Friday, 1 June 2018


THE GAELIC LITERARY ENLIGHTENMENT:
THE MAKING OF THE SCOTTISH GAELIC NEW TESTAMENT AND ASSOCIATED BOOKS, 1750-1820
 
The O'Donnell Lecture, University of Edinburgh, 31 May 2018

Donald E. Meek
 

Since retiring in 2008 – and I can scarcely believe that ten years have passed since then – I have had the privilege of editing a number of Gaelic religious texts, and particularly the poems of the eighteenth-century poet Dugald Buchanan, who died in 1768, exactly 250 years ago.  Back in 1992, a quarter of a century ago, I completed an orthographic revision of the standard Gaelic Bible for the National Bible Society of Scotland, and I followed this with a diglot version of the Gaelic New Testament, with a parallel English text, in 2002.  The Gaelic New Testament was first published in 1767 in Edinburgh, on behalf of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, by Balfour, Auld and Smellie, printers to the University of Edinburgh, and the predecessors of Edinburgh University Press.  The poet Dugald Buchanan ‘attended the press’ in Edinburgh in the winters of 1766 and 1767 to supervise the printing of the New Testament.  The Gaelic New Testament celebrated the 250th anniversary of its publication last year.  The translation of the Old Testament was completed in 1801.  

It therefore seemed appropriate to devote the core of this O’ Donnell lecture to the translating and publication of the Gaelic New Testament, as well as to the achievement of Dugald Buchanan, and to set both in the context of what is commonly known as the Scottish Enlightenment.  At the same time, it seemed no less appropriate to discuss the contributions and qualities of the various other scholars who were involved in translating the New and Old Testaments, in addition to a range of other religious texts.  Broadly speaking, the period in which these foundational texts were translated lies within the seventy years covered by the title of this lecture. Of course, translation of religious works into Gaelic began two hundred years earlier, with the translation of The Book of Common Order by John Carswell in 1567 – the first-ever Gaelic book to be printed in Scotland or Ireland.  As I have demonstrated elsewhere, Carswell was very much in tune with the principles of Renaissance Humanism, which flowed into the Reformation.  Translation of religious texts likewise did not cease in 1820, but continued into the later nineteenth century, and beyond.

On this occasion, the so-called ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ is my broader  operational context.   I say ‘so-called’ because I am uncomfortable with the term ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, the adjective ‘Scottish’ seems to stretch the evidence used by scholars like Professor Alexander Broadie somewhat further than it warrants in terms of the evidence presented.  What Broadie and others describe is a Lowland, metropolitan ‘enlightenment’, centred pre-eminently on the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.  It has little to say about the Scottish Highlands, or about Gaelic, unless by way of some hackneyed discussion of James Macpherson and his alleged ‘Ossianic forgeries’ of the early 1760s.   The great thinkers, the great intellectuals, were all in the non-Gaelic regions.  The best minds were usually in the coffee-houses of Edinburgh, exchanging wonderful, world-changing ideas, and you would search for many a long day to find such enlightened thinkers in the sticks of Cowdenbeath or Wanlockhead, far less the Highlands and Islands.  This model falls into much the same trap as the old version of so-called ‘Scottish History’ which was in fashion when I was a benighted and unenlightened student at Glasgow in the late 1960s.  ‘Scottish’, in effect, meant ‘Lowland’, and the Highlands and Islands were no more than a minor appendage, if even that, to the important land mass south of the Ochils, where everything of any earthly significance tended to happen.  The adjective ‘Scottish’ also tends to set whatever is meant by ‘enlightenment’ apart from the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe.  The ‘enlightenment’ was by no means only Scottish.  It may have produced a distinctively Scottish manifestation, but, of course, it may have produced several different Scottish manifestations, depending on location and culture.  

The Lowland version of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, centring on Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, may have been no more than one of these versions.  In fact, my own concern in this lecture will be with a particular part of the Gaelic-speaking Highlands of the eighteenth century, namely the swathe of territory which comes within the bounds of what is now the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.  Most of the scholars whom I will consider belonged to, and operated in, that particular region, and most were ministers, though Dugald Buchanan was a schoolmaster for the Forfeited Estates and the Society in Scotland for Propagaing Christian Knowledge (SSPCK). This was, in fact, a threshold area of the Highlands and Lowlands, which gave relatively easy access to and from Highlands and Lowlands to the clergy and schoolmasters stationed within it.  English and Gaelic co-existed side by side, and bilingualism would have been normal to many ministers and schoolmasters, giving them access to English, as well as Gaelic, literature.  

I will not be concerned with the more northerly and westerly parts of the Highlands or with the Islands.  Nevertheless, the material which I will consider leaves me in no doubt that the term ‘Gaelic Literary Enlightenment’ has a much wider validity, as the texts produced in this period in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs area were used by literate and religiously inclined readers throughout the Highlands and Islands, who would have made their substance orally accessible to other non-literate audiences.  Indeed, the harbinger of the ‘Gaelic Literary Enlightenment’ appeared from this very area in 1690, when the Rev. Robert Kirk, the Episcopal incumbent of Aberfoyle, and previously of Balquhidder, produced his version of ‘Bedell’s Bible’ in Roman (rather than ‘Irish’) font specifically for the literate clergy of Scotland.  Though indebted to ‘Kirk’s Bible’, as it was known, the Gaelic New Testament of 1767 and the Old Testament of 1801 used a form of language much closer to spoken Scottish Gaelic.  The availability of other printed volumes of a didactic and Protestant nature in this style from 1750 likewise helped to extend and reinforce the distinctively Scottish Gaelic literary tradition, and to establish ‘modern Gaelic literature’.

If the scholars of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ have locked themselves into some problematic cul de sacs, from which we feel we must free them for the benefit of their own intellectual health and for more inclusive purposes, I think we have to admit that Gaelic scholars too have created their own sets of road-blocks.  The eighteenth-century Highlands and Islands are almost always portrayed as a society riven by political and social woes, most notably the causes and consequences of the two rebellions of 1715 and 1745.   The tendency has been to see little beyond a grim contextual scenario, consisting of two ranks of enemies, the inevitable Jacobites and Hanoverians, slogging it out over the issue of succession to the British crown.  Scholarly sympathies, on the whole, have tended to lie with Jacobites, and Hanoverian and Presbyterian activities have been seen as an integral part of the ‘regime’ against which the Jacobites rebelled.  On the other hand, it has been argued that the fear of Jacobitism, and a campaign to eradicate it, helped to drive Protestant religious enthusiasm in the second half of the eighteenth century, and to stimulate the Gaelic publications with which we are mainly concerned here. A connection between their authors and the post-Culloden ‘new world order’ is certainly clear enough in some cases, but we must also remember that the translating of ‘English theology’ into languages such as Dutch and German had developed into something of an industry in Europe in the later seventeenth century, as Professor W. R.Ward has ably demonstrated.  Indeed, at least one disgruntled clerical observer stated that the Dutch ‘have been as bold with our English sermons as with our fishing’, and advocated ‘reprizals against them’.  Professor Ward then comments, ‘The plagiarism continues to provide employment for modern literary detectives…’  That comment certainly strikes a chord with me, as the ‘plagiarism’ of Dugald Buchanan has kept me happily in academic business for a considerable while!

The intellectual world of the authors, or principally translators, of Gaelic religious works has been lost to a large extent between competing, and often disparaging, if not highly contentious, views of the eighteenth-century Highlands and Islands.  A joined-up case for a link between these authors and the wider ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ has barely surfaced, though it has made a rather tentative appearance in a recent volume of essays about the pro-Jacobite Gaelic poet, Alexander MacDonald, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, who has been called in its sub-title, ‘Bard of the Gaelic Enlightenment’.  MacDonald, who had taught in an SSPCK school before ‘coming out’ as a fervent Jacobite, had educational, business-related and political links with Glasgow and Edinburgh, he knew and used the works of Allan Ramsay and James Thomson, and he published highly original and important Gaelic books, most notably his Gaelic Vocabulary of 1741, and his book of pro-Jacobite poems of 1751, the first-ever printed volume of secular Gaelic verse, most copies of which were promptly burnt at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh.   Books could be burnt, of course, but ideas could survive, as could the movements at the heart of such innovation.

MacDonald’s book of poems takes me to within a year of the starting-date for the evidence which I wish to present in this lecture.  In 1750, the first Puritan work was translated into Gaelic – Richard Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, or Gairm an De Mhoir Iompachadh agus Bith Beo, as it was entitled in Gaelic.  Richard Baxter of Kidderminster was well known for other works too, some of which were likewise translated into Gaelic at a later date, in what became a veritable flood of English Puritan books in Gaelic.  The translator was the Rev. Alexander MacFarlan(e), or ‘MacFarlain’ (as he spelt his own name in a letter), then minister of the parish of Kilninver and Kilmelfort in Argyll.  MacFarlane was a Gaelic speaker who was born about 1703 on the farm of Pollochro in the parish of Buchanan on the east side of Loch Lomond.  He graduated M.A. from the University of Glasgow in 1728, and by the 1750s was deeply immersed in translating religious material of various kinds into Gaelic.  Writing to his brother Duncan, minister at Drymen, in March 1753, shortly before moving to the charge of Arrochar, he states that ‘I was closely confin’d by Appointment of our Argadian Sanhedrin, correcting our Guidhelian Targum now in the press, and sent me Sheet after Sheet per Express from Glasgow.’  The ‘Guidhelian Targum’ is a clever reference to the Gaelic Metrical Psalter which MacFarlane was revising for the Synod of Argyll, or the ‘Argadian Sanhedrin’, as he called this august body.  The revised Psalter was duly published later in 1753.  In the same letter, MacFarlane discloses that he has some political translation to carry out: ‘I am Just now translating into Caledonian Gallic the public Oaths of the Government at the Duke of Argyll’s Desire, to be tender’d to all his Guidhelian Tacks-men against Whitsunday next.’ MacFarlane’s Gaelic versions of the ‘public Oaths of the Government’ have survived in the Bighouse Papers (TGSI, Vol. 23, 32-34), entitled ‘Mionna Coitcheann Rioghachd Mhoir-Bhritinn, 1754’.  We thus have what some might consider to be an example of the archetypal Hanoverian and Presbyterian minister carrying out his part in the ‘civilising’ of the Highlands, and, of course, the same could be said about schoolmasters such as Dugald Buchanan, who was also trying to bring ‘civilisation’ to bear on the renegades of the forfeited estate of Strowan.  

Yet to be dismissive in this way is precisely what blinds us to appreciating the intellectual power and significance of families like the MacFarlanes.  Alexander MacFarlane’s brother Duncan, to whom he wrote as ‘Minister of the Gospel at Drymen,’ was a well-known character in his time, and his son, another Duncan, who succeeded him as minister of Drymen, went on to become Principal of the University of Glasgow between 1823 and 1858, very much in the tradition of eighteenth-century Moderate clergy of the Lowland Enlightenment, who often became university Principals. (For information on the MacFarlan(e)s, I am deeply indebted to Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich, University of Glasgow, whose excellent research into the links between that university and the ‘Gaidhealtachd’ is the pre-eminent example of an approach and a methodology which are brilliantly ‘enlightened’ in terms of giving Gaelic its due place in the intellectual history of Scotland across the centuries.)

Given his skill as a scholarly translator of religious texts into Gaelic, it is hardly surprising that Alexander MacFarlane was the first choice for another – and much more demanding – task of the same kind shortly after arriving in the parish of Arrochar in 1754.  This was at the request of the SSPCK, who wished him to translate the New Testament.  We must admire MacFarlane’s willingness to attempt the assignment, as he had been extremely busy with other literary demands over the previous decade.  However, he seems to have had great difficulty in proceeding with the work, because he had no manse in his new parish, and also required an amanuensis.  By 1757, when he wrote to the SSPCK, little if any progress had been made, and the SSPCK was becoming restive.  A year later, the society had found a solution to MacFarlane’s plight. A very willing assistant had been identified, and he had already made a most encouraging practical contribution to facilitate the translation.  The Minutes of the SSPCK (GD95/2/7: 491-2) record what happened:

Produced two Letters from Dougald Buchannan Schoolmaster at Drumchastle, Covering a Translation in Earse, of the Second Epistle of Peter, and proposing that the Same Should be sent to Mr. Mcffarlane to be revised by him, which might be a mean of forwarding the Translation of the New Testament, for Expeding of which Mr. Buchannan proposes to pay a Visite to Mr. Mcffarlane, and, if it was Agreeable to the Committee, to stay with him for three or four moneths, when his school is thinnest, in which time he might make Great progress in the Translation, which Letters being read, and the said Specimen being produced, The Committee in respect there is no Account Come from Mr. Mcffarlane, for a long time past About his Translation, Recommended to the preses to write him a Letter, desiring to know what progress he has made in it, and to promise him fifty Guineas for his trouble in translating the new Testament, providing the Same / will be ready in such time, as that it may be ready to be printed against May one thousand seven hundred and fifty nine years, and at the same time to acquaint him, that the Committee propose to send him one of their Schoolmasters versant in the Earse Language to be his Amanuensis, whose Board wages and other Expence will be paid by the Society, and if this proposall be Agreed to by Mr. Mcffarlane the Committee resolved to Employ Dougald Buchanan for that purpose, and in the mean time Delayed giving any Directions About the Specimen now produced untill Mr. Mcffarlane’s Answer came to hand.

There is no surviving evidence that Mr MacFarlane’s answer ever came to hand, but by 1760 the SSPCK had reassigned the translation to the Rev. James Stewart of Killin.  MacFarlane died in 1764, and it is possible that he had become unwell by 1760 or that the parish of Arrochar proved too demanding to allow him time for the translation.

Before we consider the Stewarts of Killin, however, it is vital that we give Dugald Buchanan his central place in what I have termed the ‘Gaelic Literary Enlightenment’.  He was the first person, as far as we know, to translate any portion of what became the 1767 Gaelic New Testament, and it was he who ‘attended the press’ in Edinburgh in the winters of 1766 and 1767 when that same New Testament was being printed.  Buchanan, who is best known for the volume of his ‘spiritual hymns’ published in Edinburgh in 1767, the same year as the Gaelic New Testament, is the only Gaelic writer of the eighteenth century who can also be fitted relatively easily into the Lowland and metropolitan wing of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ through his association with its leading figures and in his range of interests.   In Buchanan’s case, it is hard to avoid these ‘connections’.

Buchanan was born in 1716 in Ardoch, Strathyre, where his original home –  the miller’s house – still stands.  We have no details of his early education, but it was possibly through an SSPCK school.  Later, as a boy tutor with well-to-do families, Buchanan was able to take advantage of their libraries to broaden his reading.  We do know, however, that by 1740 he was in Divinity College in Glasgow (presumably the University of Glasgow), where his brilliance had attracted the attention of the Rev. John MacLaurin, brother of the celebrated ‘boy prodigy’ and distinguished mathematician of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ Professor Colin MacLaurin. Both were Gaelic speakers, as they hailed from Kilmodan in Argyll (with earlier family roots in Tiree).  John McLaurin was a distinguished theologian of the evangelical stamp and minister of (St David’s) Ramshorn Church in Glasgow, having previously been minister of Luss.  He appears to have been ‘talent-spotting’ for suitable candidates for the ministry of the Church of Scotland, and specially wanted to find Buchanan, or at least find out about him.  He describes his quest for Buchanan in a letter to his brother:

In Company where the Conversation turn’d on the most eminent young men about our Divinity hall now, I have heard one Mr Buchanan who has Irish, from Balquidder or Bupridir [?] commended as of that number.  This made me take pains this day, both forenoon & afternoon, to meet with Persons who could give me the best Account of him; I did not find the person I wanted in the forenoon, but in the evening I return’d a visit I was owing to the Master of College whom I have heard Speak of him formerly, & after Speaking about the Scarcity of Probationers now & the Talk that was some time ago about licensing some of our best young men;  He confirm’d the Accounts I had heard of Mr Buchanan before, as one of our best Students; & particularly as one well skilled in the learn’d Languages & its Divinity.  Meantime I have heard oftner than once that he is reckon’d what they call, too monkish & retir’d.

Buchanan did not go into the ministry, and appears not to have graduated from Glasgow.  He became a schoolmaster on the Forfeited Estate of Strowan, in Perthshire, in 1750s, with a salary paid by the then factor, William Ramsey, and was latterly based at Kinloch Rannoch.  Interestingly, Buchanan himself has nothing at all to say about his Glasgow years in his spiritual diary, which covers the 1740s, as if he was trying to get away from a misspent youth.  During the 1750s, he proved his worth and efficiency by providing, very speedily in 1757, a new translation of The Mother’s Catechism for the SSPCK.  During the 1760s, he seems to have been in the background of the translation of the New Testament, appearing occasionally in SSPCK Minutes as a scribe for its copying in 1764.  The speedy production of the first full draft of the New Testament owes, I suspect, a great deal to Buchanan, though that has never been overtly acknowledged.

Buchanan’s links with the Lowland Scottish Enlightenment appear in his correspondence.  In 1767, he wrote to Sir James Clerk of Penicuik, seeking support for the making of a Gaelic dictionary, based on the vocabulary which accompanied the New Testament, but which the SSPCK refused to expand into a fuller lexicon.  He also advocated a tour to the islands to gather Gaelic poems for an anthology.  In that letter, he shows a thorough knowledge of the main Gaelic scholars of the eighteenth century and earlier, including the obstacles some faced in trying to bring their work to publication.

Buchanan’s own collection of verse, Laoidhe Spioradail, further reflects his wider Enlightenment perspectives.  As I have demonstrated elsewhere, some of his poems directly translate, paraphrase, borrow more subtly from, and, in cetain cases, supplement, compositions by the prominent English scholar and composer of hymns, Dr Isaac Watts.  Watts was a strong supporter of the ideas of John Locke, and he also absorbed the formulations of Sir Isaac Newton with regard to the nature of the universe.  These ideas and formulations were all part of the Enlightenment as it appeared in England, and entered the British mainstream.  Buchanan drew inspiration and more from the verse of the English poet Edward Young, most obviously in his epic on the Day of Judgement. His poem on ‘The Skull’ is deeply indebted to a poem called ‘The Grave’ by the Scottish clergyman, Robert Blair.  Robert Blair was, in fact, a cousin of Hugh Blair, a very prominent figure in the Lowland ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, and minister of St Giles, as well as Professor of Rhetoric and Belle Lettres at the University of Edinburgh.  As is well known, Hugh Blair was the great ‘encourager’ of James Macpherson.   Buchanan would probably have known Hugh Blair, and quite possibly also David Hume, with whom, tradition asserts, he debated theological matters.  Buchanan certainly attended classes at Edinburgh when supervising the labour of putting the Gaelic New Testament through the press.

It also seems to me that several of Buchanan’s poems breathe the sentiments and philosophies of some of the broader themes of the Enlightenment.  For example, his printed poem on the ‘Greatness of God’ (‘Mòrachd Dhè’) considers how far reason and ‘natural theology’ can take us in our search for the existence of God.   ‘Revealed theology’ is necessary to show us the Creator, as found in God’s own word.  In an unpublished poem which is contained in the McLagan Manuscripts, and which is almost certainly by Bochanan, he depicts the voices of creation, pouring forth speech, and declaring the majesty of God, in a steady-state universe which would have been immediately recognisable to Newton, and was also the theme of a similar hymn by Joseph Addison published in The Spectator.

We must now turn to the Stewarts of Killin and Luss, whom Dugald Buchanan evidently knew extremely well, and with whom he worked on what might be called the ‘unifying project’ of the ‘Gaelic Literary Enlightenment’, namely the Gaelic translation of the New Testament and then the Old Testament.  The former was under the wing of the Rev. James Stewart of Killin, and the latter under the wing of his son, the Rev. John Stuart (who spelt his surname ‘Stuart’ rather than ‘Stewart’, which was the form used initially by the Killin Stewarts).  Although James Stewart has been ‘monumentalised’ and put on great plinths of word and stone as ‘the worthy translator’ (thanks largely to Dr Johnson, and the ‘single scholarly giant’ syndrome of eulogistic Gaelic writers), one of the puzzles, among many relating to the Gaelic New Testament, is how he came to be given this responsibility.  Prior to undertaking this project in 1760, he seems to have had no earlier experience of Gaelic translation – unlike both Alexander MacFarlane and Dugald Buchanan.  Indeed, Buchanan, who had already produced a Gaelic translation of the Second Epistle of Peter two years earlier, would surely have been the obvious choice, if track record were the principal criterion.

Status was, no doubt, the deciding factor, as ministers were more highly esteemed than humble schoolmasters, however brilliant.  Born in Glenfinlass in 1700, and a graduate of St Andrews, James Stewart was minister at Killin from 1737 until his death in 1789.  What is, however, clear is that, when the translation was entrusted to Stewart, it moved quickly and expeditiously, and was ready for checking and copying by 1764.  The project was undertaken more or less at the same time as James Macpherson’s Ossian was appearing, and earning the devotion of the great Enlightenment stars of Edinburgh.

The Old Manse of Killin was probably the equivalent of what we would call today a ‘hub’, where other workers met and participated in the project.   It was more than the equivalent of any Edinburgh coffee-house, and it looks as if the Stewarts were at the centre of a network which I have called the ‘Killin Circle’, and which stretched through Perthshire to Argyllshire, and into the northern Highlands.  Scribes came from as far afield as Lismore to work on the New Testament. Buchanan was one of the more local ‘skivvies’, although, as we know, he looked after the book at the press, and probably made a major input to the translation.  I suspect that, having started on the translation when attempting to help Alexander MacFarlane, he kept at it, and had an even larger donation ready for James Stewart when the work began officially in 1760.  James Stewart was, in my opinion, the ‘organising editor’, primus inter pares, though, when the book actually appeared, he was happy to be seen as its sole translator, and signed himself thus.  The monument to him in Killin, erected as late as 1890, when a trend towards memorialising was in fashion, describes him as ‘Ceud eadar-theangair an Tiomnaidh Nuaidh gu Gàidhlig Albannaich’ (‘The first translator of the New Testament to Scottish Gaelic’).  This is, of course, inaccurate, as Dugald Buchanan was, it seems, the very first translator to produce a portion of the new volume – in 1758.  The process of memorialising Buchanan also got under way in the later nineteenth century, with its own range of blind spots and misconceptions and reconstructed traditional narratives. 

The practices of the Old Manse of Killin and its ‘worthy’ minister were replicated elsewhere, most notably in the manse of Luss, when James Stewart’s son John became minister there in 1777, and where he remained in post until his death in 1821 – the year that suggested my terminal date of 1820 for this overview.  In my opinion, John Stuart was even more ‘worthy’ than his father, with his various contributions to Gaelic Bible translation, to the publishing of secular Gaelic books, and to the study of botany. John had been a student at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1771.  He obviously took full advantage of what was available on the curriculum of the university which was at the heart, some might claim, of the Lowland Scottish Enlightenment. In the course of his studies, he attended the botany class conducted by Professor John Hope.  As an expert with great knowledge of the flora of his area, Stuart assisted botanists like John Lightfoot, and travellers like Thomas Pennant.  The last quarter of the eighteenth century, it will be remembered, was the period when Captain James Cook sailed to the Pacific to view the transit of Venus.  With him on his first voyage was Joseph Banks, who was later to make a name for himself in botanical matters, and also as the ‘father’ of Botany Bay.  The study of botany thus belongs to the wider Enlightenment in Great Britain. 

John Stuart’s best-known undertaking was the translation into Gaelic of the Old Testament, which began shortly after the completion of the New, but is pre-eminently associated with his time in Luss.  He was certainly the organising editor of this very large assignment.  For the purposes of translation, the Old Testament was divided into four sections.  Stuart is reputed to have been the main translator of the first two parts, namely Genesis to Joshua (1783) and Judges to Chronicles (1787) and the sole translator of the third part, Ezra to Lamentations (1801).  The fourth part, Isaiah to Malachi (The Prophets) (1786), was translated by Dr John Smith of Campbeltown, and caused a stouché when it appeared, principally because Smith had used the most recent scholarship on the books of the Prophets, namely that of Benjamin Blaney and Bishop Lowth.  His translation differed in certain readings, sometimes substantially, from the Authorised Version, and his methods came under suspicion.  The relevant section had to be retranslated by the Rev. Alexander Stewart of Dingwall, and republished in 1807.

Stuart’s work as a translator was acknowledged by a D.D. degree from the University of Glasgow in 1795, but he was by no means on his own in his undertakings.  He had various assistants, two of whom stand at opposite ends of the formal educational spectrum.   Among his clerical helpers we find no less a person than the Rev. James McLagan, a former Army chaplain, and later minister of Amulrie and Blair Atholl.   McLagan was married to John Stuart’s sister Catherine.  He revised Stuart’s version of the Book of Proverbs, as far as Chapter 20, as he informed the Secretary of the SSPCK in February 1800.  Today, James McLagan’s role in the translation has been largely forgotten.  He is most obviously associated with the McLagan Manuscripts housed in Glasgow University Library, a collection of verse and other material of immense value which contains, among many other gems, important drafts of five of Dugald Buchanan’s hymns which predate the versions in the 1767 book, as well as half-a-dozen more translations of poems by Watts, which are clearly by Buchanan.  In addition to that, McLagan preserves material written by John Stuart, and currently being edited and set in context by Professor Roibéard Ó Maolálaigh, University of Glasgow, who has generously furnished me with information.   The McLagan Manuscripts are further evidence of the intellectual stimulus of what I have called the ‘Gaelic Literary Enlightenment’.  McLagan and Stuart had also been collaborators in a ‘Highland Gentlemen’s Dictionary’.

The other equally important assistant in John Stuart’s labours was a farmer from Camustradden (Camus an t-Srathain), Luss, called John Walker, who had never seen the inside of a university, but was extremely talented.  As far as I am aware, we have no surviving records of what exactly Walker did for Stuart, but there is clear evidence that he helped him in his labours.  We do, however, know what Stuart did for Walker, doubtless in acknowledgement of his support, and that was to act as patron for the publication of a book of Walker’s poems, in English, Scots and Gaelic, which appeared in 1817.   In addition to Stuart’s support, subscriptions were solicited from a wide range of leading figures, writers, artists and others, who included Walter Scott in Edinburgh and the Rev. Duncan MacFarlan, Drymen, nephew of the Rev. Alexander MacFarlane of Arrochar.

That takes us back to the beginning of my lecture, but it also underlines another crucially important aspect of the Stewarts’ literary endeavours.  They were supporters and editors and supervisors of non-biblical Gaelic publications, both religious and non-religious.  My own feeling is that it was James Stewart and his associates who arranged for the publication of Buchanan’s poems in Edinburgh in 1767, alongside the Gaelic New Testament, as a way of thanking Buchanan for his otherewise unacknowledged services.  A year later, John Stuart, while still a student at Edinburgh, was supervising the printing of the first edition of the poems of the celebrated Gaelic poet, Duncan Bàn MacIntyre, from Glenorchy, whose verse had been written down from his own oral recitation by another member of the ‘Killin Circle’, the Rev. Donald McNicol of Lismore.  It was John Stuart too who edited the poems for publication.  John Stuart was a mighty man of great literary valour from his earliest days, standing head and shoulders above his father in terms of output and achievement.

…..

Let me now try to reach a conclusion.  There is no doubt in my mind that the evidence that I have produced in this lecture amounts to a convincing preliminary case for believing that a ‘Gaelic Literary Enlightenment’ was taking place in the part of Scotland now lying within the bounds of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.  The region was no more, and no less, than the intellectual powerhouse which stimulated the emergence of modern Gaelic literature.  The translation of the New Testament and then the Old Testament laid the foundation of the Gaelic Societies which made literacy in Gaelic one of their main goals, and, as a consequence, new writing in Gaelic, in the form of journals, secular and sacred, began to appear in the first half of the nineteenth century.

 

If I have made the case for a ‘Gaelic Literary Enlightenment’, may I then plead for the creation of a much more inclusive model of what we can all justly and fairly call the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’?   It is high time, in my view, that the major scholars of eighteenth-century Gaelic Scotland, namely the ministers and schoolmasters whom I have commemorated here, and doubtless others whom I have not mentioned, should stand alongside their peers in the Lowland South.  I pray that, in future, it will prove impossible to write another so-called History of Scottish Literature or an appreciation of the Scottish Enlightenment which has next to nothing – and usually nothing! – to say about them.  I salute, and I hope you do too, the remarkable achievements of Dugald Buchanan and the Stewarts of Killin and Luss as I conclude the O’ Donnell lecture for 2018, two hundred and fifty years after the publication of the Scottish Gaelic New Testament and the hymns of Dugald Buchanan, who died in 1768.  Tapadh leibh. / Thank you.

Friday, 3 March 2017


BIG IVOR AND JOHN CALVIN: CHRISTIANITY IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY GAELIC SHORT STORIES

Donald E. Meek

 

My aim in this paper is to consider a very small part of a very large theme. The presentation of aspects of the Christian faith in twentieth-century Gaelic prose is a subject worthy of much deeper study and reflection than can be attempted here.  For our purposes it suffices to note that, in the course of the century, Gaelic writers adopted a much more critical attitude towards the Protestant church in the Highlands than had been evident in the nineteenth century.  This was due partly to the loss of the church's authority in key domains.  It had been the primary vehicle of Gaelic publishing in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century, and particularly in the second half of that century, Gaelic publishing was diversified and largely secularised, thus allowing new voices to challenge older ones.   Voices within the church also became more critical of its role, as is evident in the writings of the Rev. Donald Lamont, the editor of the Gaelic Supplement of the Church of Scotland magazine, Life and Work, from 1907 to 1951.  Lamont's 'Cille Sgumain' sketches, which focused on an imaginary parish and its minister, the Rev. Neil MacFarlane, B.D., included letters allegedly sent to him by parishioners.  By using such devices, Lamont was able to create 'critical distance', and to produce mildly satirical accounts of parish events.[1]  Lamont stimulated other, non-clerical, writers, most notably Finlay J. MacDonald, whose hilarious story, 'Am Basàr' ('The Bazaar'), daringly took passing swipes at communions, conventions and other church meetings.  MacDonald's main character - a talkative lady called 'Seonag' - was a development of Lamont's 'Seònaid Eachainn'.[2] 

 

MacDonald's theme - rather out-of-touch Highland characters trying to come to terms with new trends in church life, such as the holding of a bazaar - is echoed in the concerns of several Gaelic short stories from the 1950s, which appears to have been a decade of particular significance in the development of this genre.  In what follows, I intend to restrict myself to a trinity of modern Scottish Gaelic short stories, and to concentrate on only one of these stories before discussing some wider aspects of the theme as reflected in two recent novels.

 

Two of the three short stories are by well-known writers. The one is Derick Thomson's 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' ('The Minister's Wife'), first broadcast on radio in 1953, and the other is Finlay J. MacDonald's 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh' ('Before the Public'), first published in the Gaelic periodical Gairm in 1958.   Both short stories deal with aspects of Christianity in the Scottish Highlands, and particularly with the power and influence of the evangelical Protestant church.  Thomson's 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' concerns the most important family in the church's hierarchy, namely that in the manse, and explores the worldviews of the minister and his wife.  The wife is an incomer to the Gaelic community, with a love for, and interest in, the world of Nature, while her husband is the conventional Gaelic minister.  He conforms until he has a serious accident, and falls over a cliff in pursuit of his wife's dog.  During a brief period of recovery and prior to insanity, he temporarily appears to embrace his wife's perspectives.[3]

 

MacDonald's 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh' likewise focuses on the manse family, but specifically on the minister's daughter, Seonag.  She is very much aware of the pressures exerted by her privileged position.  She is expected to conform to the expectations of the community and of the manse family; but she becomes pregnant, and has to make some difficult decisions relative to these pressures.  Her friend and the father of her child is Pàdraig, a medical student. Pàdraig comes under the influence of her father's new-style American preaching, and, just before Seonag tells him her news, he informs her that he has made a far-reaching decision to abandon medicine and become a minister.[4]  Both stories share some common ground, since they explore the theme of community expectations and the individual's conformity, or non-conformity, while also introducing a very subtle interplay of deep human instincts and primordial pressures.

 

The provenance of 'Iomhar Mòr'

My main concern, however, is with the oldest of the trinity of tales, namely 'Iomhar Mòr' ('Big Ivor'), a story which first appeared in 1950 in An Cabairneach, the innovative Gaelic magazine of the Portree branch of Comunn na h-Oigridh, the young people's branch of An Comunn Gaidhealach.   Its authorship is unknown, and therefore we do not have the problem of 'privileging' the story with an authorial context.  In the case of the other two tales, we know something about Derick Thomson and Finlay J. MacDonald, and we may find it hard not to search for biographical dimensions and personal agendas in their work.   With regard to 'Iomhar Mòr', we may speculate that so assured a tale did not come from the pen of a secondary school pupil, and we may suppose that it was contributed by a mature writer.   We could suggest possible authors among the 'usual suspects' of that period, but no writer among those who have published a collection of stories has owned up. We may have our suspicions, and these may be enhanced by the present discussion, but we are not at liberty to go beyond the general mask of An Cabairneach.  The magazine was edited by the Gaelic teacher at Portree High School, Iain Steele, and appeared only occasionally - in 1944, 1945, 1950, and 1962.[5]

 

The publication of 'Iomhar Mòr' in 1950 is interesting in the light of later developments in Gaelic literature.  It pre-dates the founding of Gairm in 1952, and it contains within it some themes which were to appear in subsequent Gaelic writing, most notably Iain Crichton Smith's novella, An t-Aonaran (1976).[6]  I am not suggesting that Smith is the author of this tale; the stylistic evidence, in fact, rules this out.  I am, however, implying that 'Iomhar Mòr' has a very important place in the history of modern Scottish Gaelic literature, and that its significance is worthy of some acknowledgement.

 

The rediscovery of 'Iomhar Mòr' after some twenty years of neglect is due to Dr Donald John MacLeod, who included it in his very useful anthology of Gaelic short stories, Dorcha Tro Ghlainne (1970).  There 'Iomhar Mòr' was presented sequentially as the ninth out of thirteen stories edited by Dr MacLeod.  MacLeod's selection was organised round the theme of mothachadh an duine a' fàs, air a chumadh, is a' crìonadh ('the awareness of man as he grows, is moulded, and declines').[7]  To some extent, MacLeod's selection was a response to a new surge of interest in the short story among Gaelic writers of the late 1960s, and owed much to John Murray's contributions to the genre.  Murray's 'Feòil a' Gheamhraidh' ('Winter Meat') is the first story in MacLeod's selection.[8] I myself first encountered 'Iomhar Mòr' in MacLeod's anthology, and I never forgot it after my first spine-tingling reading.  It has lived menacingly in my mind since 1970, and recently it sprang to the forefront of my thinking when I was teaching a first-level class on modern Gaelic literature.  Here I wish to suggest alternative interpretations of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  I aim to place it within the context of the two other tales that I have summarised, but I hope also to relate it to some key themes of late twentieth-century Gaelic literature, both prose and verse.  In today's terminology, I want to re-read and re-position 'Iomhar Mòr'.

 

Summary

First, let me offer a very brief summary of 'Iomhar Mòr'.   The tale begins with a flash-back to a funeral in Cill Cheidh, which is that of Iomhar Mòr, recently deceased.  The author tells us of his - and, for the moment, I presume authorial masculinity! - considerable unease when attending the interment of Iomhar in a particularly hallowed part of the graveyard, Reilig nan Naomh, where only the truly great men of the faith have been buried in the past, and where no-one in the recent past has been buried.  He recollects that his grandfather told him of an occasion on which the earth of Reilig nan Naomh spewed up the coffin of a stranger who had been buried there at an earlier period.  By this stage, however, the old traditions about the graveyard had been largely forgotten or were regarded as mere superstitions.  The author, however, feels that he must warn the men of the community not to be so precipitate in placing Iomhar there, but he is over-ruled by Dòmhnall Chaluim, who has a very bad conscience about the way in which the community first treated Iomhar. Dòmhnall Chaluim relates that  Iomhar Mòr is worthy of his place of rest, having repaid the disdain of the community with kindness, and that he himself has been the beneficiary.  The author submits to Dòmhnall's view, albeit reluctantly.  He goes on to tell how Iomhar Mòr came to Geàrraidh.  Nobody knew where he had come from; he just appeared, and took up residence in a black house on Dòmhnall Chaluim's croft.  Iomhar's abrupt assumption of tenancy caused great anger to Dòmhnall, and the matter was the talk of the town.  Indeed, after an unsuccessul attempt to evict Iomhar, Dòmhnall and Iomhar fought it out, and Dòmhnall got the backing of the local youth in a sustained attack on the house.  Matters reached the law-court, but the judge ruled in favour of Iomhar's remaining in the house.  Thereafter the village was filled with fear and tension, and Iomhar and Dòmhnall were at daggers drawn.  However, a complete change in attitude occurred, and Iomhar came to be highly esteemed.  The cause of this remarkable shift was a child who had gone missing - Dòmhnall Chaluim 's child.   Every place was searched, and eventually the author and a companion found their way to Iomhar's house.  Iomhar showed immediate sympathy for the community, and changed his usual frown to a look of pity.  He also made straight for Dòmhnall Chaluim and promised to help him in every possible way to find the child.  The two men were reconciled, and went to search the shore together.  The child was not found - but a left shoe belonging to a child was discovered on the edge of the machair.  Thereafter, matters improved; Iomhar was accepted as a member of the community, and he and Dòmhnall buried the hatchet.  The author got to know Iomhar reasonably well, and went to visit him on his death-bed.  Iomhar asked him to clear the house after his death, and to return the key to Dòmhnall Chaluim.   After the funeral the author began to search the house, and began in the lower part.   As he was at work in a dark corner - not quite as dark as the rest - he found something which, he claimed, explained his feeling of unease at the funeral.  His discovery was no less than a little shoe - the shoe for the right foot of a child.  And there, with the reference to the second shoe, the story ends.

 

The chilling twist in the tail of this story is memorable, and all the more since it resonates with public concerns in the present time.  Though this story is set somewhere in the Highlands, it is broad in its theme, and timeless in its relevance.  That in itself is no small achievement.

 

Interpretations

How then should we interpret 'Iomhar Mòr'?   We can understand the tale in different ways, but I would suggest three possible routes to take:

 

(1) We can see this as no more and no less than 'a good story'.  We are given a lot of emotional ups and downs in the course of the tale; fear and unease (at the very beginning), mystery (with the stranger's arrival), conflict (between the stranger and the village and between him and Dòmhnall Chaluim), sorrow (the missing child), reconciliation (between Iomhar and Dòmhnall Chaluim and the village), and finally that spine-chilling sense of injustice, right at the end, culminating in the cliff-hanger on which the storyteller positions the possible deed of the stranger.  We ask ourselves whether Iomhar found the shoe and kept it, so as not to cause further pain in the community, or whether he is directly involved in the disappearance of the child.  We can 'enjoy' all of the various tensions created throughout the work, and leave the story there. 

 

(2) We may read 'Iomhar Mòr' without making too much of the identity of the main character, and confine our interpretation to the reactions of the community which is portrayed in the story.  Iomhar need be no more and no less than an incomer who has an abundant measure of the rather arrogant style that Highland people attribute to such new arrivals; his particularly overbearing manner causes tension at communal and individual levels.  This tension is resolved by a crisis; the crisis causes the stranger to pull close to the community, and reconciliation is thereby achieved. The stranger is then given a place of esteem.  Vulnerability is thus a key theme; the community is able to resist the stranger to a certain extent, but capitulates when something goes wrong.  The sympathy of the stranger at a time of crisis is sufficient to reverse previous antipathies, and to gain him lasting respect.  We may read the story as a warning to Gaelic communities not to to accept sweets from strangers.  Like children, Gaelic communities are vulnerable to the blandishments of outsiders.

 

(3)  Our third interpretation would carry forward the points made in the second interpetation, but it would make much more of the person of Iomhar Mòr.  He is not just an alien person; he is an alien power. That alien power can be interpreted in various ways. Is the new power personal or collective?  If the latter, is the power that of the church?  Or a new power within the church? Or a new power within society, of which the church is a part?  How, then, is that power regarded by the writer? Is it seen as benevolent or intrinsically evil, or both, wearing the mask of benevolence and concern at critical moments in the life of a community, but using the weak moments in community confidence to gain a dangerous foothold in its value-system?

 

The opening paragraph of the story identifies the source of the author's unease as Iomhar Mòr's funeral, and the decision to give him a resting place in Reilig nan Naomh, which was reserved for the fathers of the faith.  This suggests that we are meant to read the story as a spiritual allegory of some kind.  We may note the words that are actually used to portray Iomhar Mòr and his actions.  Dòmhnall Chaluim talks of him in terms which are reminiscent of the biblical account of Christ, 'despised and rejected of men', but repaying rejection with kindness:

 

Thainig e nur measg...gun daoine, gun chuideachd, gun chàirdean, agus cha be a' bhàidh a nochd sibh dha; thionndaidh sibh ur cùlaibh ris agus mhag sibh air.  Ach an uair a thainig an dòrainn an rathad a bha mo theaghlach-sa, phàigh Iomhar Mòr ana-ceartas le caomhalachd agus coibhneas, agus bhon latha sin gus an latha 'n diugh bha e na chùl-taic s na chomhartachd dhòmhsa agus dhuibhse.[9]

 

('He came among you...without relatives, without companions, without friends, and it was not a warm side that you showed him; you turned your backs on him, and you mocked him.  But when distress came the way of my family, Big Ivor paid for injustice with compassion and kindness, and from that day until today he has been a support and a comfort to me and to you.')

 

One can hear the homiletic cadences in that commendation.

 

Yet Iomhar is also described as an duine caol àrd dorcha ud ('that tall thin dark man').  He has na sùilean dubha nimheil ud ('those black poisonous eyes') as he skulks down the road.  The only sound that comes out of his house is bragadaich mar gum bitheadh am fear a bha stigh a' briseadh mhaidean ('banging as if the man inside were breaking sticks').  Children are immediately in fear of him:  Cha leigeadh tu leas ach Iomhar Mór ainmeachadh ris an leanabh bu mhiosa sa Gheàrraidh agus bha e cho modhail ris an uan ('You had only to mention the name of Big Ivor to the worst child in the Geàrraidh and he became as well mannered as a lamb').[10]  Unquestionably, Iomhar is seen by the writer as a bogey-man, and an evil power - but whom or what does he represent?

 

Those of us who know the poetry of Derick Thomson will think fairly readily of another incomer who is very similarly portrayed - fear àrd caol dubh / is aodach dubh air ('a tall, thin black-haired man / wearing black clothes').  This is, of course, Thomson's Bodach-ròcais, the title of a poem first published in An Rathad Cian (1970).  The bodach-ròcais ('scarecrow') comes into the cèilidh house and destroys or represses the natural cultural pursuits of the story-tellers, singers and card-players who are inside.   Like Iomhar Mòr, he is a destructive force, and possesses a supernatural ability to take the goodness from pastimes previously regarded as wholesome - thug e 'n toradh as a' cheòl ('he took the goodness out of the music').  Thomson's scarecrow figure is, of course, the stereotypical, evangelical Calvinist minister of nineteenth-century Lewis.[11]  Iomhar Mòr appears to carry a similar symbolic significance.  Part of his persona is religious, and it also has destructive tendencies.  But he is unlikely to be a symbolic John Calvin. Can we find a more convincing contemporary context?

 

 

 

The contemporary context

We have already noted that the story first appeared in 1950, and that it predates two stories, by Thomson and MacDonald respectively, which have religion and evangelical Christianity as their theme. These were written in 1953 ('Bean a' Mhinisteir') and 1958 ('Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh').[12]   The 1950s, and particularly the period 1950-55, were a time of heightened religious activity in both the Highlands and Islands and the wider Scottish mainland.  In Lewis between 1949 and 1953, the Faith Mission evangelist, Duncan Campbell, was at the centre of a religious awakening which is often regarded as the last significant religious revival in the British Isles, though there smaller awakenings elsewhere in the Hebrides in the later 1950s.[13]  We may note that Duncan Campbell was not a native of Lewis; he hailed from Benderloch in Argyll, and was technically a stranger in Lewis, even though he spoke and preached in Gaelic.[14]

 

Evangelical campaigning was also found in the Scottish Lowlands.  In 1955, the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow was the focus of the Tell Scotland crusade conducted by the American evangelist, Billy Graham.  The impact of Billy Graham on both ministers and people throughout Scotland was substantial.[15]  This is reflected in the story 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', in which the change of style and emphasis evident in Seonag's father is ascribed to the influence of the American evangelist.  Seonag is portrayed as being dismayed at her father's new style:

 

S bha gràin a beatha aice air an t-searmonachadh ùr ris an robh a h-athair riamh bho chaidh e gu coinneamhan an Amaireaganaich.  Cha robh guth air na seann searmoin chiùine, chomhartail a b' àbhaist cridheachan a bhlàthachadh; cha robh ann a-nise ach an t-iompachadh, an t-iompachadh.  Agus an èigheach.[16]

 

('And she truly hated the new preaching which her father had adopted ever since he went to the American's meetings.  There was no mention of the old, gentle, comforting sermons that used to warm hearts; there was nothing now but conversion, conversion.  And the yelling.')

 

It is of significance that Seonag's father adopts the new preaching mode at a time of family crisis, following his wife's death.  Unable to derive consolation from his 'traditional' faith, he goes to Glasgow, and comes back a changed man, with a new gleam in his eye and a new power in his preaching.[17]   Billy Graham is the 'stranger' who helps him to conquer his crisis, and whose style is absorbed into a Highland community through imitation.  The minister is thus the conduit through which new and disturbing expressions of the Christian faith enter the community, and challenge its earlier values.  The parallel with 'Iomhar Mòr' is striking, and suggests that the two stories may have been composed by the same author.

 

Gaelic poets as well as prose-writers were aware of new religious influences in the Highlands and Islands.  A change of emphasis in contemporary Lewis preaching in this period is noted also by Donald MacAulay in a poem pointedly entitled 'Soisgeul 1955':

 

Bha mi a raoir anns a' choinneamh;

bha an taigh làn chun an dorais,

cha robh àite suidhe ann

ach geimhil chumhang air an staighre.

 

Dh'éisd mi ris an t-sailm: am fonn

a' falbh leinn air seòl mara

cho dìomhair ri Maol Dùn:

dh'éisd mi ris an ùrnaigh

seirm shaorsinneil, shruthach -

iuchair-dàin mo dhaoine.

 

An uair sin thàinig an searmon

- teintean ifrinn a th' anns an fhasan -

bagairt neimheil, fhuadan

a lìon an taigh le uamhann is coimeasg.

 

Is thàinig an cadal-deilgeanach na mo chasan... [18]

 

Here the poet recollects his experience of being at a cottage meeting in which the music and prayer were in tune with the culture, but in which the sermon was hostile and alien.  Although the poet was saved (in another sense) by the pins and needles in his feet, this new, passionate evangelicalism affected many young people at broadly the same stage of life as Seonag and Pàdraig in MacDonald's story.[19]

 

This brings us back to 'Iomhar Mòr'. In particular, we may note the manner in which the stranger commandeers a cottage, and is potentially implicated (by the author's parting shot) in the fate of a missing child, perhaps implying that the new force has the power to steal children from the community.  If the main thrust of 'Iomhar Mòr' is religious, its primary concern is likely to be not the old-style 'Calvinism' of an earlier day, but the new evangelists and the passionate new evangelicalism, entering the Highlands and Islands forcefully in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  An Geàrraidh, the setting of 'Iomhar Mòr', already has a Christian tradition, symbolised by Reilig nan Naomh, the section of the graveyard reserved for the finest local saints.  The impact of the new evangelicalism and people's reactions to it may be one of the writer's concerns.  Thus, after an initial period of opposition and rejection, Dòmhnall Chaluim is converted (in the religious sense) to Iomhar Mòr as others were to Christ.

 

But could the thrust of the tale be broader than contemporary evangelicalism? The primary concern of the writer, it seems to me, is to ponder how much is gained - or lost - by both the individual and the community in the process of accommodating the stranger.  As a consequence of the new understanding between Iomhar and Dòmhnall Chaluim, old customs and time-honoured traditions are over-ruled in deference to the former enemy of the community, as the ironic burial of Iomhar Mòr in Reilig nan Naomh indicates.

 

Here it is relevant to recollect that the late 1940s and the 1950s were a time of reassessment in the Gaelic communities after the Second World War. The war had made these communities vulnerable to intrusion by big powers such as the British army and the Royal Air Force.  By 1950, when 'Iomhar Mòr' was composed, new initiatives were being undertaken in an attempt to preserve some of the riches of Gaelic culture in the Highlands and Islands, as the creation of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh in 1951 indicates.  These new initiatives proceeded alongside further major intrusions in the later 1950s, like the Rocket Range in Benbecula, which was stoutly resisted initially, but came to be a mainstay of the local economy, while also acting as a de-Gaelicising influence. 

 

We should note, in fact, the quiet symbolic subtlety with which 'Iomhar Mòr' has been written.  We have to read between the lines, and extrapolate these wider concerns from the text in a manner reminiscent of short stories such as John Murray's 'Feòil a' Gheamhraidh'.  In this respect, the story contrasts with 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' and 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', where the targets are identified clearly.  'Bean a' Mhinisteir' is more restrained and symbolically closer to 'Iomhar Mòr'.  The minister's wife, who is the 'stranger' in terms of the conventions of the village, is the catalyst for her husband's fall - a concept charged with theological and biblical significance.  The outcome of the tragedy makes us think deeply, since it results in the minister's temporary awareness of a wider world before insanity finally takes over.  'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', which leaves little to symbolism, is probably the frankest story yet written in Gaelic on a religious theme, since it uses 'shock tactics' to galvanise the reader.  It is thus at the other end of the spectrum from 'Iomhar Mòr', though the two stories do have significant points in common.

 

'Stranger fiction'

The theme of 'Iomhar Mòr', namely the stranger who comes into the community and causes tensions of all sorts, became a very marked feature of Gaelic writing after 1970.  It is particularly evident in Iain Crichton Smith's An t-Aonaran ('The Loner') of 1976.  The frame of Smith's novella is strikingly reminscent of 'Iomhar Mòr'. Indeed, the two are so close as to suggest that 'Iomhar Mòr' may have been something of a catalyst for Smith.  In An t-Aonaran, however, the stranger's presence is used by the author as an opportunity to explore the existential theme of meaninglessness.  The stranger has opted out of normal existence, and his impact on the village is described by a retired schoolmaster called Teàrlach. In reacting with deep mistrust and suspicion to the newcomer in their midst, he shows that such 'loneliness' is an integral part of his own existence, and that it is also a malaise found more generally within the village.  Few are devoid of its symptoms.  Even the minister suffers a loss of verbal articulation, and comes to the schoolmaster for advice because he is unable to declaim the sermon which he has prepared for a particular Sunday service.[20]  In Smith's novella, evangelicalism hovers on the edge of existentialism, and is seen to lose power as a communicative force when the arrival of the aonaran plunges the village into its fatal bout of second-guessing and self-examination.  The church and its members are almost invariably portrayed as somewhat distasteful people who are spiteful and negative in their views of others.  Indeed, one is left to wonder to what extent the author wishes to imply that the church is largely responsible for the alienation of people from one another, in terms of understanding both 'incomers' and those who are natives of Gaelic communities. It is significant that, apart from the schoolmaster himself, it is Cairistìona, boireannach dona Crìosdaidh ('a bad Christian woman') who never misses the communions, who thinks the worst of the stranger. In a manner directly recalling 'Iomhar Mòr', she suggests that he may even be a child-molester.[21]  Eventually, the schoolmaster 'arranges' the departure of the stranger from the village.   The plot of Smith's novella therefore works in the opposite way from that of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  The stranger is ejected in the former, while he is accepted in the latter, but loss and a nasty feeling of injustice accompany both processes.

 

The 'stranger' motif in modern Gaelic literature, and particularly the presence of the aonaran ('loner'), is thus used very effectively to comment on common modern dilemmas.  As it develops beyond 'Iomhar Mòr', the motif retains a surprisingly close link with religious matters. Religious influence in Gaelic communities is one of the strands in a much more recent story with another aonaran at its heart, namely Alasdair Campbell's short novel, Am Fear Meadhanach ('The Man in the Middle') (1992).[22] This aonaran is not a stranger to the Gaelic world but a native of Lewis, namely Murchadh MacLeòid, who is suffering from cancer and returns to spend his last days in his native community. He is therefore meadhanach ('middling') in terms of his health. The 'returning exile' has been a teacher in Glasgow, and obtains a part-time teaching post in a school not far from his village.  He belongs to a family of four, and is meadhanach ('in between') since he has two brothers, the younger a doctor and the elder a highly regarded minister in the Free Church.  The latter is Dòmhnall M. MacLeòid, regularly referred to in the novel as an t-urramach ('the reverend').   The novel is to some extent a satirical overview of a number of different but interlocking communities, notably the main character's family, his local community and the wider Gaelic world, as well as the ever-present network of the church. The speaker's elder brother, an t-urramach, is a thinly disguised caricature of a well-known Free Church minister of a similar name. Murchadh often contrasts himself with his brothers, but particularly with an t-urramach. Most importantly, Murchadh has no faith in God, in contrast to an t-urramach's dogmatic certainty. The difference between the two brothers is worked out at various practical levels.  An t-urramach is a 'high achiever', as is Uilleam, the doctor, who writes books and belongs to the 'arty' Gaelic set.  Murchadh, on the other hand, has had a humdrum existence as a schoolteacher of the kind in Iain Crichton Smith's An t-Aonaran, and regards himself as a failure.  Murchadh is unable to appreciate either Uilleam's books or an t-urramach's best-selling volume of Gaelic sermons, and all three brothers are shut out from one another's literary worlds:

 

Nàire air an urramach nach do leugh e a-riamh leabhar a sgrìobh a bhràthair bho cheann gu ceann.  Thuirt mi ris nach b'urrainn dhomhsa treabhadh tromhpa a bharrachd.  Bidh an t-urramach fhèin a' sgrìobhadh.  Bha laoidh a sgrìobh e anns a'  Mhonthly Record.  Agus leabhar beag shearmon, cruaidh trì notaichean, bog not' agus leth-cheud sgillinn.  Searmoin, leis an Urr. Dòmhnall M. MacLeòid, M.A.  Sin an tiotal a tha air.  Chaidh mi 'm bogadh annsan aig Searmon 1, duilleag 1, ach cha d'fhuair mi na b'fhaide na sin fhèin; ach cheannaich gu leòr chrìosdaidhean an leabhar, thathas air ath-chlò-bhualadh ceithir turais, 's tha 'n t-urramach a' dèanamh prothaid bheag às, chan eil fhios a'm an ann dha fhèin no dhan eaglais.  Ach chan e sgrìobhaiche nàdurrach a th' anns an urramach.  Tha e nas ealanta le theanga na tha e le peann.[23]

 

('Shame upon the reverend that he never read a book that his brother wrote from beginning to end.  I said to him that I could not plough through them either.  The reverend himself writes.   There was a hymn which he wrote in the Monthly Record.  And a little book of sermons, hard-back three pounds, soft-back a pound and fifty pence.  Sermons by the Rev. Donald M. MacLeod, M.A.   That's its title.   I immersed myself in it at Sermon 1, page 1, but I got no further than that; but plenty of Christians bought the book, it has been reprinted four times, and the reverend makes a little profit from it, though I do not know whether it is for himself or for the church.  But the reverend is not a natural writer.  He is more skilful with his tongue than he is with his pen.')

 

The satire in this passage will not be lost on those familiar with the writings of the real Macleod.  The speaker goes on to state that, in his opinion, the most gifted writer in the family was his sister Margaret, who wrote splendid, but grammarless, letters about her global travels until she married a widowed missionary in Malaya.  Thereafter, her grammar improved markedly, but her topics became much more serious, embracing the corruption of human nature and the plight of the world.[24]

 

The speaker's view of the destructive effect of religious experience is transparent.  It is particularly interesting that the Lewis Revival of the 1950s, with Duncan Campbell at its centre, is recalled in a section in which Murchadh reflects on why the Headmistress of the school in which he works never married:

 

Eadar dleasdanas is diadhachd, ciamar a bha dol a shoirbheachadh le fear-suirghe co-dhiù?  Thàinig an cùram oirre, mar a thàinig air iomadach tè dhe seòrs', nuair a bha Donnchadh Caimbeul air chaoch anns na h-Eileanan, aig toiseach nam 50s.  Làithean neònach, daoine mòr a' toirt na leap' orr' aig àird a' mheadhan-latha, daoine eile a' bruidhinn mun deidhinn; oidhcheannan cho murrainneach, sàmhach 's gun cluinneadh tu, air leth-siar a' bhail' againn, fuaim na h-aibhne a' dòrtadh, man morghan, fon an drochaid shìos anns a' ghleann.[25]

 

('Between duty [to her parents] and devotion to God, how would any suitor have got anywhere anyway?  The cùram (i.e. concern of soul) came upon her, as came upon many a woman of her kind, when Duncan Campbell was going mad in the Islands, at the beginning of the 50s.  Strange days, grown-ups taking to their beds at the height of mid-day, other people talking about them; nights so sultry and quiet that you could hear, on the far side of our township, the sound of the river pouring, like rough sand, under the bridge down in the glen.')

 

Yet the writer provides a warm-hearted picture of Iseabail, the Headmistress.  Despite her religious commitment, she retains her sharp wit and good humour, and is herself subjected to local criticism for her choice of hat at a Christmas service: 'Abair bonaid air tè-aidich!' ('What a hat for a professing woman!').[26]

 

This deft portrait and the ongoing discussion of the impact of the 'Campbell revival' on reproductive patterns (an age-old canard) reinforces the argument at the heart of this paper, namely that the religious experiences of the early 1950s stimulated not only the churches, but also a group of modern Gaelic writers who began to adopt a critical, and at times strongly dismissive, stance towards the new crusade- or revival-based brand of evangelicalism.

 

 

 

Conclusion

'Iomhar Mòr' deserves to be taken out of its somewhat obscure place in the history of Gaelic writing in the twentieth century.  The present study suggests that it belongs, at least in part, to a small but formative cycle of tales and poems produced in the 1950s which adopted a critical attitude towards evangelical experience in the Highlands, as themes and styles of preaching changed.  This was the period which helped to determine how the Gaelic poets and prose-writers of the later twentieth century viewed Highland evangelicalism, and it is important to note that they were reacting, not so much against what might be termed 'traditional Highland religion', but against the hybrid species which was being created partly through the influence of American crusade-evangelism.  This too was the period when the Highlands and Islands began to accommodate both alien intrusions for the sake of economic regeneration and  initiatives for the preservation of Gaelic culture.  The uneasy relationship between the old and the new, between the outsider and insider, is the central theme of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  It anticipates - brilliantly - many of the stresses and strains and hard choices that were to afflict the Gaelic communities in the second half of the twentieth century.

 

'Iomhar Mòr' is also generically important.  Appearing in 1950, it was the first in a series of modern creative interpretations of strangers in the Gaelic communities. The stranger depicted within it offered a powerful symbol which could be deployed at various levels, and was particularly useful in identifying and 'earthing' a complex range of forces which were vexing Gaelic writers and their communities.  In particular, the 'stranger/loner motif' allowed writers sufficient distance and disguise to engage in a critical evaluation of the impact of religion in the Highlands and Islands, as seen from a number of different angles.  The tension which such evaluation could create, even when using masks, is reflected in the fact that 'Iomhar Mòr' was published anonymously and the writer has never owned up.  Subsequent writers felt no such need for anonymity.  Yet, despite the freshness which each writer brought to the picture, their themes and even their images overlap, and some of these can be traced back to 'Iomhar Mòr'.  'Iomhar Mòr' thus appears to have foreshadowed and encouraged a major development in the Gaelic literary output of the second half of the twentieth century.   Pardoxically, therefore, it seems that the stimulus of contemporary evangelicalism and social change, however negative in the eyes of the poets and prose-writers, has greatly aided the growth of modern Gaelic literature.[27]





FOOTNOTES
 
[1] Thomas M. Murchison (ed.), Prose Writings of Donald Lamont (Edinburgh, 1960).
 
[2] Iain A. MacDhòmhnaill (ed.), Crìochan Ura (Glasgow, 1958), pp. 28-34.
 
[3] Dòmhnall Iain MacLeòid (ed.), Dorcha Tro Ghlainne (Glaschu, 1970), pp. 58-65.
 
[4] Ibid., pp. 46-57.
 
[5] Ibid., pp. 73-79, 126.
 
[6] Iain Mac a' Ghobhainn, An t-Aonaran (Glaschu, 1976).
 
[7] See the fine introduction in MacLeòid, pp. 9-21.
 
[8] Ibid., pp. 22-25.
 
[9] Ibid., p. 74.
 
[10] Ibid., pp. 75-76.
 
[11] Donald MacAulay (ed.), Nua-Bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig: Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems (Edinburgh, 1976), pp. 164-5, which contains an English translation.
 
[12] MacLeòid, p. 126.
 
[13] Nigel M. de S. Cameron et al. (eds), The Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Edinburgh, 1993), p. 715.
 
[14] Ibid., p. 217.
 
[15] Ibid., p. 376.
 
[16] MacLeòid, p. 47.
 
[17] Ibid.
 
[18] MacAulay, pp. 192-5.
 
[19] For a discussion of twentieth-century Gaelic poets and the Christian faith, see Dòmhnall E. Meek, 'An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd?  Bàird na Ficheadamh Linn agus an Creideamh Crìosdail', in Colm Ó Baoill (ed.), Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig: Proceedings of the Scottish Gaelic Studies Conference held at Aberdeen University in August 2000 (forthcoming).
 
[20] Mac a'  Ghobhainn, pp. 67-71.
 
[21]  Ibid., pp. 7-9.
 
[22] Alasdair Caimbeul, Am Fear Meadhanach (Conon Bridge, 1992).
 
[23] Ibid., pp. 33-34.
 
[24] Ibid., p. 34.
 
[25] Ibid., pp. 51-52.
 
[26] Ibid., p. 53.
 
[27] I am very grateful to Professor Donald MacAulay for his comments on an early draft of this paper.