Nearly a century before Robert Burns was making his Scottish voice known to the world, a Scottish Hibernian bard was practising her poetic craft.
Rather then being celebrated, the bard Mary MacLeod, known as Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh in Gaelic, was exiled for her work that criticized the Scottish chiefs submitting to English rule and the destruction of the Gaelic language.
MacLeod’s work inspired poet Marilyn Bowering, a former Vancouver Island University professor, and led to the creation of her latest work Threshold.
Bowering first encountered remnants of MacLeod’s work when she was living in Scotland in the mid 1970s.
She found her way into a bookstore in the highlands of Scotland and stumbled across a book that included MacLeod’s work.
“It’s the only book that was in existence. This re-print [from] 1934, that was the only possible way to read her work,” said Bowering.
At the time Bowering wanted to purchase the book, but couldn’t.
“She stayed in my mind, just the fact that this 17th-century bard, a woman, was writing,” said Bowering. “It was ticking away in the back of my mind.”
In 2010 she stumbled across McLeod’s work again.
“I found myself very connected to her and the places she had visited,” she said.
As a bard, MacLeod, didn’t write down her work. It was an oral tradition passed down through families.
“She was living in a period where her culture was basically being erased,” said Bowering.
Chiefs were being forced to send their children to learn English in English schools.
“It was a very old culture. The culture had tendrils from all over Europe and she was highly regarded for upholding her culture and her values,” said Bowering. “She was this vibrant voice from a very vibrant culture that was being steamrolled.”
Eventually MacLeod was exiled, but the exact reasons for her banishment are unknown.
“It was a serious exile with nothing to support her. She writes about being left without anything, without even any shelter and she was forbidden to write,” said Bowering.
Bowering was “driven by curiosity” to learn more about the bard’s life.
“Scholars there really dismissed her until recently,” said Bowering.
The name of herbook comes from a song created about MacLeod that tells the tale of her exile and when she returned to Scotland she couldn’t create her poetry either inside or outside a house. So she stood on the threshold, said Bowering.
Bowering created the book in collaboration with her daughter Xan Shian.
Shian shot 16 black and white and five colour photographs for the book.
“The photographs are extremely important and really help with the context,” said Bowering. “The images really make that much more concrete.”
Bowering said Threshold, the photographs by Shian and work by MacLeod have created a conversation between the three women, each based on their artistic expression. The collaboration wasn’t deliberate, but seemed to evolve because of the women’s connection to the Scottish Highlands, said Bowering.
“We both knew this place for what it was, spent time there and experienced it, and found that in its own way it guided us to occupy very similar states of work,” said Shian in an e-mail. “This too is how my mother speaks about Màiri MacLeod: that she acted as a guide for these poems, the same poems that guided my hand in finding the photographs to take part in this conversation.”
Bowering is holding a book launch, for Threshold at the Nanaimo North Library Saturday (Jan. 23) at 2 p.m.
For more information please go to http://leafpress.ca.