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 Carsewells Gaelic translation of Knoxs 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 ODaly (d. 1244);
Muiredhach Albannach (1224); Tadhg Og OHiggin (d. 1448); and others.
Certain of the Lays belong to the Cuchulainn Cycle; the greater number to
the FinnOssianic. 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
Hair darker than the ravens crest,
And softer than the streaming foam,
Whiter than snow Fraochs waist.
More fringed than meadow-sweet
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 Deans 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 mens trust, |
Daring in fight, | Ready in deeds, | Mild unto women. . . | Finn neer
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, | Neer from
his house | Turned one who came. Good man was Finn, | Good man was he, |
None eer 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 Deans 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 Sinclairs 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 husbands 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 sorrows 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
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 Macraes 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
Camerons Religuiae Celticae, and is dated 1688.
Contemporary with Macrae was Mary
Macleod, Mairi Nin 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 longevityone 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 Macleods Mead-Hall (fionbhrugh): this
chief died in 1626. There she heard Patrick Mór Macrimmons piping. The
chiefs 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
In her description of the hall of
Macleod she depicts social life at a Highland chieftains 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 Normans 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
Sleats 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 poets 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
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
Gods 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 waes 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
"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 Fathers wrath is upon us, forgotten of Him
and poor are we: As Israels 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 lucres sake to
our very face"; but he gives unstinted praise to the Duke of Athole, who
evidently fulfilled the poets 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 Claverhouses 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
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."
Bedells 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 Kirks version of ODonnells
New Testament there was a choice reprint at Glasgow in 1754. Kirks 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 powrs 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 were but removd to end our war.
You Fatal Ladies, tho, that
spin our Life
I do protest; I think your keen-edgd knife
Shall nere 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 fathers 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 en 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 poets
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 painters
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
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 "Clanranalds
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 cood;
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
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 lettera 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
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, dressd 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,
Bet where it may!
That now withouten coffin or shroud
In thy little grave thou dost lie,
Makes me not sad; but 0! Im 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 poets "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
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
sneachda suas gur sléisdean
S na h-uile Gall ann an Dún-Eidionn
as nar déigh s iad cas-ruisgte!