In 1859, 1860, and 1861, I collected Gaelic stories and latterly such ballads as came in my way. Mr. Hector MacLean searched the Islands of Islay, North and South Uist, Benbecula, Barra, Minglay, Mull, and other places, for stories. Mr. Torrie, a native of Benbecula, tried some of the outer Hebrides and Skye. Mr. Carmichael visited Lismore, his native island, walked through part of Sutherland, and the main land of Lorne, and searched the districts where he was stationed in Harris, Skye and Islay. John Dewar and MacNair sent me what they had been able to learn about the traditions of Cowal. Hector Urquhart what he had collected about Inverary. Mr. Osgood Mackenzie searched the neighbourhood of Gairloch, in Ross-shire. Mr Fraser of Mauld sent contributions from the eastern Highlands about Beauly. Mr. Hugh MacLean tried the district about West Loch, Tarbert; Mr. Pattieson and Mr. Taylor tried Islay, Glasgow, and Paisley; Mr. MacLauchlan sent something from Edinburgh, and I myself visited nearly all these places, and corresponded with a great number of friends in these and other parts of the Highlands, who corresponded with their friends. In short, though the search is incomplete, and I have often gleaned more than my collectors had reaped, it was sufficiently extensive to make certain of finding any widely spread class of poetry now current, and latterly we looked for it… I may fairly say that the Gaelic Ossian of 1807, and Seann Dana of 1787, are almost unknown to the class who recite Gaelic poems which they attribute to Oisein.
It is argued that the day for collecting Ossian is gone; and it is true, but something still remains amongst those who can neither read nor write, nor speak English, as I shall endeavour to prove.
In 1786, that is, twenty-six years after MacPherson’s first publication, and twenty-one years before the Gaelic Ossian was printed, and about the time that Dr. Smith’s Seann Dana appeared, the publication of John Gillies appeared also. It is a very rare book; it has made no stir in the world, and it never was distributed gratis; it is hardly noticed by the Highland Society in their report; and MacPherson only refers to it in a note. There is every reason to suppose that “Ossian” and “Seann Dana” ought to be known, and “Gillies’ poems” unknown to the people; but the reverse is true. Many of the poems collected in 1860 are versions of those collected about eighty years before by Gillies.
On looking through the books and manuscripts refered to above, I found the very same poems preserved in collections made in the Highlands long ago, together with other similar poems; but the “Seann Dana” and the “Gaelic Ossian” are nowhere to be found in any of these collections made from the people.
In 1530 Dean MacGregor’s collection was written, and it contains versions of poems which are now current; and one of these is the Lay of Diarmaid; so I take it as an example. When my version was printed, I asked and obtained permission to compare it with that of 1530; and I subsequently obtained another version, written at Gairloch for Sir Kenneth Mackenzie in 1850, from the dictation of John MacPherson, then eighty-eight years old. I am indebted to Mr. Nicholson for this. Other versions were written by Kennedy in 1774 or 1783, and printed by Gillies in 1786, and by MacCallum 1816; and I believe that there are many other versions. All which I have read vary from each other in length, in language, in arrangement of verses, and of lines. Kennedy’s traditional version has 86 quatrains, but some of them are repeated several times; mine has 125 lines, 33 verses incomplete; the Gairloch version has 21 verses. and of these 19 correspond with mine, though not exactly. Two verses I had not got, they are as follows:-
“Bu mhath mise dhuit Fhinn,
‘S bu math mi dhuit gu beachd;
Bu mhath mi latha na tath bhrindhne,
‘S bha mi ‘n ceardach Lon mhic Libhionn.
“Tri righrean thanaig o’n tuinn,
Mo lamhsa dh’ fhag iad gun chinn
‘S a dh’ fhuasgail thusa le fuil,
C’ uime an treigeadh to mi dh aonfhear?”
“Good was I to thee, Fionn,
Surely to thee was I good;
I was good on the day of the ford dwelling,
And I was in Lon MacLibhion’s smithy.
“Three kings came from the waves,
My hand it was left them headless;
And it was I loosed thee with blood,
Why shouldst thou leave me of all men?”
On looking through Kennedy’s version I find something like these in it, and they join in with three other Fenian traditions. For the Ford dwelling, see page 169, vol. ii.; for the blood which Loosed Fionn, p. 179; and for old manuscript authority for a similar story, p. 187 of the same volume; for the Smithy story, see Nos. LXVIII. and LXXXV. in vol. iii. Neither of these verses are in the version of 1530, and I have several others which are not there. The variations in all these are remarkable, the lines vary more in sense than in sound, and the main story hardly varies at all; it seems as if successive reciters or scribes had caught up the story, and the assonance and rhythm, and substituted words, and transposed lines and stanzas from time to time; for example – “Righrean,” kings in the Gairloch poem, is “nigheanan,” girls or daughters in the story – reeran and njeenan being the sounds. “Coisinn, naire,” earn, shame, is “toir raire,” give disgrace, in which the sounds oi and ai are preserved, and the general idea is given, though the words are altered.
“An sgiath urla,” the expert shield, becomes “sgiath shuthairle,” the shield of Sutharle; the sounds are – sgeea oorla, sgeea hooarle; “o’n taigh,” from home, becomes “a’ t’ aghaidh,” against thee; on-tai, at-ai-e, and so on in many instances.
The verses also are differently arranged. In the Gairloch version and in mine, 1 and 2 agree, but 3 in the one is 10 in the other; 5 is 3; 4 and 6 are transposed; 16 is 30; 18 is 21, and so on. In short, this comparison of a number of versions of the same ballad, written down at various periods between 1530 and 1860, in different districts, is a very interesting study for a philologist, and for any one who takes an interest in traditional lore.
In the first place, there is a measure of popular memory; and it appears that tradition will not preserve a poem entire for 330 years, so it could not have so preserved much longer poems for 1600.
It appears also that the language spoken in the Highlands has changed, though far less than English during that time; but the change is sufficient to prove that Gaelic of the nineteenth century cannot be the language of a poet who lived in the third.
It is also plain that the orthography of the poems of 1807, which is that of the HIghland Society’s dictionary and the modern Bible, is not the orthography of the scribes who wrote Gaelic at earlier periods; and, consequently, “the poems of Ossian” are not a standard for language or spelling.
Again, the rhythm and assonance of this traditional poem are such, that when I, on my own judgment, had separated lines written consecutively, into quatrains, I found, on inquiry, that previous collectors had done the same with similar passages; and our divisions correspond, and fit the music to which the pieces are still sung. Much of the Gaelic of Ossian and Seann Dana can be so divided, but a great deal of it will not break up into musical quatrains; and from this I would argue that it is not now in its original shape.
Now, a poem of Diarmaid was published by Dr. Smith in 1787, and the Doctor had then in his possession the version collected by Kennedy, but though the stories agree, the published poem and Kennedy’s manuscript differ entirely.
Dr. Smith says of himself (Smith’s Gaelic Antiquities, p. 128. 1780. Edinburgh) –
“When the materials were collected, his next labour was to compare the different editions; to strike off several parts that were manifestly spurious; to bring together some episodes,” etc.,
and he tells us, that he pieced in lines and half lines, and sometimes threw in a few lines and sentences of his own. The result is, that there is no trace of Smith’s Diarmaid to be found as an entire composition either in old MSS. or modern tradition; the poetry will not easily break up into quatrains, and but for occasional passages which can be recognised elsewhere, Smith’s Diarmaid might almost rank with Ossian itself. But that was formerly considered to be the proper treatment of an original work of the third century, and the work so treated was translated and published, and the whole process was openly described by the able scholar who did it.
I have taken this poem as an illustration, because it has nothing to do with MacPherson’s Ossian, and its history seems to indicate how the Gaelic of Ossian was put together, and from what materials it was made.
The value of the materials will best appear by comparing the versions of 1530 and 1860 with intervening versions. There are forty-two lines in the first which are clearly the same as lines in the last, and about twelve more which can be recognised; but no two lines are exactly the same, and those which resemble each other are scattered broadcast throughout the compositions; but the stories are almost the same.
The old version was attributed to an unknown Allan MacRoyre; tradition now attributes the Lay of Diarmaid to Oisein, and Irish scholars assure us that the main incidents are historically true, as this is but a part of the story of Diarmain and Grainne, who lived about the third century. Few ballads have a better pedigree, or have met with worse treatment that this Lay of Diarmaid. 1530, Dean MacGregor, 104 lines – Kennedy, 1774, 344 – Smith, 1787, 193 – MacCallum, 1816, 161 – MacPherson, 1850, 84 – MacLean, 1860 (104). I have other versions, got from Mr. Torrie, etc., since the sheet was printed, and plenty more may yet be got, as the ballad is common enough in the Hebrides, and the story is known everywhere, and often contains lines of the ballad.
This then is a Gaelic “ballad,” a story made into verse, and sung by the people time out of mind. It was easy to build up a new structure with such excellent materials, and so give a tolerable idea of the poetry of the country, partly true and partly false, and I have no doubt that the poems of Ossian were so made.
Take one instance. What is true of Smith’s “Diarmaid” is true of “Temora.” I know no instance in which that poem can be repeated by any one, and no peasant of my acquaintance knows it. I got MacNair, a shoemaker, to read the Gaelic Ossian, and he said plainly and decidedly, “This is not the old stuff.” “Cha n’ e so an seann stugh.” Hector MacLean entirely agrees, having read the book with the view of forming an opinion, and though many persons talk freely of Ossian, and give very decided opinions thereon, very few, indeed, have read the Gaelic. Now, if MacPherson’s English Temora be compared with NO. LXXXI., it will be found that the story of the first book and of the traditional poem is very simple, and that both agree generally. Moreover, stanzas 12, 14, 24, 15, 16, 39, 40, 46, 55, 56, 62, 57, 58, of the Gaelic, repeated in 1860, are represented by passages which follow each other in this order, about the middle of the first book; but the magic opening of the ballad, the talking raven, and the soothsaying, all which savours of a past age, is replaced in the epic by a vague but beautiful and masterly word-picture of a landscape, through which stalk the half-described indistinct figures of gloomy warriors whose dress and arms are barely sketched, but whose peculiarities agree with the traditional accounts of them so far as they go. Thus, Cairbre has a spear, and his eye is red, if his hair is not. In the epic, the opening scene is shifted to Cairbre’s camp, and then back to Fingal’s side, and the whole is pervaded by a general resemblance to the opening of Fingal, but the first book ends with something which I have not yet been able to trace elsewhere. The ballad, on the contrary, begins with Osgar, follows him to the house of Cairbre, and through his quarrel, and back to his own camp, and through the fight till he dies, and then it accompanies his friends in their lament, and procession, to his burial. The whole ends with a natural account of the grief of Fionn, by Fionn’s son, the poet Oisein, who is supposed to be narrating the end of his own darling son, Osgar. The ballad is simple and natural; the epic is laboured and artificial, and it is no “translation,” according to my definition of the word, but it is like something elaborated and built up out of the materials of one or more ballads. A few well-known Gaelic lines are scattered about in an English dress, such as “the sword was at his side that gave no second wound,” and a man who read Temora for the first time, and held loose views of translation, and knew the traditional Gaelic ballads, might well say that the one was a translation of the other, but very inacurate, and inferior to the original.
MacPherson knew of this ballad, and in his edition of 1790 quotes two stanzas of it, which were taken, as he says, from an Irish poem on the battle of Gabhra. These stanzas were printed by Gillies, and were found in Scotland at least fourteen years before, in 1786.
Versions of this ballad are very commonly repeated in the islands now, and No. LXXXI. might be considerably extended by further search in Islay, Barra, Uist, etc. I know that it was formerly recited about Loch Awe, and there is a man there still, who is said to know many such. In 1816, MacCallum got it from a Mr. Donald MacInnes, and published it, page 154 of his book. Gillies gives two versions in 1786, at page 167 and 313. Kennedy gives it in his collection of 1783, and got it in Argyleshire. MacPherson made it the groundwork of Temora, and of his first publication in 1760, and Dean Macgregor gives it in 1530. On the other side of the water, a similar poem was published in 1853 by the Dublin Ossianic Society, and in the twelfth century a short ballad, attributed to Oisin, was written down in Ireland, and the best Irish scholars believe that the leading events recorded in the ballad, and found in Temora, the battle and the deaths of Oscar and Cairbre, are historically true, and happened A.D. 284, in Ireland, where the scene is laid in every one of the compositions named above.
This seems a respectable pedigree for a tradition, worked into an epic poem at least a hundred years ago, and one that excites regret for the neglected state of Gaelic literature of all kinds.
What has been said of “Diarmid” is true of “Laoidh Oscair.” No two version are identical; the language and orthography vary with the age and the scribe; rhythm and assonance are preserved, stanzas are broken, parts found in one version are not to be found in another; and there is ample room for honestly mending, with its own fragments, that which has gone to decay, without playing such tricks as Temora. There is not one line of the Gaelic of the traditional ballad in the Gaelic of 1807, and the first Gaelic book of Temora, as then published, has still to be accounted for.
It seems by no means a difficult task to make another sham epic out of genuine Gaelic materials. I have enough to make a goodly frame of work, and here is a specimen of the kind of “translation,” which might be founded on, several measured prose passages, which are to be found in these volumes, and elsewhere. It is the sort of translation which some of my critics seem to have expected, instead of the “bald literal translation” which I prefer.
A few specimens of former work will shew, that if I have fallen into Charybdis, it was in avoiding Scylla.
Page 190. Smith’s Gaelic Antiquities.
“GRAINA, dost thou not remember the moans of the crane, as we wandered early on the hill of our love?”
With pity, thou didst ask the aged son of the rock, why so sad was the voice of the crane? “Too long,” he replied, “he hath stood in the fen; and the ice hath bound his lazy foot.”
A similar passage will be found at pages 42 and 47, vol. iii., and from the Gaelic quoted by Smith. His original seems to have been almost the same as mine. His Gaelic lines mean –
Early the Heron cries
On the meadow that is in Love’s hill (sliabh gaoil).
The same author translates –
“As it were a bulrush on a slender reed of Lego. He grinds the hard tough spear of Dermid.”
A similar traditional passage is given in vol. iii., 54 and 58.
Smith’s Gaelic is given by him at page 193:-
Chagnadh e a shleaghan readh ruadh’
Mar chuile na Leige no mar luachar.
And it means, –
He would crunch his tough brown darts
As reeds of Leige or as rushes.
Another passage is given by the same author at page 198, and whenever the Gaelic is placed beside the English, the spirit of the original poetry gives way to a prose imitation of MacPherson’s peculiar English. Though the Gaelic is in a metre which clearly indicates a division into quatrains, of which each line is a separate portion of a sentence, and makes sense alone, the English is all heaped together. The result is, fine English and something new.
I have striven to express, in the plainest words, the plain meaning of the old Gaelic as I got it. If my predecessors had been less free in their translations, and their critics less hard, I might have steered a middle course. As it was, my chief aim was to give a true rendering, without caring for my own “style” or that of “Ossian.” – FALSE TRANSLATION OF GENUINE GAELIC.
Vol. ii. 454.
They hoisted the lumbering yards, and the three great flappering sails, against the tall tough stringy bending masts, and the cordage rattled through the blocks.
There was a gentle little breeze, such as sailors like at sea, a sighing, singing, whistling, rushing wind, that threshed up the heather on the hill sides, stripped off the rustling leaves from the willow trees, and tossed the thatch of the houses on the ridges and furrows of the fields. The sides of the vessel creaked as they set the sails.
Then the ship went slipping swiftly along through the sheltered sound, while the rippling little blue wavelets came lipping gently against her bow, till she rounded the point with a whirr, and went into the surging broken water outside with a plunge.
Then the lumbering great ocean swell came thundering up against the dark rocks, and struck the ship’s side with a heavy thud, as she bounded along. Their music then was made by splashing whales, and screeching sea-gulls, and silvery little fishes leaping through the waves before them.
Vol. i. 4.
She could almost catch the swift March wind before her, but the swift March wind that followed behind could not catch her; and so they sailed on, tearing ocean, till a little island rose before them, and then they reached the port where they wished to be, and the rattling chains rushed over the side, and the rusty anchor made her fast; and they were still and quiet in the calm bay.
Vol. ii. 458.
Then one hundred and ten heavily-armed, brave, active, valiant men landed, and then they advanced, with their booming, hindering, lumbering shields, on their left arms, and their sharp-pointed tall deadly spears, in their right hands;
Vol. ii. 463. MSS.
and the fighting began with the sharp singing sound of the swift flying spears through the air. But soon the close combat was joined, and the hard cruel blades were drawn out from their leathern sheaths, and whistled and clashed; and the creaking of armour was heard, and the crash of the battle; and the bright shiny clean sweeping swords hacked hard at the armour, and men met and struggled, and close locked together, they dashed down each other, while the shrieks of the wounded were heard, and the crashing of armour, crushed under foot; and the groans of the dying, and the shouts of the heroes, and the boom of the shields; and wild wailing piercing shrieks and cries made the terrible din of war.
Vol. iii. 380.
Such, oh Clerk, were the heroes of old. There gathered the horrid hounds about them to watch the strife; the ravens croaked over the brows of the slain, and they rest till the stars shall fall and the earth burst.
The chief difficulty would be to find an audience now-a-days. A century ago it was different. The world was agape after the Highlanders who had raised such a stir. “The rebellion” had been put down; there was a kind of satisfaction in discovering noble qualities in the “unvanquished Scots,” who had just been got to help to vanquish each other. Men believed in epics, and opened their mouths and shut their eyes, and swallowed what James MacPherson sent them, but when they had tasted the gift and opened their eyes, and began to suspect that they had been sold a bargain, men, like children, refused to take the nicest of jam, for fear of another dose.
So far then, current tradition gives no support to the entire authenticity of the “poems of Ossian,” English or Gaelic, but it joins on the manuscript evidence and proves beyond dispute that there has been a mass of Gaelic poetry current in the Highlands of Scotland for a long time, that it is “Ossianic,” the germ of Ossian, but not “Ossian,” as known to the world. It seems as if stories had produced a crop of ballads, and some one had reaped the crop and sold it in the sheaf.
The list of poems placed at the end of this volume will give some idea of the amount of Gaelic poetry of this kind which still exists, and where it may be found. The list has no claim to be complete, but will serve as a foundation for other inquirers, if such be found.
2 thoughts on “Current Gaelic Traditions – Ossian and Ballads, pp.119-131.”