Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Maritime studies: Ships and boats in the Gaelic literary record 1200-1700


Donald E. Meek

It is a privilege for me to be able to deputise for my good friend, Dr Wilson McLeod, who has been a generous deputy for me on more than one occasion.  It is a privilege too to renew contact with the Scottish Medievalists in their new venue at Musselburgh.  In fact, I would have been annoyed with myself if I had missed this conference, as ships and the sea are very close to my heart, and have been since my earliest days in Tiree.  So, in a providential manner, events have conspired to bring me to this most important event.

In a very real sense, however, Dr McLeod will be here, as I will be using a most valuable anthology of Gaelic verse which he edited with Dr Meg Bateman – Duanaire na Sracaire: Songbook of the Pillagers: Anthology of Medieval Gaelic Verse.  Very conveniently, this book contains most of the principal texts that I wish to cover today.  I will say comparatively little about Gaelic prose in this period, as poetry is the main source for informed, creative views of ships and boats.  Prose, on the whole, tends to be rather laconic, cold and distant in its maritime references – fleets, their numbers and use for military engagement are the staple of historical documents and formal records, in both Gaelic and English.

In presenting this talk, however, I may have made harbour a little too soon.  I had hoped to pursue this theme in retirement, and to take a closer look at classical and vernacular Gaelic poetry about ships and boats in the medieval period.  I began this quest as a student at the University of Glasgow in the late 1960s, when Professor Derick Thomson introduced me to a wonderful fourteenth-century poem in the Book of the Dean of Lismore (1512-29), which described the fleet of John MacSween, whose family once owned Castle Sween in Knapdale.  As you will all know, the Book of the Dean is a very challenging manuscript to understand, because of its application of a Scots-based orthographic system to Gaelic.  It is also a repository of outstanding Gaelic verse, including the MacSween poem.  However, even as late as 1970, the MacSween poem was still something of a mystery, with enormous gaps in the edition published by Professor William J. Watson in 1937. The Book of the Dean has encouraged the production of a great deal of editorial ‘blank verse’!  Professor Thomson gave me sufficient clues to suggest that the poem contained very important descriptions of medieval ships, if only someone somewhere could ‘crack’ it.  Being then young and foolish, and having a very keen maritime interest, I set about decoding it.  Little did I know what lay ahead.  The process took me the best part of thirty years, but eventually I was able to publish an edition in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies in 1997.  There were still a few gaps and uncertain readings in the text, and even now I am uneasy about a couple of lines, which I am sure are not correct in my interpretation.  The ‘eureka moment’ for these lines has not yet arrived.  Nevertheless, I will always remember the excitement when other words and lines, forming the bulk of the poem, suddenly leapt out of the text in their own good time, usually when I was least expecting it, and the literary jigsaw finally produced an understandable picture.  I was aided in my reconstruction by the considerable progress in maritime archaeology which occurred between 1970 and 1997, particularly at Roskilde in Denmark.  Likewise, scholars’ greatly improved understanding of so-called Viking ships helped me greatly.

In the course of salvaging this remarkable medieval poem, now beautifully translated by Dr Meg Bateman in Duanaire na Sracaire, I learned an immense amount not only about ships, but also about poetic techniques, and, most importantly, about the use of the ship as symbol or icon in medieval Gaelic verse.  Indeed, I think that the principal point to consider when approaching descriptions of ships in medieval Gaelic verse is that they are commonly part of a broader picture, usually centring on an influential leader or chieftain, and that they are used to enhance aspects of that leader’s power, status or resource. For that reason, the ships can appear as no more than fleeting references in a eulogy, forming only part of the bardic template for exalting the chieftain.  Ships described in any detail, and for their own sake, are extremely rare in classical Gaelic verse, largely because they are not a phenomenon in themselves – they are part of the standard transport for the centuries in question, so utterly normal that they do not merit extended treatment  It is also more than obvious that ships and boats did not pay the poets – it was the patron who did that.  What makes the MacSween poem distinctive, therefore, is that the ships have such a prominent place within what is basically a eulogy of John MacSween.  The MacSween family was then domiciled in Ireland, and the ships were essential for the mounting of an expedition to cross Sruth na Maoile to Knapdale and retake Castle Sween, which is the principal goal envisaged in the poetic narrative.  On the basis of that narrative, MacSween’s prestige is enhanced, as the recovery of the castle is the ultimate seal of his greatness; the ships act as the means to the end.  Those making the voyage on board MacSween’s ships include women, who are to be accommodated in luxurious quarters – a rather courtly touch, but one of great importance in identifying the type of ship envisaged by the poet.  The composer to whom the poem is ascribed in BDL is a certain Artur Dall Mac Gurcaigh, ‘Blind Arthur Mac Gurkie’.

The reason that ships are so prominent in this poem is that the poet is aware of the MacSweens’ Norse pedigree.  They go with the ancestral image, the genealogical territory, so to speak.  In fact, as I discovered (somewhat to my immense horror,  having spent so long decoding the poem!), it is highly likely that the poet was using time-honoured templates describing the departure of medieval Norse and Danish fleets from their home ports, with all the glitz and razmataz associated with the initiation of naval adventures, even in those days.   So, if we are to have any hope of salvaging the ships themselves, and of saying something remotely ‘factual’ about the types of vessels used in the Irish Sea in the early fourteenth century, we not only have to decode the poem, we also have to understand the literary conventions that lie behind it, and take these into account.  These considerations will always leave us with the uncomfortable feeling that there may be an element of disjunction between the literary text –  its aspirations, assumptions and ornamentation – and the contemporary nautical reality in the early fourteenth century. 

So, how close is the poem to reality in matters maritime?  MacSween’s ships, as envisioned by the poet, do not match up completely with any of the principal types of vessels known from archaeology and art in the fourteenth century – cogs, hulks and keels. They appear to have been hybrid or intermediate types, for which we have as yet no archaeological record.  They were essentially keels, i.e. clinker-built vessels with a straight keel of the Nordic type, but certain aspects of their design may have nodded towards the emerging profiles of cogs and hulks, which had erections such as fore-castles and stern-castles for military purposes. If we accept what the poet says, MacSween’s ships had accommodation which may been sufficiently large to allow the ladies to sleep in it, but there is no evidence to suggest that this accommodation remotely resembled a fore-castle or a stern-castle. The terms used for the ships in the poem are also very clearly of Norse origin, and it is extremely telling that, despite enormous advances in our knowledge of cogs and hulcs, the closest parallels with MacSween’s vessels and their equipment are still provided by the Nordic keel tradition, as reflected in the Oseberg and Gokstad ships from the hey-day of the Viking Age, as well as the later Skuldelev ships.

If we could set aside our misgivings about literary conventions, we might – just might – therefore be emboldened to say that MacSween’s ships represent a significant intermediate stage in the evolution of the larger Nordic keel-type vessels to something more ambitious by having accommodation as part of their design.  The sceptic might well ask whether such hybridisation was a reflection of what was happening at the time, or merely part of the poetic imagination!  (Cf. Meg Bateman’s important article in Caindel Alban.) In the horns – the Cape Horns! – of such dilemmas are we fated to navigate in these uncharted literary waters!  However, the work of Professor Judith Jesch on saga literature shows conclusively that, by the thirteenth century, Nordic vessels had become larger and deeper, and that there is every likelihood that some, at least, could provide berths for courtly ladies.  Likewise, Professor Sean McGrail’s research (Boats of the World) points firmly towards the existence of intermediate ship types like those of MacSween in the fourteenth century.

The MacSween poem is one of five poems that I want to discuss in this talk.  It will, I think, be helpful if I provide, in similar manner, an overview of the other poems that require our attention, and then, finally, consider as much of the detailed evidence as time will allow.

Curiously, the Book of the Dean of Lismore, which was compiled by a land-locked Perthshire family in the first quarter or so of the sixteenth century, contains two other poems in which boats or ships are prominent, and in both poems, the ship or boat functions as a container for the principal objects of the poet’s venom – not his praise, but his virulent dispraise, on this occasion.  Sad to say, the main objects of his wrath are women, and especially women who go to sea – a most important point, given the challenges that women posed to maritime conventions. Women who went to sea were a major ‘problem’ to the British Navy for a considerable period (see Suzanne J. Stark, Female Tars: Women aboard ship in the age of sail).  The poetic boats are both crewed by women, and the boats themselves function as the direct opposite of the fine vessels depicted in the MacSween poem, which, as we have noted earlier, are said to accommodate women – courtly ladies, in effect.  The intent of the poems – both ascribed to the same poet, Am Bard Mac an t-Saoir – is manifestly satirical.  From the shipwright’s perspective, it is fascinating that the boat in the first poem, located in Loch Inch, in Scotland, is made of leather, with what seem to be timbers or ribs inside the leather, strengthening it, but the nails are not ‘fixed’ – understandably, as sewing was the means of fastening such material.  This recalls the ‘coracles’ or leather boats which are still used on the west coast of Ireland.  In a couplet which Professor Watson did not fully decode, the poet seems to be saying that the ugly boat on Loch Inch, which is not fit for seagoing, is to be banished ‘to the ancient stream of the Shannon’.

The boat in the second poem, which appears on Loch Rannoch, is made of the worst materials of the natural world.  For that reason, the poem may be, in part at least, a satire on boat-builders, as well on women.  The meticulous, not to say fastidious, ways of the boat-builder are subverted, and the poetic vessel is a travesty of the well-built boat.  The poem concludes too with a resounding reference to both Lucifer and Duncan, earl of Argyll, and this suggests that the poet is far from impressed with contemporary boat-building techniques, and presumably the use of boats, by the Campbells.  Were the Campbells, perhaps, using (misusing?) their boats on the lochs to patrol the area?  Did the poet have a ‘bad experience’ of Campbell interventionism?  Is this the disillusioned poet’s salute to the Campbells’ over-zealous policing of inland waterways?  What is the local context for these two remarkable poems, both ascribed to the same poet, as if this man had some sort of fixation with this particular theme (or perhaps two, namely bad boat-builders and bad women, with naughty Campbells thrown in for good measure!)?

These questions take on added significance because it has been scholarly orthodoxy hitherto to relate their subject-matter directly to the influence of Sebastian Brant’s well-known late-fifteenth century poetic condemnation of contemporary vices, in his ‘Ship of Fools’ (1494).  Apart from observing the thematic similarity, however, commentators have not yet made the specific case for Brant’s influence. I would suggest too that it is important to consider woodcuts from the early editions of Brant’s work.  When taking a preliminary look at Brant, I was struck by the high quality and imaginary power of the accompanying woodcuts, some by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), and at least one opening woodcut of an early edition shows precisely the sort of picture which one finds in the second of the poems in the Book of the Dean, which is itself highly visual, depicting a storm-tossed vessel with its ungainly crew hanging over its sides.  Here again we are in the world of the ship as symbol, or icon.

Mention of the earl of Argyll takes us neatly to the fourth poem in our discussion.  We progress swiftly to the sixteenth century, and to ‘An Duanag Ullamh’ (‘The Completed Small Poem’), composed in honour of either the third earl of Argyll (+1529) or the fourth earl (+1558), depending on which version is being used.  The poem exists in two versions, and has a somewhat complex textual history.  For our purposes, the main point to note, as Drs McLeod and Bateman have done, is that ‘in several respects it represents an intermediate point between the formal court poetry of the late Middle Ages and the vernacular praise-poetry that became dominant in the seventeenth century.’   The metre of the poem is well-known in the classical period, and is a fine choice, as it suggests, by its rhythm, the stroke of the oars as the ships are rowed.  In fact, the relevant maritime section of the poem is strongly reminiscent of the MacSween poem in the Book of the Dean of Lismore.  Its principal concern is the age-old departure of the fleet.  Like MacSween’s vessels, the earl’s ships are rowed clear of the harbour before their sails are hoisted.  In ‘An Duanag Ullamh’, there is, however, much more emphasis on the technical aspects of the sail itself, and how it is positioned and controlled in order to propel the ship most effectively.  The sail is this symbolic of the ship, and symbolic too of the earl himself, whose power is effective and well-directed for specific purposes.  The use and control of power by the earl is the theme of the poem, and the fleet, and specifically the sail, conveys this.  (Note, pace McLeod and Bateman, that the cluas of the sail is the ‘lug’ or ‘luff’ or ‘tack’ – i.e. the lower front corner of the sail, and not the ‘sheet’, sgòd, which holds the sail at the lower rear corner.  The point is important, as it is the position of the lug or luff that determines how effectively a boat will sail to windward – it has to be held tight, and thus the development of bowsprits etc. on later types of ship, allowing sharper manoeuvring into the wind.  It is important to note too that the sail in this case is not the standard square ‘galley-sail’, but one that is running fore and aft, like the ‘dipping lug’, so well known in later years.  I think there is a tendency among commentators not to be aware of the variety of sail types which were available in the West Highlands in the period pre-1700, and to over-focus on the square sail and the so-called ‘galley’.)

And so, finally, to the fifth poem, which I had a hand in interpreting when it was being edited by Professor Colm Ó Baoill in my Aberdeen days, namely ‘Caismeachd Ailein nan Sop’ (‘The Military Charge of Allan of the Straw Bundles’). Here too we are in the era of vernacular verse, and the poem is to be dated c. 1537.   It should be noted at the outset that what the poet, apparently a chief of the MacLeans of Coll known as ‘An Clèireach Beag’ (‘The Little Cleric’), has in mind is a headlong attack by Allan, a notorious pirate and burner of buildings, who sees an enemy sail on the hostile horizon, and goes straight for it, with such abandon that the two boats crash into one another, gunwale to gunwale.  The swagger and ruthlessness of the pirate are at the heart of this poem, which, in some respects, borders on burlesque and verbal cartoon.  It has a breathless, uncontrolled quality – the ‘whoop’ of the pirate is audible – which stands in marked contrast to ‘An Duanag Ullamh’, with its strong sense of controlled power, and the MacSween poem, with its emphasis on the thoughtful, purposeful execution and achievement of a greater goal.  In fact, the poem (though it may not be complete in its current form) has elements of panegyric, reminiscent of the MacSween poem and ‘An Duanag Ullamh’. The courtly touches are understandably  lacking, despite the customary salute towards Allan’s teach (‘mansion’), which was stocked with the wines of France, and entertained lots of like-minded topers.  This is a fascinating fragment, because it shows all too briefly the two sides of the life of the buccaneer –  constructive skills, generosity, even prodigality on the one hand, and headlong, precipitate, brutal ruthlessness on the other.  The poet ‘bangs’ the two sides together in such a way that we are not only given a chuckle, but also good reason to reflect on the ambivalence of the pirate lifestyle throughout the ages, which, alongside the MacSweens and Ailean nan Sop, accommodated Grace O’Malley, the sixteenth-century seagoing virago and castle-dweller of the west of Ireland, and Paul Jones, the founder of the American navy and the scourge of the western seaboard of Scotland.

These two poems or songs, to be precise in their classification, reflect, as we have said, a transitional stage in Gaelic verse.  Although the language is vernacular Scottish Gaelic, rather than the classical Gaelic language used by the medieval poets, the templates of the classical tradition are still evident.  Classical verse on maritime themes has a somewhat detached feel to it, as if the poet were largely an observer, rather than a participant. That begins to change, as poets seem to be more inclined to get their feet wet, and the poetic voice alters accordingly. I sense that even by 1600 ‘An Duanag Ullamh’ and ‘Caismeachd Ailein nan Sop’ have brought us much closer to the actual experience of being on board a ship or boat – we see the bulging sail and feel the running-gear in the one, and we hear the crunching of planks in the other.  When we cross the threshold of the seventeenth century, we move much closer to experience, and to the poet as participant-observer.  The difference between the classical types of such verse pre-1600 and those after that date is quite noticeable; the classical poet is outside the boat, while the vernacular poet is inside, and able to use various metres and turn of phrase to replicate the vitality of the boat or ship at sea.  The music of the waves, the wallop of the current against the boat’s planks, the regular beat of the oars, the freedom and  exhilaration of being carried along by the sail – these are very much in evidence in the verse of the seventeenth century.  (Use illustrations from printed texts at this point.)

Points to make about the seventeenth century material:

·        Greater emphasis on onomatopoeia – the sound of the vessel and the sea, and the sense of harmony and happy contention (Iain Lom)

·        Use of extended metaphors of the boat – e.g. the horse of the sea, contrasted with the horse of the land (Murchadh MacCoinnich)

·        A much more personalised view of ships and boats


And so to our conclusion.   Much remains to be discovered about those ships and boats which appear in the Gaelic literary record in the period under review.  What I have said today is a mere thimbleful from the surface of a deep ocean, still awaiting proper investigation.  The prose tradition likewise requires to be assessed, though it may not prove so rewarding.  From my perspective, this is assuredly no more than a report on work in embryonic progress.  More will follow.  

I trust, however, that I have been able to convey something of the richness of the Gaelic literary record, which allows us to have a fuller understanding of medieval sea-going conventions, as well as the conventions of those poets who took time to compose such verse.  I have stressed sufficiently, I hope, that the ships and boats which we see in such verse do belong to the poetic imagination – such being the act of literary creation in any case – but that use of the ‘imagination’ does not rule out ‘reality’.   The creative imagination, in fact, allows us to draw alongside the reality of ships and boats, to sense them and to feel them, at different stages and periods.

At the very least, each of the poems we have considered provides us with a porthole from which to view both the poetic mind and the maritime endeavour, and the mutually beneficial and immensely constructive interaction of both. 

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