Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, 16 March 1926. Awards: Cholmondeley award, 1974; Heinemann award, 1974. Address: c/o Victor Gollancz Ltd., 14 Henrietta Street, London WC2E 8QJ, England.
From the Wilderness. London, Gollancz, 1973; New York, Harper, 1975.
Waking the Dead. London, Gollancz, 1976.
Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: The Twilight of a Crofting Family. London, Gollancz, 1984.
A MacDonald for the Prince: The Story of Neil MacEachen. Sornoway, Isle of Lewis, Acair, 1982; revised edition, 1990.
Summer Hunting a Prince: The Escape of Charles Edward Stuart. Sornoway, Isle of Lewis, Acair, 1992.* * *
The attempt to come to grips with the fundamental questions about life with which serious literature ought to be concerned need not of itself be related to the physical location of the writer. Alasdair Maclean left university studies to work a croft near Ardnamurchan in Argyll. From the Wilderness did not appear before the public until he was into his forties, although something of his quality could be seen from anthologized poems in the annual Scottish Poetry and elsewhere. He is, therefore, a late starter, at any rate so far as publication is concerned. All to the good, since it means that for the most part he wants to say things, not merely to gyrate like some youthful virtuoso for the sake of attracting fashionable attention. He also has an assured and personal voice.
Maclean tells his reader bluntly what to expect from him:
I leave the foothills of the images
and climb. What I pursue's not means but ends.
You may come, if you've a mind to travelling.
Meet me at the point where the language bends.
At his best Maclean writes with a hard, direct economy, drawing his imagery and the strength of his thought from the way of life he loves and with which he is familiar. For instance, there is the countryman's unsentimental approach to matters of life and death, as in "Hen Dying":
The other hens have cast her out.
They batter her with their beaks
Whenever they come across her.
Most of them are her daughters.
Hens are inhuman.
Maclean's poem "Rams" uses the same terse, short-sentence style to build up a powerful apprehension of nature's sexual prodigality and mindless directorial force, a fact that the ingenuity of Homo sapiens often contrives to fudge for comfort:
I found a ram dead once.
It was trapped by the forefeet
in the dark waters of a peatbog,
drowned before help could arrive
by the sheer weight of its skull.
Maiden ewes were grazing near it,
immune to its clangerous lust.
It knelt on the bank, hunched over its own image
its great head buried in the great head facing it.
Its horns, going forward in the old way,
had battered through at last to the other side.
Not a word, not a rhythm is false here, and Maclean has many poems with this quality in his first collection. There is also some harsh satire apparently arising, though not always admitting such origin, out of the unconfessed awareness of the Gael that his way of life and his culture are now peripheral and that, rant as he may against the urban-dwelling Lowlander, the Gael himself has been his own worst enemy. Not all of these outbursts are entirely plausible, as in "Eagles":
An eagle of that breed once, for a joke,
picked up a stunted Highlander
and flew him south, witless from the journey
but fertile still,
Hence your race of Lowlands Scots.
Inevitably, as in every collection, there are some filler pieces in which there is evident the metaphysical influence of the later, and poetically drier, Norman MacCaig. Such a poem is "Sea and Sky," its feyly sentimental conclusion so out of keeping with the firmness of this poet's best texture and direct sounding voice. Fanciful trifling of this sort is far below the level of a poet who can ring fierce, rough honesty out of the stony fields of Ardnamurchan and the hard life their isolation demands. To me Maclean is certainly the most interesting Scottish poet to make his appearance for at least a couple of decades.