A Scottish Gaelic Bard in Vancouver, Domhnall MacIlleathain

Later this week (June 21-25), the second World Congress of Scottish Literatures will be hosted in Vancouver, British Columbia. While the literature of the Scottish Lowlands has not received adequate academic attention, Scottish Gaelic has been marginalized to a much greater extent, so it is important to draw attention to the rich store of materials that originate in the same places where Scottish literature is supposed to be nurtured and cherished. This blog post will, therefore, provide a translation of a song-poem that evokes the life of the Scottish Gaelic community there.

As I’ve mentioned in two previous blog posts (here and here), there were loads of Scottish Gaels in the Pacific North-west, not least in Vancouver itself. There are correspondingly large numbers of Scottish Gaelic texts composed in and about the life of Gaels in the region. No one has yet done a systematic compilation and analysis of such materials (I have just two important sources from Vancouver in my recent anthology Seanchaidh na Coille // Memory-Keeper of the Forest), which I believe would add greatly to our understanding of Vancouver’s extended Gàidhealtachd.

In 2005, Comann Eachdraidh Tholstaidh bho Thuath (the North Tolsta Gaelic Society, on the Isle of Lewis) produced a wonderful volume of literature composed by the poets of town from the mid-nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth entitled Clachan Crìche. It includes several poets who ended up living in Canada. One of these was a man named Domhnall MacIlleathain, commonly known as Domhnall Dhiogan (1889-1962). He and his wife Anna NicLeòid (Anna Dhànaidh) moved to Vancouver before the First World War, but maintained their connection to Lewis through a broad Gaelic social network. They actively maintained such links especially by seeking out the sailors who came to port in Vancouver and providing them accommodation. Their house was clearly a céilidh house, where song and story, victuals and hospitality, were shared. Such sociality is the subject of song, but also the means by which news and oral tradition were transmitted and kept alive.

Amongst the songs composed by Domhnall Dhiogan is one depicting his invitation of Gaelic soldiers back to his home, with many sly bits of humour. It begins with a description of the downscale boat on which they were sailing, the “Induna,” but follows them as they come into this large and unfamiliar city: intimidating to some of the Lewis boys. It is a warm, kindly and vibrant depiction of the intersections of Gaels in the city with their seagoing relations and the exchange of culture between them.

As my time is short, I will not attempt to provide the Gaelic text, only my own translation into English.

  1. On the afternoon of the Sabbath, a boat came to the city, entering the harbour; she was ugly to look at, low around the back, with her high sails in tatters, and the covering of her shoulders was like the top of the soil – lacking paint.
  2. Smoke came out of her high mouth, she moved slowly, nothing was moving in her except a man or two in the prow; the little boss was giving a command: “O Duadan, hurry up! Take this rope, MacRuagan, and tie the boat immediately, before you are stolen!”
  3. Courage, hope and knowledge arose in their conversation: “I am Murchadh son of Seonaidh, this is Domhnall, my brother; this is Murchadh son of Ruagan, and Aonghas son of Murchadh son of Calum, his neighbour; this is Tormod son of Uilleam, his uncle is married to Màrlaid; if you remember.”
  4. “I am pleased to see you! I will be sorry to leave you. Come over to my home; my wife is Anna Dhànaidh.” Murchadh said in response, “You are married into my family! She is the daughter of the brother of my grandfather, the oldest daughter of Dànaidh of Cnoc!”
  5. “Come over, and you can have anything that is in our dwelling; your bellies will be over-stuffed with marag and potato; she will be happy to see you, and she will get news from the place [Lewis] where she was young, and where she left her relations, so far from here.”
  6. A carriage came to get us, and it was quickly filled; with an order to move, going down to the ferry; MacRuagain was praying, “Give my soul mercy; it was safer for me to be travelling the oceans than to be here!”
  7. We arrived at the place, on the edge of the forest; we shook hands, with a smile on every face: “How are you, my dear? Who is the mother of the boys? Come inside to our home, you are welcome,” said the woman of the house.
  8. “This is Bac; this is Duadan; and Aonghas son of Murchadh son of Calum; this is Cutsaidh son of Ruagan; this is Coididh, your relation; he was your neighbour, out on the side of the mountain; and you will get news of the place, nothing will be hidden from you by black-haired Duadan.”
  9. “Come over, friends! Our table is loaded; you can have skate [fish] and potatoes, your grandfathers’ favourite food; it is fresh, as it is best that way, and the smell won’t overwhelm you; you are far away from your children, whom you blessed as you left; down [your gullets] with the skate!”
  10. “Pass the potatoes, they are better unpeeled; take away the spoons, our hands will suffice for them; although it is the custom of this place, we much prefer our fingers as we learned when we were young, eating little fish at home.”
  11. [Prayer] “O, my brothers, we will be closing our eyes: we give thanks to you, o God, that this boat is in Vancouver; but if you were to do us justice, you will break the Induna, so that she will not leave this place as soon as she expected with the lovely lads.”

An Athollman’s Bagpipe Song in Defense of Gaelic

Gaels all over the Highlands, even as far east as Strathardle, managed to cling resiliently onto their language and culture until the tumultuous changes of the nineteenth century. English pushed aggressively against Gaelic during the nineteenth century, but not without some resistance.

One of those Perthshire Highlanders who defended his native language and urged others to stand fast in this era was Archibald Farquharson (1800-1878), a native of Moulin (close to Pitlochry). He became a minister, settled in Tiree, and remained a steadfast champion of his native tongue until his death.

One of his publications, printed in 1868, is a 40-page booklet entitled An Address to Highlanders Respecting their Native Gaelic. Towards the end of the booklet, he includes a three page song-poem inciting the Gaels to stay true to their language. He includes an interesting note to this poem which begins by explaining a traditional taunt of rivalry that the Athollmen used against  the men of Strathardle (a couplet with internal rhyme). He then uses this jibe as a starting point for a new song-poem which remains strikingly authentic in its form and content. It is a wonderful example of how tradition can be creatively reshaped in the defense of Gaelic.

Farquharson reshapes the traditional taunt to mock the Strathardle folk for forsaking Gaelic in favour of English, thus becoming unslaved to the language of their former enemies. This demonstrates what is so clear in many other sources, that the Gaelic language was absolutely central and key to Highland identity.

It is also interesting that this song is described as being played on the bagpipes, another example of the common belief that the bagpipes were able to imitate the human voice (and hence that any musician aspiring to play the music of the Highlands needed to understand the Gaelic language).

This provocation quickly turns the Strathardle men back toward their natural Highland allies and goads them to be faithful to their native language. The animosity quickly melts: they are reunited in brotherly love, and share in the bounty of their culture with music, conviviality and nourishment. Lowlanders are depicted in contrast as lying literally in darkness, shivering with the cold. This is one of many examples of temperature being used metaphorically in Gaelic (not unlike in English) as corresponding to emotional state: warmth (affection and kindliness) in opposition to coldness (lack of welcome and friendship).

I give below the original text with my translations into English in square brackets.


The Atholites used to provoke the Ardleites with a tune which they played on the bagpipes when leaving them—Bodaich dhubh Srath Àrdail, gun d’fhàg sinn ’nan cadal iad—The black churls of Strathardle, we have left them asleep.

In the Free Church of Kirkmichael, Strathardle, there has been no Gaelic preached for several years, and it is going and almost gone in the Established Church. I wish with all my heart that a company of the Atholites would cross over with a piper at their head, and play the following on the street of Kirkmichael :—

Bodaich dhubh’ Srath Àrdail,
Cha Ghàidheil iad ach Sasannaich!
Thréig iad mar na tràillean
Cainnte bhlàth an athraichean.

[The black churls of Strathardle,
They are no Gaels, but Englishmen!
Like slaves, they have abandoned
The warm language of their forefathers.]

And that they on their part would play the following:—

Tosdaibb, bithibh sàmhach!
Chan àill leinn sibh bhith magadh oirnn;
Bheir ar cridh do’n Ghàidhlig,
’S a-chaoidh gu bràth, cha dealaich ri’;

’S nuair thig [i] rìs do ar tìr,
Le ceòl pìob is cridhealas,
Aran grinn, ’s comhdach’ ìm’
Agus cìr-mheala leis,

Gheibh sibh uainn gu càirdeal
A shàsachadh ur stamagan;
Is seinnibh do’n Ghàidhlig
Na h-Àrdlaich ’s na h-Athalaich.

Nuair bhios Goill mar na doill
Is an oidhch a’ laidhe orr’, 
Gu ro thruagh, crith gu luath,
Is le fuachd ’gam meileachadh,

Bidh sinne air ar blàth’chadh,
’S a’ Ghàidhlig ’gar teasachadh,
Is caoimhneas, gean is càirdeas

Sìor fhàs ann ar n-anamaibh.

[Hush, be quiet!
We don’t like for you to be mocking us;
Take our hearts to Gaelic
And never ever leave it;

And when it returns to our land,
With bagpipe music, and merriment,
Elegant bread with a coat of butter,
And a honey-comb with it,

You will get enough from us, kindly,
To satisfy your stomachs;
And sing to Gaelic,
The people of Strathardle and Atholl,

When the Lowlanders are like blind-people
As the night-time falls on them,
Very pathetically, shivering madly,
And fainting with the cold,

We will be warmed up,
With Gaelic providing our heat,
And kindness, goodwill and fellowship
Constantly growing in our souls.]

Although my native country, I am quite ashamed of them.

Gaelic Literacy in Nova Scotia and Gaelic Literary Networks

One of the most persistent misrepresentations regarding the Gaelic language is that it was a purely oral one, with no written form or literary tradition until the modern period. This misguided notion is not just erroneous, it’s a distortion and insult, given that Gaels (like their Brittonic peers) were reading and writing their own native language generations before the Anglo-Saxons and were certainly instrumental in the creation of literacy in English itself.

In any case, although I’ve provided some discussion about literacy and the practice of Scottish Gaelic literary tradition in Canada in my recent volume Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of the Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada, there is certainly plenty more information waiting to be gathered to help us gain a more accurate picture of the prevalence of literacy amongst Gaels (breaking it down further according to religion, gender, age, etc), the attitudes surrounding it, methods by which Gaels gained literacy, and so on.

Here is the first two further pieces of evidence, a letter in the Gaelic column of The Casket newspaper dated March 18, 1920. The author discusses people he knows offhand  to have been literate in just one community of mainland Nova Scotia. The letter was signed with the name of the community “Muileann nan Frisealach” (Frasers’ Mills – plural in English, but singular in Gaelic, perhaps capturing an earlier era of the community).

Tha móran dhaoine mu chuairt air feadh seo a leughas a’ Ghàidhlig, agus tha mi cinnteach na[m] feuchadh iad gu[n] sgriobhadh iad i cuideachd. ’S ann diubh seo, Aonghas Alasdair an Ridge (Domhnallach) a leughas agus a nì òrain Ghàidhlig, agus ’s glé mhath a sheinneas e iad; Iain B. mac Aonghais ’ic Eóbhain ’ic Ruairidh ’ic Iain ’ic Dhùghaill (Mac a’ Phearsain) agus a mhàthair a tha glé fhiosrach mu ar sinnsearachd; Bean Dhomhnaill ’ic Iain ’ic Ùistein (Domhnallach) a tha faighinn pàipear naidheachd ás an t-Seann Dùthaich; Aonghas MacAonghais Bhoid a leughas Gàidhlig cho luath ’s a leughas e Beurla ged a tha e ’na mhaighstir-sgoile! — agus e làn òran; Alasdair mac Gilleasbuig ’is Aonghais Mhóir (MacGillÌosa) a tha ’na sgrìobhadair cho math ’s a tha an-seo; Domhnall mac Dhomhnaill ’ic Eóbhain (MacGilleBhràth) a tha ’na dhuine fiosrach agus ’s glé mhath a sheinneas e “An Gleann ’s an robh mi òg”; Aonghas Ailein (Mac a’ Phearsain) a tha math air naidheachdan agus cuid dhiubh ait; Iain mac Iain ’ic Ìosaig á Springfield; agus Iain mac Dhùghaill ’ic a’ Phearsain ás an àite cheudna :— dà sheann mhaighstir sgoil (sgrìobhaidh MacÌosaig a’ Ghàidhlig ach chan eil mi cinnteach mu Mac a’ Phearsain; gheibh mi a-mach fhathast); Iain Dhomhnaill Ailein ’ic Ghilleasbuig a leughas i; mar a i móran eile a chuireas mi sìos fhathast. Tha iad seo far na h-Aibhne Deas agus bho Springfield.

There are many people throughout this area who read Gaelic, and I am sure that if they were to try, that they could write it as well. Amongst these are Angus the Ridge MacDonald, who reads it and composes Gaelic songs, and he sings them well; John B. MacPherson, and his mother who is very knowledgable about our ancestry; the wife of Donald MacDonald, who subscribes to a newspaper in the Old Country; Angus Boyd, who reads Gaelic as quickly as he reads English even though he is a school-master! – and he is full of songs; Alexander Gillies who is as good of a writer as can be found here; Donald MacGillivray who is a learned man and is very good at singing “The Glen in Which I was Born”; Angus MacPherson who is good at reciting stories, some of them humourous; John MacIsaac from Springfield; and John MacPherson from the same place :– two school-masters (MacIsaac writes Gaelic but I’m not sure about MacPherson; I’ll find out yet); John MacGilles who reads it; as do many others who I will record eventually. These are those from South River and Springfield. (N.B.: I have not provided the entire patrilineal lineage of people given in the Gaelic text)

There are some interesting aspects to the eleven people named in this list: two of them are women; one of the women reads a newspaper printed in Scotland and sent across the ocean; one of the men is noted as singing a song which was composed in Scotland well after the original emigrants left, suggesting that it may have been learnt through print media; the list includes three school masters, a profession not generally noted for the support of Gaelic and usually credited with teaching English to the detriment of Gaelic.

The contributor was probably emphasizing the prevalence of Gaelic literacy at this time, and the engagement of people in formal education with it, because there was a popular petition circulating in Nova Scotia in 1920 for the formal recognition and support of Gaelic in the school curriculum. It is further worth noting that the area is predominantly Catholic (which people generally assume to have a weaker tradition of literacy than Protestant communities.)

On to a second source of evidence. A few months ago, a man in Massachusetts contacted me out the blue, asking if I would be interested in the Gaelic texts left by his father. I believe that his name was Gilleasbuig Tormod MacGillFhaolain (Archibald N. MacLellan), although this may have been his grandfather’s name – I’m a little unsure. In any case, he was a native Gaelic speaker originally from Cape Breton. This generous gift consisted of about a dozen books, over a dozen periodicals, and hand-written notes in Gaelic. These materials demonstrate a passionate attachment to his Gaelic heritage and ongoing engagement with it over a considerable period.

The periodicals included a copy of An Gàidheal (1876), several copies of Mac-Talla (1890s), a copy of Guth na Bliadhna (1920s?), The Canadian-American Gael (1944) and 8 copies of Gairm (1950s and ’60s). Almost all of the content of these volumes is in Gaelic only.

Most of the books were printed in Scotland and include Aig Taigh na Beinne (1911), Is Leam Fhìn An Gleann (1935), Òrain Ghaidhlig le Seonaidh Caimbeul (1936), and Rosg Gàidhlig (1929). A couple of the books were printed in Nova Scotia, however: Iùl a’ Chrìostaidh (Antigonish, 1901) and Gaelic Lessons for Beginners (Sydney, 1939).

These texts may have been accumulated from numerous people who owned them previously over a long period of time. What’s interesting, however, is that a few of them bear a mark showing that they were purchased at The MacDonald Music Store in Antigonish, demonstrating that there was some demand for Gaelic materials in the area and that at least one local retailer was attempting to accommodate it.

The hand-written pages include the expected notes on genealogy, but also a transcription of verses of a popular Gaelic song (“Se mo leannan am fear ùr”) as well as an original Gaelic song (with the chorus “Hi o, mise tha fo mhì-ghean / ’s mi leam fhéin an-seo ’s an àthaidh / Hi o, mise tha fo mhì-ghean”). The typewritten copy has the date 1960 on the bottom and is attributed to Gilleasbuig, but whether this is the date of composition or of transcription is not clear. In either case, these texts attest to the tenacity of Gaelic literary tradition amongst members of the Highland immigrant community and to the materials that may still be lingering in attics, waiting to be discovered.

Gaelic Song on Culloden’s Carnage

There are quite a few Gaelic song-poems that provide us with eyewitness testimony about the 1745 Jacobite Rising and its tragic conclusion on Culloden Moor. These texts are extremely important in relating the Highland point of view on these events, especially because texts written by anglophones predominate and they generally convey rather negative, biased and misleading views about Scottish Gaels and what the latter actually felt and thought about the historical events that had such a dramatic effect on their lives.

Many of Gaelic texts were edited and translated in the volume Highland Songs of the ’45 by accomplished scholar John Lorne Campbell back in 1933. An excellent overview of the material and how to interpret it was written by William Gillies in his article “Gaelic Songs of the Forty-Five” in Scottish Studies 30 (1991). Somehow the following powerful poem seems to have eluded the attention of previous scholars of this Jacobite material. It was printed (along with other miscellaneous Gaelic song-poems) by Domhnull Mac-An-Roich in his volume Orain Ghaidhealach  (Edinburgh, 1848), pp. 172-4.

I give three versions of the text below, in the following order: my English translation; my edition of the Gaelic text; and the original text as printed verbatim in the book. I’m providing the original as well as my edition of the Gaelic sources given that there are some irregularities in spelling and I’m open to feedback on my attempts to regularize the text and interpret it. (The very last line of the text in particular seems defective – it should end on ò – and I have attempted an emendation.)

I am not familiar with the identity of the poet (Eóghann Dubh MacLachainn, “Black-haired Ewan MacLachlan”) and would be glad to hear from anyone who knows anything about him.

His poem provides an emotionally compelling view of the battlefield and its casualties, not least Lachlann MacLachlainn, the seventeenth chief of the clan, a staunch Jacobite who fought and died at Culloden. This personal view of the death of the chieftain can be expected, given that the poet undoubtedly knew him personally. But it also touches on the terrible human losses to all involved in the Rising: the death of the handsome Gaelic warriors and the vulnerability of families in the brutal treatment of the Highlands by the Hanoverian troops after the great warriors of the clans lay in defeat.

The idea that the Jacobites lost through some kind of witchcraft (found in stanza 2) can also be found in other poems about Culloden, giving the impression that this was a rhetorical strategy shared by a number of the Jacobite literati (see discussion in Gillies, p. 42).

My English Translation

A Song by Black-haired Ewan MacLachlan after the Battle of Culloden

1. Dearly did we pay for [Prince] Charles, coming to gather us from across the ocean, against England while he was strong; this is what happened: thousands of our clansmen have fallen and those who remain alive have lost their rights.

2. Tragic is the news we’ve received from the calamitous battlefield of misery: we lost so many of our nobility; troops have surrounded us in the hour of our misfortune, who, through witchcraft, have conquered us for the rest of our lives.

3. There is many a courageous hero – blooming, young, high-spirited, light-stepping, excellent when needed if it were a fair fight, who would race with each other – who will never come home, being called to meeting.

4. One of them was Colonel MacLachlan, a great-hearted one who knew no cowardice; he was handsome, sitting on a horse when giving commands to the gorgeous warriors; they found a way to kill you, woe is me!

5. Your hand would share out the money in the market-town; you were esteemed by many who are grieved by the way that you departed, never to return home to your children who have no one to whom they can be entrusted for their rest of their lives.

6. The news of the beautiful corpses who would not retreat wounds my heart, as they (linger under) the cries of the ravens and as our kin do not come to give a proper burial, while our enemies’ guard occupy our area.

7. The state of the Lochaber-men, lying in the ditches, pains me; no bagpipe or battle-banner can awaken them as the clangor of the (government) pillagers pass by so that the government’s side can destroy you: terrible is the loss that you cannot see our condition.

My Gaelic Edition

Òran Le Eóghann Dubh MacLachainn an déidh Blàr Chuilodair

1. ’S daor a cheannaich sinn Teàrlach
Thighinn gar togail thar sàile;
’N aghaidh Shasgann is e làidir;
’S ionnan sud is mar tharladh:
Thuit na mìltean d’ar càirdean,
’S chaill na dh’fhuirich an làthair an còir,
’S chaill na dh’fhuirich an làthair an còir.

2. ’S bochd an naidheachd a fhuair sinn
O bhlàr dosgach na truaighe,
’Mheud ’s a chaill sinn d’ar n-uaislean;
Thàinig trupa mu’n cuairt oirnn
Ann am mì-fhortan uaire:
Fhuair le buidseachd an uachdar oirnn beò,
Fhuair le buidseachd an uachdar oirnn beò.

3. Liuthad lasgarra treubhach,
Ùr, òg, aigeanntach, eutrom,
Bu ro math ’n àm feuma
Nam b’e comhrag na Féinne,
Bhitheadh eadar-ruith le chéile,
Nach tig dachaigh ga éigheach aig mòd.
Nach tig dachaigh ga éigheach aig mòd.

4. B’ann dhiubh ’n Còirneal MacLachainn,
Cridhe mór ’s nach robh ’ghealtachd;
Bu loghmhor air each e
’N àm an t-ordugh ’thoirt seachad
Do na seòid a bha reachdmhor,
Fhuair iad seòl air cuir as duit, mo leòn!
Fhuair iad seòl air cuir as duit, mo leòn!

5. Làmh sgapdh an airgid
Ann am bailtidh a’ mhargaidh,
’S lìonmhor neach aig ’n robh ainm ort
Leis nach b’ ait mar a dh’fhalbh thu
Gun tighinn dachaigh gu d’ leanabaidh
’S gun ann neach ris an earbar iad beò,
’S gun ann neach ris an earbar iad beò.

6. Sgeul tha cràiteach le ’m chridhe
Air cuirp àlainn gun ruitheadh,
’S iad fo ghàraich nam fitheach;
’S gun ar càirdean a’ tighinn:
Gar càradh fo dhlighe,
’S geard ar naimhdean ’na shuidhe ’gar còir.
’S geard ar naimhdean ’na shuidhe ’gar còir.

7. ’S olc leam càradh nan Abrach,
’S iad ’nan sìneadh ’s na claisean;
Cha dùisg pìob iad, no bratach,
’S foirm na creach’ a’ dol seachad,
Taobh a’ Chrùin a chur ás duibh:
’S mór an diùbhail nach faic sibh ar còir,
’S mór an diùbhail nach faic sibh ar còir.

Verbatim Transcript

Òran Le Eobhan Dubh Mac Lachuin an Deigh Blar Chuilodair

’S daor a cheannuich sinn Tearlach
Thighinn gar togail thar Saile;
’N aghaidh Shasgunn is e ladair;
’S ionnan sud is mar tharladh;
Thuit na miltean d’ar cairdean,
’S chaill na dh’fhuirich a lathair an coir.
’S chaill na dh’fhuirich a lathair an coir.

’S bochd an naigheachd a fhuair sinn
O bhlar dosgach na truaighe,
Mheud sa chaill sinn d’ar ’n uaislean;
Thainig trupa mu’n cuairt oirn:
Ann am mio-fhortan uaire,
Fhuair le buidseachd, an uachdar oirn beo.
Fhuair le buidseachd, an uachdar oirn beo.

Liuthad lasgura treubhach
Ur, og, aigeantach, eutrom
Bu ro math ’n am feuma;
Nam be comhrag na Feine:
Bhith’dh eadar ruidh le cheile,
Nach tig dachaidh ga eigheach aig mod.
Nach tig dachaidh ga eigheach aig mod.

Ban dhiu ’n Coirneal Mac Lachuin,
Cridhe mor ’snach robh ghealtachd,
Bu logh-mhor air each e;
Nam an t-ordugh thoirt seachad.
Do na seoid a bha reachd mhor,
Fhuair iad seol air cuir as duit, mo leon!
Fhuair iad seol air cuir as duit, mo leon!

Lamh scapdh an airgiod,
Ann am bailtidh a mhargaidh,
’S lion-mhor neach aig ’n robh ainm ort;
Leis nach bait mar a dh’fhalbh thu.
Gun tighinn dachaidh gu d’ leanabaidh,
’S gun ann neach ris an earbar iad beo,
’S gun ann neach ris an earbar iad beo.

Sgeul tha craiteach le ’m chridhe,
Air cuirp alluinn gun ruitheadh,
’S iad fo gharaich nam fiach;
’S gun air cairdean a tighinn:
Gar caradh fo dhlighe,
’S geard air naimhdean na shuidhe ga’r coir.
’S geard air naimhdean na shuidhe ga’r coir.

’S olc leam caradh nan Abrach,
’S iad nan sineadh ’sna claisean,
Cha duisg Piob iad, na Bratach;
’S foirm na creacha dol seachad;
Taobh a chruin a chuir as duibh,
’S mor an diubhail nach faic sibh air cair.

Fionn and the Post-colonial Fian

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.

Alexander Fraser as Ethnographer in Gaelic Ontario

I’ve written several previous blog posts about the accomplished Gaelic Canadian Alasdair Friseal (“Alexander Fraser”) and his engagement in Scottish Gaelic literature and scholarship. In this entry, I’ll be focusing on his activities as an ethnographer/folklorist, doing fieldwork amongst the Gaelic speaking communities of Ontario to collect texts floating in oral tradition and commit them to writing.

Fraser was in an ideal position to do such work, given that he was not only literate in Gaelic but also an editor for a number of newspapers in Toronto. This allowed him to solicit further material, share what he had collected himself, and argue for its value. His enduring contribution was given further status when he became Ontario’s first provincial archivist.

I’m not yet sure when he started to do fieldwork and transcribe texts, but the notes he wrote as secretary of the Gaelic Society of Toronto on 13 February 1888 are suggestive:

[the Society] has helped to draw attention to and to develop some of the best traits of the Highland character; and in no small measure to have awakened an interest in Gaelic matters generally throughout the Province. That this is so many evidences are at hand, of which may be mentioned the number of honorary members from distant parts and the impetus given to Gaelic literature. In this latter respect, outside the work done by the Society, the services of the Toronto Daily Mail may be acknowledged. Under the heading “Gaelic Notes” a column of Gaelic matter has been published weekly for about a year, and as a rule interesting topics have been dealt with.

Fraser expanded greatly upon such textual efforts as editor of The Scottish Canadian newspaper (Toronto), which carried a frequent Gaelic column.

Fraser was a co-founder of Comunn Gàidhlig Chanada (The Gaelic Society of Canada). Notes in his papers (F1015-MU1091 in the provincial archives of Ontario) indicate that plans to form the group (initially called “The Gaelic Federation of Canada”) date from 1896. The second article of the organization’s official Constitution states that

The objects of the Society shall be as follows: … (c) To take steps whereby a knowledge of the Gaelic language, Celtic Antiquities, History, Music and Traditions may be disseminated; and Historical, Literary and Scientific Research in the Celtic field encouraged.

Fraser delivered a talk to the Royal Society of Canada on 20 May 1903 entitled, “The Gaelic Folksongs of Canada.” He mentions some of the fieldwork he had done in the course of this paper and includes a short excerpt of material he had collected:

When the Scottish Gael found a lodgement in Canada, the songs of his race were not forgotten. … Here in Canada, therefore, Gaelic poems and songs were composed in the style of the older minstrelsy. … While known, they [the religious lays of Rev. James MacGregor of Pictou] were not widely used in Upper Canada, at least, I have not been able to trace them much beyond the manse of the Gaelic speaking clergymen of Ontario … But the settlers themselves and their descendants to the present time composed love songs which obtained popular recognition, many of which have seen the light of day on pages of books or periodicals, but many, very many, still remain to be collected and preserved as interesting specimens of the Gaelic muse in Canada. … Quite recently, while on a visit in the county of Bruce, I came across a number of Gaelic songs composed by Mr. J. B. Macdonald, a respected citizen of Tiverton …

Fraser printed an extensive Gaelic article containing a transcription of an autobiographical account of migration from Kilmartin to Ontario in the Scottish Canadian in July 1903. He indicates in the article that he had collected the text the previous month from Seumas MacCaluim in Tiverton (see full text and translation in Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, pp. 154-61).

Fraser’s papers in the Ontario Archives contains a few other Gaelic texts that he collected in fieldwork, especially his notebook in F1015-MU1089 envelope 2. Much of this was from informants in Glengarry, where Fraser resided at times, although he also has material composed in Ottawa and Toronto in other parts of his archival remains.

Fraser expounded in detail on the need to gather local history and ethnographic information in an address to the Caledonian Society of Montreal on December 5, 1902 (in the booklet The Mission of the Scot in Canada):

The pioneer settlers made history; volumes of it have been lost through the neglect of sons whose fathers deserved better at their hands. … The Scottish societies should lose no time in undertaking a statistical account of every Scottish settlement in Canada, with the experience of those who left us our land as a marvellous legacy, experiences in many cases still reclaimable, but which soon will pass into the limbo of oblivion unless the public spirit and patriotism of the Scot in Canada should come to their speedy rescue.

Amongst other books, Fraser wrote a short Gaelic volume about the life of George Ross (Sir Seòras Uilleam Ros, 1915). Fortunately, a copy sent by Fraser to the Gaelic book collector Hew Morrison was digitized by the National Library of Scotland not long ago and contains a hand-written note by Fraser himself which states:

I enlarge rather on the conditions under wh[ich] the Highland pioneers settled in Canada, in order to put the facts I had collected on record.

Indeed, the book contains copious ethnographic details about the lives of the early Highland settlers in Middlesex County, Ontario, and the material conditions of their lives.

Fraser’s efforts did inspire at least a few others to follow his lead in capturing material from human memory and oral tradition. Hugh McColl’s Sketches of the Early Highland Pioneers of the County of Middlesex (1910) and John C. McMillan’s “The First Settlers in Glengarry” in The Scottish Canadian 8 (1903) were produced under Fraser’s influence, and likely others yet to come to my attention …

A Gaelic Poem on the Massacre of Glencoe

There are few events in the history of the Scottish Highlands more notorious than the Massacre of Glencoe, which happened on this day (February 13) in 1692. Although the incident has been the subject of numerous scholarly studies based on anglophone sources, Gaelic sources have not  received adequate attention. The most significant Gaelic commentaries about the event in the form of song-poetry are Iain Lom’s ‘Nam faighinn mar dh’iarrainn’, Am Bard Mucanach’s ‘Mìle marbhaisg air an t-saoghal’, and ‘’S mi ’am shuidh’ air a’ chnocan’. While the first two of these have been edited and translated, the third has not previously been given a scholarly treatment.

Some years ago I started on an effort to edit, translate and analyse the last poem of the three in collaboration with Dr. Nancy McGuire. That joint project has not been completed; she has further materials and suggestions which we have yet to integrate into a complete text. I offer at present my initial attempt at an edition and translation, without all of the editorial apparatus included and with the caveat that this edition is tentative until further work is completed. My edition is based on variants in the Dornie Manuscripts, the Northern Chronicle newspaper, Records of Argyll, the Mac-Talla newspaper, and the Celtic Monthly.

First, the original Gaelic (each stanza numbered); Second, the translation, Third, a few interpretative comments.

Original Text

1. ’S mi ’am shuidh’ air a’ chnocan
Chaidh mo léirsinn an olcas
Is mi mar aon mhac an trotain air m’ fhàgail.

2. Tha mi coimhead a’ ghlinne
Far am b’ aighearach sinne
Mur bhith mì-rùin na fine ’s an robh an fhàilinn.

3. Rinn na Duibhnich oirnn leadairt
Ar fuil uasal ’ga leagail
’S bha Gleann Lìomhann ’na sheasamh mar cheannard.

4. Ach nam b’ ionnan d’ ur macnas
’S nuair bha mise ’nur taice
Nàile! Rachadh iad dhachaidh ’nan deann-ruith.

5. Bhiodh MacFhilip le ’bhrataich
Air tùs na fine neo-ghealtaich
Ged a fhuair iad an nasgadh le ainneart.

6. A MhicEanraig nam feadan
’S tric a bha mi ’s tu beadradh
Leis a’ mhuinntir a ghreas don taigh-shamhraidh.

7. Clann Iain nan gadhar
Rinn na h-uaislean a thadhal
Gu moch Di-Sathairn’ a’ chuthaich gun chàirdeas.

8. Dh’fhàg sibh marcaich’ an eich uaibhrich
Reubt’ air ruighe nan ruadh-bhoc
Ann an sneachda trom fuar nam beann àrda.

9. Dh’fhàg sibh làraichean dubha
Far am b’ àbhaist duibh suidhe
’N comann luchd an fhuilt bhuidhe chais amlaich.

10. Fhir Bhail’ Fearna nam badan
Bu cheann-fheadhn’ thu air brataich
Is chaidh smùid a chur ri t’ aitreabh ’na smàlaibh.

11. Bha do cho-bhràthair guailte
Deagh fhear Bhaile nam Fuaran
Leam is goirt e, ’s an uair air dhroch càradh.

12. Ach mas deònach le’r Rìgh e
Bidh là eile ’ga dhìol sin
Agus Maighdeanan lìobhte ’cur cheann diubh.

13. Bidh na Tuirc air an dathadh
’S bidh Rìgh Uilleam ’na laighe
’S bidh cùird mhór air an amhaich dhen an-toil.

14. B’ e mo rogha sgeul éibhneis
Moch Di-Luain is mi ’g éirigh
Gun tigeadh Rìgh Seumas ’s na Frangaich.

15. ’S gum biodh iomain ball-fhaiche
Air fir mheallt’ nam balg craicinn
Loisg ar n-arbhar ’s ar n-aitreabh ’s a’ gheamhradh.

English Translation

(1) I sit on the hillock, my eyesight has failed me, as I am left behind like a toddling only son.

(2) I gaze at the glen where we would be merry, if not for the ill-will of the blemished clan.

(3) The Campbells massacred us, our noble blood being shed, as (Campbell of) Glenlyon stood as commander.

(4) If only you prospered as you did when I was with you, they would go homeward in a rush!

(5) MacKillop would have his war-banner in the vanguard of the indomitable clan, even though they were hemmed in by violence.

(6) O Henderson of the (bagpipe) chanters, often did we sport and play with those folk who hastened to the summer abode (i.e., sheiling).

(7) Clan Donald of Glencoe, (owners) of greyhounds, were visited by the nobility until the early Saturday of brutal frenzy.

(8) You left the horseman of the proud spirited chargers gored on the sheilings of the roe-bucks in the cold, heavy snows of the great mountains.

(9) You left charred ruins where you were once seated in the company of the people of flowing, ringleted, blonde hair.

(10) O tacksman of Baile Fhearna of the thickets, you were the war-bannered war-leader, and your abode was burnt to ashes.

(11) Your dear companion, the goodly tacksman of Baile nam Fuaran, was charred (by fire): an ill hour it was that makes me sore.

(12) But if our King grants it, there will be another day to avenge that, when the sharpened Maidens will behead them.

(13) The boars (i.e., Campbells) will be stained (with blood) and King William brought down, and there will be heavy cords around their necks bringing them misery.

(14) It would be my choice of good news, awakening early on Monday morning, that King James and the French would come.

(15) And that the deceiving men of haversacks, who burnt our corn and our homes in the winter, would be driven back (as though playing) a ball-game.

Notes and Interpretation

It may be inferred from the text itself that the author was a native of the area who was away during the massacre, perhaps for an extended period of time, but composed this song-poem upon returning to see the devastation. It is not surprising for a song circulating for this length of time in oral tradition to become detached from reliable information about its authorship and to gravitate towards a poet of great stature with some connection to the narrative or area. It seems to me most likely that this is the work of an otherwise unattested poet.

Some details in this song-poem can be confirmed by other sources. It implies that the massacre was perpetrated early on a Saturday (verse 7), which was indeed the day of the week of 13 February 1692. Houses were burnt by troops, as mentioned in several lines (9a, 10c, 11a). The harsh weather concurrent with the event is also well known and is reflected in the text.

On the other hand, it is curious that notable victims of the massacre – the lairds of Achnacone and Achtriachtan, and poet Raghnall na Sgéithe – are not mentioned at all in the poem. It may be that the poet had a close personal relationship with the two tacksmen named, Fear Bhaile Fearna and Fear Baile nam Fuaran, but few others. I have not been able to locate Baile Fearna or Baile nam Fuaran, and it may be that these are alternative names for nearby villages where murders did occur, perhaps Achnacone and Achtriachtan.

It is noteworthy that, unlike the two other songs about the Massacre, this song is in iorram metre, normally used for the praise of clan élite and the celebration of noteworthy clan events. The poem seems to reflect the antagonistic relationship between Clan Donald and Clan Campbell in a simplified and polarized manner: na Duibhnich (a reference to the founding figure Duibhne) are shedding ‘our’ blood (verse 3); na Tuirc (a reference to Campbell heraldry as well as their association with Diarmaid of the Fenian cycle) will suffer from future vengeance (verse 13). The association of Clan Donald with Jacobitism, on the one hand, and of Clan Campbell with Hanoverian allegiances, on the other, is also implied by these polarities.

In an article about the seventeenth-century Gàidhealtachd, Allan Macinnes has wisely cautioned that the discourse of clan rivalries in Gaelic poetic sources often masks the complexities of national and international politics which formed the actual backdrop and dynamic of contemporary events. Gaelic poetry as a rhetorical system reflects the highly localised, kin-oriented society of which it was a product; it is not surprising that its discursive practices and literary conventions, well established by the seventeenth century and reinforced by poets in that contemporary ‘crucible’ (as Thomson deems it), could not but reframe the expression of complex contemporary historical events in the terms most natural and traditional to it, i.e., inter-clan rivalry and warfare. It may also be the case that Gaels, especially the non-élite, understood events like the Massacre of Glencoe in these terms, or were at least most easily motivated or mobilised if events were explained in such terms.

Nonetheless, cracks in this traditional literary code do appear in the song: although the poem is a bitter indictment of the Campbells, the ‘vengeance’ called for by the MacDonald poet is capital punishment via the ‘Maiden’ (a guillotine) under the supervision of the civil authorities; he wishes that King James VII would return and depose William and hang the guilty party. These are appeals to the mechanisms of law and order, not the perpetuation of clan feuds.

The likening of the rout wished upon the soldiers (characterised by their leather haversacks) to a field-game  played with a ball – most likely camanachd – is an unusual metaphor in Gaelic song-poetry (although it does occur in Iain Lom’s ‘Latha Inbhir Lòchaidh’).