On examining other Gaelic poetry which has been published, it will be observed that it undergoes a gradual change in character from the more modern to the more ancient. The style and language alter as poems recede from the present day, and as it may be of some interest to the English reader to know something of this class of Gaelic poetry, it may not be out of place to give a short account of some few of the best known bards, and of a few of their works which bear upon Ossian.
We have Gaelic bards even in our own day, and these describe the life and manners which they observe around them – the dress, arms, food, drink and habits of the day. Peasant bards are by no means extinct in the Highlands, and if their composition be not poetry of any great merit, they generally contain good sense and sprightly humour couched in pretty smooth verse. Almost every Highland district has even yet a bard who enjoys a fair amount of renown in his own neighbourhood, and among his own class. Hector Boyd, who narrated to me so many tales, is reputed a bard in Barra; in North Uist, Christian Macdonald, of whom I received several tales, is highly esteemed as a poetess. I was recommended to call on a man near Stornoway who is rather famous in Lewis, and whose name reached me even in Barra, a hundred miles away I know some even in my own neighbourhood in Islay though I have been told somewhere that Islay never produced a bard. To this I replied, that probably that was because the calling was not now respected there; as a proverb current in the island would lead us to infer:-
“Bàrd, a’s ceàrd. a’s filidh.”
A bard, a tinker, and a musician, which is the meaning of these words in Islay now.
In examining the works of modern Gaelic bards, we find that figures and phrases, nay entire verses, have been considered common property. The same similes and phrases are used by all; and sometimes a new song is but an old one with new names and a few alterations. An old song seems to have been considered good material for a new one, exactly as the stones of an old house are taken to erect another, and Druidical circles are broken up to make farm-steadings.
It was quite a custom in the Highlands, and that not long ago, to meet for the purpose of composing verses. These were often satirical, and any one who happened not to be popular, was fixed upon for a subject. Each was to contribute his stanza, and whoever failed to do his part was fined. Whenever a verse happened to be composed that was pretty smooth and smart, it took well, as might be expected, and spread far and wide like ill-natured satire elsewhere. An exact counterpart of this custom prevailed among the ancient Icelanders, many of whom were descended from men who emigrated from the islands where the custom still survives. The Burning of “Njal,” whose name is now a common one in the Highlands, and is pronounced nearly according to the English value of these letters, took place in 1011, and many of the tragical events recorded in the “Njal Saga” grew out of a ballad composed and sung at a meeting of neighbours in the house of Gunnar of Litherende.1
Stanzas were at times added to old songs, and others were altered, but such alterations were not often successful, as old men and knowing critics objected. It was only when they possessed superior merit that they passed current; but as the Highlanders have a great veneration for their old ballads, any alterations made upon them gave offence, and were rejected with indignation. This spirit must have helped to preserve these.
Recent Gaelic songs describe the manners of our own times, the dresses, arms, and professions of the day, but allude to past ages, and often mention the Feinne as well-known heroes.
Among the latest bards, some of whose work have been published in the “Beauties of Gaelic Poetry,” is DONALD MACDONALD, who was born in Strathmore, Ross-shire, in the year 1780, and who died of cholera in 1832. Two of his songs only are published, one to Napoleon Buonaparte, and another to his sweetheart. In the song to his sweetheart, figure the words parson and seisoin. It is full of amorous sentiment; he must die without his sweetheart; the silver of Europe and the gold of Egypt would not avail without her.
The song to Buonaparte begins in rather a lofty strain; the bard stands on the pavement of Edinburgh and sees the banners flaming in the sun; he hears the echo of the rocks replying to them with joy; he hears music in every house; he sees bonfires on the hills. It is heard from the gaidean (gazettes), read everywhere, that Buonaparte had to fly. Righ Deorsa, Cæsar and his legions, the most of the Highland clans, the ten plagues of Egypt, Fontenoi, Morair Hundaidh, Diuc Earraghael, Diuc Mhontrose, Hanobher, chomannda (command), retreat, are names and words that embellish this modern Gaelic lay.
ALEXANDER MACKINNON is another bard that was nearly contemporary with the preceding. He was born in Morar, Arisaig, in the year 1770, served in the 92d regiment, and fought in the battle of Alexandria, where he received three severe wounds, which disabled him for any future service. He died at Fort-WIlliam in 1814, at the age of 44. His songs are composed on the army, and on the battles fought between the French and British. He is extremely fluent in language, and his verse is very smooth. He seems to have been desirous of writing pure Gaelic, and avoiding English words; for Sydney Smith is called Mac a Ghobha, Smith’s son; but for all that we have comisari. He compares Abercrombie to Fionn – not Fingal:
“Mar Fhionn a’ mosghladh sluaigh,”
Like Fionn arousing hosts.
The names Alexandria, Aboukir, Abercrombie, occur. Sasunn, England, is mentioned as a place,
“Far am faigh sin leann am paileas.”
Where we shall get ale in plenty.
The poet describes the shock of battle with graphic vividness, and speaks like an eye-witness.
The style of EWAN MACLACHLIN, though he was classically educated, and composed in four languages, does not differ much from that of the other Gaelic bards; whom he seems to imitate closely. Though he helped to prepare the Gaelic Ossian for the press, and transcribed many old manuscripts into the Roman hand, he has taken very good care not to imitate the Gaelic of the Ossian of 1807, in the least, in his songs. These are composed in pure and beautiful Gaelic; though, like the most of the Gaelic bards, he indulges in excess of epithets, many of his lines consisting of strings of adjectives or adverbs. Phœbus, Bhenus and Eolus lent their aid to the well-instructed classical Gaelic bards, as they do to the classical bards of other countries. Though the poet apparently has endeavoured to keep English out as much as possible, still he has failed, for a few English words have entered, such as pacar, will be packed; sign, for one of the signs of the Zodiac.
JOHN SHAW, Loch Nell’s bard, was born 1758, and died 1828. Among his songs is one to Fionnla Marsanta, Finlay the merchant, who seems to have had some antiquarian taste and who dug up some old Druidical burying places, Carn nan Druidhneach, the Druid’s Cairn. Of this act the poet expresses his disapprobation, and denounces Finlay for his conduct in very bitter words. There is a song to Buonaparte, whom the bard defies in strong language, enumerating the brave soldiers that were to meet him on British ground, and telling the hero of Marengo how he was to be treated; by –
“Na shracas t-eanchainn agus t’fheoil,”
Those who will rend thy brain and thy flesh.
A very pretty love song is also amongst his compositions.
We have in the song of Finlay a description of blasting rocks with gunpowder, which seems to have a double meaning.
“Bhi cuir fudair anns na creagan,
Chuireadh e eagal air bòcain;
Bhi gan tolladh leis an tora,
‘S bhi gan sparradh leis na h-òrdan.”
“Putting powder into rocks,
It would terrify the bogles
To bore them with the jumper,
To be driving them with hammers.”
Tobacco comes in also –
“Tha Dughall trom air an tombaca.”
Dugald is heavy on the tobacco.
The narrators of stories and reciters of verses in the Highlands are generally fond of the weed; one storyteller makes a raven chew tobacco; but no reciter of Fenian poetry ever makes Fionn, Diarmaid, or Goll use the weed in any shape. The following English corruptions occur in the songs of this bard – bhaigeir (beggar); bhlastidh (blasting), fudair (powder), reisimeid (regiment), volunteers; and the dress of the volunteers of that period is concisely and graphically described. Boinneidean, bonnets; cotaichean sgarlaid, scarlet coats; suaicheantas an righ, the king’s arms; cocard de dh’ ite ‘n eoin, cockade of the bird’s feather; and this is a true description of the dress of that period.
There is an allusion to a well-known weapon of a preceding age which had fallen into disuse, to the poet’s regret;- for he says –
“’S na ‘m biodh againn mar bu dual duinn,
Lann chinn Ilich air ar cruachain,
A sgoltadh an ceann gan guaillean,
Ga ‘m bualadh le smuais nan dorn.”
O had we as we ought to have
Islay-hilted blades upon our thighs,
Could cleave their heads down to the chin,
To smite them with the pith of fists.
ALLAN MACDOUGALL, Ailean dall, was born 1750, and died 1829. One of his songs is to Glengary, “Luchd bhreacan an fheilidh.” Those of the tartan dresses (now called belted plaids) are mentioned as those that would rise with Glengary their chief. “Fuaim fheadan,” the sound of chanters, and “binneas theud,” the melody of strings, are mentioned as pleasing to the chief, who therefore enjoyed pipe music, and that of stringed instruments. In his songs to the shepherds, who were not favourites with the poet, he says of them that they have a Lowland screech in their throats crying after their dogs, and earnestly desires to keep them out, and not let their nose in, the reason being given in the following lines:-
“Bho nach cluinnear aca stori,
Ach craicinn agus cloimh ga reic,
Cunntadh na h-aimsir, ‘s gach uair
Ceannach nan uan mu ‘n teid am breith”
Since no tale is heard with them,
But of skins and wool to sell,
Telling the seasons and every weather,
Buying the lambs before they are born.
This, then, was not an age of pastoral Gaelic poetry, and the poet seems to have foreseen what has happened.
The poet has a song to whisky also, in which he dwells on the wonderful virtues of that drink like a man who likes it. “It is delightful music to hear its murmur coming out of the stoup, heaping the cuach; excellent to excite to dancing in the winter time; it would make an old man hold up his head; it will make a soldier of the coward; it will bring out conversation at meeting and assembling; it is an unblundering physician; the children of the Gael have no disease or ailment that it will not heal.” But there is another song composed to drunkenness, in which the serious effects of the favourite cordial are very feelingly expressed/ The whole drinking bout is delineated with great animation. The man loses his strength; his sight fails; coming home in the dark he falls on his back in the midden. Morning brings disgrace; his breast is in flames, the rest carrying him home, believing all the time he was strong; till at last he had lost his wits. After this come reflections on the folly of drinking and of emptying the purse. So modern Gaelic bards have been given to moralizing, and jollity, war, and love-making, but so far there is nothing in their compositions like the Fenian ballads, or the sentimental poems concerning their heroes whose authors are unknown.
WILLIAM ROSS was born in Broadford, parish of Strath, Isle of Skye, 1762; and died in 1790. He was grandson, by the mother’s side, to another celebrated bard, known as the blind piper. At school he studied the classical languages, and in his songs the polish of the man of education may be traced, as his style is refined and cultivated, though remarkably natural and easy. The reader may perceive, without much difficulty, that he exerted his utmost endeavour to write his native language with purity and elegance. In his poetry we trace something like the gay, amorous strain of Moore, though not his richness of fancy; the spirit of the classical poets may be readily traced in his verses. Some passages in his love songs are real gems, the force of the following lines could not easily be rendered in translation:-
“Tha deirge ‘s gile,
Na gnùis ghil éibhinn
Rinn ceudan airtneulach.”
The following gives the idea, but the spirit is gone:-
“In her fair blythesome face, which has made hundreds long and grieve for love, the red and white are sporting with each other, and gently struggling for mastery.”
The Gaelic diminutives, which make this verse so pretty, have no English equivalents.
He composed an elegy on the death of Prince Charles, who he calls “An suaithneas bàn,” the white badge. This elegy shows how deep the feeling of attachment to that unfortunate scion of an unfortunate house, had sunk into the hearts of the poet and his countrymen. The following are a couple of stanzas from this pathetic poem:-
“Nis cromaidh na cruitearan grinn
Am barraibh dhos fo sprochd an cinn;
Gach beò bhiodh ann an strath na ‘m beinn
A’ caoidh an co’-dhosgainn leinn.
Tha gach beinn gach cnoc, ‘s gach sliabh,
Air am faca sinn thu triall,
Nis air call an dreach ‘s am fiamh,
O nach tig thu chaoidh nan cian.”
Now the sweet lyrists will bow
Their heads on the tree-tops in woe;
All that live on hill or plain
Their common loss with us bewail.
Every hill, and mount, and moor,
Upon which we saw thee move,
Now have lost their sheen and beauty,
For thou wilt not come back for aye.
This differs widely from the spirit and metre of Ossian, both traditional and published.
The Highland dress is a favourite theme with Ross, as with other Gaelic bards. In a song, which fits the music of a reel, he rejoices over the Act of Parliament which repealed the Act forbidding the national costume, and gives a glimpse of Highland manufactures, which still survive in spite of spinning jennies. He says –
“Thainig fasan anns an Achd
A dh’ ordaich pailt am féileadh;
Tha éiridh air na breacanan
Le farum treun neo-lapanach.
Bidh oighean thapaidh sniomh ‘s a dath,
Gu h-éibhinn ait le uaill;
Gach aon diu ‘g eideadh a gaoil fein
Mar ‘s réidh le’ anns gach uair.”
A fashion has come with the Act
That ordered kilts in plenty;
There’s raising of the tartan plaid
With dexterous busy noise.
Smart maidens now will spin and dye,
With mirth and fun and pride;
Each one adorning her own true love
As always is her joy.
This bard has also a song to whisky, and another to “Macnabracha,” the son of malt. Whisky is drink, par excellence, which would raise the mind to politeness; and not “druaib na Frainge,” the trash of France, by which he means wine; it will make the maidens speak, however modest; it will put gentleness in the boy; it will make the carl amorous. An t-Olla MacIain, Dr. Johnson, according to the bard, took a glass of it himself, notwithstanding his Greek and Latin, and thereby impaired the power of his tongue.
“Dh’ fhàg mac na bracha e gun lide,
Na amadan liotach dall.”
Mac malt has made him speechless,
A thick-speaking blinded fool.
Classical names are interspersed through all his compositions, while Greek and Roman deities are favourites. Phœbus gilds the mountains, Flora covers each hill and dale with flowers; his sweethearts have all the qualities of Diana; Cupid throws his arrows with a lavish hand; the flames excited by the love-god are to be quenched only by yielding to Venus and Apollo; and the nine play their part. But English corruptions are not to be found, and the Gaelic is very pure and correct. Ross is not so profuse in epithets as the other poets, but he has enough to be in character with them.
DUNCAN MACINTYRE was born in Glenorchy 1724, and died in Edinburg in 1812. The first of his ballads is composed to the battle of Falkirk, fought between the royal forces and the Highlanders who joined Prince Charles. The battle is described with very great graphic power; and though the bard fought upon the royal side, it is evident, form his song, that the Prince, and those who followed him, had a warm corner in his heart. His own flight, and that of his party, is told so as to lead us to think that he was not at all displeased with the result. “As a dog,” he tells us, “chases sheep while they are running down the face of a glen,2 so were they scattered on our side;” the horse of the enemy were well shod, well bridled, and marked out for murder. Moreover, he tells us also –
“Bha ratreud air luchd na Beurla;
‘S ann daibh fein a b’ éiginn teicheadh.”
The outlandish speakers retreated;
It was they who had to flee.
Another song of his is composed to the musket, in which he personifies that weapon, calling it his sweetheart, and enumerating all its good qualities. “Seonaid” (Janet) is her name, and “George” is her grandfather. In Gaelic there are but two genders, so that every inanimate object is personified in ordinary speech, hence formal personification is seldom found in the poetry of the language. The poet tells that he scours his musket himself, and puts oil on it; that he puts it to his eye, and that it will not miss fire; it will keep him in drink in the alehouse, and it will pay each stoup that he buys; it will keep him in clothes and linen; so that he may lay the cares of the world aside.
One of the longest of his pieces is “Beinn Dorain,” which is very much admired. It imitates a pibroch, and the stanzas vary exactly as the pibroch does; some of them being in a slow, and others in a quick measure. The poet is very happy in his verse, which is exceedingly smooth and fluent. This poem is entirely descriptive. Whatever is interesting about this mountain, which gained so much of his admiration, is given with great minuteness. The wood, the deer, the hunt, the wild flowers, and herbs, are portrayed with great vividness; still there is an excess of epithets, which is tedious. MacDonald composed a piece of the same kind previous to this, which Macintyre has imitated; but, in fact, the measure is but a mere extension of the poetical parts of the long heroic tales which were in those days, and still are, so abundant in every district of the Highlands. The measured prose of those tales resembles a pibroch, as may be seen by glancing at the tale of “The Slim Swarthy Champion,” W. H. Tales, vol. i. “Coire cheathaich” is a beautiful descriptive poem, full and circumstantial, but less tedious than Beinn Dorain.
The following specimen will give an idea of this species of poetry, though translation cannot convey the original vigour of the reader:-
“Tha bradan tarra-gheal ‘s a’ choire gharbhlaich,
Tha tigh’n o’n fhairge bu ghailbheach tonn;
Le luinneis mheamnach a’ ceapadh mheanbh-chuileag,
Gu neo-chearbach le cham-ghob crom;
Air bhyuinne borb, is e leum gu foirmeil;
‘Na eideadh colgail bu ghorm-glas druim;
Le shoillsean airgid, gu h-iteach, meana-bhreac;
Gu lannach, dearg-bhallach, earr-gheal sliom.”
There’s a white-bellied salmon in the rough grassy corry,
Coming from the sea of the wild raging waves;
With stalwart leapings catching the little flies,
Unfailingly, with his bent crook’d nose.
In the raging current as he leaps so cheerily,
In his gallant array of the blue-gray back,
With his silvery spangles well finned, and fine spotted,
Scale-i-ly, red-spotted, white-tailed, and slim.
This is genuine Gaelic poetry of a man who could read nature, though he could not read books; and his countrymen have done well to erect a monument to Duncan Macintyre near his favourite glens, at the head of Loch Awe.
In one of his love songs is the expression “Deud gheal iobhraidh,” white ivory teeth; while his own occupation of huntsman is portrayed for us in the following lines:-
“Mharbhainn duit geòidh,
A’s ròin, a’s eala,
‘S na h-eòin air bharraibh nan geug.”
I’d kill for thee geese,
And seals, and the swan,
And the birds on the tops of the twigs.
In his song to the Black Highland Watch, in which the bard beautifully delineates the exploits of that regiment, they are mentioned as dressed –
“Le ‘n osanan breaca
‘S le ‘m breacana ‘n fhéil,”
with chequered hose and with belted plaids; armed with “glas lann,” gray blade; “’s an dag,” and the pistol,
“Gan tearmunn nan sgéith,”
Without protection of shields,
“Le ‘n gunnacha glana,”
With their glancing guns,
“Spoir ur air an teannadh
Gu daingeann nan gleus,”
new flints tightened firmly in their locks; biodagach, daggered; fudarach, supplied with powder; adharcach, supplied with powder-horns;3 so he describes the dresses which he saw; but, yet, in a song composed in praise of the Marquis of Breadalbane, occur the lines –
“’S tu thog na ciadan
A shliochd nam Fianntan;”
It is thou who hast raised hundreds
Of the offspring of the Fenians;
from which it appears that the poet considered his countrymen to be the descendants of the Ossianic heroes.
He has a song to breeches, in which he complains sadly of being obliged to wear them; the tightness about the knees he considers extremely inconvenient.
“Putanan na glùinean,
As bucalan gan dùnadh,”
Buttons in its knees,
And buckles enclosing them.
Like Ross, Macintyre rejoiced at having the dress of his country restored, and at being no longer obliged to wear –
“Cota ruigeadh an t-sàil,
Cha tigeadh e daicheil duinn.”
A coat that would reach the heel
It would not become us well.
“Chuir sinn a’ bhrigis air làr,
‘S cha d’ thig i gu bràth a cùil.”
We have laid down the “breegis” on earth,
She will never come out of the nook.
The comes something more agreeable –
“Osan nach ceangail ar ceum,
‘S nach ruigeadh mar reis an glùn.”
Hose that bind not our stride,
That reach not the knee by a span.
The Highland dress is a principal theme with all the bards that flourished at the same period with Macintyre. They grieve deeply for being deprived of it; praise it as the finest, the most becoming, and the most convenient of all garbs. Breeches, black hats, and long coats, are made the subjects of keen satire; and the bard taxes all his wits wo make the lowland dress the most ludicrous and the most contemptible that can be conceived. Like other poets of the same period Macintyre composed bacchanalian songs, mostly in praise of whisky, but there is one to brandy, from which it appears that the Gaelic poet by no means coincided with Burns in his opinion of this drink, for he does not call it burning trash, but praises it.
In his “Moladh Dhun – Eideann,” the praise of Edinburgh, the appearance of the city, and the dress of the period, are described by the poet in his happiest manner, –
“’S iomadh fleasgach uasal ann
A bha gu suairce, grinn:
Fudar air an gruagan,” etc.
Of the ladies he says –
“Stoise air na h-ainnirean
Gan teannachadh gu h-ard.”
“Buill mhais air eudainn bhoidheach.”
“Brog bhiorach, dhionach, chothromach,
‘S bu chorrach leam a sàil.”
Many a gentle youth was there
That was polite and kind,
Powder upon their hair, etc.
Stays upon the demoiselles,
To tighten them above.
Beauty spots on pretty faces.
Shoe pointed, tight and elegant,
And tottering seemed the heel.
There is no gas mentioned, for there was none; but what there was the bard tells –
“Bidh lochrainn ann de ghloineachan,
A ‘s coinneal anns gach ait.”
There will be lanterns of glasses there,
And a candle in every place.
“Clous na Parlamaid” – the Parliament Close – occurs.
So Macintyre described what he saw, in good Gaelic verse, which fits the music of his time, and alluded to the Ossianic heroes as to something well known to everything, though of a past age.
ROBERT MACKAY, a native of Sutherland, usually called Rob donn, Brown-haired Robert, was born in the year 1714, and died 1778. His Gaelic is full of English words, but there is no trace of English idiom. Among his songs is one in praise of Prince Charles, in which the prince is compared to Solomon in wisdom, to Samson in strength of hands, and to Absalom in beauty. There is a song, but not one of praise, to long black coats, “Oran nan casagan dubha.” Mackay is one of the keenest of Gaelic satirical poets. The following English corruptions are found in his songs – line, parlamaid (parliament), pension, sergent, chomision (commission), choilair (collar), gabharment (goverment), prise (prize), strainsearan (strangers), tric (trick), ranc (rank), fhine (fine), bhataillean (battalion), election, chomrad (comrade). While all these English words have crept into this bard’s composition, his Gaelic is, at the same time, strictly grammatical and idiomatic. The only allusion to the Feinn in his songs, is in the case of a servant whom he has nick-named Faolan, but that is enough to shew that he knew about the Feinne.
LACHLAN MACPHERSON of STRATHMASIE, was born in the year 1723, and died in the latter end of the eighteenth century. Four songs of his are published in the “Beauties of Gaelic Poetry,” and some are in Gillies. One is a lament for Hugh MacPherson of Cluny; one is a coarse satire on drunkenness; another, called “A’ Bhanais Bhàn,” the white wedding, is a very humorous song, in which a newly-married couple, well advanced in years, are the subject; another to breeches, is rather indelicate. The language of MacPherson is entirely free from English words or corruptions; it is pure, grammatical, and idiomatic, whatever the ideas may be. The character of his poetry is that of the other popular bards, and bears not the least resemblance to that of the Ossian of 1807. In his lament to Cluny he introduces the nine muses. The following is a specimen of his verse, from the White Wedding –
“Labhair fear na bainse féin,
Tha dath airgeid oirnn gu léir;
Ciod an cron tha oirnn fo’n ghréin
Mar dean fear beurra rann oirnn?”
The bridegroom he spoke up himself,
We are all of a silvery hue;
What ails us beneath the sun,
Unless a ribald rhyme us?
It is said that a copy of the seventh book of Temora, in Gaelic, still exists in the handwriting of this bard, with all manner of corrections written in. The Gaelic of the seventh book, as published, is very different indeed from Strathmashie’s songs, and it is hard to believe that he was the author of Ossian. There is no peculiarity in the idiom of the songs to countenance this theory, which has been adopted by many.