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!

Folklife, Late Medieval, Scotland

Dances with Fairies and Witches

“Fairylore” in Gaelic tradition, like that of many other peoples, is a complex web of ideas that no singular theory can contain. Wish fulfillment, the rhetoric of social and psychological norms, and layers of older cosmology can all be found in these materials, making it a rich and sometimes perilous trove of material to analyze. Amongst other things, Gaelic fairylore often preserves the memory of social customs and norms after they have passed out of common currency.

As Henderson and Cowan have noted, fairylore often functions as a way to represent the transition of culture and tradition (pp. 24-30). Recent research about Icelandic tradition (Guðmundsdóttir 2005) suggests that oral narratives about the Hidden Folk preserve memories of dancing after its suppression by church authorities: the desire to dance was driven (metaphorically) “underground” and was sublimated through tales about elves; these tales preserve some of the features of Icelandic dance.

Could such an approach be fruitfully applied to Scottish (especially Highland) materials to tell us something about the historical forms and development of dance? The thought has occurred to me before, and John Gibson also mentions the notion in his latest book on dance (pp. 14-15). Unfortunately, however, his effort is limited to a single oblique reference from a remark in a Gaelic text from 1877 (fairly late) about the dancing of the fairies which Gibson does not parse correctly or compare to the copious earlier materials that exist about fairy dances.

I would translate the quote (using the Gaelic excerpts provided in Gibson’s book, but differently from him) as stating that fairies could be found:

at their fires in the dance, on the top of hillocks and knowes … the dance was just for the most part travelling steps with elegant movement in circles around the fire …

I think that Gibson is correct in seeing fairylore as a fading memory of passing customs – in this case dance – but he would like to believe that this refers to step-dance. This is his projection rather than good analysis. What is clear from this passage, and many other descriptions of fairy dances, is that they dance in a circle (in this case, around a single fire on a round hillock), not in figure-8s or multiples of figure-8s, such as produced by the dancing of reels.  The very idea of fairy-rings being traces of their dances (mentioned many times, for example, in Henderson and Cowan) attests to their dances being ring-caroles, a pre-Renaissance form of communal song performance (which I discussed in a previous blog post).

Another very interesting topic explored in the book by Henderson and Cowan (see especially Chapter Four) is that materials relating to early modern witches and witchcraft in Scotland often preserve aspects of contemporary fairylore – in other words, popular folk culture in Scotland (especially but not limited to the Highlands) was deeply entwined with fairylore but this was being re-interpreted by church authorities and political agendas as demonic.

While this is a complex topic that we need not dive into detail here, the fascination and social turmoil around witches left a record from which we can glean a certain amount about social practices and attitudes, including dance. And here again, all of the evidence indicates that the primary form of dance being practiced was the song-carol danced in a ring. This is clear from the textual descriptions of witch dances (including one of the first uses of the word “reel” in the 1591 North Berwick witch trial, as I’ve discussed in this article).

It’s also shown in illustrations such as the woodcut above, from the book The history of witches and wizards: giving a true account of all their tryals in England, Scotland, Swedeland, France, and New England; with their confession and condemnation (London, 1720).


I am not claiming that oral narratives about the sìthichean [fairies] were completely, statically “frozen” and thus always depict them as dancing in a ring, as opposed to threesome or foursome reels. I am only suggesting that they represent a time lag, preserving fading memories. Old memories can eventually fade entirely and be replaced by new memories. I’ve argued that the eighteenth century is a major era of transition for dance practice in the Highlands, with the new social dance forms (reel, strathspey, and step dance) displacing the older choral-ring dances and ritual-dramatic dances. This did not happen overnight but in stages and over generations. By the second half of the nineteenth century, Gaelic oral narratives did describe the fairies as dancing threesome and foursome reels because by that time, in the memories of the living audiences and storytellers, that had become “old tradition.”


Ronald Black (ed). The Gaelic Otherworld (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2005).

John Gibson. Gaelic Cape Breton Step-Dancing (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).

Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir. 2005. „‘Nú er glatt í hverjum hól’: On How Icelandic Legends Reflect the Prohibition of Dance“. The 5th Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium on Folk legends, June 15th–18th 2005, Reykjavík.

Lizanne Henderson and Edward Cowan.  Scottish Fairy Belief (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2001).


Late Medieval, Scotland, Scottish Gaelic Literature

The Ballad of Diarmaid and the Wild Boar in Glenshee: Some Speculations

One of the most poignant and memorable episodes in the Fenian/Ossianic cycle of Gaelic literature is the death of Diarmaid from the venom of the wild (and enchanted) boar which his uncle, Fionn, entreated him to hunt, knowing that this would cause his death. This episode was cast in verse form, probably in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, in Glenshee (Gleann Sìdh), in eastern Perthshire by a poet named in The Book of the Dean of Lismore as Ailéin mac Ruaidhrí.

This is the earliest textual copy of the text of the ballad, but the extremely eccentric nature of this manuscript and the orthography used (Middle Scots rather than Classical Gaelic) has been challenging the best Gaelic scholars for generations. Fortunately, Donald Meek has produced a definitive edition, translation and literary analysis of the poem (1990) upon which all further scholarship can be built.

Amongst his many critical insights into the text, Meek has shown that the BDLM text differs from the prose narrative as it was recorded in Ireland and that in fact no variant of this text survives in Irish sources. This ballad was a very popular one in the Scottish Highlands, so much so that it was “relocalised” in a number of different locations. None of them, however, correspond so closely and neatly as the text does with Glenshee, Perthshire. These data strongly support the notion that the ballad was composed with this eastern location in mind.

To my limited  knowledge, anyway, little more has been said about the ballad, why it was composed and what it might say about Gaelic affairs at this place and time. The poem itself and the cultural context is so rich that it invites some speculation that I hope others with more knowledge can refine or augment, given this stimulation.

First, of all, the poem itself indicates that it was meant to be performed in situ for a live audience. The poet begins:

Gleann Síodh, an gleann so rém thaoibh …
An gleann so fá Bheinn Ghulbainn ghuirm …
Éisdibh beag, madh áil libh laoidh | a chuideachta chaomh so, bhuam …

Glenshee, this glen beside me …
This glen below green Ben Gulabin …
Listen a little while, dear company, if you would wish to hear a ballad from me …

Where would this performance have happened? Almost certainly at the Spital of Glenshee (or actually, Seann Spideal “Shanspital”). This was clearly a high-status lodging, where King Robert II signed a charter during his reign (1371-90) about a century before the poem was composed. It must have been a suitable performance space for a small company of nobles.

I believe that there is a strong Campbell connection to the poem, which I will explain below, but for now, let it suffice to observe that Campbell seanchaidhs and genealogists in the 17th century recorded that they not only knew the poem, but they knew of its setting in Glenshee and the landscape features associated with the story, as in this excerpt from The Manuscript History of Craignish:

This seems to have been the ground that brought Fian and Dhiarmuid with their men to Scotland & after a memorable hunting of the wild boar at Glenshie in Perthshyre Diarmuid happen’d to kill a boar of Monstrous Size … which is the rise that Argyle the chief of this name & many of his Cadets carrie as their Crest the Boars head erasit. If it can be a voucher of this Storie I shall add that near the Spittal or hospital at Glenshie there are two places to be seen call’d [Leabaidh an Tuirc “The Boar’s Bed”] and [Uaigh Dhiarmaid “Diarmaid’s Grave”].

Why was the poem composed? What social function (other than just entertainment) might the text and performance have had? The social context must almost certainly be related to the eclipse of the power of the Clan Donald Lordship of the Isles and the expansion of the Campbells into that power vacuum and eastward. This hypothesis seems consistent with the manuscript source of the ballad, the text of the ballad itself, the geographical setting of the ballad.

Let me rehearse some of the supporting evidence. The Gaelic contents of the BDLM stretches back to the thirteenth century and includes a broad sweep of materials, including from Clan Donald poets. The overall tone of the collection, however, indicates the passing of a Gaelic Golden Age.

“Veneration of the dead and remembrance of past glories resonates in B’s lists of Scottish kings and battles; in its inclusion of a group of poems collectively mourning the downfall of the MacDonalds and their lordship; in the predominantly elegiac tone of its heroic ballads, with their preoccupation with warrior-death, the ars moriendi, and commemoration of the passing of an heroic age…” (MacGregor 68)

The similarity of Diarmaid’s patronymic Ó Duibhne to the Gaelic form of the Campbell’s archaic kin-name Duibhnich enabled, at least in popular tradition, the idea that the Diarmaid of Ossianic tradition was the eponymous ancestor of the Campbells. Although we don’t have surviving documentary evidence of this until the 17th century (Gillies, 279; McLeod, 123-4), it is possible that some germ of this claim was already circulating in 15th-century Gaelic folk tradition.

That the poet makes Diarmaid a suitable prototype for a good Gaelic chieftain is clear in some of the traits listed in the poem: besides being an able warrior and hunter, he “never refused a poet band” (stanza 14), he “did not consent to treachery” (stanza 19), he is handsome (stanzas 20, 23), “sweetness and kindness were found in his speech” (stanza 24), and he was a great wooer of women (stanza 25).

Diarmaid’s unlikely nemesis is his uncle Fionn, the leader of the Fian bands, who was jealous that his wife Gráinne had fallen in love with the younger man. It is possible that the ballad can be read in parable-fashion about power shifts in Gaelic Scotland. The term Fionnghall had been first used as an ethnic term for Norse invaders but later came to be used of the Gaels in the area dominated by the Clan Donald – in other words, the descendants of the Gaelicized Norse who inhabited, in particular, the Hebrides (McLeod, 128-29). There is a strong onomastic and literary association, then, between the term “Fionn” and the Clan Donald, who rhetorically positioned themselves as the defenders of the old Gaelic order, just as Fionn and the Fian were portrayed in the Gaelic literary tradition.

The ballad, then, seems to suggest a kind of political parable about the rivalry between Fionn and Diarmaid, which is paralleled by the rivalry between Clan Donald and Clan Campbell for Ceannas nan Gàidheal “the Headship of the Gaels”. The persona of Gráinne represents the attachment and affection of the Gaelic community itself. Fionn, through jealousy and resentment, causes the downfall of his loyal and innocent nephew, and ultimately his own downfall.

I expect that the notion of Diarmaid’s burial in Glenshee is itself important. Burial places were not just sites of community attachment and ritual but markers of ancestral ownership. Placing a claim – an ancient one, indeed – for a Campbell lineage in Glenshee could have set a very ambitious target and rationale for Campbell territorial expansion. That is, if the ballad text wasn’t a way for a Campbell patron to claim and “over-write” a burial site that belonged to another unrelated personage which may have been close enough in name or tradition.

Add to this the name of the poet to whom the text is ascribed in BDLM: Ailéin mac Ruaidhrí. Naming patterns in Gaelic society are pretty repetitive and consistent, and this is not a Campbell name but a Clan Donald one. It would not be surprising if, in the waning of Clan Donald power, poets who had previously had patronage in the Lordship of the Isles sought employment from Campbells. Perhaps this would entail some acknowledgment of the declined status of their former MacDonald associates and the greater legitimacy of their new Campbell bosses.

Here ends my speculation … I hope that others can critique and extend, if possible, these lines of inquiry.


Campbell, Herbert. 1926. “The Manuscript History of Craignish.” In Miscellany of the Scottish History Society.

Gillies, William. 1978. “Some Aspects of Campbell History.” Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness 50.

MacGregor, Martin. 2006. “The View from Fortingall: the worlds of the Book of the Dean of Lismore.” Scottish Gaelic Studies 22: 35-85.

McLeod, Wilson. 2004. Divided Gaels: Gaelic Cultural Identities in Scotland and Ireland c.1200–c.1650.

Meek. Donald. 1990. “The Death of Diarmaid in Scottish and Irish Tradition.” Celtica 21.

— 2004. “The Scottish tradition of Fian ballads in the middle ages.” In Unity in Diversity, ed. Cathal Ó Háinle and Donald Meek.

ed. — (forthcoming). Fian Ballads in the Book of the Dean of Lismore.

Miller, T. D. 1929. Tales of a Highland Parish (Glenshee).


Folklife, High Medieval, Ireland, Late Medieval, Music

The Earliest Gaelic Dances

What kinds of dance did Gaels do before the European dance trends of the Renaissance (and later) came to Ireland and Scotland? It was only then that the jigs, reels, and so on, now considered “traditional,” came into being. Is there any evidence about what bodily movement they did to music, when, why and by whom? How did these early dance forms differ from those that emerged later and eventually replaced them (a topic I’ve explored in two previous blog entries, here and here)?

In this blog entry, I’ll be providing some new ideas (I hope!) and novel solutions to these challenging questions within Irish Gaeldom. This will, I think, help shed light on the situation in Scotland as well, but where there is considerably less surviving evidence from Gaelic contexts. Besides pointing out some evidence that hasn’t been examined in this light, I’m also making use of a new book that has helped me make some important connections, namely The Carole by Robert Mullally.

One of the complications in approaching a question like this is one of terminology: We who use the term “dance” in modern English use it in a very loose and universal way for all kinds of physical responses to music, yet are seldom aware of choreographic forms that pre-date the Renaissance, when the modern forms with which we are most familiar originate. We need to be able to appreciate that most “traditional” (i.e., oral-dominant, non-industrialized) societies are likely to use more specific terms that will encode the distinctions between different kinds of physical responses to music: choreographic forms attached to particular kinds of events, performed to particular kinds of music, done for specific reasons in a specific way, and so on. On the other hand, if music or song and physical movement is integrated in a very basic synthesis, there is no need for distinctive terminology.

Part of the frustration with these investigations is that the only words in Gaelic which have been used (at least since the 16th century) to refer to dance are non-native ones: rince and damhsa in Irish, and ruidhle and dannsa/damhsa in Scottish Gaelic. This in itself is indicative of cultural contacts and borrowings, or of a shift in perceptions at the very least.

As Fergus Kelly pointed out in the lecture he gave in November 2013, there are no words for dancing in Old Irish (see the lecture and/or handout here). Despite having a great many texts that describe Irish life over a great time span, there is no evidence of a distinct term to describe dancing as a distinct activity — despite anthropologists reassuring us that dance is a universal impulse. This suggests to me that (1) physical movement was not distinguished from musical performance itself, especially song, and that (2) there was no conception of complex choreography, such as what developed in Renaissance courts on the continent. And indeed, the examples that Kelly gives involve mundane words suggesting leaping, acrobatics, and general physical exertion. All of these passages, furthermore, are translations of Biblical texts into Irish rather than descriptions of “native” activities.

Pretty much all over the world, “traditional” people have a practice of singing together while being linked together in a chain or ring. You can find examples of this practice in Iceland, the Faroes, France, all over the Balkans, India, and so on. It would be very strange if the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland did not have a similar practice in the early medieval period. These kind of formations create a seamless fusion of music and dance and affirm the solidarity of the community as a connected and uniform body. They are typically done at special holidays of the calendar or rites of passage (like birth or death).

Following the ideas laid out by John MacInnes about waulking songs (2006: 248-64), I have argued (Newton 2006; 2009: 272-7) that Scottish Gaels did have some form of choral dance although vestiges of it died a slow death in the 19th century. Can we push the evidence back in Ireland for this same choreographic structure?

One of the most interesting and important windows into the life of the “tribe” is the poem describing the annual celebration at Carmun (described in one of the Metrical Dindshenchas poems). In verse 65, amidst the depictions of the various attendees and their jovial activities, we get the enumeration: “Pípai, fidli, fir cengail.” This could be translated as “Pipes (aerophones), (medieval) fiddles, and connected-men.” The men are connected, I believe, because they linked together in a song circle.

When the Anglo-Normans came to Ireland, the French element certainly carried with them their own musical and dance traditions. Scholars such as Seán Ó Tuama have traced French influences in Irish poetry and music, pointing to such forms as the carole to explain the emergence of certain themes (romantic love) and musical structures (the amhrán form).

The presence of the Anglo-Normans also explains, I believe, the origin of the ordinary Irish term for dance: rince. While previous scholars (Breathnach 1971: 36) have connected the term with skating, it is clear to me that this is a borrowing of the Middle English term ring, which was used as the rough equivalent of carole (Mullally 2012: 111-12). As he explains in the rest of this valuable investigation, the carole was the dance par excellence of French society from the twelfth to the fifteenth century; it was “a very simple dance consisting of women, or men and women generally alternating, stepping sideways to the left in a circle” (49) performed to song (not instruments).

It was certainly known in Ireland and practiced by Anglo-Norman and Gaelic lords alike, as witnessed in the account of a meeting between the Mayor of Waterford and the native chieftain Ó Driscoll in 1413:

With that the said Maior toke up to daunce O’h-Idroskoll and his Sonne, the Prior of the Friary, O’h-Idroskoll’s three brethren, his uncle and his wife, and leaving [leading?] them in their daunce, the Maior commanded every of his men to hold fast the said powers, and so after singing a carroll came away, bringing them aborde the said shipp the said O’hIdriskoll and his company, saying unto them they should go with him to Waterford to syng their carroll and to make merry the Christmas. (Rimmer 1989: 42)

Note, however, that if the dance was used to move people from one place to another, it must have taken the shape of a line or chain (see the discussion of tresche below).

Some 17th-century descriptions of Irish dances show that the ring formation remained, for example, John Dunton’s observation that “Sometimes they followed one another in a ring (as they say fairies do) in a rude dance” (Brennan 2004: 19).

I believe that there is even a hint in the Gaelic ode by Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh (†1387) to a clársach (native Gaelic harp), written c.1382, of this practice. The very last two lines, in praising the arts supported by the patronage of the Lord of Cenél Fiachach, in Westmeath, state:

biaidh cnoc lomnán ar gach leath

d’orghán a chrot ’s a chláirsioch. (Bergin 1971: 69)

“the harmonious playing of lyre and harp will cause (dancers) to bare all of the hillsides around.” (my translation)

Considering that the term cnoc is a conical hillock, I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to infer that this is referring to ring dances – what other choreographic pattern would cause a hillock to become bared?

Sean Donnelly has written a very interesting article about the many references in late 16th- and early 17th-century English sources to a (supposedly) Irish dance called the “Trenchmore” in these sources (see his article here). The latter part of the name is clearly Gaelic mór “great,” and Donnelly goes to great lengths to explain the origin of the name of the dance as a place name in Ireland. While it is certainly possible that the name was later re-analyzed by Irish speakers and associated with a particular place on that basis, I’d like to suggest (after reading Mullally’s book) that there is a better explanation for the name: that like rince, this was also a borrowing from the Anglo-Norman settlers of Ireland.

The term tresche was used as a synonym, or close equivalent, to carole in Anglo-Norman texts, although it sometimes seems to have been danced as a line or chain rather than a closed circle (Mullally 2012: 59-61).

The choreographic practices that I’ve been describing thus far (ring song-dances) differed greatly from the innovations of the French court in the 15th century onwards in their social function, style and constitution. They affirmed and embodied group solidarity and participation. By contrast, what came out of courts was a product of the “refinement of manners,” the efforts of the aristocracy to demonstrate physically their education, training and grace that distinguished them as specially endowed individuals who were above and distinct from the lower orders. These endowments demonstrated their right to rule (having colonized their own bodies), their eligibility for courtship with others of the same social order, and their economic mobility. Couples dances emerged from this time period.

Even the weaving figure of the Hay (which was borrowed from the French in the 16th century by the Scots to become the “reel”) shows a very different mentality from the conformity of the sung choral dance: dancers are individuals moving on their own track, having to encounter and shift around other individuals moving contrary to them. This individuality and distinction of refinement only intensified in new choreographic innovations.

Select Bibliography

Osborn Bergin. Irish Bardic Poetry. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970.

Breandán Breathnach. Folk Music and Dances of Ireland. Cork: Mercier Press, 1971.

Helen Brennan. The Story of Irish Dance. Dingle: Brandon, 2004.

John MacInnes. Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006.

Robert Mullally. The Carole: A Study of a Medieval Dance. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012.

Michael Newton. “Dancing with the Dead: A Highland Wake Custom,” Cànan & Cultar / Language & Culture: Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 2003, eds. Wilson McLeod, James Fraser and Anja Gunderloch (Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2006): 215-234.

— Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.

– ‘ “Dannsair air ùrlar-déile thu”: Gaelic evidence about dance from the mid-17th to late-18th century Highlands.’ International Review of Scottish Studies 38 (2013).

Joan Rimmer. “Carole, Rondeau and Branle in Ireland 1300-1800: Part 1 The Walling of New Ross and Dance Texts in the Red Book of Ossory.” Dance History 7 (1989).