The longing for place: a reflection on immigration

As many regular readers of this blog might know I read a lot of poetry for both enjoyment, stimulation, and relaxation – and lots of other reasons.  Most recently I have been reading a fair bit of Gaelic poetry – sadly and guiltily in translation – and have been struck by so many examples of visceral truthfulness from the pens of many contemporary and historical Gaelic poets.

My experience of Gaelic poetry is a long one. I well remember being taken to ‘ceilidhs’ in the 1970s held in Partick Burgh Hall in Glasgow under the auspices of a local Highland Association. These were opportunities for those who belonged to the Gaelic diaspora to come together, to listen to music, song, poetry, and story, and to share company together with friends and new friends. In the 60s and 70s and even into the 1980s they provided an essential place of support and belonging for those who had formed part of a West Highland and Island community because of the wave of immigration into Glasgow. The history of Highland immigration into the city is an old one but perhaps has two dominant waves – the first seeing the arrival of economic migrants as a result of the actions of grasping landlords in the 19th century and a second one after the Second World War in the 1950s where thousands left their homes in the north to seek employment and opportunity in the cities of central Scotland. It was one such movement that led my own parents to come to Glasgow in the very early 1960s.

I can remember after having listened to yet another Gaelic song of tear and departure and yet another poem of sadness and absence, asking my mother why was so much in Gaelic culture about these themes. She said – from memory – that people who leave where they feel they belong are always trying to return there in their songs, words, and music. That memory struck me again as I delved into the poetry of the Gaels more recently and in reading around this area, I came across a concept which I had not known of but beautifully summarises so much of my personal experience and story , namely the notion of cianalas. The dictionary defines it as a deep sense of longing for the place where your roots lie, a homesickness and nostalgia for the homeland. It is not always melancholic or sad, it is frequently hopefully and energetic, but it is a sense which I think I have felt and heard throughout my childhood and adult growing.

These thoughts came to mind this past week as I watched and read a lot about immigration, as I discussed the prospects of social care providers supporting new immigrant communities into the employment opportunities that social care can offer in Scotland, and sadly reflected on the tragic loss to drowning of those who attempted to get to Britain by sailing in an unfit boat in atrocious weather across the English Channel. I have personally found the discussion and debate around immigration in the UK Parliament to have been toxic and distasteful, an appeal to the basest form of xenophobic arrogance, selfish individualism, and a failure to recognise the inter-connectedness of all peoples, never mind the demographic realities of a country like Scotland which is desperately in need of the vitality, creativity and energy provided by new peoples.

Tomorrow on December 18th the United Nations, through the UN-related agency International Organization for Migration, will hold International Migrants Day to remember all individuals who have been migrants or still are and to reiterate the need to respect the rights and dignity of all. It is a day set aside by the United Nations to recognise the estimated 272 million migrants that are integral members of all our societies today.

I think at this time of the year and at a point when immigration is the subject of such lazy media stereotyping and political soundbites it is imperative for us all to develop a mature and humanity infused understanding of immigration. Our equal humanity bestows dignity on our breathing and presence, it is the behaviours and attitudes, the laws and policies of others that seek to remove that dignity and make that humanity illegal. It is an act of stigmatising which can and must never succeed. I am proudly the son of a diaspora, whose culture and heritage, whose moment and dreaming has been nurtured with the longing of a place I have rarely lived in but which lives in me. I am the child of cianalas and celebrate the strength and vison to be gained by belonging to a people who have in the past ventured into the new in order to achieve and fulfil their dreams. That is surely the story of migration the world over, as true yester year of my parents as it is true of those who struggle to journey to a new possibility today. It is a longing for place and purpose, for belonging and safety. The hospitality of nationhood is in the acceptance of welcome of stranger and migrant. It is in the finding of our immigrant soul that we discover our place in a community of diverse belonging,

The legality of immigration has been much discussed this past week and is a common reflection in the poetry of Juan Felipe Herrera, the Poet Laureate of the United States. In his poem “Every Day We Get More Illegal”, he speaks for those “in-between the light,” whose status of legality in the United States is at best ambiguous. I leave you with his insights as we reflect a few days out from Migrants Day.


Yet the peach tree

still rises

& falls with fruit & without

birds eat it the sparrows fight

our desert


burns with trash & drug

it also breathes & sprouts

vines & maguey


laws pass laws with scientific walls

detention cells   husband

with the son

the wife &

the daughter who

married a citizen

they stay behind broken slashed


un-powdered in the apartment to

deal out the day

& the puzzles

another law then   another



spirit exile


migration                     sky

the grass is mowed then blown

by a machine  sidewalks are empty

clean & the Red Shouldered Hawk


down  — from

an abandoned wooden dome

an empty field


it is all in-between the light

every day this     changes a little


yesterday homeless &

w/o papers                  Alberto

left for Denver a Greyhound bus he said

where they don’t check you


walking working

under the silver darkness

walking   working

with our mind

our life


Copyright © by Juan Felipe Herrera.  Everyday We Get More Illegal by Juan Felipe Herrera – Poems |


Donald Macaskill