On the Island
Though born in Glasgow, Iain Crichton Smith is associated with the Western Isles, where he moved at the age of two and was raised by his widowed mother on a croft in Bayble, along with his brothers. Writing in both Gaelic and English, Smith's work examines the island's remoteness and its religiosity, its peculiarities and its prejudices. Though born in Glasgow, Scotland's industrial heartland, a student at Aberdeen, and a teacher in Clydebank and Oban, when asked about how place has influenced him, Smith said: "the city hasn't influenced my actual writing much...Lewis certainly influenced many of its themes...religion and exile." (Poetry Ireland Review)
We could say that Smith's work is insular but this should be offered both as a compliment and as an examination. Near the end of On the Island, the central character Iain has just started secondary school: a bright boy who won't immediately be put to work but will have the chance to get on since his teacher at the primary regards him as "university material". The mother will make sacrifices to get him there, and the first of these will be the bus fare into town where the secondary school happens to be. In the class, the teacher discusses the Latin root for island and says "'Insula' means 'island', and remember that we are living on an island. This school we are standing on or sitting in, as is the case with some of us, is situated on an 'insula'. It is surrounded by water. if it weren't surrounded by water we would call it a peninsula, from 'paene insula', which is the Latin for almost an island.
One might wonder if there is a double insularity here, with Smith not just living on a small island but also living on a peninsular too; with Bayble located in the middle of Point, to the east of the town capital Stornoway. Smith was thus brought up on 'almost an island' and he is a great writer of quiet alienation, as though taking John Donne's famous claim that no man is an island and wondering if such a remark stands up when you happen to be living on one and can feel that the others aren't quite understanding you. One of the advantages of an urban environment is the statistical possibility of like minds. In On the Island, the odd character expressing their mind is indeed an odd character, someone who can't quite express themselves less because they are inarticulate than the environment isn't inclined to reward the openly vulnerable.
Almost halfway through the novella, Iain is in the house of a footballer known as Speedy; one of the best footballers in the village who is playing that afternoon in a game that is seen as the most important of the year. Iain asks Speedy if he thinks they'll win and the footballer replies that of course they will but admits it will be hard. What is hard he explains, isn't the winning but the expectation, as he turns the conversation towards his own vulnerabilities rather than the game's demands. Speedy tells him that as the centre forward he is expected to get the goals and would thus be under much more pressure than the defence. He says that if he misses people will start yelling and making a fool of him. He reckons the best would be if nobody went to the match except the players; the game would be better without the pressure of the fans. Such talk about the players being under duress and none more so than Speedy might have seemed confessional yet hardly terrible. But as Speedy talks, he drinks several whiskies. "They all want to be like Speedy, eh? Isn't that right? But they don't know the responsibility. They think that all you have to do is go out on the pitch and score goals."
Nothing more is made of Speedy's crisis and we don't even find out if they won or lost the game that day. But we might believe the theme of pressure and responsibility finds other angles, other characters. A villager's son returns from America a failure. Iain becomes fascinated and a friendship develops with Jim letting him read the books that had been shipped back from the US. Iain reads these detective stories and foreign legionnaire tales, about Prussian forests and tropical seas. But Jim is even more melancholy than Speedy, has a drink problem too, and is wary of people, their values and their demands, their reliability and their decency. Books are the solace. "When you get right down to it, boy, people fail you but books never fail you, and you can take that from me." Before long Jim is dead. "He was drinking too much" Iain's mother says almost triumphantly, "He killed himself, going up town night after night, and never speaking to anybody...the scandal of it."
Finally, there is Iain himself, who knows that his mother will have to make sacrifices if he is to go on to university, and aware as well that the primary school teacher pushing him forward has a few expectations of his own. "Think of the honour to the school" he says while persuading Iain's mum.
We needn't reduce the book to the autobiographical even if there are many similarities here with Smith's life, and the boy would have been Smith's age: there is talk of war when Iain goes to secondary school and Smith would have been eleven at the start of WWII. In the book, Iain's father is dead (like Smith's) and the boys are brought up by the mother alone. But more pertinent may be the breakdown Smith succumbed to in 1980, a year after On the Island, and some remarks he made about smaller communities. He reckoned that while the islander would look up to school teachers and ministers this wasn't a class issue but a sign of their usefulness to the community. Smith reckoned "the criterion in such a society always was, not what class does such or such a man belong to, but can he do the things that are necessary? Is he a good fisherman, is he a good teacher, is he a good crofter, can he cut peats, can he tar his house?" Any achievement that wasn't concerned with or useful for the community wasn't of much value and thus what he calls 'cliu', from the Gaelic, was what mattered: "one's reputation, one's status in the community."
This would be what Speedy is fearful of losing, that Jim has lost and that Iain will be in the process of attaining. But to comprehend an aspect of Smith's work, and in this instance, On the Island, is to understand the tension between alienation, community and reputation, and Smith's immense sympathy for a person's existence as a value in-itself even if it cannot escape the community. Smith might conclude not only is no man an island, but on an insula the desire to be insular can be a problem indeed; and yet a necessary desire.
© Tony McKibbin