The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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- a poem in Gaelic and English, by John Aberdein 

I've made a couple of visits to the Gaelic College at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig this year, and the good news is I've hardly met any folk there that are not already a definite YES. I'm not a Gaelic speaker myself, though I worked a few years in the Gàidhealtachd as fisherman, diver, YH warden and the like. But there is a quality about Gaelic poetry which – by means of natural emblems such as trees, birds, wells and springs – goes to the heart of things, and so I wanted to see if I could write Gaelic poems. The answer was yes, but only with immense aid on the grammar side from tutor-poets Coinneach MacMhanais from Glasgow and Rodi Gorman from Dublin, which I hereby very gratefully acknowledge.

Anyway, here's a poem I hope speaks to the historical moment.




Mura robh e garbh

leis na bliadhnaichean,

cho ròiseaideach


ri giuthas

le ràmhan



agus nach robh i

spangach mar a' bheithe

na ciabhan aice


cho ceòl-bhinn

ri grian, gu deimhinn

agus ri brìosan;


nach robh fìor-thobraichean

math aig

sneachd a leaghadh,


no tàrmachan


mar chlach-èiteig bheò,


am biodh dòchas aca

 Dùn Deòrsa dorcha

a dhubhadh a-mach?


Fo seuntan na talmhainn,

ga litreachadh as ùr – 





Were he not

thick with years,



as a pine

with red



and she not 


her tresses



as sun, yes,

and as breeze;


were springs

not good

at melting snow,


nor tàrmachan


like living quartz,


how could they hope

to cancel

dark forts of Empire?


Under the land's spell,

respelling their land –




Scots pine and silver birch have been my favourite trees since childhood, and are personified in the poem to exemplify strength, experience and a measure of coorseness, together with intelligence, harmony and grace.
Tarmachan is the proper spelling of ptarmigan (if you don't superimpose Greek fanciness on the Gaelic original) and  tarmachan are those camouflage-changing grouse of the high mountains – which stop scuttling around between rocks and hard places and take flight at the last minute (like we must do!)
The English version of the poem has simply dark forts of Empire, but the Gaelic is able to be much more specific. Dùn Deòrsa is the old spelling for Fort George, that huge fortified Hanoverian barracks that was built near Inverness post-1745 to 'pacify' the Highlands. Later it became a focus for recruitment to the Highland regiments of the British Army, and it's still garrisoned to this day.
If you want to know how it's pronounced, Dùn Deòrsa dorcha is roughly Doon Georsa dorocha.
When I visited Fort George late one Sunday afternoon this year, I remarked in the souvenir shop that the Saltire had been taken down at 4pm but that the Union Jack was still flying. The shop takes down the Saltire, I was told, but the military are the only ones allowed to take down the Union Jack.
 Aye, that'll fairly change, I replied.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

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George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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