The fate of the poet writer is not of this earth. It lies beyond the heavens, beyond the boundaries of time. It becomes a compulsive force in the lives of the few.
A hundred thousand stars can be shining in the heavens as one person takes a leisurely stroll, be it on a lonely beach on the islands or on a crowded rugged path in the Highlands, but not even the brightest star catches his eye or imagination; another person has only to take a short step outside his cottage and he is stopped and stunned by the marvellous sight before his eyes. Each one of these stars is a source of enlightenment to his mind and a sparkle of illumination for his imagination. The celestial panorama introduces him into the mysteries of the universe in the most intimate of details and yet in the most comprehensive of ways. It creates images which inspire the mind and heart, poses questions and provides answers which are a source of both joy and pain.
Angus Peter Campbell is a man with a probing mind, a keen observer of life who suffers and rejoices over the complexities of living, pauses and questions, poses interrogatives and seeks answers which are not for him alone but destined to be the patrimony of many. The witness of past ages has not only to be written down in books, but proclaimed from the roof tops: the body can die but the spirit is infinite. Yesterday's history lives into the present, and tomorrow is impatient for its unfolding. Angus Peter Campbell is the faithful servant of the yesterdays, the todays and the tomorrows of life.
The critic who is asked to give his opinion about the writings of another always looks for the more interesting and unusual aspects and opinions that these writings reveal. There is no lack of profound reflections, of thought-provoking observations to be found in this book: they are there in great abundance. However, I am of the belief that books, and especially novels, are composed for people's enjoyment and the first observation I have to make is that I really enjoyed this book and found it uplifting to the spirit. It’s the first book in Gaelic that I just could not comfortably close without making me reflect on life and existence: it brought a tear to the eye and a smile to the face.
As Gaels, we have been endowed from birth with a strong spirit which, at times, is a source of great blessings and, at other times, is something of a curse. It can make us oblivious of the needs of the body and of wordly things. In the history of the Celtic race we could have established many empires: even mighty Rome was conquered and subjected to our will, but earthly castles and monuments were never the true ambition of the Celts, and all that was left to others. The spirit moved us on.
The Celtic races are a spiritual people. Religion can strengthen or weaken this spiritual dimension but it can never completely smother it. The family on whom this book is centred demonstrate this fact: a great spiritual strength runs through all the main characters. There is no doubt, however, that in the past when hardship and even famine ravaged the land, the British Army could buy Highland soldiers for its wars and campaigns, but no Colonel or Brigadier could ever buy the soul of the Highlander. Alasdair, the eldest son of the family in the novel, is a fine example of this. He receives promotion and medals during his army career but his conscience is never at rest till he buries the last memories of militarism.
A good human interest story has been guaranteed by combining the human spiritual weakness of the flesh with the spiritual ministry of a Catholic priest. They are basic ingredients of the book. The religious element permeates all. Within the first pages we meet a Catholic priest, a young man destined for the priesthood. the Angel Gabriel and the Archangel Michael. We would be led to believe that the whole host of heaven was being presented on the front stage. God, life and death, goodness and evil, love and hatred, church and clergy are analyzed, questioned, often condemned. It seems that truth and certainty are not to be found on earth. Believers in Uist, where most of the novel is situated, will be happy that God is left alive although, unfortunately, his rival the devil also seems to have a thriving time!
A novel solely concerned with an analysis of these issues would be heavy reading, but the writer has "the power of the seanchaidh" and so the life story of the young seminarian, his home life and that of his father, mother, sisters and brothers keeps the reader on edge to the very end. Through their lives we are introduced into the intimate worlds and lives of people, a subject forever popular at the traditional Highland and island ceilidhs, and still a subject of fascination to this day. The way of life of our forebears has a special attraction for us, and this book contains a wealth of knowledge of the history, economic and social circumstances and the thought patterns of the islanders during the past one hundred and fifty years.
The history of what has been makes us more readily understand what we can become and how, for example, one island woman can be head of a religious order and another a beauty queen in Canada; how one islander can become head of police in London and another drown himself in the Thames because of a drugs problem; and how others spend their lives writing books or singing songs! We also learn from this book that war was in the blood of the Gael and that the five continents were small for their ambitions. These days have come to an end and the book induces the reader to appreciate better the folly and evil delusion of war. To the extent that the islands can now provide a dignified living to its people emigration no longer is attractive. The way of life and culture of the islands continues to gain greater and greater appreciation, and the story here is a timely reminder that no wordly value ought to purchase heart and soul.
This is a book which provides the true beauty and richness of Uist Gaelic, a form of Gaelic which springs from the heart and lips of the people without superficial adornments or poularized adulterations. It is also the proud Gaelic of the revered authors: the Paisley bard, and Campbell's earlier contemporary, Donald John MacDonald of Penenirine. At the same time new words have come into the language and Angus Peter is not ashamed of using them or even adding useful words of his own creation. There is a rythmic elegance in the formation of his sentences, a simplicity which provides clarity, and an innate ability to draw word pictures which nurture the imagination. He has a special ability of rounding off many disparate ideas with a few chosen words.
This introduction cannot be concluded without posing the question: was disenchantment with religion - and especially the religion and practices of the Catholic poulation - what motivated this book? The writer could have taken that liberty, but his criticism of the Catholic faith and practices is little greater than that of other institutions and realities. I rather consider that the writer can be compared with the eagle who soars high into the sky. From the highest heights he reviews people through the ages, evaluates their habits and the values they hold in life. The hunting eagle can see the mouse's head as it peers out of its hole. Similarly, Angus Peter articulates in writing the intimate and deeply personal thoughts of people. The heart of each one is opened for inspection as one would open the door into one's own home. At the same time the life of each person is clearly manifested as an individual mystery and not readily subject to generalized conclusions. Who can penetrate the mysteries of suffering, of goodness and evil, of sin and grace? Angus Peter searched deeply and widely but he only left us with the question.
I who was raised in Bornish, where this novel is rooted, who spent my college years in Blairs College, Aberdeen and in Valladolid, Spain; who read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Antonio Machado and Tolstoy and returned to Uist as a priest, just as the main protagonist Eòin did, would like to suggest to Angus Peter that perhaps the mystery of faith and life on the islands will not be found in these learned authors. Perhaps, through the eye of the eagle, he should direct his gaze towards the Blaskett Islands on the west coast of Ireland, to Peig Sayers, who knew a life of daily suffering and tragedy but celebrated daily the marvellous beauty and mystery of creation, the overwhelming vastness of the sea, the expansiveness of the skies that surrounded her and the glory and joy of it all. It is all "the music of what happens" - but that could be the subject of his next novel!
Whether this work of literature becomes an integral milestone in Gaelic writing, or whether it be but like the impressive Standing Stones which dot the Highlands and are admired from a distance, is a question which time will unfold. It is beyond question that it merits a transcendental place in history.
Fr Colin MacInnes
Bornish, South Uist and Quito, Ecuador.