[Popular Tales Hector MacLean Contents]
To this let me add the opinion of a Highlander who has been stationed in many districts of the country as an excise officer; a gentleman of good education, and well able to write Gaelic and English, who has been kind enough to collect stories, etc. for me.
“It is well known that, in the absence of literature, men supply the deficiency by tales, which may be of their own creation, or that of ages long gone by. It were strange if the imaginative, the sensitive, the enthusiastic Gael were without his. Strange it were if the children of the mist themselves were without this poetic element in their constitution. But it is not so. In all ages the Celtic tribes have been noted for their tales, poetry, and music, and all these are characteristic. They breathe the same melancholy sadness, the same enthusiastic wildness, and the same daring chivalry. Their tales are pure and simple, their poetry is assuredly that of nature. It is wild and romantic, sensitive and sad, affectionate and kind. Their music is known and admired all over the world.
There are all sorts of Highland tales – fabulous, and romantic; fairy tales, and tales of superstition, family tales, tales of gallant deeds, and, I regret to say, tales of deadly feud.
The Highlanders distinguish between all these. To the fabulous tales they give no credence, but merely repeat them because they are curious. The romantic tales they do not exactly believe, but think they might possibly be true. Fairy and superstitious tales are not now generally believed. But family tales, feudal tales, and tales of other years form the history of the Highlanders. These they believe, and repeat with pride. A Highlander always takes pride and pleasure in the noble actions and gallant deeds of his country. His own clan is a special pride to him. It is his standard of honour, and he would as soon tell of anything disreputable to his own family as he would to his clan. His clan may be few now, its members may be scattered to all ends of the earth, but he speaks of it when it was a clan, and he recounts its fall with sorrow and regret. These tales are generally to be found amongst the poor and unlettered people. They cherish the memory of their fathers; they tell their tales, recite their poems, and sing their songs; they have the pride and generosity of their fathers, and, alas! the penury consequent on their fathers’ misfortunes. These tales are to be found amongst the old. For obvious reasons, the young do not take the same interest in them. Consequently these relics of antiquity must necessarily be lost, and scarce a trace of them be found in another generation or two.
These old men and women are, indeed, generally poor, but they have generally seen more comfortable circumstances. Their houses may not be perfect specimens of architecture, but they are of kindness and hospitality. Their furniture may not be comfortable, according to the modern acceptation of the term, but it suffices for their use, and every article is endeared by family associations. Their dress may be humble, but it can boast of having been teazed, carded, and spun by a wife or a daughter. It may not be fine, but it is comfortable, and it is, notwithstanding, pleasant enough to look upon. Their fare may not be over plentiful, but the stranger is always welcome to a share of it.
They are never rude, boorish, or vulgar, uncivil, disrespectful, or insolent. On the contrary, they are naturally civil and deferential, but they are naturally reserved. This I have experienced. I have often gone to old men, and although I was told they had the greatest stock of old lore of any in the place, yet they would either equivocate, or maintain the most provoking silence. They would much rather know who I was, if they did not know me, and why I was so desirous to get sgeulachdan faoin sheana bhan– old wives’ silly tales. I had always to wait till I had gained their confidence. To shew them that I was interested in their tales, I have often told them one myself – perhaps one I had got a few days before? If they knew of any expressions belonging to the tale which I had not, they would repeat them at my request. Thus I have often got many valuable additions.
Fabulous tales are the most difficult to get, not because they are the rarest, but because they are unwilling to tell them to strangers. Historical tales are the easiest to get. They are known everywhere, and, more or less, by every person. “Sgeulachdan na Feinn,” or the Fingalian tales, are very common. Clan or historical tales, and those of the Fingalians, are the most admired. These are believed in, and consequently talked of seriously. Many of these correspond to a nicety with Ossian’s poems. But many more have no coincidence with them.
I met an English tourist in summer, and we had occasion to speak of Fingal’s Cave in Staffa. He said very authoritatively that Fingal, Ossian, and his compeers must have been all fiction – in short, mere creations of MacPherson’s own fancy; that no person ever heard of Ossian till MacPherson’s days; that no MSS. of Ossian’s poems were ever seen; and, finally, that they were never known to exist amongst the people. This was certainly a new theory to me, but, like many others, I saw that the gentleman who felt himself at liberty to speak thus freely of Ossian’s poems, did not take the trouble to examine for himself. That he heard or read of this, and believed it. I told him that hundreds of years before MacPherson existed, the poems of Ossian were well known, and alluded to in writing; that MacPherson stood exactly in the same relation to Ossian as Pope did to Homer, or Dryden to Virgil; that MSS. of Ossian’s poems were well known to exist in the Highlands long before MacPherson’s time. That some of those MSS. were to be seen at an eminent London publisher’s at the very time Dr. Samuel Johnson was declaiming against the authenticity of Ossian’s poems; and, lastly, I told him that, so far from it being at all true that Ossian’s poems were not known amongst the people, if he would have the goodness to accompany me, and in less than five minutes’ time I would bring him to a man who could repeat hundreds of lines of Ossian’s poems.
While speaking of MacPherson, I may state that many Gaelic scholars think he might have done greater justice to their darling Ossian. Without averring that MacPherson might not have rendered Ossian much more effective, I think he has done remarkably well. He has deserved the gratitude of every Highland heart, and of every man of taste.
Ever since I remember myself I remember hearing of the Fingalians. Who that has lived in the Highlands but must necessarily have heard the same. Their exploits, bravery, and battles have been the theme and admiration of Highland seanachaidhean from time immemorial. That these may have been exaggerated is possible, that they had a foundation in fact is unquestionable.
I have frequently questioned old men concerning the Fingalians in almost all parts of the Highlands, from Cape Wrath to the Mull of Cantyre. If they had heard of them – what they heard of them – and if they believed in them? I have never in one single instance met a negative. All had heard of them, and all firmly believed in their existence. Some could give me anecdotes of them, some tales, some their poems, and all could give me something. I could mention scores, but I must necessarily confine myself to a few examples.
1. Dugald Bàn Mac a Chombaich, i.e., Colquhoun, Port-Appin, is, I should think, somewhat over seventy years of age. He is a most decent old man. He could tell me lots about the Feinn. He heard much about them when a boy. They were believed in, and their memory honoured by his fathers, and he could see no reason why he should not do the same. I took down a few tales from him. One of them I had taken down previously from a decent old man in Islay, who lives at Cultorsay. Another was about Diarmad, how he killed the wild boar, and how he was killed in turn.
Diarmad was a nephew of Fingal, and one of the handsomest men amongst the Fingalians. He had a “Ballseirc,” or a “Gràdh-seirc” – a beauty-spot on his forehead. To conceal this he was obliged to wear a vizer. Otherwise he was in danger of committing sad havoc amongst the tender hearts of the Fingalian fair. This is alluded to by one of our Gaelic poets. The passage may be thus translated –
Thou hast from Diarmad got a charm,
And beauty rare, divine;
A hundred souls are bound to thee –
A hundred hearts are thine.
This is a very common tradition that the Campbells are descended from Diarmad, and hence their crest – the wild boar’s head.
2. Alexander MacDonald, Portrigh, Skye, is eighty-four years old. Heard a great deal about the Feinn when young. Ossian’s poems were quite common in his day. Had lots of them himself, and even yet can repeat a good deal. I took down some from him. Amongst other things, part of “Laoidh na Nighin.” This old man was serving with the Rev. Mr. Stewart, who kept, he said (if I remember right), two clerks employed collecting the poems of Ossian throughout the country.
3. Donald Stewart, Ardfhraic, Skye, is ninety-two years of age. He is still hale and cheerful, and his faculties quite unimpaired. He is a quiet unassuming man, and is altogether a fine specimen of a fine old Highlander. He remembers well the days of his youth. Great and sad changes have come over the country since then. He heard much about the Feinn. Heard often the poems of Ossian. They were quite common in his day. Every person knew them, most could recite them, and all admired them. As long ago as he can remember anything, he remembers distinctly how the people used to collect to each other’s houses in the long winter nights. They used to tell tales of all descriptions, sing the songs of their fathers, and recite the poetry of Ossian. The old men recited while the young listened. Those who were the best recited, and all endeavoured to excel. They took a special pleasure in this, and in impressing the memory of the young with what they were reciting. Some of the men were very old. They said they got them from their fathers when they were young. That their fathers – that is, the old men of their day – told them they had those tales, traditions, and poems, from their own fathers. That Ossian’s poems were then as well known and as much admired as anything at all could possibly be.
Assuming, then, that some of these men were as old as Donald Stewart is to-day, when he was a boy, we have thus direct and truthful evidence of the authenticity of the Poems of Ossian for the last one hundred and eighty-four years. What more need be said!
From Donald Stewart, of whom I have often heard, but whom I have only once seen, I got some curious old things. I shall endeavour to see him again ere long when I have no doubt I shall get extracts from him of Ossian, in all his purity.
4. Kenneth Morrison, Trithean, Skye, is old and blind. I need scarcely mention that he heard much of Ossian in this young days. A very decent old man, John Macdonald, Iain MacIain Eoghain, Talamhsgeir, Skye, used to come to Kenneth Morrison’s house. This John Macdonald died more than twenty years ago. He was about eighty when he died. He was a very good poet, as were his fathers before him, and so are his sons. One of his sons, who composed some very popular songs, died some years ago.
4a. John Macdonald was a passionate admirer of Ossian. He had a great many of his poems, and could recite them most beautifully. Wherever he went he was welcome, and every person was delighted to get hold of him. He was a very pleasant old man, but his recitals of his darling Ossian fascinated all. His own house was full every night, and whenever he visited any of his friends he was literally besieged. He often-times came to see Kenneth Morrison, and when he did, Kenneth Morrison’s house was sure to be crowded – literally crammed. From him he learned the most of what he has of Ossian’s. He has forgotten the most, but he has a good many pieces yet. Amongst other pieces, I have got from him “The Death of Oscar,” “Ossian‘s Address to the Sun,” “Fingal,” the beginning of Duan iv. Also, “The Arms,” and “Laoidh an Amadain mhoir,” as in Smith’s “Sean Dana.” I have got another piece from him, entitled “Bàs Chaoiril” – Caorreal’s death. Caorreal was a son of Fingal and brother of Ossian. He and Gaul, the son of Morni, disputed. They fought, and Caorreal fell.1
5. An old man, whose name I cannot just now recollect, and who is now dead, lived at Toat, opposite Airdeilbh, Lochalsh; he was very old, and died some years ago; he had known almost incredible quantities of Ossianic poetry. I have been assured by more than one who knew him intimately, that this old man had as much Ossianic poetry as would take him whole days in the recital; yet he could recite for whole nights together without the slightest hesitation, with as much ease as he could pronounce his own name. Like all the rest of his class, he used to say that he heard Ossian’s poems from old men when he was a boy; that they were perfectly common, and much admired in his day; that every person knew them; that most recited, and many sung them. This old man is understood to have given a great deal of Ossianic poetry to MacPherson’s followers.
6. I have the pleasure of knowing a much respected, enthusiastic Highlander, a member of the Glasgow Ossianic Society, and a clergyman, who has many Fingallian airs; he is himself an accomplished musician, and a fond admirer of the airs and poems of Ossian.
Although I have frequently heard the poems of Ossian half-recited, half-sung, I never heard them before set to music. I can, however, assure those who have not had this privilege f hearing them, that the Ossianic airs are wild, melodious, and altogether most beautiful; they are typical of the poems.
7. Mr. Donald Nicolson, parochial schoolmaster, Kilmuir, Skye, had a great deal of Ossian’s poems; his father, he assured me, had more Ossianic poetry than all ever MacPherson translated; and even he himself, when a boy, could repeat what would form a tolerable sized volume. These he heard from old men in the long winter nights; he personally was acquainted with many old men who could repeat lots of Ossian’s poetry. These old men declared that Ossian’s poems, in their day, were known by every person, and by every person admired. Mr. Nicolson says that much, and deservedly, as Ossian’s poems, as given to the world, are admired, they are much inferior to the versions he was in the habit of hearing in boyhood; that he is of opinion MacPherson must have got his versions, generally speaking, from different reciters; I have heard others say the same. I believe those collected by Smith and some others, are generally thought to be purer versions than those collected by MacPherson.
Thus I have given the names of many unquestionable witnesses to the authenticity of Ossian’s poems. Did necessity require it, I could easily give ten, aye, twenty times more.2
If the ancient Highlanders had not their gods and goddesses like the Greeks of old, they had what was much more natural, their heroes and heroines. If they had not an invulnerable Achilles, they had their magnanimous Fingal; if not their bewitching Juno, they had their Dearsagrena, whose resplendent beauty was like that of the sun. If they had not their Apollo, they had their venerable Ossian, “the sweet voice of Cona,” the darling of Highland hearts.
If it should be said that Ossian exaggerates the gallantry, the bravery, the magnanimity of his heroes, why, Homer does the same. If there is poetic license, why should it be denied to those who knew no restraint but that of nature. “Saul slew his thousands, and David his tens of thousands;” and why should not their enemies fall before Ossian’s heroes, “like reeds of the lake of Lego,” and their strength be terrible.
We have not only their names accurately handed down to us, but the names of many places were derived from those of the Fingalian heroes. There is Gleann Chonnain, Connan’s vale; and Amhain Chonnain, Connan’s river, in Ross-shire; and even Gleann Bhrain, Bran’s-vale, in honour of Fingal’s celebrated dog Bran. There is a Dun-Fionn, Fingal’s height or hill, on Loch-lomond. There is Sliabh nam ban Fionn, the Fingalian fair women’s hill, in Liosmor.
Liosmor, it is said, was a favourite hunting place of Fingalians; and there is even a tradition amongst the people, that here they had some of the very best sport they ever had. There is nothing improbable in this. Game must have been once very abundant in Liosmor; there are traces still to be found; antlers of the deer, the bison, and the elk, have been found in the bogs; these were of immense size. There is in Liosmor a place called Larach tigh nam Fiann, the site of the Fingalian’s house; it is a large circular mound, of perhaps eighty yards diameter, and surrounded by a deep foss. There is a deep well inside, possibly it may have been used for the purpose of entrapping game… Perthshire is replete with reminiscences of the Fingalians; there is Cill Fhinn, pronounced in Gaelic and written in English, Killin, “Fingal’s tomb”; here, tradition says, Fingal is buried. In the neighbourhood is Sornach-coir-Fhinn, “the concavity for Fingal’s boiler.” Sorach means thin oblong stones raised on end in the form of a triangle; a fire is placed between, and here the culinary operations are carried on.
In Strathearn is the village of Fianntach, of or belonging to the Fingalians; in the neighbourhood are numberless cairns raised to the memory of Fingalian heroes. These cairns are the “gray mossy stones” of Ossian.
“Carn Chumhail,” CUVAL’S cairn, was opened some years ago and found to contain an immense stone coffin; near this was “Ossian’s tomb.” In 1746, when General Wade formed the road [Old Military Road] through the county, it came across this spot. A deputation waited on the General, asking if he would take the road to a side so as not to disturb the last repose of “the first bard of antiquity.” The General, however, did not find it convenient to comply with this very reasonable desire. Perhaps the engineering would not admit of it; and perhaps he had a secret desire to put the merit of the tradition to the test. Certain it is that the inhabitants of the surrounding country collected; they opened the grave, and there, sure enough, found the mortal remains of their loved Ossian. The coffin was composed of four large flag stones set on edge, covered over by another large massy stone. They lifted all with religious care and veneration, and with pipers playing the wail of the coranich they marched in solemn silence to the top of a neighbouring hill. There, on the top of that green heathery hill, they dug a grave, and there laid the last mortal remains of Ossian, the sweet voice of Cona, the first bard of antiquity; and there they are likely to rest! no rude hand will touch them, no desecration reach them there.
There is a place in Glenelg called “Iomaire nam-fear-mor,” the tall or big men’s ridge. Tradition says that two of the Fingalians were drowned whilst crossing Caol-reathain [Kyle Rhea], and that they are interred here. A gentleman, an English gentleman I believe, who was travelling in the Highlands, heard of this tradition; he hinted that the tradition had no foundation, and, it is said, made many gratuitous remarks on Highland traditions in general, and those of the Fingalians in particular.* To refute their “idle tradition,” as he chose to term it, he insisted that one of the supposed graves should be opened. The people have a religious veneration for the dead, and perhaps a latent superstition against disturbing the grave, and consequently they were very much averse to opening the mound. Rather, however, than that their venerated tradition should be termed a fable, they agreed to open one of the graves, and the grave was opened. It was very deep; first there was the gravelly soil common to the place, and then a thick layer of moss; after that the gravelly soil, when they came upon another bed of moss, in which was a skeleton. Moss preserves, and it was for that purpose the body was placed in it. The bones were found to be quite fresh and of extraordinary size. No person ever saw anything to compare with them before, and it is said no person could at all credit or even imagine the size of them but those who saw them. One gentleman who was present, the late excellent Rev. Mr. MacIver of Glenelg, and father of the much respected present minister of Kilmuir, Skye, stood six feet two inches high; he was very stout in proportion, and was altogether allowed to be one of the handsomest men of his day. Every one was wonder-struck at the immensity of the bones; he took the lower jaw-bone and easily put his head through it.
It is added that it was a beautiful day; but all of a sudden there came on thunder and lightning, wind, and deluging rain, the like of which no man ever heard or saw. The people thought judgment had come upon them for desecrating the bones of the dead, and interfering with what they had no right, so they closed the grave and desisted. Possibly some may think this bordering on the marvellous; but let no one gainsay the truth of it. There are many yet living who were present, all of whom declare that they “shall never forget the day and the scene till the day of their death.” There were a number of people present, gentlemen from Skye, and many from the mainland.
I have never heard who the gentleman was whose scepticism caused the opening of the grave, but the incident took place about sixty years ago.3
Gleann-comhan – Glencoe, that is, the narrow glen – is said by tradition to be the birth-place of Ossian. If there is in Scotland one spot more than another from which such magnificent creations as Ossian’s poems could be expected to emanate, that spot is Glencoe. Nothing can be more terrifically sublime than Glencoe during a storm. “Their sound was like a thousand streams that meet in Cona’s vale, when after a stormy night they turn their dark eddies beneath the pale light of the morning.” … “The gloomy ranks of Lochlin fell like banks of the roaring Cona.” “If he overcomes, I shall rush in my strength like the roaring stream of Cona.”
Ossian himself is frequently called “the voice of Cona.” “Why bends the bard of Cona,” said Fingal, “over his secret stream? Is this a time for sorrow, father of low-laid Oscar?” … “Such were the words of the bards in the days of song; when the king heard the music of harps – the tales of other times! The chiefs gathered from all the hills and heard the lovely sound. They heard and praised the voice of Cona, the first among a thousand bards!”
In Eadarloch – “‘twixt lochs” – Benderloch is the Selma of Ossian. It is still called Selma. It is also called Bail–an–righ – the king’s house or town; and Dun-MacSnitheachain – MacSniachain’s hill. Here also is the Beregonium of ancient writers. There are yet many traces that Selma was once the residence of regal splendour. There is a vitrified fort, in which are found “swimming-stones.” There were found, some years ago, in a moss close by, some pieces of a wooden pipe. This pipe is supposed to have been used for the purpose of bringing water to the fort or castle from the hill hard by. It is said that Garbh-MacStairn set Fingal’s castle on fire, after which Fingal left the place, and resided at Fianntach, already alluded to. This tradition seems very probable. The marks of some great calamity are yet to be seen.
In the neighbourhood of Selma are a great number of those stones that are supposed by some to have been Druidical temples. I think they are more likely to be stones erected to the memory of fallen warriors – “the dark gray stones” of Ossian. The Fall of Connel – Ossian’s “roaring Lora” – is only about three miles from Selma. Not far from Connel is the “Luath,” one of Ossian’s streams. “Dwells there no joy in song, with hand of the harp of Luath?” Opposite Selma, on the other side of Loch-Etive, is Dunstaffnage Castle, the residence of Sir Angus Campbell, Bart., and the Dun-Lora of Ossian. The Lora – Loch-Etive – washes its base. The Gaelic name of it is Dun-sta-innis, but more properly Dun-da-innis, from two islands near by. The noise of the roaring Lora is certainly awful during flood-tides. In a calm summer evening it is heard in the island of Liosmor, distant at least ten or twelve miles.4
After what has been said, I do not think it is necessary to say more. That there was a race of people called the Feinn or Fingalians, I think no unprejudiced mind can question. That these Fingalians were traditionally remembered throughout the Highlands is perfectly certain, and that much of their poetry has been plentifully scattered and is well known there still, is equally true.
I have given the names of some from when I myself have got Ossianic poetry, and I could give the names of ten times more from whom I could get it. I know where and with whom it is to be got in abundance, and, did necessity require it, I could easily procure it. Some, I believe, imagine, in the simplicity of their heart, that MacPherson, the translator, was the author of Ossian’s poems. Perhaps it was MacPherson that also composed the thousand and one Fingalian tales that are floating throughout the Highlands? and all the anecdotes of the Fingalians? Well, if so, I can only say that MacPherson must have been very busy in his day.
Why should not Ossian’s poetry be handed down from generation to generation like the rest of the Fingalian tales? I do not think that any case can be found bold enough to question the authenticity of the tales. I do not believe that any can be found bold enough to question the authenticity of the tales. I do not believe that any person doubts the antiquity of the Celtic fables and romances. It is more than probable they were composed at least three thousand years ago, and brought by the Celtic nations in their migrations from the East. If, therefore, the Celtae have preserved their fabulous tales and romances for the long period of three thousand years or more, and repeat them still, why not, on the same principle, preserve amongst them the magnificent creations of Ossian for, at least, half the time?
Homer flourished more than nine hundred years B.C., and his poems floated amongst the Greeks for more than five hundred years, till the Greek historian collected them. Yet their authenticity was never questioned. Were the ancient Greeks more addicted to poetry, and consequently more capable of preserving the creations of Homer than the Celtae those of Ossian? I can hardly believe so. There is a very strong resemblance betwixt Homer and Ossian. Both flourished in a primitive state of society, and both are equally the poets of nature and of nature’s laws. If there is an analogy betwixt Homer and Ossian, why not betwixt the preservation of their works?
That poetry of the most magnificent description has been common throughout the Highlands from ages immemorial is unquestionable; that much of that poetry has always been ascribed to Ossian is equally certain; and that he was the author of much of it is more than probable. The ancient Highlanders never for a single moment doubted the authenticity of Ossian’s poems. The modern Highlanders believe in those which they know and repeat as certainly and as implicitly as they do in the Song of Solomon or the Psalms of David. This I can testify to from personal observation. I believe in them myself – fully believe. I am literally convinced that Fingal lived and that Ossian sang.
ALEXANDER A. CARMICHAEL.
SKYE, 28th November 1861.
Mr. Carmichael has also referred to many of the printed authorities quoted by me above, to prove that, shortly before MacPherson’s time, collections of poetry attributed to Ossian had been made in the Highlands of Scotland.
In a letter dated December 9th, the writer of the above able paper gives an amusing account of a walk through rain and storm to visit an old dame, Catrina nic Mhathain, who is seventy-six, and fully confirms what has been said above. She is a capital singer of Ossianic lays, and praises the singing of a certain catechist, Donald MacIain ic Eoghain, of whom frequent mention is made, and who died many years ago. It was his wont to gather crowds of people by chanting these old lays. I have heard the same account of a Sutherland reciter. It seems that preachers and missionaries did not formerly condemn Gaelic poetry, and the minority who do so now are not of the best educated, so far as my experience goes.
The old dame was asked if she had ever heard tell of Osein. “Who, my dear?” she said in surprise. “Osein and the Fein; did you ever hear tell of them?” ”Lord bless us!” said the old lady, ”who has not heard tell of Osein! gentle Osein, the son of Fionn – Osein after the Feinne?”
I agree with Mr. Carmichael that this exclamation is worth volumes of argument.
4 thoughts on “Gaelic Poetry of Known & Unknown Bards, Published & Traditional – Part 5, pp.209-227.”