Journeys, travel and movement to different places are inherent in the history of Scotland and its people. The experience of journeying is part of the fabric of life in both the Scots and the Gaelic traditions. Through the centuries, waves of incoming people have brought new ideas with them, in particular adding a Celtic and Norse flavour and leaving their marks on the landscape in the process.
Spiritual message in 563 AD
In 563 AD Columba brought his spiritual message to these isles, which tradition asserts was due to his forced exile from Ireland. Many centuries later, emigration during the Highland Clearances meant that Gaels experienced a different sort of enforced exile to other countries to make way for sheep farming on the land. Later still, industrialisation and job opportunities beyond rural and island existence often brought about a subtler, self-imposed exile from native culture and language, a severing of the link between people and a native sense of place. Thus, these travellers and journeyers were not always willing participants in their experience but the outcome can reveal surprising things about the resilience of the human character.
Both Gaelic and Scots at the present time seems to be experiencing a ‘journeying back’ to their language and culture. People are beginning to realise the riches that were in danger of being lost and these minorities are being afforded more respect after years of the ‘teaching out’ of these languages and cultures in schools and wider society. Poets have always been tradition-bearers in these cultures, particularly in relation to Scottish Gaelic in which poets enjoyed official status and the patronage of clan chiefs, and it may be that the real experience of journeying back to the source and back to the Self, still lies with the poets. Poets were, and still are, spokespersons for the community. They attempt to understand and bring into being in verbal and written forms, the meanings of their communities, providing the keys that will unlock old and new doors that lead to important stories and symbols.
The inner journey in 21st century
Even in the 21st century there are examples of poets who, despite the modernist emphasis on self-identity, are managing to create a link between the self and the collective/community, showing in the process that no visible barrier need exist between the two. Thus, the inner journey into the Otherworld of visionary experience and the imaginative and creative landscape often corresponds to the historical journeys and experiences that individuals and communities have made over time. The two worlds can exist simultaneously. In fact, one exists because of, rather in spite of the other. Thus, real-life sea voyages can mirror the Celtic wonder tales or immrama, and the political and personal growth and evolution of a modern poet such as Sorley MacLean can have parallels in folktales and songs such as ‘The Cave of Gold’ (‘Uamha ’n Oir’).
Celebrating Scots and Gaelic literature is one way into the theme of the hero’s journey. The literature, both oral and written, exists in the liminal places, waiting to be accessed by those who wish to understand more fully the culture of communities and the land itself. The bearers of these traditions have often undertaken a heroic journey of sorts themselves, delving deep down into the wellsprings of memory and bringing back to the surface rewards in the shape of new words and songs.
Dr Emma Dymock is a course tutor of The Power of Myth: The Hero's Journey in the Transformation of Self & the World