Gaelic Poetry of Known & Unknown Bards, Published & Traditional – Part 4, pp.197-209.

[Popular Tales Hector MacLean Contents]

To the list of modern bards who refer to the Feinne, may be added the name of Evan MacColl, the Lochfine-side bard, who published a volume of very creditable English and Gaelic poetry in 1836. At page 94 is a Gaelic stanza, which may be thus closely translated:- 

And thou there standing all lonely, 
As Oisian after the Feinne; 
Small time, and thou followest kindred, 
Oh Dun! death’s strong hand is upon thee. 

The Dun meant is “Castail Donnain,” in Loch Dubhaich in Ross-shire. Other references also occur, and it may be generally said that there is hardly a Gaelic book that does not contain such references. William Livingstone, the Islay bard, who published clever poems in 1858, often mentions the Feinne. – J. F. C. 

To this let me add the letter of a labourer, who has a good head and small learning, but knows his own language well. 

Douchlais, 28th October 1861.    
   Sir, – I received your letter of the 24th Saturday last, 
   There is a good many words in Ossian’s poems that is not common in modern Gaelic. I have Dr. Smith’s Gaelic book, and I got it from a man because that there was so many words in it which he did not know the meaning of, and I understand them. 
   Them (the poems) that I heard repeated corresponds with those that is in the book. 
   I am quite convinced that the English was taken from the Gaelic, and not the Gaelic from the English. 
   It would be quite absurd to think that a man would spend his time studying old Gaelic for to translate English prose, and put it in Gaelic verse, and choose the words as they were spoken about seventeen hundred years ago: it would be a very laborious task; and if the publication was printed, the publisher would be a great loser by it, as so few would buy it, because they did not understand it; and none would be able to do it, unless he was a first-class Gaelic scholar, and a good poet; and also he would have to read some other poems, as old as Ossian’s for to find the measure of the metre, as some of them is composed to a measure that is not used in modern poetry. I understand the Gaelic of the published books. I understand the words separately. –  
Yours truly, 

To this let me add a letter from Mr. Torrie, now a student at Edinburgh College, who has collected stories for me, and lives in Benbecula. 

19th October 1861.
   MY DEAR SIR, – As I have conversed with almost all those from whom POEMS have been collected in this quarter, I flatter myself that I am now in a position to furnish you with my quota of information on this interesting subject. 
   Besides these POEMS which have been collected, the proof sheets of which I have perused, a great variety of other poems, which go under the name of “Ossian’s Poems,” are commonly recited by the people. A few of these I have already sent you; and I have still in my possession two long ones, called respectively – “Teanntachd mhor na Feinne,” and “Cath mac Righ na Sorcha.” “Laoidh Dhiarmid,” “Laoidh Fhraoich,” “Laoidh an Amadain Mhoir,” “Mhuileartach Bhuidhe,” and “Laoidh a Choin duibh,” are, however, the most common. Fragmentary pieces of these I have heard recited by some of our highest class; but those who have them most entire, are, comparatively speaking, the poorest and most illiterate in the land – those from whom they might be the least expected – so circumstanced that they have had no access to books, and even should they have, the most of them could not make any use of them. Neither were they in a position to mingle among those who could read, and had books. Books, however, which contain collections of Ossian’s Poems, are not so common here as might be expected. None of the reciters that I have met, ever heard of Gillies’, MacCallum’s, or Stewart’s. I have never seen any of these in the islands; and if they are to be found at all, it is with those who prize them too much to lend to such of the poorer classes as could read, to run the risk of being disfigured with black drops, and sure to have the not very agreeable odour of peat-reek. Donald Macintyre, Aird, Benbecula, the best reciter of poems that I have met, and who can read Gaelic well, never saw any book of the kind until I shewed him Dr. Smith’s collection. I have traced out another copy of Dr. Smith’s at Iochdar, which was presented to one Peter McPherson, a bit of a poet, by the Reverend Duncan McLean, now Free Church Minister at Glenorchy, when missionary here about thirty-five years ago. Every person with whom I have conversed about Ossian’s Poems, and who knows anything about them, admires them very much, and believes them to be the genuine composition of Ossian, as pure as might be expected, considering that they were handed down by tradition, and consequently lost a great deal of their pristine splendour; and received additions which, instead of adding, detracted considerably from their original merit. I believe there are very few in the Highlands, especially adults, but know something of Ossian’s Poems. Like the “Popular Tales,” which are universally found throughout the Highlands, Ossian’s Poems have formed a very important part of the Highlanders’ pastime through the long winter nights. When on my way home from Edinburgh last spring, I read “Laoidh Dhiarmid” to a few in Skye. They remembered to have heard it before; and some old men remarked that, when they were young, tales and poems were very common, and regretted very much that they were so much out of vogue with the present generation. I never met with any of Ossian books there but one, the Rev. Mr. MacLauchlan’s “Gleanings,” presented to a “guide” by an English tourist. I never heard of any Irish book containing these pieces in the islands, nor have I ever seen any myself. As I have not MacPherson’s, which is the best known of them all, nor Gillies’, nor Stewart’s, I cannot say whether those who repeat, recite passages a la MacPherson, a la Stewart, or a la Gillies. Donald Macintyre recited to me a poem entitled “Cath MacRigh na Sorcha,” which I find in Dr. Smith’s collection, not page 176 They resemble each other very much; in some passages the language is the same; Macintyre’s version, however, is longer, though Dr. Smith’s, upon the whole, is more beautiful. In the course of a conversation lately with a gentleman of no mean authority, on the Ossianic controversy, he expressed his surprise that the anti-Ossianics would use such futile arguments as that MacPherson was the author of these poems, or that the people get them from books, while he himself had a distinct recollection of hearing one Rory McQueen, commonly called Ruairi Ruadh, who was a catechist in this parish, recite poems which can be found in MacPherson’s. This McQueen died about thirty years ago at the advanced age of eighty. He had a great many of Ossian’s poems which he learned when a boy by hearsay, and with which he afterwards used to entertain his hosts when travelling from village to village on his catechetical visits. A niece of his, who now resides at Paible, North Uist, has the same hereditary talent which procured her uncle more celebrity than his catechetical acumen. This MacQueen was no less than fifty years of age when MacPherson’s Gaelic was published, and fifty-seven before Stewart’s, or McCallum’s appeared. In whatever way, therefore, people came to have these poems, it is a well-known fact that they never got them from books, for nothing can be more patent than the fact that these poems existed long before MacPherson’s, or Stewart’s, or McCallum’s, or Gillies’, or Miss Brookes’ came into existence. Nor is it consistent to suppose that MacPherson, were he really the author of the poems, would give them unto the world as the composition of Ossian, while they were of themselves sufficient to raise him to the pinnacle of fame, and establish his name as the greatest poet that Scotland ever produced. I do not believe, however, that these minor pieces are the composition of Ossian. They differ as much from them as a school-boy’s attempts at painting do from the sublime efforts of Raphael or Michael Angelo. As to the question whether these are Irish or Scotch, I cannot give a definite answer. After some reflection, however, my opinion preponderates to the latter, for though there are some words and phrases which to me were unintelligible until the reciters explained them, and which they considered Irish, still I would not be justified in calling such ballads as contain them Irish, on the slender ground of this mere “ipse dixit,” for they may have retained that much of the language in which they were originally composed, and which may have been the dialect common in Scotland at that time. They are apparently very old, and it is possible at the time they were composed the language of both countries was the same, considering they had one common origin. By whom they were composed, or at what time they were composed, cannot, with any decree of certainty be determined. They stretch back into a period of whose history I know very little, and, consequently I am precluded from adding more. – Meanwhile, I remain, yours very faithfully, 
     J. F. Campbell, Esq., etc., etc.

To this let me add the opinion of a Highlander, who had had much to do with the publication of Gaelic books, and lives in a city. 

November, 9, 1861.              
   MY DEAR SIR, – In compliance with your request, I will now proceed briefly to give you my opinion of the poems attributed to Ossian and other ancient Celtic bards. Although a doubt never crossed my mind regarding the genuineness of these productions, yet after a careful investigation of the subject, I have now a more definite and satisfactory impression of the matter than I had heretofore. I believe that “Fingal fought, and that Ossian sang,” as firmly as I believe any other historical fact. I have now the same opinion of them that I had thirty years ago, when I first began to take an interest in these matters, namely, that such individuals lived many centuries ago, and composed poems that have been handed down from generation to generation by oral recitation, and that many of these fragments have been collected and translated into English, and published by Mr. James MacPherson of Badenoch, exactly a hundred years ago, and by others since, such as Dr. John Smith of Campbeltown, Duncan Kennedy, Hugh and John McCallum, etc. I believe all that is truly poetical and ennobling in MacPherson’s translation are the productions of Ossian and other great bards of the same era; but while I believe and maintain all this, I gave it as my humble conviction that MacPherson used unwarrantable liberties with his originals. Ossian never composed “Fingal” and “Temora” as they are given by him, and it would be much more to the credit of our country had he given these fragments just as he collected them, without linking them together as he has done, and called them “Epic Poems.” I also complain of MacPherson for excluding passages which accorded not with the theory which he wished to establish, and thus endeavoured to fix the Fingalian era according to his own fancy; but this is not the worst – I have a graver charge than any of these to bring against him. I have no hesitation in affirming that a considerable portion of the Gaelic which is published as the original of his translation is actually translated back from the English. I have discovered this by the aid of fragments (no doubt genuine) published in the Highland Society’s Report. These fragments begin at page 192, and end at page 260. A literal translation is inserted o opposite pages, with MacPherson’s translation in foot-notes. MacPherson’s translation is pretty faithful, with the exception of omitted passages, which under other circumstances might be supposed to have been translated from a different version; but when we are presented with the Gaelic, purporting to be the original, the deception is too transparent to pass undetected. I am aware that this assertion is detrimental to the honesty and veracity of Mr. MacPherson, and perhaps to the character of those who superintended the publishing of the Gaelic after his death, but I affirm this as my honest conviction of the matter; and any Highlander of ordinary intelligence may satisfy himself on this point by comparing the Report and MacPherson’s Gaelic. From this, and other circumstances, it is evident that MacPherson determined to appropriate to himself the literary glory of these productions. If not, why bequeath in his “last will and testament” £1000 to defray the expenses of publishing Ossian’s poems in Gaelic, English, and Latin? This fact, I think, ought to exonerate those superintending the Gaelic, as they were merely carrying out his request as his executors. 
   But, notwithstanding all I have mentioned, we are indebted to Mr. MacPherson for what he had done. He was the first to draw the attention of foreigners to those wonderful compositions, and others following his example, matter has been collected and preserved that would have been for ever lost. Mr. MacPherson’s translation, in my opinion, is superior to the paraphrase of Dr. Smith; but the Gaelic of Dr. Smith is genuine, with the exception of his emendations and occasional interpolations, where he thought the sense required it, and which he candidly acknowledged. Dr. Smith being a ready poet, and a thorough Gaelic scholar, spared no pains in making his “Seann Dàna” worthy of the patronage of his countrymen; and no wonder although he was disappointed when his labours were not sufficiently appreciated. 
   There are other parties who have done some harm, alleging that they were the authors of some of the compositions which passed as Ossian’s. Mr. Kennedy claimed some of his collection as his own. Mr. McCallum of Arisaig published a volume of Gaelic poems and songs in 1821, in which he gives a “Seann Dàn” under the designation of “Collath,” which in course of time was honoured by a place in “The Beauties of Gaelic Poetry,” the editor endorsing it as an ancient poem; but in 1840 Mr. McCallum published a new edition of his poems, and very coolly “removes the deception,” using his own words, and avows himself the author of “Collath,” and very modestly retains the fulsome notes which he himself appended to it on its first appearance. It is doubtful is the author would have been so ready to remove the deception had “Collath” not been so highly honoured by the editor of the “Beauties.” Mr. McCallum added a third part to “Mordubh,” and 259 lines to the second part more than is given in Gillies’ collection. He does not say that the supplement to “Mordubh” is his, neither do I charge him with imposing on the reader by this; but I am not satisfied that either the first, or last, or any part of “Mordubh”” s genuine. 
   I have mentioned these circumstances in order to remove, so far as can, all that has the appearance of suspicion or doubt about the matter; but all the deceptions that have been practised do not affect the sterling worth of the poems of Ossian any more than the base coin affects the value of the real one. It will only make those into whose hands it may come try it and make sure that it is genuine. 
   It may be objected, “How could so much matter be preserved on the memories of the people without the aid of letters?” Those who have lived in the Highlands for any length of time know well how these productions have been preserved. In former times Highlanders had very little else to remember; or, rather, they did not remember much else. Socially disposed, they spent much time together; on the long winter evenings they assembled in a certain house, rehearsed and listened to these records of Fingalian achievements which were thus interwoven with their mental development. Hence the continual opposition manifested by the religious instructors of the Highlanders to “Sgeulachdan” and Ossianic poetry. These teachers had serious difficulties in getting the attention of the people, in consequence of their minds being pre-occupied and absorbed by this ancient lore. 
   Bishop Carswell, in 1567, complains of those who spent their time and intellect in perpetuating the records “concerning Tuath de dannan, Fionn MacCumhail and his heroes, rather than write and teach and maintain the faithful words of God, and of the perfect way of truth.” But Mr. Robert Kirk, of Balquhidder, who published the first metrical Gaelic version of the Psalms in 1684, is more charitably disposed towards the Fingalians. (See page 71.) 
   The assertions of Bishop Carswell are fully borne out by the well-known Christian poet, Peter Grant of Strathspey, who composed about forty years ago. He says in “Gearan nan Gaidheal:” – 
“An t-Sàbaid ghlòrmhor bu chòir a naomhadh, 
 ‘Stric chaith sinn faoin i o cheann gu ceann, 
 Le cainnt ro dhiomhain mu thiomchioll Fhianntaibh, 
 ‘S gach gnothach tiomal a bhiodh ‘n ar ceann; 
 Air cnuic ‘s air slébhtean, ‘s na tighean céilidh 
 Bhiodh-mid le chéile a’ tional ann, 
 Ach cha b’e ‘m Bìobal a bhiodh ‘ga leughadh 
 Ach faoin sgeul air nach tigeadh ceann.” 
 The glorious Sabbath that should be hallowed, 
 Oft spent we in trifling from end to end 
 With useless chattering about the Feeantain, 
 And each timely matter that was in our mind. 
 On knolls or hillsides, or in visiting houses, 
 We would be together all gathering there; 
 But ‘twas not the Bible that was read there, 
 But a silly tale told without an end. 
I think these quotations prove two things; first, that Ossian’s Poems are older than James MacPherson; and second, that it is not a matter of astonishment that Highlanders could preserve so much of the poetry of former ages, seeing that they applied all their mental powers in remembering and perpetuating it. I cannot, indeed, wonder at the clergy, teachers, and catechists opposing the “conventicles” (to use an ecclesiastical term) for rehearsing and hearing Fingalian lore, as the practice interfered so much with their usefulness. But these traditions served a purpose, and accomplished their mission; and like other dispensations of antiquity they passed away. They were the “elementary school-books” of the Celts in bygone ages; they helped to strengthen and expand their memories, and to sharpen their intellects; and the morals inculcated by them were generally sound. Those who are familiar with our national proverbs and maxims, must acknowledge that the men who first uttered them, and those who gave them currency, studied human nature deeply. The Highlanders had also many problems and riddles, as you are well aware, that required much ingenuity and application to solve. I will refer you to one of these as a specimen; it goes under the designation of “Aireamh Fir Dhubhain.” You will find it, I think. in Stewart’s collection. There is much truth in what Dr. McLeod of St. Columba, Glasgow, uttered on one occasion, although he was laughed and sneered at by some for it:- “Even the superstition of the Highlanders, dark and wild as it may appear, had a happy tendency in forming the character of the Gael.” Undoubtedly it had; and while I am anxious that my countrymen should possess knowledge that will be more serviceable to them in time, and shall make them happy in eternity, I am ready to pay my tribute of gratitude to the memories of the teachers of former generations, for inculcating a sense of the instability of everything in this world, and the folly of expecting much from creature comforts – for the love of country and kindred, and for the noble, generous, and hospitable spirit they infused into society – the fruit of which I, in common with my countrymen, am reaping in the latter half of the nineteenth century. 
   It is evident that the learned pride of many of our Anglo-Saxon neighbours was roused on the appearance of the Ossianic fragments. They could not conceive how an unlettered people could produce such poetry; but they ought to have remembered that the knowledge of letters is but one avenue for conveying knowledge to the human mind. I have met and associated with individuals who had “book knowledge” in abundance, but yet had neither the sense or the wit of some who knew not the letters of the alphabet, and could not be consulted with equal advantage in a case of emergency. A knowledge of letters, and of the English language, is the essence of all knowledge and wisdom in the estimation of the “Gall.” These two items are certainly requisites in our education; but it is doing the Celt great injustice to conclude that because he is ignorant of these he must be very stupid and ignorant of everything. Highlanders have serious difficulties to contend with, which require indomitable courage and perseverance to overcome. A young Celt leaves his native hills with scarcely a word of English “in his head,” and comes to the Lowlands. In course of time he masters the language of the “Gall,” competes with him, and often beats him on his own soil. There is no evidence of inferiority of intellect in this. 
   Fearing that I have done more than what you wished me to do, I remain, my dear Sir, yours faithfully, 
1  It is to be observed that this witness says nothing of the Gaelic Ossian of 1807.