I’ve not written for a few days now, mainly because I haven’t had the heart. I lost my dear sister to cancer and despite having stood at her graveside in Sutherland, in the top left hand corner of Scotland, I can’t believe she’s gone. I won’t truly believe that, I think, until I’ve landed on the Isle of Iona and know that she won’t be there to greet me, to tell me of some new adventure she’s planning, or to take me on a walk to somewhere I’ve not known before. I keep saying that she was the youngest person I’ve ever known. That’s why my family’s still struggling to believe it’s possible she’s gone: she had such extraordinary vitality, such a huge sense of fun and laughter, that no-one can understand how it could be taken away. Somehow I think of her as the human embodiment of an otter: they are always on the move – for all the hours of the day they are frisking and searching and diving and sliding. They are water come alive; flowing in every direction. Somehow that sums up Helen. For all the last days I have felt numb and have written not a word. Then at five thirty this morning phrases began tugging me, and after three hours of scribbling I felt the poem had found its way onto the page.

My Sister Helen

She was Scotland to me:
bedtime stories that woke me
to the history of Wallace and Bruce,
would have had me up in a saddle,
galloping back in time
for the bits of the border we’d lost.

She lived down endless long windings of bumps,
in cottages with attics and owls –
the hope of conkers in the morning.

She drove me one August night
when the skies were orange and bruised,
till the storm was flickering booms
and we came back in the silvering rain.

She was drives at high speed
down roads that should have closed long ago,
in cars that were held together
by the hope of a better tomorrow.

She would coax a whole ceilidh
out of a candle and an old bothy;
she was songs and tin whistles
in the middle of the worst of blizzards.

She was a beach where you could always swim,
and a place you’d not known before;
she was a fire that would set you alight,
an adventure that was yet to be planned.  

Kenneth Steven 2016


Although I write in English, and English is the language I grew up with, I sometimes remember that I should have grown up with the Gaelic language too. My mother’s family were all from the West Highlands of Scotland: they were crofting people – sheep, hens, a little arable land. It was a struggle against a constant fear of poverty, and that was the way it had been for hundreds of years. Although my mother was brought up in a household where English was the first language, both her parents – my grandparents – had plenty of the Gaelic language in their blood. But by the first decades of last century, it was a language that had been actively persecuted for a hundred and fifty years.

The Battle of Culloden, the final half hour of slaughter at the end of the second Jacobite Rising, fought in 1746, sealed the fate of the northern half of Scotland for ever. It led to the Clearances, where hundreds of thousands of Highland Scots left the country for America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The whole Jacobite story is a mighty complex business, not something that can be neatly described in a few paragraphs. But it’s a story worth exploring nonetheless. Many modern day Scots have a dangerously oversimplified view of this story as having been a fight between England and Scotland. That view is not helped by the Hollywoodisation of history through films like Braveheart. The simple truth is that it was most complicated.

What is much clearer is the aftermath. The Hanoverian forces, fresh from their victory at Culloden, set about bringing the Highlands into line. Villages were burned and innocent people, whose only crime was to speak the Gaelic language, were hanged. Some of the Highland survivors of the battle were taken down to England and hung, drawn and quartered. The message was clear: never was this kind of rebellion to happen again.

In the years that followed, two very clever strategies were employed to enforce that message. The first was the building of military roads into the wildest parts of the Highlands to ensure that soldiers could reach every corner as quickly as possible. The second was the establishment of tiny schools in every glen for one purpose above all others – the teaching of the English language and the suppression of the Gaelic tongue. Gaelic was the language of the rebellious Highlanders, so Gaelic had to be brought under control.

It was a strategy employed elsewhere in the Celtic countries, and it was most successful. I sometimes think it’s amazing any Gaelic at all remains in the Scottish Highlands, so efficiently was the programme carried out after 1746. What happened in the end was that many Highlanders came to hate their own language: they refused to pass it on to their children, seeing it as a handicap compared with ‘useful’ languages like French and German. By the time my mother went to school half an hour from Inverness, her headmaster – a fine speaker of Gaelic himself – believed that any child speaking his tongue should have the living daylights beaten out of him. And that kind of thinking was seen as joined-up.

There’s something of a revival in Gaelic in today’s Scotland, but it’s by no means an easy story of success. There are pockets of progress: that’s all one can say. But there’s a long way to go.


The wounded wandered home in Gaelic
by rivers and back roads;
all they had fought for
unsure and broken.

Hoe long before they saw
their language and their land
like a limb that’s tied too tight,
still there but dying all the time.

Or like a wildcat caught at last
not killed, but tamed;
de-clawed, castrated –
then stroked and told to purr.