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MacDonald Bards from Mediaeval Times
By Keith Norman MacDonald, M.D. (1900)


THE Bardic order was a very ancient institution among the Celts. They were originally members of the priesthood, and no class of society among the ancients has been more celebrated. “Whether we consider the influence which they possessed, their learning, or poetic genius, they are one of the most interesting order of antiquity, and worthy of our entire admiration.”

The favourite songs of the bards are said to have been those celebrating the renown of their ancestors. The praises of great men were accompanied with a sort of religious feeling, which was not only useful in exhorting the living to deeds of heroism, but was supposed to be particularly pleasing to the spirits of those who had died in battle, and consequently became a sort of religious duty as well as an incentive to inspire youth with a generous spirit of emulation ; and these, having often been sung and played upon the harp, must have had a powerful effect upon the listeners. Eginhart celebrates Charlemagne for committing to writing and to memory the songs on the wars and heroic virtues of his ancestors ; and it is universally admitted that the Celtic bards influenced their hearers with a spirit of freedom and independence which has been handed down to us, and which exists among the Celtic populations even to the present day.

Their compositions commemorating the worth and exploits of heroes were a sort of national annals for preserving the memory of past transactions and of stimulating the youth to an imitation of the virtuous deeds of their ancestors. Their achievements were detailed so graphically, and national calamities portrayed in such affecting language, that their hearers were animated to deeds of the most daring heroism. So important and powerful an influence did they exert that Diodorus informs us the bards had power to prevent an engagement even when the spears were levelled for immediate action. The practice of animating warriors by chanting heroic poems is of most ancient origin. Tyrtaeus. the Lacedemonian, who flourished 680 years before the Christian era, composed five books of war verses, fragments of which are supposed to be still in existence. It was not only in actual war that the bards rehearsed their soul-stirring verses; each chief was constantly attended by a number of these poets, who entertained him at meals, and roused his ardour and his followers’ courage with their powerful recitations, and the respect in which they were held shows how indispensable their services were reckoned.

In a publication by Cambray, member of the Celtic Academy at Paris, it is said that Druidic learning comprised 60,000 verses, which those of the first class were obliged to commit to memory; and Campion says that they spent ten or twenty years at their education, and talked Latin like a vulgar tongue. When a student was admitted to the profession of bardism he was honoured with the degree of “Ollamh,” and received an honorary cap called a “barred.”

In 192 the lawful price of the clothing of an “ollamh” and of an “anra” or second poet in Ireland, was fixed at five milch cows. In very ancient times the bards sang the praises of the good and valiant, and the Seanachies were the registrars of events and custodians of family history.

The Caledonian bards officiated as sort of aides-de-camp to the chief, communicating his orders to the chieftains and their followers. “When Fingal retired to view the battle, three bards attended him to bear his words to the chiefs.” In later times the offices of bard and seanachie were often held by one person, and one of the duties was to preserve the genealogies and descent of the chiefs and the tribe, which were solemnly repeated at marriages, baptisms, and burials. The last purpose for which they were retained by the Highlanders was to preserve a faithful history of their respective clans. The office was also a hereditary one, which received its death-blow by the Government Act of 1748. Lachlan MacNeil, Mhic Lachlan, Mhic Domhnuill, Mhic Lachlan, Mhic Neil Mor, Mhic Domhnuill, of the surname of MacVurieh, declared before Mr Roderick MacLeod, J.P., in presence of six clergymen and gentlemen, that he was the eighteenth in descent from “ Muireadhach Albanich,” who flourished in 1 ISO to 1222, whose posterity had officiated as bards to Clan Ranald, and that they had as salary for their office the farm of Staoiligary and four pennies of Driniisdale during fifteen generations.

Lachlan Mor MacVurich accompanied Donald, Lord of the Isles, at the battle of Haarlaw in 1411, and rehearsed his great poem to animate the followers of the Islay chief. This war song consists of 338 lines. The theme is — “O children of Conn of the hundred lights, remember hardihood in the time of battle.” Round this subject Lachlan Mor had gathered some six hundred and fifty adverbial adjectives arranged alphabetically, and every one of them bearing specially and martially on the great theme of the song. It is altogether one of the most wonderful productions in the Gaelic language.

That poems of great antiquity existed at the period when Ossian sang, is evident from the frequent allusions he made to the “songs of old” and “bards of other years.” “Thou shalt endure,” said the bard of ancient days, “after the moss of time shall grow in Temora, after the blast of years shall roar in Selma.” The Tain-bo or cattle spoil of Cualgne, commemorating an event that occurred about 1905 years ago, is believed to be the oldest poem in the Gaelic language. The “Albanic Duan,” a poem recited at the coronation of Malcolm III. about 1056, and which is an undisputed relic, must have been composed from poems much anterior to. its own age.

Hugh MacDonald, the seanachie of Sleat, has left on record an account of the crowning of the Lords of the Isles, as well as of the Council of Finlaggan of Isla, with its gradation of social rank. The proclamation of the Kings of Innse Gall was attended with much pomp and ceremony, at which the chief bard performed a rhetorical panegyric setting forth the ancient pedigree, valour, and liberality of the family as incentives to the young chieftain and fit for his imitation. The Bishop of Argyle and the Isles gave the benediction of the Church, while the chieftains of all the families and a ruler of the Isles were also present.

The newly-proclaimed king stood on a square stone 7 or 8 feet long, with a foot-mark cut in it, and this gave symbolic expression to the duty of walking uprightly and in the footsteps of his predecessors. He was clothed in a white habit as a sign of innocence and integrity, that he would be a light to his people, and maintain the true religion. Then a white rod was placed in his hand, indicating that he was to rule his people with discretion and sincerity; and, after the ceremony was over, mass was said and the blessing of the bishop and of priest given, and when they were dismissed the Lord of the Isles feasted them for a week, and gave liberally to the monks, poets, bards, and musicians.

Hugh MacDonald does not inform us where the coronation of the Lords of the Isles took place, but the inference to be drawn from his description is that “Eilean na comhairle,” the island of council, was the scene of the ceremony. Donald of Haarlaw was crowned at Kildonan in Eigg, but it is more than probable that the islet on Loch Finlaggan, with its table of stone and its place of judgment, close by the larger isle, on which stood the chapel and palace of the kings, must have been the scene of the historic rite.

MacDonald of the Isles Council was held at the island on Loch Finlaggan in Isla, and consisted of 4 thanes, 4 arniins, that is to say, 4 lords or sub-thanes; 4 bastards (e.g.) squires or men of competent estates who could not come up with the armins or thanes—that is, freeholders or men that had the land in factory or magee of the Rhinds of Isla, MacNicoll in Portree in Skye, and MacEachren, MacKay, and MacGillivray in Mull. There was a tablet of stone where the Council sat in the islet of Finlaggan, and the whole table, with the stone on which MacDonald sat, was carried away by Argyle with the bells that were at Icolmkill. There was, besides, a judge for every isle for deciding controversies, who got for his trouble an eleventh part of every action decided. Mac-Finnon was obliged to adjust weights and measures, and MacDuffie or MacPhie of Colon -say kept the records of the isles, thus showing that they had a regular system of government. There is a poem in the books of Clan Ranald on the Lords of the Isles by O. Henna, A.D. 1450, and one on John, Lord of the Isles, 1460 ; and in the Dean of Lismore’s book there is also a poem on John, Lord of the Isles, and Angus, his son, by Gilliecallum mac an Ollaimli, 1480 ; one on the murder of Angus, son of John, Lord of the Isles, by John of Knoydart (probably a MacDonald), 1490 ; and one on MacDonalds, by Gilliecallum mac an Ollaimh, 1493.

After the period when Ossian, Grain, Ullin, Fergus, Fonar, Dauthal, and other unknown bards flourished, which reaches to the union of the Pictish and Scottish Kingdoms, there seems to have been for a long time few poets of any note, and it was not until about the end of the 13th century that a revival took place ; but since then numerous bards of acknowledged excellence appeared from time to time, though many of their productions have not been handed down to us.

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Clan MacDonald Index


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