Donald Maclean.

The literature of the Scottish Gael online

. (page 1 of 6)
Online LibraryDonald MacleanThe literature of the Scottish Gael → online text (page 1 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

.^ o-sA^ Xa-

f ^ z








»• • > •

'• • • •. . t *,» * • ' ', ",



JU,L\ kjL^S^^AA^



Students have often asked me where they could get a

suitable book on our Gaelic Literature. I invariably

directed them to Professor Magnus Maclean's book on The

Literature of the Highlands, to Professor Blackie's book on

the Language and Literature of the Highlands of Scotland, to

articles in the Encyclopcedia Britannica (11th ed.)? and

Hastings' Encyclopcedia of Religion and Ethics, and recently

to a short but valuable paper by the late Dr. George

Henderson on the ' Literature of the Highlands, 1500-1745,'

in the Home Life of the Highlanders, 1400-1746. They

complained of the price of the first of these as being beyond

what they could easily afford ; and of the others as not

being always within their reach. This hand-book is an

attempt to meet the demand and circumstances of such

students, and the probable wish of others interested in

Gaelic literature — literature with which alone it deals.

Collectors of rare Gaelic books may also find within its pages

something to interest and help them. The three articles

which form the book appeared in the Celtic Review, and

are now reproduced by the kind permission of the editors

and publishers.


Ebinbuegh, November 1912.




The Literature of the Columban Church — The Antifhonary of Bangor — Liher
Hymnorum — Leabhar Breac — Mediseval Romantic Literature — The
Ulster Cycle — ^Tho Leinster-Munster Cycle — Where Found — Problems
of Origin — Features of the Literature — Its Influence on Later Religious
Literature and on Religious Beliefs — Carswell's Liturgy — Mediseval
Cultivation of Literature — Books published between 1500 and 1745 —
Bedell's Bible — Kirk's Bible and Psalms — Rev. Dugald Campbell's Trans-
lations — Dean of Lismore's Book — Fernaig MS. — Oral Literature —
Medical Literature of the Beatons and M'Conachers — The Bards — Their
Intense Nationalism — Their Range — Absence of Dramatic Writings and
Love-Songs — Probable Causes ...... 1-22


Culloden and After — ^The Origin of Canadian Literature — Factors in the De-
velopment of Literature — The S.P.C.K. and Bounty Schools — The
Catholic Church and Irish — Zimmer's View — The Influence of Protestant
Churches on Gaelic — James Macpherson and the Ossianic Controversy —
The Demand for Gaelic Literature — Literature published between 1745
and 1830 — Theological — Homiletical — Devotional — Catechetical and
Confessional — Anthological ( sacred ) — Anthological ( secular) — Educa-
tional — The Bible — An Analysis of the Literature — Grammars and
Dictionaries — Franklin's Way to Wealth — Shaw and Paine's Eights of
Man — The Declaration of Rights of Men and Citizens of the National
Convention of France, 1793 — Dugald Buchanan — Dr. James McGregor
— Rev. Peter Grant — An Analysis of their Poetry — Mysticism in Gaelic
Sacred Poetry — Donald MacRae — Elegiac Poetry — The Defects of
Secular Poetry examined — Its Probable Cause — Ljrric Poetry — Descriptive
and Interpretative — Alexander M'Donald — John Roy Stuart — Duncan
Ban Maclntyre — WiUiam Ross — Ewen MacLachlan — The so-called Bac-
chanalian Poems — RaiUery, Irony and Sarcasm in Gaelic Poetry —
Rob Donn ........ 23-53




Published Literature since 1830 — Influences at Work — The Celtic Chair in
Edinburgh — The Education Act of 1872 — The Comunn and its Mod —
The ' Golden Age ' of Gaelic Prose — Periodical Literature — Specimens
from the Masters of Gaelic Prose — The Advance in the Quality of Litera-
ture — Philology — Drs. Cameron, MacBain and Watson — The Religious
Poets of the Victorian Era — John Morison — Dr. John MacDonald —
Minor Religious Poets — Collections of Religious Poetry — ^The Secular
Poets — William Livingstone — Ewen Maccoll — John Campbell of Ledaig
—Neil Macleod, ' The Skye Bard '— ' The Beauties of Gaelic Poetry '—
An t-Oranaiche — Rev. A. Maclean Sinclair's Collection — Mr. M. C.
Macleod's Collection of Modern Gaelic Bards — The MacDonald Collection
of Gaelic Poetry — Miss Frances Tolmie's Collection of Folk-Songs — Trans-
lators of Gaelic Poetry — The Distribution of GaeUc Literature — The
Importance of the Study of Gaelic Literature .... 54-80

. » • • • »



There is substantial evidence for the belief that the monks
of the Celtic Church in Scotland were bookmen and scholars.
What remains of their scholarship we have in the manu-
scripts in the British Isles and the Continent encourages
the deserved admiration that sees through the thick mist
of the intervening ages earnest students sedulously investi-
gating the sacred writ, and bringing their acquired and
native talent to bear on the problems that confront them.
The virihty, stamina, and self-respect that characterised
our race owe not a little to the infusion into our veins of
the blood of those intrepid sailors from the lands of the
North, who scoured our seas and harried our coastline.
Yet we deplore the Norse barbarity that assigned to the
fire and to the sea the achievements of this devout scholar-
ship. What would we not give to have now in our posses-
sion records of those monks' outlook on hfe and its intricate
problems, their view of the pagan religion and the general
status of society, as well as the wit and humour that gave
life a charming ease and a soothing relief. In the three
well-known books — the Antiphonary of Bangor, written



before 691 ; Liber Hymnorum, transcribed about the latter
half of the eleventh century ; and Leahhar Breac, transcribed
before 1411 — we have litanies, invocations, and poems of
adoration, which bear more directly upon the work of the
Clu-istian preacher, and indicate much literary merit as
well as deep religious feehng. But there must have been
much more than those produced in the collegiate schools
of lona and Applecross, at the disappearance of which we
feel a deep pang of regret.

Medieval Romantic Literature

In the Ulster cycle of literature that revolves round
the central figures of Conchobar and Cuchulinn, we have
presented to us, with a precision which is substantiated by
classic writers who were observers or recorders of the events
portrayed, a history of the pre-Christian social life of the
Gaels. Here we have depicted to us the wars of mighty
monarchs and petty kings, tribal jealousies, and inter-
tribal rivalries, the roistering Ufe in the sumptuous hall,
the happy buoyancy of the Ufe of the chase, the striking
ethics and coarse morality, and the undoubted chivalry and
heroism of pagan people living in pagan culture and in-
fluenced by pagan sentiments. Tlie Leinster-Munster cycle,
with Fionn and Ossian as its central figures, develops at a
later period, and flows down to us, gathering colour and
substance from the vicissitudes of conquest and defeat that


characterised the periods through which it streamed, and
increasing in vohime until it takes such a prominence in
the popular estimation as ousts entirely the earlier cycle.
This latter cycle has its origin sunk in deep and almost
impenetrable obscurity. The solvents that have been
brought to bear on the problems that surround its rise
have not yet succeeded in proving to us that these wonderful
romances rest upon an historic basis. Their supposed origin
in the second or third centuries does not coincide with the
historical facts disclosed within the texts. The books which
supply us with the ballads that surround Fionn, Ossian,
Caoilte, Oscar, Diarmaid and Grainne are : the Dean of
Lismore's book, Leabhar na Feinne ; Campbell's Tales of the
West Highlands ; Dr. Cameron's Reliquice Celticce ; and the
collections of manuscripts not transcribed in the latter
book, but available in the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh,
and elsewhere. Here, then, we have a great heroic-mythic
romance. The heroes in the ballads are men of gigantic
proportions, before whom ordinary mortals are but insignifi-
cant entities. They achieve superhuman feats of strength
and bravery, distance is no barrier to their movements ; the
raging ocean, the towering hills, and all else in Nature form
no impassable barrier to their efforts. Always chivalrous
and courageous, boundless generosity is perhaps their chief
attribute, as Caoilte sings of the lordly Fionn : ' Were but
the brown leaf which the wood sheds from it gold, were but
the white billows silver, Fionn would have given it all


away.' Who are the prototypes of this race of warriors ?
has been asked, but no satisfactory answer has been given.
Have we here impersonated gods of an earUer paganism ?
The doctrine of incarnation is prevalent among the Celts.
Fionn himself re-incarnated is Mongan. The descent of
the gods to confer the primary attributes of manhood is
found among Australian aborigines. Their Byamee, through
the minor deity Wooroomah (God of wind), descends, and
a boy becomes a man. Survival of a similar belief is still
discoverable in the superstitious conception of our people
in regard to the development of the human embryo.
Another phase in the development of the heroic ideal is
foiuid in the double names of most of the heroes connoting
seemingly contrary views and ideals which are combined
in an effort to harmonise opposing principles ? Fionn is
also Demne. Cf. IMars, Vintios, Zeus, Pluto, Poseidon, etc.
Have we not here, in fact, the gods reconciled in persons
that express the ideals and aspirations of the people rather
than an organised warrior band raised among the tribes
of the Scottish kingdom to resist and oppose Lochlannich ?
That this latter word signifies not only the Norse, but any
opponents of the people that dwell in the lochs or in the
inaccessible swamps of their land, and ever a threatening
and dangerous foe, gives colour to the contention of his-
torical and exegetical criticism that here we have a mythical
romance without any basis in history or prototypes for its
warriors, but which, hoAvever, contains within it those aspects


of social life and religion that the poets of the period thought
fit to commit to story. But it is conceivable and even
probable that Fionn and Ossian had their protot3rpes in
men who sprang from the race, and who, because of certain
high qualities that clearly differentiate them from the
common stock, were at once invested by the popular fancy
with the attributes of the gods, and adored as such. A
clear analogy to this is foimd in the reverence accorded
by the Lycaonians to Barnabas and Paul, whom they
recognised as Jupiter and Mercurius respectively. Such a
deifying of heroes affords the most reasonable and natural
basis for the hero-worship which finds ample expression in
the Ossianic ballads, in the magniloquent paneg3n:"ics of
post-mediseval poets, and in the exaggerated elegies of more
recent date. The warrior chief conceived by the idealising
fancy of the mediaeval Gael is ' Braver than kings ; foremost
always, of vigorous deeds, a hero brave, untired in fight,
leopard in fight, fierce as a hound, of woman beloved.'
The chieftain of feudal times, and ministers and ' men ' of
a more enlightened age have each and all been extolled
and assigned such a place in the popular imagination that
differs from that of the heroes of this romance not so much
in nature as in degree, and in objectivity more than

Generally those romances introduce us to the social
life of the community in later pagan times and during the
early Middle Ages. We have stories of the chase, in which


the people revelled. We have warfare, but not so exhaus-
tively or precisely delineated in details as are other aspects
of the passing history. We have bounteous hospitality
and a patriotic chivalry ; and further, the contrast between
Christianity and paganism, or of the opposing principles
that were struggling for victory, which appeared at times
in sharp and bitter antagonism. It is a striking feature of
the romances that those of the earlier or pre-mediseval ones
show a contrast between Christianity and paganism im-
personated in Ossian and Patrick, which presents ideals in
closer alliance with the seventeenth and eighteenth cen-
turies than with the Middle Ages. In pre- and post-
mediaeval times the attitude of Christianity is that of an
uncompromising opponent of the prevailing paganism — it
gives it no quarters — while in the middle period both look
at each other with apparent self-satisfying complacency.
There is wanting in the middle period on both sides that
precision of statement and differentiation of the causes that
stand opposed the one to the other which present them-
selves in the other periods in language that may be harsh
on the one hand, and frankly barbarous on the other,
but which nevertheless indicate a vitality and a reality which
impress upon the reader that here there are evidences of
Christianity's youthful vigour in its first impact with
paganism, as well as the certainty of faith and lofty ethics
which sprung into lively exercise and fully developed during
the post-reformation centuries in which the later manu-


scripts bearing the romances were written. This indomi-
table paganism reaches the highest level of defiance in the
truly anthropomorphic conception of God with which
Ossian rails at Patrick : —

' Were my son Oscar and God
Hand to hand on the hill of the Fianns,
If I saw my son down
I 'd say that God was a strong man.'

The dilBference in the ballads of the middle period may
truly be ascribed to the spirit of an age of moribund or
decadent spiritual life rather than to the assiduity of any
harmoniser who in his story might gloss over the prevaihng
thought in order to reconcile opposing principles. Still,
all the ballads that cluster round Ossian are wonderfully
homogeneous in characterisation, in locale, in themes, and
personages. Differences are more marked in style of expres-
sion, and in the tone and vigour with which thoughts are
uttered. But through them all, there is a sensitiveness
to nature that is impressive, there is a gentle pathos, a
soft tone of melancholy that sometimes rises to a shrill
cry of poignant yearning for the return of the days that
are gone. There is a joyous bound, an intimate fellow-
ship with animal life, a rush into the glamour of what is
remote and illusory. And there is nothing in contemporary
European Hterature that expresses the passion of love with
such keen intensity as this song of Grainne for her beloved
Diarmaid, which is as old as the tenth century : —


' There lives a man
On whom I would love to gaze long,
For whom I would give the whole world,
Son of Mary ! though a privation.'

Though a heathen heroine proclaiming love by the Son of
Mary presents a disturbing anachronism which would suggest
the anxiety of a Christian redactor to enhance the charm of
the imhappy wife of Fionn, that does not in the least
invalidate the genuineness of the poem which was redacted.
This solitary poem, in which we have Grainne's deep and
intense love for Diarmaid, gives a gHmpse of what is really
a sweetening and reheving tone, colouring the generally
sombre romance of life in those far-off days. Nevertheless,
those distant ages have transmitted to the modern Scot
a good deal of their spirit, discernible in the sympathy
with Nature, and love for the woodland, for the moimtain
and the sea which find expression in the literature of modern
times. Their influence on our religious literature is even
more marked. The claim of the Druidic priesthood to
control the elements by means of incantations imposed
upon the Christian missionaries the necessity of proving
the superior powers of Christ, as being greater than the
greatest Druid ; hence the origin of those invocations
which were so potent in the sphere of the miraculous, and
which have invested the early missionaries with such super-
human qualities as have made the record of their lives
transmitted to us as fabulous as that of any modern necro-


mancer or ancient Druid priest. The Luireach means a
corslet or breastplate. Patrick's hymn, and hymns of a
similar character, were intended to form a shield of defence
against forces visible and invisible of varying degrees of
animosity and hostility. This form of invocation, many
examples of which are found in Dr. Carmichael's Carmina
Gadelica, have been succeeded by the charms which up
to the present day are the analogous instrument used for
similar purposes. The eschatology of our forefathers did
not escape this influence. The pagans' view of hell was
a place of exposure and cold. This conception arose un-
doubtedly from the chmatic conditions that prevailed,
where the most extreme penalty that could overtake a
mortal would consist in being the shelterless victim of the
roaring tempest, the piercing winds, and the dark and
dismal night. This view of a place of torment is seen
in the Christian hymnology of the Middle Ages, in the
Fernaig Manuscript of 1689, and in David M'Kellar's poem
of 1752, and others. In one of our oldest and most beautiful
Gaelic hymns we have this expression : — ^

' It were my soul's desire
Not to know cold hell.'

Duncan MacRae of Inverinate, writing before 1688 of the
Day of Judgment, thus describes the condition of the

lost : —

' They shall depart so sadly

Into cold hell where there is coldness.'


And another old poet says : —

' What a fool to choose cold hell,
The cave of prickly thorns !
I shudder at the thought
Of hell cold and wet.'

The pagan view of heaven was a land of eternal youth, the
abode of warrior cliiefs and princes — a green and sunny isle
floating somewhere in the Western Ocean, where the sun
ever shone, and which bid defiance to the blowing horns
of the howling tempest. Peace midisturbed prevailed, and
the joyous buoyancy of a continuous youth formed the
ideal of perfect happiness after which even the pagan mind
had striven.


When Bishop CarsweU published Knox's Prayer Book
in Gaehc in 1567, he ushered in the first period of printed
Gaelic literature, and deserves the enviable distinction of
being the father of the printed literature of the Scottish Gael.
His pious aim in publishing this book Avas to provide material
for the guidance of the people in devotion. Now it is a
canon of criticism that literature postulates a knowledge
of letters, and it would certainly have been futile and a
vain, self-sacrificing, ordinance on the part of this first
editor to throw the product of arduous labours on a com-
munity that were incapable of making use of the publica-
tion. Ireland and Scotland were poHticaUy, socially, and


linguistically identical. There was a community of interest
in the common heritage, and a free intercourse of thought
and aspiration. Harpists, bards, story reciters, and scholars
crossed and re-crossed, and it is safe to say that in no part
of Britain was there such a mass of ancient literature and
a keener cultivation of it. To suggest, as Lord Rosebery
did at the recent celebrations at St. Andrews, that the
overthrow of the Northern Celts at Harlaw in 1411 was
the conquest of barbarism by civiHsation, is evidence of
palpable ignorance or an ignoring of the potency of letters
and literature as factors in civilising races. During the
supremacy of the Lords of the Isles over large tracts of the
north of Ireland and the whole of the north and the west
of Scotland, colleges of learning were encouraged by these
petty monarchs: and from the suggestive reference in
Carswell's dedicatory epistle to ' the learned men in Alban
and Eireand, skilled in poetry and history and some good
scholars,' there is clearly indicated the prevalence of letters
among the people in his day, while the further reference to
' those who prefer and practice the forming of vain, hateful,
and lying earthly stories about Tuatha de Dhanond and
about the sons of Milesius, and about the heroes of Fiann
Maccumhil, and about many others whom I shall not
number or tell off in detail ' puts beyond any reasonable
doubt that there existed a mass of Uterature, either in
manuscript or orally recited, which unfortunately has not
been transmitted to us. It would have been interesting


to know the stories about the ' many others ' here referred
to, and what these stories reflected of the Hfe and ways
of the community at the time.

Following upon Carswell's book, of which only three
copies are now known to exist, one of which — the Duke of
Argyll's — was sold a few years ago in a London saleroom
for £500, the next book to appear in Gaelic is Calvin's
Catechism, translated in Argyllshire, 1631 ; the first fifty
Psalms, translated and published by the Synod of Argyll
in 1659. Kirk's Psalter appeared in 1684 ; Lawrence
Charteris Catechism in 1688 ; Kirk's Bible, 1690; Nicolson's
Historical Library, 1702 ; Baxter's Call to the Unconverted,
translated by the Rev. Mr. MacFarlane, 1725 ; Confession
of Faith, 1725 ; Macdonald's Vocabulary, 1741. At the end
of Kirk's Bible there are a few pages of vocabulary, and
attached to the fifty Psalms of 1659 is a Shorter Catechism,
and to the complete Book of Psalms in 1694 is also added a
Catechism. Not less than eight editions of the Psalms
and the Catechism passed through the press before 1745.
In the Dean of Lismore's book, which came to light at a
much later date, we have religious poems. The Fernaig
Manuscript, published in the Reliquiae Celticce, contains also
many pieces composed about 1689 of a religious and
political nature. We have the Book of Clanranald Mac-
vurich, which contains to a large extent the history of the
wars of Montrose, Ossianic ballads, and eulogies of living
heroes of the Clan Donald. But this is by no means the


entire literature of the period. It is the small beginnings
of printed literature, traversing only a short, and in many-
respects an unfruitful, period. When John Reid published
the Bibliotheca Scoto-Celtica in 1832, the entire literature of
the Highlands then amounted to four hundred and sixty
volumes, including editions and reprints, but now it has
reached nearly fifteen hundred and fifty. The only printed
material of the period under review is what has already
been referred to. Before now the Gaels of Ireland were
gradually separating politically and linguistically from
the Gaels of Scotland. With the gradual advance of the
Reformation the gap between both was widening, but
the Highlands were awakening to a deeper interest in
religion and letters. It is not therefore surprising that
the entire output is of a religious character.

Although it is admitted that we owe our Christianity
to Ireland, it is not sufficiently recognised that we owe also
to the same country the divine oracles that enshrine it.
In 1602 William O'Donnel published the New Testament
in Gaelic with type supplied by Queen Elizabeth, which is
the first published edition of the Scriptures in that lan-
guage either in this country or in Ireland. Bishop William
Bedell, an Englishman, prominent as a Protestant and as
an indefatigable Churchman, was appointed Provost of
Trinity College, Dublin, in 1627, and was raised in 1629
to the bishopric of Kilmore and Ardagh in Ireland. He
addressed himself soon after his enthronement to the


praiseworthy enterprise of getting the Scriptures into the
language of the people. These are his own words in his
biography : —

' Aiid surely it was a work agreeable to the mind of God that
the poor Irish, being a very numerous nation, besides the greater

1 3 4 5 6

Online LibraryDonald MacleanThe literature of the Scottish Gael → online text (page 1 of 6)