Saturday, 13 June 2009
Sorley McClean, Clearances, Fen Tigers and Marsh Arabs
How strange can life be sometimes, I was sitting in a local coffee shop in my little fen market town today and through conversation found I was sitting next to a relative of Sorley McClean, the famous Gaelic Poet, who was so influential in bringing about the renaissance of Gaelic poetry. The woman was born on the island of Raasay and her family still live there. She too had watched the BBC2 programme on Celtic Poetry last night and the role poetry plays in nationalism or as Cerys Hughes pointed out, questioning nationalism.
The woman I got into conversation with said that as a schoolgirl she was asked to critique McClean’s famous poem Hallaig, about the highland clearances on the island, she approached the whole thing in a much more personal way, this was about her family, her island. I came home and read Hallaig again using Seamus Heaney’s translation and could see that whilst I could take much from the poem someone who knew this landscape and who had lived there could take so much more. Raasay translated from the Gaelic means the island of roe deer so the use of the deer image in the poem is significant.
I have often wondered what would have happened if there had been a local fen poet writing during the draining of the fens for that too was a time of huge cultural, social and ecological change brought about on the local people by the rich ‘incomers’ and land owners, especially the Duke of Bedford. No poetry was written to eulogise the loss of the fen marshes and all that it meant to the local people apart from the angry and anonymous Powte’s Complaint. A marsh was land held in common, open to all to benefit from but drained land became property to be jealously guarded. People that once made a living from eel catching and shooting and catching wild duck and geese could no longer gain a livelihood from it. The parallel with the plight of the Marsh Arabs in Iraq is I think interesting and something I have researched for a project. These photographs by Tor Eigeland are well worth a visit to see how the Marsh Arabs lived. After the first Gulf War the marshes provided a haven for many of the enemies of Saddam Hussein and the Americans encouraged the Marsh Arabs to revolt against Saddam during that war but without aid from the Americans, which wasn’t forth coming despite promises, they lost and were forced to a pay a terrible price. Most of the marshes through various schemes were reduced to desert and a way of life was virtually destroyed.
In some ways it could almost be seen as a parallel to the Saxons (Hereward the Wake etc) retreating into the fen marshes to fight the invading Normans. The powers that be don’t like marshland, desert, wild mountains and hills or jungle it is too uncertain, it favours the local, it cannot be harvested, it breeds people who do not take to governance easily, eventually the powers that be usually make the inhabitants of such land who have a tendency to bolshiness pay the price for a their relationship with their land. Just as the highlands and islands like Raasay were cleared to make way for the rich English landlords and to ensure a political power base was destroyed. I find it fascinating the relationship between landscape and power and how those in power always seek to ensure that it can never be used against them, landscape and the love of it can be as great a weapon as a gun.
Read Hallaig with an eye to the Scots roe deer, the people turned out to starve, the Marsh Arabs in exile, the Fen men tearing down dykes in the dead of night in a futile attempt to preserve a way of life.
It may of course all be a wishy washy nostalgia, perhaps we are ultimately better off with acres of rich peat soil in the fens, with the clans and their genes spread across the globe. The Marsh Arabs led lives of poverty and hardship, who is to say that they are not better off with clean drinking water and schools. The old ways are not always the best, the ecological balance of yesteryear was often maintained at a terrible cost in hard grueling work, sickness and poverty. As Cerys Hughes said in the programme the poet does not only promote nationalism, part of his job is often to criticise it and question it.