May 18 2012 by Gregor White, Stirling Observer Friday
These Islands We Sing: an Anthology of Scottish Island poetry, edited by Kevin MacNeilPublished by Birlinn, £9.99
THIS book brings together work by poets who have lived on Scottish islands – Gaelic and English poems since the beginning of the 20th century, with the odd Scots poem thrown in.
Are the islands an entity?
Shetland and Orkney are very different from, say, Easdale, Arran or Mull, yet all are included, while the north west and far northern mainlands are not.
While it is a good idea to try to integrate Gaelic and English writing the Gaelic poems all have facing translations, making the sections on Sorley Maclean and Derick Thompson awkwardly long - especially as they are poets who are easily accessible elsewhere.
A criterion is set that poets must have lived on the islands.
Thus, it includes some who have gone there in recent years - such as Mavis Gulliver, who went to Colonsay as a headteacher, or Sheenagh Pugh, the Cardiff poet who now lives on Shetland - as well as those who left the islands long ago and have spent their lives in Edinburgh, Glasgow or elsewhere.
The main contingent of Shetland poets - Robert Alan Jamieson, Christine de Luca and Christie Williamson - are in this category, while Jen Hadfield went from England to Shetland before her success with the TS Eliot award.
Hugh MacDiarmid's presence is more tenuous.
He was born near Carlisle and lived in many locations in Scotland, mainly Edinburgh and the Borders.
The book opens with Edwin Muir (his major works being passed over in favour of some which mention the islands) and MacDiarmid, acknowledging the islands in minor poems in English and Scots.
Criteria always cause someone to be left out and mainland poets with real knowledge of the islands, most notably perhaps Kenneth Steven, are not represented.
It is good to see Edward Cummings, a relatively obscure poet from Orkney, included, but it would have been nice to see Carla Jetko too, a restaurateur poet from Fionnaphort on Mull.
No distinction is made between poets born there who left, and those who gravitated towards the islands from elsewhere.
Inevitably, though, the Gaelic poets were almost all born on the Hebrides; went there from Ireland (Rody Gorman) or went back to their home roots (Aonghas MacNeacail).
Do these poets comprise a genuine group? Is Shetlandic a different language from Scots?
These political questions affect the basic premiss of this book.
Wide though its scope, and thoroughly as it has been attempted, it remains an impossible task.
Achieved, however, is an interesting collection of poems for tourists and the general public.
Less than half the poems are actually about the islands, but there is enough there for the traveller and dreamer, while its editor deserves to be proud of the fact he has produced more than a wee book of poems about fishing boats.
Sally Evans is the editor of Poetry Scotland and organiser of the annual Callander Poetry Weekend.