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Claims of Ireland


The literature of the Highlands, although not extensive, is varied, and has excited not a little interest in the world of letters. The existing remains are of various ages, carrying us back, in the estimation of some writers, to the second century, while contributions are making to it still, and are likely to be made for several generations.

It has often been said that the literature of the Celts of Ireland was much more extensive than that of the Celts of Scotland - that the former were in fact a more literary people - that the ecclesiastics, and medical men, and historians (senachies) of Scotland had less culture than those of the sister island, and that they must be held thus to have been a stage behind them in civilisation and progress. Judging by the remains which exist, there seems to be considerable ground for such a conclusion. Scotland can produce nothing like the MS. collections in possession of Trinity College Dublin, or the Royal Irish Academy. There are numerous fragments of considerable value in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, and in the hands of private parties throughout Scotland, but there is nothing to compare with the Book of Lecan, Leabhar na h-uidre, and the other remains of the ancient literary culture of Ireland, which exist among the collections now brought together in Dublin; nor with such remains of what is called Irish scholarship as are to be found in Milan, Brussels, and other places on the continent of Europe.

At the same time there is room for questioning how far the claims of Ireland to the whole of that literature are good. Irish scholars are not backward in pressing the claims of their own country to everything of any interest that may be called Celtic. If we acquiesce in this claim, Scotland will be left without a shred of aught which she can call her own in the way of Celtic literature; and there is a class of Scottish scholars who, somewhat more generous than discriminating, have been disposed to acquiesce but too readily in those claims.

We have our doubts as to Ireland having furnished Scotland with its Gaelic population, and we have still stronger doubts as to Ireland having been the source of all the Celtic literature which she claims. A certain class of writers are at once prepared to allow that the Bobbio MSS. and those other continental Gaelic Mss. of which Zeuss has made such admirable use in his Grammatica Celtica, are all Irish, and they are taken as illustrative alike of the zeal and culture of the early Irish Church. And yet there is no evidence of such being the case. The language certainly is not Irish, nor are the names of such of the writers as are usually associated with the writings. Columbanus, the founder of the Bobbio Institution, may have been an Irishman, but he may have been a Scotchman. He may have gone from Durrow, but he may have gone from Iona. The latter was no less famous than the former, and had a staff of men quite as remarkable. We have authentic information regarding its ancient history. It sent out Aidan to Northumberland, and numerous successors after him, and there is much presumptive evidence that many of the early missionaries took their departure from Scotland, and carried with them their Scottish literature to the Continent of Europe. And the language of the writers is no evidence to the contrary. In so far as the Gaelic was written at this early period, the dialect used was common to Ireland and Scotland. To say that a work is Irish because written in what is called the Irish dialect is absurd. There was no such thing as an Irish dialect. The written language of the whole Gaelic race was long the same throughout, and it would have been impossible for any man to have said to which of the sections into which that race was divided any piece of writing belonged. This has long been evident to men who have made a study of the question, but recent relics of Scottish Gaelic which have come to light, and have been published, put the matter beyond any doubt. Mr. Whitley Stokes, than whom there is no better authority, has said of a passage in the "Book of Deer" that the language of it is identical with that of the MSS. which forms the basis of the learned grammar of Zeuss: and there can be not doubt that the "Book of Deer" is of Scottish authorship. It is difficult to convince Irish scholars of this, but it is no less true on that account. Indeed, what is called the Irish dialect has been employed for literary purposes in Scotland down to a recent period, the first book in the vernacular of the Scottish Highlands having been printed so lately as the middle of the last century. And it is important to observe that this literary dialect, said to be Irish, is nearly as far apart from the ordinary Gaelic vernacular of Ireland as it is from that of Scotland.

But besides this possibility of having writings that are really Scottish counted as Irish from their being written in the same dialect, the Gaelic literature of Scotland has suffered from other causes. Among these were the changes in the ecclesiastical condition of the country which took place from time to time. First of all there was the change which took place under the government of Malcolm III. (Ceannmor) and his sons, which led to the downfall of the ancient Scottish Church, and the supplanting of it by the Roman Hierarchy. Any literature existing in the 12th century would have been of the older church, and would have little interest for the institution which took its place. That there was such a literature is obvious from the "Book of Deer", and that it existed among all the institutions of a like kind in Scotland is a fair and reasonable inference from the existence and character of that book. Why this is the only fragment of such a literature remaining is a question of much interest, which may perhaps be solved by the fact that the clergy of the later church could have felt little interest in preserving the memorials of a period which they must have been glad to have seen passed away. Then the Scottish reformation and the rise of the Protestant Church, however favourable to literature, would not have been favourable to the preservation of such literature. The old receptacles of such writings were broken up, and their contents probably destroyed or dispersed, as associated with what was now felt to be a superstitious worship. There is reason to believe that the Kilbride collection of MSS. now in the Advocates' Library, and obtained from the family of Maclachlan of Kilbride, was to some extent a portion of the old library of Iona, one of the last Abbots of which was a Ferquhard M'Lachlan.