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Gaelic Poetry of Known & Unknown Bards, Published & Traditional – Part 3, pp.180-197.

[Popular Tales Hector MacLean Contents]

JOHN MACCODRUM was noted in his day for his knowledge of the Fenian poems. Sir James MacDonald of Sleat, in a letter to Dr. Blair of Edinburgh, dated Isle of Skye, 10th October 1763, says of him, “I have heard him repeat, for hours together, poems which seemed to me to be the same with MacPherson’s translations.” 

MacPherson met him on his way to Benbecula, and asked him, “Am bheil dad agad air an Fheinn?” This mode of putting the question is fully as ambiguous as many passages of the Gaelic Ossian of 1807, for it may mean either, Do the Feinn owe thee anything? or, Dost thou know anything about them? The bard considered it a fit subject for his humour, and replied, “Cha’n ‘eil, is ged do bhitheadh cha ruiginn a leas iarraidh nis.” “No; and though they did (owe me anything) it would be vain to ask it now.” The poet’s banter rather wounded MacPherson’s dignity, so he cut short the conversation and proceeded. If the people of Uist were the same race then that they are now, a collector of MacPherson’s temper would have very little chance of obtaining either poems or stories, though they were as “plentiful as blackberries in August;” for whoever expects to be successful in getting stories there, must cultivate patience and good humour, take a joke and make one; and, if he does that, he may be assured that he can get plenty of fun, as well as wit as brilliant and sparkling as he could meet with in Green Erin, provided he understands Gaelic. There is a lampoon composed by this bard to the bagpipe of one Domhnull bàn, Fair-haired Donald, which is exceedingly humorous, and in which he says – 

“Shearg i le tabhunn 
 Seachd cathan nam Fiantan.” 
 It withered with yelping 
 The seven Fenian battalions. 

But he says, that the Gael loved the pipes as Edinburgh people it (tea), though this old and execrable pipe had weakened for the first time – 

“Neart Dhiarmaid a’s Ghuill.” 
 The strength of Diarmaid and of Goll. 

Turcaich, Turks, Gearmailtich, Germans, Frangaich, Frenchmen, figure in this bard’s verses. Scripture names are frequent. The names, Righ Phrussia, King of Prussia; Troidhe, Troy; Roimhe, Rome, are also found. 

So this bard noticed the small circumstances which mark the manners of his own time, such as the tea-drinking of Edinburgh, and referred to the national music of the Highlands; and to the old heroes as equally well known. 

ALEXANDER MACDONALD was born in the beginning of the eighteenth century. He joined Prince Charles in 1745, and many of his songs are composed in praise of the prince and his cause. His language is exceedingly vigorous, and his poetry is impassioned. Classical names, as well as English words, are freely used, but there is not the least trace of classical imitation in his style, which is as characteristically Gaelic as can be. His songs begin in the same abrupt, simple manner, as those of the most illiterate bards do; and, like the most illiterate of them, he is guilty of an excess of epithets. His pieces composed to nature are purely descriptive. There is one long poem, composed to a ship, remarkable for the manner in which it brings out the power of the poet, and the conspicuousness of the language. Much of this bears a strong resemblance to the description of the sailing of boats in Gaelic tales. The bagpipe he prefers to the harp, which he calls Ceol nionag, maiden’s music. Whisky and the national garb have received his greatest attention. 

Phœbus does good work for the bard, Eolus will send good strong winds, and Neptune will smooth the ocean. Mars is also busy. Venus and Dido are equalled by his beauties. Telesgop (telescope), sign Chancer, sign Thaurus, Thropic, Chapricorn, Gemini, Mars, puimp (pomp), are terms that occur. Bacchus does not pass without notice either, for mention is made of “Altair Bhachuis,” the altar of Bacchus. Scripture names are frequent. In this respect this bard differs from those who composed the Ossianic poems. 

JOHN MACKAY, usually called “Am Piobaire dall,” the Blind piper, native of Gairloch, Ross-shire, was born in the year 1666, and died in 1754. His versification differs considerably from that of the bards of the eighteenth century being a good shade nearer to that of the Fenian poems. The language also seems to be a good deal older than that of MacDonald or his contemporaries. He makes several allusions to the Ossianic heroes:- 

“Mar Oisian an deigh nam Fiann,” 
 Like Oisian after the Fiann. 
“Mac righ Sorcha, sgiath nan arm, 
 Gur h-e b’ ainm dha Maighre borb.” 
 King of Sorcha’s son, shield of the arms, 
 That his name was Maighre borb – 

which is a quotation from an old ballad which is still repeated. 

“’S dh’ imich o Fhionn a bhean fhéin;” 
 And his own wife went off from Fhionn; 

which alludes to the story of Graindhne. 

Scripture words abound, such as “Gu’m beannaiche Dia,” may God bless; “beannachd Dhé,” the blessing of God. 

The Gaelic of this bard is idiomatic, and not a single English word is to be found in his poems. In his “Coire an Easain,” are strings of epithets, which peculiarity, as has been already observed, pervades the compositions of all the known modern Gaelic bards. The drinking vessel mentioned is corn, a horn, and the drink, wine, not whisky. 

RODERICK MORISON, commonly called “An Clarsair dall,” the Blind Harper, a native of Lewis, was born in the year 1646, and died at an advanced age. His Gaelic is altogether free from English words and idioms, but is less ancient in structure than that of Mackay, the blind piper. Drinking is mentioned, but the kind of drink is not named. The word stóp, stoup, occurs. The following terms relating to the Christian religion are found:- La Caisge, Easter Day; “Seachduin na Ceusda,” the week of the Crucifixion; “Dhireadh aCharbhais,” the end of Lent; and these mark the existence of Catholicism. 

LACHLAN MACKINNON, native of Skye, flourished in the middle of the seventeenth century. His language is remarkably pure, and without the least trace of foreign idiom; nor is there an English word to be met with in his verses. In a song composed in praise of a young lady, “Diarmaid” is alluded to – 

“Fhuair thu ‘n iosad buaidh o Dhiarmaid, 
 Tha cuir ciad an geall ort.” 
 Thou gotst in loan a gift from Diarmaid, 
 That puts a hundred in pledge to thee. 

This alludes to the beauty spot on Diarmaid’s brow, which no woman could see without loving him. 

In a satirical song on a certain dagger, the following reference is made to the enchantment of the Feen, W. H. Tales (XXXVI.):- 

“Bu mhath ‘s a’ bhruthainn chaorainn i, 
 ‘S an coannag nam fear mor; 
 ‘S e Fionn thug dh’ i an latha sin, 
 At t-ath-bualadh na dhorn.” 
 Good was it in the Rowan lburg, 
 And in the big men’s strife; 
 It was Fionn who gave it on that day, 
 The next stroke in his fist. 

The next stanza tells how many men Fionn slew on the occasion; so the poet implies that the dirk in question was a weapon of the time of the Feinne. “Breacan” and “Féile,” tartan plaid and kilt, are mentioned as the dress worn by the Highland chiefs of the poet’s time. 

NEIL CURRIE, native of South Uist, was born in the beginning of the seventeenth century, and was an old man in the year 1717. In the few pieces of his which are published, we have an insight into the manners of the time. There is the word “puthar,” from the English word power. Brandy, French wines, and wax candles, are spoken of as luxuries with which the bard was familiar at the house of his chief. Among the musical instruments mentioned, are the bagpipes and the fiddle. No allusion is made to beer or whisky. 

JOHN MACDONALD, usually called Iain Lom, lived in the reigns of Charles I. and II. and died at an advanced age, about the year 1710. His language is full of English corruptions, but is fairly grammatical; yet, upon the whole, in smoothness and elegance of expression he falls far short of a great number of the other bards. As a satirist he has no rival. Scripture names are very frequent in his pieces. 

MARY MACLEOD, native of Harris, was born in the year 1569, and died at the advanced age of 105. Her language and verse are remarkably fluent and easy. English words abound, but the idiom is very pure. The harp, chess, and the tales of the Feinne, are mentioned as amusements common in MacLeod’s castle. The bow is spoken of as an offensive weapon then in use, while fire-arms, targets, and swords, meet with their due meed of praise. Scripture names abound. 

Many old songs, by known and unknown authors, describe battle-axes and bows, and these may be referred to a period later than the Fenian period, and earlier than that of the bow. Bows and spears are mentioned together in some ballads; spears drop out, and bows are named along with battle-axes, and firearms, are mixed up together. 

The following are lines recited in Islay, and assigned by tradition to the time of the battle of Traigh Ghruineart, fought between MacLean and MacDonald in the reign of James the Sixth:- 

“Fhir na feusaige ruaidhe, 
 Gur trom do bhuille ‘s gur cruaidh e’ 
 Bhris thu leithcheannach mo thuaighe; 
 ‘S gad rinn thu sin ‘s math leam buan thu.” 
 Man of the russet beard, 
 Heavy is thy blow and hard; 
 Thou hast broken the broad side of my axe; 
 And though thou hast, long mayst thou live. 

How the old Highlanders fought with axes we learn from Barbour’s Bruce, book second, in which the following expressive lines occur:- 

“But the folk of the other party 
 Fought with axes fellyly; 
 For thai on fute war ever ilkane, 
 Thait feile off their horss has slain, 
 And till some guiff they wounds wid.” 

An old war song exists, styled, “Prosnacha catha Chloinn Domhnuill le Lachunn, mor MacMhuirich Albanaich, la Catha Harla,” “Battle incitement of the MacDonalds, by big Lachunn, son of Albanian Muireach.” MacMhuirich or Currie was Clanranald’s bard, and this song is saif to have been sung by him at the battle of Harlaw. It consists of seventeen stanzas of unequal length, and every word in each stanza begins with the same letter of the Gaelic alphabet, which has but seventeen letters. The particle gu is prefixed to every word, which makes them all adverbs, excepting two lines at the beginning, and eleven at the end, expressive of various military virtues, all set to a lively quick measure.1 The number of lines is 336. 

The following is the last stanza of this curious old song:- 

“Gu urlamhach, gu urmhaiseach, 
 Gu urranta, gu uraluinn, 
 Gu urchleasach, gu uaibhreach, 
 Gu uilfheargach, gu uaillfheartach, 
 Gu urchoideach, gu uabhasach, 
 Gu urrasach, gu urramach, 
 Gu urloisgeach, gu uaimhshlochdach, 
 Gu uachdarach, gu uallach, 
 Gu ullamh, gu usgarach, 
 Gu urmhailleach, gu uchdardach, 
 Gu uidhimichte, gu ughdarach, 
 Gu upagach, gu uilefhradharcach, 
 Gu upairneach, gu urghleusach, 
 Gu urbhuilleach, gu urspealach 
 Gu urlabhrach, urlamhach, urneartmhor, 
 Gu coisneadh na cathlarach, 
 Ri bruidh’ne ur biughi, 
 A Chlanna Chuinn cheudchathaich, 
 ‘Si nis uair ur n’ aithneacha, 
 A chuileanan confhadhach, 
 A bheirichean bunanta, 
 A leoghuinan langhasda, 
 Onnchonaibh iorghuileach, 
 De laochraidh chrodha, churanta, 
 De chlannaibh Chuinn cheudchathaich, 
 A chlannaibh Chuinn cuimhnichibh, 
 Cruas an am na h-iorghuil.” 
 So dexterously, so gracefully, 
 Intrepidly, audaciously, 
 So actively, so haughtily, 
 All-wrathfully, so yellingly, 
 So hurtfully, so dreadfully, 
 Trustworthily, honourably, 
 So zealously, so grave-pit-ly, 
 Superiorly, cheerfully, 
 So readily, so jewelled, 
 Well-mailed-ly, high-breasted-ly, 
 Preparedly, authoritatively, 
 Pushingly, all-seeing-ly, 
 Bustlingly, right trimmed-ly, 
 Well-striking-ly, well-mowing-ly, 
 Eloquently, dexterously, all-powerfully, 
 To win the field of battle, 
 For the telling of your glory, 
 Children of Conn of a hundred fights, 
 This now is the hour to know you, 
 Ye furious whelps, 
 Ye stout dragons, 
 Ye splendid lions, 
 Ye standards of stout battle 
 Of brave gallant warriors, 
 Of the children of Conn of the hundred fights, 
 Children of Conn remember 
 In the time of battle hardihood. 

The arms used at the battle are indicated in various lines throughout the piece. It is worth remark that no fire-arms are mentioned in the Owl, which is supposed to be still older than the Battle Ode. 

“Gu cuilbhaireach, gu cruaidhlannach, 
 Gu sgabullach, gu srolbhratach, 
 Gu reimeil, gu ughfheinneach, 
 Gu suilfhurachair, gu saighid gheur, 
 Gu scianach, gu spionach, 
 Gu scaiteach, gu sciathach, 
 Gu tuadhbhuilleach gu tarbhach.” 
 So culverined, so steel bladed, 
 So scabbarded, so silk bannered, 
 So powerfully, so Feinne king like, 
 So knife armed, so pullingly, 
 So chopperingly, so shieldly, 
 So axe blow-ly, so bull-like, 
 So eye-watchingly, so arrow sharply. 

A “CHOMHACHAG,” the Owl, is an ancient piece, published in Gillies, and also in the “Beauties of Gaelic Poetry.” It is attributed to one DONALD MACDONALD, a celebrated hunter, who lived before the invention of fire-arms. This piece approaches nearer to the Fenian poems in character than anything to be found in the compositions of the above-mentioned bards. In one of the stanzas, there is an allusion to the confessional:- 

“Deansa t-fhaosaid ris an t-shagart.” 
 Make thy confession to the priest. 

The erection of a mill is spoken of as something notable:- 

“’S rinn e muillean air Allt-Larach.” 
 And he made a mill on Allt-Larach. 

The hunting life is delineated with glowing enthusiasm, and the various animals of the chase, as well as domestic animals, are enumerated – “eilid,” the hind; “feidh,” deer; laogh, calf; meann, kid; earb, roe; lach, duck; gadhair, hounds. Bogha, bow, is frequently named, but no other offensive weapon. The Fenians are introduced in one line – 

“Chi mi Strath-Oisein nam Fiann.” 
 I see the Strath of Oisean of the Fiann. 

Though there is a reference to drinking, no special drink is named. Among the animals, there is no mention of “lon,” which so frequently occurs in the Fenian ballads, and which is supposed to be the elk. 

In this poem we meet with much of the poetry of nature, but it is very different from that which is found in the Ossian of 1807, or in Dr. Smith’s “Seann Dana” (old poems), but it is similar in kind to that which is found in the compositions of the bards already quoted, to that of the Blind Piper, of MacDonald, and of Macintyre. It is descriptive, but neither philosophical nor contemplative Natural objects are not so much matter of speculation as of feeling. The poet speaks of them as something that he strongly loves; something to which he is strongly attached; and which he praises as he does his friends, his home, or his country. When this Gaelic bard speaks of inanimate objects, he does it like those above named, he speaks as if they were his familiar friends – we think they live, and that they are in his mind by the fireside along with him. He enumerates every beauty and excellency connected with them; not so much because he admires the beauties that he finds in them, but because he loves them. This is the species of poetry which proceeds from the Celt’s strong attachment to home and country – from that feeling which makes him sigh for his native home in a foreign land, though successful in life, and surrounded with comforts – that feeling which inclines him to prefer the barren heaths, foaming cataracts, and rugged mountains of the Highlands to the fairest lands on which the sun shines. 

In following the long list of Scoto-Gaelic bards from the present day to the author of “A Chomhachag” (The Owl), we find the spirit of this poetry uniform and unaltered. From Macintyre’s “Coire cheathaich” (the Corrie of Mist), to “A Chomhachag” (The Owl), it is very much the same in character. The following quotation from “The Owl” will illustrate what has been said:- 

“Creag mo chridhe ‘s a’ chreag ghuanach, 
 Chreag an d’ fhuair mi greis de m’ àrach; 
 Creag nan aighean ‘s nan damh siubhlach; 
 A’ chreag urail, aighearach, ianach. 
 Chreag mu’n iathadh an fhaoghait; 
 Bu mhiann leam a bhi ga taghal, 
 Nuair bu bhinn guth* gallain gaodhair 
 A’ cur gràidh gu gabhail chumhainn. 
 ‘S binn na h-iolairean mu ‘bruachan; 
 ‘S binn a cuachan, ‘s binn a h-eala; 
 A’s binne na sin am blaoghan 
 Ni an laoghan meana-bhreac, ballach.” 
 Crag of my heart, the lightsome rock, 
 The rock where I was partly reared; 
 Rock of the hinds and roving stags; 
 Rock that is verdant, and gay with birds. 
 The roc which the hunting shout encircles; 
 To haunt it would be my joy, 
 When the voice of the baying hounds was sweet, 
 Urging the herds to a narrow pass. 
 Sweet sound the eagles in its braes; 
 Sweet are its cuckoos, and sweet its swan; 
 Sweeter than all is the bleating 
 Of the spotted, fine-speckled fawn. 

How different is this from the address to the sun and similar poetry in Ossian; yet it will be found to be the same in character with MacDonald’s, Macintyre’s, and all other modern Gaelic bards. The germ of it is to be found in the Fenian ballads, as, for instance, that line in the Lay of Diarmaid – 

“’S gur truagh m’ aghaidh ri Beinn Ghulbann.”

From the traces of this style to be found in these old poems, it has expanded into its more modern form. 

In the works of all these bards, which extend over a period of several centuries; for one piece, composed as a war-song for the Highlanders who fought at Harlaw, is referred to the same date, 1411, the manners of each age are delineated. There is a difference in the language corresponding to each period, but that difference is inconsiderable. The bards belong to different parts of the Highlands, but no marked difference of dialect appears in their compositions, and this agrees with the prevalent opinion among Highlanders that good Gaelic is something definite, though they are not unanimous with regard to the district where good Gaelic is to be found. The difference in spoken dialects is more in pronunciation, accent, and the use of certain words in one place rather than another, than in grammatical structure or idiom. In reviewing the compositions of these known bards, we observe that, as a rule, the earlier the period the purer is the language, and the freer from English words. The idiom of the language found in this poetry is very far removed from English, and, on that account, it is very difficult to transfer the meaning of a passage accurately into English, and much more so to give its force and spirit. Though the works of these modern bards differ in language from the Fenian ballads, they vary in words rather than in idiom. The versification differs, but the songs approach he ballads nearer, the older they are; almost all these modern poems contain allusions to Christianity and scripture names. No superhuman deeds are mentioned, nor anything out of the range of probability; but when we look at “Mordubh,” and the other poems of the same class, we perceive a style that stands far apart from all these, and from the Fenian ballads. Between the language of the Fenian poems, that of the works of the known bards, and that of spoken Gaelic, there is a common bond of union that is easily discovered; the others are something apart. 

The preservation of these Fenian ballads for many ages may, at first sight, appear incredible, more especially when successive generations of poetry relating to historical events have died out, and when we have so little concerning the chiefs and warriors that flourished in Scotland during the seventh, eighth, ninth, and successive centuries, down to the fifteenth. we have no traditional ballads that refer to the wars of Wallace and Bruce, hardly a tradition relating to them. All these great men have passed away from the Highland popular mind as if they had no existence, and yet these prehistoric traditions remain. How is it that no succeeding poetry, no national history, has been able to supplant them? If they kept their ground in the midst of the compositions of successive ages, we must surely admit that they possessed a peculiar merit suiting those times, that they were superior to anything new that was produced, or at least that they were more fitted to take hold of the feelings of all periods. It may be asked were they not the compositions of modern bards? Those bards, so far as we know their history, quote them as something older than their own times. Granting that they are not the compositions of any known bard, may they not have been the compositions of bards previous to those, but still of a period not very remote – of the monks of a certain period? Had they been the compositions and inventions of such men, was it likely that there should be so little reference to religion, and to known general history, in the ballads which give the history of the Feinne, as told by Oisein amongst his dialogues with St. Patrick on religious matters, or as they are more commonly now sung, without these pagan polemics. In monkish compositions, Greek and Roman history are often present, and there is much in these poems which we can hardly think monks would be inclined to encourage. When then was this poetry composed? Was it in the tenth century? If so, what was the poetry of the Gael previous to that century? Had they any? Roman writers answer – “The Caledonians went to fight the Romans singing war songs;” but we are not informed what they sang, though we may surmise. Did Fenians or Fenian traditions exist in the time of the Caledonians? If so, probably there were Fenian ballads then also, and these may be the old ballads of the Caledonians modified, developed, and altered, but preserved from undergoing any radical change by popular veneration down to our own day. 

Why these have been so well preserved, and have outlived so many historical periods, may be accounted for by their universality. Highland chiefs were at war with each other, and lasting animosities subsisted between them. A song in praise of a certain chief was not likely to be acceptable to an inimical clan. A ballad in praise of clan Chattan would not please the clan Kay. A poem that extolled the exploits of Robert Bruce, would meet with but a cold reception among the Macdougalls of Lorn, or among the dependents of the Comyns of Badenoch. The bard that would run the risk of praising the merits of James the First among the Grahams, or among the dependents of those relatives of his own whom he had so cruelly executed, might risk having his tongue cut out, but the Fenian ballads could be sung anywhere. They were not likely to excite any feud, or awaken any old grudge, or recall any former disgrace. They were not calculated to wound either a reigning dynasty, or the partizans of a fallen one; and, indeed, during those wild times, when every man’s hand was against his brother, what better code of honour could have existed among such fiery elements. When chiefs violated the principles of chivalry, and honour, and fair play, what better check could we conceive as a moral restraint upon their wild passions from the traditions of the Feinne, whose name is still the watchword for fair play. “COTHROM NA FEINNE,” “Fenian’s advantage,” a fair field and no favour.

1  The measure is exactly that of the quick part of a piobaireachd, or pipering, called “pibroch” in English. The conclusion fits the slow ending of such pieces. 
*  In the ‘Scots Lore’ article, ‘Thebal Amulets’ there’s a term found inscribed “Guth Guthani” and they give an idea of what the context of the full inscription means though I think they’ve missed the suggestion that it could be Gaelic. “Guth” translates as Voice with “Guthan” therefore being the plural “Voices.” Which could make sense in the same context given as folk speak of the Voice of the Divine or of their God(s). 
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