Christopher Whyte (Crìsdean MacIlleBhàin) is a Scottish poet, novelist, translator and critic. He is a novelist in English, a poet in Scottish Gaelic, the translator into English of Marina Tsvetaeva, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Maria Rilke, and an innovative and controversial critic of Scottish and international literature. His work in Gaelic also appears under the name Crìsdean MacIlleBhàin.
Whyte first published some translations of modern poetry into Gaelic, including poems by Konstantinos Kavafis, Yannis Ritsos and Anna Akhmatova. He then published two collections of original poetry in Gaelic, Uirsgeul (Myth), 1991 and An Tràth Duilich (The Difficult Time), 2002. In the meantime he started to write prose in English and has published four novels, Euphemia MacFarrigle and the Laughing Virgin (1995), The Warlock of Strathearn (1997), The Gay Decameron (1998) and The Cloud Machinery (2000).
In 2002, Whyte won a Scottish Research Book of the Year award for his edition of Sorley Maclean‘s Dàin do Eimhir (Poems to Eimhir), published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. He has also compiled some anthologies of present-day Gaelic poetry and written critical articles and essays.
Whyte was born in Glasgow (Scotland) in October 1952, educated there by Jesuits at St Aloysius College, and took the English studies tripos at Pembroke College, Cambridge between 1970 and 1973. He spent most of the next 12 years in Italy, teaching under Agostino Lombardo in the Department of English and American Studies at Rome’s La Sapienza university from 1977 to 1985.
Whyte returned to Scotland to complete a PhD in Gaelic literature under scholar and poet Derick Thomson (Ruaraidh MacThòmais (1928-2012). From 1986 to 1989 he was lecturer in the Department of English Literature of the University of Edinburgh, then from 1990 to 2005 he taught in the Department of Scottish Literature of the University of Glasgow, rising from lecturer to reader.
In 1982, Derick Thomson began to feature in the quarterly review Gairm, of which he was the editor, Whyte’s translations into Gaelic of poets including Cavafy, Ritsos, Ujević, Mörike, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva.
Whyte’s first collection of original poetry, Uirsgeul/Myth, in Gaelic with the author’s facing English translations, was joint winner of a Saltire Award when published by Gairm in 1991. “We may expect substantial original work from his pen,” announced Derick Thomson, in the second edition of his Introduction to Gaelic Poetry.An Tràth Duilich (Callander, Diehard Press 2002) is a Gaelic-only collection, containing a pivotal sequence about an urban adolescence troubled by religious and sexual guilt, and a dramatic cantata focusing on the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia, constructed by sculptors Nicola and Giovanni Pisano in 1277–1278. Dealbh Athar (Dublin, Coiscéim 2009) offers forthright treatment of the poet’s sexual abuse by his father, its consequences, and the attendant family circumstances, with translations into Irish by Gréagóir Ó Dúill.
The title sequence in Whyte’s fourth collection, Bho Leabhar-Latha Maria Malibran / From the Diary of Maria Malibran (Stornoway, Acair 2009) assumes the voice of the celebrated opera singer (1808-1836) as, in a country retreat not far from Paris, she reflects on her life, her career and her problematic relationship with her father, also an opera star. A combative epilogue affirms the importance of not confining poetry in Gaelic to themes and topics directly related to the society and history of those who speak the language.
Whyte’s fifth collection, in Gaelic only, An Daolag Shìonach (The Chinese Beetle) (Glasgow, Clò Gille Moire 2013), brings together uncollected poems for the years from 1987 to 1999, and a rich crop of new work from 2004 to 2007.
Since 2006, Whyte has published a series of longer poems in the yearly anthology New Scottish Writing (Glasgow, Association for Scottish Literary Studies) with facing English translations by Niall O’Gallagher, which have met with considerable acclaim. Tom Adair wrote in The Scotsman of ‘Ceum air cheum’ / ‘Step by step’ that ‘This poem alone makes the book worth twice the asking price’, while Colin Waters in The Scottish Review of Books found Whyte’s treatment of his relationship with older poet Sorley MacLean (Somhaire MacGill-Eain (1911-1996)) a ‘most memorable contribution … Powerful emotion coupled with the skill to pull off its depiction.’