Duncan Gillies
Read an extract from Duncan Gillies work. Read a review of Tocasaid 'Ain Tuirc below.
Duncan Gillies (1941) hails from Ness on the Isle of Lewis. He was educated in Ness and Stornoway, and later at the University of Aberdeen. After graduating, he moved to London, qualifying as a teacher in 1973, and studying horticulture. He has translated poems by William Shakespeare into Scottish Gaelic (Seachd Luinneagan le Shakespeare, University of Glasgow Department of Celtic, 1988), and, along with fellow Lewisman Calum Graham, produced Thall 's A-Bhos (Gairm, 1991), a selection of short stories in translation. He wrote Disathairn (Acair, 1992), a novel for teenagers. Tocasaid 'Ain Tuirc (CLAR, 2004) is his first work for adults, and is the third book in the Ur-Sgeul series. Duncan Gillies lives in London with his wife Esther.

A Review of Tocasaid 'Ain Tuirc
Tocasaid 'Ain Tuirc, Duncan Gillies
CLAR (May 2004)
ISBN 1 900901 11 0
Short Stories

Review by Aonghas MacNeacail (03.2004)

As I remarked to my wife, having read two or three of these stories, this is very interesting, strange stuff, weird even, but I'm thoroughly enjoying it. My perception is that these might be stories from the tradition, but retold by Samuel Becket.

As I read on, I can't say that that view altered, but a raft of other thoughts floated in on my reading, as successive layers of awareness revealed themselves. It's not that references leap out of every page, this writer is too skilful, but it's clear that the book comes from a restless imagination in touch with many other literatures. And, given his origins in an island where the Bible's influences have been so pervasive, Biblical rhythms are inevitably present.

But I believe there are coursing through the stories of Duncan Gillies other currents, far older, and, I'd argue, far more indigenous to Lewis than that familiar faith. But though each story is, in flavour, as Gaelic as can be, there are other imageries and rhythms woven into his words that are not Gaelic in origin. If I am not mistaken, there are ancient Viking voices still breathing and pulsing smartly through this book. And why shouldn't there be!

Poetry runs through the book, with one character devoting a considerable portion of his life to translating a poem from the English of John Donne into Gaelic (encountering a variety of different kinds of poetry on the way); and the district of Ness depicted in these stories appears to be awash with poets, though their ouevre has more in common with the marvels constructed by Dundees most famous poet (the one born on the Cowgate, in Edinburgh Old Town). Though Gillies's poets are more likely to praise the potato or the Aspro rather than Queen Victoria or bridges across the Tay, something of the same high seriousness is to be observed in their words.

This is the kind of book that beguiles you in, if only to find out what happens next... Then, unexpectedly, you are roaring with laughter, startling yourself - where the hell did that come from, should it have happened...? But then, read on, be observant, and you'll note the little twists, here and there, that signal the hidden presence, round the corner, behind window, stone, dyke or word, of a grin or guffaw.

This is not a work of fantasy, though it contains moments of pure fantasy. The author allows his sharp eye and imagination to focus on circumstances, causes and occurrences then draws them together into a lively portrait of a community. He touches on, for example, the Metagama and the Marloch, as symbols of emigration; seafaring - and in alluding to the Navy, wars; seasonal work, with young women finding employment in Mainland hotels. The pastimes and implements of daily life on which the community depends are integral to the stories, and if he is not specific about period, that can be identified through such details.

In their actions and personalities, the characters are perhaps the most appealing elements in the book. Some inhabit the everyday world, others belong to a trollish other world, while some flit between the two. Even their names are distinctive - Am Bromaire Mor, A Chliutag, Am Plugan, An Sgeilbheag, An Sleapain - none of which appears in Dwelly's Dictionary. And there's the collection's eponym, An Tocasaid (Hogshead?), 'who wrote his first book, The Social Life of the Starling when he was around twelve years old...' a book 'which was read on the Third Programme, and didn't it sell well in England'.

Sometimes the character An Sgeilbheag appears as the principal actor in a story, at other times he is the subject of a folk-tale narrated by another character. An Sgeilbheag is something of an enchanted character, who is provided with commentary and (when appropriate) warning from his magic brown boots. Those boots are capable but not infallible. Even if they don't offer protection from every impish disaster that befalls him, they do preserve him from the worst that might happen.

Now, while not one troll or demon actually appears in the book, it would be hard to deny that a foreign spirit drives many of the beings we encounter. We are familiar with their counterparts in the European folktales read to us, or by us, in childhood. Among Duncan Gillies's numerous achievements in this book, record his reminding us that such tales have a place in our adult lives; that they are a living part of our imagination, and that they ought to be. But setting such weighty judgments aside, we have here a splendid storyteller, fluent, celebratory, accomplished.

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