Myles Campbell: Poet and Writer
I was born on the Isle of Skye, an island on the west coast of Scotland and part of the Inner Hebrides. That’s mostly where I was brought up, there and on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and even in Glenelg on the mainland for a couple of years. (This moving about was due to my father’s employment.) After leaving school at 16 I joined the Merchant Navy, as many island youngsters did in those days, and travelled the seven oceans for a number of years.
At that time I couldn’t write Gaelic, the language we spoke at home and in the community, although I could read it thanks to family worship. The language of tuition in all 7 schools I attended was English thanks to the Education Act of 1872 which ensured that even in Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland the official language of education was English. It is only since the mid-1980s that Gaelic-medium primary education has become available, if sufficient numbers of parents request it.
I wrote verse from the age of 12 and it was inevitably in English, the language of the school and of writing. Like many others, it was only after leaving home that I began to realise the value of what I had left behind. After leaving the sea and after various jobs with local authorities in Inverness and Edinburgh and even a spell as a prison officer, I attended Edinburgh University as a mature student and thereafter became a Gaelic teacher. I was in my mid-twenties when I started writing verse in Gaelic.
I was familiar with English language poetry in my teens, both traditional and contemporary, and the latter was an influence on my verse long before I read 20thc Gaelic poets such as Derick Thomson and Iain Crichton Smith, both of whom were practitioners of free verse. Derick, I am pleased to say, in his 80s is still a practitioner. As editor of the all-Gaelic literary magazine Gairm over 50 years he was a key figure in the development of Gaelic poetry in the 20th c. Gairm served as platform for both traditional and the new verse.
At the beginning of the 21stc prospects for Gaelic are mixed. Rapid change – technological, demographic, informational, economic, – has meant a decline of Gaelic speaking in the traditional heartlands, formerly, and perhaps still, a criterion for what is authentic Gaelic culture. On the other hand, throughout Scotland Gaelic medium education continues to improve and expand, creating a new generation of Gaelic speakers. All-Gaelic schools in Glasgow and Inverness are, hopefully, a sign of things to come. Gaels and Gaelic continue to embrace the new technologies of the information age and this might be a pointer to the future. The continuing challenge is the creation of homes and communities, in town or country, where Gaelic is the norm.
The arts – performance, music and song, literature and even poetry – are important strands in the new developments.
I’ve been back in Staffin, Skye, the place where I was born and to a large extent brought up, since 1992. I’d like to think that I could write poetry worthy of the place. A love of place and a rootedness in place I think is vital in today’s world, whether the place is in the city or country. I set the values of love of place, of community, over against capitalist and market values which see everything as something to be bought and sold for profit.