Surely the most popular narratives in the Scottish Highlands in the early modern period were the heroic tales and ballads relating to the warrior Fionn mac Cumhail and his band of superheroes, the Fian (variously called An Fhian, An Fhéinn, na Fiantaichean, etc., in Gaelic). There was a huge selection of material, and on any particular occasion, a performer might recite or sing only a small portion of the adventures that related to the “Ossianic cycle” (or “Fenian cycle,” as it is sometimes called).
It is always the case that once a body of narrative becomes intimately known by an audience, it serves as a vehicle for multiple rhetorical purposes. In other words, it can serve not just as an imaginative story about far-away people and places, but as a means of social commentary about the here and now. Think of “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, and how it has been retold and repackaged to comment on youth gangs in California (as in the 1996 film with Leonardo DiCaprio) or 1960s New York (West Side Story). The many, many retellings of the Arthurian legends provide another example of how the well-kent characters and plot structure have enabled skilled storytellers to comment on power and corruption.
The same was true for Gaelic storytellers in Scotland and Ireland. Although folklorists have emphasized the Gaelic penchant for telling texts exactly as they were heard, we have probably not allowed for, looked for, and paid adequate tribute to the creativity of Gaelic storytellers and singers in adapting texts for their audiences and circumstances.
Although there are many variants and episodes in the Ossianic texts that are worth studying in detail, I think that this particular text is strongly indicative of the sense of injustice and oppression that Highlanders experienced in the aftermath of Culloden. And in fact, I’ve argued elsewhere (in Warriors of the Word and in this extensive article on prophecy), elaborating an argument from Iain MacAonghuis, that some of the popularity of Fionn mac Cumhail in the Highlands was due to his role as a savior figure who would restore Gaels to their proper place in the Scottish kingdom.
This particular text, Iain òg Ìle (John Francis Campbell), tells us, is a synthesis from the recital of three different storytellers tapped between the 1860s and 1870s (see Celtic Review vol. 1 (1905), pp. 363-4 for background information; the text itself is in Celtic Review vol. 2 (1906), pp. 255-8).
It’s hard to read this text without thinking of how much the conditions described in the narrative relate to exactly the conditions of the people reciting it as well as those listening: people who had usually been evicted from their original home areas, dumped on the beaches to fend for themselves, often making a wretched living on the seashore, who sometimes resorted to poaching deer and fish for survival (and were afraid of being caught by the landlord’s officers for so doing), who had once been proud defenders of their own land and tradition (and were reminded of their decline in stature by their own Gaelic traditions), who awaited someone to champion their cause.
== Translated Text below ==
At that time – as MacIsaac said in Uist – people were few in Scotland. There were great empty glens with a man in them here and there, not as it is today when men abound in Scotland. There were many deer in these days, and men hunted them.
Fionn knew by his (psychic) knowledge that his father’s men were there and in dire straits. So he set off to seek them. They were on the land of the king of Scandinavia, as it appears; and the king would not feed them any meat. They had oaken skewers in their bellies to keep them out from sticking to their backs, they were so gaunt, and thin, and starved. They had to hunt for the king, but he did not give them enough to eat. They lived in a cave, or, according to others, in a sheiling.
Fionn, with his sword under his arm and the hound Bran at his heels, walked to the dwelling and looked in.
“I will come in and stay,” said he, “unless I am forced out.”
There was no living thing there but the fire. Swords were there leaning against the wall, rusty old swords and spears, and there were beds and benches. As no one was there to hinder him, Fionn leaned his sword, Mac an Luinn, against the wall, and stretched himself on the floor beside the fire, and Bran lay down beside him and went to sleep.
They had not been long thus when Fionn heard a murmur of voices, and trampling and rattling of feet and arms coming towards the dwelling, but he lay long still and pretended to be sleeping. He looked secretly and saw great, wild, tall, stalwart, terrible, strong men coming, unlike the others in the land of giants, who were under enchantments and spells, and who were phantoms. Seven of them came home, and they had a hind with them, which they killed. They flayed the hind and tossed it into the great kettle that was on the fire, and when it was cooked it provided them with only a morsel apiece.
When they had the kettle ready for the fire they noticed the lad and the hound and the sword, and they began to talk.
“Is not that hound the most similar to Bran that ever was in the world?” said one.
“Did ever man see a sword that is more similar to Mac an Luinn?” said another.
“But look at this lad,” said a third, “who is sleeping there: are not these the two eyes and the cheeks and the very face of Cumhal?”
Then they awoke him and asked him to share what they had, even though it was only a morsel for each.
“It is little enough for yourselves,” said Fionn.
“My lad,” said one, “eat your share, we are ever thus since the terrible day.”
“But who are you?” said Fionn. “I never saw men like you for stature and for grand frightful looks.”
One of them sighed, and then another. And then one said, “We have seen the day when we were not ashamed to tell who we are, but you are a stranger, I swear.”
“Yes,” said Fionn, “I never trod on this ground before.” And that was true.
“Did you ever hear of the Fian?” said one.
“Yes,” said Fionn, “I have heard about the Fian from my foster-mother, that they were the grandest men that ever were seen in the world.”
“So we were on a day,” said the warrior. “But that day is gone.”
And then he told how the kings of Scandinavia and Ireland had slain Cumhal by treachery, how they had shared Scotland between them and turned the Fian into slaves and [text missing] for them, all as it has been told already at the beginning.
“But will the Fian ever be better off than you are now?” said the lad.
“Little jewel,” said the warrior, “under the leadership of Fionn son of Cumhal we will be twelve times better than we ever were, for it was said in the prophecies that he will come and recover the land.”
“We shall never see him,” said one.
“Ay! Ay!” said another, and so they sighed and lamented.
They did not know who he was, but he knew them.
And so they talked all night of the ancient glories of the Fian and their sorrows and hardships and their woes, and then they fell asleep about the fire, the old warriors of Cumhal and Fionn son of Cumhal, whom they did not know. In the morning they had nothing but a gulp of venison broth; they had no proper meal, nothing.
He had a venomed claw which had a sheath upon it that he lost in the realm of the giants in fighting the monster, as I have told you already, and there, as they could not make another like the one he had lost, they made a golden sheath for it. There was a golden boot upon the venomed spur of Bran.
Bran always killed more than Fionn. If Fionn killed 600 men or beasts, Bran killed 700, always a hundred more than his master.
When Bran came from the dwelling, Fionn loosed the golden sheath from his foot, and he set him at the herd of heavy stags. When he had gone Fionn followed, and before they stopped he and the great hound had killed nine nines.
Then the old soldiers started talking. One said: “Is not that like Bran?”
“This one is as good as Bran any day,” said another.
“That is not Bran’s colour,” said a third.
“They had the same mother,” said Fionn. “But take up the deer and let us go home. If men come to blame you I will take the blame.”
They took nine great stags, and they feasted so that one of the oaken skewers broke in the belly of each of the old warriors that night. Next day they took nine more home, and so day by day, and nine by nine they brought home the nine nines, and feasted so well that all the oaken skewers broke in their bellies.
As each one ate his meal the splintering was heard of the oaken skewers that they had in their bellies to keep them from their backs.