When the Highland Society of Scotland were
engaged in preparing their report on the poems of Ossian, they thought it important to
search with all possible diligence after such sources of ancient Gaelic poetry as might
have been open to Macpherson, and especially for such written remains as might still be
found in the country. Among others they applied to the Highland Society of London, whose
secretary at the time, Mr. John Mackenzie, was an enthusiastic Highlander, and an
excellent Gaelic scholar. The Society furnished several interesting manuscripts which they
had succeeded in collecting, and among these an ancient paper book which has since been
called the Book of the Dean of Lismore. This book, which now lies in the library of
the Faculty of Advocates, Edinburgh, is a small quarto very much defaced, of about seven
inches square, and one inch and a quarter in thickness. It is bound in a piece of coarse
sheepskin, and seems to have been much tossed about. The manuscript is written in what may
be called phonetic Gaelic, the words being spelled on the same principle as the Welsh and
Manx, although the application of the principle is very different. "Athair," fatehr,
is "Ayr"; "Saor", free is "Seyr"; "Fhuair",
found, is "Hoar"; "leodhas", Lewis, is
"Looyss"; "iuchair", a key, is "ewthir";
"gràdh", love, is "Zrau". This principle of phonetic spelling,
with a partial admission of the Irish eclipsis and the Irish dot in aspiration,
distinguishes the whole manuscript, and has made it very difficult to interpret. The
letter used is the English letter of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the MS. was
transcribed by the late Mr Ewan M'Lachlan of Aberdeen, an admirable Gaelic scholar. But no
attempt was made to transfer its contents into modern Gaelic, or to interpret them, save
in the case of a few fragments which were transferred and interpreted by Dr Smith for the
Highland Society. Recently, however, the whole manuscript, with few exceptions, has been
transcribed, presented in a modern Gaelic dress, translated and annotated, by the writer;
and a historical introduction and additional notes have been furnished by Dr W.F. Skene.
The volume is full of interest, as presenting a view of the native
literature of the Highlands in the 15th and 16th centuries, while it contains productions
of a much earlier age. The fragments which it contains are both Scottish and Irish,
showing how familiar the bardic schools were with the production of both countries. Much
of the contents consists of fragments of what is usually called Ossianic poetry -
compositions by Ossian, by Fergus Filidh his brother, by Conall MacEdirsceoil, by Caoilte
M'Ronan, and by poets of a later age, who imitated these ancient bards, such as Allan
MacRorie, Gilliecallum Mac an Olla, and others. The collection bears on one of its pages
the name "Jacobus M'Gregor decanus Lismorensis," James M'Gregor, Dean of
Lismore, and it has been conjectured from this fact and the resemblance of the writing
in the signature to that of the body of the manuscript, that this was the compiler of the
work. That the manuscript was the work of a M'Gregor is pretty evident. It contains a
series of obits of important men, most of them chiefs and other men of note of the clan
Gregor, and there are among the poetical pieces of a date later than the Ossianic,
numerous songs in praise of that clan. It seems, however, that M'Gregor had a brother
called Dougal, who designates himself daoroglach, or "apprentice," who
had some share in making the compilation. These M'Gregors belonged to Fortingall in
Perthshire, although James held office in the diocese of Argyll. He was vicar of the
parish of Fortingall, and it is presumed usually resided there.
In giving specimens from M'Gregor's collection, it may be
desirable to treat the whole of what is called the Ossianic poetry. It is in this
collection that we find the earliest written specimens of it, and although Macpherson's
Ossian did not appear for two centuries later, it seems better to group the whole together
in this portion of our notice. The word "ursgeul" was applied by the Highlanders
to these poetical tales. This word has been translated "a new tale", as
if the ùr here meant "new" in contradistinction to older tales. But the word
ùr meant "noble" or "great", as well as "new", and the word
as so used must be understood as meaning a "noble tale" in
contradistinction to the sgeulachd, or other tale of less note. From what source
M'Gregor derived his materials is not said, but the probability is that he was indebted
both to manuscripts and to oral tradition for them. We shall here give a specimen of the
Dean's collection as it appears in the original, with a version in regular Gaelic
spelling, and an English translation. It is the poem usually called "Bàs
Dhiarmaid", or The Death of Diarmad.
Glennschee in glenn so rame heive
A binn feig agus lon
Menik redeis in nane
Ar on trath so in dey agon
A glen so fa wenn Zwlbin zwrm
Is haald tulchi fa zran
Ner wanew a roythi gi dark
In dey helga o inn na vane
Estith beg ma zalew leith
A chuddycht cheive so woym
Er wenn Zulbin is er inn fail
Is er M'ezoynn skayl troyg
Gur lai finn fa troyg in shelga
Er V'ezwn is derk lei
Zwall di wenn Zwlbin di helga
In turkgi nach fadin erm zei
Lai M'ezwnn narm ay
Da bay gin dorchirre in tork
Gillir royth ba zoill finn
Is sche assne rin do locht
Er fa harlow a zail
M'ozunn graw nin sgoll
Ach so in skayll fa tursych mnaan
Gavr less di layve an tork
Zingywal di lach ni wane
Da gurri ea assi gnok
In schenn tork schee bi garv
Di vag ballerych na helve mok
Soeyth finn is derk dreach
Fa wenn zwlbin zlass in telga
Di fre dinnit less in tork
Mor in tolga a rin a shelga
Di clastich cozar ni wane
Nor si narm teach fa a cann
Ersi in a vest o swoyn
Is glossis woyth er a glenn
Curris ri faggin nin leich
In shen tork schee er freich borb
Bi geyr no ganyth sleygh
Bi traneiseygh na gath bolga
M'ozwnn ni narm geyr
Frager less in na vest olk
Wa teive reyll trom navynyth gay
Currir sleygh in dayl in turk
Brissir in cran less fa thre
Si chran fa reir er in mwk
In sleygh o wasi waryerka vlaye
rait less nochchar hay na corp
Targir in tan lann o troyle
Di chossin mor loye in narm
Marviss M'ozunn fest
Di hanyth feyn de hess slane
Tuttis sprocht er Inn ne wane
Is soyis sea si gnok
Makozunn nar dult dayve
Olk less a hecht slane o tork
Er weith zoyth faddi no host
A durt gar wolga ri ray
Tothiss a zermit o hocht
Ga maid try sin tork so id taa
Char zult ay a chonyth finn
Olk leinn gin a heacht da hygh
Toissi tork er a zrum
M'ozunn nach trome trygh
Toiss na ye reiss
A zermit gi meine a torc
Fa lattis troygh ya chinn
A zil nin narm rim gort
Ymbeis bi hurrus goye
Agus toissi zayve in tork
Gunne i friech neive garve
Boonn in leich bi zarg in drod
Tuttis in sin er in rein
M'O'Zwne nar eyve fealle
Na la di heive in turk
Ach sen ayd zut gi dorve
A la schai in swn fa creay
M'O'Zwne keawe in gleacht
Invakane fullich ni wane
Sin tulli so chayne fa art
Saywic swlzorme essroye
Far la berrit boye gi ayr
In dey a horchirt la tork
Fa hulchin a chnokso a taa
Dermit M'O'Zwne oyill
Huttom tra ead nin noor
Bi gil a wrai no grane
Bu derk a wail no blai k...
Fa boe innis a alt
Fadda rosk barglan fa lesga
Gurme agus glassi na hwle
Maissi is cassi gowl ni gleacht
Binnis is grinnis na zloyr
Gil no zoid varzerk vlaa
Mayd agis evycht sin leich
Seng is er no kness bayn
Coythtyc is maaltor ban
M'O'Zwne bi vor boye
In turri char hog swle
O chorreich wr er a zroy
Immin deit eyde is each
fer in neygin creach nar charre
Gilli a bar gasga is seith
Ach troyg mir a teich so glenn
A H-ÙGHDAIR SO AILEAN
Gleannsith an gleann so ri'm
'S am binn feidh agus loin,
Is minig a rachas an Fheinn
Air an t-srath so an deigh an con.
An gleann so fa Bheinn Ghulbainn ghuirm,
Is ailllidh tulcha fo'n ghréin,
Na sruthana a ruith gu dearg,
An deigh shealg o Fhionn na Feinn.
Eisdibh beag mar dh'fhalbh laoch,
A chuideachd chaoimh so uam,
Air Bheinn Ghulbainn 'us air Fionn fial,
'Us air M'O'Dhuinn, sgeul truagh:
Gur le Fionn fa truagh an t-sealg
Air Mhac O'Dhuinn a's deirge lith,
Dhol do Bheinn Ghulbainn do shealg
An tuirc nach faodainn airm dhith.
Le Mac O'Dhuinn an airm aigh,
Do'm b'e gu'n torchradh an torc,
Geillear roimhe, bu dh'fhoill Fhinn,
Is e esan a rinn do lochd.
Fear fa tharladh an gaol,
Mac O'Dhuinn gràdh nan sgoil,
Ach so an sgeul fa tursach mnathan,
Gabhar leis do laimh an torc.
Diongal do laoch na Feinn
Do chuireadh e as a chnoc
An seann torc Sithe bu ghairbhe,
Do fhac ballardaich na h-alla-muic.
Suidhidh Fionn is deirge dreach,
Fa Bheinn Ghulbainn ghlais an t-seilg
Do frith dh'imich leis an torc,
Mòr an t-olc a rinn a shealg.
Ri clàisdeachd co-ghair na Feinn
'N uair 's an arm a teachd fa'ceann
Eireas a bheisd o shuain,
'Us gluaiseas uath' air a ghleann.
Cuireas ri fàgail nan laoch,
An seann torc 'us e air friodh borb.
Bu gheire no gath nan sleagh.
Bu treine a shaigh no gath bolga,
Mac O'Dhuinn nan arm geur,
Freagras leis a'bheisd olc,
O'thaobh thriall trom, nimhneach, gath,
Cuirear sleagh an dail an tuirc.
Brisear a crann leis fa thri,
Is i a crann fa rèir air a'mhuc
An t-sleagh o bhos bhar-dhearg, bhlàth,
Raitleis noch char e' na corp.
Tairngear an tan lann o' truaill,
Do choisinn mòr luaidh an arm,
Marbhas Mac O'Dhuinn a' bheisd,
Do thainig e féin as slàn.
Tuiteas sprochd air Fionn na Feinn,
'Us suidheas e 's a chnoc,
Mac O' Dhuinn nach do dhiult daimb
Olc’ leis a thighinn slàn o'n torc.
Air bhith dha fada 'n a thosd,
A dubhairt, ged a b' olc ri ràdh,
Tomhais, a Dhiarmaid o' shoc,
Cia meud troidh 's an torc a ta.
Char dhiult e athchuinge Fhinn,
Olc leinn gun e theachd d'a thigh.
Tomhaisidh an torc air a dhruim.
Mac O'Dhuinn nach trom troidh.
Tomhas 'n a aghaidh a rìs,
A Dhiarmaid gu mion an torc;
Fa leat is truagh dha chinn,
A ghille nan arm roinn ghoirt.
Imicheas, bu thurus goimh,
Agus tomhaisidh dhoibh an torc.
Guinidh a fhriogh nimh, garbh
Bonn an laoich bu gharbh an trod
Tuiteas an sin air an raon,
Mac O'Dhuinn nior aoibh feall;
'N a luidhe do thaobh an tuirc,
Ach sin e dhuit gu doirbh.
A ta se an sin fa chreuchd
Mac O'Dhuinn caomh an gleachd;
Aon mhacan fulangach nam Fiann
'S an tulach so chitheam fa fheart.
Seabhag sùilghorm Easruaidh,
Fear le'm beireadh buaidh gach àir,
An deigh a thorchairt le torc
Fa thulchain a chnuic co a ta.
Diarmad Mac D'Dhuinn aibheil,
A thuiteam troimh eud; mo nuar !
Bu ghile a bhràgh'd no grian,
Bu dheirge a bheul no blàth caora.
Fa buidhe innis a fhalt,
Fada rosg barghlan fa liosg,
Guirme agus glaise 'n a shùil,
Maise 'us caise cùl nan cleachd.
Binneas 'us grinneas 'n a ghlòir,
Gile 'n a dhoid bhar-dhearg bhlàth,
Meud agus éifeachd 's an loach
Seang 'us saor 'n a chneas bàn.
Cothaich 'us mealltair bhan,
Mac O'Dhuinn bu mhòr buaidh,
'S an t-suiridh cha thog sùil,
O chuireadh ùir air a ghruaidh.
Immirdich fhaoghaid 'us each,
Fear an éigin chreach nar char,
Gille b'fhearr gaisge 'us sitheadh,
Ach is truagh mar a theich 's a ghleann.
AUTHOR OF THIS IS ALLAN M'RORIE
Glenshee the vale that close beside me lies
Where sweetest sounds are heard of deer and elk,
And where the Feinn did oft pursue the chase
Following their hounds along the lengthening vale.
Below the great Ben Gulbin's grassy height,
Of fairest knolls that lie beneath the sun
The valley winds. It's streams did oft run red,
After a hunt by Finn and by the Feinn.
Listen now while I detail the loss
Of one a hero in this gentle band;
'Tis of Ben Gulbin and of generous Finn
When Mac O'Duine, in truth a piteous tale.
A mournful hunt indeed it was for Finn
When Mac O'Duine, he of the ruddiest hue,
Up to Ben Gulbin went, resolved to hunt
The boar, whom arms had never yet subdued.
Though Mac O'Duine of brightest burnished arms,
Did bravely slay the fierce, and furious boar,
Yet Finn's deceit did him induce to yield,
And this it was that did his grievous hurt.
Who among men was so belov'd as he ?
Brave Mac O'Duine, beloved of the schools;
Women all mourn this sad and piteous tale
Of him who firmly grasped the murderous spear.
Then bravely did the hero of the Feinn
Rouse from his cover in the mountain side
The great old boar, him so well known in Shee,
The greatest in the wild boar's haunt e'er seen.
Finn sat him down, the man of ruddiest hue,
Beneath Ben Gulbin's soft and grassy side;
For swift the boar now coursed along the heath;
Great was the ill came of that dreadful hunt.
'Twas when he heard the Feinn's loud ringing shout,
And saw approach the glittering of their arms,
The monster wakened from his heavy sleep
And stately moved before them down the vale.
First, to distance them he makes attempt
The great old boar, his bristles stiff on end,
These bristles sharper than a pointed spear,
Their point more piercing than the quiver's shaft.
The Mac O'Duine, with arms well pointed too,
Answers the horrid beast with ready hand;
Away from his side then rushed the heavy spear,
Hard following on the course the boar pursued.
The javelin's shaft fell shivered into three,
The spear recoiling from the boar's tough hide.
The spear hurl'd by his warm red-fingered hand,
Ne'er penetrated the body of the boar.
Then from its sheath he drew his thin-leav'd sword,
Of all the arms most crowned with victory.
Mac O'Duine did then the monster kill
While he himself escaped without a wound.
Then on Finn of the Feinn did sadness fall,
And on the mountain side he sat
It grieved his soul that generous Mac O'Duine
Should have escaped unwounded by the boar.
For long he sat, and never spake a word,
Then thus he spake, although't be sad to tell;
"Measure, Diarmad, the boar down from how snout,
And tell how many feet's the brute in length;"
What Finn did ask he never yet refused;
Alas ! that he should never see his home
Along the back he measures now the boar,
Light-footed Mac O'Duine of active step.
"Measure it the other way against the hair
And measure, Diarmad, carefully the boar.
It was indeed for thee a mournful deed,
Furth of the sharply-pointed, piercing arms,
He went, the errand grievous was and sad,
And measured fro them once again the boar.
The envenomed pointed bristle sharply pierced
The soul of him the bravest in the field.
The fell and lay upon the grassy plain
The noble Mac O'Duine, whose look spoke truth;
He fell and lay along beside the boar
And then you have my mournful saddening tale.
There does he lie now wounded to the death,
Brave Mac O'Duine so skilful in the fight,
The most enduring even among the Feinn,
Up there where I see his grave.
The blue-eyed hawk that dwelt at Essaroy
The conqueror in every sore-fought field
Slain by the poisoned bristle of the boar.
Now does he lie full-stretched upon the hill,
Brave, noble Diarmad Mac O'Duine
Slain, it is shame ! victim of jealousy.
Whiter his body than the sun's bright light,
Redder his lips than blossoms tinged with red;
Long yellow locks did rest upon his head,
His eye was clear beneath the covering brow,
Its colour mingled was of blue and gray;
Waving and graceful were his locks behind,
His speech was elegant and sweetly soft;
His hands the whitest, fingers tipped with red;
Elegance and power were in his form,
His fair soft skin covering a faultless shape,
No woman saw him but he won her love.
Mac O'Duine crowned with his countless victories
Ne'er shall he raise his eye in courtship more;
Or warrior's wrath give colour to his cheek;
The following of the chase, the prancing steed,
Will never move him, nor the search for spoil.
He who could bear him well in wary fight,
Has now us sadly left in that wild vale.
This is, in every way, a fair specimen of the
Dean's MS., and of the story of the death of Diarmad as it existed in Scotland in the year
1512. The story is entirely a Scottish one, Glenshee being a well-known locality in the
county of Perth, and Ben Gulbin a well-known hill in Glenshee. This has been called an
Ossianic poem, but, according to Dean M'Gregor, it was not composed by Ossian, but by a
poet obviously of more recent times;- Allan MacRorie, who was probably a composer of the
15th century. The resemblance of Diarmad to Achilles will occur at once to the classical
reader, and there is no reason to doubt that there were large classes in the Highlands in
the middle ages well acquainted with classical literature.
Another specimen of the Dean's poems may be given as one which the compiler
attributes to Ossian. It is Ossian's eulogy on his father Finn, or Fingal, as he is called
by M'Pherson :-
AUTHOR OF THIS
IS OSSIAN, THE SON OF FINN
week I last saw Finn,
Ne'er did I feel six days so long;
Teige's daughter's son, a powerful king;
My teacher, my luck, my mind, and my light,
Both poet and chief, as brave as a king,
Finn, chief of the Feine, lord of all lands,
Leviathan at sea, as great on land,
Hawk of the air, foremost in arts,
Courteous, just, a rider bold,
Of vigorous deeds, the first in song,
A righteous judge, firm his rule,
Polished his mein, who knew but victory.
Who is like him in fight or song ?
Resists the foe in house or field,
Marble his skin, the rose his cheek,
Blue was his eye, his hair like gold,
All men's trust, of noble mind.
Of ready deeds, to women mild,
A giant he, the field's delight,
Best polished spears, no wood like their shafts.
Rich was the king, his great green bottle
Full of sharp wine, of substance rich.
Excellent he, of noble form,
His people's head, his step so firm,
Who often warred, in beauteous Banva,
There thirty battles he bravely fought.
With miser's mind from none withheld,
Anything false his lips ne'er spoke.
He never grudged, no, never, Finn;
The sun ne'er saw king who him excelled,
The monsters in lakes, the serpent by land.
In Erin of saints, the hero slew.
Ne'er could I tell, though always I lived,
Ne'er could I tell the third of his praise.
But sad am I now, after Finn of the Feinn;
Away with the chief, my joy is all fled.
No friends 'mong the great, no courtesy;
No gold, no queen, no princes and chiefs;
Sad am I now, our head ta'en away !
I'm a shaking tree, my leaves all gone;
An empty nut, a reinless horse.
Sad, sad am I, a feeble kern,
Ossian I, the son of Finn, strengthless indeed.
When Finn did live all things were mine;
Seven sides had the house of Cumhal's son,
Seven score shields on every side;
Fifty robes of wool around the king;
Fifty warriors filled the robes.
Ten bright cups for drink in his hall,
Ten blue flagons, ten horns of gold.
A noble house was that of Finn.
No grudge nor lust, babbling nor sham;
No man despised among the Feinn;
The first himself, all else like him.
Finn was our chief, easy's his praise;
Noblest of kings, Finn ne'er refused
To any man, howe'er unknown;
Ne'er from his house sent those who came.
Good man was Finn, good man was he;
No gifts e'er given like his so free.
'Twas yesterday week.
This is a specimen of a peculiar kind of
ancient Celtic poetry. It was usually sung to music, and has a remarkable resemblance to
some of the hymns of the early Latin Church. There is another composition of the same kind
in praise of Gaul, called usually "Rosg Ghuill", or the War-Song of Gaul.
It is unnecessary to give further specimens of these remains of the
ancient heroic poetry of the Highlands here, nor is it necessary to quote any of the more
modern compositions with which the Dean of Lismore's MS. abounds. It is enough to remark
how great an amount of poetry was composed in the Highlands in the 14th, 15th and 16th
centuries. That was indeed an age of bards when poetical genius was amply rewarded by
great and liberal chiefs. It is of interest further to observe how ample the answer
furnished by the Lismore MS. is to the ill-natured remarks of Dr Johnson, who maintained
that there was not a word of written Gaelic in the Highlands more than a hundred years
old. We shall now dismiss the Dean's MS., but we shall exhaust the subject of Ossian's
poems by a cursory view of the other and later collections of those poems, and especially
the collection of Macpherson.
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