Nine of Diamonds: An interview with MacGillivray

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We spoke to poet and performer MacGillivray, who will be appearing at this year’s festival as part of our Poetry and Music Programme, Wed 10 May 18:00-21:00, Sage Gateshead, Sage Two £19.40 (£16.10 conc)

NCLA: Can you describe the inspiration behind your second collection The Nine of Diamonds: Surroial Mordantless?

M: I wanted to invent a Scottish Surrealist Movement – retrospectively – so I went to the Gabrielle Keiller (Lady Marmalade of the Keiller fortune) archive at Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art. Of course there was everything from Mallarme to David Gascoyne to Breton, all of whom became influences for the book. What I didn’t find was Scottish Surrealism. But I realised that the surreal was fundamental to human experience – there are surrealistic elements in the cave paintings at Lascaux – and it gave me the idea for simply taking a conceptual frame and picking out an alternate Scottish surrealism from historical events. Juxtaposing that brilliant mythology regarding the nine of diamonds and ‘the butcher’ with occultist and game-playing tendencies in Surrealist discourse, enabled me to construct a playful house of cards around a serious and overplayed theme; that of the genocide at Culloden. I could cook up waterfalls via Duchamp – and my theme in the book of the Highland waterfall being a repeated motif of tear-sloughed landscape was brilliantly complimented by an edited definition by Dwelly of the dream-practice of the Gaelic ‘taghairm’.

When you situate the highland deer as grazing potential for Nijinsky like creatures, ready to leap to life in any modern glen as urban, block and make-up symbols, you can find Landseer dropping away into the distance and the dodgy neon of the book (influenced by my experience of neon in Hong Kong where I lived as a child), flashing intermittently. So it’s supposed to be a book of broken, coded messages – bad (or good) conjuring and a default system of playfulness. Nine was so tantalising to play with, with all the resonant nines that kept turning up – the nine paces between bayonet and execution site at Inverness Kirkyard where the rebel army were deposed, their bodies dumped in the Tay. I worked with tarot cards to guide and disturb the shape of the thing and with a kaleidoscope – Byron was fascinated by them (‘of course’ a Scottish invention by Brewster and perhaps one of the more surrealistic things, apart from the radio, which can be attributed to Scottish culture). There’s more – but you’d have to read the book . . .

NCLA: How did your Creative Scotland Artist Residency at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Isle of Skye help your writing process?

Skye is very strange to me; a never fully waking dream. My great grandmother was from Skye but written out of any family history for having an illegitimate child. I’ve never really been anywhere like it and this is a place, due to the North Atlantic drift, where you can get sunburnt lying in the heather in early October. I think because I was so obsessed with the place (and the residency gave me the opportunity to do that), the skin between the book and the landscape and the history became thickened itself and that became the experiential material. I became determined to access Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hideaway cave at Elgol. It took me five trips and a two hour drive each time. You had a narrow fifteen minute window to manoeuvre the beach with rocks the size of Nissan Micras and at one point a narrow ledge along the cliff face to edge along before getting to three cave entrances. I had a hunch which one it was the second time I went down but because I was by myself and the tide was coming in, I baulked a bit. There was a ten metre climb up into the cave and I knew if I got stuck or a rock slipped, then I was in trouble. Finally a guide who was promoting tours to the cave came with me the fourth time but even they weren’t quite sure how to get there and mis-judged the tide. The fifth time we made it. In the end they were grateful to me for my persistence because they then knew how to get there and took photographs of the route down and inside the cave itself. So for the sixth and final journey I took a young piper down into the cave and he played pibrochs and some Jacobite compositions and it really did make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

The organiser of the tours was married to the direct descendant of Captain John McKinnon who was with Charles Stuart that night and rowed him to safety. She wanted me to leave a saltire in there, which I did. Then for many weeks after that, I would dream I was in the cave or wake up convinced I was in the cave.

NCLA: Can you tell us a bit more about the Gaelic film you’ll be showing?

The film was shot on Skye and is a short fantasy work loosely based on the imagery in the world’s first fantasy novelist, George MacDonald. MacDonald had a strange background – his great grandfather was piper for the MacDonalds at Culloden and shot in the eye. Nobody has heard so much about MacDonald – he’s much more popular in Canada and the States – but he really was a seminal influence on a whole generation of writers from Twain to Lewis and Tolkien. Much of MacDonald’s imagery has profound surrealistic tendencies and I think Scottish Gaelic tendencies which is why it works well with the Nine of Diamonds.

NCLA: What projects are you working on just now?

I’m working on the third and middle section of a trilogy for Bloodaxe titled ‘A Crisis of Dream’. The first section is ‘The Gaelic Garden of the Dead’, based on the Gaelic alphabet of trees and divided down into letters. It’s a place for fundamental lostness, sort of Dante having not met the leopard. The third part is a book of thirty-five sonnets. It was written in situ at the Talbot Inn, Oundle on the anniversary of her death, where the staircase, windows and fireplaces are thought to have been taken from the doomed site at Fotheringhay where Mary Queen of Scots was executed. I use Petrarchan sonnet structure, as she did, and the imagery in each sonnet – one for each step she descended on her way to execution – is influenced by the poetry of Ronsard, Raleigh, Elizabeth I and much astrological reference alongside the motifs pertinent to her life and death; the marigold, meteor and the rebel messages in her embroidered thread. Then things go rogue. According to an eyewitness account, her lips moved for fifteen minutes after she was decapitated. With a nod to William Burroughs, I chewed, gnashed, muttered and champed on the sonnets for fifteen minutes and reconstructed them, sticky saliva pellets. That’s the second part – ‘The Blade’. I was slightly reticent about creating another historical misfiction but had a persistent recurring dream about going to the back of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, with an ominous feeling, and mounting a heavy wooden staircase. I knew I was going to see her execution and so I started to write the book to ward it off. In the end, I dreamt once that I was her and executed and finally, that I killed her with that badly wielded, blunt axe. Then the dreams stopped. We’d been recording the air in all the sites she was born, lived, was imprisoned and died in, including Westminster Abbey and Edinburgh Castle for an accompanying album comprising, quite literally, chamber music. Air and dreams tend to mix.

Strange Attractor/MIT are publishing Scottish Lost Boys: Seven Renegade Essays in September 2017 which is a book evolved from my doctoral thesis at Oxford University, exposing fairly obscure figures such as child Oscar winner Jon Whiteley and director Bill Douglas. Finally, Redhen in Los Angeles have just published the second imprint of my first book The Last Wolf of Scotland (2013) based on Robert McGee who was scalped at thirteen in 1864 and survived. He knew William Cody, Buffalo Bill and the book supposes that he came to Scotland with the show. I’m currently arranging to go and record Sitting Bull’s great grandson, Ernie Lapointe, who has agreed to read from The Last Wolf of Scotland at his home in South Dakota.