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.

British Empire-Building after Culloden

The Battle of Culloden – April 16, 1746 – was a brutal and fateful event. Not just because of the ethnocidal impact it had on the native Gaels of the Highlands, but because it removed the last internal obstacle to hegemony for an anglo-British empire and facilitated more brutal and oppressive forms of colonial rule. The unrestrained ability to coalesce and focus all of the human resources at the disposal of the British Crown was equally lethal to people much further afield.

The impact of European empires on peoples in the Americas – especially native peoples and people brought unwillingly as slaves – is the topic of impassioned discussion, especially because the negative consequences are very much still with us in the form of institutionalized and racialized privilege, not to mention the compromised sovereignty of First Nations.

Too many people assume, however, that the practices and ideologies that inform domination, exploitation and dehumanization – especially in the anglophone realms of the US and Canada – were virtually invented in the encounters of North American imperialism when “white people” came into conflict with “people of color.” While racial polarities are certainly dominant now and go a large way to explain the disparities of power and privilege of the present, categories we now take for granted (“white,” “black,” “Indian,” etc.) all took generations to form and settle. What is clear from analyzing historical events and conflicts in the generations and centuries before English colonization of North America began is that all of the concepts, values, structures and practices of imperialism had a long gestation time in the British Isles themselves as anglophones sought to conquer and dominate neighboring Celtic societies (see some discussion here).

There has been a long-running controversy in Nova Scotia about the monuments built to celebrate the victories of the brutal military leader Edward Cornwallis, whose colonization schemes involved violence and brutality against the native Mi’kmaw (see WikiPedia article here). This controversy is an echo of debates about the representation and monumentalization of colonial figures all over the world. It is surely significant that Cornwallis’s formative experience was at the Battle of Culloden.

An English soldier, Michael Hughes, wrote A Plain and Authentic Journal of the Late Rebellion (London, 1747), in which he describes his actions in the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6 as an English soldier who fought for the Duke of Cumberland. The following section (pp.52-3, 54, 55) concerns the Hanoverian troops sent to wreak vengeance and destruction on the Jacobites in the Highlands after their defeat on Culloden Moor.

The last Command, consisting of 800 Men, was given to Lord George Sacville, and Lieut. Colonel Cornwallis; with full Commission to plunder, burn and destroy thro’ all the West Part of Innernesshire called Lochaber, from the Glens above Knoidart, down to Arasack, Moidart, and Swenard, opposite to Mull; and positive Orders to bring no more Prisoners to the Camp. The Body divided themselves different Ways, with a full Resolution to finish their Work; and for better managing the Persuit, they have Orders to take nothing but their Firelocks and Ammunition.
Our party was 320 Men under Colonel Corwallis, a brave Officer of great Humanity and Honour. When we first set out, twas intended to march all Night, but a great Rain caused us to halt. […]
From hence the Party marched along the Seacoast through Moidart, burning of Houses, driving away the Cattel, and shooting those Vagrants who were found about the Mountains. Lord George Sacville was another Way with 480 Men. We camped in a Valley 12 Mile from the Ile of Mull, and detached Parties about their Sheils and Glens, who did great Execution among those who were still in Arms, obstinately refusing to submit and accept of Pardon. […]
At a Fortnight’s End, Lord George’s Part returned to Fort Augustus with near a thousand head of Cattel; and for fifty Miles round there was no Man or Beast to be seen. His Lordship finished his Commission with that Fidelity and Conduct as becomes a good Officer; for it ought to be known, that this last part of the Campaign was of the greatest Consequence to the Public, tho most troublesome in the Performance.

The best discussion that I’ve yet found about the consolidation of imperial power and colonial force that followed Culloden is the book Rebellion and Savagery: The Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the British Empire by Geoffrey Plank 2006. It is well worth reading at length, but these excerpts from the conclusions are indicative of these patterns:

The dispute over the meaning of the army’s actions in the Highlands paralleled other, ongoing conversations over the governance of Britain’s colonies. Cumberland’s officers, after they were stationed in colonial posts, differed from their predecessors in their zeal for advancing British civilization. In a variety of contexts, in the Mediterranean as well as in North America, they sought to promote the use of the English language, serve the cause of Protestantism, and encourage commercial exchange. They also generally hoped to establish English-style law courts, though their interest in legal reform was subordinated to an overriding concern to assert the supremacy of the British government under George II.

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 …

Vancouver’s Gaelic Eden

There were significant settlements of Scottish Gaels in the region around Vancouver, British Columbia, from the mid-19th century into the later 20th century. The strength of the Gaelic language in diasporic settings is a common theme in travel writings, reflecting both an inferiority complex about the weakness of the Gaelic infrastructure in Scotland and a form of wish-fulfillment that it find some paradise where it can be magically kept alive without the struggles for survival and validation that Highlanders faced in their native land. While there are still native Gaelic speakers, and learners, around the area, the state of the language has declined greatly since its peak in the early 20th century.

The following notes are from the annual dinner of the Gaelic Society of Inverness on 22 April 1938 (as reported on pages 274-5 of the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness vol. 38).

Sir Alfred N. Macaulay, Golspie, acknowledged the toast, and said that when he visited Canada and British Columbia some years ago he had spoken more Gaelic in the Vancouver Club in one week than he would do at home in a year. At Vancouver he had met the Chief Justice of British Columbia, Mr. Morrison, a man one would have thought had just come over from the Island of Lewis, so pure was his Gaelic. But he had never been in the Island of Lewis, as his grandfather had emigrated to Nova Scotia a hundred years ago. The family had gone to British Columbia afterwards, but had always maintained the Gaelic tongue — (applause). In Canada, Nova Scotia and British Columbia Gaelic would live — (applause).

If you’re interested in Gaelic cultural and literary activity around Vancouver, see the texts in my recent volume Seanchaidh na Coille // Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada, pp. 26, 353, 381, 426-7, 429, 456-62.  I’ve also discussed Scottish Gaels in Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest in this previous blog post.

Rory McSween of Rockingham, NC: an old Carolina Highlander

There are lots of untapped sources which can help us fill out our knowledge of Scottish Gaelic immigrant communities in North America, especially local newspapers. I recently came across this account of local history from the newspaper The Rocket (June 3, 1897) from the city of Rockingham, North Carolina. In this article, the author (L. H. W.) recalls people from his childhood in the neighborhood (in Richmond County) who were still strongly Gaelic, despite being one or two generations removed from the Scottish Highlands.

The most interesting character in this sketch is a man called Rory McSween in English (or Ruairidh MacSuain in Gaelic). Although the description certainly demonstrates some influence from romantic literature in English (he explicitly mentions Walter Scott), he is clearly attempting a realistic portrayal of someone who was well known by others, including those who were reading the newspaper.

Some of the traits described about Ruairidh contradict modern stereotypes and assumptions about Scots and Scottishness: he was not an excessively pious man in religious terms, but was devoted to his native language, culture, and belief system; although he was able to read Gaelic, he had not been subjected to formal education (which was almost inevitably anglocentric in nature); he cared little about money.

This sketch is a fascinating glimpse of Gaels in North Carolina, one that shows the consistency of Gaelic traits and cultural patterns across the diaspora.

“Little” Rory McSween had several brothers, all of whom exhibited in a remarkable degree the peculiar habits, customs, and characteristics of the Scottish clansmen, down even to a period of seventy five or more years after the family had migrated from Scotland hither.

The oldest of these was Sween, who many of my readers may remember. He was, although born I believe in Richmond County, the most completely typical Highlander I ever knew, and always reminded me of some of Walter Scott’s character portraitures …

His parents were natives of Scotland, and gave to their children not only Scottish features, but Scottish tongues, training, prejudices, and opinions as well, and in none of them did the national tribal characteristics crop out more plainly and unmistakably, than in Sween; and in his loyalty to his race and clan, their habits, custom and belief, his own individual pride, which would never allow him to humble himself to any living man, his native hospitality at his home (a point of national honor), his steadfastness to his friends, his haughty bearing and unswerving devotion to the land and ways of his father, marked him indelibly as a Scotchman indeed, and a true clansman.

I have seen him come into town barefooted, but his graceful carriage, his springing step, his uplifted hand, and proud aye, haughty men, all seemed to say he was a true child of the mountain and the mist, owing allegiance to none whose name he did not bear and when he had partaken of enough usquebaugh to bring out all the Scotch in hum, he could be, and often was, the most sarcastic, cutting and proud fellow < … ? … > he had an ineffable, unutterable contempt for the English language, and for everybody who could not answer his hail in Gaelic.

He swallowed his whiskey with a Gaelic sentiment, satirized and cursed his enemies and sang his songs in Gaelic, and in short, was the very impersonation of a wild Hieland man and a McSween.

He was as poor as a pauper but would have starved sooner than beg, was at times a brawler, fighter and swearer, but was truthful, and like all his race, an at least habitual observer of the Sabbath, and there was not enough money in the state to bring him to do a mean act.

I do not know that he was, even in the smallest sense, an educated man, beyond his ability to read Gaelic. He spoke English fluently and correctly, but never when he could use Gaelic, and was as skilled in Scottish folklore and legendary wisdom as an Hieland oracle or prophetic seer.