Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Byways of Scottish Story
The Gael Again

Until quite recent years the Scottish Gael has not been much in evidence in English letters. No doubt the language accounts for this. Of all races, perhaps, the Highlander is the most deeply emotional and the most poetic; and enough poetry, traditional and written, is extant in the Highlands to astonish any inquirer. It exists, however, in Gaelic. Towards the end of last century, it is true, James Macpherson rendered a quantity of it, more or less authentic, into English, with most striking effect. But to the present hour the Gaelic genius has continued to express itself almost exclusively in the Gaelic tongue, and English has remained for the Highlander, so far as the production of literature is concerned, a foreign language.

It has been different with the Irish Gael. Goldsmith and Swift and Moore stand to represent the race of the sister island in the foremost rank of English letters. But Ireland, so far as the educated classes are concerned, has been for centuries an English-speaking country, and its people have long enjoyed literary opportunities denied to the glensmen of Argyllshire and the Hebrides.

Still more striking appears the contrast with the record of the other Celtic race within the kingdom, the British or Cymric stock. Of late years Wales has assumed the sole representation of that ancient race, and has, with Cornwall, appropriated the entire mass of history, legend, and literature of the race of Arthur and Boadicea. But Wales originally formed a very- small part of the Cymric possessions. When the Romans left Britain the entire country south of the Forth and Clyde was peopled by the civilised Cymri. A hundred and fifty years later they still held absolute sway in the west country from Loch Lomond to the Derwent. And so late as the twelfth century the race and the territory remained distinct, and David, heir of Scotland, was entitled Prince of Cumbria, just as the heir to the throne is Prince of Wales at the present day. Though these ancient inhabitants of the land were driven westwards by the invading Angles and Saxons, they were by no means effaced. Owing to the Roman rule they were more civilised than their opponents; intellectually, they remained more active. So late as the daps of the Anglo-Norman kings their romances were the chief, almost the only, imaginative literature of the country, and down to this end of the nineteenth century their literary production has continued in a stream of unbroken brilliance. It would be an interesting task to take the names that have been great in English literature, and trace their racial origin. The result might prove somewhat astonishing ; the inquirer, at any rate, would be surprised to discover what a large proportion of our best literature is not Saxon at all, nor vet Norman in origin, but is owed to Cymric brains. Ben Jonson and Samuel Johnson were both descended from clansmen of the Scottish Border, the very heart of the ancient Cymric kingdom, and, in later days, the same is to be said of Sir Walter Scott and of George Gordon, Lord Byron. Mr. George Meredith, if the most conspicuous, is by no means the only writer of to-day whose genius carries on the traditions of a race brilliant in English letters for so many hundred years.

Compared with this Cymric element in our literature, the Gaelic record appears meagre indeed. A scattered name or two, like that of Thomas Campbell, was all that was to be found representing the Highlands until quite recent years, when the works of Dr. George MacDonald and Mr. Robert Buchanan have given proof that the Gaelic genius had found its voice in English letters. More recently, however, symptoms have appeared which point to the literary genius of the race making a new departure.

The Evergreen, published in Edinburgh by Professor Patrick Geddes and his colleagues in 1896, was hardly understood. Critics smiled at the quaint allegorical bindings, and drew attention to a certain lack of practical point in the contents; but their eyes were blind to the fact that the kernel of the four volumes was a new thing in English literature. If The Evergreen did nothing else, it gave an opportunity for the Gaelic genius to express itself in its native manner to the English reader. The volumes had for their most typical contributors Professor Patrick Geddes himself and the new Highland writer, Miss Fiona Macleod. Miss Macleod in particular, both in her writings in The Evergreen and in her independent books, has furnished the public with an element unknown in literature since the appearance of the Ossianic translations a hundred and forty years ago.

In the translations there was a certain air of bombast, due obviously to Macpherson, but the spirit of the Ossianic fragments and the spirit of Fiona Macleod's work resemble each other closely in many ways. In both are to be found the same mysticism, melancholy, and wistfulness, the suppressed passion, like the fire in the white ashes of the peat, and the brooding fatalism, born of life among silent glens and by lonely shores, which are typical of the Gaelic race. Notwithstanding her sex, Miss Macleod reflects no less the fierce element, the capacity for hatred and revenge, which is also characteristic of the Gaelic spirit as revealed in history. Her stories read for the most part like renderings in English of old memories and traditions current among the people of the glens and isles. Some of them are avowedly versions of ancient folk-lore tales that have been the possession of the race for a thousand years; while others, told perhaps the other day by fishermen in a boat off Mull, are narratives embodying the superstitions still so powerful for good and evil in the mind of the Highlander. The scene of the stories is laid mostly in the neighbourhood of Iona, Isle of Saints, where so many pagan traditions still live side by side with early Christian memories; and some of the most telling and successful sketches are presentations of Highland myths, touching and beautiful, which have gathered round the story of the Virgin Mary and the infant Christ. Tales of the second sight are not wanting in her pages; her heroes swear "by the Black Stone on Icolmkill and by the Sun and by the Moon, and by Himself"; and a story like that of the Sin-eater, the outcast who for a bribe takes upon himself the sins of a dead man, could belong only to a people who in their secret heart still cherish many strange, occult, and mystic beliefs.

Yet it is not altogether by the tales she tells, it is by the spirit father in which she writes, that Miss Macleod represents in a native and novel manner the genius of the Gael. Other writers without number have depicted the Highlander, and some even of the stories told by the new author have been told in English before. But here for the first time in English it is a sennachy herself that writes; and the tales live, and the Gael is pictured, not as he appears to the outsider, but as he is known only to himself, and to himself only perhaps at inspired times.

Less of a mystic, and as much of a realist probably as it is permitted a Gael to be, is the other writer whose work represents the new departure. As Miss Macleod has gathered her inspiration and materials from Iona, with its half-pagan, half-Christian memories, Mr. Neil Munro has gathered his from Inveraray, and the traditions surviving there of old clan feuds, race jealousies, and blood avengings. Both writers depict the Gaelic spirit, both alike tell the old stories of the countryside, and both write English coloured a good deal by the idiom of the Gaelic tongue. But the stories from Loch Fyneside have a more modern twang; they are of the human nature of to-day or yesterday, and they deal with just such-folk--sensitive, proud, and hot-hearted --as are to be found at this hour in any Highland town.

The actual period of the stories told in Mr. Munro's first book, "The Lost Pibroch," appeared to be the earlier half of last century. The latest of them, perhaps, was that of Rob Doun's wife awaiting her husband's return from Culloden. They were of the period of dirk and claymore, and more than one duel as fought out in their pages. As the Saxon reader turns these leaves he begins to understand the more passionate spirit of the Highlander. He feels his heart rise at the playing of pibrochs; the brown floods pouring through woody glens bring him strange exultation; and he sniffs the keen wind off Cruachan with the pride of the Gael himself. Thesame strong stimulus and suggestive power live in the writer's later books, "John Splendid" and "Gilian the Dreamer."

While Neil Munro's tales are of a time gone by, the spirit of their telling is most modern. Indeed, for this quality, and the force and fire with which they are told, their closest parallel is to be found in Mr. Stanley Weyman's stories of Old France. The tales are of human nature, strong and pure-bred, and each one, whether it be of the Lost Pibroch itself, or the Secret of -the Heather Ale, or the tragedy of Black Murdo, not only hinges on some typical trait of Gaelic character, but compels the understanding and sympathy of the most obtuse Sassenach. Best of all, the stories are in every page fresh, forceful, and exhilarating as the breezes from their native glens above Loch Fyne.

It is often said that all feasible plots and human motives have long ago been exploited and used up by romancers, but upon the appearance of each new writer of genius the statement is proved a fallacy. Mr. Neil Munro and Miss Fiona Macleod between them have fallen upon a variety of racial motives and possibilities hitherto all but untouched. They have discovered at the same time a fresh atmosphere and local colour. And there can be no question of the worth and promise of the work that has already come from their pens. It remains to be seen whether the-,- are the prophets of a new departure. A hundred and forty years ago the appearance of Macpherson's Ossian gave a mighty impulse to the great romantic movement which culminated in the works of Scott and Goethe. In the works of the new West Highland writers of to-day it is just possible that we have the first sign of another such spiritual conquest by the Gael.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus