Visiting the Outer Hebrides in 1937 Louis MacNeice found himself enchanted and infuriated in almost equal measure. The result was this strange book, a melange of travelogue, imaginary conversations, letters to friends, dyspeptic asides and poems, including two of his best, ‘Bagpipe Music’ and ‘Leaving Barra.’ Unavailable for many years, I Crossed the Minch has now been reissued by Polygon to mark the centenary of the poet’s birth.
John Kerrigan writes:
I Crossed the Minch, an odd, uneven amalgam of travel journal, satirical dialogue, literary parody and poetry book, shows MacNeice thinking between Scotland and Ireland about nationalism, language and culture, and tying these into the larger problems of Britain and Europe. In his introduction, Tom Herron makes much of MacNeice’s admission that he ‘went to the Hebrides partly hoping . . . that the Celt in me would be drawn to the surface by the magnetism of his fellows. This was a sentimental and futile hope.’ He argues that MacNeice was looking for the sort of archaic, peasant society that Synge found on the Aran Islands, and that his ‘miscalculation colours everything he sees and does’. But this is to take too literally the motif of frustrated quest which MacNeice characteristically uses to draw in the reader. Before he crossed the Minch, he already knew Hector MacIver, the dedicatee of his book. MacIver had published on the iniquities of landlordism, the failures of the herring industry, subsidy and the dole, and the collapse of Lord Leverhulme’s attempt to set up manufacturing industry on Lewis. The TLS reviewer had no difficulty in categorising I Crossed the Minch with other books of the time (by Edwin Muir and Neil Gunn) that treat Scotland and its islands in hard, socio-economic terms.