- An Ubhal as Àirde / The Highest Apple: An Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature ed. by Wilson McLeod and Michael Newton
The first and most obvious attribute of An Ubhal as Àirde is, indisputably, its size; at over eight hundred pages, the reader cannot doubt the weightiness of this book in several senses of the word – McLeod and Newton have brought to fruition a most significant anthology, which by sheer dint of its length and breadth, demonstrates the accomplishments and endowments of Gaelic writers through the ages. As volume 10 of the Lesser Used Languages of Europe Series, it is fitting that Scottish Gaelic should be viewed through this European-focussed lens. It is apparent, in a number of the texts included in the anthology, that writers were keen to prove their European credentials and exhibit the ease in which Gaelic could be assimilated into a wider European literary tradition. Buoyed by Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ effect, Ranald MacDonald, son of the great Jacobite poet, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, expressed his optimism for the scope of the Gaelic language and its literature in the preface to Comh-chruinneachaidh Orannaigh Gaidhealach (1776), the first anthology of Gaelic poetry containing the work of multiple authors from the preceding two centuries. He writes of the ‘admiration of Europe’ and that ‘the love of the Gaelic has been revived; and a taste for Gaelic compositions has become general … The Editor, moved by these considerations, and desirous to preserve his mother tongue, has bestowed much labour and expence, during the course of two years, in collecting the poems now offered to the public.’ These words could just as easily be applied to the meticulous work of McLeod and Newton in their own anthology. However, while MacDonald’s eighteenth-century Gaelic anthology was notable as the first to include multiple poets, An Ubhal as Àirde is commendable for the fact that this is the first Scottish Gaelic anthology to include all forms of literary expression – while McLeod and Newton acknowledge the predominance of verse in the centuries before 1900 due to its standing as ‘the principal form of literary expression’, the inclusion of short stories and extracts from novels and plays, particularly in the latter part of the anthology, shows how Gaelic literature has changed and adapted, and goes some way to redressing the balance within the Gaelic literary landscape. [End Page 182]
McLeod and Newton’s description of their editorial practice is rather self-effacing – ‘The choice of texts is deliberately canonical in its approach, emphasising works of widely acknowledged importance. For this reason, the anthology will probably contain few surprises for the reader with a broad knowledge of Scottish Gaelic literature …’. While this may be the case, it could be argued that its intended purpose goes much further in its reach, even for scholars and Gaelic literary enthusiasts who can confidently recite the work of the Gaelic literary figures contained in the pages of An Ubhal as Àirde. For example, it is both refreshing and vital to see writers such as Dòmhnall Mac na Ceàrdaich and Tormod Caimbeul take their deserved place next to more recognisable figures such as Somhairle MacGill-Eain and Ruaraidh MacThòmais. Their work has certainly been appreciated in recent years but, perhaps due to the genre of prose being less accessible than verse, particularly in translation (poetry has the advantage of being able to more easily achieve facing translations on the page), important landmarks in modern Gaelic literature e.g. Caimbeul’s Deireadh an Fhoghair (The End of Autumn) and Shrapnel, have not been afforded the accolades and wider contextual consideration that the likes of ‘Hallaig’ has more effortlessly attained.
Much like the anthologies of Gaelic verse published by Birlinn in the past few decades (e.g. An Lasair, An Tuil, and Caran an t-Saoghail), An Ubhal as Àirde also serves another purpose. The anthology has been divided into chronological sections which allow the reader to gain an excellent overview of Gaelic history as...