THE SCOTSMAN: Angus Peter Campbell - Text message to the world

26th August 2006

SUPPOSE, FOR THE MOMENT, THAT instead of writing in a language like English, so linguistically wide and rich that it sweeps all ahead of it, you wrote in one that is fighting a rearguard action for survival. Would that fact change the way you write and what you write about?

That's the thought that is looping through my brain as I sit talking to Angus Peter Campbell, Gaeldom's most prolific poet and novelist, and the answer I'm coming to, the more I hear him talk, is that it would be absolutely fundamental. If the language you speak and think in, your whole oral culture, is already slipping off the map, any writer who uses it would be desperate to pin it back on.

So of course what you wrote about would change. There'd be less point, for example, veering off into the slighter sliproads of ordinary narrative fiction or dallying with social realism and simple, pared-down stories of everyday life. Why bother? Words are weapons, and your side is losing the linguistic war. So to make them count, you're going to reach for the epic, the mythic, the bardic. You're going to show the poetry that this language may one day leave behind; and, in prose, you'll reveal its intricate riches, the stories woven into its very heart. And you'll do that even in English.

Campbell's Invisible Islands is a case in point. His last two novels in Gaelic - their titles translate as "The Night Before We Sailed" and "The Day Will Tell Its Story" - attracted rave reviews and healthy sales (with 56,000 Gaelic speakers, a book written in the language that sells 1,000 copies is a runaway bestseller).

Invisible Islands, his first book in English, lets a wider readership see what kind of writer he is. It's heavily influenced by Calvino's Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo described a series of imaginary cities to Kubla Khan. Both are hard books to summarise - essentially meditations on different kinds of realities (psychological, sensory, physical, etc) in different fictional settings - and are to be prized more for their imaginative flair than their accessibility.

"When I read Calvino's book, I was impressed by its boldness, lyricism and bravery, and I wrote my own because I thought the whole notion of islands needed exploration," says Campbell. "Looking at the proofs, I thought, 'Oh, I wish they were stories,' but then I thought, 'Well, if they are cerebral let's not be ashamed of that.'"

Campbell's fictive, fabulous islands range from holy isles to ones where no-one can remember or speak about the past, from islands drowning in a babel of communications to islands lost to the Clearances, or with only wildlife and windfarms on them. There are islands whose physicality dwarfs others, ones that split, ones where war rages, ones where ghosts of injustice forever stalk the land, and islands that are famed for their extraordinary ordinariness.

On the islands of Beurla and Labhraigh we come closest to the linguistic battle that overshadows Campbell's work. On Beurla, a tall stranger with his numberless brood comes to teach the islanders that their own past is just myth and does not matter. He arrives with his sons and daughters, Electricity and Television and Shame, this tall thin man who "took the cards from our hands and froze the words on our lips and took the goodness out of our music and swept the fire from the centre of our floor and set a searing bonfire in our hearts".

And if that's the damage caused by English, Gaelic itself is under unavoidable threat on islands such as Labhraigh, where its old vitality is slowly dying as those who learnt it at their mother's knee gives way to those who learnt it in the classroom. Still, the islanders convince themselves, it's better for their language to be badly spoken than buried in a coffin. But how does that linguistic dispossession mark them? Already these islanders only speak in a permanent present tense, yet "everyone knows, despite all the clamour, that the now they speak of is already past, or is yet to be".

WE MEET ON WHAT TURNS OUT TO BE the first hot day in the summer's heatwave. The sun is melting the tar on the road down to Sleat (to get to Angus Peter's, said an islander friend, "drive till you see a row of council houses with the best view in Britain and look for the one with the children's bikes outside the door": right on both counts). It's gone ten in the morning, but his six children are only starting their day's play. They were up late, he tells me, at the party to mark the finishing of a Gaelic film called Seachd, in which he plays an 800-year-old storyteller.

Really, the storyteller is a mere 80-year-old who has been able to live ten times longer only because he has tasted a flower that slows his heart rate down. But 80 or 800, it doesn't matter: his orphaned grandson has turned his back on him and his untrustworthy stories and gone off to become an accountant in Glasgow.

Although Campbell didn't write the screenplay, it seems to echo his own dilemmas, which are those of every writer in Gaelic. At its heart, this is meant to be a film about the magic of storytelling - and any figure who is 800 years old is as compellingly bardic and shamanic as it's possible to be - yet it seems to be showing that this magic has now been lost, even deliberately rejected, by a younger generation.

So back to those suppositions we started off with. If you are a Gaelic writer now, that's got to be your main concern. And even when you deliberately move away from the weight of Gaelic's historical tradition, it doesn't get any easier.

"How to marry modernism and folk tradition without condescension is a terrific challenge," says Campbell. "The danger is always to go to one extreme, to say let's do smart, cerebral fiction like Invisible Islands, which I cannot thole in my heart because I don't feel separate from my community. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to unread Eliot or Pound and the modernists and just write traditional verses. I do think it's possible to marry the two."

Both sides came together early on in Campbell's education. Brought up in South Uist, he went to school in Oban, where he was taught by Iain Crichton Smith ("he was just awesome, introducing me to poets like Roethke and Lowell and a really advanced range of English literature").

At university he met an even more influential mentor. "In my last year at Edinburgh University, Sorley MacLean was the writer-in-residence, and I went, rather nervously, to him to show him some poems. He looked at them and closed his eyes and sat back in his chair for about 20 minutes and I was about to leave, when he summoned me back. He didn't say a single word about my poems, but we talked about history and other things."

Six months later, he was in Portree when he met MacLean's daughter Catriona. " 'Are you Angus Peter Campbell, the bard?' she asked me. It was like a blessing." Or, for a young man working out what he should do with his life, a gentle shove towards writing.

Already university had opened up other intellectual horizons - Beckett, Borges, postmodernism, Marxist textual analysis among them. Their imprint isn't only in Invisible Islands, it pervades his third novel, An Taigh Sanhraidh (The Summer House), which will be published in October. It's partly about holiday homes and was sparked off by his anger last year when, trying in vain to find a nearby place for a visiting poet to stay, he contacted a London owner to ask if he could rent her house for a week. "No," she said, after an embarrassed pause. "We only give it to friends."

In the book, Rebecca, English-Italian owner of an island home, "our little piece of heaven", is visited by the ghost of the man who built it in 1745, and then his descendant who returns from Canada. The question the book poses is to whom does the house belong - either of them or Rebecca, who has become aware of the historical injustices faced by Gaeldom, who has started learning Gaelic and is proficient enough to begin texting in it.

The novel's mix is wide and varied, from Trieste to Shoreditch, from women turning into selkies to text messages in the kind of Gaelic that hasn't yet made it into the language's literature. It is a long way from straightforward social realism. "I wish I could do that," Campbell says with engaging honesty, "but ..."

But, just once to finish a sentence for him, he doesn't need to. The language he needs to battle for has other plans for him.

• Invisible Islands, by Angus Peter Campbell, is published by Otago, priced £8.99. He will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival tomorrow.

by David Robinson