One of the most poignant and memorable episodes in the Fenian/Ossianic cycle of Gaelic literature is the death of Diarmaid from the venom of the wild (and enchanted) boar which his uncle, Fionn, entreated him to hunt, knowing that this would cause his death. This episode was cast in verse form, probably in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, in Glenshee (Gleann Sìdh), in eastern Perthshire by a poet named in The Book of the Dean of Lismore as Ailéin mac Ruaidhrí.
This is the earliest textual copy of the text of the ballad, but the extremely eccentric nature of this manuscript and the orthography used (Middle Scots rather than Classical Gaelic) has been challenging the best Gaelic scholars for generations. Fortunately, Donald Meek has produced a definitive edition, translation and literary analysis of the poem (1990) upon which all further scholarship can be built.
Amongst his many critical insights into the text, Meek has shown that the BDLM text differs from the prose narrative as it was recorded in Ireland and that in fact no variant of this text survives in Irish sources. This ballad was a very popular one in the Scottish Highlands, so much so that it was “relocalised” in a number of different locations. None of them, however, correspond so closely and neatly as the text does with Glenshee, Perthshire. These data strongly support the notion that the ballad was composed with this eastern location in mind.
To my limited knowledge, anyway, little more has been said about the ballad, why it was composed and what it might say about Gaelic affairs at this place and time. The poem itself and the cultural context is so rich that it invites some speculation that I hope others with more knowledge can refine or augment, given this stimulation.
First, of all, the poem itself indicates that it was meant to be performed in situ for a live audience. The poet begins:
Gleann Síodh, an gleann so rém thaoibh …
An gleann so fá Bheinn Ghulbainn ghuirm …
Éisdibh beag, madh áil libh laoidh | a chuideachta chaomh so, bhuam …
Glenshee, this glen beside me …
This glen below green Ben Gulabin …
Listen a little while, dear company, if you would wish to hear a ballad from me …
Where would this performance have happened? Almost certainly at the Spital of Glenshee (or actually, Seann Spideal “Shanspital”). This was clearly a high-status lodging, where King Robert II signed a charter during his reign (1371-90) about a century before the poem was composed. It must have been a suitable performance space for a small company of nobles.
I believe that there is a strong Campbell connection to the poem, which I will explain below, but for now, let it suffice to observe that Campbell seanchaidhs and genealogists in the 17th century recorded that they not only knew the poem, but they knew of its setting in Glenshee and the landscape features associated with the story, as in this excerpt from The Manuscript History of Craignish:
This seems to have been the ground that brought Fian and Dhiarmuid with their men to Scotland & after a memorable hunting of the wild boar at Glenshie in Perthshyre Diarmuid happen’d to kill a boar of Monstrous Size … which is the rise that Argyle the chief of this name & many of his Cadets carrie as their Crest the Boars head erasit. If it can be a voucher of this Storie I shall add that near the Spittal or hospital at Glenshie there are two places to be seen call’d [Leabaidh an Tuirc “The Boar’s Bed”] and [Uaigh Dhiarmaid “Diarmaid’s Grave”].
Why was the poem composed? What social function (other than just entertainment) might the text and performance have had? The social context must almost certainly be related to the eclipse of the power of the Clan Donald Lordship of the Isles and the expansion of the Campbells into that power vacuum and eastward. This hypothesis seems consistent with the manuscript source of the ballad, the text of the ballad itself, the geographical setting of the ballad.
Let me rehearse some of the supporting evidence. The Gaelic contents of the BDLM stretches back to the thirteenth century and includes a broad sweep of materials, including from Clan Donald poets. The overall tone of the collection, however, indicates the passing of a Gaelic Golden Age.
“Veneration of the dead and remembrance of past glories resonates in B’s lists of Scottish kings and battles; in its inclusion of a group of poems collectively mourning the downfall of the MacDonalds and their lordship; in the predominantly elegiac tone of its heroic ballads, with their preoccupation with warrior-death, the ars moriendi, and commemoration of the passing of an heroic age…” (MacGregor 68)
The similarity of Diarmaid’s patronymic Ó Duibhne to the Gaelic form of the Campbell’s archaic kin-name Duibhnich enabled, at least in popular tradition, the idea that the Diarmaid of Ossianic tradition was the eponymous ancestor of the Campbells. Although we don’t have surviving documentary evidence of this until the 17th century (Gillies, 279; McLeod, 123-4), it is possible that some germ of this claim was already circulating in 15th-century Gaelic folk tradition.
That the poet makes Diarmaid a suitable prototype for a good Gaelic chieftain is clear in some of the traits listed in the poem: besides being an able warrior and hunter, he “never refused a poet band” (stanza 14), he “did not consent to treachery” (stanza 19), he is handsome (stanzas 20, 23), “sweetness and kindness were found in his speech” (stanza 24), and he was a great wooer of women (stanza 25).
Diarmaid’s unlikely nemesis is his uncle Fionn, the leader of the Fian bands, who was jealous that his wife Gráinne had fallen in love with the younger man. It is possible that the ballad can be read in parable-fashion about power shifts in Gaelic Scotland. The term Fionnghall had been first used as an ethnic term for Norse invaders but later came to be used of the Gaels in the area dominated by the Clan Donald – in other words, the descendants of the Gaelicized Norse who inhabited, in particular, the Hebrides (McLeod, 128-29). There is a strong onomastic and literary association, then, between the term “Fionn” and the Clan Donald, who rhetorically positioned themselves as the defenders of the old Gaelic order, just as Fionn and the Fian were portrayed in the Gaelic literary tradition.
The ballad, then, seems to suggest a kind of political parable about the rivalry between Fionn and Diarmaid, which is paralleled by the rivalry between Clan Donald and Clan Campbell for Ceannas nan Gàidheal “the Headship of the Gaels”. The persona of Gráinne represents the attachment and affection of the Gaelic community itself. Fionn, through jealousy and resentment, causes the downfall of his loyal and innocent nephew, and ultimately his own downfall.
I expect that the notion of Diarmaid’s burial in Glenshee is itself important. Burial places were not just sites of community attachment and ritual but markers of ancestral ownership. Placing a claim – an ancient one, indeed – for a Campbell lineage in Glenshee could have set a very ambitious target and rationale for Campbell territorial expansion. That is, if the ballad text wasn’t a way for a Campbell patron to claim and “over-write” a burial site that belonged to another unrelated personage which may have been close enough in name or tradition.
Add to this the name of the poet to whom the text is ascribed in BDLM: Ailéin mac Ruaidhrí. Naming patterns in Gaelic society are pretty repetitive and consistent, and this is not a Campbell name but a Clan Donald one. It would not be surprising if, in the waning of Clan Donald power, poets who had previously had patronage in the Lordship of the Isles sought employment from Campbells. Perhaps this would entail some acknowledgment of the declined status of their former MacDonald associates and the greater legitimacy of their new Campbell bosses.
Here ends my speculation … I hope that others can critique and extend, if possible, these lines of inquiry.
Campbell, Herbert. 1926. “The Manuscript History of Craignish.” In Miscellany of the Scottish History Society.
Gillies, William. 1978. “Some Aspects of Campbell History.” Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness 50.
MacGregor, Martin. 2006. “The View from Fortingall: the worlds of the Book of the Dean of Lismore.” Scottish Gaelic Studies 22: 35-85.
McLeod, Wilson. 2004. Divided Gaels: Gaelic Cultural Identities in Scotland and Ireland c.1200–c.1650.
Meek. Donald. 1990. “The Death of Diarmaid in Scottish and Irish Tradition.” Celtica 21.
— 2004. “The Scottish tradition of Fian ballads in the middle ages.” In Unity in Diversity, ed. Cathal Ó Háinle and Donald Meek.
ed. — (forthcoming). Fian Ballads in the Book of the Dean of Lismore.
Miller, T. D. 1929. Tales of a Highland Parish (Glenshee).