Canada, Folklife, Modern

Interview with Dr A. R. MacKinnon about Gaelic in Bruce County

The Charles William Dunn Collection of Scottish Gaelic Fieldwork Recordings from Gaelic Canada contains an extensive and invaluable set of audio recordings from the mid-twentieth century. Although most of the fieldwork was conducted by Prof Dunn himself, one set of materials – recorded in Bruce County, Ontario, between 1958 and 1964 – was done by Dr. A. R. (“Archie”) MacKinnon, formerly at Simon Fraser University.

A few years ago, when I was working on the Gaelic-Canadian literature anthology Seanchaidh na Coille // Memory-Keeper of the Forest, I was delighted to find Archie (left), alive and well, in British Columbia. The work he did is an unique window into the Gaelic communities of the Bruce. Although he made comments on this material and his experiences in the region in an article he wrote (“Gaelic in the Bruce,” Bruce County Historical Society Yearbook 13 [1967]), and in the booklet Gaelic in a Bruce County Tiree Settlement: Some Recollections of Archie MacKinnon, these sources are not well known outside the local area.

As I would not like Dr. MacKinnon’s contributions to the history of Gaelic fieldwork in North America to be overlooked or forgotten, I contacted him again at the beginning of 2018 and found him once again, a delightful person with full memories. I asked him for an email interview and these are his responses to my questions.

1. Can you please tell us about your background: Where and when were you born?  What was your personal sense of identity when you were growing up?  How did your family and community seem to perceive and represent its heritage and identity? 

I was born at home on the farm in 1927. The farm was on Concession 11, Kincardine Township, where the Gaelic of the Isle of Tiree could still be heard. The community was established in the 1850s and had migrants predominantly from England, Ireland, Scotland, the Scandinavian countries and Germany.

Persons who had Gaelic as a first language purchased land in relationship to their specific culture. I was introduced to Gaelic for the simple reason that my grandmother lived with us and found difficulty in speaking English. What we had was ‘grandma talk’ as we entered into Gaelic. The density of Gaelic speakers in the area meant that Gaelic was the language of work, commerce, and the feeling of identity.

The demands of the various cultures moved towards a common language, which was English. Gaelic was essentially reserved for special social occasions as the community moved increasingly to a Canadian language.

2. Did you hear Gaelic growing up? Who spoke Gaelic and in what contexts? What was the common attitude regarding the language?

Gaelic was the language of my family for the period of time that Grandma MacDonald lived with us. When Grandma left the farm to live in Kincardine with her daughter, Eva, the move towards English increased rapidly.

Gaelic was essentially the social language of the community.

3. Tell us about what motivated you to record Gaelic speakers, and their songs, in Bruce County.  Did anyone give you any advice about how to go about doing recording and fieldwork?  How did you know who to ask to speak and sing for you?  How long did you spend doing it?  Did this make people feel shy, embarrassed, proud, nostalgic … ? What are some of your fondest memories of that experience?  Was there anything that particularly surprised, shocked or pleased you about doing this work?

I was very aware that the life of Gaelic in the area was shortening rapidly. I had been doing some work recording various stories on tape and sharing these with the Bruce County Historical Society.

My focus on Gaelic was a direct result of association with Charles Dunn at the University of Toronto during his field work in Bruce County, and our contacts in Edinburgh and Harvard. I learned much from Charles on the process of recording oral culture.

Most of my informants were initially embarrassed and very shy about their Gaelic. By playing the recordings of others, however, the floodgates soon opened. The recording sessions were normally quite spontaneous with frequent requests to ‘play back’.

There was great joy in the activities including repeated songs sung several times over. The process was primarily for my own delight. It was only with the urging of several members of the Bruce County Historical Society that I moved the story into print form and the audio onto tape.

4. What would you ideally like to see happen in Bruce County regarding its Gaelic heritage? What would the best means be of commemorating and celebrating the history and culture?  How might the recordings you made support such efforts?

The Bruce County Historical Society and the Bruce County Museum have been active in building a Sound Archive. The initial items at the museum prompted other cultural groups to participate so that the Archives now have folk culture for England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany. There are even some small collections growing out of the Swedish settlements.

There are special occasions at the museum which highlight collections, and the recordings which I made, and those of Margaret MacKay, have been featured in some of these special exhibitions.

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).


Folklife, Modern, Scotland

Interview with Elizabeth MacDiarmid on Loch Tayside in 1996

[An article I originally wrote in 1996]

Perthshire is the heartland of Scotland, the centre of the country.  Although I have met many Perthshire people who spoke Gaelic at home before going to school, the usual story is that once they went to school they had to learn English and were strongly discouraged from speaking Gaelic. Sadly, after untold generations of Gaelic speakers, it seems as though the last fluent Perthshire Gaelic speaker died only this year.  Memories of Gaelic remain amongst the natives of Perthshire, and of course are the basis of local place-names and history, and continue to have an influence on local traditions.

In September 1996, I went to visit Elizabeth MacDiarmid on her croft on Loch Tayside.  Her parents were among the last Gaelic tradition bearers of the district.  Elizabeth is one of the stalwarts of Gaelic in Perthshire, where the 1996 Mod convenes this year, and among other roles she acts as the secretary of the Lochtayside branch of An Comunn Gaidhealach.

EM:  I was born here on Loch Tayside in 1932.  My mother was born in Glenlyon, and my father was born here on Loch Tayside, both of them in 1904.  My mother was Margaret Stewart, and my father Peter MacDiarmid.

MN:  When you were young, how many people were there staying on the Loch side?
EM:  A lot of people, a great many people in every single farm and house.  It’s just beyond belief how few there are left, that we are the only family left of the old families, all the rest are incomers.

MN:  When did the depopulation start?
EM:  The war made us more prosperous, sadly.  Prices improved with the war.  That was really what put all the farmers on their feet, which is the sad thing.  It was certainly after the war that the depopulation took place.  The whole attitude seemed to have changed.  I think people were no longer so happy just to work away on the land.  Quite a number of the farms changed hands in the early fifties, and the newcomers coming in brought a lot of changes, attitudes were different.  They were no longer prepared to work away in the old system the way we had with the horses, the tractor came in.  The early fifties, the hydro-electric works came here, we got electricity, we got telephones, I suppose the conditions improved.  The way of life just altered altogether, and I think with that people were no longer so happy just to work away in the way they used to do.  All kinds of things started up after the war, young farmers started in Aberfeldy, people went more to Aberfeldy for their entertainment rather than locally, you would have a ceilidh locally or little dances locally in the old times, that all changed.

Life before the war was very hard, there was just no money.  My father had just taken over the farm and it was a struggle all the way and every penny was really very precious.  But at the same time, we always had plenty of food on the farm, your own cow and eggs, and there was always lots of rabbits to eat, so you were never hungry.  But there were masses of people passing on the road who were starving.  They would come to the door begging for food, and my mother always gave them something.

MN:  When did the people you know about leave Perthshire for Canada?
EM:  A lot of them left in the late 1800s.  Our ones went to Winnepeg, but these other ones went out from Comrie about 1840 to Beckwith.

MN:  Do you ever have people coming back from Canada?
EM:  Masses of them.  I just say that they were very brave to go and they were wise to go, ’cause they’ve all prospered.  They’re just amazed at the beauty of this district and they realise how terrible it must have been for these people leaving, that they’d never see it again.  A lot of them who went didn’t really regret it, because they wrote back, telling others about how much better life was out there. Recently I had a lady from Osgoode township who was 89 while she was here, and she told me that when they went out, they hated it because there was all this wood and it was so dark.

MN:  How did people enjoy themselves?
EM:  I suppose before the war was the time we had these wee céilidhs in the house.  Somebody would come and play the fiddle and another chap would come and sing.  And my mother had an awful lot of Gaelic records.

We always had a kind of wee celebration for Halloween.  And of course they always made a big thing of the end of the harvest.  When you got the corn harvested, you know, the last of the oats.  It was a big thing to get the ‘Maiden’, this was the last sheaf, and the last little bit was brought in and decorated with either a ribbon or a little dress, like a doll.  And it was hung up.  And it was always kept there until the horses went out to plow in the spring and that was given to the horses the first day they went out to plough.

MN:  People used to have incredible capacities for memory…
EM:  My mother’s grandparents were in Ardeònaig, and they had the ferry croft.  And that was part of their duty, to run the ferry between Ardeònaig and Blàr Mór, across here at Carwhin.  There was a trumpet on the Lawers side at Blàr Mór, and if anybody wanted the ferry they blew the dùdach and they came across.  When the great communions would be on, they used to ferry people to and fro.  Now, this Bean Eoghain lived in Carwhin, she had a great memory, and she would be in the boat crossing over to the communion in Ardeòinaig, and on the way back, she would give them the whole sermon again, more or less word for word, and they would say, ‘Nach eil cuimhne aig Bean Eoghain?’  And that happened regularly, it was a known fact that Bean Eoghain could give them the whole sermon again.

MN:  What was your parent’s experience in school with Gaelic?
EM:  Well, my father was not a fluent speaker, for this reason.  When his older brother went to school in Lawers, he was punished for speaking Gaelic in the playground, and therefore the parents stopped speaking it at home, and so my father was never totally fluent.  He, I suppose, had quite a lot of Gaelic, particularly because he worked with people who spoke Gaelic, and then when he went to Glenlyon, which is where he met my mother, they spoke nothing but Gaelic in the home.  And so I can remember when I was a small child, to begin with, it was Gaelic that was spoken in the home, because there was a man who worked with us who had nothing else but Gaelic, and my granny (that’s my mother’s mother) spoke Gaelic, and my mother of course, and my uncle (my mother’s brother) and so father just had to speak Gaelic the best way he could, but he was also conscious that his grammar was never correct, you see?  I suppose that’s why I don’t speak it yet, there was always this sort of talk about grammar not being correct and so I was always terrified to risk speaking it in case it was wrong, which it probably was always.

MN:  What was the attitude about Gaelic when you were in school?
EM:  Well, it certainly didn’t have a high profile.  I wouldn’t have said that there was any definite opposition to it, but it wasn’t regarded as being of any significance, whether you had it or hadn’t.

MN:  When were the last patches of Gaelic on the loch-side?
EM:  As long as my mother was alive, and her brother-in-law, the one who had been punished for speaking Gaelic in school — he died in the [nineteen-]seventies — they never spoke anything else but Gaelic in the house, even in the late seventies.  And his wife was Perthshire born and reared, and she died in ’81 and she had plenty of Gaelic.  And that’s not so long ago, and there were others.  And when my mother met any of these people, she always spoke Gaelic.

MN:  What sort of benefits you do see from a consciousness of Perthshire Gaelic?
EM:  There’s been such a wonderful rich heritage of Gaelic and culture in Perthshire and it’s very sad that that’s all denied to these people who haven’t got some knowledge of Gaelic.  But there are people who have learned Gaelic in Breadalbane Academy, for example, Sheila Kidd, who has now gone on to Glasgow University to lecture in Gaelic.  That’s something positive that’s come out of it.

And I do feel that the future lies in the Gaelic medium units, and I can see that from my experience as secretary of the Perthshire Provincial Mod.  From those children who are taught in Breadalbane Academy there are the few, like Sheila Kidd, who go on and study it and make good, but they are very much in the minority.

Lots of these children, they take it for a little while and lose it, though I suppose a little will have rubbed off on them and maybe later on the interest will come back.  But I notice in Perth where there is a Gaelic medium unit and the children are being taught through the medium of Gaelic, they are miles ahead of the others, these children are totally fluent, these tiny little children are able to converse very very fluently, and I’m sure there must be a great future for them.

That’s what is needed, far more Gaelic medium units.

Canada, Folklife, Modern, North America, United States

Interview with Prof Charles Dunn of Harvard in 2002

Professor Charles W. Dunn (1915-2006) taught Celtic Studies at Harvard University for many years and is probably most celebrated for his fieldwork amongst Scottish Gaels in North America. See biography here.

Interview with Professor Charles W. Dunn
In his home in Cambridge, MA
By Michael Newton, 4 April 2002 (beginning at circa 9:30 PM)

MN: Would you mind recounting how you got involved in the whole Gaelic world?

CD: Well, before I embark on that rather large subject, I might say that I taped a great many informants, sometimes with great difficulty, and I always forgot to say who was there and when we were there, so all the tapes I have are totally dateable only by all kinds of subtle deductions. [Laughs]

Yes, the larger question, how did I become involved. It was all a gradual process, I think I was brought up in a highly humanistic tradition on all sides of the family, all my parents and grandparents and so on were all interested in literature and rather well educated and so I was brought up with a tremendous encouragement from all sides of the family to think a lot and read a lot and observe a lot and I was drawn to science at first because it was very dramatic when you could make things explode with chemicals but gradually I got drawn towards more literary humanistic side of life.

And ah, by the time I got to college I moved into literature and took a degree in English and German honors with Latin and Greek options, as extras on the side. And, I abandoned at that point study of science and of mathematics too, which always fascinated me, so then when it came time to go to graduate school, I applied to Harvard because I was interested in, primarily in the literary and cultural history of Scotland, and the minute I arrived at Harvard, Prof Fred Norris Robinson got hold of me and I became one of his students and took his Chaucer course, but then he encouraged me to take Middle Irish as a background for Celtic Studies, and I was reminded then of the background of the Gaelic people, Gaelic speaking people I had known, and in particular, Donald MacLean Sinclair, who had been the minister’s assistant at Greenside Parish Church in Edinburgh, when my father was minister there, and Donald MacLean Sinclair, descendent to the Bard MacLean, turned out to be the ideal person to lead me into Gaelic studies.

And ah, I was encouraged to apply for support in that area, in a practical way  by the head tutor in the English department at Harvard, who encouraged me to apply for a Dexter traveling fellowship to take me to the cathedral towns of England, and I said that I’d been to them, and he said Well, where would you really like to go, beside that, and I said, well, I’d like to go to Nova Scotia, and pursue study of the Gaelic speaking people in Nova Scotia.

So off I went for the summer, with $500 from the Dexter traveling fellowship. On that I got married, I bought a car, a Plymouth, blue Plymouth, and drove off with my bride, and arrived in Cape Breton. And we were most kindly greeted, thanks to Donald MacLean Sinclair, who had prepared the way. We went to the Gaelic College, as it was called, in St Anne’s, and we spent a most glorious summer, the two of us, studying Gaelic together, and from there on there was no returning from that particular Celtic angle of my whole life.

MN: So that first summer – was that 1941?

CD: Yes.

MN: And were you doing any recording at that time?

CD: Yes, we took along a fine old ancient tape recorder that had been used by a distinguished Harvard folklore ballad collector whose name I can’t at the moment remember, and he had left this tape recorder for anyone who wanted to use it. And so, I took it off with me and used to plug it into the battery in my car when I was totally isolated from normal electric support.

MN: Did you have the impression that there were lots of songs to collect at that time in Cape Breton?

CD: Oh yes, I mean, that, people were just, just mention anything whatsoever and the materials sprang forth, but they would always refer deferentially to, “Ah now, it’s a pity you never knew Angus,” well he was dead, “Ah well, it’s a pity you’ve never been into the upper so-and-so” because all of the Scottish placenames, it’s always the place itself and its always one that’s the upper, and upper is always remote and there’s always some real seer who lives in that recess, “Ah well, you must get to meet him, he knows so much more than the rest of us.” That was the kind of sort of outburst of information.

It also was very noticeable that the women in the families would always be on the background rather almost subserviently to their husbands but I still remember in, I think it was Christmas Island, there was a wonderful informant, a male, and not very fluent in what he remembered, and he would get part of a story out, and then his wife would come in and say, “Ah yes, and now you must remember that…” and then I would get the whole story, whether it was in English or Gaelic or a mixture of both, prompting.  And the women were really the people who remembered as an audience, and the males were, tended to be, even at that date, when tradition was much stronger than today, perhaps, the males were becoming rather fallible as memory carriers.  But the women as trained audience would interject, and say “Ah, but the story goes on to say…” [Laughs]

MN: At that time when you were first there, did you see a noticeable difference in the capability between generations, in terms of Gaidhlig, were the younger people as self-confident or capable as the older people?

CD: Well, in the 1940s — that’s hard to answer.  There was a great deference, “Ah, my grandfather would know, or my grandmother would know that.” Yes, I mean, the grasp of the vast oral lore was certainly disappearing quite rapidly.  I noticed that more when I would go back later.

MN: What did you see developing over time with your visits?

CD: Well, to counteract the decline of memory of materials, I did notice a kind of reaction in which the younger people became interested in and fascinated by their parent’s and granparent’s lore and they became, any time I went back to an area, they seemed to be even more interested in collecting every f4agment that could be collected.

MN: Do you think that it’s possible that your presence there as somebody of prestige who was interested in their tradition, do you think that that might have helped to stir some people to doing something, or being aware of the value of their tradition?

CD: I suppose so, yes. I, as a comparatively modest, just out of graduate school kind of person, I didn’t realize I had any prestige at all but, I do remember that Red Dan Smith said to me once, a wonderful informant of mine, at St Anne’s, Cape Breton, I was sitting, listening to him, very reverently, as he was reminiscing about his life and travels, and he stopped from what he was saying, and said “Now, isn’t it a strange thing, that I should be sitting here, as a lobster fisherman, telling a Professor what he ought to know.” [Laugh] I hadn’t realized, and never did quite come to realize, that there was that kind of distinction, and of course, it was acute, because the people in Cape Breton always referred to the Boston States, in the sense that, the Boston States were the center of learning, and so on.

And so, no matter how foolish I might be, I carried the aura of the Boston States with me wherever I went.

MN: And speaking of that connection, did you, did you make many contacts with the Gaelic community from the Maritimes when you were in Boston? You mentioned before that both the people here and the people there had some sort of close ties…

CD: Oh very, oh yes.  And there was the church connections, and so on – there was the Gaelic speaking church that I wrote a little note about years ago, and everyone gathered there, and they were all Cape Bretoners. It was Scotland transported to Cape Breton and then intermingled with various different, Lewis and Harris, and so on, they were all intermingled in the church, but they all had a common tie with Cape Breton.

MN: You mentioned before that there was certain sorts of material that were hard to collect from people, especially things that were sensitive to members of the community, and that ministers were reticent about giving over some sorts of information – things that might have been considered scandalous or obscene, or just impolite, not kind.  I think you mentioned a sature on somebody once…

CD: Oh yes, I was always well aware historically, that the body of the oral body of material must inevitably contain a vast amount of satire, and finally in the North Shore of Cape Breton, I asked a very fine informant, “Ah, did anyone ever make a satire of…” “Oh well,” he said, “oh yes, oh yes indeed. There was that terrible satire but I couldn’t tell you that.”

Actually, the only time that I ever managed to collect a satire was when I was in Glengarry County, and I was calling on a delightful Catholic priest, and he said, “Oh, satires were very fierce.” He said, “Oh, I’ve just, I don’t think you really should think about them.” And he laid, he produced out of the air, almost, a little transcript of a satire that he had somehow recorded, and he laid it on the desk in front of me, and left the room, and said it was something that could never be published, so I wrote it down rapidly while he was absent. [Laughs]  And he returned, and I put my notebook away, and we didn’t say anything to one another, but satires were very clearly part of a very, the most potent part of the whole poetic tradition, the whole bardic tradition in Celtic literature.  They in effect destroyed a person, politically in fact, within a community, so that he virtually ceased to exist.

MN: On a related note, there’s the whole issue of nicknames, and names that would be put on somebody behind their back and used by everybody except in front of him.

CD: Oh yes. I always wondered if they knew their own nickname. [Laughs] Surely they did. You’re thinking of the story of the Squirrel?  That came out of St Esprit and I was staying with a wonderful family, Strachan was part pf the family name, Strachan being a non-Highland name, but the Strachan part, Strachan himself who had brought the name to St Esprit had come from Aberdeenshire where my Strachans, with whom I’m related, came from, and he had come to St Esprit and ended up, as, so they say, as a music teacher.  I don’t know quite how he made a living at that, but anyway, he was reputed as a music teacher.

But St Esprit had its own special types of stories, and this one person who was referred to in conversation , and they said of him, “Well, he was always sort of rushing out, rushing in, where other people couldn’t get there.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” And they said, “Well, we’re referring to the Squirrel” and I forget his clan name. “The Squirrel?” I said. “Yes,” they said, “one time when snow was so heavy no one could get to church, but this fellow turned up in church, and the next week he said, ‘I didn’t see any of yous at church – why?’ ‘Oh well, the snow was terrible!’ ‘Yes, yes,’ said one of them, ‘it’s very easy for you when you’re a squirrel and run along the top of the fence above the snow to get to church.’” And his name became permanently thereafter, “Squirrel” MacDonald or MacLeod or whatever it may have been, I can’t remember the details now, but that name was placed upon him forever more, and his family, of course.

MN: At what point did you, did the idea of Highland Settler come to you?

CD: Well, after Pat and I went to Cape Breton for one summer, then I went off and taught far, far away in Columbia, Missouri, then I met with the Rockefeller Foundation, who were making a study of Nova Scotia on a sort of cultural basis. And the person in charge of the investigation had been a roommate of Jerry Whiting, B. J. Whiting, a very witty Medievalist at Harvard, a Maine Democrat, and absolutely wonderful instructor, and this fellow from Rockefeller Foundation said, “Now you’ve been for a summer and written a report on your Dexter Fellowship, how would you like to go back and make a fuller study of the area?” Well I said, “Oh, well, fascinating, yes.” So Pat and I went back, this time without any car, or without any recording equipment, and we spent one year primarily in Cape Breton, and I kept a careful diary of al the people I met and where we stayed and totally detached description of what we were seeing and hearing, and Pat and I both studied Gaelic, more and more thoroughly, and became more and more closely connected with all of the people we stayed with.

We were able to stay with not only with, in, Protestant communities, but also in Catholic communities, and we were warmly welcomed  in Antigonish by the faculty at St Francis Xavier University, and Father Nicholson, P. J. Nicholson in particular, lead me into very close perception of the Catholic areas, and in this case, it was particularly interesting because my grandfather being a minister in Pictou county, a Scottish Presbyterian, and in his own wandering career, and the, in his day the clash between the Protestants and Catholics was very severe, and one of the priests at St Francis Xavier, forgetting that my Presbyterian background, told me what a dreadful place Pictou was because on one occasion, the priest had been settled there, and he wondered where he would get a suitable housekeeper, and the people rigged it so that he ended by getting the local whore as his housekeeper!

I was happily, totally accepted between Protestant and Catholic and also inundated with strong messages from the Lowland Scottish tradition through the experts in history, the historians at Dalhousie who tended to emphasize in their approach to the history of Nova Scotia, they tended to emphasize the immense importance of teachers such as MacColluch [sp?] who, from their point of view, Pictou academy established academic excellence in the province.

On the hand, the Highlanders themselves whom I was living with and visiting, were very well aware of the fact that they, in their Highland tradition, had gone into the ministry, through education, or they had gone in as Protestants, or they had gone into the priesthood as Catholics, from a totally Highland point of view.

MN: Did it seem as though the Highlanders felt that they had something to prove?

CD: Oh yes, some of them admitted that they labored under a sense of slight shame, sensitivity, about speaking a “foreign language,” as it were, and some of the extreme Protestant ministers really were opposed to the continuation of the study of Scottish Gaelic – they were openly opposed to it.

MN: What sort of relations did you see as a whole between the two religious communities in the Highland settlements? Did it seem as though the people themselves got a long fine, but they felt torn between their confessions, or did the ministers seem to be the source of their contention, or did the people themselves seem not to trust the other communities, or did there seem to be no problem at all between them?

CD: Well, the ultimate test, of course, was inter-marriage and there are wonderful instances of that – love always found a way, of course. But I think the rivalry merely happened to be occasionally religious, but there was a sort of in-bred rivalry between districts, and there’s this famous story of a New York sociologist who came to study the kind of fights that broke out between districts. And he came – I can’t remember just where now – fortunately for him I can’t remember his name just now – I think the people got a sense that he was looking at them with a cold and distant sociological eye, and so they, he went, he’d been told that the dances were the thing to go to, and it used to be said that the Highlanders loved dancing so much that all you had to go, in a district, when the population was fairly dense, just go out and shout, “Let’s dance!” and people would immediately congregate.

So in these, such occasions, occasionally somebody, some group, would come in from the neighboring village and would start joining in the dance but would end up in fighting, the men fighting one another from the two different areas. But anyway, some how or other, the word got around that this outsider was coming to look for a dance fight, and so, they carefully contrived it so that it broke out right around him, so he left town and never returned to Cape Breton, and never published a paper on the subject whatsoever. Does that answer your question?  Only rather indirectly, I know.

MN: Well, this brings up the other point, which is, how self-conscious were people in Cape Breton about being a subject of study, and did you get responses from people about your book, that they felt they had been fairly treated, that they had been unfairly treated, that they were glad to see someone paying attention to them?

CD: Well, my experience with writing a book is that, after it’s published, there is a deathly silence.  Nobody ever says anything about it, and then all of a sudden, somebody says reluctantly, “Oh, that was an interesting book.” So, I wasn’t, I never had any mass of fan mail from people who said “That was terrific.”

What I was gradually impressed by was that I had come in as an outsider without any foregone conclusions about people and I simply described things as they were, the way the people were, and I implied perhaps a certain affection for all of them, and on the whole, people seemed to be rather glad that I was able to speak as an outsider about the terrible differences that separated Catholic from Protestant, and also, of course, the Protestants within the Protestants who always managed to subdivide in subtle ways or non-subtle ways, the terrible division between the continuing Presbyterian church and the United Church which was uniting, joining with other Protestant denominations, with the occasional absurd result that a local population of three or four hundred people at most would divide 50-50 and one would stay Presbyterian and the other would build a United Church next door.

There were places, for instance Little Narrows, where the Reverend A D MacKinnon, the great influence on keeping calm in a community, the Reverend A D persuaded the community that whatever they did, they should vote, should agree to vote one way or the other, totally unanimously, so despite the dissension when they were thinking about it, they finally voted unanimously, let us remain totally a Presbyterian church, no United Church, so Little Narrows ended up by a very quiet, peaceful, no tempest-torn kind of community with one church.  But so many other places within the Protestant areas ended with two churches, one a United Church and the other Presbyterian, thus subdividing the population, which, was all, in those cases, all Protestant in origin, into two conflicting groups.

MN: Now, you went beyond Nova Scotia and you went to other parts of Canada, such as Glengarry and Bruce County.

CD: Yes, we, one summer we went to Glengarry County, and that was absolutely fascinating. The area that we were living in was more or less engulfed with French speaking people by the time we were there – a hundred years earlier it was rather different. But the area was unfortunately in that case not divided by religion, it was divided by political economy. We were in a factory area in which the factory owners, the factory workers, all of them Scottish, Gaelic speaking immigrants that had settled in the early 1800s, were divided against one another very sharply and bitterly, so that the managerial groups were divided against the workers, and so on.

But that was a, behind that lay an extraordinary homogenous kind of settlement of settelrs from Glengarry in Scotland into Glengarry County.  It’s one of the rare examples of a, apart from Cape Breton itself, where Scottish Gaelic speakers settled en masse, and totally took over the area.

I’m trying to think of the … kinds of survivals in that area … Very strong survival of Scottish Gaelic singing and of Gaelic, Protestant Gaelic religious communion services, and the singing of, where the presenter of the psalms rhymed out by the presenter himself, ad so on. A very, very strong sense of Highland origin, Highland background, Highland history.

MN: By then the decline in Gaelic speakers must have been very noticeable in Glengarry, I would think.

CD: Yes, except that the ones that one could discover were fascinating, and of course, I inadvertently suggested that this area was entirely Protestant, it was also Catholic, strongly Catholic, and the people I met were extraordinarily well versed in their tradition.

I was told to go to so-and-so, who was 74, and he said, “Ah well, you’d better not call on me, you’d better call on Angus, Donald Fletcher, he’s 86 or 84 and he knows much more than I do.” So I called on Donald Fletcher, and I said, “Do you remember any of the old songs they used to sing?” But he was not wishing to dispose of the matter as easily as that, he said, “Well, I’m not a singer, I play the fiddle.” And he said, “I used to mend the roof on houses and I fell off the roof and broke my arm so I don’t play the fiddle now, but oh, yes, I could sing a sing, yes, I could sing a song.”

And then he remembered a song that had been composed by a settler who came from Iona, of all places, the great spiritual center of Scotland, of Scottish tradition. “And the settler,” he said, “well, he settled on a farm and he didn’t like it much, and then along came the springtime and the fireflies came out, and he’d never seen a firefly in Iona, and he composed a song and – will I sing it to you?” “Oh, yes, please Donald,” and he sang it for me, and it was about “the fireflies are setting fire to my land and burning down my house and my home, oh why did I leave Iona?” I recorded that song and others from this wonderful Donald Fletcher, wonderful, wonderful man.

And then later I called at a neighbor of his, a younger woman, in her early 80s, Mrs. Austin. And by that time, I found that it was useful to know how to collect songs, not by knowing what the person would have for a song, but by telling them what a competitor had by way of a song. So I said, “I’ve just been calling on Donald Fletcher, and he sang me a wonderful song.” “Donald Fletcher, but he plays the fiddle, he doesn’t sing!” “Oh well, but he sang this song about the firefly.” “Oh well, well, now, I’ll sing you a song myself, I’ll sing you a song.” And the song was, “Why will Queen Victoria not allow the Marquis of Lorne to marry,” oh, what’s her name, whatever the name is … sorry, that’s very important, Queen Victoria’s daughter … so then she sang me all 12 stanzas of this song, pointing out how preposterous it was that Queen Victoria was so strict about her rules, about who could marry whom.

So, that area was just full of material, and later I met one of Marius Barbeaux’s – Marius Barbeuax was a brilliant folklore collector of French Canadian material, and Glengarry is very much part of his purview, and he sent somebody to call on the people in Glengarry specifically, and no one had told him, one of the informants I met, no one had told this informant who was bilingual in French-Canadian and English, no one had told him that when people started to sing in Glengarry, they might not necessarily be singing in English or in French, they might indeed be singing in Gaelic. So he turned on his recorder for his first informant, and, as he said to me, this fellow started singing in a language I didn’t even know!

So, there, in the archives of Ottawa, there are songs recorded in Gaelic by French Canadian collectors who didn’t know that Gaelic was the language.

MN: Another place in Canada where you recorded material was Bruce County. How did you know to go there?

CD: Bruce County… I knew about it in various ways, partly because of a family nurse we had when, let’s see, when Peter was born, our second child, Pat and I, she knew Bruce County well, and then, we were spending a summer, Pat and I and our family, were spending a summer in Edinburgh, and we were living in Garscube Terrace, and next door, the people came over, and said, “I hear you’re from Canada.” “Yes,” I said, “indeed.” The person saying that was an academic in education named Archie MacKinnon. And Archie MacKinnon and his wife were spending a year academic abroad, travel, in Edinburgh, and we became close friends, and constant companions, and Archie MacKinnon started telling me about his background in Bruce County.

And so, Pat and I went to Bruce County and called on Archie MacKinnon’s father. And Archie MacKinnon’s father said he was Gaelic speaking, but quite reluctant about it, feeling he was not an expert, “Oh, I know the songs, yes. Oh, I’ve heard them sing,” and so on. So we didn’t really collect very much from him. But, one of the, by that time, I was becoming a little more adroit about extracting material from people who had things hidden away in their cultural history, and I said, “You know this song from Bruce County.” “Oh, yes,” he said, “oh, I know it, yes, yes.”

So, I was desperate to get him to sing it. – how could I do it?  I said, “I know you don’t sing, but how did it go as a song?” [Laughs] So he started singing it to me, and so I heard the words as they should be, although, later he didn’t quite realize what he’d done, but he’d betrayed himself, [Laughs] in singing a song that he could perfectly well sing, but he thought theoretically he couldn’t sing it.

Material was disappearing so rapidly in Bruce County, it was just pathetic. There could have been buckets, buckets of materials collected …

MN: But no body was there to do it?

CD: No.

MN: And did you see the same sort of thing in Glengarry County?

CD: Well, there it was not decaying so desperately and so rapidly, no.

MN: How much interest was there in academia in these topics when you were working on this?

CD: Well, in Toronto, I had no trouble in… although University of Toronto, University College specifically, had a very rigid program, I was a member of the English department and it was ruled by a wonderful old fellow, A S P Woodhouse, who was a bachelor, and looked after an aged mother, and he had a portrait of Samuel Johnson hanging in his study, and hoped that he would personally remind everyone of Samuel Johnson, and he was an expert in 18th century literature, and used to lecture on it in great detail, and so that, the first term would start at 1832 and get to 1838, until the last week, after which he would fill in the rest of Victorian literature, to the death of Queen Victoria. But he was perfectly willing to let me have a course in Scottish Gaelic, so I did.

And everyone encouraged that. The general interest in folklore studies was also tied in with that rather nicely.

MN: What about addressing a more popular audience?  People have such preconceived ideas about what a clan is supposed to be, what a Highlander are supposed to be, do you find that people have resistance to hearing your own experience in Gaelic folklore collecting, or are they just open for anything?

CD: I don’t know – could you tighten that up a bit? I mean, I’m terrified about making any kinds of remark about the clan system, and so on, because the clan system is a very foggy system which obviously changed sharply during the ages, and after the Bonnie Prince Charlie, and so on, period, it changed not merely because of Bonnie Prince Charlie, by any means, but economically and socially, and so on, so I’ve always avoided making generalizations about the clan system.

MN: What I mean is, if you’re an average person, and the only thing you know about the Highlands is what you see in popular films, like The Highlander, and Braveheart,  and so on, then you might have one idea about what Highlanders are supposed to be, and if you’re suddenly presented with Gaelic folklore, it might be quite different from what you expect.

CD: Oh, absolutely, yes. I’m caught in a dilemma there, because,  I’m terrified by the inner body of people in Scotland who know all this better than I do, and then they hear me as somebody lecturing to people in North America who have a totally, from their point of view, totally romantic, hazy, vague sense of what the Scottish tradition is, and what the clan system is, and tartans, they don’t even like the notion of tartan, the more severe critics in Scotland, so I’m caught in the middle as a sort of would-be radio entertainer – does that answer the question? [Laughs] Then of course, the wild notions on this side of the Atlantic, of what it was all about, the highly romanticized view.  It was all about harsh economic reality.  Survival, but carrying on the memories and the happiest of the traditions, and the warmest, the most intimate, and so on … the religious traditions, and the family traditions, and the respect for parents, and family itself, and so on – so tightly tied in to the whole Highland way of life.

MN: What would you hope that Highland Settler be remembered for?

CD: Oh … I suppose it really was a, I was not intentionally, but I was inevitably paying a compliment to the charm and the warmth and hospitality of the people whom I traveled among, they were all incredibly kind and patient and helpful.

MN: What sort of a man was [Jonathan] MacKinnon?  He must have been very dedicated … he must have had a very strong vision of what he wanted to accomplish.

CD: Well, actually, in my diary – I’ve just finished reading that part of it – I contrast him with his brother, and Jonathan G MacKinnon was a bachelor and a very fierce, determined sort of person, and his brother was just the extreme opposite. And, very quiet and retiring. Jonathan G lived in Whycocamagh, although he came from Skye Glen, as he al[ways said], he’s a “MacKinnon from Skye!” – and he remained the sort of Highlander within Cape Breton, whereas his brother who worked in Sydney in commercial business, was the sort of Highlander who’s been urbanized and is working his daily eight hours a day at his desk. The two of them were so different from one another, quite extraordinary.

But, he was – when I knew him – he was just in his latter years – I was charmed by the fact that he fell, I think, deeply in love with one of the prize students at the Gaelic course that he taught at St Anne’s.  I mean, not in an active way, understand, but he greatly admired one young lady who was taking the course along with Pat and myself and some other students.  I thought that was fine, that even as an aged bachelor he was able to find a sort of infatuation with a feminine form.

When he started the paper – again, that’s something that I recorded from what, not what he told me, but what his much, very admiring younger brother told me – Jonathan simply wrote a prospectus for producing Mac-Talla and he required, I don’t know, three hundred subscribers, let’s say, whatever, and he didn’t get that many but he started anyway, and just went on doggedly doing it. Tremendous, extraordinary undertaking.

MN: And of course that had a major impact on the Gaels of Nova Scotia and beyond.

CD: Oh yes. They got out clippings from Mac-Talla or they kept the entire journal in their shelves, or whatever. Yes, it was greatly admired, and circulated in the way that Scottish Gaelic things circulate, in the same way, for that matter the Stornoway Gazette circulates – I still remember, I used to receive in Toronto, a copy of the Stornoway Gazette, when Pat and I were living on an assistant professor’s salary and raising two children we didn’t subscribe to it personally, but we received a copy which had been first read in Scotland, then sent to a friend of the reader in, I think, New Zealand, and then from New Zealand, the copy came to me. And that was true of Mac-Talla, it just circulated in its own quiet underground way around the world, around Gaeldom.

My Scottish Gaelic studies were, I always felt, were personal, sort of, quiet, affectionate indulgence on my part, because I was really, through my academic life, I was primarily editing medieval texts and disseminating particularly medieval English literature. So I’ve led an extremely divided, but very, very happy life, [Laughs] academically, doing just what I wanted. There were always some students, bless them, with whom I could share the joys of what I was working on myself.

MN: Did you ever feel that – given what you’ve just described as a split – that you had insights into the medieval manuscript tradition that you got from your experience with the Gaelic world?

CD: I think I saw, I was able to see Chaucer, who was, and who is, one of my great admirations – when I was a schoolboy at Rivers School, and I could come over here, we had to chose an author to write a report on and I was, you know, 2 or 3 years before you leave school, I chose Chaucer as my favorite, and Chaucer has always been my favorite, one of my favorite writers, and Chaucer was obviously, would have been, a great folklore, well he was, a great folklore collector, because he simply sat and listened to people, and enjoyed them, accepted them for what they were, in all their magnificence or grossness, or whatever , whatever it might be, loved it all, it was humanity, he loved it.

And, he would, he would love going Gaelic folklore collecting, if it had been possible to arrange! I can only do so much in one lifetime.

Folklife, Ireland, Modern, Music, North America, Scotland

Further Thoughts on the History of Dance in Scottish Gaeldom: Part 2

An Appalachian Detour

Anyone wishing to produce an account of vernacular dance in North America would do well to read the recent volume Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics by Phil Jamison (2015, University of Illinois Press). Jamison integrates a huge amount of information and personal experience into this book: the various distinctive genres of dance in Appalachia; the various ethnic groups and their ethno-musical/choreographic traditions; the constituent elements of dance practiced in Appalachia and how they bear the influences of the various traditions; the social contexts for dance; the layers of historical processes and interactions that produced these dances. The result is an affirmation of the very hybrid, complex nature of tradition in Appalachia, as in all of North America, with contributions from every ethnic group.

Appalachia has been conventionally represented as an isolated backwater, preserving “Old World” customs with fidelity and conservativeness (this ought to sound familiar to any aficionado of Cape Breton tradition). The first task to which Jamison sets himself is to explode this myth by examining the history of settlement, commerce (especially via boats), and cultural exchange networks. He concludes:

It is clear that the people of Appalachia were not a homogenous Anglo-Saxon stock; they were, rather, a “mixed multitude of all classes and complexions” who, despite the relative isolation of the southern mountains, had contact with the outside world through trade and travel. The hoedowns, reels, and frolics of Appalachia likewise were not pure survivals of an ancient Anglo-Celtic heritage, locked away in isolation, but a constantly evolving folk tradition that incorporated elements of recently popular social dances with the older traditions. … these rural dances no doubt appeared unfashionable and antiquated, especially when compared with the popular dances of the day, but in fact they were only a few generations old. (pp. 18-19)

One of the important strands of influence on Appalachian dance was that of dancing masters, especially those who were French or had direct or indirect training of French fashion. Although their numbers were not particularly large, their consequential impact was large, no doubt because of the weight of associated social prestige.

In America, as in Europe, attendance at dancing school distinguished the middle and upper classes from the unrefined common folk … The dancing schools of America were not confined to the cities of the eastern seaboard, and some itinerant dancing masters headed west into the backcountry, where even in small frontier towns dancing was considered to be a necessary part of one’s education. (p. 30)

Jamison’s investigation is particularly pertinent when examining Scottish and Cape Breton dancing – especially solo dancing with percussive emphasis – because there are clearly direct relationships between these manifestations of dance. The style of solo percussive dancing done in Appalachia commonly referred to as “buck dancing,” “flatfooting,” and “clogging” may have had earlier antecedents in the British Isles, but they were refashioned by the formality and discipline of the dancing masters:

In the late eighteenth century, it became fashionable to perform hornpipe steps as setting steps while dancing country dances and cotillions. … This percussive step was taught at dancing schools and it soon became part of the vernacular step dance tradition on both sides of the Atlantic. (pp. 136, 137)

This, in my opinion, seems to have an exact parallel in the evolution of step dance as practiced today in Cape Breton. Dance practice can change rapidly, with styles going in out and of fashion, and getting “stuck” in rural areas after they become displaced by newer styles in (usually urban) centers of innovation. And these historical processes become quickly forgotten in people’s minds. Jamison’s comments about this for Appalachia:

the step dances are a composite of northern European, West African, and Native American dance traditions, and they have also been continuously borrowed from the popular dances of Europe and America. They have evolved over time as dancers have observed, imitated, and shared their steps and styles, and in some cases they have fed back into popular culture, creating a cycle. The “Pigeon Wing,” like the Cakewalk, moved back and forth between urban and rural settings as well as across racial lines more than once: from French dancing masters to white dancers at dancing schools, then to black dancers (enslaved as well as free), to white minstrel performers in blackface (who were imitating the black dancers), and finally to urban tap dancers (both black and white), rural Southern buckdancers (both black and white), and contemporary cloggers (predominantly white). (pp. 148-49)

This fluidity parallels exactly how I see social dance becoming adopted, adapted, and assimilated in the Gaelic world, where dancing masters in formal dancing schools must have introduced percussive step dance before it become absorbed into a vernacular folk culture context with less structure and premeditated choreography.

An Irish Detour

Anyone aiming to provide an account of dance in Scotland would do well to read Catherine Foley’s 2013 Step Dancing in Ireland. Her volume studies dancing in historic and ethnographic detail from the eighteenth century to the present, with a special emphasis on dancing masters.

Foley demonstrates that new ideas about dance – inextricably tied to social class, economic mobility and education – were being brought into Ireland that had a profound impact. Dancing was inevitably a dimension of the coloniality of Ireland and her people, and an aspect of the performance of social roles:

Dancing masters were commonly found within educated society in Ireland, and all educated persons, or those aspiring to present themselves as educated, required knowledge in both the social dances of the day and in the presentation of oneself. The role of the dancing master consisted not just of teaching fashionable social dances, but imparting knowledge of ballroom etiquette … The Continental European aesthetic was based on noble dancing for polite and ‘civilized’ society; ballroom etiquette was therefore also taught as part of dance instruction in Ireland. (pp. 51, 52)

Dancing masters can be understood as cultural mediators whose role was not just to transmit this colonial way of being in society and the world unchanged, but were engaged in creatively adapting it to the various segments and classes of Irish society over time, as a cultural process.

During the early decades of the nineteenth century, it would, therefore, appear that there were four categories of dancing masters to be found in Ireland. These categories were divided by class. One category of dancing master was the English, French or Italian dancing master (or those dancing masters who had trained with them), who taught the gentry and upper classes in the cities and larger towns of Ireland or in gentlemen’s houses in rural areas; the patrons for these dancing masters were, for the most part, Protestant. A second category included the dancing master who Lenihan refers to as ‘the fashionable terpsichorean professor’ – the slightly pretentious dancing master who Gallicized his name and aped the manners and dress of his clients. A third category was the dancing master who was respectable enough to teach the young people of both the big houses and the ordinary tenants. A fourth category of dancing master was the one that Lenihan named ‘the village hop merchant’, who was on the lowest rung of the social ladder; he prepared young people for Sunday dances and dances at fairs. (p. 65)

While dance was a form of the colonization of the body, it could also be a response to that colonization that offered the Irish a form of self-control and self-expression:

Step dancing was seen as a skill to be mastered: a skill that showed that individuals had control and mastery over their minds and bodies. This was contrary to the negative reputation that English colonizers generally spread about the Irish as ‘uncivilized’. Thus in controlling their movements through step dancing, dancers were endeavouring to illustrate that they, like their colonizers, could also be controlled and ‘civilized’, but in an Irish way. (p. 75)

During the colonial period, it was shaped by a combination of in uences from indigenous cultural practices and society, colonial culture, Catholic morality, the Great Famine, and a European dancing master aesthetic. … Step dancing embodied, expressed and negotiated the cultural values, knowledge and history of the rural Christian communities of the region. The upright torso and the visual and percussive, rhythmical and metrical, soundings of the feet gave ‘voice’ to their shared colonial culture and history. (p. 227)

Foley thus demonstrates that dance is a bodily practice whose meaning and form can be understood as a dynamic cultural process constantly being (re-)appropriated, negotiated, and contested by members of society.

Step dancing as a genre is some two hundred and fifty years old. To provide an understanding of its emergence in Ireland, I examine dance during the period of the European Renaissance to establish connections between the European dancing masters and dancing masters in Ireland. The European dancing masters’ aesthetic and codified dance practices were disseminated by dancing masters across Europe – and indeed, across the Atlantic – to different sectors of society through instruction in dance and ballroom etiquette. Ireland was no exception. Here a hierarchical system of dancing masters existed for different sectors of society. These dancing masters provided instructions in dance and ballroom etiquette as an integral part of the ‘civilizing process’ prevalent throughout most of Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. … I trace the changing trajectory of step dancing over two hundred years as it has reflected, responded to and negotiated historical processes of colonialism, famine, nationalism and globalization. (p. 2)

Foley thus brings not only a personal experience of dance, situated in place, time and culture, to her work, but an insightful, critical methodology to interpreting the evidence. It is a major shortcoming of Gibson’s book that he was unable or unwilling to acquire and apply the same kinds of critical lenses to the very same cultural dynamics as they operated in Gaelic Scotland and Cape Breton.

Dancing Schools and the Refinement of Manners

I have also emphasized the pivotal role of dancing masters in the refashioning of dance in Scottish Gaeldom. Although they may not have been as numerous in Scotland as they were in Ireland or as prominent in the documentary record, they had a crucial impact on the style, form, and conceptualization of dance in Scottish society.

“Improvement” as anglicization, in a similar colonial context as Ireland, and dance as the refinement of manners (which can also be read as the colonization of the body), were instrumental concepts in the development of dance in eighteenth-century Scotland. That the very same notions were “afoot” can be read, for example, in the biography of one of the patrons of dance in Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812), who patronized dancing in one of the epicenters of social dance music in the later nineteenth century (as relayed in Harry Graham, A Group of Scottish Women, 1908):

Under her protection Scottish music began to rise towards a deserved eminence. She introduced and popularised dancing as an accomplishment worthy of study, and by making it fashionable at routs and assemblies, did good work in diminishing the passion for gambling, which had hitherto been the sole amusement indulged in at evening parties by members of the upper class. Reels and strathspeys took the place of rouge-et-noir and faro; round games were abandoned for country (if not for round) dances.

This is indeed clear in the 1805 dancing manual of Francis Peacock as well (as I have emphasized in previous entries on the subject). Although Gibson lists several dancing masters in his book, there are several others of whom Keith Sanger has given me evidence, namely:

  • The Campbell of Glenorchy were employing a dancing master at Finlarig for their two sons c. 1659 -1671.
  • William Paterson was employed as a dancing master in Glenorchy in 1746
  • Dugald MacEacharn was being employed as a dancing master in Kintyre in 1772
  • Peter McClean was a dancing master in Perth in 1802

While these are meagre additions to a small list, the influence was certainly profound, even at one or two steps removed, and is not uncommonly a source of comment in Gaelic song. I have enumerated several references in an earlier article (“Dannsair air ùrlair-déile thu”), but as a further example of this, a poet in Glenmorison remarks in the mid-nineteenth century (in Dàin agus Òrain le Gilleasbuig Grannd, Bard Ghlinne Morasdain (1863)) about dancing at a Highland wedding:

Chì mi thall a[n] dannsa ’s Griogair ann:
’S ann ’s a’ Sgoil Dannsa fhuair e na Chigeachan;
Mar bithinn gu tinn gun cluichinn Figure ris,
’S fhios agam fhìn nach mì bhiodh air dheireadh ann. (p. 145)

I see I see the dancing yonder, and Gregor is there:
It is in the dancing school that he acquired the “jigs”;
If I were not sick, I would dance a figure to him,
And I certainly know that I would not be deficient at it. (my translation with emendation from Liam Alastair Crouse)

Notice how the Gaelic poet resorts to English terminology when discussing dance, having no suitable words in Gaelic (we must suppose) to express “jig” and “figure.”

Arms and Upper Body of Scottish Dancers

There has been recent research about how body posture and pose projects personal power (or lack thereof) and affects a person’s mental and emotional state (such as this one). While listening to a program on the topic, it occurred to me that this bodily stance of dominance, authority and competence is what is conveyed by the posture evident in some genres of Scottish Highland folk dance in old illustrations and a few practitioners (and I am especially thinking here of my dance mentor James MacDonald Reid).

Practically every depiction of dance in rural eighteenth-century Scotland (whether Highland or Lowland) shows the arms high (not relaxed low against the body) and the feet and legs somewhat elevated (not down low). Take, for example, the classic “Highland Wedding” by Allan in 1780:

Or his “Penny Wedding” in 1795:

Arms are upraised in many Highland dances, as shown in this famous 1848 illustration by R. R. McIan of the dance Gille Chaluim:

Or this rare late nineteenth-century photograph of the Reel of Tulloch:

This body position can also be found in a number of European folk dances, such as in the Auvergne region of France, Galicia, Georgia, Greece, and elsewhere. While I have in previous writings emphasized some of the changes imposed on (so-called) Highland Dance by nineteenth- and twentieth-century “improvers” (especially in this article), I do believe that elevated arm and leg positions form a very important continuity with pre-eighteenth century styles.

The deportment of the body for stepdancers in Cape Breton, Ireland (for sean-nós dancing), and Appalachia, however is quite different: arms and hands down and relaxed, feet close to the floor, cutting neatly and carefully, with minimal movement. This difference in style poses a great challenge for those like Gibson who claim that Cape Breton step dance represents the purest lineage of Gaelic dancing surviving to the present.

Who or what is responsible for moving the arms down and keeping the feet movements minimal, close to the floor? The obvious answer is: dancing masters. The predominant reason may be simply that the dancer would be thrown off balance while using the feet to move nimbly and quickly to the music if the arms are up (thanks to Phil Jamison for discussing this issue with me). The development of percussive dance represents a shift of emphasis from the whole body to the legs and feet. This thus seems to reflect the concomitant contemporary notion of grace, discipline, and refinement.

Folklife, Modern, Music, Scotland

Further Thoughts on the History of Dance in Scottish Gaeldom: Part 1

I’ve been collecting new ideas and materials about the history of dance in Scottish Gaeldom for months – things I haven’t had time to articulate and elaborate since my last significant essays which are  accessible on this blog and on my webpage – and some of which are in response to my reading of John Gibson’s new volume on step-dance in Cape Breton (Gaelic Cape Breton Step Dancing, McGill-Queens), on which I am preparing to write an extended review essay.

My latest ideas and materials are too extensive to include even in the planned review essay, so a blog post is a convenient way to elucidate (or at least enumerate) them. And hopefully this will spur further comments, responses and dialogue.

Icelandic Dance History

I’ve been wanting to find comparanda on dance genres and history in Iceland for some time, given that:

  • Iceland is also a north-western European society,
  • that is even more isolated than Scottish Gaeldom, and
  • that had important points of contact with the Gaelic world between the 9th and 13th centuries.

Surely the claims about cultural conservatism made about Gaeldom are even more true about that “fringe” (of which the Faroe Islands also form a significant constituent). Fortunately, in the last fortnight, I came across three very useful, reliable and detailed sources that have provided me with further material which help to strengthen various points I’ve made in the past. These are, in specific (in order of publication):

  • Vésteinn Ólason. The traditional ballads of Iceland : historical studies. Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, 1982.
  • 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.
  • Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir. 2012. “The Dancers of DE LA GARDIE 11.” Mediaeval Studies 74.

So, I’ll just summarize some of the main points of these three sources, especially as they pertain to understanding the dance history of north-western European societies. The information used to reconstruct Icelandic dance is based on song metres, lexical terminology, references and descriptions in textual sources (like sagas and vernacular legends), the accounts of travellers, church records and visual representations (especially those in a particular single manuscript).

The sources indicate that forms of bodily movement were performed in response to and accompanying music (apparently always song – I’ve seen no indication of instrumental music only) by the twelfth century. While these dance genres are likely to have existed before this time, they are only described in detail beginning in the early seventeenth century.

The church was consistently opposed to dancing in principle for the obvious reasons (the propensity for leading for licentious behaviour), but the efforts of Icelandic religious authorities seem to have been more harsh and puritanical than elsewhere in Nordic societies. It was particularly during the sixteenth century that the presiding Icelandic bishop seems to have executed a campaign that was particularly effective at banning dance activity.

It seems that where dancing survived at all in Iceland, it stagnated, and the new varieties of dance that were current in other countries either did not make their way to Iceland or else did not succeed in becoming established there until the nineteenth century, after the old styles of dancing had died out. In the eighteenth century, and in fact far earlier, Icelandic dancing (gleði) was conspicuously different from the fashions elsewhere; it was seen as “an antiquated and isolated cultural tradition without any support from abroad”. … [Konrad Maurer in 1842 commented] that the lack of amusement caused dullness and a lack of pluck for useful work.

The first point about this is that since Iceland was cut off from the channel of dance innovations emanating from mainland Europe (and percolating through court culture in Sweden and elsewhere), it provides a useful reference point for the functions, forms, aesthetics and conceptions of dance in medieval north-western Europe.

The second point is that the religious austerity that rejected dance is not isolated to Scotland, or the strictures of Evangelical Protestantism. Those assuming that Catholicism was inherently more tolerant and syncretic would do well to take account of such historical realities.

Sources distinguish between two main kinds of choreographic activity: the dans (ballad dances) and vikivaki (paired-couple song movement). (There is another term, hringbrot, about which scholars are divided whether it is a third category or a subtype of dans; it had a more game-like modality, could be performed, according to one account, as a dans or vikivaki, and a specific style of song).

In the dans, a group of participants (sometimes only women, sometimes only men, sometimes mixed) joined in a circular ring. The leader led a song (sometimes with the help of non-dancers) as the participants moved in a circular fashion and responded with a chorus.

The vikivaki by contrast consisted of a man-woman pairs (sometimes joining other couples in a row or ring, other times as completely autonomous units). It was essentially a means of performing a song together with seesaw bodily movement: movements of the shoulders, steps to and fro, bending forward and backward. The song texts were often ribald, satirical or erotic in nature, and thus drew further disapproval from church officials.

Figures sketched in an Icelandic manuscript, sometime between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, appear to provide visual depictions of these “dances” as well as (possibly) a sword dance. It is important to note that the carriage of these figures – with arched upper back, protruding buttocks, extended hands – is very unlike the style of formal dancing that emerged in continental court dancing in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In other words, this is not the erect, upright deportment of poise and genteel discipline as promoted by dancing masters and other later proponents of manners and courtship who exerted such a profound influence on the dance styles of Irish and Scottish Gaeldom.

Icelanders also performed dramatic dance rituals, performed at social gatherings, in which performers assumed a particular fictional persona, sometimes that of an animal.

Another point of interest is that the lexeme hring appears in three Icelandic terms relating to and describing dance: hringbrot, hringleikr and hringdans. This clearly points to the borrowing of the term describing the sung-ring dance, which was circulating in several languages (including Latin) throughout western Europe in the 12th century. The metrical structure of the lyrics (as analyzed by Ólason) point to a shared tradition of danced caroles across western Europe.

Iceland’s dance “landscape” is very much as I expect Gaeldom’s was before the importation and assimilation of continental fashions and styles: there is no sign of percussive dance, no instrumental music, no idea of dance to convey grace, discipline, gentility or social class. Rather dance is simple movement to song, often in rings and sung with group chorus.

The Issue of Isolation, Interaction and Borrowings

Gaeldom has far too often been assumed to be an isolated backwater, preserving antiquated traditions, at lease in part because of its geographical remoteness. The facts are to the contrary, that it was well connected to continental Europe from the high medieval period through the early modern, between social networks with Anglo-Norman élite, military recruitment on the continent, religious ties to Catholic Europe, and so on.  It was the imposition of anglophone domination, and its insular self-segregation, that cut Gaeldom off from these wider geographical ties and cultural exchanges.

One cannot look very long at a genealogy of Clan Donald gentry, for example, without seeing common personal epithets such as Frangach, Spainnteach, Gallda, and so on, demonstrating their experience (usually during their youth) in non-Gaelic communities. One of the few autobiographical accounts of eighteenth-century of Highland gentry that survive is a fascinating account entitled Spanish John: Being A Narrative of the Early Life of Colonel John McDonell of Scottos, written before his death in 1810 in Ontario.

Iain MacDhomhnaill (as he would have been known to his fellow Gaels) was born in Knoydart, now arguably one of the most remote and inaccessible communities on mainland Britain. Yet, in the pre-Culloden age it was connected by water to Gaelic communities from Ulster to Argyll to Sutherland. MacDhomhnaill went to Rome to be trained in the priesthood, along with a cousin, following the path of many other fellow Gaels. Hearing that Prince Charles was going to reclaim the throne, the young student made his way across Europe to join the insurrection. MacDhomhnaill himself put the lie to this assumption of barbaric rusticity when he was apprehended in the aftermath of Culloden by Captain John Ferguson, looking for Jacobite spies:

“Oh, ho!,” he replied, “You speak English, I find.”

I answered, “More than you, Captain Ferguson, would wish, and other languages if I please; but do not imagine that you can frighten me. I have before now looked in the face of as great men as you, and you may rest assured that your action in apprehending me without any authority but your own arbitrary will, shall be examined into.”

He then said, “By God, you shall see London.”

I answered, “I am very glad of it,” that I had already seen the greatest Cities in many parts of Europe, and that a night of London would afford me infinite pleasure …

This evinces not just the infamous pomp of Clan Donald but also the worldliness of the Highland gentry, many of whom were conversant in French, Latin, and other languages. And they would have been as familiar with the manners and refinement of the continent, which included dance.

The idea that Gaeldom preserves folklore and tradition conservatively is too broad a claim. Folklore consists of many different genres, in different contexts, with different social actors and functions. While I know Gaelic texts from the Outer Hebrides well and have worked with the prose and poetry enough to appreciate how particular strands of materials were preserved in an oral/aural environment (say, for example, hero tales like “Conall Gulban” or epic poems like “Am Bròn Binn”), this is no guarantee that all aspects of folklike were equally conservative.  It is perfectly possible for material culture (such as clothing or domestic architecture) to innovate or accept external imported material without disrupting pre-existing oral traditions significantly; or, for that matter, for new verbal genres to be assimilated from outside influence without displacing older one.

This is particularly subtle but important in the realms of music and dance. The late Reverend William Matheson drew a careful distinction between the older Gaelic genres of song-poetry (such as dàn, iorram and luinneag) from the more recent strands of social dance music (reels, jigs and strathspey) which were either recent imports or stimulated by the assimilation of external input. I certainly agree with his assessment.

While some strands and genres of oral tradition were certainly conservative, and exhibit great continuity from the medieval period, Gaels (especially at the élite level) were at the same time being exposed to contemporary European fashions and notions of civility, which were expressed as dance in physical form (as discussed in my article “Dannsair air ùrlair-déile thu”). Scottish Gaeldom was a tight-knit society and few Gaels were more than two degrees of separation from those who travelled the continent, received education or training in European settings, interacted with the continental European élite, and were acquiring many of the social trappings of modernity. Gibson quotes sources who observe how the Highland social classes had free and easy associations at dances themselves (e.g., pp. 189-90). It is hard to argue that changes in European social manners, especially as manifest in and as dance itself, would not have quickly percolated through Gaelic society.

This is also true of Cape Breton’s Gaelic immigrant settlements. Even the first Gaelic song composed on the island (1775), “Is Àlainn an t-Àite,” shows a receptiveness to non-Gaelic influences, given that its metre is a non-Gaelic one (Gaelic songs are much more often modelled on pre-existing Gaelic models). This is not surprising, as the author, Mìchael MacDhomhnaill, was a captain of a ship and would have mingled with non-Gaels as well as Gaels. This was not particularly unusual.

Gaelic Dance Terminology

The issue of what terminology appears in Gaelic sources to describe dance and dance music – where, when and why it appears – is crucial. As I’ve discussed in previous writings, the fact that the generic, unmarked terms for dance in Gaelic are the variants dannsa  and damhsa makes any claim for the continuity of indigenous genres of dance highly difficult to maintain. These forms are clearly derived from French usages (albeit possibly through anglophone intermediaries).

It is sometimes stated or at least implied that it is not important or necessary to have words for movements, descriptions or instructions for dance, that it can be taught and learned simply by observation and imitation. There is also sometimes the implication that Gaelic was a simple, rustic, organic society with no need for complicating abstractions. This is utter nonsense. Gaelic society, especially before the mid-18th century, was a sophisticated civilization that had formal institutions for training literati, lawyers, doctors, clergy, and musicians and specialized terminology was a part of this training. There are still many surviving specialized Gaelic terms that were used in music schools for training professional clàrsairs and pìobairean (bagpipers) – but not for fìdhleirean (fiddlers) or for dancers. This to me strongly supports my previous assertions that the baroque fiddle came to be adopted in Gaelic society in the late seventeenth century or early eighteenth century, that it came with heavy non-Gaelic cultural baggage (based in Francophone and/or anglophone frames of reference), and was adopted into Gaeldom as Gaelic society was experiencing social and cultural collapse. These external importations – social dance, social dance music and the fiddle – did not enjoy the benefit of native, formal institutions to facilitate Gaelicizing at a high register.

The names of main musical forms – reel and jig – are external (to Gaeldom) in origin and no Gaelic coinages seem to ever have emerged and become adopted. Even the term “strathspey” – while originally a Gaelic place name – is an external adoption not assimilated to Gaelic lexical norms.

There are only two published texts in which a full set of Gaelic terms to describe dance movements appear. The first is the 1805 dance manual by Aberdeen dancing-master Francis Peacock. But Peacock states that he acquired these with the help of a friend, almost certainly Ewan MacLachlan, the librarian of King’s College. MacLachlan was an excellent Gaelic scholar and would have been quite capable of coining the vocabulary needed for use amongst Gaelic-speaking students.

The other place where a set of Gaelic dance terms appear is in a humourous caricature that appears in William Stewart’s 1860 Lectures on the Mountains (which Gibson discusses on pp. 194-98). The terms given here – apart from one – are the very same as in Peacock, so we may infer influence directly from Peacock’s text or perhaps via intermediaries (such as former students). A few of the terms were copied into dictionaries, but they do not seem to have left a lasting impression on oral usages in Gaelic.

One important source that I’ve examined recently is the Gaelic-English-Gaelic dictionary published in 1780 by William Shaw. He mentions collecting terms by travelling throughout the Highlands as well into Ireland. He also mentions consulting Irish manuscripts. The entry providing Gaelic terms for “dance” (as a verbal noun) are most interesting: they are damhsadh, rincadh, beicleimneachd, and iodhlanadh. These are worth treating one by one, but it is also work noting that he has an entry for “dancing school” (given as scoldamhsaidh, or sgoil-damhsaidh in modern orthography), suggesting that this was a common social practice at the time.

I have dealt with the term dannsa/damhsa in detail (in my article “Dannsair air ùrlair-déile thu,” online here) and do not have further remarks at this time.

Rince is the unmarked common term for dance in Ireland. While I have seen it occasionally in Scottish source, I do not know that it was not in wide currency. Previous scholars (such as Breathnach) have erroneously claimed that this is a borrowing of an English term rink denoting skating on ice, but there can be little doubt (as I’ve explored in this previous blog post) that this was simply the borrowing of the term “ring” signifying the danced ring-carol – in fact, the very same term borrowed in Icelandic for the same activity (see above). Its appearance in English, Icelandic and Irish would make its usage in Scottish Gaelic unremarkable, and also demonstrate the previous practice of the sung-ring-dance in the Highlands a near certainty.

The term beic signifies primarily the act of making a curtsey, i.e., a bodily movement acknowledging the presence of another. The Angus Fraser manuscript (held by the National Library of Scotland) gives the elaborate definition: “Courtseying, hopping, frisking, prancing to the sound of music .” It occasionally appears in Gaelic song-poetry which describes dancing, and I have the impression that the usage may have been mildly influenced by a very similar word (in phonological terms), beuc(ail), which denotes “roar(ing), clamour(ing),” as of an animal. In other words, a sense of mimetic activity may have coloured its semantics.

One of the most interesting occurrences of the word is the aforementioned song composed in Cape Breton, “Is Àlainn an t-Àite.” In an endnote about the meaning of the word, Sister Margaret MacDonell, a native of Cape Breton, relayed the meaning as explained by a fellow Gael as “a gesture made with the feet, a quick shuffle, by which a priest was made aware of the identity of his fellow Catholics.” Gibson (p. 51) speculates that this may be an ancient relic of the Celtic church or monastic practices, but this is extremely unlikely. The Gaelic word itself was borrowing from English “beck” (as indicated by Alexander McBain in his Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language) with the same meaning. It simply indicates a bodily gesture, whose practice is indicative of the courtly culture of refined manners of the continent, something simply better retained amongst Catholics than Protestants, especially since priests continued to be trained on the continent.

What interesting is that this element, beic, formed a compound with leum “leap” in Shaw’s dictionary, suggesting the kind of leg work – vigorous, yet disciplined – to be found in formal court dances, such as the galliard. I must say, however, that I have never actually encountered this word: it may have been a local coinage that did not gain wide currency.

The term iodhlain denotes “leap, skip, hop,” and thus linear movement with some vertical impulse. I have never seen the term used in association with dancing in Gaelic texts. This may be another attempt on the part of Shaw and other skilled Gaelic speakers to locate or coin terms which would be appropriate for use but were not in actual common currency.

… Part Two forthcoming forthwith …

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).