Profile of new college Writer-in-Residence

Rob MacIlleChiar against the Sound of Sleat

"If I have a task, I feel that I am bound to play some part in trying to bring back literary Gaelic: to see it fully recognised as a tongue which can deal with any topic; to see Gaelic back in its proper place among the international community of languages."

Rob Calum MacIlleChiar is the latest in a long and distinguished line of literate Gaelic speakers - both native and taught - to have held the post of sgrìobhaiche, or writer-in-residence, at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic College in Skye. His predecessors have included the great poet Sorley Maclean, Aonghas Macneacail, Angus Peter Campbell and most recently Rody Gorman.

Born 42 years ago as Rob Kerr in Kames, near Tighnabruaich (where "my grandparents were Gaelic-speakers but my parents were denied the language"), this quietly-spoken son of Argyll attended school at Strachur and Oban before joining the Forestry Commission. A growing interest in rock-climbing led him on to work for Nevisport in Glasgow, Fort William and Aviemore, before "in my mid-20s I decided to get some education".

Rob did a mathematics course at Langside College in Glasgow, which in turn led him into the computing industry as a programmes analyst. But a disruption in his personal life sent him north again: to Kinlochleven - "close enough to a land I felt at home in" - to work as a climbing instructor . . . and to a Gaelic language immersion course being run at An Àird in Fort William by Inverness College.

"Then I spotted an advertisement in the West Highland Free Press," he continues, "for a course here at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. I took it up, and that led to a BA course in Gaelic language and culture."

Rob graduated last summer. He decided to stay in Skye, having remarried and settled in Sleat, and worked at anything that materialised, "in the kitchens at Flodigarry Hotel and here at the college - whatever pays the rent".

He had never stopped writing (his distinctive verse has appeared in Poetry Scotland, Gairm and Westwords, and a selection is to be anthologised in New Writing Scotland), and the support and encouragement of friends and colleagues determined him to apply for the 12-month post of sgrìobhaiche - a post which is jointly funded by the Scottish Arts Council and the Trustees of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

Rob MacIlleChiar in the library at SMO

Rob MacIlleChiar's cryptic, haiku-type poems were engendered in that last Gaelic course at the Sabhal Mòr. "A tutor, Meg Bateman, handed me a sheaf of papers containing Irish Gaelic hermit poetry - maybe four or five lines each describing certain mind-images.


Beannachd gaoth Foghair;
duilleagan air an tuiteam,
bainne na cìche dha
failleanan Earraich.

The blessing of the autumn wind;
fallen leaves,
mother's milk to the
shoots of Spring.

"They obviously put me in mind of the haiku. I had been translating Chinese and Japanese verse into Gaelic via English - which works remarkably well! - and the similarities were striking, in form and in their nature-reliant content.

"What is equally remarkable is that those short poems from Ireland between the 6th and 8th centuries were exactly contemporaneous with the T'ang Dynasty verses they so resembled - and that both of them, at opposite ends of the earth, were written by hermit monks.

"Gaelic is not some isolated literary curiosity," says Rob MacIlleChiar. "It is a world language with a history and a culture as full and rewarding as any other. It was once recognised as such, and it should be again."


2001-04-17 CPD