Aunt Julia


An elderly woman sits by the fire working on her spinning wheel

Norman MacCaig's Aunt Julia lived on Scalpay, a small island off the coast of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. She lived a traditional, hardworking life on a croft and she spoke only her native Gaelic language.

MacCaig sometimes described himself as three quarters Gaelic - three of his grandparents were Gaels and his mother came from the same small island. He was born and brought up in Edinburgh, however, and knew Scalpay only from visits.

He developed a deep affinity with the people, landscape and culture of Gaelic North West Scotland from his visits there.

As is evident in the poem, MacCaig felt a strong attachment to his Aunt Julia despite the language barrier that existed between them. This is one of the most memorable of his studies of Highland characters.

Julia is depicted in a series of striking metaphors that show how the young narrator connects her with three elements of nature - earth, water and air.

The last stanza introduces a tone of regret before ending with a picture of the larger than life character calling to him still getting angry, getting angry/with so many questions unanswered.

The reason for this regret is that only after Julia's death did the poet learn enough Gaelic to be able to communicate with her. Hence, all the questions that he would have asked to her must now remain unanswered, just as her questions to him as a child had been.