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Sorley MacLean (1911 - 1996)

One of Scotland’s most significant 20th century poets who helped to usher in a new era for Gaelic Poetry.

Sorley MacLean
Sorley on his graduation day. Courtesy of the MacLean family.

Born in 1911 on the island of Raasay near Skye, Sorley MacLean grew up in a household noted for its knowledge of Gaelic song. Despite this, it was with economic considerations in mind that the young man decided to pursue English at the University of Edinburgh in 1929, although he did take Celtic classes.

Extracurricular activities

Outside the classroom, MacLean was keen shinty player and also very much part of the political and literary circle of writers in the city, who would often meeting in the pubs of Rose Street to discuss the latest politics of the day.

He also met his lifelong friend, Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, during these years.

While he was firmly rooted in his Gaelic heritage, Edinburgh as a city played a very important part in his life. Many of his influences, especially in relation to Modernism (which he melded with his Gaelic tradition) were first discovered during his time as an English Language and Literature student at Edinburgh.

Dr Emma DymockPost-Doctoral Fellow, Celtic and Scottish Studies
Celtic class
Sorley with his Celtic Class. Courtesy of the MacLean family.

War poet

Following teaching posts on Skye, Mull, and in Edinburgh, MacLean was called up to fight in the Second World War. After being seriously injured in North Africa, he returned to Edinburgh in 1943.

The same year saw the publication of Dain Do Eimhir agus Dain Eile (Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems), a series of 48 love poems. While MacLean found he was able to express his ideas best in Gaelic, he did translate much of his work into English himself.

Never a full-time poet, MacLean balanced his writing with his career as a teacher and scholar. Recurrent themes in his work include history, politics, love, landscape and war, with the Spanish Civil War and his hatred of fascism featuring prominently.

Edinburgh legacy

Sorley MacLean was creative writer in residence at the University from 1973 to 1975. His services to Scottish culture were acknowledged when he was made an honorary Doctor of Letters in 1980. Maclean was subsequently named the University's first Alumnus of the Year in 1990.

MacLean died in Inverness on 24th November 1996. However, his influence can still be seen in the work of Gaelic poets who are writing today. Part of the Gaelic tradition, but not afraid of innovation, his mix paved the way for new possibilities in subject and technique in Gaelic literature.