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Wednesday 12 December 2012

The Highlands: Written by a Highlander from the Inside

Front cover of the first edition of The Highlands
by Calum I. Maclean
Due to his untimely death at the age of only forty-four in South Uist, Calum Maclean had but only a few years to write the only book (and for which he is perhaps most famous for) that he would live to see in print and which remains to this very day a classic example of this type of genre.
The first edition of The Highlands appeared in 1959 and was published by Batsford. After the first print run, the publisher, despite the book’s popularity, refused to commission any more copies. The reason behind such a decision was probably due to the fact that the book was seen by them to have been too ‘politic’ and perhaps even too ‘controversial’.
After a hiatus of sixteen years, The Highlands was reprinted by Inverness-based Club Leabhar in 1975 with additional material including a ‘Memoir’ by Seán Ó Súilleabháin, Maclean’s close friend and colleague, together with three poems by John Maclean, Sorley MacLean and John MacLeod. Much of the editorial work for the second edition was carried out by Frank Thompson. The Irish University Press was interested in bringing out the second edition prior to 1975 but, for whatever reason, such a plan never came to fruition.
A third edition of The Highlands appeared in 1990 and was published by Edinburgh-based Mainstream. Cailean Maclean, Maclean’s nephew, supplied the stunning photographic images which makes this edition the most attractive one thus far. A later trade paperback (and fourth edition) was also published by Mainstream but which contained hardly any illustrative material.
The genesis of The Highlands would seem to have been fairly long in the making for Maclean notes in a diary entry for 26 May 1954: “I had some writing to do after lunch. I must try to get some specimen pages of that book for Batsford.” Presumably Maclean has been approached by the publisher to write a book about the Highlands and it would appear that they requested him for some samples of his writing. It is also discernible that Maclean’s style of diary writing was affected by this book commission for his later entries became more discursive and read more as if they were being prepared as a travelogue. Passages from his diaries from around this time onwards were later redrafted and appear sporadically throughout The Highlands.
On its first publication, The Highlands received favourable reviews. One which would have pleased Maclean would have been a review written by John Lorne Campbell, a close friend and colleague:

Mr Maclean has the advantage not only of being a native Gaelic-speaker but of having acquired…an international background and approach to his subject, an approach that is sadly lacking in most of the “experts” who have written about the Highlands and their problems during the past generation. This enables him to describe the oral traditions and the folklore of the Highlands in their true setting, as par to the Indo-European tradition. The great importance and interest of Gaelic Scotland from this point of view lie in the fact that it has preserved a vast corpus of ancient tales, traditions, and folk music that has largely perished in other European countries west of the Balkans, apart from Ireland. Mr. Maclean is able to convey to his readers vividly the wealth of oral literature and folksong that is still to be found in the Highlands in the crofter’s cottage and the tinker’s tent, a heritage which, to the everlasting disgrace of the so-called civilized parts of Scotland, was entirely ignored by official Scottish academic circles before the School of Scottish Studies was founded in 1951, and thereby allowed to drift to the brink of oblivion.
A fifth (and hopefully!) definitive edition of The Highlands is currently in preparation which will also include a representative sample of Maclean’s other popular and academic writings. This should have at least one benefit in that since the appearance of the second edition The Highlands will not have been out of print, a reflection of its enduring appeal and, of course, Maclean’s unique and valuable insight into his own native Gaelic culture which had been denigrated for many generations.

Reference: Campbell, John Lorne, ‘Gaelic Lore [Review of Calum I. Maclean’s The Highlands]’, The Times Literary Supplement, no. 2982 (24 Apr., 1959), 243
Front cover of the first edition of The Highlands


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