Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

Snake Women and Hideous Sensations: The Strange Case of Gaelic Detective Short Stories by Ruaraidh Erskine of Mar (1)

Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

Snake Women and Hideous Sensations: The Strange Case of Gaelic Detective Short Stories by Ruaraidh Erskine of Mar (1)

Article excerpt

Ruaraidh Erskine of Mar (born Richard Stuart Erskine, 1869-1960), is one of the most intriguing and least examined representatives of Scottish nationalism and Gaelic revival in the early decades of the twentieth century. (2) A son of an aristocratic family descended from the Erskine earls of Buchan, Erskine learnt Gaelic from his childhood nurse, a native speaker from Harris, and was inspired by radical Irish nationalism. Unlike many of his contemporaries who did not connect the efforts to obtain devolution or full independence for Scotland with a specific linguistic and cultural agenda, Erskine considered the revival of Gaelic an essential component of a successful political emancipation.

In Donald John MacLeod's words, Erskine 'deployed his own capital and his remarkable resources of ideas and of energy to rid Gaelic literature of the influence both of its "peasant origins" and its new "enthusiasm for the music hall"' and to raise it to the best European standards of the time. (3) To this end, he founded several magazines that he edited, contributed to, and sponsored by his own means: the bilingual monthly Am Bard (The Poet, 1901-02), the quarterly Guth na Bliadbna (The Year's Voice, 1904-25, bilingual until 1919, all-Gaelic since), the weekly Alba (Scotland, 1908-09), the initially monthly and later quarterly An Sgeulaiche (The Storyteller, 1909-11), and a book-length annuals Rosarnach (The Rose Garden, 1917, 1918, 1921, 1930). (4) Erskine's motivation, as well as his elitist attitude, can be tellingly illustrated by an excerpt from a letter addressed to the Northern Chronicle in 1924 where he explains that the aim of his Gaelic magazines is

deagh litreachas anns a' chanain Ghaidhlig a chur a mach, agus mar an 
ceudna spiorad fior thuigseach leirsinneach a thaobh nithean arda an 
t-saoghail so a dhuisgeadh anns na Gaidheil air fad. Ma ghabhas so 
deanamh ann an doigh a bheir tlachd agus toileachadh do'n mhor-chuid 
de na Gaidheil, tha sinn toilichte; ach mur toir, tha sinn coma, is 
gur iad is motha leinn daonnan prionnsapla seach daoine. (5)
to publish good literature in the Gaelic language, and also to awake 
the spirit of true understanding and intelligence towards the elevated 
things of this world in all the Gaels. If it can be done in a way that 
brings pleasure and happiness to most of the Gaels, we are glad; if 
not, we do not care, for principles last longer than people.

Contributors to these publications included, amongst others, poet and playwright Domhnall Mac na Ceardaich (Donald Sinclair) as well as Iain MacCormaig (John MacCormick) and Aonghas MacDhonnchaidh (Angus Robertson), authors of the first two Gaelic novels, Dun-aluinn (Dunalin, 1912) and An t-Ogha Mor (The Great-Grandson, 1913). Though mostly short-lived (with the remarkable exception of Guth na Bliadhna) and not commercially successful, the magazines nonetheless played a vital role in the emergence of modern Gaelic journalism, literary criticism, prose, and drama.

Erskine himself contributed to the magazines in several genres--he wrote essays on a wide range of topics (including philosophy, aesthetics, history, ethnology, and politics), reviews, plays, and a number of short stories. (6) He was one of the first non-native speakers of Gaelic who decided to use the language as the medium of their creative expression, a trend which is now well-established with prominent and acclaimed authors such as Christopher Whyte and Meg Bateman, but would have been quite uncommon at the beginning of the twentieth century. As a non-native speaker, an aristocrat, and a Catholic, Erskine represents an intriguing combination of several minority strains in Gaelic literature.

In 1909-10, An Sgeulaiche, a magazine devoted primarily to Gaelic fiction, published a series of Erskine's tales 'Gniomharran Iain Mhic Ranouill' (The Adventures of John MacRonald), featuring a gentleman detective with many friends in elevated social circles who deals with stolen Velazquez paintings, murder by means of a poisoned bulbul (Erskine was perhaps trying to trump Arthur Conan Doyle and his milk-drinking, servant-bell-climbing lethal snake in 'The Speckled Band'), and manipulative spiritualists. …

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