This post is dedicated to my friend Àdhamh Ó Broin and his heroic efforts to revive the Gaelic dialect of south-western Argyll. His FaceBook group for Dal Riada Gàidhlig can be found here.
One of his goals is to collect all of the Gaelic material possible that was generated by the people of this beautiful region (not far at all from Glasgow). It so happens that I have a copy of a very rare booklet printed in 1905 (given to me by Dr Margaret Bennett) with some interesting little gems from the area, entitled The Kyles of Bute and Glendaruel in History, Poetry and Folk-lore. The following section (p.10), entitled “Kilmodan,” contains some very interesting material:
The parish, as the name implies, has been called after Saint Modan, a disciple or follower of Saint Columba. The name appears in ecclesiastical records as early as 1250, and the parish is said to have been known of old, first as “Glenduisk,” and afterwards as “Glendaruell,” which is popularly said to be one of the “three glens of Scotland,” the other two being Glenlyon, in Perthshire, and Glendale, in Skye.
Glendaruel is celebrated in song and story. Of it the bard, John Sinclair, who was a schoolmaster at Stronafian, says:
Gleann Dà Ruadhail mo chrìdh,
Rìgh gach gleann tha ’s an tìr,
Far an d’ àraicheadh mi bho m’ òige
Gleann nan coilltean is nan raon
Gleann nan glacag is nan craobh
Gleann nan aighean, nan laogh is nam bò
Gleann nam bradan is nan grìs,
Gleann nan cam-luba mìn
Gleann as pailte ’s an cinn gach pòr.
Here is another verse from another poet, Mr. Duncan Currie of Pollockshaws, which deserves a place in this connection:
Gleann Dà Ruadhail nan cruachan buidhe
Uaine, mulanach, maol;
Chan urrainn do bhard gu bràth a mholadh;
Tha àilleachd soilleir ann fhéin
A h-uile taobh bha mi, is àite a bhithinn
Air ànradh iomadach taobh
Chan aithne dhomh àite ’n dràst’ air thalamh
Bheir bàrr air clachan mo ghaoil.
As the Gàidhlig is very simple and straightfoward, I won’t bother translating it at this point. But this seemingly short and simple excerpt offers material for some very interesting and important observations.
The first is the very strong sense of place in the poetry: regardless of modern values and perceptions, Gaels have a very strong attachment to their native glen and take pride in knowing its features and its history intimately, sometimes to the point of heated rivalry with other locales. Certainly one of the things that people must reclaim if we are to counter environmental catastrophe is to take root in and care of our own local place.
Secondly, this bit of vernacular lore bears a strong resemblance to the literary genre cultivated by the professional literati in Ireland, known as dindsenchas (the lore of places). Like that more formal genre, the seanchaidhean (learned tradition-bearers) have preserved a sequence of names for a place, which often correspond to cultural epochs. In this case, the glen was first called Gleann Dubh-Uisg’ (a name that appears in a number of local poems) and later Gleann Dà Ruadhail. The local lore ties the area to the wider Gaelic world, and the notion of being a part of a national unity: it was one of the three primary glens of Gaelic Scotland.
Third, the poets mentioned also serve to demonstrate connections between the locale and the wider Gaelic world — kinship networks, especially during the era of emigration, formed a pre-digital “world-wide web” that spanned huge distances. The Duncan Currie mentioned probably belonged to the lineage of MacMhuirich poets who served as professional literati and scholars for the pre-eminant leaders of the Gaelic world for centuries, having been established by an Irish Gael who emigrated to the Loch Lomond area c. 1200. The other poet mentioned, John Sinclair, eventually migrated to Prince Edward Island in Canada, and there composed a song in praise of Gleann Dà Ruadhail that was sent to and performed for an emigrant society in Glasgow.
Some non-Gaelic-speaking academic pundits make much of the notion that the Highlands are merely a region in Scotland, or highlight the fragmented nature of clan life in the Highlands to downplay any notion of Gaelic unity. A huge amount of Gaelic material shows us exactly this, however: despite whatever differences of religion or political leadership may have prevailed at certain times in certain places, Gaelic cultural and literary resources embodied and transmitted a conceptual unity for Gaeldom (a term and idea explained in detail by Dr Iain MacAonghuis), one that resounds throughout Gaelic literature and oral culture.
The metaphor of the hologram is an apt one. Every strath and glen in the Highlands was a microcosm of the greater whole, containing reflections and refractions of Gaelic culture and tradition. Each of these little puzzle pieces help to recover the bigger picture. On the other hand, it can be very puzzling to understand the small scale picture without a familiarity of the whole, its long lineage and the breadth of its cultural productions.
I commend Àdhamh for his enterprise and wish him great success in recovering the pieces of this lovely corner of the Gàidhealtachd. Gura math a théid leibh!
(NOTE: I have updated the orthography of the Gaelic texts but have not yet had a chance to check the spelling of Gleann Dà Ruadhail in Watson’s Celtic Placenames of Scotland.)