Lit­er­ary great­ness in a lan­guage that breathes life into

The Herald on Sunday - - BOOKS -

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

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