Ossianic Heroes & Poems in Old Writings, pp.35-53.

C.E. 203 According to a Scottish legend given by Fordun, etc., the nation of the Scots embraced Christianity in the reign of King Donald, consequently sculptured stones, even with Christian symbols, may be of very ancient date in Scotland.

C.E. 360 St Ninian was born; he was son of a British prince, went to Rome, founded Candida Casa, or ‘Whitehorn,’ and converted the southern Picts, who are supposed to have been the people between the Firth of Fourth and the Grampians.


C.E. 432 St. Patrick preached in Ireland.

C.E. 503 Fergus, son of Erc, who is said to have received the blessing of St. Patrick in his youth, led a colony of Dalriads from Ireland, and founded the Scottish monarchy. – Ecclesiastical History of Scotland, pp. 4, 11, 44, 49.) Fergus was succeeded by Domangart, Comgal, and CONAL, by whom the Island of Iona was bestowed upon St. Columba. The saint is supposed to have been born in Donegal, A.D. 521.

C.E. 563 St. Columba landed at Iona, and shortly afterwards preached to the northern Picts. There are consequently good reasons why the traditions of Argyle should still resemble Irish traditions, and Conal and Patrick ought to be conspicuous names in West Highland tales, and Picts ought to appear.

The only Gaelic traditional reference to a people with a name like that of “the Picts” is an occasional, but very rare, mention of PIOCAICH, as a kind of men. The word, pronounced Pyuchk-aich, is common all over the west, but it means a cole-fish at a particular stage of its growth. Other sizes of the same fish are called CUDAINN, which, as “cuddy,” is immortalized by Johnson as caught by Boswell. A larger size is CEIT-EAN-ACH, derived from Ce, the world, tein, fire = ceit-ean (part of April), the spring, directly after which came the festival of Beal-tainn and its symbolical fires. So “Ceit-ean-ach” means a “spring-fish,” and something very like the fish meant is sculptured on a Pictish stone in Scotland (see vol. iii., page 356, left hand, upper corner), and these stones date from Pagan times, and probably have to do with Pagan observances. 

The same fish, when grown very large, is called “Ugsa,” pr. oox-e, which is the Norse for a bull, and the whole tribe is called GLAS-IASG, grey or green fish. As every clan has some fish, beast, bird, and plant for a badge, perhaps the PICTS adopted this fish, or fish in general, as their badge, and thus the modern name of the fish may be the ancient name of a tribe. At all events, there are plenty of Lowland traditions about Picts as a different race, but there are scarcely any in the Highlands. The Irish call them ‘cruithnich,’ for which word all manner of meanings have been found, including ‘cruinn-ich,’ Round-ites. Some Irish writers hold that the Picts migrated from Ireland to Scotland before the Scots. 

There is also good reason for the continual reference to the island with fire about it, and the Scandinavians, for the churchmen of Iona or men of their class visited and settled in Iceland before Norsemen. 

C.E. 783 First recorded hostile appearance of the Danes in England.

C.E. 871 Ingolf, first Norse settler, set out for Iceland.

C.E. 880 to 900 Harold Fairhair, king of Norway, rooted out the Vikings in the west, and drove a rush of settlers to Iceland. In the Norse accounts of these events a story is told of a sea-rover who found his way to Iceland by letting ravens fly from his ship. I have a long Gaelic story in which he kills and tortures because they will not fly, but the third to save his life flies, and shows the way. Ossianic names occur in this tale.

C.E. 700 to 800 A manuscript, supposed to be of the eighth century is believed to be somewhere in Edinburgh. It contains a version of ‘The Tain’ – a poem relative to which the Ossianic Society of Dublin have lately published a volume of very curious matter, and which is also mentioned by Professor O’Curry. Whatever may be the real date of this ancient MS. It throws the date of Osin, or Ossin, or Ossian, and Finn, and of incidents in surviving traditions, both prose and poetry, very far back; but, so far as I am informed, it does not contain any of the Gaelic poems published in 1807.1 So we may pass on.

C.E. 900 to 1000 An ancient Gaelic MS. has been lately discovered in England. I am not aware that it is yet decided whether the language is most like Irish or Scotch Gaelic; but it is Gaelic, and contains, as it is said, a charter of lands near Aberdeen, and it was probably meant to be read by people who lived where it was written. I mention it as evidence that Gaelic was written in the east of Scotland in the tenth century.

The following sentence appears in the Saturday Review of December 8, 1860, as Gaelic taken from this MS.:- 


The translation given is – 

     Be it on the conscience of every one in whom shall be the grace of the booklet with splendour that he gave a blessing on the soul of the misellus who wrote it

In this form I can make nothing whatever of the Gaelic, and not much of the English. There is not one word, except bendacht, which even looks like modern Gaelic, but the following sentence conveys as little meaning at first – 


The Gaelic, otherwise divided, looks better; the reader may puzzle out the other language for himself. Taking this to be phonetic spelling, it is not unlike modern Gaelic with one Latinised word, and would seem to be a formal gift of wood on a hilltop, and a blessing on somebody mentioned before. 


“To the Forchi (? the Farquhars). To every man to whom it may be said. The half of the wood on the high place to them. A blessing on the little soul of the poor little fellow before written.” 

It is difficult to know where a word begins or ends in old writings, and perhaps this arrangement of the letters may be as good as the other. I know nothing further of this manuscript, and very little of old manuscripts of any kind, so this is a mere guess at a puzzle. 

C.E. 1000-1100 Book of Leinster compiled, it contains numerous references to poems, tales, the Feine, etc.

C.E. 1014 Brian’s battle with the Norsemen was fought in Ireland. A description of this fight is given in the Njal Saga, and though it is interlarded with supernatural portents, it is an account written not very long after the event, and is probably very true in the main. Having lately visited the scene of the Njal Saga in Iceland, I have become impressed with the extraordinary truthfulness of every part of the story, which can now be tested. If a spot is described, the people who live there now will point it out, and the narrative there appears probable, for it accords with the locality. It is told that Gunnar stood on a height, and thence shot a number of men with arrows, and the nearest peasant mounted the only block of lava in the place that seemed to suit the description, and posed as Gunnar. Close to the spot, he pointed out a number of human bones, skulls, and teeth, which had been laid bare by a strong wind which had lately driven the black sand away from a small rising ground. Unless these were the bones of the men slain there by Gunnar, eight hundred years ago, it is not easy to make out how they came there, amongst the bare lava and sand near “the springs.” They bear every mark of great age, there is no burying ground near, and it was no one’s interest to play a trick upon travellers. Though I cannot believe that Odin appeared at Brian’s battle, or his corse-choosers before it, or that ravens, and swords, and showers of blood, fell upon and attacked the pagan Norseman, I can readily believe that such stories were told and believed, and written down in Iceland as true, and that the smaller incidents of Brian’s battle were truly recorded nevertheless. It appears that king Brian’s army had banners, and in a traditional Gaelic ballad, at least as old as 1784, and now current, is a description of the banners of the Feinne. The Celts had swords, and spears, and shields, and mail, like the traditional Feinne. Kerthial-fad is mentioned as a leader of the Celtic army, and in the song of the Muilearteach, page 136, vol. iii., occurs the name Cearbhal as a leader in some great battle between Celts and Lochlanners, in which the Celts won, and where they displayed banners, one of which was the banner of Fionn, which is described in another poem. They used spears, and shields, and swords, and elsewhere it appears that they wore mail. A magic raven was the standard on the Norse side, and according to the Saga, ravens attacked Brodir’s men; a raven plays his part in the Lay of Osgar. One of the Saga heroes, on the Celtic side, was Ospak; one of the traditional heroes was Osgar, and they performed similar feats. “Ospak had gone through all the battle on his wing, he had been sore wounded, and lost both his sons, before king Sigtrygg fled before him.” Osgar, according to the Gaelic poem, broke his way through the battle to the king of Lochlann, whose name is not given, and slew him, and an Orkney Earl was really slain, if the king was not. Osgar, like Ospak, was sore wounded, if sickles or herons could go through his waist after the battle. “Ospak was a heathen Viking,” but he would not fight against the good Celtic king Brian. Osgar was a heathen Celt, and according to part of his traditional history, he went to Lochlann as a boy, carried there by a scaly monster, who ate men, and came in a ship; a Viking might be remembered as such a being. If the man on the apple gray horse be meant for Odin by the Norse Saga writer, it is quite fair that a Celtic bard should bring down his Olympus, and Fionn at the head, and so this lay of the Muilearteach may mean Brian’s battle, and be a tolerably true ballad account of that fight. It may also mean something much older, or more modern, but points of resemblance between a saga and a ballad are worth remark. Miss Brooke, in 1789, attributed the Lay of Magnus to the twelfth or thirteenth century, and assumed that the Norse invader meant, was the Magnus who worked so much ill in Ireland about the latter end of the eleventh century. This tells for the antiquity of traditional Gaelic poetry, and for the ground-work of “Fingal,” but not for the Gaelic of 1807.

C.E. 1220 In a charter of lands in Morayshire, the words “Tubar na fein” occur. This is explained to mean “The well of the great or kempis men,” which proves that the name of the Feinne was even then associated with the topography of the eastern Highlands. – (Celtic Gleanings, MacLauchlan, 125.)

C.E. 1238 A MS. in the Advocate’s Library contains, amongst other things, a version of the poem on which ‘Darthula’ is founded. The character is ‘Irish;’ but it seems, from internal evidence, to have been written in Cowal. Several traditional versions of a poem on the same subject have been collected in Scotland and printed. The story is claimed as Irish, and this probably was a popular Gaelic ballad long ago. This throws the framework of one of the published poems very far back, but does not affect the Gaelic of 1807, for ‘Darthula,’ as published, is not there; but Deirdir sings a plaintive ditty in a language which is not very different from modern Argyleshire Gaelic, though differently spelt, in which she takes her leave of ‘that Eastern land, Alba, with all its lakes,’ and names a whole series of places which correspond to places in Argyleshire about Lochawe, Cowal, Glencoe, etc. A specimen of the poem is at pages 298, 299, Appendix to H. S. Report. So the groundwork of Darthula is common property, and genuine and old, for professor O’Curry finds mention of the tale of the children of Usnech in early Irish manuscripts (1319), and believes it to be as old as A.D. 1000; but the poem of Darthula must be carried further on.

C.E. 1250 About this time the halls of barons, and even the courts of princes, were frequented by wandering minstrels, and in the romances of the period they are constantly mentioned.

The Northmen were accompanied by their skalds in their warlike expeditions, and the accounts which these men wrote were in verse and prose. The verse is quite different in spirit and metre from Gaelic verse; but ‘sgeulachd,’ pr. skale-ach (tales), are often partly verse as well. 

In the history of the Norwegian expedition against Scotland, A.D. 1263,2 is an account of the expedition of Haco, represented as the most formidable that ever left the ports of Norway. The prize disputed with Alexander, son of William, king of Scotland, was the possession of the Hebrides. 

In the manuscript, as described by the translator, are pictures, some of which represent a man killing a boar, and another fighting with a mermaid, both of which subjects form the groundwork of stories now told in the Highlands. Most of the figures are in armour. Their helmets are sometimes conical; so are the helmets sculptured on many Hebridian tombstones. The whole course of the expedition is minutely described. They sailed as far south as Loch Long, drew their boats over the isthmus now called Tarbet or draw-boat, harried the islands in Loch Lomond, and fought a great battle with the Scotch near the Kumrey (Cumbraes), after which Haco sailed by Botar; (Bute, Gaelic Bòt); Hersey) Arran Ar fhinn, Fionn’s land, according to some), Sa-tir-is-mula (the Mull of Kintyre, maol-cheann-tire, bluff of Land’s end); Gudey (Gigha Giugha); Il (Islay, Ile), where he levied a contribution of cattle, meal, and cheese; Myl (Mull, Mul-e); Rauney (Rona, seal isle); Skidi (Skye, Eilan sgiathnach, the winged island), and thence by Harf (Cape Wrath), to Orkney, where the king sickened and died. 


In this early account by an eye witness of a Norwegian expedition, mention is made of “Kiarnakr son makamals,” a Scot who harried the Isle of Skye, and whose men “had even taken small children, and raising them on the points of their spears, shook them til they fell down to their hands,” and in the story abstracted, vol. iii., p.184, and got in Islay, Fionn MacChumhail goes from Islay to Skye to fight the Scandinavians. There is no mention of burnings and murders, but as such proceedings were then common amongst Vikings, according to Norwegian accounts, probably both sides were equally cruel. The translator suggests in a note, that as Makamal is elsewhere written Niachamal, it may be a mistake for “Nial Camal,” a lord of Lochaw. The name was probably written from ear, and the name of the lords of Lochawe is not pronounced Kamal now-a-days in Gaelic. It seems possible that the name may be Ceathearnach (warrior), Mac (son of) Cumhail; but it might be a corruption of several other Gaelic names, as now pronounced, including the big Macaulay, of whose deeds there are so many traditions current in the Long Islands. Be that as it may, petty rulers throughout these islands were then styled kings, as they are in Gaelic stories. Ships were generally small enough to be drawn overland, as described in Barbour’s Bruce, and in traditions; and there are many other traits which appear in popular tales still repeated in the places mentioned. This seems to give a vague reference to something like an Ossianic name. I have several Gaelic stories which clearly describe a Scandinavian descent upon the country about the Clyde, in which Fionn is made to play a part. So this tells for the antiquity of these traditions; and shows how old records may have been destroyed, for there were religious houses on the islands in Loch Lomond. 

C.E. 1314 Bannockburn was fought. According to Barbour the west Highlanders were there in force.

The ferd battale the nobill king 
Tuk till himself in governing, 
And had intill his company 
The men of Argile and of Kintyr 
And of Carrik all haley 
And of the Ilis quharof was Syr 
Angus of Ile and But all tha; 
He of the plane land had alsua 
Of armit men ane mekill rout 
His battale stalwart was and stout. 

It is strange to trace an ante-celtic feeling in the bard who wrote this passage, and it is equally strange to find so little about Bruce in Highland tradition now. 

C.E. 1375 Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, compiled his poem of “the Brus.” The manuscript in the Advocates’ Library contains the words, “hym all.” Hart’s edition, printed 1616, has “Fingal.” Jamieson’s 1820, has “hym all,” and the edition of the Spalding Club, published from a collation of “the Cambridge and Edinburgh MSS.,” follows Hart.

“The Lord of Lorne,” enraged at his men who durst not follow the “Brus,” sets them an “ensampill,” 

He said methink Marthokis sone, 
Richt as Glomakmorn was was wone 
To haf fra Fingal his menyhe, 
Richt sa all his fra us has he. 

The lowland poet here remarks that he might “mar manerlik” have “liknit” him to Gaudifer de Larys, and narrates an exploit performed by that hero of romance, which he knew, and thought a better illustration of Bruce’s valour; so he probably gave the words of the Lord of Lorne as he had heard them, honestly, though he did not see their force. The passage refers to the strife which, according to tradition, was constantly going on between Goll Macmorna and Fionn; and the Lord of Lorne (MacCowl) spoke according to his lights, to men who understood what he meant. Irish history claims a real existence for Fionn and Goll, and modern lowland stories have added supernatural incidents to the real history of the Bruce and Wallace. 

With respect to the various readings; “hym all” makes no sense, Fingal does not accord with tradition, but fynn all would remove all difficulties, and mayhap the scribe wrote hym for fynn, not knowing what was meant. Spelling and writing were not fettered by rules in the olden time, and the letter y might well express the existing vowel sound of Fionn. 

MacDougald of Dunolly (Maccowle as anciently written) now owns a brooch which was won in fight with the Bruce in Lorne, near Morven, the supposed kingdom of Fingal. It is clear that Barbour then expected lowland readers to understand this allusion to two Ossianic heroes. – (Highland Society’s Report, p.21, Hist. Of Scotch Poetry, 275. Barbour’s Brus.) 

C.E. 1391 The Book of Ballymote was written, and contains something relative to the heroes alluded to by Barbour. So they were widely known about the time of Bannockburn, 1314, and the history of Bruce shews that he at least courted the aid of the men of the west, who “were stalwart and stout.”

C.E. 1408 A charter of lands in Islay was written in the usual form of Latin charters, but in the Gaelic language and character, by Fergus Beaton, generally called the Mull Doctor. This proves that the Gaelic character and language were then used in legal documents in Scotland. (Celtic Gleanings, 76.) This manuscript disproves the Irish claim to the exclusive use of the old character, and refutes the assertion that Gaelic was not a written language. It might as well be argued that English was unwritten because the Times does not use Chaucer’s language and black letter.

C.E. 1416 The Book of Leacain was written.

C.E. 1432 Sir Colin of Glenurchy, ancestor of the Breadalbane family, got a charter from his father, and set up for himself. About this time the name MACCOWLE was applied to MacDougald in Lorne. It is pronounced Macgooill now. This Colin is styled Black Colin of Rome. It is said that he was a knight of Rhodes, and that he was three sundry times at Rome.3

Here then is a foundation for some passages in the tale of Conall Gulban, got in Cowal. Highland worthies went to the East and fought the Paynim. Amongst the movables at Taymouth, and the jewels of the house, mention is made “of ane stone of the quantitye of half a hen’s eg set in silver, being flatte at the ane end and round at the other end lyke a peir, whilk Sir Coline Campbell, first laird of Glenurchy, woir when he fought in battle at the Rhodes against the Turks, he being one of the knychtis of Rhodes.” This amulet appears to have been subsequently used as a charm for more homely purposes, and one like its description is still at Taymouth.4 I have seen many such amulets in the Highlands, and they are still used as charms, – so here is foundation for the amulet in Conall Gulban. 

C.E. 1438 Printing invented by Koster.

C.E. 1442 Guttenburg.

C.E. 1460 Guttenburg’s bible completed.

C.E. 1450 About this time Blind Harry composed “Wallace;” William Dunbar was born; and wandering minstrels fell into disrepute in lowland Scotland and elsewhere. It seems that there were Celtic bards then wandering about as well as the lowland minstrels, who were all classed with sturdy beggars by an Act of 1457.

Holland, in a stanza (quoted page 181, Hist. Of Scotch Poetry), abuses a bard out of Ireland, and mimics his language. It is bad Gaelic, written by ear by one who did not understand more than its general meaning. “Banachadee” is clearly Beannachadh Dhia, God’s blessing, which is a common Highland salutation on entering a house; and equivalent to the Irish salutation “God save all here.” Other two lines mean – Said Black Knee give us a drink – come, me drink. Son of Mary’s son, ach! great son! me dry lake. The last lines quoted are –

O’Deremyne, O’Donnall, O’Dochardy droch, 
Thir are his Ireland kingis of the Irischerye; 
O’Krewlyn, O’Conocher, O’Gregre, Makgrane, 
The Schenachy, the Clarschach, 
The Benschene, the ballach, 
The Crekery, the Corach, 
Scho kennis them ilk ane.

This is a list of names and certain words which mean “The reciter of old tales;” “The singing woman” (or the fairy woman); “The boy;” “The spoiling;” “The battle;” and these I take to be a list of current songs or poems which such hungry, thirsting, black-kneed, and therefore barelegged, wandering minstrels recited, together with the genealogies of kings and nobles. So here is a glimpse of Celtic dress and poetry, and it confirms the accounts given of bardic recitations. 

William Dunbar, who flourished in the reign of James the Fourth, and was a churchman who satirized the church in the “Interlude of the Droichis” (Evergreen, p.259), says –

My fair grandsyr hecht Fyn Makowll, 
That dang the diel and gart him yowll. 


My fader meikle Gow Mac Macmorn, 
Out of his moderis wame was shorne.

And hence it is evident that tales about the Feinne were then commonly known to those for whom the poet composed, that is to say, the lowlanders of Scotland. 

In one of his satires, “The Daunce,” Dunbar introduced the seven deadly sins performing a mummery in the dress of the period, before Mahoun and his infernal court, together with troops of those at whom the satires were aimed – nuns, loose livers, and above all, shaven priests and celts. 

The fiend of the Lowland bard concludes his entertainment thus: –

“Than cry’d Mahoun for a Heleand padyane, 
Sy ran a feynd to fetch Makfadyne, 
Far northwart in a nuke:  
Be he the correnoch had done schout, 
Erische men so gadderit him about,  
In hell grit rume they tuke; 
Thae tarmegantis with tag and tatter, 
Full loud in Ersche begouth to clatter, 
And roup lyk revin and ruke, 
The devill sa devit was with thair yell, 
That in the deepest pit of hell, 
He smorit them with smuke.”

From this curious composition a great deal is to be learned about the manners and customs of these rough times, and we got another distant glimpse of Highland ways long ago. There was a fierce war of words between Highland and Lowland nationalities then, as there was between Celt and Saxon in the days of MacPherson, Johnson, and Boswell, and as there is in our own day when Bon Gaultier writes his famous Celtic ballad –

“Fhairshon swore a feud 
Against the clan MacTavish.”

It also appears that lowland bards, then as now, did not know much about the Gaelic language, and made no distinction between Irish and Erische; but they knew the customs of the race. MakFadyane shouted a lament for the dead, so that was a “Highland pageant,” and all the Ersche gathered about him and began to “clatter,” so the custom of crying the coronach, like that of keening in Ireland, was a Highland custom in the fifteenth century. This custom is clearly referred to in the traditional poem on the death of Osgur, and funeral processions are still followed by the bagpipes, and martial music accompanies a soldier to his last home. It also appears that these “Ersche” were a fierce race of termagants, dressed in “tag and tatter,” some fluttering outlandish costume, wholly different from the fine lowland bonnet and flowing gown of “Pride,” who leads the procession in the infernal mummery which Dunbar imagined and described. From the former quotation it appeared that they were bare-kneed “black-knees,” and it seems that the poet hated the whole race and their language, and satirized them, with other objects of his aversion, with all his might. 


1  Report of the Highland Society, p. 293. This MS. Is now missing from the Advocates’ Library, where the collection of the Highland Society was deposited.
2  Translated 1780 from the Icelandic by the Rev. James Johnson, chaplain to the embassy at Copenhagen.
3  Sketches of Early Scotch History, p.343. Black Book of Taymouth.
4  Sketches of Early Scotch History, p.344.