A collection of bawdy, erotic and ‘blue’ Gaelic love songs and poetry

  • Published on: 25th October 2017
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Review- AN LEABHAR LIATH OR The Light Blue Book 500 years of Gaelic Love and Transgressive verse, Eds Peter Mackay and Iain MacPherson

Reviewed by Ella Macaulay

AN LEABHAR LIATH, presents a collection of bawdy, erotic and ‘blue’ Gaelic love songs and poetry including new English translations and was the winner of the Donald Meek Award in 2016.  Dr Peter Mackay was selected as one of the 10 New Generation Thinkers by BBC Radio 3 and is an English lecturer at St Andrews.  Iain S MacPherson, is a poet, filmmaker and lecturer of Scottish and Irish Gaelic literature at Ulster University.  Both editors share Hebridean ancestry in common as well as academic accomplishments.  Dr Peter Mackay will be speaking at An Lanntair on Saturday 28th October 2017 at 10.30am as part of Faclan Book Festival.  This years’ theme, ‘Ultima Thule’, describes a place in medieval geography that is ‘beyond the borders of the known world’ and has since been associated with the Isle of Lewis.  The anthology fits into this theme not only due to its subject matter being related to Gaelic tradition and poetry but because it is breaking new ground in the field of Gaelic literature and by challenging the boundaries of generally accepted notions about the Gaelic-speaking people.

In recent years since 50 Shades of Grey controversially topped bestsellers lists around the world, one could be excused for assuming that we are just now entering the age of widespread erotic literature.  However, in the context of Scottish Gaelic literature, erotic verse is a tradition stretching back up to 500 years to the age of Ossian.  The book takes its name from a nineteenth-century pamphlet of bawdy Gaelic love songs.  This new collection of poems consists of ‘love songs, poems about sexual encounters, poems giving advice to men or women about choosing partners, poems praising various parts of the male or female body, songs of longing, frustration, death, consummation and parting.  There are poems that warn of the dangers of sex – others celebrate overcoming such warnings.’  Mackay and MacPherson have compiled a selection filled with romance no small amount of innuendo and euphemism.

The aim of Peter Mackay and Iain MacPherson’s anthology is as progressive as its’ content is transgressive: ‘to reveal the side of Gaelic poetry left out of the history books.’    More archetypal Scottish poetry often deals with the themes of Highland romanticism, national pride, tragic loss and tartan-clad heroes.  Furthermore, the genre has been continuously censored by, it cannot be denied, a predominantly conservative and religious society.  The idea of sexual expression challenges the historic stereotype of repressed, conservative Presbyterians who inhabit the Highlands of the past in our collective imagination.  As Mackay and MacPherson present their anthology by contesting this limiting discourse and thereby more accurately representing lived experience, we can also understand Gaelic culture as more diverse.   

The historical study of unconventional sources such as poetry and literature can illuminate new aspects of social history.  As Mackay states, one of the strengths of the genre is the prevalence of female writers and, in this case, singers.  Waulking songs and verse concerning female desire and sexuality fill the pages of this anthology, helping to uncover the history of Scottish women as a disproportionately underrepresented group.

Certain romantic and rustic stereotypes continue to surround the Hebridean islands.  Lewis can still be viewed as ‘a place beyond the borders of the known world’.  Through events like Faclan, we are able to celebrate our unique Gaelic heritage and culture while moving forward by exploring new perspectives and interpretations.  As Mackay and MacPherson have highlighted through their analysis of Gaelic literature, when crossing into unchartered territory one should expect the unexpected.

Dr Peter Mackay will be speaking at An Lanntair on Saturday 28th October 2017 at 10.30am as part of Faclan Book Festival.