Folklife, Late Medieval, Scotland, Scottish Gaelic Literature

Cattle Raiding and Gaelic Rites of Passage

Cattle were at the very heart of life in the old Scottish Highlands, be it calendar customs, rites of passage, past-times, food, clothing and place of residence. The central role of cattle is explored in great detail in a very impressive recent book that I’ve just acquired, Ri Luinneig mun Chro: Crodh ann am Beatha agus Dualchas nan Gàidheal, of which I’ll be writing a review for ACGA’s quarterly newsletter this year.

Looking over the book reminded me of a piece of Gaelic folklore relating to a place special to my heart – MacPharlain country, at the north end of Loch Lomondside – that I did not find in time to include in a volume of literature and tradition that I compiled years ago, entitled Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid / From the Clyde to Callander (still available from The Grimsay Press).

Not only was the modern anglophone notion of private property not relevant in those days, but cattle raiding was an expected aspect of group conflict and aggression. A would-be clan leader had to prove his skills by leading a successful cattle raid, and Lowlanders – seen as non-native interlopers on territory that rightly belonging to the Gaels – were popular targets.

One nineteenth-century Scottish antiquarian who went by the pen-name of “Nether Lochaber” printed a regular newspaper column containing Gaelic lore, much of which – unfortunately – he only gave in English translation, limiting the original Gaelic texts to a minimum. One of his columns contains the translation of a Gaelic lullaby (which does not look familiar to me), which expresses the wish that the little boy grow up to be a successful warrior who will provide for his foster-father and -mother. It includes a toast referring to the lowing of cattle, which the writer explains thusly:

The lowing of kine geumnaich bhò, occuring in this lullaby, was an old toast of the cattle-lifting times, that the late Dr. Macfarlane of Arrochar told us he himself had often heard when a young man at baptismal feasts and bridals on Loch Lomond-side. The secret of it is this. The geumnaich or lowing, implied that the cattle were strangers to the glen, whilst those that belonged to the glen itself, and were the bona fide property of the clan, if such there were, were quiet, and staid, and well-behaved, as decent cattle should be. … “The lowing of kine,” therefore, was a toast that meant neither more nor less than success to the cattle-lifting trade!

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1 thought on “Cattle Raiding and Gaelic Rites of Passage”

  1. I have MacFarlane ancestry and am hungry for everything I can learn about them. Thanks for this post. Keep up the good work.

    Clint

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