The Gaelic archipelago

<strong>Invisible Islands</strong>

Angus Peter Campbell <em>Otago Publishing, 138pp, £8.99</em>

With the publication of Invisible Islands, his first novel in English, the Gaelic author Angus Peter Campbell has become something that was once common in Europe: a bilingual writer. Inspired in part by Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, the novel describes a series of imagined Hebridean islands and is pervaded by the fragility of the embattled Gaelic culture. History is accompanied by maddening uncertainty: the disputed etymologies of the island of Ubhlaigh reflect the vagaries of the Gaels' multifarious European roots, while progress - rushing blindly forward while refusing to look back - has become a strange religious cult on Colathaigh, only to be challenged at the end of the book by the equally fanatic cult of always walking backwards. The cults represent the twin evils of an unthinking, headlong rush for progress and an obsessive nostalgia for an imagined past.

Ubhlaigh, Campbell imagines, was abandoned following an epidemic that killed everyone under 60 - echoing the real abandonment of Hiorta (St Kilda) in 1930. The mass funeral, with its swarm of golden butterflies lifting the many souls to heaven, occurred on the same day as the atom bomb exploded on Hiroshima - a reminder, if one is needed, that Invisible Islands is not exclusively about the Hebrides. On occasion, Campbell does deal with a topical Hebridean issue, such as windfarms on the island of Giuthasaigh, but more generally he posits the question of how human culture and landscape belong to each other in an imagined extension of the Hebridean world. Language is the dominant theme of the islands of Beurla (meaning "English"), Labhraigh (from "speech"), Carmina (from the Latin for "songs" or "poetry"), Cànaigh (from "language") and Craolaigh, the uninhabitable island of broadcasting (craoladh), whose communications mast, hidden in a volcanic crater, is the relay station for all the world's chatter.

But even on the other islands, the theme of language is never far away. On Cumanta, the Isle of the Commonplace, definitions of "ordinary" and "common" lead to yet another exquisite linguistic digression: "every adverb drags a library behind it, every noun a civilisation, every adjective a universe, every declension a time".

Campbell is a European writer: well read in European literature, he can connect his home with a wider cultural context. He is a vitally important writer for Scotland and for the Gaidhealtachd, the Gaelic-speaking communities of the Highlands and Islands. The smaller the culture, the more essential it is to travel beyond its boun daries while paradoxically retaining a strong sense of identity. Campbell achieves this balancing act remarkably well.

Allan Cameron's "The Golden Menagerie" is published by Luath Press