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Sorley MacLean, or, in Gaelic, Somhairle Macgill-Eain, lived from 26 October 1911 to 24 November 1996. He was one of the most important Scottish poets of the 20th Century and is seen by many as the father of the renaissance of the Gaelic language. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Sorley MacLean was born at Osgaig on the island of Raasay, an island on which Scottish Gaelic was the first language at the time. In 1929 he went to Edinburgh University, where he became an enthusiastic shinty player before graduating in English with 1st class honours. He then became a teacher. His career was interrupted by military service during WWII, and while in North Africa he was wounded on three occasions. Over the years, MacLean taught in a number of schools, in places as far apart as Mull and Edinburgh, before becoming headteacher of Plockton High School, a post he held from 1959 until his retirement in 1972.
MacLean was never a full time writer. His poetry began to emerge in the 1930s, initially written in English, before he decided that his poetry written in Gaelic was better. By the advent of war, he was already well known as a Gaelic writer at a time when very little serious literature was produced in the language. In the 1970s MacLean began to be better known outside the Gaelic-speaking world when translations of his work began to appear, and he himself attended the Cambridge Poetry Festival. The real turning point came with the publication of his Selected Poems of 1977, in Gaelic with his own English translations.
In later life, MacLean wrote less poetry, instead becoming a scholar of Highland history and genealogy, and an authority on the Gaelic language. He died on 24 November 1996 at the age of 85 in Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, after a short illness.