I’ll be presenting a talk at the First World Congress of Scottish Literatures this summer in Glasgow about the continuity of Scottish literature amongst immigrant Gaelic communities in North America.
Even that first sentence may be jarring to some people given that all too often, even to the present, Gaelic is marginalised in or even excluded from scholarship about Scottish literature. The common but problematic assumption is that “literature” refers primarily to printed texts in English (or Scots) taking their most evolved form in the novel. Not only has this conceit encouraged a large amount of Scottish Gaelic literary material to be ignored but it reduces the work of tracing the influence of Scottish literature outside of Scotland to looking for signs that anglophone authors of fiction are following the precedents of Scott, Hogg, Livingston, etc.
There is hardly any mention in modern reference works, canonical compilations, or major research publications of the American or Canadian literature composed by the thousands of Scottish Gaels who have been active producers and transmitters of literary expression for centuries in the Americas. While First Nations have successfully challenged their exclusion from the canons of North American literature on similar grounds (differences in language, medium, and literary forms), there has not been sufficient discussion of the Scottish Gaelic literary tradition in North American settings to call these implicit presumptions into question.
In my talk, I’ll be discussing briefly how Gaels made conscious use of the literary conventions and corpus to which they were heir and further developed it to express their own experiences in North America. This represents a very important line of continuity from medieval Scotland into modern North America largely ignored by the academy.
In this blog, I’ll share one of the items that can be brought into the conversation, a medium-size poem commenting on the Gaelic literary tradition and the “culture heroes” (and an anti-hero) who kept the fire burning, despite many hardships. The poem was composed by Aonghas MacAoidh of Rhode Island about the year 1897. MacAoidh was an extremely interesting man, a Gaelic nationalist and critic of British imperialism (I’ve commented on other work by him elsewhere). Unfortunately, I’ve not managed to find out anything specific about him, like when and where he was born.
This poem ends with a nod to Eòin MacFhionghain (“Jonathan MacKinnon”), the editor of the Gaelic newspaper Mac-Talla (printed in Cape Breton) whose family background derived from the Isle of Skye. The poem was printed in the 5 March 1897 edition of that newspaper. I would not rank this poem of great poetic merit, but that’s not particularly important. MacAoidh is praising the work of the Gaelic literati in maintaining the language and its literary tradition, and he is doing so in the language and literary medium itself – the medium is certainly part of the message here. And further, I believe that he is implying that there is a succession of literary authority that leads to the editor of Mac-Talla in North America and those who appear in the pages he edits.
MacAoidh mentions a number of heroes by surname only, and I supply some notes about them after the translation (thanks to Iain MacGilleChiar for setting me straight on the identity of an t-Ollamh Stiùbhart!). There are several parts of the translation about which I’m a little unsure, and I am glad to entertain suggestions.
Cuimhneachan do na daoine foghlumaichte a shaothrach gus a Ghàidhlig a ghleidheadh beò.
(1) Gur dlùth mo smaoin Air na laoich bu ghaisgeile A rinn bhuainn aomadh An taobh nach faicear leinn; A chosg an tìde, Gun suim de bheartas, Ach a dh’fhàg an inntinn Mar dhìleib againne.
(2) Gu balbh ’s an uaigh Is ged is fuar an leabaidh i, Cha d’thug i buaidh Air na h-uasail ghaisgeil ud: Tha guth am buadhaibh ’S na cluasan againne Cho binne ’ga luaidh ’S a bha nuair ’s an d’abradh e.
(3) B’ e rìgh na còisir An Leòdach tighearnail Tha nis’ mar lòchran A’ seòladh slighe dhuinn; An Tormod òg thu, Mac còir an Sgitheanaich : Tha cainnt a bheòil A’ toirt sòlas cridhe dhuinn.
(4) ’S an eilein riabhach Mun iadh na cladaichean, Bha Mac Dhunléibhe Is bu treun an gaisgeach e; Bidh cuimhne bhlàth air Mar bhàrd is mar eachdraiche; Ged thugadh pràmh air Le smàig nan Sasunnach.
(5) ’S an eilein Ìleach, Mas cuimhne cheart e leam, Bha ’n sgoilear grinn A thug dhuinn am faclair; Bu mhath an nì Ri mo linn, nan tachradh e, Gun drei’dh clach chuimhne Bho’s cinn an Ailpeinich.
(6) Tha fear ’s an àireamh Is cha b’àite ’n deireadh dha, Is a dh’fheumas dealradh Gu bràth nar n-eileamaid; A dh’oidich Sàr Obair — Chinn air bardaibh: Mac Coinnich Ghearrloch, An Gàidheal eireachdail.
(7) Bha ’n t-Ollamh Stiùbhart Air thùs nan gaisgeach sin, A thug dhuinn pùngar Is gur mùirneach againn e Le facail shùbailt Nam buadhar lùthaidh Is nan gnìomhar ionnsaicht’, Mo rùn am Peartach ud.
(8) Rinn Collach suairce Le bhuadhaibh fiosrachail Dhuinn moran buannachd Feadh chluan ar litreachais; Is chuir fearaibh uasal A chinnidh uaimhrich Le caithream suas da Clach shuain mar thigeadh dha.
(9) A dh’aindeoin ceilg Agus feirg nan Sasunnach, Cha d’chuir iad balbh Air an t-seirbhis ghaisgeil ud; Bha uaislean calm’ ann Nach d’ thug mi ’n ainm dhuibh Bha ’n t-Ollamh Foirbeis Is Professor Blackie ann.
(10) Mac Mhuirich tàireil: Chan àgh a ghuidhir dha; ’S e ’ghaol air Mammon A dh’àraich bruidhinn air; Tha iad ag ràdha - Mu[n] d’ fhuair e fàbhar - Tha ’n leabhar cearr ris ’S a bhàrdachd guidheachan.
(11) Is beag an t-ioghnadh, Is an aois a laighe orm, Ged re’adh mo smaoin Thun an taobh a chaidh iad; Ach ’s fearr bhith éibhneach ’S an t-saoghal mhathasach Is sgur de’n caoidh Is na saoidh am flathanas.
(12) Mhic-Talla chairdeil Nach àicheadh bruidhinn rium Ged fhuair roimh Àdhamh ’S gach àird, do thighearnas; Gur òg a bha mi Mu d’ thaigh a’ mànran Is tu seinn nan dàn leam An Gàidhlig Sgitheanach.
A Memorial to the learned men who laboured to keep Gaelic alive.
(1) My thoughts are firmly On those most heroic leaders Who have left this world For the side we cannot see; Who spent their time Without any financial reward But who left their intellect As a heritage for us.
(2) There is silence in the grave, And though it is a cold bed, It did not achieve victory Over those noble warriors: The voice of their talents Are in our ears As sweet to rehearse As when it was first spoken.
(3) The king of the choir Is the lordly MacLeod Who is now like a torch Showing us the way; You are the young Norman, Goodly young son of the Skyeman: What he says Gives us solace of heart.
(4) In the dappled island, Which is surrounded by seashore, Was Livingston, And a mighty hero was he; He will be warmly remembered, As a poet and as an historian; Although he was oppressed By the tyranny of the English.
(5) In the Island of Islay, If I remember correctly, Was the elegant scholar Who gave us the dictionary; It would be a good thing If it were to happen in my lifetime For a memorial to go Above the MacAlpine man.
(6) There is a man in this company, And he should not be in last place, And he needs to be highlighted Forever amongst us; He fostered excellent work That nurtured our poets: MacKenzie of Gairloch The handsome Highlander.
(7) Professor Stewart Was in the vanguard of those heroes, He gave us a grammar And we have it joyfully, With flexible vocabulary Of the vigorous adjectives And of the learned verbs – The Perthshire man is my hero.
(8) The man of Coll With his learned talents Has given us many rewards Though out the field of our literature; And noble men Of his proud lineage With celebration erected for him A gravestone as becomes him.
(9) Despite the treachery And the anger of the English, They did not make mute That heroic service; There were strong leaders there Whose names I haven’t given you yet – Professor Forbes was there, And Professor Blackie.
(10) Shameful Macpherson: His wish was not for its prosperity; It was his lust for Mammon Which caused him to speak out; They say – Before he found favour – That the book is false to him And (there are) curses in his poetry.
(11) It is little wonder With old age heavily on me, That my thoughts have gone In a certain direction; But it is better to be merry In the bountiful world, And to desist from crying, While the elect are in Heaven.
(12) O kindly Mac-Talla, Who would not reject my conversation, Although every location Before Adam was under your power; In the days of my youth I was murmuring around your house As you sang the poems with me In the Gaelic of Skye.
Paragraph 3 is about the Rev. Norman MacLeod (Caraid nan Gàidheal, 1783-1862). As the Companion to Gaelic Scotland notes, “MacLeod is one of the leading figures in the history of Gaelic prose,” having edited several of the first major Gaelic periodicals.
Paragraph 4 is about the poet Uilleam MacDhunléibhe (“William Livingston”, 1808-70), who composed a number of epic poems about Scottish history and some bitter ones on the Clearances.
Paragraph 5 is about Neil MacAlpine (1786-1867) who compiled a Gaelic to English dictionary published in 1832.
Paragraph 6 is about John MacKenzie (1806-48), a prolific Gaelic writer and editor who published, amongst other works, the Gaelic poetry anthology Sàr Obair nam Bard Gaelach (1841).
Paragraph 7 is about the Rev. Alexander Stewart of Blair Atholl (1764-1821) who wrote Elements of Gaelic Grammar (1801).
I am uncertain of the subject of paragraph 8.
Paragraph 9 mentions (probably) Alasdair Forbes (†1924), author of a book of Gaelic names of animals and plants, and the indefatigable Professor John Stuart Blackie of the University of Edinburgh, who campaigned widely on behalf of Gaels and was largely responsible for the creation of the Chair of Celtic.
Paragraph 10 contains disparagement of James Macpherson, author/adaptor of Ossian. That’s a long story I don’t have time to address.
Paragraph 12 mentions “Mac-Talla,” although I think the poet may be punning, using the name more widely than the latter periodical; it evokes by association, for example, a song composed by An Clàrsair Dall (Ruairidh MacMhuirich) c.1693 about the silence of the hall of Dunvegan after the death of Iain Breac MacLeòid. It is a convenient coincidence that the MacLeods of Dunvegan and the editor Eòin MacFhionghain belong to Skye.