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TITLE
The Highland Seer' (1 of 2)
EXTERNAL ID
AB_LL_ALEXANDER_SMITH_09
DISTRICT
Skye
OLD COUNTY/PARISH
INVERNESS
DATE OF RECORDING
2008
PERIOD
2000s
CREATOR
Alexander Smith
SOURCE
Am Baile
ASSET ID
1237
KEYWORDS
audio
literary landscapes

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This audio extract is from 'A Summer in Skye' by Alexander Smith, first published in 1865. It is read here by Norman Newton.

'In the stories which are told round the island peat-fires it is abundantly apparent that the Celt has not yet subdued nature. In these stories you can detect a curious subtle hostility between man and his environments; a fear of them, a want of absolute trust in them. In these stories and songs man is not at home in the world. Nature is too strong for him; she rebukes and crushes him. The elements, however calm and beautiful they may appear for the moment, are malign and deceitful at heart and merely bide their time.

And this curious relation between man and nature grows out of the climatic conditions and the forms of Hebridean life. In his usual avocations the Isles-man rubs clothes with death as he would with an acquaintance. Gathering wild-fowl, he hangs, like a spider on its thread, over a precipice on which the sea is beating a hundred feet beneath. In his crazy boat he adventures into whirlpool and foam. He is among the hills when the snow comes down making everything unfamiliar and stifling the strayed wanderer. This death is ever near him and that consciousness turns everything into omen.

The mist creeping along the hillside by moonlight is an apparition. In the roar of the waterfall, or the murmur of the swollen ford, he hears the water spirit calling out for the man for whom it has waited so long. He sees death-candles burning on the sea, marking the place at which a boat will be upset by some sudden squall. He hears spectral hammers clinking in an outhouse and he knows that ghostly artificers are preparing a coffin there. Ghostly fingers tap at his window, ghostly feet are about his door; at midnight his furniture cries out as if it had seen a sight and could not restrain itself. Even his dreams are prophetic and point ghastly issues for himself or for others.'

Alexander Smith was a prolific mid-Victorian poet and essayist, who worked hard at his literary trade without ever quite attaining the success to which he aspired.

Smith was born in Edinburgh on 31st December 1829 and was self-educated, following his father in the textile trade until, in 1853, a collection of poems originally appearing in 'The Critic' periodical as 'A Life Drama' was published to much acclaim from the Scottish literati and gained him the post of Secretary of the University of Edinburgh in 1854.

After the publication of 'Poems' (1853) Smith collaborated with Sydney Dobell on a jingoistic contribution on the Crimean War, 'Sonnets on the War' (1855). This attracted further criticism and in 'City Poems' (1857) Smith tried to lighten his tone, producing some of his best work. Unfortunately accusations of plagiarism produced further negative reviews.

Alexander Smith married Flora Macdonald at Ord House in Skye in 1857 - she was distantly related to Bonnie Prince Charlie's rescuer. They returned to Skye every August for the next nine years, until Smith's death from typhus on 5th January 1867. He suffered from poor health for the last two years of his life and was in a debilitated state when struck down by typhus.

Simon Berry, in the 'Oxford Dictionary of National Biography' (2004), says that:

The annual month's retreat on Skye allowed his psychological defences
against urban pressures to be lowered. His creative, dionysian side fed
on the unpredictable and irrational features of the island: the sudden
contrasts of storm and calm, the semi-surrealistic mountain shapes and
colours, the superstitions and fantastic tales of its inhabitants. All these
went into 'A Summer in Skye', making it a fascinating hotchpotch of
travelogue and speculation with no obvious models. In the same way
as Scott's poetry had drawn visitors to Perthshire earlier in the century,
so Smith's work (allied to the growth in the railway network) benefited
the west highland tourist trade.

'A Summer in Skye' has been twice reprinted in recent times in an edited and much abridged edition, but Alexander Smith's poetry remains to be rediscovered by modern readers.

There is a useful introduction in the abridged 1983 reprint of 'A Summer in Skye' by William F. Laughlan. Smith's father-in-law Charles Macdonald is identified as 'M'Ian of Ord' and Kenneth Macleod of Greshornish is 'the Landlord', but other characters mentioned remain to be identified.

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The Highland Seer' (1 of 2)

INVERNESS

2000s

audio; literary landscapes

Am Baile

Literary Landscapes: Alexander Smith

This audio extract is from 'A Summer in Skye' by Alexander Smith, first published in 1865. It is read here by Norman Newton.<br /> <br /> 'In the stories which are told round the island peat-fires it is abundantly apparent that the Celt has not yet subdued nature. In these stories you can detect a curious subtle hostility between man and his environments; a fear of them, a want of absolute trust in them. In these stories and songs man is not at home in the world. Nature is too strong for him; she rebukes and crushes him. The elements, however calm and beautiful they may appear for the moment, are malign and deceitful at heart and merely bide their time. <br /> <br /> And this curious relation between man and nature grows out of the climatic conditions and the forms of Hebridean life. In his usual avocations the Isles-man rubs clothes with death as he would with an acquaintance. Gathering wild-fowl, he hangs, like a spider on its thread, over a precipice on which the sea is beating a hundred feet beneath. In his crazy boat he adventures into whirlpool and foam. He is among the hills when the snow comes down making everything unfamiliar and stifling the strayed wanderer. This death is ever near him and that consciousness turns everything into omen. <br /> <br /> The mist creeping along the hillside by moonlight is an apparition. In the roar of the waterfall, or the murmur of the swollen ford, he hears the water spirit calling out for the man for whom it has waited so long. He sees death-candles burning on the sea, marking the place at which a boat will be upset by some sudden squall. He hears spectral hammers clinking in an outhouse and he knows that ghostly artificers are preparing a coffin there. Ghostly fingers tap at his window, ghostly feet are about his door; at midnight his furniture cries out as if it had seen a sight and could not restrain itself. Even his dreams are prophetic and point ghastly issues for himself or for others.'<br /> <br /> Alexander Smith was a prolific mid-Victorian poet and essayist, who worked hard at his literary trade without ever quite attaining the success to which he aspired.<br /> <br /> Smith was born in Edinburgh on 31st December 1829 and was self-educated, following his father in the textile trade until, in 1853, a collection of poems originally appearing in 'The Critic' periodical as 'A Life Drama' was published to much acclaim from the Scottish literati and gained him the post of Secretary of the University of Edinburgh in 1854.<br /> <br /> After the publication of 'Poems' (1853) Smith collaborated with Sydney Dobell on a jingoistic contribution on the Crimean War, 'Sonnets on the War' (1855). This attracted further criticism and in 'City Poems' (1857) Smith tried to lighten his tone, producing some of his best work. Unfortunately accusations of plagiarism produced further negative reviews.<br /> <br /> Alexander Smith married Flora Macdonald at Ord House in Skye in 1857 - she was distantly related to Bonnie Prince Charlie's rescuer. They returned to Skye every August for the next nine years, until Smith's death from typhus on 5th January 1867. He suffered from poor health for the last two years of his life and was in a debilitated state when struck down by typhus.<br /> <br /> Simon Berry, in the 'Oxford Dictionary of National Biography' (2004), says that:<br /> <br /> The annual month's retreat on Skye allowed his psychological defences<br /> against urban pressures to be lowered. His creative, dionysian side fed<br /> on the unpredictable and irrational features of the island: the sudden<br /> contrasts of storm and calm, the semi-surrealistic mountain shapes and<br /> colours, the superstitions and fantastic tales of its inhabitants. All these<br /> went into 'A Summer in Skye', making it a fascinating hotchpotch of<br /> travelogue and speculation with no obvious models. In the same way<br /> as Scott's poetry had drawn visitors to Perthshire earlier in the century,<br /> so Smith's work (allied to the growth in the railway network) benefited<br /> the west highland tourist trade.<br /> <br /> 'A Summer in Skye' has been twice reprinted in recent times in an edited and much abridged edition, but Alexander Smith's poetry remains to be rediscovered by modern readers.<br /> <br /> There is a useful introduction in the abridged 1983 reprint of 'A Summer in Skye' by William F. Laughlan. Smith's father-in-law Charles Macdonald is identified as 'M'Ian of Ord' and Kenneth Macleod of Greshornish is 'the Landlord', but other characters mentioned remain to be identified.