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Manuscripts of the 15th century


The Highlands seem to have had a large number of men of letters during the 15th century, and most of our existing manuscript materials seem to be of that age. These materials are of various kinds. They consist of short theological treatises, with traditional anecdotes of saints and others which seem to have been prevalent in the church at the time. One of the theological treatises now in the library of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh, has reference to the Sacrament of the Supper, and maintains the purely Protestant doctrine that the sacrament can only profit those who receive it in faith. There are anecdotes of priests, often called by the Gaelic name of maighistir, which would indicate that the priests of the period had wives, and that the doctrine of celibacy had not then entered the Scottish church.

Some of the manuscripts are genealogical, and as such are of much value to the Scottish historian. They show what the ideas of the senachies of the thirteenth century were regarding the origin of the Highland clans. Some of these genealogical records have been published by the Iona Club, and are in this way accessible to the general reader. They are indicative of the care taken at the period to preserve memorials of family history, and were of value not only as conducing to the gratification of family pride, but to the preservation of family property, inasmuch as these were the only means in accordance with which succession to property could be determined. The consequence is, that they are not always very reliable, favour being apt to bias the recorder on one side, just as enmity and ill-will were apt to bias him on the other. It is remarkable how ready the seanachy of a hostile clan was to proclaim the line of the rival race illegitimate. This affects the value of these records, but they are valuable notwithstanding, and are to a considerable extent reliable, especially within the period where authentic information could be obtained by the writer.

A portion of these manuscripts deals with medical and metaphysical subjects, the two being often combined. We are hardly prepared to learn to how great an extent these subjects were studied at an early period in the Highlands. We are apt to think that the region was a barbarous one without either art or science. A sight of the sculptures which distinguished the 14th and 15th centuries is prone to remove this impression. We find a style of sculpture still remaining in ancient crosses and gravestones that is characteristic of the Highlands; elaborate ornaments of a distinct character, rich and well executed tracery, figures well designed and finished. Such sculptures, following upon those of the prehistoric period found still within the ancient Pictish territory, exist chiefly throughout the West Highlands, and indicate that one art, at least, of native growth, distinguished the Gaelic Celts of the Middle Ages.

The medical manuscripts existing are chiefly the productions of the famous Macbeths or Beatons, the hereditary physicians of the Lords of the Isles for a long series of years. The charter of lands in Islay, already referred to, drawn out by Fergus Beaton, is of a date as early as 1408, and three hundred years after, men of the same race are found occupying the same position. Hereditary physicians might seem to offer but poor prospects to their patients, and that especially at a time when schools of medicine were almost if not altogether unknown in the country; but the fact is, that this was the only mode in which medical knowledge could be maintained at all. If such knowledge were not transmitted from father to son, the probability was that it would perish, just as was the case with the genealogical knowledge of the seanchies. This transmission, however, was provided for in the Celtic system, and while there was no doubt a considerable difference between individuals in the succession in point of mental endowments, they would all possess a certain measure of skill and acquirement as the result of family experience. These men were students of the science as it existed at the time. The Moors were then the chief writers on medicine. Averroes and Avicenna were men whose names were distinguished, and whose works, although little known now, extended to the folios. Along with their real and substantial scientific acquirements, they dived deep into the secrets of Astrology, and our Celtic students, while ready disciples of them in the former study, followed them most faithfully and zealously in the latter likewise. There are numerous medical and astrological treatises still existing written in the Gaelic language, and chiefly taken from the works of Moorish and Arabian writers. How these works reached the Scottish Highlands it is hard to say, nor is it easier to understand how the ingredients of the medical prescriptions of these practitioners could be obtained in a region so inaccessible at the time. The following specimen of the written Gaelic of medical manuscripts, is taken from Dr O'Donovan's grammar :-

 "Labhrum anois do leighes na h-eslainti so oir is eigin nethi imda d'fhaghbhail d'a leighes; ocus is é céd leighes is ferr do dhénamh dhi. 1. na lenna truaillighthi do glanad maille caterfusia; óir a deir Avicenna's an 4 Cän. co n-déin in folmhughadh na leanna loisgi d'inarbad. An 2.ní oilemhain bidh ocus dighi d'ordughadh dóibh; an tres ní, an t-adhbhar do dhileaghadh; an 4.ní a n-innarbadh go h-imlán; an 5.ní, fothraicthi do dhénum dóibh; an 6.ní, is eígin lictuber comhfhurtachta do thobairt dóib. An 7.ní, is eígin neithi noch aentuighius riu do thobhairt dóib muna roib an corp línta do droch-leannaibh." "Let me now speak of the cure of this disease (scurvy), for many things must be got for its cure; the first cure which is best to be made is to clean the corrupt humours with caterfusia; for Avicenna says in the fourth Canon that evacuation causes an expulsion of the burnt humours. The second thing, to order the patients a proper regimen of meat and drink the third thing, to digest the matter; the fourth thing, to expel them completely; the fifth thing, to prepare a bath for them; the sixth, it is necessary to give them strengthening lictub. The seventh, it is necessary to give them such things as agree with them, unless the body be full of bad humours."
This extract is taken from an Irish manuscript, but the language is identical with that in use in the writings of the Beatons. Celtic Scotland and Celtic Ireland followed the same system in medicine as in theology and poetry.

The metaphysical discussions, if they may be so called, are very curious, being characterised by the features which distinguished the science of metaphysics at the time. The most remarkable thing is that there are Gaelic terms to express the most abstract ideas in metaphysics; - terms which are now obsolete, and would not be understood by any ordinary Gaelic speaker. A perusal of these ancient writings shows how much the language has declined, and to what an extent it was cultivated at an early period. So with astrology, its terms are translated and the science is fully set forth. Tables are furnished of the position of the stars by means of which to foretell the character of future events. Whatever literature existed in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, extended its influence to the Scottish Highlands. The nation was by no means in such a state of barbarism as some writers would lead us to expect. They had legal forms, for we have a formal legal charter of lands written in Gaelic; they had medical men of skill and acquirement; they had writers on law and theology, and they had men skilled in architecture and sculpture.

 

 


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