (61; 80). When read together, the two essays can be seen to suggest a literary-political program that builds on and reworks the program suggested by MacDiarmid in the early 1920s, one with a broader base and a wider scope. The base now includes both Gaelic and Scots, with the latter no longer seen as “an intermediate step … on the way back to Gaelic” or as having “national potentialities” that are “limited” in comparison with the former as was the case in 1929. Instead, its is now necessary “to bridge the gulf between Gaelic and Scots”, which have “continued to complement and correct each other in the most remarkable way” that is suggestive of an approximate correspondence with the “‘Romantic’ and ‘Classical’” traditions respectively (Selected 74). The scope of MacDiarmid’s programme is no longer limited to a de-Anglicisation of Scotland; instead, it identifies “[t]he problem of the British Isles” as “the problem of the English Ascendancy” (Selected 63). This “Ascendancy” seems to allude to the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, and MacDiarmid refers to Ireland explicitly in the same paragraph, claiming that “in breaking free (or fairly free) politically, Ireland not only experienced the Literary Revival associated with the names of Yeats, ‘A.E.’, Synge and the others, but has during the past half century recovered almost entirely her ancient Gaelic literature” (Selected 63). The alternative is a British literature “in posse, rather than in esse” including “not only English (and English dialect) literature, but the Gaelic and Scots Vernacular literatures as well” and offering a rich “range of alternative values” and “material for comparative criticism” (Selected 69). Separate to this, but included by MacDiarmid by way of comparison, is “the evolution of genuine independent literatures” that is “already clearly appreciate in America” and “is being increasingly so realized in most of the Dominions” (Selected 67). MacDiarmid sees these literatures as “perhaps the cultural significance of the anti-English and other tendencies in most of [the Dominions] which are making for those changes in the Imperial organization which will deprive England of the hegemony it has maintained too long” (Selected 67). MacDiarmid expands on this idea in “Gaelic Idea”, in which he writes that “a truly British tradition” could perhaps be realised through “Ireland’s breakaway” and that “like tendencies” were being displayed “in India, Egypt, South Africa and elsewhere” (62).

What seems to emerge, then, during the end of the period of composition of Drunk Man and while MacDiarmid was composing Cencrastus  is a shift away from a literary Scots aligned with literary modernism and presented as part of a discrete literary tradition towards (by way of a number of diversions and volte-face) a multilingual or heteroglossic literature presented in contrast to a monolithic English literature in the sense that it offers a “range of alternative values” and “material for comparative criticism” (Selected 69). The “Gaelic Idea” informs MacDiarmid’s concept of a British literature that can be seen to look outwards to global literary developments. This British literature seems to borrow heavily from MacDiarmid’s concept in Albyn of “Scotland as a diversity-in-unity to be stimulated at every point”, and the related proposal of the development of the Scottish Renaissance “along trilingual lines” (4-5).


2 thoughts on “Some notes on Macdiarmid’s “Gaelic Idea”

  1. Jim, thank you very much for this – I am grateful for anything that would structure that uncoiling push in Cencrastus for me. I originally came here to say thank you for putting your list of IMJJ sources online. It’s a privilege to have a glimpse of your fascinating work.

    • Thanks, that’s really nice of you to say! I’m glad the contextual stuff for Cencrastus is useful, and I’m especially glad that you’ve found the IMJJ sources useful — putting everything together involved a lot of very dull work so it’s nice to know that someone appreciates it. At some point I’ll write a blog post to provide a bit of context for the sources. I’d love to know how people would like to interrogate that data, as I’m sure we could find some interesting patterns with some pretty straightforward data analysis.

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