15th October 1998

Gaelic poet and author Iain Crichton Smith dies

Although born in Glasgow on new year’s day 1928, Iain Crichton Smith was raised in Lewis. He was a native Gaelic speaker and educated at the University of Aberdeen, spent some time as a teacher in Oban, then left the profession to become a full-time writer. He was awarded an OBE and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.

In 1979, he published the semi-autobiographical novel On the Island, which he admitted to Jack House in the Evening Times of 10 November, “wasn’t a factual account”. Nonetheless, House describes how “living in a Little Lewis village, the great moment for young Iain is once a year when his mother takes him to the [i]mmense metropolis of Stornoway. The shops, the bus[t]le, the buildings, almost overwhelm him… and there is the exquisite delight of going to the cinema. The little Lewis boy is always discovering things and also discovering himself.”

Iain Crichton Smith’s writing

Although English was his second language, it was the one in which Smith produced most of his written work, much of which explored themes from Scottish history.

The Glasgow Herald of 11 July 1988 explained why this might be: that in Gaelic, “the short story especially has proved quite strong, and there have been one or two novels. The basic problem is with readership; you’ve only got about 80,000 who speak Gaelic”.

However, as The Herald noted in its obituary the day after Smith’s death, “Through the establishment of the magazine Gairm, Derick Thomson made it possible for Iain Crichton Smith and other Gaelic writers to be published. ‘’I was particularly impressed with his early Gaelic short stories,’’ Professor Thomson remembered. ‘’He was very influential in encouraging more people to take to short story writing in Gaelic’.”

Prolific output

The Glasgow Herald, again on 11 July 1988, outlined his work, which went far beyond short stories: “the last 11 years have seen an average of a novel a year, not counting at least one that went into the wastepaper basket in his new regime of revision and re-scrutiny. There are also the radio plays, the short stories, the essays. ‘Between Gaelic and English poetry, I reckon I’ve produced about 15 books’ [Smith said].”

That number was set to grow. When Smith died of cancer on 15 October 1998, his obituary in The independent ticked off his accomplishments, telling readers that “it would be easy to conclude that Iain wrote too much for his own good – 10 novels in English, two in Gaelic. Taking both languages together, some dozen volumes of short stories. More than a dozen books of verse in English alone. He wrote compulsively, habitually. He did not like revising, and said that he had barely touched even ‘Deer on the High Hills’. In fact, it is the frankness and freshness of all his work which guarantees its durability.”



Other events that occured in October

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