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Home Life of the Highlanders 1400 - 1746
The Literature of the Highlands 1500 - 1745
By George Henderson, Ph. D,. B. Litt., M. A.


THE origins of Highland Literature are in the far past. The repeated burning of the religious house at Hii (lona) accounts for the destruction of early records; but from what we otherwise know, we are safe in postulating a rich oral tradition of poesy, proverb and story from the days of St. Colum Cille. The historic study of the Gaelic language reveals it to be in its earlier period essentially one with that of Ireland, of old Scotia Major. The literature of Proverbs, the folk-tales, the rich traditional romances, as well as medical lore, I must for different reasons pass over in so brief a sketch. But every species was represented. The literature of this period is a stream constantly broadening in scope and power, and adequate to the needs of life. The mediaeval manuscripts which belonged to the Kilbride collection and others now in the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh, are in grammar and idiom Irish. This holds also of Bishop Carsewell’s Gaelic translation of Knox’s Liturgy (1567). When Sir James Macgregor, Dean of Lismore, with his brother Duncan, made his collection of poems (1512-1526) current in his day, we find among them the compositions of Irishmen such as Donnchadh Mór O’Daly (d. 1244); Muiredhach Albannach (1224); Tadhg Og O’Higgin (d. 1448); and others. Certain of the Lays belong to the Cuchulainn Cycle; the greater number to the Finn—Ossianic. Of the former, the "Lay of Fraoch" has for theme a story known alike in Eriu and in Alba. While Alba locates the story at Loch Awe, and at the Ross of Mull, and at Loch Freuchie (Amuiree), in Ireland the name survives in Clonfree (Cluain Fraeich), Roscommon. It is to Ireland we have to look for the older forms of the name in the genitives Vroicci, Vraicci, on the Oghams. For over three centuries the "Lay of Fraoch" has been current in Highland tradition, with variants which, on the whole, only point to the conservative instincts of the reciters over so long a period. It is remarkable for a certain richness of colour so characteristic of the Gael. A few stanzas will illustrate:

Cheek redder than the blood of fawn,
Hair darker than the raven’s crest,
And softer than the streaming foam,
Whiter than snow Fraoch’s waist.

More fringed than meadow-sweet his locks,
Than violet his eye more blue;
Than rowans ripe his lips more red,
Whiter his teeth than woodbine hue.’

The "Lay of Conlaoch," which repeats the father and son combat on Gaelic ground, is also common to both countries. The poem in the Dean’s Book in praise of Finn, while Irish in origin, is in colour and in content the ideal of the Gaelic hero on both sides of the sea.

White was his skin, | His cheek as the rose; | Blue was his eye, | His hair like gold: | All men’s trust, | Daring in fight, | Ready in deeds, | Mild unto women. . . | Finn ne’er refused | A kindness to grant: | No king was above him | But the King of the Sun: . . . | Chief of the hosts, | Resourceful in power; | King of all warriors, | No man he refused. | Though small were the room, | Ne’er from his house | Turned one who came.  Good man was Finn, | Good man was he, | None e’er gave gifts | Half such as he.

With such a social ideal of bravery, beauty and brotherliness, one may expect literary refinement in cot and hall. As a fact, all classes of society are represented in Gaelic literature. In the Dean’s Book the Earl of Argyll is the author of several pieces, and entirely native is the lyric poetess Isabel (Countess of Argyll in one heading in the Dean), Ni Mhic Cailein. She seems to have been daughter of the second Earl of Argyll, and wife of the second Earl of Cassilis, who was killed at Prestwick in 1527. Her eldest son became Earl of Cassilis, and her fourth son, Quentin, was last abbot of Crossraguel, according to a note in Maclean Sinclair’s Gaelic Bards. A hidden romance is revealed in her lines on "Love Untold," well rendered by Dr. Sigerson:

Woe to him whose wound is love,
Be the reason what may be;
Who can heart from heart remove?
Sad the fate that follows me.
Love I gave my Love unknown,
Never tongue the tale may speak;
Soon, unhealed, it shall be shown
In fading face and thinning cheek.
He to whom I gave my love
(Ear shall hear not, none shall know),
He has bonds eternal wove
For me,—an hundred-fold of woe.

The Bardic verse of this period embraces poems religious and satiric, with panegyrics and pieces pertaining to the heroic sagas. Several native writers are mentioned, and clans such as the MacGregors, MacDougalls, MacDonalds, Campbells and others flit across the scene.

Apart from these, poems of love and passion are recorded elsewhere. Of these I may mention the Lament by his wife for Gregor MacGregor of Glenstrae. Her father wished to marry her to the Baron of Dull. She eloped with MacGregor, and husband and wife were finally captured and brought to Taymouth. His wife, who was a Campbell, was forced to witness her husband’s execution, by the order of Sir Cohn Campbell, who became Laird of Glenorchy in 1550 and had Gregor of Glenstrae put to death at Kenmore in 1570. Her poem is full of pathos:

On Lammas morn and early
my love and I were merry;
But ere the sun came to mid of day
mine heart was heavy, heavy.

On high-born kith and kindred
my curse for my sorrow’s plight;
By stealth my love was taken,
and unawares by night.

Were twelve there of his kindred
With Gregor at their head,
Mine eyes were not a-shedding of tears
my bairnie friendless made.

On a block of oak they set his head,
they shed his blood with a will;
On the ground they spilt it, and had I a cup
I would off it have quaffed my fill.

Much light is shed on the following period by the Fernaig Manuscript written by Duncan Macrae of Inverinate, born about 1635, and drowned some time after 1693. He has poems by MacCulloch of Park, who flourished about 1600, all of a deeply religious nature; some ascribed to Bishop Carsewell (1520-1572); some by Sir John Stewart of Appin, who flourished towards the end of the sixteenth century; a hymn by Alastair Monro, Strathnaver, who shows some acquaintance with the Apocrypha: he died before 1653. Duncan Macrae’s own works are of a religious and political order: being an ardent Jacobite, he kept others attached to the Stuart cause by his poetic gifts, his refinement and cultured piety. He was styled Donnchadh nam Pios, from his silver plate or "pieces," but drinking songs are conspicuous by their absence from his works. Other poets likewise figure in his collection. His manuscript, now in Glasgow University, has been already printed in Cameron’s Religuiae Celticae, and is dated 1688.

Contemporary with Macrae was Mary Macleod, Mairi Ni’n Alasdair Ruaidh, one of the most finished of artists in any language. For style, vigour and purity of diction, and easy mastery of rhythm I place her first among the moderns, although but few of her poems have reached us. She attained great longevity—one hundred and five years, it is said. Her work ranges about 1660. Rory the Chief died in 1664. It was he who banished her to Mull; yet she composed his elegy. She had been in Sir Roderick Môr Macleod’s Mead-Hall (fionbhrugh): this chief died in 1626. There she heard Patrick Mór Macrimmon’s piping. The chief’s younger sons were knighted by Charles II. on the field of Worcester (1651): one of these was Sir Norman Macleod of Bernera, who died in 1705, aged about 90. Mary survived Sir Norman, and if about 90 when she composed his elegy, it is possible that she survived until about 1720. Her floreat is rather about 1615-1720, and not 1588-1693 as usually assigned her. Dressed in tartan tonnag fastened with silver brooch, and carrying a silver-headed cane and snuff-horn, she was a picturesque figure to whom it was natural to break with some of the older metrical conventions. She is distinctly conscious of the descent of the chiefs of Clan Leod from the Vikings; she cites names such as Ollaghair (Holger), Ochraidh, Boirbhe (Bergen), and has a natural pride in the kings that conquered Man. In one stanza she expressly speaks of her clan as sprung

Of Norsemen bold
Your doughty mould,
Your line of old
From Magnus.

In her description of the hall of Macleod she depicts social life at a Highland chieftain’s abode: the big house full of mirth and merriment, with young men and maidens, with bands of poets and harpers making melody. Wine was handed to the guests in cups of horn, while "Sir Norman of the banners," unsurpassed for manly form, was in the estimation of all accorded the foremost place for repartee and ready wit. His delight was the mountains, with his stag-hounds and gun, pursuing the deer. His hand was steady in aim as he let the arrow fly from his smooth and polished bow. The bow-string of unfailing elasticity is minutely and fondly pictured; both the barb of its point and its shaft take effect when sped by Sir Norman’s hand. On returning from the chase lordly was his bearing and converse with his friends. He had the respect of his equals: he was no niggard, but true to his noble breeding from youth. Chess was in his Hall and the music of the harp, as was befitting a true Macleod. The intercourse was varied by recitals of the Fingalian lays and tales, and with narratives of adventures in pursuing the stags. Every phase of life appeals to her rare genius, which is at home equally in the arts of war and of peace.

lain Lom (c. 1620-1710) is a poet of the first rank in the political history of Alba. Intellect, feeling, incisive phrase, wide and varied information, all combine with the rich diction of his native Lochaber to make his poems a treasure. The chiefs held full sway: he shows them as they lived, their glories in war and peace. Chiefs with their galleys under sail, or surrounded with crouthe and harp and ladies fair, the strife of bards far on into the night, all pass before our mental eye; the pipes are in the distance; the chess-board and the dice before us; wine and brandy and beôir refresh the guests; while wax candles light up the hail. Higher things are there as at Duntulm: when the harpers finished, the Bible was read at Macdonald of Sleat’s place, with true faith and discernment, as the Son of God ordained, while the teaching of the clergy was embraced with peace.

The epithet lom i.e. "bare," the poet had owing to his having lacked hair: so tradition. He was also styled lain Manntach, as he had a lisp. A curious account says that his mother was a MacCalman, and his father a Campbell, who fled his country for having killed a tithe-collector, another Campbell, and sought refuge ere the poet was born with the MacDonnell of Keppoch, with whom he entered into "blood brotherhood." "The more Campbells," said Keppoch, "you kill, the better." This is an Argyll tradition. The poet at any rate grew up more MacDonald than any contemporary of his clan; what he thought of the others is plain from his reply to the Marquis of Argyll at Inveraray. "Have you ever," inquired Mac Cailen, "seen so many blackcocks together?" The Earl was pointing to the trophies of the chase. "Yes," said the Bard. "Where?" said Argyll. "At Inverlochy." "Ah! lain," said the Marquis, "will you ever cease gnawing at the Campbells!" "I am only sorry I cannot swallow them," was the poet’s answer. It was but fitting that over his grave in Tom Aingil, Lochaber, should be pronounced the words:

The Lion his pride and the Boar his scorn
Who is there a.lying neath the sod forlorn.

‘Na shineadh an sud fo na pluic
Tha gaol an leàmhainn is fuath an tuirc!

The allusion is to the crests of Clan Donald and of Clan Campbell.

He sings of his time. The Battles of Inverlochy, of Auldearn, of Killiecrankie, are specially commemorated. Of more than poetic interest is Mort Na Ceapaich (Sept. 1663), for he brought the doers of that awful crime to their deserved doom. The circumstances are detailed by Master James Fraser, author of the Chronicle of the Frasers. The minister tells that the contriver at last died from a gangrene which began in the finger which subscribed the paper paction by which Alasdair Ruadh Mac Dhughaili of Ionarlàire was to kill the two boys, and then Keppoch should fall to the boys’ uncle, the Tutor of Keppoch, while Alasdair Ruadli was to have Inverlair for himself. The Wardlaw Chronicler says: "It (the finger) became cancrous and runs over his body and kills him: the just judgement and finger of God is here. I saw this paper and contract: I knew most of these men: the circumstances were tedious to set down: ex ungue leonem."

Only a great character with a strong will and natural sense of justice could have uttered this moving poem. For lack of space I cannot give it here: at the close the poet implores the grace of God and alludes to the human estate as under a curse: "‘Tis a pity that one-third of us have been reared: in nature unkind as the Turk, save that we are not infidels." He implores: "Oh! Christ, Son of Mary, the five wounds who hast borne, behold! the murderers deserving with pains to be torn: if vengeance availeth Thy Kingdom to spread, to the heart of God’s heaven I pray: Be blood on their head !"

A man he was who was true to friends. A Royalist and Jacobite, he was a friend and admirer of Montrose, on whom he has an elegy (1650), which I may render literally:

"As I fare by the strath of Drum Uachdar, little is my joy at this hour; the day hath changed to gloom; nor is it of good that I am sore depressed:

"Though wae’s me and though woful that my good clansman (i.e. Alasdair macCholla, son of Coll Ciotach) is a-missing, not easier for me this blow that hath befallen our poor country:

"In addition to her just calp, Alba is being put under tribute and tax by foreigners without truth-of-honour,—that is my sore loss:

"The Sassenachs are oppressing us, despoiling us, killing us. Our Father’s wrath is upon us, forgotten of Him and poor are we: As Israel’s clans in bondage to the king of Egypt, in like plight are we; they shoot us off, merely saying ‘begone’:

"Our newly crowned king, ere scarce he had entered on his privileges, is by wretched vagabonds being despoiled without guard, court or equipage, being banished from his place, and none of his friends are with him,—like unto a ship upon the salt sea-wave,—no rudder, no oar, no port:

"I go not to Dunedin since the blood of the Graham has been spilled ;—crucified on the cross is ‘the lion’ faithful and true:

"The true noble-man was he, not sprung of blood ignoble; rarely high the hue in his cheek what time he drew up for the fray:

"Teeth, chalk-white, finely set; nobly chiselled brow that knew no frown; though oft the vision of thee me waketh, to-night to others I shall not make it known:

"Son of Neil! from solitary Assynt had I hold of thee in my net, my word would go out against thee, and from the cross I would not shield thee."

All his poems reflect contemporary events: worthy of note are the "Elegy on Sir James of Sleat" (1678); the "Song to the Marquis of Athole," i.e. the Marquis of Tullibardine of 1676; the poem "Against the Union" (1707), where there is a scathing tirade against those nobles "who are robbing us of the crown for lucre’s sake to our very face"; but he gives unstinted praise to the Duke of Athole, who evidently fulfilled the poet’s ideals. It is evident that a minute knowledge of lain Lom is most helpful in getting a true picture of the age of the chiefs before Culloden. A training in them is no mean introduction to the Scottish history of the time. We must credit him with personal knowledge of the events at Killiecrankie: he laments that Dundee fell at the beginning of the fray (an tsis gleachd), and he tells how, and speaks of Claverhouse’s white fair body being exposed without raiment. King William he compares to Absalom. He saw the wheel of Fortune turn round in favour of the Stuarts, and lived to see yet another round: when he was born James VI. and I. was on the throne; when he died George I. was king.

Robert Kirk (cira 1641-1692) must ever retain his unique distinction, so tersely inscribed on his tombstone: Linguae Hiberniae Lumen. He made Holy Writ accessible to the Scottish Gael in their own language. Already in 1659 the Synod of Argyll had published a Gaelic metrical version of the first fifty Psalms: Robert Kirk followed with a rendering of the whole psalter, published in 1684 at Edinburgh while Kirk was minister at Balquidder (Balbhuidier, the spelling on the title-page), and dedicated to Lord John Murray, "Marquess of Athole, Earl of Tullibardin." He tells us it is "for assisting of our sagacious Scottish-Irish people in their public or private devotions, specially seeing experience tells us that this their maternal tongue, either in Ireland or Scotland, is not easily abolisht by the contiguity and commixture of another language: which no doubt is well understood by the present worthy and laborious translators of the Holy Bible in Irish." Bedell’s Old Testament in Irish was published in London in 1685, the Irish version of the New Testament having been printed in 1603. In 1690 Kirk published a version in Roman letter for use in the Highlands, with a glossary explaining the less usual words; of Kirk’s version of O’Donnell’s New Testament there was a choice reprint at Glasgow in 1754. Kirk’s work The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, composed when he was minister of Aberfoyle (1691), has kept his name familiar to many in the south. His was a very interesting mind, as is further evidenced by his Occasional Thoughts and Meditations, dated Balquidder, 1676. In this unique manuscript of my own there is an Elegy by Kirk ON MY LADY PERTHE HER DEATH 1675. The first and last three stanzas are:

You pow’rs transcendent who do guide this ball
By secret engynes, where no mortals crawl
You wisely give us honey mixt with gall.

Nay, sorry souls, we dote upon our chain:
Are loath to set, tho’ sure to rise with gain,
To shine in hemispheres more radiant to remain.

Of ignorance our worlds but dungeons are
And sinks of vice; ‘tis best be gone by far,
In Love we’re but remov’d to end our war.

You Fatal Ladies, tho’, that spin our Life
I do protest; I think your keen-edg’d knife
Shall ne’re smite more such Lady or such wife.

Sile na Ceapaich, Sheila of Keppoch (Juliet Macdonald as sometimes Englished), was a poetess contemporary with lain Lom in the latter half of his career, and survived him by many years. Her interest in religion is manifest from a versifled account of the Gospel events, beginning "Hail! 0 Mary Virgin, than the sun thy Son is brighter, the Son who when born was co-equal in age with the Father, and heir of Heaven to protect us." It contains some good words, such as targanach, i.e. "the one prophesied about," nor is it yet forgotten.

Lachlan Mackinnon (Lachunn mac Thearlaich Oig), the poet and harper, who died about 1734, was a favourite in her father’s family and later in her own. She speaks of his accompanying her on the harp. In an elegy to him beginning, "O music of harp fare thee well for ever," she says: "When thine harp thou wouldst take and wouldst attune it beside me, not easily would a churl understand thy playing or my singing." She was thoroughly Jacobite in feeling, and speaks of King George as the king of the swine and of the Whigs (‘Se righ na muice s na Cuigse righ Deòrsa).

The Bard-Singer Murdoch Matheson (an t-aosdana Mac Mhathghamhna) was born towards the end of the seventeenth century, and had free lands from Seaforth in Lochalsh. He was contemporary with Donald Murchison, who, in 1721, fought at Ath nam Mullach against the Forfeited Estates’ factors, and kept the Seaforth Estates from passing to the Crown. He is said to have been reared in the house of Alexander Macrae of Conchra (circa 1680), and had a poetical turn from youth, which early won for him the approval of Lachlan Mackinnon. The best account of him we owe to the late Captain Matheson of Dornie. Matheson was bard to the Seaforth who, after the Rising of 1715, had to flee to France and Spain. After the Battle of Glensheil Seaforth fled to Lewis, and it was then that Matheson composed "The Northern Earl" (an t-Iarla Tuathach), which was imitated by Sir Walter Scott in his "Farewell to Mackenzie, High Chief of Kintail." On the restoration of Seaforth in 1726, Matheson lived at Fernaig, and composed many religious pieces. He well earned the encomium so early bestowed on him by Lachlan Mackinnon: "Math an gille, Math an Sloinneadh, Math a phass, Faodaidh e’n còrn a sguabadh as"="the lad has qualities, good is his clan, on the way to genius, he may drink like a man !"

Roderick Morison, the Blind Harper (1656- ), was a poet as well as musician. He visited Ireland for instruction on his instrument, and on his return went to the Court at Holyrood, where the Scottish nobility were met. John Breae Macleod of Harris engaged him as harper. Fondly attached to his patron, he, at his death, composed a touching elegy, "Creach nan Ciadan." His "Oran Mór Mhie Leòid," of great beauty, was a favourite with Sir Alexander Mackenzie of Gairloch, who used to have it sung to him every Christmas night.

Another musician and poet, blind like his father, was John Mackay (1666-1754), hereditary family piper to the Lairds of Gairloch. In an exquisite pastoral he expresses a poet’s sympathy with Coire an Easain, a beautiful spot once the haunt of Lord Reay, who is now dead. Though blind, the poet sees as with a painter’s eye, and one well acquainted with the place assures me that the minute and graphic touches are life-like. Touch almost made up for loss of sight in his case.

With Alexander MacDonald, the Tyrtaeus of the ‘45, the poetry of the age of the chiefs culminates. A man of high and varied gifts, he takes a foremost place among the bards. He is the Jacobite poet par excellence. Of martial feeling, he is master of objective descriptive language, and does not hesitate to use numerous loan words amid a rich native vocabulary. We owe him the poem on "Clanranald’s Galley," the most powerful of sea-poems in any language.’ His "Sugar Brook" has a rare feeling for nature; his "Praise of Morag" is entrancing. So strong were his Jacobite feelings shown in his works that the first edition of his poems was burned at the Market Cross at Edinburgh (1751). He wrote English well also. We owe him the first Gaelic vocabulary. He is altogether matchless in power, like a piece of Nature; in him all the elements were mixed. He can be exquisitely tender, as in his "Elegy to a Pet Dove," well rendered by Dr. Stewart.

Mournful my tale to tell,
Though others heed not my sigh:
My gentle, my beautiful pet dove dead—
Must the callow twins too die!
Alas! for the death of the gentlest dove
That ever in woodland coo’d;
Killed by a dog whose properer foe
Were the otter that fights and dies so slow
In his cairny solitude.

Of all the birds that cleave the air,
Buoyant on rapid wing,
I mourn thee most, my pet dove fair—
Dear, darling thing!
Noah loved thee well, my dove, full well,
When a guilty world was drowned;
‘With thy message of peace thou camest to tell
Of solid ground;
He knew the truth as the waters fell
Slowly around.

The raven and dove good Noah sent
Far over the heaving flood.
The raven wist not the way he went,
Nor back returned for his strength was spent
In the watery solitude;
But cleaving the air with rapid wing,
The dove returned and back did bring
His tale of the flood subdued.

At first she found no spot whereon
To rest from weary flight,
And on she flew, and on and on,
Till now at length she gazed upon
The mountain tops in sight;
And the dove returned with her letter—a leaf,
(Of mickle meaning, I trow, tho’ brief)
Which Noah read with delight.

Not easy to rob thy nest, thou dove,
By cunning or strength of men;
On a shelf of the beetling crag above
Was thy castle of strength, thy home of love,
Who dare come near thee then!
Harmless and gentle ever wert thou,
Dear, darling dove!
In the ear of thy mate, with a coo and a bow,
Still whispering love!

Not in silver or gold didet thou delight,
Nor of luxuries ever didst dream;
Pulse and corn was thy sober bite—
Thy drink was the purling stream!
Never, dear dove, didst need to buy
Linen or silk attire;
Nor the braided cloth, nor raiment fine
Didst thou require.
Thy coat, dress’d neat with thine own sweet bill
Was of feathers bright green and blue,
And closely fitting, impervious still
To rain or dew.

No creed or paternoster thou
Didst sing or say;
And yet thy soul is in bliss, I trow,
Be’t where it may!
That now withouten coffin or shroud
In thy little grave thou dost lie,
Makes me not sad; but 0! I’m wae
At the sad death thou didst die.

A younger contemporary is Duncan Ban Macintyre (1724-1812). His poems were written by the Rev. Donald Macnicol of Lismore, a divine and scholar of high distinction to whom we owe the preservation of much of the Gaelic literature of his day. Like Duncan Ban, he was a native of Glenorchy. The poet’s "Praise of Ben Dorain," well if not always literally interpreted by Blackie, is inimitable in the poetry of the chase, while his love-song to Main Bhàn Og is really unsurpassed as a love-created revelation of beauty. He is a true nature-poet: his wealth of appropriate epithet in describing the bens and the corries, and his minute knowledge of plants and grasses and flowers reveal a master-artist revelling in the external life around him, which he depicts with a luxuriance which rivals the richness of early Celtic Art. The inner life is in the background. He breaks his reserve at least once in late life, where he exclaims:

If life were pure, since die we must,
‘Twere no hardship dust to dust.
(Nam biodh am bàs ‘na bhàs glan
Cha bu chàs talamh air thalamh.)

A banquet was given Duncan Ban by the Gaels of Edinburgh after he had composed his "Farewell to the Bens." The Provost was prevented from coming on account of illness in his family, whereupon the aged poet was put in the chair. It is said that his rhymed grace for that occasion was:

A Thi! treòraich sinn gu Buachaill Eite
sneachda suas gu’r sléisdean
S na h-uile Gall ann an Dún-Eidionn
a’s nar déigh ‘s iad cas-ruisgte!

Mac Codrum (1710-1796) and Rob Donn (1714-1778) are two great contemporaries. With Dugald Buchanan (1716-1768) a change was soon at work in Highland poetry; with him the battles of the inner life were more than those of chiefs. He is the poet of the sublime Creation and in Providence: his "Greatness of God," seems to show the influence of Isaac Watts. Than Buchanan no greater blessing was bestowed on the Highlands of his day. When the poet superintended Stewart’s translation of the New Testament (1767) through the press, another era in Highland life and literature had begun. All in all, the literature of the Highlands, of which, for want of space, I have mentioned but a few exponents, forms a very important part of the history of life and letters in Scotland.


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