by KATE HOOPER
With the Atlantic in his ear, the machair on his doorstep and generations of poets and singers looking over his shoulder, it is no wonder that Dr Peter Mackay has made a career for himself in a world of words and poetry.
This island upbringing has served him well, as Peter is now a Lecturer in Literature in the School of English at the University of St.Andrews. He is also a poet, writer and broadcast-journalist.
While Peter’s poetic ears may have absorbed the very finest of traditional Gaelic culture throughout his childhood, his eyes are very much set on the future.
Born in Stornoway and brought up in Shader, Lewis, Peter’s nuanced understanding of Gaelic culture and history blazes through in conversation. So too, does his desire to bring his poetry and writing into new and surprising realms. This contemporary poet wants to challenge both convention and expectation when it comes to our literary traditions.
His latest book, An Leabhar Liath (The Light Blue Book), is a case in point. Co-edited with fellow-poet and academic, Iain MacPherson, it is also something of a revelation. Addressing themes around love, sex, the body and violent passion, the book portrays a side of Gaelic poetry that is rarely found in the history books. A highlight of Faclan Book festival at An Lanntair last week, the book is a collection of poetry and songs that range from ‘the suggestive to the erotic to the downright rude’. It’s content may come as surprising to some , but An Leabhar Liath has clearly made waves in the literary world, and was the winner of the 2016 Donald Meek award.
“The book came out of conversations I had with Iain when I was working in Belfast around 2007,” explains Peter. “We were talking about the breadth of Gaelic history, as well as taboos and transgressions. We discussed ideas around the Highlands and Gaelic culture as ‘shortbready’ and the strange mix on the one hand of being very prim and proper, while also being hypersexualised because the Celt was actually a hypersexualised thing. There is a strange relationship to eroticism when you think about Gaelic culture. There’s the old joke that sex was banned because it might lead to dancing, for example!”
“We were interested in the idea of transgression, and looking at things that are beyond the moral pale. We wanted to explore the limits of what people talked about in Gaelic at different times. The book gave us the opportunity to ask questions around what we make of this version of Gaelic history.”
Taking on such a subject is clearly not for the faint-hearted, and there are further echoes of this artistic bravery in his own writing and poetry: “I’m quite experimental. I do mess around. There is a lot of game playing going on – very serious game playing, obviously! I am trying to break expectations of language and genre . At the moment I’m translating Gaelic poems into English short stories to see how that works.”
While Peter may joke about playing with words, his CV is a testament to his love-affair with them. He is an established academic and journalist. His accolades across the years include being awarded the Dux award at the Nicolson Institute, a stint as Writer in Residence at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and he has been one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Thinkers.
Enviably, he has proven he definitely has both sides of the brain working with a degree in English and Maths from the University of Glasgow. He holds a PhD from Trinity College in Dublin where he studied the poetry of Seamus Heaney and William Wordsworth. He has worked for the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in Belfast, as well as University College Dublin and Edinburgh University. Straddling the worlds of both academia and the media, he has also worked as a Broadcast Journalist and television news producer for BBC Alba and Radio nan Gaidheal. He has written and appeared in various documentaries on radio and television.
Peter’s career has taken him on a dynamic journey across the Scottish and Irish literary scene, and it is when talking to Peter about his Hebridean roots that we gain a better understanding of the influences that helped to stimulate such a career:
“My great-granduncle was Murchadh Mac Ille Mhoire. He published a well- known collection of songs and poems called Fear Siubhal nan Gleann, which came out in 1910. My grandparents and a ‘great-aunt’, Norma had lots of songs, and my aunt Anne Martin is still a great, respected singer who I have worked with, including live shows and radio pieces. So there has been a great passing down of songs through the generations.”
And it is no surprise that this modern day poet recalls his own upbringing in characteristic, poetic language:
“I grew up with the Atlantic in my ear. I still hear the rhythmic deep surge of the ocean against the shore in Shader with the precise tenor of how the sea hits different parts of the island. That background rumble is still in my ear and I miss it hugely. I can close my eyes and see various lochs in the moor, I can see valleys, beaches and rock formations. They are all imprinted in the back of my eyelids.”
While he recalls his island upbringing in beautifully poetic terms, a Hebridean childhood has delivered an abundance of practical benefits for a career and life in the modern world.
Having spent a year in Barcelona, Peter can also speak Spanish and read Catalan. “Because I have been bilingual from a young age, languages have been easier for me. There has always been a sense of being able to learn new languages without being in any way anxiety inducing. There is no fear of being wrong in other languages.”
As we speak, it becomes clear how interested Peter is in the ideas of community, both locally and internationally. Again, these interests can be traced back to an island childhood. This theme has influenced both his academic and poetic work, and seems to reinforce the surprising relevance of traditional Gaelic culture in today’s internationally-connected, modern world:
“Growing-up, I was very aware of the different types of connections whether by sea or land. My mother was from Skye, and I spent every summer there. On Skye you can see other islands and so you get this strange sense of neighbourhood. You can see the lights flick on in Harris or in North Uist, whereas on the west coast of Lewis all you have is the sheer Atlantic heading out towards North America. This gives rise to thoughts around different versions of community and different versions of how people engage with the world.”
“I also remember at Christmas, my mother would get these Christmas cards from distant cousins from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the States. There were tendrils of communication with people that she would only have met once or twice. Now we have these developing networks with the internet, and there are similarities there.
“I’m interested in ideas around connectedness and how communities are created. How we find ways of relating to other people who do similar things to us, who may use the same language and how we can find ways to stop being isolated.”
And while growing-up on Lewis has given Peter a great deal of inspiration for philosophical and academic thought, it has also instilled a sense of adventure. An attribute of the traditional Gael that he points out is so relevant to the world today.
“As a boy, I always found it strange that mainland roads could go all the way to London. And then after the tunnel was built you could go all the way across the channel. You could just keep driving! There was no limit to it and so if you could get as far as Inverness or Edinburgh, why would you ever stop there? I think this could also stem from the Hebridean seafaring tradition, where you set off from the shore to see how far the sea can take you.
“This is a general interest area of mine, and at the moment I am writing an academic paper around Gaelic poetry and how Gaelic society isn’t the classic old oak tree, with its roots, branches and twigs. Instead, it is more of a dispersed forest of seedlings.”
And when we delve a little more into this theme, it is clear that Peter’s understanding of the ‘true authentic spirit of the Gael’ is intrinsically nuanced.
“It is too easy to say everything represents something, particularly with minority cultures. There are many different types of Gael and Gaelic speaker. There is no one essential element and sensibility. Going back again to growing up on Lewis; take the people from Shader and the people from Borve, they are different in some way, and in other ways they aren’t.”
This understanding of diversity within communities, and the desire to represent the breadth of voices in our society, punctuates a great deal of Peter’s work:
“One of the most important things for us within An Leabhar Liath was that there were lots of female voices in there too. Too often love poetry falls to the male singer.
“We had hoped for as diverse a range of voices as possible. There isn’t that much openly gay or lesbian literature out there within the Gaelic tradition, so we were pleased to have a couple of people write from a gay perspective in the book.”
And closing on this note is probably the best place to leave Peter’s story for just now. With one foot firmly rooted in the Gaelic tradition and the other on the path to new horizons in literature, Peter is a poet with a vision:
“What we can only hope for in the future,’ he says, “is that there are many more diverse voice and perspectives in literature for the years and decade to come.”