West Highland Free Press A tribute
Aonghas Macneacail's family croft probably features in the foreground of that 1886 George Washington Wilson photo of the north side of Uig Bay in Skye, which was in the Free Press three weeks ago.
Aonghas was born in 1942. The distance between his Idrigill and that of Washington Wilson was broad enough to allow for young Aonghas to grow up fully aware of a woman called Marilyn Monroe.
He was not called Aonghas Macneacail at Uig or Portree High Schools, of course. They called him Angus Nicolson. I am not sure when the Aonghas Dubh tag was attached, but for at least the first 40 years of his life he fully deserved it. You never saw a blacker white man. In early adulthood he grew his shock of hair long and accompanied it with a beard and moustache like curly jet. The overall effect was to make every other colour-variant feature - such as his eyes - seem to be also black. Put a shabby black jacket and a pair of black cords on top of that ensemble and you've got ... Aonghas Dubh.
Angus Nicolson disappeared some 40 years ago. He did not go quietly. Angus Nicolson kicked up a bit of a fuss about being written out of Aonghas Dubh's life story. The Bank of Scotland at first refused to acknowledge "Aonghas Macneacail" as an acceptable signatory to poor old Angus Nicolson's checking account. There was a flurry of publicity and the bank grudgingly withdrew its objections. A few years later the Bank of Scotland saw Aonghas's point and became Banca na h-Alba.
Despite being very big and black, Aonghas is an essentially shy and modest man. I suspect that he got little visceral pleasure from diving into such public controversies. He nonetheless pursued them in a casual manner. For a number of years one of the highlights of the National Mod was Aonghas's annual suggestions for the furtherance of Gaelic. One was the proposal that every immigrant to the Gaidhealtachd, of any age from anywhere, should be obliged to take mandatory Gaelic lessons. I remember it not least because by the time Aonghas Dubh issued his edict I profoundly wished it had applied to me when I arrived here in the 1970s. As a practical policy it still has a lot of merit.
Beneath and beyond the agitprop, there was always the literature. Aonghas Macneacail has been since his 20s a poet and writer of great stature. He is a grown-up poet, there for the long haul, capable of producing stunning work in both Gaelic and English. Unqualified to judge the former in the original, I personally was impressed first by his verse in English, declaimed from on top of a hill in Drumfearn on a summer evening in 1979. His presence helped - all that black hair again - but there was no mistaking the singular quality of what was coming out of his mouth. This was a real poet. This one would never be found out.
(Future biographers and anthologists of the great man should note that not all of Aonghas Macneacail's prose work has his name attached to it. It is an infallible sign of genuinely good writers that they will not only esteem such supposedly lower forms of the trade as journalism; they also practice it well themselves. For a few weeks one summer 30 years ago Aonghas Macneacail was a locum journalist in the office of the West Highland Free Press. Scholars hoping to spot his news stories should not look for iambic pentameters, let alone rhymes. They were nothing more or less than simply crafted, literate and modest accounts of sheepdog trials and SWRI meetings. As a poet, he is a great poet. As a journalist, he was clear and precise and quite anonymous. There are more writing lessons in that fact than you'll find in a score of textbooks.)
Twenty years after I discovered Aonghas Dubh, so did the Scottish literary establishment. We should not complain about the delay. He had to prove he was more than another flash in the pan.
In 1997 the boy from Uig Bay published his third collection of verse, with the wonderful title (he is good at titles, which is another fair sign of quality) Oideachadh Ceart ('A Proper Schooling and other poems'). The judges of the Stakis Prize were properly impressed and acclaimed Aonghas Macneacail as the Scottish Writer of the Year, in any language. (His work has been published in German, Italian, Irish Gaelic, French, Hebrew, Finnish and Serbo-Croat, not always in his own translation.)
There are times when the news of an award gives your heart a holiday.
The honorifics may have slowed down since then (where do you go from the top?) but Aonghas Dubh has not. He continues to write, tour and talk. As you may have read elsewhere, my fiery young friend and colleague Angus Peter Campbell believes that Aonghas's talents deserve more recognition here, at home.
Angus Peter is particularly exercised by the fact that Sabhal Mor Ostaig, which Aonghas Macneacail has served loyally and well since it was nothing more than a glint in Iain Noble's eye, has taken to ignoring him and dishing out Fellowships to Scottish robber-barons like Tom Farmer in order to prise open their purses.
So three weeks ago a ceremony was held in Edinburgh, at which Angus Peter Campbell attempted to redress the wrong by presenting Aonghas Dubh with Marilyn Monroe.
At a special meeting of the Shore Poets, an excellent, all-embracing group in the lowland capital, tribute was paid to "Skye bard Aonghas Dubh Macneacail’s immense contribution to Gaelic poetry."
A suitably blushing Aonghas was then presented with a gold portrait of Marilyn Monroe, with Aonghas Dubh’s poem about Marilyn painted in calligraphy on to the canvas, by the sculptor Liondsaidh Chaimbeul.
“We just wanted to publicly honour Aonghas Dubh, and mark his enormous contribution to the cause of Gaelic and to the cause of Gaelic literature in particular," said Angus Peter. "In Aonghas Dubh we have a poet of international significance.
“Which makes it all the more scandalous that not one single institution in Scotland has seen fit to publicly honour Aonghas Dubh Macneacail. As far as I can make out, our esteemed universities - including our very own UHI (University of the Highlands and Islands) - are handing out Honorary Degrees and Fellowships and Professorships right, left and centre, but then again maybe they don’t rate a Gaelic poet as highly as Sir Tom Farmer?"
Why Marilyn Monroe? Read the following, and weep:
le Aonghas Macneacail
òr 'na do ghruaig
òr ann an ìnean do chas
òr ann an ruisg chadalach do shùilean beò
òr 'na do ghruaidhean, 'nam fathann athaidh
òr ruadh do bhilean
òr sa ghualainn mhin àrd a' fasgadh do smig
òr anns a' bhroilleach ghealltanachd
paisgte 'na bhad
òr 'na do chneas seang, air miadan do chruachan
ann an lùb nan sliasaid is
air glùin nan dìomhaireachd
rinn d' adhbrainn òrach
do gach sùil a shealladh
airgead-beò 'na do chuislean
airgead-beò 'na do chridhe
airgead-beò gu na h-iomaill
dhe d' anam
agus d' osnadh, do ghàire
do ghuth-seinn, do ghuth-labhairt
mar bhraoin de dh'or
agus do gach fear a chùm
air lios leaghteach nan dealbh thu
bhàrr calgach do chlaiginn gu
buinn rùisgte do chas
òr, ór, ór,
beó no marbh
their cuid nach robh thu cho cùbhraidh
's iad a' deothal an t-sùigh
a sporan suilt òrach do bhein
òr, òr, òr
gold in your hair
gold in the nails on your feet
gold in the sleepy lids of your living eyes
gold in your cheeks, in their rumour of a blush
red gold of your lips
gold in the raised shoulder that shelters your chin
gold in your breasts, their promise
enfolded in wisps
gold in your slender waist, on the meadows of your hip
in the curve of thigh and
on your knee of mysteries
your golden ankle gave
that any eye could see
quicksilver in your veins
quicksilver in your heart
quicksilver to every corner
of your soul
and your sighs, your laugh
your singing, your speech
like a mist of gold
and to every man who kept you
on the screen's dissolving field
the maned top of your skull
to the bare soles of your feet
gold, gold, gold,
alive or dead
some say you weren't so fragrant
as they suck the substance
from the fertile purse of your skin
gold, gold, gold