Professor Andrew McNeillie – ‘Theatres in the Round – Islands, Islanders, and Audiences: or backstage, stalls and gods: in the Unnameable Archipelago’.

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On the 12th of February, the Centre had the pleasure of welcoming Professor Andrew McNeillie to give the annual Tannahill lecture. Professor Gerard Carruthers introduced the event, outlining that it is in remembrance of Andrew Tannahill, with the bequest established in 2006 for the furtherance of the study of Scottish Literature. We were introduced to Prof McNeillie, not only Professor Emeritus at the University of Exeter but also a welsh-born prose writer and poet. With six poetry collections to his name, Prof McNeillie gave particular mention to the works Nevermore (2000) and Winter Moorings (2014), which features depictions of the Scottish island of Lewis. He is also the founder of the Clutag Press and of the literary magazine, Archipelago. With this in mind, Prof McNeillie opened his talk: ‘Theatres in the Round- Islands, Islanders and Audiences (or, backstage, stalls and gods in the Unnameable Archipelago)’.

Garry Beach, Lewis (Visit Scotland)

Prof McNeillie encouraged us to question our previous assumptions and expectations surrounding the idea of islands. He gave the example of the Northern Irish poet, Louis MacNeice, and his preferences for being on – and working on – islands: the ability to do local work and on this tiny stage to be able to clearly see the end of a single action. However, Prof McNeillie further questioned how far this idea could be taken: is this itself a kind of deception? Referencing the conceptualisation of Ireland itself, as an island in its own right, Prof McNeillie highlighted current criticism and its portrayal of the island nation: Inventing Ireland: The Literature of The Modern Nation being one such example. It is the ideas expressed through works such as these of a national family feeling, of local insularity and an independent and inclusive nature that Prof McNeillie wished to explore.

Prof McNeillie referenced the infamous speech from Shakespeare’s historical play, Richard II: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”. He further explained that this ‘Unnameable’ or unknown archipelago that he was referring to in his title was, indeed, the United Kingdom. However, by referring to the islands by this anonymising terminology – bringing the islands back to their most basic meanings – he is able to shake up the previously conceived social, cultural and historical distinctions. In this way, he allows new meaning to rush into the space left behind. For this reason, Islands make for compelling literary characters, who both contain and are contained by nature; integrate and are integrated by nature. The dominant example being the element of the sea, which captures the land and consequently forms a unique cultural and social space reinforced through its isolation. Prof McNeillie elaborated that looking at islands had been more recently revolutionised by the invention of the plane: for islands such as the Hebrides, they could only ever be seen as individuals, separated off from each other, whereas now, by flying over them, we are able to photograph, film and more fully experience them as a whole unit. Prof McNeillie referenced John Donne’s poem, ‘No Man is an Island’, alluding to the fact that we must keep these relationships in mind when exploring the idea of the island. Likewise, he explained that the talk was not going to be an essay on moral allegory, but more concerned with the actual islands: works inspired by and concerning the islands themselves.

The idea of an island is intrinsically concerned with the idea of the ‘interloper’- or ‘outsiderly-ness’ – playing a key role in the way islands are expressed to, or perceived by, the wider public. We question what we might know of a place and how far we can trust whether it is its true nature or not: Prof McNeillie believes that this is why writers have always had a passion for and with islands. He stated, ‘Islands, it seems, inspires’. The importance of grasping the local – and local work – is expressed through the vital part that language plays in these expressions: ways of thinking and being associated and expressed through languages, such as Gaelic or Welsh – a timely thought considering 2019 is the United Nations year of indigenous languages.

Prof McNeillie returned to the exploration of Ireland and its own islands, introducing us to John Millington Synge, an Irish poet who experienced the Aran Islands in 1907. His poetry explores the construction of the island: the sea wall and the language wall. This language also concerns how the islanders are portrayed, with their practical skills necessary within this specific kind of island lifestyle. Prof McNeillie suggested that there is a kind of double language of the islanders: the practicality of this lifestyle versus the romanticised imagery. This Irish context is expressed through the difference in the Aran Islands to that of Ireland as a whole. Prof McNeille suggests that Synge acts as a translator between two languages – indigenous and modern – as well as between two worlds: a place where extremes meet, giving a kind of distilled experience through and in the artwork. An experience that must be situated within the direct observations and experiences of the place.

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John Millington Synge (Wikipedia)

By contrast, we were showed images taken from Robert Flaherty’s, Man of Aran (1934), a documentary film that depicts the romanticised version of the islander’s life. The unrealistic hardship and mythic circumstances are exemplified through the similarly unrealistic and posed shots. This perception has enshrined the islands in false expectations. However, in opposition to this perspective, Prof McNeillie introduced us to the cartographer, Tim Robinson, who reversed the colonial mapping of the Aran Islands by including Gaelic place names on his maps. The rewriting of the places and spaces recreated the islands for the islanders. This recalibration of the islands resituates the idea of the island back within the islanders own lived experience. Finally, Prof McNeillie explored this idea of human experience within islands through the example of the Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, and his famous trip to one of the Shetland Islands: Whalsay. MacDiarmid’s time on the island is experienced through his psychological distress after his divorce in 1935. It is from this distress, and island experience, that MacDiarmid produces, not only poetry, but begins to write the majority of his autobiography, Lucky Poet (1943). Prof McNeillie described how MacDiarmid, unlike the traditional ‘interloper’, actively attempted to integrate with the locals and their culture. He questioned whether MacDiarmid’s presence can still be felt in the Shetland Islands today, and how this affects the perception of the Scottish literary canon.

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Hugh MacDiarmid (Scottish Poetry Library)

Through questioning our own understanding of islands, and more importantly the ‘Unnameable Archipelago’, Prof McNeillie allowed us to rush into the void of meaning and create our own islands of knowledge in its place.  

Hannah Pyle

Scottish Literature

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