Scottish Gaelic Literature

The Zen of Gaelic Nature Poetry

Although I’ve known about transcendental meditation since I was a teenager, it was only when I had a personal crisis at the age of 40 that I had cause to do a deep dive into the latest manifestations of these spiritual techniques. I took a Mindfulness course offered by an Integrated Medicine program at the University of North Carolina to deal with the stress and anxiety I was experiencing, negative feedback loops that drew me into a black hole. Rather than the usual approach of conventional psychotherapy – delving into the past to explore the root causes of one’s emotional traumas – my guide into mindfulness had us focus on seemingly trivial and mundane experiences: What does a raisin really taste like if you chew it slowly and perceptively? What is the quality of experience when we breath slowly and deliberately? What is it like to really live in the present moment, in all of its sensory profusion and grandeur, rather than allowing our minds to draw us constantly to some other place, some other time, some other purpose?

Although there are many definitions of “mindfulness,” that offered by the Greater Good Magazine is sufficient:

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.

Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

I’m currently on holiday in Nova Scotia and holidays are meant to be relaxing by taking us out of our usual routine and allowing us to experience the sublime, or the exotic, or at least the non-habitual. And yet, I’m sure like many other people, my mind is constantly pulled (as it feels) by the things I should be doing to be “productive” (not least my secondary, non-paid career as a Gaelic scholar). And feeling this tugging while in the company of beloved Gaelic friends in Nova Scotia somehow reminded me of the debate over the meaning and quality of Gaelic poetry written about nature in past centuries.

Caveat: As I am on holiday and do not have access to my library and all of the dog-eared references I’ve accumulated in the past, I will not be able to cite references for the following discussion. I will be limited to my rather imprecise ability to recall … Please forgive any misattributions based on my imperfect memory.

If you’ve studied Gaelic poetry, you know that – at least from the viewpoint of a modern Anglophone – it can seem to get rather tedious. There is almost limitless attention to detail, catalogues of place names, flora, fauna, and phenomena, and onomatopoeic and anthropomorphized portrayal of the busy activities of ecosystems and their inhabitants. Probably the most celebrated poet whose output included many extended texts of this nature is Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (1724 – 1812).

This modality of poetry clashes with modern European literary ideals and caused many previous generations of literary scholars to dismiss the capacities and accomplishments of the Gaelic “eco-literary” tradition. One modern Gaelic scholar (I believe it was Derick Thomson in the ’70s) expressed his disappointment that Donnchadh Bàn’s poetry did not use nature as a vehicle for philosophizing about life or social issues, despite his tremendous command of the language and literary devices; in other words, Donnchadh Bàn was celebrating nature at great length simply for its own sake, not as an eloquent circumlocution to be applied to some other set of themes and topics.

You can probably see where I’m going with this …

Another Celtic scholar (John Carey, I think?) has compared the sophisticated detail and fractal-like reflections of the intricate depictions in Gaelic poetry to the illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period and suggested that the latter may have formed a sort of spiritual devotion.chi_rho_bowl

So, rather than seeing the artistic skills and intellectual resources of the Gaelic literati as being “wasted” because they “failed” to leverage them for the literary equivalent of social engineering, we should instead see them as delightful celebrations of mindfulness, of taking joy in the wonder of being in the fecundity of nature and sharing that experiences and wonder with the rest of us.

Now that this blog is done, I need to be practicing mindfulness better myself.

PS. The great Gaelic scholar Meg Bateman also has an article about remnants of the female chthonic divine in Donnchadh Bàn’s nature poetry, but I must leave you to find this on your own: ‘The environmentalism of Donnchadh Bàn: pragmatic or mythic?’ Christopher MacLachlan (ed.), Crossing the Highland Line: Cross-Currents in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Writing. Glasgow: 123–36.

Canada, Folklife, Modern, Scotland

The Role of a Scholar in Gaelic and other Marginalized Cultures

This is a difficult, sensitive, complex, and multilayered topic. It’s hard to write about and it’s not surprising that so few people have tried (“I am a ‘white linguist’” by Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas being one of the few examples). I am only human, as are the members of the communities I’ve worked with, so we will make mistakes and hopefully be compassionate with one another and allow ourselves to reflect on and learn from the process. I end up rewriting and improving my all of my blog posts to try to add and improve nuances, this post perhaps more than most (with significant encouragement and suggestions from my friend Tad Hargrave).

I love Scottish Gaelic culture for many reasons: a sonorous and eloquent language, a long and sophisticated literary tradition, a beautiful music and song tradition, a dynamic dance tradition, a rich mythopoeic cosmology, a deeply-rooted sense of belonging, and so on. Engagement in Scottish Gaeldom has given me the privilege of experiencing the world with different way of being and knowing. And it’s also given me a deeper appreciation for how fragile cultures can be, and how easily they can they become entangled in and appropriated by empires and colonial enterprises.

One of the most ambitious, multi-pronged enterprises launched in the late twentieth century is that of decolonization. Modernity is the product of the élite of European empires of the last several centuries, and modernity has permeated the globe with many manifestations of coloniality. Virtually everyone is implicated in this web of domination, control, and exploitation, some as victims / exploited, some as victors / exploiters, and most of us as a mixture of both. But even the humanity of the “victor” is compromised in a system that thrives on creating and enforcing hierarchies of power and privilege.

I cannot speak for all scholars, but many I know choose to work with and for minoritized communities for altruistic reasons, in the hopes of restoring some justice and beauty to the world. We can make mistakes, and academia seldom provides us adequate training for the imbalances between dominant and subjugated communities, or the emotional stresses and tolls inherent in such work. The latent faultlines in a community are likely to come to the fore when the prevailing assumptions around a culture are questioned, or one becomes involved in the community’s issues of representation, power, or privilege (or those of particular groups within the community). These can be very difficult to navigate and negotiate, but the process of collaboration between scholar and community can and should be mutually enriching and enlightening.

So, this blog post speaks primarily from my own point of view and personal experiences in Scottish Gaeldom in Scotland and Nova Scotia. …

There is not necessarily a compelling reason for members of dominant, majority cultures, content with their dispensations and opportunities, to seek out the history of their societies and question of the assumptions that make up the stuff of their everyday lives. They can afford to live in the present, buoyed by myths of inherent and eternal greatness, floating along the effervescent and evanescent stream of fads and fetishes.

Members of subjugated societies, who are trapped in the debris of wrecked communities, whose lines of historical continuity and cultural aspirations were cut short by invasion, intrusion, imposition and conquest, who will not or cannot silently acquiesce to the demands made by those who dominate them, experience life with a different kind of consciousness.

It is natural for people in such situations to have the need to address these issues, to have burning questions about their past, present, and future, for which they may not find answers easily: Why did this happen to us? Was it due to some intrinsic weakness or flaw of our own? How did it happen? Did someone within our group betray us? Can we do anything to regain our own identity and internal compass? How can we regain control of our destiny and self-determination? Do we even know what that is any more? Are our losses a series of random events, or is there some larger pattern to help to explain them? Are our losses similar to those of other people, whose recovery might provide us with inspiration and leadership to help us recover ourselves?

When a society is invaded and dominated by another, it can easily lose its sense of self, especially if the dominating group imposes a different language, culture, worldview and cosmology upon the conquered, stigmatizing their former ways of knowing and being in the world. The conquered become dislocated from their rootedness in the world, ontologically speaking, often still in their old physical location but like zombies or ghosts mimicking the ways of the victors, alienated from their ancestral inheritance, the deeper meaning of their customs, their old divine order. They cannot completely step into the shoes of their conquerors and leave their old selves behind, nor can they easily recapture the wholeness of their past.

The dominant culture, of course, constructs its own stories to explain its supremacy over others: it is more advanced, more civilized, more virtuous, more worthy of leadership. These ethnocentric fictions are regurgitated in schools, imaginative literature, mass media, public monuments, and so on, so that it seems hard to question, dislodge and replace them in defense of the marginalized and minoritized.

Although all humans are members of societies that constantly create, negotiate, and reinterpret culture, understanding culture in all of its historical depth, constituent elements, and conceptual complexity turns out to be more difficult than most people expect. It is, I think, for better or worse, an innate human tendency to see social groups in terms of essences or essentialisms: especially given the reinforcements of stereotypes in popular culture, it might be easily assumed that all French people are excellent chefs, all Germans are natural-born engineers, all Japanese are expert origami-makers, and so on. These expectations can be easily reinforced by positive affirmation bias and the desire to preserve a sense of internal group cohesion (“Of course, we’re all similar, especially because we’re different from them!”).

Likewise, it seems an innate human tendency for people to see the world in the “eternal present,” to assume that the present was fundamentally familiar with what we now know, and that it is safe to assume that we can project the concepts, categories, experiences, habits, and objects we know now unproblematically into the past.

These common human traits and propensities, however, amongst many others, muddle and sabotage our ability to think clearly and accurately about the past. People’s identities change over time: some people who were born as members of one group join another, or entire groups disappear, emerge, or reinvent themselves. Objects – clothing, weapons, musical instruments, … – created by one group get claimed by another, change function, becoming charged with new meaning, their origins lost in complex and unrecorded exchanges. Ideas and concepts are even more ghostly and elusive to track, but have just as profound and transformational impact upon those who hear and understand them.

Culture exists in variation in social groups at different scales: individuals, families, neighborhoods, states, organizations, institutions, professions, ethnolinguistic communities, nations, etc. Culture can be differentiated by context and domain: the culture of the home may be different from the culture of the religious institution, the culture of the élite different from the culture of the peasantry. Culture changes subtly and sometimes mutely, but always inexorably, over time. Seeing it as a singular, homogenous monolith is self-deceiving.

This is a rather long-winded introduction to the question of what contributions a scholar or intellectual can make to a minoritized culture, but my 25 year engagement in Scottish Gaeldom suggests that such observations are crucial for discussion of any depth, and this conviction has been confirmed by my discussions with people similarly engaged in revitalization projects with other minoritized groups.

When a culture is severely compromised, it tends to lose control over its own institutions, especially those that help it to understand itself. Those aspiring to higher social classes have little choice but to assimilate to the conventions of the dominant group, and to adopt language, ideas, values and assumptions accordingly. This compromises the ability of the invaded culture to recover the past or envision a path for the future in alignment with its pre-conquest self. There often emerge huge gaps between the assimilated élite and the lower-class natives, who no longer feel confidence or trust in their former kinsmen, but rather might feel resentment, shame, and/or humiliation, along, sometimes, with pride for their “accomplishment.”

Language and cultural revitalization is one of the most difficult undertakings a community can attempt, given that the decline of language and culture is itself a symptom of the undermining of the community’s basic abilities to chart its own course and transmit its own blueprint across generations.

I remember well sitting in a brainstorming workshop in Nova Scotia (c.2012) meant to generate suggestions for how Gaelic revitalization might be advanced in the community. The elder with whom I was sitting and to whom I spoke was kind, hopeful, and committed to his language, but he was also at a loss. For him, Gaelic was something “organic” that was simply spoken by family and community members as a matter of course, and personal choice. It required no planning, analysis or forethought, unlike the tortuous thought experiments which we were discussing at the meeting. He had no training the social sciences or sociolinguistics, or familiarity with institutional issues. The old world in which he was born and raised no longer exists, and he had a difficult time imagining how language regeneration could happen within the context of governmental policies, educational exercises, or community initiatives. It seemed to me to be a chasm he did not know how to cross, and he was by no means alone.

Gaelic will only survive and thrive to the extent that the community will come to terms with the conditions that exist now, in the present world. This does not require, by any means, that Gaels have to jettison the content, ethos, or principles of their culture wholesale – I have argued strongly against that – but it does mean enlisting people who have a foot in both settings and can manage that adaptation thoughtfully and sensitively. Crafting solutions in modern settings requires thinking in terms of structures, systems, institutions, and ideologies: these are very unnatural ways for human beings to approach challenges unless they have been given particular kinds of formal training and tools.

It was my distinct impression that there is a common distrust of institutions and scholars in Gaelic Nova Scotia because they have failed and betrayed the language and culture so many times. And yet the reach and impact of institutions is now unavoidable. For any community to survive within modern political entities, it must present a case to be represented in and supported by institutions of some sort, or maintaining a thriving community is virtually impossible otherwise. People with particular skills – usually those acquired within formal education – can act as intermediaries and aid in these processes in the interests of the community. And in time members of the community will learn from and integrate knowledge about these new contexts or settings, and assess their successes and failures on their own terms.

I think that there is a common insecurity around intellectuals and academics, whether it be a fear of inadequacy or difficulty in finding a common language with scholars, who often, by default, rely on erudite jargon and concepts. And many intellectuals can be introverted, clumsy, or overly cerebral by disposition. However, in ideal circumstances, scholars (and other professionals) can create symbiotic relationships with elders and community members to find creative solutions that have been shown to work in general but adapt them to the local community. This relationship-building requires mutual trust, respect, and patience — as well as time, which implies sustained funding … a rare commodity in the Gaelic world.

I found a widespread implied misunderstanding of the purpose of Celtic Studies in higher education in Nova Scotia. People seemed to assume that the purpose of attending courses and studying the field is to learning how to be a Gael. One well-known figure, who I like and admire very much, jokes that her instructor should not have chided her for missing class because she was attending a céilidh, where she was learning more about being a Gael than she could have in the classroom. This is, in my opinion, misguided. These are different ways of knowing and being that are distinct but complementary.

“French Studies” is not designed to teach students how to become French, or “Canadian Studies” to become Canadian. Rather, such courses and fields endeavor to provide a wide and deep background to the ways in which people in these ethnolinguistic groups have experienced the world and expressed themselves, to give students the critical thinking tools to understand the remains of the past, to question the interpretations of these things provided to us in the present (not always from our friends and allies), and to (re)construct new means of expression for ourselves in the future which are concordant with that past and its integrity. In addition, this deeper understanding allows one to see common patterns across different cultures and communities and historical time in a way that allows us to gauge what efforts are likely to succeed, which are not worth pursuing, what are common pitfalls and what are likely outcomes. It also enables building bridges across marginalized cultures for common goals.

There are many claims and assumptions about “authenticity” and cultural “purity” in Gaelic Nova Scotia. It is not unusual for a minoritized community to make such claims, as it can enhance its sense of integrity or social prestige. According to some, for example, fiddle music and step-dance in Nova Scotia are fossilized relics of the 18th-century Highlands. I am critical about such claims and continue to review the evidence and attempt to debunk misinformation, but it is not because I am hostile to the Gaelic community, tradition(s) or performers, or intend to be disrespectful to them. Rather, I think that relying upon claims of purity or authenticity is historically unsound and anthropologically untenable, and a weak plank upon which to rest self-esteem.

Understanding the development of art forms in the past and the ways in which people have negotiated between tradition and innovation is important because it provides us with precedents and exemplars of how to work in the present.  It is possible to celebrate the Nova Scotian forms of music and dance as signs of the ingenuity, resilience and creativity of Gaels responding to their contemporary environment in North America. The idea that the assimilation of external influences or new materials is a sign of corruption or dependency is outdated and smacks of the colonialist thinking that is ultimately of disservice to any culture.

All cultures consist of many strands, some conservative, some radical, potentially activated or disabled according to the social context and dominant forces. For the last two and a half centuries, Gaeldom has been dominated by conservative forces and personnel, as a matter of limited options as a conquered society. People might assume that Gaeldom is inherently conservative because it has been used to prop up the imperial military, colonial settlements, puritanical religion, and so on. Gaeldom has been so thoroughly impacted by and intertwined with British imperialism for the last several centuries that it is impossible to understand the history – or culture – without taking this imperial/colonial context into account.

But Gaeldom need not be relegated to or limited by this coloniality: there are radical strands in Gaelic heritage as well that have been waiting to be reclaimed and reactivated. This re-radicalization has been particularly lively in the last decade in Scotland due to a re-enfranchised political context, and as scholars we can question the dominant narrative of conservativeness by highlighting the radical Gaelic voice that does exist, and the potential for self-liberation and social equality latent within the tradition.

A creative scholar with a substantial knowledge of the history of the varied cultural expressions of a society can find older elements which have been lost, submerged, suppressed, or distorted, and help to give them new life that restores a sense of purpose and coherence to a group. Knowledge need not be just a passive asset, it can be energizing, visionary, revelatory, and healing. The work of decolonization requires both the head and the heart, pulling together in concert.

Scholars are not just one-dimensional, disembodied brains lacking qualifications to be one of the “real folk” – we are also musicians, dancers, creative writers, singers, and producers and transmitters of culture. A fully revitalized language needs to be used and usable by everyone in a society: the farmers and the philosophers, the bakers and the bankers, the children and the teachers … we all have a potential contribution to make that reflects our own skills and perspectives and helps to enhance the resilience, diversity, and resources of a culture.

Of course, scholars can make mistakes, have limitations and shortcomings, and change their minds – just like members of the community itself. Fortunately, many people have been very generous with and forgiving of me, and I have attempted to return the kindness and faith that many people placed in me over the years. They have shared their sense of injustice, their devotion to their heritage, their frequent despair, their fragile hopes, usually in hushed tones. I’ve tried to lift up and amplify those otherwise unheard voices in my work, because I am a scholar with a Muse and a mission, amongst many others who want to work toward a better world.

Modern, Scotland, Scottish Gaelic Literature

18th-Century Praise of Gaelic by Iain MacGriogair of Glenlyon

As I’ve said in a previous blog post, it is exciting to see a resurgence of interest in Gaelic in Perthshire, a region of Highland Scotland that was once home to thriving Gaelic communities and prolific Gaelic scholars and poets. I have a large collection of Gaelic literature from Perthshire that I would like to publish in complete form (after editing, translating, and interpreting it properly), but until I can find sufficient support to do so (beyond what I’ve already published in several previous books), I’ll only be able to leak out occasional previews.

One of the most important poets of Gaelic Perthshire was Iain MacGriogair (called “John MacGregor” in English), known commonly by his nickname “Am Bard Smeatach.” He seems to have been born in Glenlyon and was identified later as belonging more specifically to Tom na Croich. Have a look at the location of Glenlyon on this map of Scotland: according to Gaelic tradition, this was the centre of Scotland, and Gaelic extended well east and south of this location even into the early twentieth century.

MacGriogair’s first volume of poetry was published in 1801 although he says that most of the material was composed in the mid-1780s. He spent a great deal of time in Edinburgh. I have catalogued a total of 56 song-poems by him from multiple sources. I’m not sure when he was born, but he apparently died shortly after his second volume of poetry was published in 1818.

The following poem (given first in Gaelic, then in English translation) is in praise of the Gaelic language. It emphasizes Gaelic as the language of the founders of Scotland and of her greatest heroes who defended her when her liberty was threatened by hostile enemies. It implies that the heroic leaders who should now come to her assistance are the Gaelic Societies in London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. These organizations, and people in their orbit, were actually quite active in the 1780s sponsoring Gaelic events, gathering manuscripts, initiating projects (like compiling Gaelic dictionaries and translating religious texts), and so on. Of course, there are still stalwarts and societies in these places, and still bitter conflicts about Gaelic in Scotland – yet she still lives!

Moladh na Gàidhlig

Beir an t-soraidh seo uam
Do bhaile nam buadh
Fo sgéith Uisge Chluaidh,
Far am faca mi sluagh
Air nach luidheadh a ghruaim;
B’e ’n aoibhneas, ’s bu dual,
Pìob na caismeachd ’s mór fuaim,
’Gan cruinneachadh suas comhladh.
’Gan cruinneachadh, &c.

’S e Glaschu nam bùithean,
A ghabhas an cùinneadh,
Ann ’s am faighear an cùnnradh,
’S gach cleachdadh is ùire,
Thig a-nall às gach lùchairt,
’Ga aiseag le mùirne,
A lìonas gach sùil fheòla.
A lìonas, &c.

Tha iad fìrinneach ceart,
Ann nan inntinn ’s ’nan cleachd’;
Chan eil cùl-chainnt ’nam measg
No droch dhùrachd do neach;
’S mur mùth iad am beachd
Bha iad umhal do reachd Dheòrsa.
Bha iad umhal, &c.

Thoir beannachd uam féin,
Do’n Cheanaideach threun,
Fear ealanta geur;
Thig a’ Ghàidhlig o ’bheul
Mar bha i ’s an Fhéinn;
Ann an ranntachd cha ghéill
E do’n bhard bha ’sa’ Ghréig,
Ris an canadh iad féin ‘Homer’.
Ris an canadh, &c.

Tha ’Ghàidhlig co luachmhor,
’S nach cuir sinn i suarach:
Có nach seasmhadh ri guallainn?
’S i tha ’n comhradh nan uaislean,
’Ga labhairt gun truailleadh,
Feadh gach àit’ anns an gluais iad,
Gu caithreamach, cruaidh, ceòlmhor.
Gu caithreamach &c.

Ged chaidh a sàrach’ ’na triall,
Cha do chaill i a miadh;
Tha i fallain o chian,
Gun ghalar, gun ghiamh,
Buan, faramach, dian,
Gun alladh, gun fhiamh,
Anns gach talamh a dh’iarr eòlas.
Anns gach talamh, &c.

Cha do ghéill i do’n Eubhra,
Do’n Fhraingis no Ghréigis,
Do Laidin no Bheurla,
Nao do chainnt fo no speuran:
Nan tarladh i ’n éiginn,
’S math a ghearradh nam beum i,
’S math a ghearradh, &c.

’S i bh’aig Àdhamh ’s a’ ghàradh;
’S i bh’aig Eubha ’ga thàladh,
Gus ’n do mheall i gu bàs è,
Nuair dh’ith e meas àlainn,
Chaidh a thoirmeasg dha fhàgail
’S e dh’fhag sinn ’nar tràillean;
Ach fhuair sinn ar slànach’, is dòchas.
Ach fhuair, &c.

Nuair a chaidh an saoghal a bhàthadh,
Chaidh a’ Ghàidhlig a thearnadh:
’S i bh’aig Noah ’s an Àirce,
’S aig gach curaidh dh’fhàs uaidh;
Fhuair i ’n t-urram gu cràbhadh,
’S cha mheas’ i gu dànachd:
’S tha i milis a ghabhail òrain.
’S tha i, &c.

’S i bh’aig Treunmor, an toiseach,
A thog cìs o Rìgh Lochlainn;
Aig Fionn is aig Toscar
Aig Cù Chulainn ’s aig Osgar,
’S aig Caoilte nan cos luath,
A’ siubhal aonach, is shlochd, is mhór-bheann.
Siubhal aonach, &c.

’S i bh’aig Conan, ’s aig Diarmad,
Aig Dubhchomar ’s aig Diaran:
Bha i uil’ aig na Fiannaibh,
’N àm togail gu fiadhaich,
No chasgadh an ìotadh
D’ fhuil an naimhdean, ’s an dian thòrachd.
D’ fhuil, &c.

’S ’nan déidh uile bha Oisean
Le deuraibh ’s le osnaidh,
Ag innse a dhochainn,
Gus ’n do dhall air a rosgaibh;
’S e leòn is a lot e,
’S chuir daonnan fuidh sprochd e,
Bhith ’gan dìobhail, ’s e bochd, brònach.
Bhith ’gan dìobhail, &c.

B’i a’ Ghàidhlig chruaidh bhlasta
Bh’aig Coinneach an gaisgeach,
A’ cumail a cheartais,
’S a bualadh nam feachd-fhear
A’ ruagadh ’s a’ sgapadh
Nam Piocach ’bha sgaiteach;
Cha robh h-aon diubh ri fhaicinn,
A ghluaiseadh air faiche.
Dhìol e ’athair, Rìgh Alpin,
’S chan ì ’n luaidh’ a bha aca,
Ach na sleaghanna glasa ’nam feòil.
Ach na sleaghanna, &c.

’S i ’Ghàidhlig gun seachnadh
Bh’aig Uilleam ’s aig Raibeart,
Fhuair an t-urram ’s na feachdaibh
Dhìon Alba, ’s a sheasamh,
’S Rìgh Shasann ga’r creachadh;
Ma leughas sibh ’n eachdraidh,
Gu’n éist sibh ri teachd’reachd mo bheòil
Gu’n éist sibh &c.

Có thairgeadh dhi mì-mhodh,
’S nach cumadh am miadh i?
’S gur i ’Ghàidhlig bha sgrìobhte,
Air na clachanna crìche
Anns gach ionad do’n rìoghachd;
Ged bha i fuidh mhì-ghean,
Tha i nise a’ dìreadh,
’S gum mair i gu dìlinn,
Mar bha i ’s na linnibh o thùs.
Mar bha i, &c.

Guidheam buaidh le luchd furain,
Na mór-uaislean tha ’n Lunainn;
’Ga comhnadh bha ullamh
Nuair bha i fo dhubhar,
Ann an gàbhadh ri cumha:
Ach ’s an tràth seo tha buidheann
Air gach cànan ’s a’ Chruitheachd;
Deas-labhrach gu bruidhinn,
Teas-ghràdhach ’n àm suidhe mu’n chlàr.
Teas-ghràdhach, &c.

Có bheireadh beum dhith
Ann am Baile Dhùn Éideann
Gun dìoladh da réir siud?
’S i cuimeir na h-éididh,
Ann am breacan an fhéilidh,
’S osain ghearr am bròig eutrom,
A dhireadh nan sléibhtean,
’S nan garbh-bheann, nuair dh’éireadh an ceò.
’S nan garbh-bheann, &c.

’S e Glaschu a b’ urrainn,
Gun truailleadh a cumail;
’N sin tha àireamh à Muile,
’S às na bràidheanna lurach,
A fhuair ’s gach àite an t-urram:
Cha bhi ’Ghàidhlig an cunnart,
’S cha bhàsaich i tuille,
’S na h-armuinn ud uile,
Ga h-àrach, ’s ’ga sìor-chumail beò.
Ga h-àrach, &c.

In Praise of Gaelic

Take my greeting to the city of wonders, under the wing of the Clyde, where I have seen the crowd who would show no gloom; it would be their customary pleasure to hear the bagpipes, of the incitement and overwhelming sound, grathering them all together.

It is Glasgow of the many shops, which takes the coinage, in which the bargains are found and every innovation which comes over from courts, transported with excitement, and fills every eye.

They are honest and right, in their minds and in their behaviour; there is no backbiting amongst them, or any ill-wish; and unless they have changed their minds, they have been loyal to George’s law.

Bear my greetings to brave (Duncan) Kennedy, a sharp and talented man; Gaelic comes out of his mouth just as it did from the Fianna; in matters of poetry, he will not yield to the poet of Greece they called ‘Homer’.

Gaelic is so valuable that we will not belittle it; who would not defend it? She is in the conversation of the nobility, spoken unsullied, in every place that they travel, triumphantly, solidly and melodiously.

Although she has been persecuted in her travels, she has not lost her honour; she was healthy in ancient times, without sickness or blemish; long-lasting, sonorous, intense, free of defamation or cowardice in every land where knowledge is sought.

She has not yielded to Hebrew, French, Greek, Latin, English, or any language in existence; if she were to encounter difficulty, she is good at dealing blows.

Gaelic was the language of Adam in the Garden, and of Eve, who enticed him, until her deception caused his morality when he ate the gorgeous fruit; he was commanded to leave (the Garden) and that is what left us as slaves, although we got salvation and hope.

When the world was flooded, Gaelic was saved: Noah in the Ark spoke it, as did every warrior descended from him; she is renowned for devotion, and no less for poetry: she is sweet for the singing of songs.

Treunmhor spoke it, who first took tribute from the King of Lochlann; Fionn, Toscar, Cù Chulainn, Osgar and Caoilte of the swift feet spoke it, travelling moor, dell and great mountain.

Conan, Diarmad, Dubhchomar, Diaran and all of the Fianna spoke it, when it was time for them to go hunting, or to quench their thirst with the blood of their enemies in the hot pursuit.

And coming after all the others there was Ossian, with tears and sighs, relating his sorrow until his eyes were blinded; it pained and wounded him, and kept him constantly dejected, to be lacking them, when he was poorly and sad.

It was vigorous eloquent Gaelic that the hero Kenneth (MacAlpine) spoke, keeping his justice, and striking the warriors, routing and scattering the fierce Picts; there was one left of them left, who could move on the battle-field; he avenged his father, King Alpìn; they had no bullets, but pale spears (thrust) in their flesh.

It was Gaelic that William (Wallace) and Robert (the Bruce) spoke, and they did not shun it; they won honour in the armies that defended Scotland when the King of England was plundering us; if you read history, you will listen to my oral testimony.

Who would abuse her or not uphold her reputation? It is Gaelic (ogham) that was inscribed on the boundary stones of every site in the kingdom; although she was depressed, she is now prevailing so that she will last forever, as she was in ancient times.

I wish the welcoming company victory, the great nobles in London; assisting her expediently when she was disheartened, in danger of being subject of an elegy; but at this time there is an organisation for every tongue in Creation, well-spoken and warmly-disposed at the time to sit down together.

Who in the city of Edinburgh would strike her without being punished in return? She is comely in her apparel, in the belted plaid, with short hose in lightweight shoes for the climbing of hills and rough mountains, when the mist would rise.

It is Glasgow that could keep her unsullied, and then there is a number from Mull and from the bonny braes which have been praised everywhere; Gaelic will not be in danger, and she will never die, while all of those warriors care for her and constantly keep her alive.

Modern, Scotland

A 1828 Plea on Behalf of Gaelic in Scotland

Anyone who studies sociolinguistics knows that languages live or die not according to their own merits, but according to the circumstances of the communities that speak them. Communities that are marginalized, denigrated, and denied the ability to govern themselves and access resources also see their languages and cultures compromised.

This has long been the case with the Celtic languages, given that their respective communities were conquered and dominated by an expanding anglophone empire that saw difference as inferiority, and its own language and culture as the only road to progress and modernity. Gaels have long been fighting against this inequality, even if their voices have been seldom heard or respected.

Languages and cultures need not just respect and status, but the opportunity to be protected, developed, and enshrined by official policies and formal institutions. People have argued this in the case of Scottish Gaelic for centuries. One of the early voices saying just these things was Neil McNish, who in 1828 published the booklet The True Method of Preserving the Gælic Language; or, how to retrieve the decaying honour and prosperity of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland arguing for exactly the kinds of policies and institutions that we finally see emerging in the last generation or two, and are still incomplete.

I here include a few excerpts from his book that demonstrate the clarity of his vision for Gaelic to be given its proper place, but also his observations about the intentional destruction of Gaelic and the inferiorization of his language and culture along with the downgrading of his people.

The excerpt from p. 21 is quite important in showing the central role of language in cultural legitimacy and social leadership. As I’ve discussed in the book Warriors of the Word, and elsewhere, Gaels have long considered language a more important qualification for membership in the community than blood lines.

The final excerpt calls for the establishment of a university based in the Highlands that caters for the education of its people in their own native language – a vital course of action that only began to emerge in the late twentieth century.

[p. 6]

The object of the following treatise is to illustrate the condition of the present Highlanders, and to show how far their right should be extended with respect to the privilege of using their native language in political matters, as well as any other now in use, and when it is a living language, and continues to be employed to convey four hundred thousand Highland souls, the important truths of religion, why should it not answer the purpose of a living language? The only channel through which the rudiments of knowledge can be conveyed to the mind of a real Highlander, is the language of the country in which he lives, and by means of which he should know the laws of our constitution; but this he is unjustly deprived of.

To turn to our leading article, we shall lay before our gentle readers the true method of preserving the Gaelic language, the only way of promoting the honour and prosperity of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Many institutions have been formed of late years, in various parts of the kingdom, for the support of Gaelic Schools in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland; but none of these benevolent societies have taken any steps for preserving and defending that language, they so honourably teach. It is high time therefore that we as Highlanders should look around us, and form ourselves into an association for the express purpose of supporting our native language, which existed for ages past.

There is no encouragement given to us, Highlanders, for persevering in, and improving our native language which is daily decaying, when it might otherwise be improved. Much has been [p. 7] said about the education of our countrymen, and thankful we are to those who have taken so much pains in planting Schools amongst us; but still we have to declare to them, (which we are exceedingly sorry to do) that though our learning be ever so good, and our genius be ever so well cultivated, yet unless we are fully qualified to transact business in our neighbouring language, we are deprived of those blessings which we would enjoy if our language were practised and made legal.

We pray therefore, and beseech the nobles of our land and those who are connected with and interested in the welfare of our country, on whom we should look as our true leaders and faithful guardians of our country’s rights and privileges, that they would boldly come forward and assist us in defending and maintaining the ancient language of our brave ancestors, which is daily losing ground by the communication of steam vessels, and the presentation of Lowland clergymen to our Gaelic parishes. This debars our language from the free exercise of the field, which it once had in its possession, in order to give room to the hissing English. Banishes it as it were unto unknown regions of the earth, no more to be sought after — no more to be the language of the gallant Caledonian — no more to be the watch-word of the Celtic tribes – no more worthy of taking up a pen in its defence – renounces it as if it were a spell to conjure up evil.

To remedy this and prevent future encroachment, we humbly lay before the consideration of our respective chiefs, and those intelligent men who wish freedom and prosperity to every nation, that they would look into our grievances, and diminish our oppressions, which we are now so grievously laden with, by depriving our language, [8] which is as fit for the transaction of business as any other in Europe, of its just place in commercial affairs. All we demand is to establish us on the same footing, in possession of the same principles and privileges, as other parts of the British dominions, making our language to have free course to all our courts and pulpits; then we shall raise ourselves from that obscurity which hangs over our heads, as it so shamefully now does; no more shall our neighbours view us as a region of superstition and ignorance, arts and sciences will be introduced into our language, our hills and glens will become a scene of intelligence, and resume the dawn of prosperity.

But alas! quite the reverse: driven from that source which leads to eminence, as if we were a race of savage beings, not worthy of being admitted to the privileges of civilized people, not even of enjoying the common liberty with others of his Majesty’s subjects, looked upon as if we were a people that never sacrificed our lives in the service of our country, but submissive to the rod of injustice, and succumbing to the sword of invaders. This cannot be said of our country: they were always ready and willing to go forward when King and Country’s cause needed their assistance; nothing prevents them from giving their aid on all occasions; often did the strength of their arm tell on England’s foes, and were we to believe the records of History, to them this realm owes its liberty. […]

[p. 11]

We would then put the question to our readers, and ask them what were the rewards, or what benefits do their offspring enjoy from the memory of such fears: why are they to be excluded from having their language heard in their own courts, as is so shamefully now-a-days done? These are their rewards— not even the privilege of having their native language spoken or heard in our own local courts, but debarred from it as if we had no right at the bar of Justice. 

We now proceed to relate the manner in which our courts are held; and leave it to the candid reader to decide this important question according to his own judgment; sure we are, that he will declare in our favour, when he sees the manner in which we are used, and thinks on the services which our forefathers have rendered to the country at large, by sea and by land.

We are graced with a Court of Lords of Justiciary, twice a year, without a single word of the language of the country in which they are to act as impartial judges. Our Jurymen and witnesses are summoned in from far and near, to relate their testimonies in an unknown tongue, and to return a verdict in a language they know perhaps very little about, and if they be of the opposite party, and know not a sentence of the Gaelic language, they have no right to seats as jurymen, over Gaelic people. Our criminals are placed at the bar to receive their doom in an unknown [12] language; and probably as ignorant of that language as the very sheep or cattle for stealing which they, perhaps, stand indicted!  They are called on to answer for themselves; but how can they answer when they do not understand a single sentence that is uttered within the walls of the court; how can they vindicate their own cause when it is not spoken in their native language; and if they make an attempt to speak in their mother tongue, they are instantly compelled to hold their peace.

This is the manner in which the sons of our brave Highlanders are used. […]

[p. 14] […] wherever there is a country subject to a foreign language, it cannot be prosperous until the system is removed and the native dialect encouraged and promoted, so that the lowest as well as the highest ranks, may receive the benefit of intercourse between each other in their country; and until the Highlander gets his own language introduced into the courts and other places of business, within the Gaelic districts, it is in vain for him to think that he can raise himself from the situation of a herd, by his native language, to any other station; for, being deprived of the advantage of his own language, he will not obtain a single place of trust in the whole Highlands unless he possess [15] English; let his genius be good, his abilities great, and let him pour forth his songs in the stream of the pure poet, yet he is despised and left unnoticed as if he were lying under a cloud.

Oh! if our language were once made legal, we would not be so obscured. Where is the country that is used like the Highlands of Scotland? even the very Indians receive the benefit of the own language: let us view what was said at a meeting of the members of the East India Company, on the necessity of encouraging the Hindoo language. […]

[p. 17]

Our courts are filled with men who are foreigners to our language and ignorant of ourselves; who care as little for us as if we had not paid our share of the revenue that keeps them up. Yes, we pay our share as well as any other part of the kingdom, in proportion to our population; and more, when we consider the vast quantity of blood of our ancestors that has been spilt in defence of the British constitution, and yet they feel as little for us as if we were descendents of a barbarous and rebellious people. But if we were a race of tailors, or delicate weavers, our case would be made known and minutely investigated, until our grievance were found out, and represented to the royal ear. But oh! our countrymen have the misfortune to be a tribe that take pleasure in the warlike exploits of the field, and prefer the handling of the claidheamh-mor to the throwing of the shuttle.

[p. 18]

Again, our superior situations are generally filled with our reduced gentlemen, or broken merchants’ sons from the Lowlands, such as collectors, supervisors, excisemen, tide-waiters, and even some of our Gaelic churches have felt this abominable practice; if they come not from the Lowlands, they come from the sister kingdom, not to feed us, but to feed upon us. We ourselves are obliged to desert the sweet homes of our fathers, in search of bread through the world, when our native situations are filled up with strangers, as if we were unqualified to fill such offices, not faithful enough to be invested with such power; and above all, we are not weavers, or broken merchants’ sons. […] In a word, if we may use the expression, we are the fame of the Scottish nation, and yet we are thus depressed in our own country, where we should live comfortably by the enjoyment of these situations.

And surely no persons would be more qualified to be excisemen than we, for according to the adage, “Old masons make good barrowmen,” so, old smugglers will make good gaugers. The Lowlanders are not to suppose that we wish to exclude them altogether from our country; this we do not, for it would be injustice to do so; some of our Lowland neighbours are decidedly our friends and admirers, and even adopted and encouraged our national dress in their fashionable cities, besides the bounties which they send yearly, to promote the education of our poor countrymen, and the unparralleled [sic] kindness and respect which [19] they show to us when we chance to sojourn amongst them. But we assure you reader that we would rather see old Nick himself coming to our country, than to see a plump, slabby cheeked, and red curly nosed sassunach sojourning amongst us. We find no fault whatever with the Lowlanders, provided they have our language, and converse with us in our mother tongue. Where is the Highlander that received a single situation in the Lowlands, unless he can speak some English? no, not one, even the meanest occupation would be debarred from him, and himself despised, as if he were not worthy to be taken in among civilized people; […]

[p. 21]

The reader will be surprised and astonished that there are so many gentlemen made judges in the Highlands, without the Gaelic language; yet it is a fact, that the great majority of them are of this class. There are many in the Highlands who pretend to be chieftains, or representatives of some great Highland family, as destitute of this language as those who are born and brought up either in London or Paris; and if we were to give here a list of those persons who are of this description in the shire of Argyle, it would disgrace many of the descendants of the great McChallummhoir, as well as the chieftain of Lorn, who should have the Gaelic language to converse with his clan, and to make himself familiar with the disposition of his followers, for there is nothing that can draw the attachment of the Highlanders to their respective chiefs, more than speaking to them in the Celtic tongue, which is so powerful to animate their passions: and without this instrument, it is in vain for him to think that he is a chief: without his name is rooted in the hearts of his clan; but no, he is beheld as a person destitute of that power which he should have, and considered not worthy to have that name, nor to be made a chief, but gives him the title of hen-chief.

[p. 59]

I have one thing more to recommend, and when I do so, I beg the most serious consideration of all who take any degree of interest with [60] me in my country’s honour and weal: It is, that we should have a college, or some seminary analogous to it, in which candidates for the sacred office shall receive their education. It is a very strange thing indeed that men should be preparing to devote their whole lifetime to preach in a certain language, and in that language alone; and yet, nevver during the whole course of their study write one essay or exercise in it, never consult its Grammatical structure, never compose a syllogism in it!!

How can we have teachers? How can we have preachers? How can we have orators? We have indeed few correct teachers, and few correct preachers; but, thanks to the native energy and pathos of our mountain-tongue, we have many orators: every public speaker in it, is of necessity an orator.

For this proposed university, what situation can be more suitable than venerable Iona.— Iona! “Once the luminary of the Caledonian region, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion.”

Modern, Scotland, Scottish Gaelic Literature

Gaelic Literature in Perthshire: Elegy to Donald MacLaren, Callander and St Fillans

It is very encouraging to see Gaelic again receiving support and visibility in Perthshire, given that there was a large and thriving Gaelic community there for centuries, only dwindling in the twentieth century. As people in Perthshire work to restore this beautiful language and culture to its proper place on the land and in their hearts, I hope they will look to the many remains left behind by those who nurtured it for so long.

I see, for example, that there will be a Gaelic day in Crieff (originally ‘Craoibh’ in Gaelic) on May 19th, an Evening of Scottish Culture on 28 May will happen in Strathearn, with an active effort to find Gaelic performers, the National Mòd will be hosted in Perth in 2021, and so on.

I fell in love with Perthshire when I lived in Scotland in the 1990s, and during the time I finished my PhD in Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, I amassed a huge collection of Gaelic materials from Highland Perthshire. I have so much of it that I planned out a 5-volume series covering the distinct regions of Perthshire. I finished the first book – Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid (From the Clyde to Callander) – with only a little support, and have been hoping over the last twenty years to find the funds needed to complete the work on the other four books. Keep in mind that this was the homeland of some major Highland clans: MacGregors, Campbells, Robertsons, MacLarens, Buchanans, Menzies’s, MacNabs, and MacDiarmids, just to name a few. The difficulty in finding patronage for such basic scholarship is indicative of the marginalized status of Gaelic heritage, despite the successes the descendants of these people may have found in the anglophone world in later generations.

In any case, I offer the following elegy as a taster of the sorts of beautiful Gaelic literature that awaits. This elegy was composed in 1880 by Domhnall MacLabhrainn (‘Donald MacLaren’) of Ardveich, Lochearnside (near St Fillans) to a man of the same name who had been living in Callander. The Callander man had worked as a guide, and some of the praise to him in this song-poem refers to his skills in this occupation, making implicit comparisons to the role of a chieftain and other social leaders in Highland society. Until fairly recently, Callander was considered to be the gateway to the Highlands and was the destination of many tourists from the Lowlands and further beyond. And, like Lochearnside in the nineteenth century, Callander was strongly Gaelic-speaking.

I do not currently know anything further about the subject of the poem, but the author was a noted authority on Gaelic tradition who was said to have a number of family manuscripts which contained Gaelic materials. I do not know what became of those documents, but MacLabhrainn’s command of both the language and the literary tradition is notable in this text. Also noteworthy is the degree of affection demonstrated between men, which later Victorian-era sensibilities rendered inappropriate.

Original Gaelic

Dhomhnaill chaoimh, chaidh thoirt uainn
Bhith ’gad chumhadh – mo thruaigh! –
Thug mo dheuraibh mar stuadh mu m’ léirsinn

’S trom am buille is as cruaidhe
Ghnàthaich freasdal gu m’ bhual’
‘S chan eil leigh ann – mo thruaighe! – nì feum dhomh.

Mar chraoibh tha mi gun rùsg
No mar loingeas gun stiùir
On là chàirich iad thu ’s na <déilean>.

’S i do chomhairle ghlic
Nì mi ionndrainn a-nis
Bha i luachmhor dhomh tric is feumail.

’S geur is as gort chaidh mo lot
’S cràiteach cianail mo chor
’S mi mar aonaran bochd ’ad dhéidh-sa.

Bròn is mulad ’gam chràdh
’S mo chridhe ciùrrte gach tràth
’S mór mo dhoilgheas gach là on dh’eug thu.

Sheas thu riamh dhomh an gràdh
Dìleas daingeann mar bhràthair
’S tiamhaidh mise on dh’fhag thu ’d dhéidh mi.

B’ òg thug mi dhuit luaidh
A dheagh chompanaich shuairce
B’ e mo roghainn do’n t-sluagh gu léir thu.

Tha Baile Chalasraide ’n-tràth-’s
Dubhach tùirseach mu d’ bhàs
’S beag an t-ioghnadh dhoibh bhith cràiteach deurach.

’S iad chaill an ceann riaghailte
’S am fear-iùil bu mhaith ciall
An sàr cheann-uidhe bha riamh mar stéidh dhoibh.

Do na bochdan ’nan airce
Bu tu ’n dìon ’s an cùl-taice
Bheireadh biadh dhoibh is pailteas eudaich.

’N àm dhuit suidhe gu lòn
Bu tric aoighean mu d’ bhòrd
Riamh bu phailte-làmhach còir thu sìne’ riu.

‘S tric mo smuaintean air Dùghall
’S trom ’s as dubhach do ghnùis
Fhuair thu saighead a chiùrr gu geur thu.

Rinn siud sgàinteach ’ad chliamh
Thainig smàl air do ghrian
’S chaidh do dhòchas a spìon o chéile.

’S tu chaill an ceann iùil
A sheasadh dìleas ri d’ chùl
’S nach faiceadh le shùilean beud ort.

’S lionmhor uasal is bochd
Tha nar dùthaich fuidh sprochd
’S iomad cridhe tha goirt agus reubta.

Bha iad tearc measg sluaighe
Aon thigeadh ris suas
Ann an tuigse, ann an uaisle ’s sam beusan.

Bha buadhan ’inntinn toirt barr
Ann am breithneachadh ard
Cosnadh cliù dha as gràdh nan ceudan.

Bu neo-lochdach a ghluasad
Stòlda faicilleach stuama
Bha mór mheas aig an t-sluagh gu léir ort.

Ged chuir iad thu ’n-trath-s’
Chladh nan leacainn fuidhe ’n làr
Chaoidh cha dealaich mo ghràdh ’s mo spéis riut.

’S gearr an ùine gus am bi
Mise dlùth dhuit ’am shìne’
Agus caidlidh sinn shìos le chéile ann.

’S nì ar dùslach ’n siud tàmh
Gus an tig oirnne Là-bhràth
’S an téid trompaid gu h-ard shéideadh.

’S cluinnear linne ’s an uaigh
’n t-ard sgàl ud bhios cruaidh
Is grad-éiridh sinn suas le chéile.

’S cha dèan tinneas no bàs
Sinne sgaradh gu bràth
’S chaoidh, cha mhothaich sinn cràdh no éislean.

My Translation to English

O dear Donald, who was taken from us,
It is because of mourning you – my woe! –
That tears like waves take away my sight.

The blow is hard and severe
That fate has dealt to me
There is no doctor – my woe! – who can help me.

I am like a tree without bark,
Like a ship without a rudder,
Since the day they put you inside the coffin planks.

It is your words of wisdom
That I miss now;
They were frequently valuable and useful to me.

I was wounded sharply and sorely,
I am hurting and longing,
I am like a sad loner without you.

Sorrow and melancholy afflict me
And my heart is constantly tortured
I have difficulty every day since you died.

You always defended me in love,
Loyal and steadfast like a brother
I am melancholy since you left me behind.

I loved when I was young,
O fine, gentle companion,
You were my favourite of all people.

The town of Callander is presently
Grieved and afflicted by your death
It is no surprise for them to be pained and in tears.

They have lost a careful leader
And a sagacious guide
The excellent leader who gave a foundation to them.

To the poor in their affliction
You were their shelter and their support
Who would give them food and ample clothing.

When it was time to seat down for a meal
You would often have guests at your table
You always treated them generously and kindly.

I often think of Dougald
Your countenance is heavy and depressed,
You received an arrow that pierced you sharply.

That created a lesion in your side
Your sun has been eclipsed
And your hope has been torn apart.

You lost the leader
Who would stand loyally at your back
Who would never see you hurt.

Many is the noble and peasant
In our land who are depressed
Many is the heart that is sore and torn apart.

There are few amongst the population,
None who could compare to him,
In understanding, nobility, and in virtues.

His mental faculties were superior
Regarding the judgment of important matters,
Earning him renown and the love of hundreds of people.

His carriage was flawless,
Composed, watchful, modest:
There was no one who did not have the greatest esteem for you.

Although they have now sent you
To the graveyard, under the soil,
My love and affection for you will stay with me forever.

The time will not be long
Until I will be laid out close to you
And we will sleep together down there.

Our dust will repose
Until the day of judgment comes
And the trumpet will be sounded loudly.

We will hear it in the grave
That loud squawk that will resound
And we will arise together.

And no illness or death
Will ever separate us again,
And we will never again experience pain or affliction.

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!

Modern, Scotland

Stealing the Soil and Soul of the Highland(er)s

In an address to the 1920 Celtic Congress, Malcolm MacLeod, who had done a great deal of work in editing and producing volumes of Gaelic literature, remarked on the resilience of the Highland people in surviving, as a culture and linguistic group, generations of attack and stigmatization from the anglocentric state.

“If Gaelic could have been killed by studied contempt and neglect, or by organised attack from high quarters, it should have died of starvation or of violence a quarter of a millennium ago. But it is still as hale as it looks, and as young as it feels. In spite of its many foes, and they were fierce and formidable, even unto this day, it has survived and taken on a few lease of life.

“Thanks to the crude philosophy and the mistaken policy of the educational experts of the now distant past, and their heirs of the last half-century, the great mass of our Highland people is illiterate in Gaelic, and as a matter of course in English too.

“In that far-off time the language of the Highlander fell under an evil repute, was persistently styled the enemy of decent culture, and gravely charged as the great bar to a self-respecting civilisation. The Highlander himself was by repute an untamed savage and an incorrigible robber, destined to remain a menace to the good order of society, so long as he was allowed to wag so savage a tongue. For the salvation of his ‘soul,’ if he had any, and his soil, which he ought not to have, it was seriously enacted by statute, that the offending member should be removed and destroyed, and replaced by a civilised tongue, fashioned on the English tongue.”

The struggle for survival, of course, continues to this day. Many other colonized people have recognized the importance of the twin pillars of soul and soil – surely the foundation of any society – and the ways in which they have been undermined by colonization. These two words also form the title of a profound book by my friend Alastair McIntosh on community re-empowerment and reclamation in a Scottish context.

Quote from MacLeod, Malcolm, “Modern Gaelic Prose” in Transactions of the Celtic Congress, 1920 (ed.) D. Rhys Phillips, Perth: Milne, Tannahill & Methven, 1921, 44-69.