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Gaelic Poetry of Known & Unknown Bards, Published & Traditional – Part 1, pp.147-163.

[Popular Tales Hector MacLean Contents]


“The Gaelic poems which were published in 1807, from a manuscript in the handwriting of James MacPherson, differ very widely indeed from those which are handed down by tradition; very widely indeed from all known traditions about the Fenian heroes current in the Highlands. The kingdom of Morven is unknown either in tradition poems or stories. These do not represent the Fenian heroes drinking on all occasions out of shells, they frequently drink out of vessels of gold or silver, as the case may be. The traditional Fionn is not that grave, stately, solemn, ostentatious, old monarch which he is in the Ossian published by MacPherson; but a being of more human sympathies, possessed of strong feelings and passions – a hero that might have been a brave, generous, chieftain, who was not entirely free from the frailties that flesh is heir to. Popular poetry or tradition never describes him as a venerable old monarch, with hoary locks, nor does it allude to his being aged, or weakened by old age. The death of all the other Fenian heroes is recorded, but there is not the least hint given of Fionn’s death. 

He is said to have been occasionally seen in Eilean na h-oige, the island of youth, also called An t-Eilean uaine, the green isle – and island which Hebrideans believe to be located somewhere west, and which many of them believe to have seen. The people of Islay believe it to be situated west of Islay of course; the people of Barra, west of Barra; the people of Uist, west of Uist; and the people of Harris, west of Harris; many are they who have had the good fortune to see this blessed island. I conversed in youth myself with old people who did see it off from Portnahaven, in Islay, on a fine evening; but I have never yet had the good fortune to see it myself, though I have often seen the evening clouds piled up like hills on the horizon. 

It is told that a Jura man, who owned a small vessel, once met a man on the pier at Greenock, who engaged the ship at a certain freight, to carry him and a cargo to the westward of Islay. The bargain was struck, and the cargo put on board, and they sailed round the Mull of Cantire, and through the Sound of Islay, where a thick fog came on. They got through the Sound and bore away to the westward, and, after a few days, they found themselves one morning close to land. They cast anchor and went to sleep, and when they awoke the man and his cargo were gone. The Jura skipper did not like to lose his freight, landed, and walked up to a large house, where he found “sean duine mor cròsgach” – a large, big-boned old man – seated in an arm-chair, who offered him a drink. The drinking vessels were so large that the skipper could not lift them, so the big man called his daughter to give him a draught, and a girl came in and raised the vessel (“soitheach”), and he took a long drink of beer. He told his story, and the big man asked him if he could recognise the man who had engaged the ship. He said he could, and a number of people were sent for, and passed in review before him. At last the delinquent appeared, and was recognised, and made to pay the freight, upon which he thrust his finger into the skipper’s eye, and put it out, saying, “If I had done that to thee before, thou wouldst not have known me.”1

The inhabitants then made the Jura men brush every particle of the dust of the island from their feet, and sent them away with their money; and when they sailed, the island seemed to disappear in a mist. This Jura man, it is said, was well known afterwards, and was blind of an eye, and the big man is supposed to be “FIONN.” 

In Berneray, near Harris, a similar story is told of men still alive, but it wants much of the marvellous element. The men, as it is said, took a cargo from Stornoway to an island, supposed to be Eilean uaine, the green isle. They sailed westwards, and left the cargo, part of which was salt, got their money, and returned, after being required by the inhabitants to shake off every particle of the dust of the island which stuck to them. 

There are many other stories current relative to these islands, “Eilean na h-oige,” and “An t-Eilean uaine,” the island of youth, and the green island, wherein Fionn is supposed still to dwell with his warriors.2

Blessed were they who could get to this Celtic paradise; for were they to land they would become as young as they were at twenty; fresh and blooming, and without gray hairs, or wrinkles, or ailments. A more comfortable and cheery habitation certainly this would be than the MacPherson “Ossian’s” cloud palaces and mist promenades; his railways of moonshine rivalling Mahomet’s narrow bridge across the gulf to paradise which, though not broader than a needle, the faithful trip over safely/ Although the ancient Hebrideans, subsequent to Norwegian sway, were very good sailors, and sometimes very good pirates also, as ransacked towns and villages on the mainland could well testify, they do not seem to have been over fond of aerial voyages; but preferred to stick to salt-water sailing, and chose rather to hope for a retreat in some pretty green mythical western island than for lofty habitations in the cold frosty regions of the upper air. 

The traditional Fenian poems consist of pieces of various length, interspersed through prose narration; both poems and narration constituting what is usually called “Eachdraidh na Feinne,” the history of the Feinne. The prose narrative is varied, and consists, at one time, of common conversational language, at another of measured prose, a species of composition midway between prose and verse. Explanations and genealogies are given in ordinary conversational language, as well as other minor details; exciting circumstances are delineated in a more rhetorical style, while the most momentous events, such as are mainly connected with a great and important action, are given in verse. The verse itself varies widely, and as the subject is more elevated, it becomes more musical and metrical. The terms “duan,” and “dan,” and “laoidh,” are employed to distinguish the various kinds from each other. The laoidh (lay) is the most musical, and is generally sung to a simple, plaintive air. In the greatest number of cases it describes a tragic event, the death of a hero, or some other serious calamity. These poems are connected with each other by prose narrative, and stories, so as to make something like one united whole of the Fenian traditions. All these poems are of a narrative character, dwelling almost entirely either on human or superhuman action, and never referring either to animal or inanimate nature further than it is connected with human passion, sympathy, or interest. There are no long addresses to inanimate objects of nature; neither are there any refined speculations on human life and existence; there are no sentimental speeches on fame or glory. The men of the ballads fight not for glory, but in defence of some disputed right, or to avenge an insult, or to resist oppression, or to protect a woman in distress. 

In these lays, similes and metaphors are very sparingly used; but this appears to result more from the intensity of interest belonging to the subject, than the want of power on the part of the poet; as similes and metaphors are very plentiful in these long epic tales which treat of like subjects. This will appear readily on looking over “The Knight of the Red Shield,” No. LII,. and “The Slim Swarthy Champion,” No. XVII. C, in the West Highland Tales. The language of the old ballads is exceeding choice Gaelic, pure, idiomatic, chaste. There is no trace of Anglicism, or of classic idiom; it is the Gaelic of the people, but still purer and more elevated than that of common conversation, and with obsolete words interspersed. Clearness and conciseness distinguish these from the great mass of published Gaelic poems and songs; which bear evident marks of belonging to more modern periods, both in language and matter, and whose authors are known; very few of the more modern poems being at all comparable to the ballads in these qualities. These later compositions are frequently tautological, and profuse in epithets, abounding sometimes in long tedious lists of adjectives or adverbs, which make them look more like a vocabulary than a regular poem. This is the case with regard to the war song of the battle of Harlaw, composed about 1411; much of Coire an easain, composed by the Piobaire dall, or blind piper; some of MacDonald’s Song to Summer; a large portion of his Moladh Moraig; much of Coire Cheathaich by MacIntyre, and a large portion of his Beinn Dorain. In these poems there are scarcely any words to be found borrowed from English, and in this respect they form a strong contrast to all that has been published of the works of Scoto-Gaelic poets who flourished from the fifteenth century down to the present day. We find the word puthar, power, in the songs of MacMhuirich, Clanranald’s bard, who lived in the seventeenth century. In the songs of Mari, nighean Alastair Ruaidh (Mary, daughter of Alexander Roy) MacLeod of MacLeod’s bard, we find the English corruptions, purpas, purpose; subsaint, substance; and yet her songs are, and justly, allowed to be written in very pure Gaelic. The peacock figures as a simile also in one of her songs. In the poems of John MacDonald, usually styled Iain lom (bare-faced John, from his beardless face and impudence), who lived in the time of Montrose in the seventeenth century, we meet with the words Lieutenant, Lady Murray, Whitehall, adbhansa, advance; geard guard. In the songs of MacMhaighstir Alastair, who took an active part on the side of Prince Charles in 1745, we find the words standard – moision, motion; canain, cannon. In MacIntyre, who lived at the same time with MacDonald, we meet with the words coitseachan, coaches; deasput, dispute; phairti, party. Such words are not to be found in the traditional poems ascribed to Ossian, or in those other pieces which belong to the same class. But yet in every-day conversation nowadays, we find such words as chorner, corner; ghig, gig; dhisturbadh, disturbing; phortmanteau, trunk, steamboat, railroad, story, confoundadh, drainadh, chaidsigeadh, catching, and hundreds of other distorted English words which hardly ever find their way into the old ballads, though constantly used by the people who repeat them. Here then is a strong contrast between these ancient poems, and the works of those who have been considered the best bards of the Highlands for the last three centuries.3

In comparing these ballads with the compositions of the more modern bards, the dignified simplicity of the language of the former becomes quickly apparent. Although their language, so far as regards inflection and structure, is modern, yet there are words and phrases which appear to be more ancient, and which are now obsolete, and these, as well as the absence of English corruptions, distinguish them from all other Scoto-Gaelic poetry; and with regard to peculiar phrases, and curious antiquated words and expressions, they strongly resemble the popular Gaelic tales. 

The offensive weapons described are spears, “cranntabhaill” swords, and darts; there is hardly an allusion to bows and arrows; few to agriculture, to bread, corn, or to any kind of food, connected with an agricultural life. The food described is the produce of the chase. Deer and boars, and some species of deer which does not now exist, and which is supposed to be the elk, “Lon,” are the animals generally hunted; and dogs are the only domestic animals frequently mentioned.4

These are mentioned with as much affection as Byron’s dog – that animal, so faithful and so true to man, which has never been convicted either of treachery, insincerity, or ingratitude. Byron, Campbell, and the traditional Ossian agree in this. The events related are at times probable, at others improbable or impossible; at times superhuman, at others human, which evidently tends to shew that these poems unite many periods, and that probably they have embodied the substance of more ancient poems. At times huge giants and weapons are mentioned, such as – 

Bha seachd troidhean ann air liad, 
‘S ochd troidhe diag air fad ann. 
Seven feet was he in breadth, 
And in length he was eighteen feet. 

A remarkable feature in these poems is the magnanimity and gallantry which distinguish their heroes, though mixed with much barbarism and fierceness. There is fair play given to the enemy; and when he is not fighting with them, he is invited to their feast; if he falls in battle he is honourably buried, and receives credit for his bravery; his memory is cherished, esteemed, and loved, for his valorous deeds. Women are always protected and treated with courtesy; nor is there the least hint given that they were either kept in bondage, or doomed to slavery; on the contrary, their wishes seem to have been considered as something to be gratified, but never to be contradicted; and yet some of the women who repeat such poems work hard as field labourers, and the men are of the poorest classes. 

In their ballads the incidents are few, but elevated, and the narration flows along in an easy, simple, but dignified strain. No tedious verbosity mars or interrupts the vigorous character of the poetic stream. Rapidity seems to have been the chief aim of the ancient bards, and the action rolls along like the impetuous torrents of their own mountain country. There is no vagueness, no mistiness, no obscurity; the action is as vividly clear to the mind’s eye as the landscape is to the eye itself on a bright summer day. The introduction is always abrupt and simple, and this is the character of mostly all Scoto-Gaelic poetry; for in this manner all known Gaelic bards, learned and unlearned, begin their songs and lays. They invoke neither spirits or muses, but begin at once. If these ballads do not abound in long sentimental speeches, still genuine touches of true feeling are to be found most exquisitely and tersely expressed. In a warlike age the passions are strong, and not often under proper restraint. Strong attachments and resentments belong to the men of such an age. They are by turns fiercely cruel and nobly generous, but both their cruelty and their generosity are manifested in acts rather than in words. That sentimentalism which is after all but a poor shadowy substitute for genuine feeling. It showers oceans of tears on distress, but will not move a hand to relieve it; it gives soft and commiserating words to the needful, but clings firmly to its gold and silver; it pities in sighs, but not in sovereigns. Sterne wrote the Sentimental Journey, and lamented in dolorous strain over a dead ass, but he allowed his poor old mother to pine away in prison, and advanced not a stiver to procure her liberty. Though these lays are void of this tinsel, they possess what is really more valuable – truthful delineation of human nature, of lofty bravery, and of true and real feeling. Popular poetry has no morbid sentiment, and the people are kind to each other. 

Besides the ballads, which form part of what is usually called “Eachdraidh na Féinne,” the history of the Feinn, there are numerous traditional ballads and scraps of poetry similar to them in character, which treat of giants, enchantments, and supernatural deeds; some which treat of fairies, and fairy lovers; some of the loves of men and women. Short passages, stanzas, and lines of poetry, ascribed to Ossian, are even still recited through a great many parts of the Highlands, and tales about the Feinn, interspersed with verse, are yet to be heard in many districts from old men. There are very few old Highlanders that cannot even now say something about Fionn and his heroes; how they fought and died. Proverbs, old sayings, and puzzles, are connected with their names. A proverb, which is heard at almost all convivial Highland meetings, is “Cha do dhi-chuimhnich Fionn fear a dheas laimh riamh,” Fionn never forgot his right hand man. Rocks, hills, streams, and places are called after the Feinne, Surnames are derived from them; such as MacDhiarmaid, the son of Diarmaid; MacGhill Fhaolan, the son of the servant of Faolan (MacLellan); MacGhill Earragain, the son of the servant of Earragan (MacLergan); MacOisean, the son of Oisean; MacCuinn, the son of Conn (MacQueen); and generally the Feinne and their exploits pervade all Celtic Scotland and all Gaelic tradition. 

If these poems be not ancient in substance, how is it that they differ so widely from the works of the best of the modern Scoto-Gaelic bards? How is it that they have not mixed up with other songs and poems? How is it that guns, powder, and modern dresses have not crept in? How is it that we have no lieutenants, captains, and colonels, dukes, marquises, and earls amongst the Feinn? How is it that we have none of the scriptural allusions and quotations which are scattered so plentifully through the works of Gaelic poets in general? How is it that we have nothing new in the ballads, while prose tales have altered with the age? We might expect that modern poets would have armed Fionn with a musket, or culverin; or even have made him and his followers use cannon. I heard a story told of Fergus the First, king of Scotland, in Barra, in which that ancient monarch was armed with a gun; strange that the Barra people never thought of arming Fionn and Diarmaid with one a-piece, more especially as these warriors are much more popular in that island than Fergus the First. 

Much of the groundwork of these ballads, as well as the substance of many Fenian tales and traditions, are embodied in the Gaelic Ossian published from MacPherson’s manuscript, but there everything has undergone an entire change. We have no longer the simplicity of traditional poems; smoothness of versification is almost entirely wanting, and the idiom of the language is every now and then violated. Inversions abound, such as we find in learned English poetry, and words are so wrenched out of their general meaning, as to be unintelligible to the generality of Highlanders; but while this is the case, there are but few ancient or obsolete words. In this respect this Gaelic contrasts with that of traditional ballads. The difficulty of understanding the epic poems does not lie in ancient forms of speech, or in old obsolete words, but in the strange liberty that is taken with words by using them in quite a new way, and in arranging them in a manner that is incomprehensible to those whose native language the Gaelic is, unless they happen to know English, or some classical tongue. In many lines the words only are Gaelic; the structure has nothing to do with that language. The sentences may be English, or Latin, or Greek, may, in fact, be specimens of a new universal language, but they are not Gaelic. Vagueness and obscurity abound everywhere, and like the darkness of night which makes hills and dales appear like lofty mountains and steep ravines, these poems impress a person, before he has examined what he has been reading, with something akin to sublimity. Some lines prove to be nonsense when closely examined. Bad grammar and violated idiom abound everywhere. Adjectives of more than one syllable are placed before substantives, which is much the same as if we were to say in English, “There is a horse beautiful; O what a house elegant!” 

Heroes always drink out of shells, lead a hunting life, and address one another more like modern sages than barbarians. A teacher of ethics could not be more sententious or moralizing than they are. 

“Màile” for mail is a frequent term, but it is a mere English corruption; luireach is the Gaelic word. On reading a line, containing this word, to an acquaintance, he understood it to mean màl, the bag of the bagpipes. Tis word does not occur in the popular poems, and is hardly known to Highlanders in general, in the sense in which it is used here. Endless passages might be quoted to illustrate the preceding statements. 

In Carthonn, page 55, occurs the line – 

“Tri giubhais ag aomadh o’n torr.”

This is exactly what might occur to a person translating the English expression “three firs,” but no name of any species of wood is ever used in Gaelic to designate a tree; we must say – 

“Tri craobha giubhais,” three fir trees, and so with other trees. It is bad Gaelic to say – 

“An cluaran glas air chrom nan càrn.”

The green thistle on the bend of the cairns; for “crom” is never used as a substantive, and means “bent.” 

“Mall ag aomadh mu uaigh an t-seòid.”

(Slow inclining about the grave of the hero) is bad Gaelic. “Mall” in this line would require “gu” before it to make it an adverb, and good Gaelic. 

“Tha mo chlaidheamh crith mhosgladh gu cheann.”

My sword is shaking waking to its hilt. This line, as printed, is nonsense, but the idea of a sword quivering and awaking is good, and a small change would make the line Gaelic. 

In “Gaol nan daoine,” page 75, the following line occurs:- 

“Gu Selma nan lan-bhroilleach òigh.”

“Lan-bhroilleach” is here placed before the substantive, which is incorrect, and very bad Gaelic; the term is altogether very awkward, for were we to say, “nan òigh làn-bhroilleach,” it might convey the meaning of a maiden full of breasts, instead of full breasted; but there is a Gaelic expression commonly used to convey the idea intended. 

“Dh’ aom a shleagh ri carraig nan cos” is bad.

“Aom” implies motion into an inclined position, and this line means “his spear toppled towards the rock of crannies,” not “his spear leant against a mossy rock,” which the context shews was the intended meaning. 

In p. 108 of Fingal occurs the line – 

“Cuchullin nan gorm-bhallach sgiath.”

Cuchullin of the shields blue spotted, which arrangement of words violates Gaelic idiom. 

Duan 4th, p. 264 of Tighmora – 

“Thainig i le suilibh caoin,
A measg chiabh a bha taomadh gu trom.”

“She came with mild eyes among locks that were pouring out heavily.” These lines make no sense either in English or in Gaelic, but they are intended to describe mild eyes amongst flowing locks. 

Tighmora Duan 7, p. 507 – 

“Tha ‘n speur an losgadh nan reul,” means –

“The sky is in the burning of the stars,” but is probably intended to mean that the sky is in a blaze with stars. 

Carthonn, p. 63. 

“Chunnaic oigh nan uchd glana na tréin,” means –
“The maiden of the clean chests saw the heroes.”

“Thaom iadsa’ chéile ‘s a’ bhlàr,” means, to a modern Highland ear, “They poured themselves out into each other in the battle.” 

These are a few examples of passages which seem to me obscure, improper, or nonsensical; they might be multiplied considerably. 

The language of the printed Ossian of 1807 differs entirely from that of the traditional ballads now ascribed to Ossian; it differs entirely from that of other published Scoto-Gaelic poetry, except Dr. Smith’s Sean Dana, Mordubh, and a few other pieces published by Gillies, Stewart, MacCallum, etc., and the language appears to be more tinged with foreign idioms even than Sean Dana, or any other Gaelic publication which I have read, Mordubh and some modern translations from English only excepted; it differs entirely from Gaelic as spoken at present in the Highlands; and it differs entirely from that of the Irish Ossianic poems which have been published by the Irish Ossianic Society. All these have a common bond, a common idiom, a common structure, though they differ in minutiæ, and the common general idiom is seldom violated by any of these. 

Lastly, the Gaelic of 1807 differs from any specimens of ancient Gaelic which I have seen, but there are some passages in it which strike me as good specimens of Gaelic and of poetry.”


1  There is a popular tale known all over Europe, in which a mortal acquires the power of seeing immortals, betrays the power by speaking to one, and is deprived of one eye. I have got the story in many shapes from the Highlands. – J.F.C. 
2  This legend is very like that of Arthur, who, when he was sore wounded, sailed off in a boat to the “Island of Avalon” (Gaelic, “avlan,” apples), where he is supposed still to live. 
The curious ceremonies performed by the Hebrideans when they visited the Flannen islands, according to Martin, probably have to do with this old world belief. Flath-innis is one of the words still used for heaven. It means the hero’s island, and Flath-innis-ean might easily be contracted to Flannen. There is a chapel on nearly every western island in Scotland and Ireland; and it may be that the first Christian missionaries planted their churches in these remote corners as the very strongholds of Paganism. There is a chapel in the Shiant islands, which I take to be a corruption of Eileanan nan sithiichean, the islands of the fairies or peaceful people, and almost every small island to which a legend is attached, such as the haunted island, off the Rhinns of Islay, has its Christian chapel as well. – J.F.C. 
3  It is to be remarked that the published Ossian, and the whole of the suspected class, are also entirely free from any such words, though the construction of the language is different from that of the ballads. – J. F. C.
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