Literary greatness in a language that breathes life into
AN Druim bho Thuath is Tormod Caimbeul’s third novel in Gaelic, having already given us Deireadh an Fhoghair in 1979 ( Chambers) and Shrapnel (Ur-Sgeul) in 2007.
Born in Ness on the Isle of Lewis in 1942, Caimbeul writes exclusively in Gaelic and remains totally untranslated. He is thus one of the great literary secrets of monoglot Scotland: one of the finest writers we have, in any language, yet unknown to almost 99% of the reading public.
An Druim bho Thuath ( which roughly translates as “The North Ridge”) is a Joycean adventure through language and memory. Caimbeul’s use of language is on a par with Sorley MacLean at the linguistic level, but rooted in a demotic vernacular so localised that even I as a native Gaelic speaker – but from the southern hemisphere of Uist – find hard to understand and fully appreciate.
It’s a language as earthy as the peat moors of Lewis and as solid as the rocks which embed that bare landscape: yet it has air, and breathes. As you read this novel you are never deceived into an artificial stance towards life: the author’s characters stand four-square at the centre of the universe so that you are with them as life and memory and eternity swirl around them, much like the gales outside.
The story is set in a remote inn where three men, Mr Craig, Mr Farquaharson and Bart, and a woman called Rose either seek shelter or live. The serving-girl Doileag, who works for the absent owner, bears much of the wonderful dialogue. It’s marvellously established: here they are (here we are) trapped in the storm, and from that internal huddle by the fire as they eat, drink, argue, joke, pray, dream, remember and imagine the whole external universe is inhabited. Boat journeys once taken; sermons heard; sheep-sales attended; pubs visited; songs learnt … all of the characters seamlessly step out into a parallel universe of memories, where they really live. For is that not where we, too, really live?
Tormod Caimbeul’s third novel may well be a Scottish masterpiece