Please help with my questions on the poem 'Aunt Julia' by Norman Maccaig

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rabia999
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Hey guys,

I am currentlyy studying 'Aunt Julia' By Norman MacCaig, for my national 5 english and I had a few questions I would love to get some advice on from someone who have either studied or is studying right now. Firstly; Trying to identify two of the main concerns / ideas from the first two stanzas.

I really appreciate any help as english is not my first language and I am really struggling with this poem.

Thank you.
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ElasticJane
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I studied Nat5 English last year and got 38/40 on that Critical Reading paper (the one with the essay and MacCaig questions), and an A overall.

I am studying MacCaig again for Higher, so my notes and annotations may be a little more detailed than required for Nat5.

The "main ideas and concerns" basically means theme. You should have been taught that all MacCaig poems are linked by the theme of loss, so you'll be using that a lot.

The main idea of Aunt Julia is that the Gaelic language and culture is being lost as Gaelic natives integrate more and more into mainland Scottish culture and life. From stanza one, MacCaig uses the adverb of degree of "very loud and very fast" to convey how confusing and foreign the Gaelic language is to him.

"I could not answer her I could not understand her" is an example of repetition, repeating his confusion.

"very loud abd very fast" doubles as word choice, so you can use that too.

Good luck, hope I helped!!!
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jamesg2
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Deleted. Will repost later
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jamesg2
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Sorry when I first posted it read as a single block of text. I had to reformat to make the post readable and understandable.

Aunt Julia is a portrait of Norman MacCaig’s aunt, Julia MacLeod. His mother, who had come from Scalpay, had been able to get Norman to Scalpay during some of his holidays. It was while he was there that MacCaig came to know and appreciate his mother’s sister - Julia MacLeod. She has been referred to as a monoglot Gael, meaning that Julia was unable to speak anything than Gaelic. She was clearly a force to be reckoned with. She was someone who was full of noise and energy and clearly had an impact on the young Norman MacCaig. Although the poem was written in March 1967, the poem reflects on his years when, as a young child, he spent time with his aunt.

I tend not to approach the poem in a chronological manner, but more as a wholistic work. Julia Macleod - as well as being a character of great energy and colour - is also a metaphor for the island of Scalpay itself. The poem therefore has a duality: it is portrait of an aunt for whom Norman MacCaig had great affection as well as a description of an island he loved very much. Worth reading “Return to Scalpay” - written in September 1972 and published in 1974 - which describes a visit MacCaig made to the island in the summer of 1970.

Scalpay in the 1930’s - the period the poem describes - was an island whose natural language was Gaelic. It was nothing unusual for Julia to only speak Gaelic - everyone only spoke Gaelic. Coming from Edinburgh - where Norman lived with his mother and father - Gaelic was a language he was aware of ( his mother who had come from Scalpay also only spoke Gaelic ) but did not understand. The point of verse 1 is not that MacCaig did not understand Gaelic ( he was already accustomed to that in Edinburgh ) it was the manner Julia spoke: very fast and very loud. I believe he understood certain words by the time of the childhood visits in the 1930’s but Julia’s manner of speech made it impossible to respond.

And here is the first link to the Scapay/Julia metaphor. Visiting Scapay was both a culture and language change. Julia mode of speech and mannerisms were a complete change from Edinburgh. Julia represented a completely different culture to that Norman was accustomed to in Edinburgh. The cultural change and difference is what is important in verse 1.

The reference to men’s boots in verse 2 is often misunderstood. It was common for women working in Scalpay in the 1930’s to wear such footwear. Julia was not being unique: she was being normal. Also making their own clothes was the norm: what Norman finds astonishing is that someone of such energy could also be so skilled in such precise work. Julia is not unusual here, everyone on the island would have learnt to create their own clothes. Verse 3 makes clear that these houses - including aunt Julia’s - were very isolated. There were no shops nearby. People had to fend for themselves.

The descriptions of Julia in verse 4 have two purposes. First they do describe the character of Julia MacLeod, but second they are also a description of the island itself. It is a really lovely verse and one that benefits from detailed studied. MacCaig’s use of the dual metaphor is a lovely piece of poetry.

The cyclical effect of the repetition between verses 1 and 5 is important. This verse suggests that by the time Julia died, MacCaig had learnt to speak Gaelic, that is wrong he never spoke the language. See the video “Off the Page” with Jenny Brown he spends some time talking about Gaelic. What he says about trying to understand his mother is exactly what it was like with Julia. Although it appears he never returned to Scapay until the 1970’s - long after Julia had died - I believe verse 5 suggests the spirit of Julia remained with his. The final lines suggests a great frustration within MacCaig - as an adult he did know Gaelic but he was never able to speak it. His frustration I believe is his inability to talk about this dying culture that Julia represented.

I think the one of the central issues is the dying of a culture and language that Julia MacLeod represented.

When MacCaig did return to Scalpay in the 1970’s he found it a very different island to that of the 1930’s. As MacCaig points out “A car on Salpay?” The question mark is the important feature. Through its use, MacCaig is able to point out what a difference those forty years have made. Aunt Julia went everywhere, as did everyone - including young Norman MacCaig - on foot. Her stained feet testify to that. Now there are cars.

Many of the buildings he remembered as a child still stand, but not aunt Julia’s house nor the “Red Well” where she collected her water. What does still remain are the traditions from his boyhood. “Lazybeds” are still worked and probably also “Peatscrapes.” There is still the fishing for eels, and all around he can see people sailing.

Although he has been away for nearly forty years, he is still remembered and greeted wherever he goes. The poem ends with his acknowledgement that he is overcome by the feelings of friendship he encounters during this visit. Edinburgh was always his home, nothing would change that, but in comparison to this generous welcome he makes the point: “Edinburgh, Edinburgh, your dark years away.”

The poem ends with the following beautiful and important lines:

“And I am filled with love and praise and shame
Knowing that I have been, and knowing why,
Diminished and enlarged. Are they the same?”

The question mark suggests that it has been an unequal exchange and that he has benefited more from their companionship that they from his. However the manner and enthusiasm by which he was greeted during this trip suggests that on this point he might be wrong.

At his funeral in 1996, one of the poems that was read was “Return to Scalpay.” It was read in recognition that this was not just a very fine poem, but its reading also recognised the importance of this island to the life of Norman MacCaig.

Norman MacCaig is a deceptive poet. Although he wrote very quickly and seldom - if he is to believed - edited or revised his work within the apparent simplicity of his poetry there is a complexity worthy of detailed examination. But that is another topic.
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rabia999
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(Original post by ElasticJane)
I studied Nat5 English last year and got 38/40 on that Critical Reading paper (the one with the essay and MacCaig questions), and an A overall.

I am studying MacCaig again for Higher, so my notes and annotations may be a little more detailed than required for Nat5.

The "main ideas and concerns" basically means theme. You should have been taught that all MacCaig poems are linked by the theme of loss, so you'll be using that a lot.

The main idea of Aunt Julia is that the Gaelic language and culture is being lost as Gaelic natives integrate more and more into mainland Scottish culture and life. From stanza one, MacCaig uses the adverb of degree of "very loud and very fast" to convey how confusing and foreign the Gaelic language is to him.

"I could not answer her I could not understand her" is an example of repetition, repeating his confusion.

"very loud abd very fast" doubles as word choice, so you can use that too.

Good luck, hope I helped!!!

Hi Congrats that is an awesome mark. Thank you so much, can I ask if you have anymore notes concerning this poem you would mind sending me ?
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