PHOTOS BY MURDO MACDONALD
We’ve been taking The Great Book to places where it’s needed or where we think it should be needed. Some places may like it or want it; some may even be willing to pay for it. But, even if Nova Scotia didn’t need us or want us, we thought the Great Book needed to go there.
But you can’t do it alone; you need some Nova Scotians willing to see the point. There were some. First there was Lewis MacKinnon, poet, musician, foot soldier, field marshal, drummer and night watchman for Gaelic. He is the sort of fact of life you can’t imagine the world doing without; you try to remember the time before you knew about him and you can’t.
I do remember, though, the first time I ever saw him. It was the Fort William MOD; after 30 years in Scotland this was my first. I was prepared for it, but in the way you are prepared for things you know well you cannot be prepared for. And there, walking around smiling amongst the cultural tremors, undaunted by baritones in kilts and murmuring away in Lochaber Gaelic like a Nova Scotian stream, was Lewis. We got him at his hotel, persuaded him that enough prunes was enough and had an encounter, the one and only Great Book meeting that has ever provoked a poem.
Coinneamh a’ dol ‘sa’ Cheann
Shuidh mi 'nur láthair
'San taigh-ósda ud
Air iomall Loch Linne
Is am measg an triuir againn
Tháinig smúir bheag dhen t-saoghal Gháidhealach
A bha bho thús aonaichte
Ann an ionannachd nádurra
Aonar á saoghal Gháidheal na h-Éireann
Aonar á saoghal Ghaidheal na h-Albann
Aonar á saoghal Ghaidheal na h-Albann Nuaidh
Agus thug mi 'n aire nach do thuig mi dhá ríribh
Mórachd a' ruid
Agus thug mi taing dhan uile-láthair
Agus dhan a' Gháidhlig
A' chánain mhí-thuigte, thuigte, dhiochuimhnichte, chuimhnichte a chionn ghoirid
Ghlórmhor, aotrom, iasgaidh, bhriagha, cho-fhillte, bheag Bhíodach, lúthmhor a tha crochta 'san adhair os ar cionn
Fhathast mun cuairt oirnn
A chuir sinn mu choinneimh a chéile
Ann an ám is áite is astar
Is 'sa' cheart mhionaid ud,
Rinn mi gáire is osna is sgriosadh
'San tachartas neo-chreidmheach seo
Uile go léir gun fhios
Uile go léir ‘na h-eallach
Uile go léir tlachdmhor
Uile go léir ‘na bheó-spionnaidh
An ceangal seofad an dia-chuimhne,
Gun bheag de dh' fhios,
Sgread-fuasglaidh seo nan saoghal neo-eu-choltach
A Heady Meeting
I sat in your presence
In that Inn
On Loch Linnhe's edge
And amongst the three of us
A tiny smidgen of Gaeldom
That was of a similarity of nature
United long ago
One from the Gaelic World of Ireland
One from the Gaelic World of Scotland
One from the Gaelic World of Nova Scotia
And realized that I didn't really understand
The greatness of the matter
And I thanked the ever-present
And the Gaelic language
The misunderstood, understood, forgotten, newly remembered,
Glorious, light, free, beautiful, complex, puny, muscular,
Gaelic language that in the air above us, hung
About us still
That placed us before each other
In time and place and distance
And I smiled and sighed and cursed
In this unbelievable occurrence
All together unaware
All together pleasant
All together a life-force
Long-forgotten, barely known,
This liberating clash of non-dissimiliar worlds
After this, please imagine a considerable interval, full of significant invisible activity – budgets, applications, the daily life of Those Who Organise – and eventually we were all going to Nova Scotia.
These days, getting anywhere can feel the same as getting anywhere else. Getting to Canada starts off being like going anywhere, but only until Canadian things start to happen. For us, they started happening at Heathrow. Canadians seem puzzled by other people going to Canada, as though Canada were a family matter and you’d really have to know the people to see the point of it all. My wife Katy spent a fair chunk of time at the entrance to the boarding gate explaining to the Air Canada lady why and how come a Greek wanted to go to Nova Scotia, why she wasn’t living either in Greece or in London, why she ended up in Edinburgh and how you say ‘Good Day’ in Greek. Louis had already had to explain why, being an Irish poet and university person, he had been contracted by a Canadian university to do an assessment and why a Canadian would not have done just as well.
Murdo and I watched Katy, not quite sure whether to begin a protest, pretend we’d never seen her before or start talking Greek. On the plane, Katy did the talking for us, found – as she infallibly does – the Greek-speaking member of the crew and began a six-hour intermittent conversation on the usual Greek subject: being Greek.
Murdo is Murdo MacDonald, professor of History of Scottish Art at Dundee, coming with the Great Book for once, having lectured about it, lobbied for it and often run ahead of it waving an encouraging flag. The three of us are the advance party for the Great Book’s entrance to Cape Breton and we feel like geographical guinea pigs, sent out just to make sure you can get there from here.
Let us reconsider the Irish joke. You know when you meet a raggle taggle Irish tramp at the crossroads of an Irish joke, while it rains and damps and behaves all around Irishly? And he tells you that the best way to get there would not be to start from here? Could it not be that this figment of Irishness has a point? Stereotypes have been around a good long time; they know thing or two and they don’t have to attempt booking on the Canada Air website to understand the geographical idiocy of airlines. We could go West only by going due South, West and then due East. It would cost a reasonable price to get to Canada, large sums to get around inside it.
So confusion happens. Take Malcolm MacLean. People sometimes do; I’ve taken him myself and it always leads to deep, head-banging reflections on the Space/Time Discontinuum. Malcolm moves around a lot, and the more the rest of him moves, the less his head is willing to follow. It happens to meetings-conference-busy people. They get taken to places; there’s no time for geography; getting there is everything.