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Recommendations

On this page you'll find recommendations for books and CDs (and maybe a few other things) that Deborah likes and thinks you might like too.

Up-dated January 2013

Deborah writes:

I'll start this year's recommendations with two books about people associated with South Uist. These are "Father Allan; The Life and Legacy of a Hebridean Priest" and "The Silent Weaver; the Extraordinary Life and Work of Angus MacPhee," both by Roger Hutchinson, both published by Birlinn (Edinburgh), in 2010 and 2011 respectively. The subjects of these two books are quite different: Father Allen MacDonald (1859-1905) was a priest in Scotland's north west, who spent the latter half of his short life in parishes in South Uist and Eriskay. Today he is best known as a writer and as a collector of Gaelic folklore. Angus MacPhee (1915-1997), was raised on a croft in South Uist, and spent most of his adult life in Craig Dunain hospital, on the outskirts of Inverness. During his time in the hospital, he created extraordinary works of art woven from grass, and it is his art for which he is now remembered and celebrated. What these men, and these two books, have in common are that they are about people whose lives were formed by place, by the Gaelic language, and by a common culture. Hutchinson's tells their stories with empathy and understanding, and his writing is consistently intelligent and illuminating. I think it would be right to say, too, that he writes from the heart as well as the mind, and is not afraid of telling the truth, or of provoking controversy.

"Steall à Iomadh Lòn," by Seonaidh Ailig Mac a' Phearsain. (Clàr, Inverness, 2011), is another book with a Uist connection. At 393 pages, this book is a hefty piece of work in any language, and in the language of Seonaidh Ailig, it's a masterpiece. I have discussed this book with many native Gaelic speakers, most of whom have commented on the incredibly broad vocabulary in the book. Mac a' Phearsain seems to have remembered (and used) every word he ever heard, and uses vocabulary which is specific to North Uist as well as old Gaelic words which have fallen out of use. His book is much more than just the language in which it is written, however; it is the story of a man's life, and what a life! After a childhood spent in Harris and North Uist, Mac a' Phearsain eventually found his way to Canada, where he worked in a number of different jobs, including a stint as as the head of PR at a Canadian nuclear power plant. He has also worked as a broadcaster, educationalist, poet and essayist, in both Canada and the UK, and his book includes entertaining anecdotes about his work and the people he has met. More information about this book can be found here.

I discovered the work of the Canadian broadcaster and writer, Linden MacIntyre, thanks to a mention of the author in Mac a' Phearsain's book. MacIntyre's most recent novel is the prize-winning "The Bishop's Man," (Random House, 2009). The writing in this book is serviceable, and occasionally elegant. And, while the plot of the novel moves along at a good pace, "The Bishop's Man" isn't a book you would want to read in a hurry, as there is much to contemplate along the way. It concerns, among other things, the nature of relationships between family members, and between members of a small community, and between men and women, and between men and other men, and between Man and God. It is set mostly in a rural area on Canada's East coast, which I presume to be Nova Scotia. For me, reading this book was a sort of home-coming, as the Nova Scotia that MacIntyre knows and describes so well reminds me very much of my childhood in Vermont.

Previous Recommendations

"Cuid a' Chorra-Ghrithich" le Alasdair Caimbeul, Clàr, (Inverness) 2011. This is an exceptionally good novel, which, had it been written in English, would surely have been nominated for at least one of the "big" literary awards. But of course, if it had been written in English, it wouldn't be at all the same book, since part of what makes this book so good is the language in which it is written--that is, Gàidhlig, and in particular the Gàidhlig of the Ness area of Lewis, and even more particularly, Caimbeul's idiosyncratic use of that language.

I had previously read two other works by this author--"Lìontan Sgaoilte" and "Am Fear Meadhanach." "Lìontan Sgaoilte" is a collection of very short stories, or vignettes (see earlier recommendation, below). While the short form suits Caimbeul's particular talent well, I felt, after reading the stories, that I would have liked to see the author write something more complex. I then read "Am Fear Meadhanach," a novel, which I enjoyed--Caimbeul's writing is always a pleasure to read--although the book as whole was a bit slow and meandering, compared to the stories in "Lìontan Sgaoilte."

Now, in "Cuid a' Chorra-Ghrithich," Caimbeul has written a controlled, well-constructed novel which is exactly suited to his strengths. It is short--only 114 pages long--but complex and complete. In a succession of short passages which move from sweet whimsy to black comedy and even to moments of heart-stopping poignancy, Caimbeul tells a tale which has all the scope of a multi-generational family saga, focussing mainly on the siblings of one generation of one family. The narrative is told from various points of view, jumping from time to time and from place to place as the various threads of the story gradually knit together. The writing has a tremendous vitality, which brings the reader immediately and intimately into the heart of the story, and into the world of the author's imagination.

This book can be purchased from Comhairle nan Leabhraichean.

"No Way Back" by Theodor Fontane, translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers; Angel Books, London 2010 ((German title: Unwiederbringlich). This is another beautiful volume from Angel books. (See previous recommendations for more from Angel). I enjoyed this novel as much as I have enjoyed other works by Fontane, and apart from it's value as a novel, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in European history. The novel tells a tale of human fallibility which transcends time and place, while at the same time beautifully detailing the nuances of Danish court culture of the late nineteenth century. There is a helpful introduction explaining the historical background, as well as an afterword by Chambers, and a translator's note. Rather than numbered footnotes, there are notes at the back which are arranged alphabetically, a format I had not encountered previously which I found quite sensible, and perhaps more useful than the traditional footnotes.

"Saoghal an Treobhaiche," the "auto-biography" of Aonghas Mac 'Ille Fhialain" (Angus MacLellan), a man from South Uist who lived from 1869 to 1966. The book was created from transcriptions of taped conversations that MacLellan had with John Lorne Campbell; Campbell himself transcribed and annotated the text. I have read quite a few similar books--life-stories of Gaels from both Scotland and Ireland--and mostly these stories cover the same story--crofting, fishing, travels abroad to fight wars or win fortunes, migration to the cities to find work, etc. MacLellan's story has a few interesting variations. He spent many years on the Scottish mainland, working on farms--in Perthshire, on Loch Lomond and at Dalmally--and his tales of work and play on these farms are reminiscent of the bothy stories usually found in Scots/Doric memoirs, although his is the viewpoint of an outsider in that world. Another feature of the book is MacLellan's rich Uibhist Gaelic, flavoured by choice bits of Perthshire Gaelic as well as English and Scots.

I am recommending the book to you, but good luck in finding it! It was published by "Club Leabhar" in Inverness and printed in 1974 (in Sweden) and is now out of print. I was lucky to come across the book in the home of a friend, who kindly lent it to me. Perhaps Comhairle nan Leabhraichean (the Gaelic Book Council) will see fit to reprint this book one day. The book also exists in an English translation, as "The Furrow Behind Me."

"Tales from Highland Perthshire; collected by Lady Evelyn Stewart Murray." This book, published by the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society in 2009, is really worth buying--as something to enjoy and to treasure. The tales in the book were collected around the end of the nineteenth century by Lady Evelyn, a daughter of the 7th Duke of Atholl. Each tale is published in Gaelic and in English on facing pages. The translations are by Sylvia Robertson and Tony Dilworth, who are both also the editors of the book. They have supplied an introduction which includes a biography of Lady Evelyn, and in which they explain her methods of collecting and preserving the stories, as well as other useful information.

After the main text--the tales themselves--there are notes, photographs and brief biographies of the storytellers, a glossary, an index of place-names, some maps, etc. The book--hardback, with a handsome paper cover--is a pleasure to read and to handle, and a valuable record of a time and place, and of the Gaelic of Perthshire. It can be purchased through Comhairle nan Leabhraichean.

Two CDs I would like to recommend both feature Irish music and musicians. The first is a new album from Rita Gallagher, singer from Donegal. There are two CDs in the package--Rita's earlier recording, "Easter Snow", previously available only on tape, has been included in the package, as well as a second CD, "The May Morning Dew", which has 20 new tracks. Both CDs are similar--traditional songs sung in a traditional style, with no accompaniment, apart from bodhran on one song. For the uninitiated, a word of warning--this is not "background music" for party-listening. Every song requires the listener's full attention, and why not--after all, Rita is giving her full attention to every note and every word! The CDs are pleasant listening, without doubt, and they are also more than that--they are an important testament, not just to Rita's ability as a singer, but to the rich heritage of Irish song. For future generations of singers, listeners, and scholars, these CDs will be an important source document. Anyone who loves Irish music will want these CDs in their collection.

The other CD which I want to recommend is, "Home Away From Home," the first album from four young musicians collectively known as Nicgaviskey. They are two sisters from Ireland--Bernadette (fiddle) and Caitlin (concertina) NicGabhann, and two Americans, Sean Gavin (flute) and Sean McComiskey (accordion). They play good solid traditional Irish music--and that's good! There are a number of sets of reels, as you would expect, as well as the usual mixture of jigs (single, double and slip), a waltz, and some barn dances. No backing musicians are used--or needed, especially since the melodeon and concertina fill in the sound perfectly well, (as do the dancing feet on one track). There are some solos; I like the flute solo in particular--good strong, rhythmic playing. A favourite track would be the last set of jigs with the Patrick Davey tune, Headwood Crossing, though really every track is just jim-dandy.

"Kebister Head" is the first and (as yet) only CD that Shetland fiddler Brian Gear has made. It will be a hard act to follow. On this album Gear is tastefully accompanied by Violet Tulloch on piano and Jack Robertson on guitar and bass. There is a good mix of tunes, reels, jigs, hornpipes and more waltzes than are usually included on modern albums, but that's no criticism. Gear's playing is powerful and rich in tone, and while he is technically adept he is never flashy. It so happened that my husband was playing the CD one evening when I entered the house, and I thought I was listening to a much older recording--something by one of the great fiddlers of the past. It's not that Gear's sound is old-fashioned, rather that it has a timeless quality. He has avoided playing anything "trendy" or tricksy on the album, opting instead for good solid material that will stand the test of time.

I don't read many books in English these days, and the two that I would like to recommend here were in English only because they were translated from German. They were two collections of short fiction, or novellas, by Theodor Storm (both published by Angel Books, London): "Paul the Puppeteer and Other Short Fiction" (2004), and "Carston the Trustee with three other novellas", (2009). The stories themselves are marvellous--atmospheric and haunting. But I recommend these books for more than the stories themselves. It is the entire production of this series (see note below) which makes them really special. The translator, Denis Jackson, seems to have dedicated a good portion of his life to translating Storm, and his translations are not simply a matter of putting the words into English; he has studied every aspect of Storm's life and work, as can be seen from the detailed notes included in each volume. The books also include beautifully rendered maps and drawings, as well as insightful introductions, all of which help the reader to fully appreciate the stories. The covers of these books further enhance the pleasure of reading these books--the painting used for the cover of Carsten the Trustee is as atmospheric as the stories themselves. For more information about these books, why not visit Angel Classics and also Theodor Storm and His World.

Note: There are two earlier volumes of Storm's writing published by Angel books--"The Dykemaster", and "Hans and Heinz Kirch"--and with any luck there will be more!

"Dualchas agus an Arainneachd", edited by Richard A. V. Cox and published by Clò Ostaig, (2009), is, like "Crùth na Tìre", (see below), a collection of articles written for a conference--this time on Heritage and the Environment--which was held at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. While I found that some of the articles were a bit too full of academic jargon for my taste, others were a delight to read and gave me much to think about. Several themes or topics emerged from these articles; a few of the authors raised questions about the terminology we use for this subject, noting that the words we use are vague and ill-defined, and are constantly evolving, as are the very concepts conveyed by the terminology. Abair tòimhseachan! The articles cover a wide range of topics: music, language, forestry, Native American culture, land use in Norway and Lewis. Personal favourites are Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart's piece on Alasdair MacGilleMhìcheil's propensity for collecting information about the land as well as the language and the customs of Gaels, and Mìcheal Newton's article on language and landscape (well, that's how I would summarise it, anyway) which was for me the central piece of the whole book.

I have since read a book edited by Micheal Newton which I thought was a real masterpiece of committed and creative scholarship. The book, "Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid / From the Clyde to Callander: Gaelic Tales, Songs and Traditions from the Lennox and Menteith (Acair, 1999)," is a collection of stories from the oral tradition, poems (or songs), photographs and drawings of an area of Scotland which lies between Loch Lomond and Stirling. The book is entirely bi-lingual, with English and Gàidhlig on facing pages. Newton refers to himself as editor of the book, but he also wrote a good deal of it--providing introductions to the poems and stories, and historical links, all in a Gàidhlig which is similar to that of the region in question, using a vocabulary which is not often heard or seen in the language these days. A collection of this sort is the ideal way of presenting poetry, history and folklore; by linking them together to a place with a specific culture, all three come alive in a way that doesn't necessarily happen when they are presented separately. I would love to see similar collections about other areas of Scotland, both in Gaelic and in English.

"In Search of a Lost Ladino; Letter to Antonio Saura" by the French writer Marcel Cohen. This book, published in 2006 by Ibis Editions (Jerusalem), includes Cohen's original text in Ladino and a translation into English by Raphael Rubenstein. It is a small book, only 119 pages long, austere yet elegant in production. In addition to the two versions of the text, there are black and white drawings by Antonio Saura, a glossary, and an introduction written by the translator. The book was originally published in Ladino in Spain in 1985 as "Letras a un Pintor," and was later translated by Cohen himself into French. The French edition (Lettre à Antonio Saura) was published in 1997. Rubenstein has based his translation on the French edition. Anyone who can read Spanish should be able to read the Ladino version, with the help of the glossary. The book is described by the publishers as a "memoir," and there are certainly memories in it, personal and collective--memories of one man's life and memories of a people's history. Equally the book is a meditation on a language and a culture and the loss of both of these, loss compounded by displacement. Cohen writes (here, in Rubenstein's translation), "How could we imagine that we would one day become mousafires to ourselves in our own tongue?" Or, in the original Ladino: "Las palavras son tu verdadero lougar y tu esperanza. Kale ser loko para pensar ke, en eyas, podryas ser un dya el mousafir de ti mizmo." (Mousafir is translated in the glossary as either foreigner or visitor.) These words provoke an image that is poignant and powerful, an image that illuminates not just the Sephardic experience but, I would suggest, that of the Gael and of other peoples whose languages and way of life have become endangered.

"The Road to Glenlough," by the late James Byrne, of Glencolmcille, Donegal. Byrne, who died in November, 2008, was a great fiddler, with a unique way of playing and an equally unique repertoire. The tunes he played mostly belonged to the Glencolmcille area, and even when he played tunes that were more widely known, he put his own stamp on them. I knew when I bought "The Road to Glenlough" some years ago that it was an album to treasure, and it is especially so now. It was produced by Claddagh records, and appears to be available from them still, in CD format.

"The High Hills of Largy; Compositions of Sean Nugent." This small volume has been compiled by Catherine McLaughlin (daughter of Sean) and was edited by Cyril Maguire. Musical transcriptions are by Sharon Creasey. The book has been published by The Fermanagh Traditional Music Society, and I can also recommend an earlier book from the society, "Hidden Fermanagh". "The High Hills of Largy" brings to print the tunes of Sean Nugent, who was a fiddler and member of the Pride of Erin ceilidh band. This little book is another valuable resource for anyone who has an interest in the music and culture of Ireland in general, and Fermanagh in particular.

"Cruth na Tíre", edited by Wilson McLeod and Máire Ní Annracháin, published by Coiscéim, 2003. This book is a collection of essays concerning the relationship between Gaelic literature and the landscape. The essays, some in Scottish Gaelic and others in Irish Gaelic, cover a variety of topics, including the representation of the landscape in the Scottish Gaelic poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as in the classical "Bàrdachd nan Sgol" of both Ireland and Scotland. One essay focuses specifically on the sea as it appears in the poetry of Lewis, and another essay looks at landscape in traditional Irish song. The essays are rather academic in tone, as you would expect from the writers, nearly all of whom are associated with universities, but I was nevertheless left with the sense that these writers all share an emotional link to the literature and to the places of which they are writing. Contributors, in addition to the editors, are Iain MacAonghuis, Meg Bateman, Lillis O Laoire, Michelle NicLeòid, Roibeard O Maolalaigh, Donald Meek, Gillian Munro, Micheal Newton, Tim Robinson, Eamonn Slater,

"Flemington and Tales from Angus", by Violet Jacob, published by Canongate Classics. This edition includes the novel, "Flemington", originally published in 1911, and stories from two collections, published in 1922 and 1982. Although I had bought the book specifically hoping to enjoy the stories, I have to confess that I was not all that taken with them. The novel, however, was a pleasant surprise. It is set during the 1745 Jacobite Rising, and tells the story of a young man who, while operating as a government spy, finds himself compromised by an unexpected friendship with a Jacobite soldier. While the plot is reasonably engrossing, the book would be worth reading for nothing more than the author's exquisite descriptions of the Angus countryside. I also found the dilemma facing the hero in this novel, and the bitter personal consequences of war, to be of particular and enduring relevance.

" The Nabob: a tale of Ninety-Eight", by Andrew James, edited by J. W. Foster. Published by Four Courts Press. This book, published originally in 1911, is a series of interconnected tales set in Co. Antrim in 1798. The stories are told in a reasonably accessible Ulster Scots dialect, and are worth reading for their literary value as well as being of historical interest. It is the first book I have ever seen with footnotes referring the reader to websites.

"Death of a King and other Stories", by Seamus de Faoite, published by The Lilliput Press. De Faoite was a native of Killarney, and most of the stories are set in and around Killarney, as far as I can tell. They are all quite short and some of them are a bit too sweet for my taste, but the writing itself is marvellous, and the stories have a lingering appeal.

"Liontan Sgaoilte" le Alasdair Caimbeul, air fhoillseachadh le Canan (1999). This is not a new book but it is still in print. Included in this volume by Lewis writer Caimbeul are stories and short plays or dialogues, all of which can best be described as quirky. They provide a tantalizing glimpse into modern life in Lewis--a glimpse which will surely confound anyone looking for heather and short bread-tin Gaeldom!

"An Trubhal na mo Dhorn/The Trowel in my Hand--songs and poems by Neil Macleod". Collected and Translated by Roderick F. Macleod. This is a short collection of only a handful of poems by "the Polbain Bard" detailing the life of a fisherman and stonemason at the end of the 19th century. The book, or pamphlet, also includes information about the life of Macleod, and some excellent notes explaining the poems. A CD is also available which contains the poems spoken in Gaelic and English by Roddie Macleod, as well as poems recorded in the 50's by the author. Contact for the book: Roderick F. Macleod, "Suilven," The Avenue, Auchterhouse, Angus DD3 OTS, or Kevin H.J. Macleod, 4, Orchard Terrace, Craigleith, Edinburgh, EH4 2HA. Musicians will be interested to know that Kevin MacLeod has made several CDs of tunes played on a variety of stringed instruments, mainly mandolin and banjo. His latest album, Dorney Rock, is a cracker.

"Dileab/Legacy", by Margaret McLeod, available from Thane Records, TRCD0501. Margaret McLeod, a MOD gold medallist from the isle of Lewis, sings in her native Gaelic on this album, and with the exception of one or two tracks, is unaccompanied by other voices or instruments. The outstanding track for me is Oran A Mhailisidh, by Murdo MacFarlane.

Finally, I enjoyed "Born for Sport", a CD from Paul O'Shaughnessy (fiddle) and Harry Bradley (flute), both of whose playing I have long admired. Again, what I found particularly striking about this album was the lack of accompaniment on many of the tracks! This album is also on a private label, but is distributed by Claddagh.