EARLY STEAMSHIP TRAVEL FROM THE OTHER SIDE:
AN 1829 GAELIC ACCOUNT OF THE MAID OF MORVEN
Donald E. Meek
From about 1820, ‘Steam Boat Tours’ began to open the east and west coasts of Scotland, and pre-eminently the Highlands and Islands, to external visitors. The first ‘steam boats’ also provided the ‘ordinary’ people of the Highlands and Islands with direct connections to areas of employment in the Scottish Lowlands. Although we need not suppose that the number of Highlanders who immediately availed themselves of this novel form of transport was very great, it is clear that Gaels – principally those with appropriate resources – soon began to take advantage of steamship travel as a means of reaching the Scottish Lowlands, via the Clyde ports and particularly Glasgow. The steamship network, as it emerged, was relatively restricted in any case, and steam vessels probably did not provide an extensive or wholly reliable service beyond the mainland canals and the nearest islands before the mid-nineteenth century.
The first steamships, with their wind-defying paddles and elegant saloons, were celebrated in Gaelic verse from the early 1820s, sometimes with an implicit prayer for the safe return of the Gàidheil ghasda (‘fine Gaels’) who had chosen this means of conveyance to Glasgow. In contrast to the use of Gaelic in songs composed by Gaels themselves, prose accounts of steamship voyages tended to be written in English by external visitors to the region. However, in ‘the middle month of harvest season’ (probably September) of 1829, a remarkable Gaelic prose account of a journey in an early steamship was published in An Teachdaire Gaelach (‘The Highland Messenger’), a journal edited and largely written by the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod (1783-1862), Caraid nan Gàidheal (‘The Friend of the Gaels’). MacLeod was a pioneering editor of, and writer for, Gaelic journals which were intended to increase the reading skills of recently-enliterated Gaels, and to provide relevant advice on such broader issues as emigration, education, literacy, and the implications of the industrial revolution. Commonly using the formats of essay, short story, dialogue and conversation, he explored numerous pertinent themes, including seasonal migration from the Highlands to the Lowlands to find employment at the ‘hairst’ (harvest). His rustic characters, who feature in his conversations or compose informative letters to their relatives at home (as happened here), often faced the challenge of supplementing their meagre crofting incomes by taking seasonal labour in the Lowlands. In this context, the steamship was an important facilitator, and in MacLeod’s Gaelic account the spotlight falls on the well-known Maid of Morven, a second-generation vessel.
The Maid of Morven and her antecedents
The earliest West Highland ‘steam boat’ was none other than the celebrated Comet, launched from John Wood’s yard in Port Glasgow, where she had been constructed during 1811. Built for Henry Bell of the Baths Inn, Helensburgh, and designed to convey passengers from Glasgow to Helensburgh for Bell’s benefit in the first instance, the Comet demonstrated the steamship’s potential significance to the West Highlands when she arrived at Fort William in September 1812, less than a month after her first advertised voyage on the Clyde. Bell’s characteristic ‘scheming’ showed the way to ‘steaming’, and to the transformation of sea-borne communication.
Thereafter, with remarkable speed, the diminutive first generation of these vessels began to appear in West Highland waters. By 1815 steamships were plying from the Clyde to Inveraray. In 1818 the first steamship graced the Sound of Mull, and by 1821 the Highlander was sailing regularly between Glasgow and Tobermory. In 1819 the Comet began a regular service to Fort William, but she was wrecked in 1820. Prior to the building of a second Comet, her place was taken by the Highland Chieftain, built as the Duke of Wellington in 1817, which reached Isle Ornsay in Skye in 1820. The completion of the Caledonian Canal in 1822 allowed steamships to sail as far north as Inverness, the Ben Nevis apparently being the first to do so in 1824. By the time the canal was opened, however, it was already too small to accommodate the newest vessels. The Crinan Canal was well used by the first steamships and their successors, as it had larger locks which reduced (but did not eliminate) the risk of ‘jamming’. There were other ‘jams’, however, which were caused by lack of investment and a wariness of novelty. In the course of the 1820s, Bell conducted an animated correspondence with Highland landlords and other gentry, like MacKenzie of Seaforth and Hugh Innes of Lochalsh, who were bluntly exhorted to support his ‘schemes’, including his plan to reach Stornoway, and various steamboat companies were formed. Sometimes these companies owned only a single ship each, but small fleets gradually emerged. As a result of such enterprise, steamship connections had been extended as far as Lewis by 1828, while Mull and the adjacent mainland were served by several such vessels, including the Maid of Morven.
The Maid of Morven reflected growing confidence in such vessels, and incorporated numerous improvements in propulsion and design which gave her a considerably longer life than the first Comet and her immediate successors. She was built of wood in 1826 by John Wood & Company, in conjunction with Duncan McArthur, Port Glasgow, originally for Archibald McEachern and others, who were trustees of the Maid of Morven Steam Boat Company. She measured 85 feet 4 inches in length, 14 feet 7 inches in breadth, and 8 feet 8 inches in depth, and was listed at 52.5 tons gross. In 1835, her ownership was transferred to Robert Napier, and in 1846 she was acquired by William Ainslie, Fort William, whose three ships (Queen of Beauty, Maid of Morven, and Glencoe) were absorbed into the fleet of G. & J. Burns in 1849. She appears to have ceased operating about 1850.
According to a handbill produced by W.R. McPhun & Co., Glasgow, in 1835, the Maid of Morven was one of six steamships plying in that year from the Clyde to Inverness, Oban and Tobermory. The others were the Staffa (46 tons), the Highlander (51 tons), the Rob Roy (42 tons) and the Helen McGregor (45 tons). As their tonnage indicates, these were very small – indeed, tiny – ships by today’s standards.
The Ossianic experience
Between 1826 and 1835, the Maid of Morven had helped to expand the tourist trade in the Inner Hebrides. In particular, she conveyed passengers to view the island of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave. Staffa was something of a magnet for tourists of the day, as Fingal’s Cave, with its towering basalt pillars formed from igneous rock, epitomised the grandeur which travellers expected to find in the Highlands and Islands, as the region basked in the afterglow of James Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’, first published between 1760 and 1763. The principal volumes, Fingal and Temora, described the adventures of the Gaelic hero, Fingal, king of Morven, and his followers, including his son, Ossian, the alleged composer of the epics ‘discovered’ by Macpherson. The association of the region with the cult of the Sublime, which thrived on the concept of awe-inspiring landscapes, further enhanced its ‘Ossianic’ appeal. The tenor of the times and of the experience is well captured in the journal of John Eddowes Bowman, who, with his friend, John Dovaston, sailed from Glasgow via the Crinan Canal to Staffa in 1825, on board the steamship, Highlander:
I scarcely know how to describe the scenery which surrounded us as we steered westward for the shores of Mull. Before us was a fine expanse of water, guarded by the venerable ruins of ancient castles, and hemmed in by bleak hills, above which rose the pale peaked tops of Mull, Morvern, Appin, and Lorn, forming a circular back screen of great magnificence and grandeur. We are now in the regions and scenes of Ossian; ‘and the silence of noon sleeps on an hundred isles, the sun glitters fervid on the curving sea, yet desolate is the dwelling of Morna’, and we called up in our fancy the deeds of other days, a tale of the times of old…The mind was quite bewildered by the sublimity of the scenery, and the multiplicity of objects that pressed upon our attention – Dunolly, Duart, Aros, and Dunstaffnage castles were all in sight; while the pale ghosts of Ossian slept up on the hills of Morvern and of Lorn – every name, every object, awakened some recollection, enshrined in history or embalmed in song.
The developing ‘tourist route’, with its landmarks observed and interpreted through an Ossianic looking-glass, began at the Broomielaw and embraced the Giant’s Causeway in the north of Ireland, before vessels headed northwards to Skye, and, by 1834, as far as St Kilda, another major locus of the Sublime. Staffa attracted ‘important’ visitors from England and beyond in the late 1820s and earlier 1830s, including the poet, William Wordsworth, the painter, Joseph Turner, and the musician and composer, Felix Mendelsohn. The Maid of Morven carried all three men to Staffa, and had the distinction of being represented in Turner’s famous painting, ‘Fingal’s Cave’. The painting, although somewhat impressionistic, shows a vessel with two masts and a very tall funnel, belching black smoke, sailing to the south-west of Staffa. It would seem therefore that the Maid of Morven was very similar in design to her older (1820) contemporary, the Inverary Castle, also built by John Wood & Company.
In keeping with the Ossianic ethos of the time and her sphere of operation, the name of the Maid of Morven matched the aspirations of the route. Indeed, it was taken directly from Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’, and specifically from his poem on the Battle of Lora, where ‘the maid of streamy Morven’ is Fingal’s wife. In Gaelic, the ship was known affectionately as A’ Mhaighdeann Mhorairneach, and was well remembered ‘as a great favourite’ as late as 1878, according to Duncan Clerk, Writer, Oban.
Negotiating and accommodating the steamship
Given the principal appeal of the early steamship as a mode of conveyance to the Ossianic Highlands and Islands, and its accessibility primarily to ‘moneyed folk’ on both sides of the ‘Highland Line’, to say nothing of its novelty, it is understandable that ‘ordinary’, Gaelic-speaking Highlanders should have been initially rather wary of the new mode of transport, and that it took some time before it was accepted as a ‘natural’ form of travel within the region.
As Gaels gradually began to embrace the steamship, their fears, prejudices and misconceptions required to be challenged. It is clear that the ensuing negotiation was influenced by factors quite different from those sublime concepts which are likely to have shaped the experience of external visitors. For Gaels, the steamship was not a ‘tourist commodity’, but a very practical means of conveyance to and from their homes. For that reason, the direction of travel, whether to or from the Highlands and Islands, away from home or back to the native heath, helped to determine how the steamship was viewed. The ship could be seen as ‘hostile’ or ‘friendly’, depending on the direction of conveyance, the benefits conferred by the voyage, or contextual matters such as the weather.
Because of the cultural exchange implicit in the voyage, the ship also became a threshold area, and travel on it was a liminal experience. The journey was in all senses a rite of passage, connecting states of being, the ‘home’ and the condition of ‘exile’, the ‘native’ and the ‘foreign’, Gaelic culture and Lowland culture. The ship could close the door on old experiences or open the door to the new. Adventures or exchanges of various kinds were likely to occur on board ship between passengers, including Gaels and Lowlanders. New horizons were opened too, at various levels beyond the merely geographical. A passenger was able to observe his or her fellow travellers, and even to stand on the same deck as social ‘superiors’, such as clan chiefs. This had the early effect of reducing class distinction, but such levelling (towards a ‘floating republic’) was, to some extent, a temporary response to novelty and its associated insecurities. As steamships became a reliable and accepted part of transport networks and social life, the class system in society came to be heavily replicated (in terms of first and second class, and steerage) on steamships of the later nineteenth century, probably achieving its high point in the Edwardian era, as the ‘rescue ratios’ of passengers following the notorious sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 amply demonstrate. Class distinction in sea transport survived, of course, for considerably longer, as on Atlantic liners and even motor-vessels serving the Hebrides in the 1950s and the 1960s.
Negotiations, exchanges and observations at various levels frequently strengthened travellers’ identities by heightening awareness of what it was to be a Gael, for example, or aided assimilation into the receptor culture, by introducing, slightly ahead of time, ‘abnormal’ features of life which were later reinforced in the alien city. In short, the ship acted as a crucible of transformation and preparation for individual travellers. It was assuredly a vehicle for travel between identifiable, geographical places, but it was no less significant as a means of transition to and from various levels of personal experience, self-awareness and self-definition.
These perspectives are already evident in Norman MacLeod’s 1829 Gaelic prose account of the voyage on the Maid of Morven. Indeed, it seems likely that MacLeod’s overall intention was broadly to encourage Gaels, who were generally wary of innovation, to adopt a more favourable attitude to steamships, while alerting them to the ways, both good and bad, in which these new-fangled vessels would interact with the Highland economy and Gaelic culture, and expose Gaels to alien ideas and ways of life.
It is not clear what literary models may have influenced MacLeod as he turned to describe the voyage on the steamship. His piece is certainly the earliest printed prose narrative of its kind in Gaelic, and for that reason alone it is highly likely that it is indebted to antecedents written in English and published as monographs or as articles in contemporary English-language periodicals. It is, in fact, very striking that some of MacLeod’s principal themes and characters can be matched fairly closely in John Eddowes Bowman’s near-contemporary journal of a journey to the islands undertaken in 1825. Although the account was compiled in 1826, its current editor, who published the work in 1986, claims that it was not printed immediately because Bowman, an Englishman from Nantwich, resisted pressure from his contemporaries on the grounds that the work did not contain ‘a sufficient portion of new matter to justify [publication]’. If this claim is correct, it would appear that a genre of travel-writing, with stock themes and characters, had emerged prominently in English as early as the 1820s. This is supported further by the journals of another Englishman, George Clayton Atkinson, who visited the islands in 1831 and again in 1833. Atkinson’s approach echoes that of Bowman, though with inevitable differences of detail, as well as some remarkable correspondences. Given the apparent popularity of the genre in the context of nascent tourism in the Highlands and Islands, its broader characteristics, at the very least, would have been well known to MacLeod.
MacLeod, nevertheless, gave the steamship voyage his own stamp, and we must note that his essay, with its focus on one vessel, anticipates by almost forty years the next significant account (in English) of a journey aboard another West Highland steamer, the Clansman, penned by Alexander Smith in his book, A Summer in Skye (1865). Maritime travelogue of this kind was, in fact, much more common in the second half of the nineteenth century, and it maintained its popularity into the twentieth century, notably in the context of voyages to St Kilda, accounts of which became something of a plague in the popular press. Ship-owning companies, such as David MacBrayne, also produced their own brochures, which had their roots in the ‘steamboat companions’ of the early nineteenth century, such as the Steamboat Companion and Strangers’ Guide to the Western Islands and Highlands of Scotland, first published by James Lumsden & Son in 1820. ‘Companions’ provided lists of the vessels on particular routes, and described the scenery and historical features which passengers would observe.
MacLeod’s narrative differs significantly from such ‘tourist genres’ by describing, in Gaelic, a voyage to the Lowlands undertaken by Gaelic-speaking Highlanders themselves. Its principal aims are not, therefore, to delineate people and scenery for personal retrospective pleasure, or for the benefit of an external readership who may be enticed to the Highlands and Islands by its words and sentiments. Rather, the narrative is written by a Gael for Gaels, partly by way of initiation into a new mode of transport and its implications. The primary focus is the ship, her propulsion and her ‘unusual’ passengers. For this reason, it contains very little in the way of detailed description of scenery and landmarks, and Ossianic ‘flagging’ is negligible overall. The author, in fact, takes the opportunity to make a playful sally at ‘Ossianic tourism’ and its participants, and (quite possibly) at such travelogues as a genre. Writing concisely for his own magazine, he turns the conventions of journals such as Bowman’s and Atkinson’s on their head, by giving the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands, who are usually portrayed as the ‘Other’ in English narratives, the opportunity to observe, and to comment on, the peculiarities of the ship’s non-Highland passengers and their bizarre practices.
In short, this is not a ‘straight take’ of a voyage from Morvern to the Broomielaw, but a nuanced and gently satirical piece, which reverses the standard ‘complements’ of the time, as ‘a Gael writes back’, and mocks the conscious and unconscious vanities of English-language writers. The speakers of ‘harsh guttural Gaelic’, and not tourists from Nantwich, are now the commentators. Fionnlagh MacAonghais, known for his skill in bagpiping as ‘Fionnlagh Pìobaire’ (‘Finlay the Piper’), takes centre stage, and tells his tale.
The ship, the natives and the tourists
Fionnlagh Pìobaire – the typical home-loving Gael – sets off reluctantly to the Lowlands, accompanied by his friend Para Mòr (Big Peter), and Marsailidh Mhòr (Big Marjory), a feisty woman who is already experienced in the language and customs of the largely alien Lowlands. Hailing from Morvern (Norman MacLeod’s native territory), they go out to meet the ‘Maid’ as she comes surging across the Sound of Mull from Aros. On arrival in Glasgow, Fionnlagh (as MacLeod’s ‘narrator’) writes a Gaelic letter to his wife, which opens thus:
A Mhàiri, a ghràidh,
Is bliadhna leam gach là on dhealaich mi riut fhèin agus ris na pàisdean. Tha mi ’n tràths’ ann an Glaschu mòr nan stìopall, baile na gleadhraich. O! nach robh mi aon uair eil’ am shìneadh air bruach na h-aibhne far nach cluinninn ach torman nan allt, bàirich nam bò, agus ceilearadh nan eun. Tha mi nis, mar a gheall mi, dol a dh’innse dhuit na fhuair mi a-mach.
Tha cuimhn’ agad fhèin mar a dhealaich sinn. Thog mi orm le bocsa na pìoba gu beul a’ chaolais; ’s ann an sin a bha ’n othail: Marsailidh Mhòr agus na buanaichean a bha leatha cho aoibhinn aighearach, ’s ged nach biodh iad ach a’ dol don choille-chnò. Cò bha ’m broilleach na cuideachd ach Para Mòr le èileadh beag ’s le bhonaid, mar a b’ àbhaist da – cuaille de bhata daraich na làimh – màileid de bhian goibhre air a dhruim. ‘Fàilt’ ort, Fhionnlaigh Phìobaire,’ ars esan, ‘gum meal thu do bhrigis.’ ‘Ma ta,’ arsa mise, ‘tubaist oirre – ’s i seo a’ chiad uair a chuir mi orm i; nam fuireadh i shuas cha bu ghearan e; ach tha mi cheana cho sgìth dhith ’s a bha dà bhliadhnach eich den ghad, a’ chiad oidhch’ a chuireadh air e.
Mary, my dear,
Every day since I parted from you and the children is like a year to me. I am at present in great Glasgow of the steeples, the city of noisy commotion. O, that I were stretched out one more time on the bank of the stream, where I would hear nothing but the murmur of the streams, the lowing of cows and the music of birds! I am now, as I promised, going to tell you what I discovered.
You yourself remember how we parted. I set off with the pipe-case to the mouth of the kyle, and what a hub-bub there was there: Big Marjory and the harvesters who accompanied her as happy and light-hearted as though they were going into the wood of nuts! Who was in the midst of the company but Big Peter with his small kilt and his bonnet, as was his custom – an oaken staff in his hand – a bag of goatskin on his back. ‘Welcome, Finlay Piper,’ said he, ‘may you enjoy wearing your trousers.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘may misfortune come upon them – this is the first time that I have put them on; if they would stay up, I would have no complaint; but I am already as tired of them as the two-year old horse was of the halter, the first night that it was placed on him.’
Fionnlagh then proceeds to describe (1) the ship herself as she bears down on their little boat, (2) the working of the engine and the engineer, (3) the passengers and their pastimes, (4) the performance of the ship on passage in stormy seas, and (5) the Broomielaw in Glasgow. The piece provides a remarkable wealth of relevant detail, both technical and ethnological, reflecting the keen eye of the participant observer (MacLeod himself). We may best appreciate the aims and approaches of MacLeod’s account by discussing each of its main sections in turn.
(1) Meeting the Maid of Morven
A-mach ghabh sinn an coinneamh soitheach na smùide, a’ Mhaighdeann Mhorairneach, mar a their iad rithe. Bha i teannadh oirnn o Mhuile, a’ cur nan smùid di. ‘Tha i seo a’ tighinn,’ arsa Pàra Mòr, ‘an aigeannach mhaol ghrànda, le gleadhraich, ’s le h-ùpraid; cha b’ ioghnadh leam ach a’ Mhaighdeann a ràdh rithe; b’ i sin a’ Mhaighdeann gun mhodh, gun eisimeil. Tharraing i oirnn, le caoiribh bàna fo sròin – a’ slachdraich, agus a’ sloisreadh na fairge foidhpe, bha ’g èirigh na h-iomairean bàna còbhragaich a-nunn gu h-Aros. Thàinig i nuas oirnn a’ bagradh ar smàladh fo cuibhleachan. Fa dheireadh stad a’ bhèist - is cha luaith’ a stad na cuibhleachan o dhol mun cuairt, na thug feadan fada caol, a bha suas ri taobh an t-simileir mhòir, aon ràn as a shaoil mi sgàineadh mo cheann. ’S ann an sin a bha ’n ùinich ’s an othail an dol ri cliathaich na luinge, a h-uile beul sa bhàta fosgailte san aon àm – gun urram fear da chéile. Mas i Marsailidh Mhòr, thug i mach a’ Bheurla sin nach do chleachd i on a bha i ’n uiridh air a’ Ghalldachd; cò ach ise – bha Bheurla ’s a’ Ghàidhlig am measg a chèile. ‘Dèan fodha,’ ars’ an dara h-aon; ‘nach imir thu, a mhic do mhàthar,’ ars’ an t-aon eile: a-staigh an ràmh-bràghad shuas, buille ’g a deireadh shìos: ‘Cani, cani ’illean,’ arsa Marsailidh Mhòr – ‘gu rèidh’, ars’ a h-uile h-aon. Mur bhith mo nàire, ’s mar a bha mi ceangailte sa bhrigis, bha mi mach a shnàmh gu tìr. Fa dheireadh thàinig ball cainbe le fead mar cluasaibh, agus ghlaodh gach neach, ‘Cum air gu gramail, Iain Bhàin.’ Thug a’ gheòla aon sàthadh aist’ a-nunn gu taobh na luinge, agus shàoil leam gun robh sinn thairis. Fhuair mi suas, ach chan fhios domh cionnas; is cha mhò bha fhios agam càit an tionndaidhinn.
Out we went to meet the steamship, the Maid of Morven, as they call her. She was approaching us from Mull, going full speed [lit. emitting steam/smoke, though the idiom normally means ‘going full out’ – a pun may be intended]. ‘This one is on her way’, said Big Peter, ‘the horrid, bluff-bowed, frolicsome female, with her clamour and commotion; I’m not surprised that they had to call her the Maid; some Maid she, with no manners or decency.’ She bore down upon us, with white waves under her nose - walloping and splashing the sea beneath her, which was rising in foaming, white swathes across to Aros. She came down upon us, threatening to destroy us under her paddles. At last the brute stopped – and no sooner did the paddles cease turning than a long, thin hooter that was up beside the great funnel emitted a roar that I thought would split my head. What huffing and puffing there was, going alongside the ship, and every mouth in the little boat open at the one time, regardless of each other. As for Big Marjory, she came out with English that she had’t used since she was in the Lowlands last year; who but she - Gaelic and English mixed together. ‘Down with the oar,’ said one; ‘won’t you row, mother’s son’, said another; ‘ship the bow oar up there, give a stroke to her stern down there’. ‘Canny, canny, lads’, said Big Marjory; ‘take it gently’, said everyone [else]. Were it not for my sense of decency, and the way I was trussed up in my trousers, I would have made off swimming for the land. At last a hempen rope came whistling about our ears, and everyone called out, ‘Grip it with a strong hand, Fair John!’ The little boat took a surging leap over to the side of the ship, and I thought we had capsized. I got up [into the ship], but I do not know how; nor did I know where I should turn.
Here we are given a powerful, low-angle view, as if through a camera lens, of the Maid of Morven as perceived from the small boat. Differences of scale are well conveyed by emphasising the pugnacious, lumbering motion of the steamship, and the vulnerability of the small boat. Fionnlagh’s description of the ‘docking’ of the small boat and the much larger ship is true to what happened at several ports of call as late as the mid-twentieth century, before the general availability of piers (e.g. at Coll and Craignure). In the nineteenth century, however, steamships were often ‘flagged down’ by intending passengers as they passed through the Sound of Mull, and the vessels responded to such ‘inducement’ by anchoring in a convenient bay. The tone of the piece is humorous, knocking a rise out of both the monster-like ship and the rustic travellers who are afraid of her new and unusual ways. To the travellers (and presumably the writer), the vessel represents the intrusion of the outside world on a sea-girt community, as is underlined by Big Marjory’s code-switching use of English phrases, in readiness to embrace the ‘other’ experience. Unlike contemporary toffs from England, the ‘rustics’ cannot survey the docks in an attempt to identify ‘their’ ship, while passing condescending remarks on various types of vessel – the ‘magnificent’ or the ‘second and third rates’. Para Mòr’s sarcastic comments are not based on ‘class’, but on the ‘Maid’s’ ungainly design and her frightening noise, which highlight the incongruity between the mechanical reality of what he dismissively terms an aigeannach (‘the frolicsome female’, implying a loose-living woman) and the name Maid of Morven itself, with its romantic, virginal glow. The industrial machine, by implication, conflicts with the Ossianic paradigm from which she derives her name, and which feeds contemporary Highland tourism.
(2) The engine and the engineer
‘Tha thu ’n, sin, Fhionnlaigh,’ arsa Para Mòr, ‘mar bhò mhaoil am buailidh choimhich. Thig leam a dh’amharc mionach na Maighdinn seo fhèin, a dh’fheuchainn an tuig sinn mar tha bheairt innleachdach ag iomairt.’ Ach ma chaidh, ’s ann an sin, a Mhàiri, a bha ’m fire, faire! Sailthean iarainn agus slatan a’ gluasad a-nunn agus a-nall, a sìos agus a suas, air an ais ’s air an adhart, gun tàmh, gun stad; cnagan agus gòbhlan agus eagan a’ freagairt da chèile. Cuibhleachan beaga nan deann-ruith mu na cuibhleachan mòra. Duine truagh shìos am measg na h-acfhainn, a’ cur na smùid deth, far nach saoileadh tu am b’ urrainn do luch dol gun a milleadh; ach bha esan a’ gluasad air feadh na h-ùpraid, cho neo-sgàthach ’s a rachadh Para Mòr no mise am measg nan caorach; ag armadh gach acfhainn, achlais, udalain, agus feadain le h-olaidh agus le h-ìm. ‘A dhuine thruaigh,’ arsa Para Mòr, ‘’s ann agam nach eil sùil ri d’ àite; is daor a tha thu cosnadh d’ arain.’ ‘Carson?’ ars esan, ’s e tionndadh suas a shùl a bha snàmh ann am fallas. Ged a labhradh a’ ghèimhleag iarainn a bha na làimh, cha b’ urrainn duinn barrachd ioghnaidh a bhith oirnn na nuair a chuala sinn an duine seo a’ labhairt na Gàidhlig. ‘Nach do shaoil mi,’ arsa Para Mòr, ‘gur Sasannach, no Eireannach, no Gall bochd a bh’ ann.’ Thàinig e nìos, a’ siabadh an fhallais o ghnùis le bad còrcaich a bha na làimh; agus thòisich e air beachd a thoirt dhuinn air an acfhainn. Ach, eudail, b’ i sin an fhaoineis. ‘An saoil thu, a Phara Mhòir,’ a deir mise, ‘nach anns a’ cheann a smaointich an toiseach air seo a bha ’n innleachd?’ ‘Coma leam e fhèin is innleachd,’ arsa Para Mòr. ‘Is mì-nàdarra, peacach an innleachd seo fhèin, a’ cur sruth agus soirbheis an Fhreasdail gu ’n dùbhlan, a’ dol nan aghaidh gun seòl, gun ràmh. Coma leam i; chan eil an innleachd seo cneasda. B’ fheàrr leam a bhith ann an geòla dhuibh Achadh na Creige – Eòghann an Rudha air an stiùir a’ ruith le croinn rùisgte tro Bhuinne nam Biodag – na bhith innte; tha mi ’g ràdh riut nach eil an innleachd seo cneasda.’
‘There you are, Finlay,’ said Para Mòr, ‘like a hornless cow in an alien fold. Come with me to take a look at the guts of this very Maid, to see if we can understand how the ingenious device functions.’ But if we went, dear Mary, what a commotion we saw there! Iron beams and rods moving over and back, up and down, backwards and forwards, without ceasing, without stopping; pulleys and forks and notches responding to one another. Little wheels going full speed round the big wheels. A poor man down among the gear, perspiring steamily, where you would not imagine that a mouse could venture without being disfigured; but he was moving in the midst of the commotion as fearlessly as Para Mòr or myself would go among the sheep; greasing every piece of equipment, joints, swivels, and ducts with oil and butter. ‘Poor man,’ said Para Mòr, ‘I certainly do not envy you your place; you earn your bread dearly.’ ‘Why?’ said he, turning up his eyes which were swimming in sweat. Though the iron crowbar that he had in his hand should have spoken, this would not have caused us greater wonder than when we heard this man speaking Gaelic. ‘ Did I not think,’ said Para Mòr, ‘that he was an Englishman, or an Irishman, or a poor Lowlander.’ He came up, wiping the sweat from his face with a hemp rag which was in his hand, and he began to give us an opinion of the equipment. But, my dear, that was a complete waste of effort. ‘Don’t you think, Para Mòr,’ said I, ‘that there was real ingenuity in the head that first thought of this?’ ‘ I have no time for himself or his ingenuity,’ said Para Mòr. ‘ This ingenious device itself is unnatural and sinful, defying the current and favouring breeze of Providence, going against them without sail, without oar. I have no time for it; this device is not human. I would prefer to be in the little black boat of Achadh na Creige – Hugh of the Headland at the helm running with bare masts through the Current of the Daggers – than to be in her; I am telling you that this device is not natural.’
This section touches on a number of themes which illustrate certain Highlanders’ initial attitudes to early steamships and their machinery. The general tone is disapproving, as is implied by the contrast between the fine-sounding name of the ‘Maid’ and her mionach (‘guts, intestines’). The contrast between the industrial and the rural – between flywheels and sheep – is sharply drawn. Yet the passage describes fairly – and powerfully – the intricate interaction of different parts of the machinery. The writer acknowledges that the engine has its own system of order. Nevertheless, it is a system which defies Providence by going against wind and tide – unlike sail, which co-operates with these elements. Para Mòr is the voice of conservatism, who expresses a strong preference for sail, and specifically for the small boats known to himself at home. We may be sure that he speaks for Norman MacLeod. Indeed, we may note that the only other major narrative involving a ship and written by MacLeod concerns ‘Long Mhòr nan Eilthireach’ (‘The Emigrant Ship’), which he saw in Tobermory harbour shortly before she sailed with Highland emigrants to America. Divine service is held on board before departure, and we may suppose that, like the eternal mass of Beinn Shianta in the distance, she represents a manifestation of the Sublime, to the extent that she is, in effect, a symbol of an overarching Providence which will convey the emigrants safely to their destination. Ossianic models also appear to influence the narrative. This mechanical ship is very different. Unlike the sailing-ship, she is not cneasda (‘normal, natural, human’). She defies natural harmonies, ordained by the Creator. Creation itself is being challenged by the likes of the Maid of Morven.
Despite this, however, the engineer who supervises the ‘unnatural’ machinery is a Gaelic-speaking Highlander – much to the surprise of Para and Fionnlagh. Para Mòr supposes that he ought not to be a Highlander – he can be an Englishman or an Irishman or even a ‘poor Lowlander’, but not a Highlander. It is possible that the writer’s tongue is in his cheek when he pens these words, but it is more likely that they reveal MacLeod’s deep ambivalence, and general unease, about Highlanders in an industrial context. He recognises that they must leave home to earn their living, and he supports seasonal labour in the Lowlands, but, while he makes the point that even a Gael can master the intricacies of the new-fangled steam engine, he appears to suggest that there is an element of danger in the compromise with Lowland industry. As a minister serving in a mainland congregation (latterly St Columba’s, Glasgow), he would have been well aware of the ‘snares’ of urban life, and these are, in fact, delineated fully in other dispatches by his rustic friend, Fionnlagh.
Despite his Gaelic, the engineer does not ‘communicate’ with the likes of Para Mòr; he talks the same language at one level, but not at another. MacLeod may be satirising Highland attitudes in this passage, but it seems much more likely that he is (simultaneously) transmitting a subtle message about the industrial environment – it coops people in narrow spaces, it makes them perspire, and it dehumanises them in the long run, by turning them into a breed rather different from their fellows at home, who are still able to maintain traditional lifestyles and engage in normal conversation.
Although the broad characteristics of marine steam engines (boilers, flywheels etc.) had been described in Gaelic song and verse as early as c. 1824, MacLeod’s account is of special interest in describing the motion of such engines and the role of the engineer. It is not paralleled in Gaelic until the twentieth century, in Uisdean Laing’s vignette, written in the 1920s, of the engine and engineer (complete with crowbar) of the veteran MacBrayne steamship, the Glencoe, built (as the Mary Jane for Sir James Matheson of Lewis) in 1846, and in service until 1931. The engine of the Maid of Morven merited humorous description as a novelty in 1829, whereas, a century later, the Glencoe’s long service had turned her steeple engine into a venerable relic of a bygone age, worthy of respectful writing.
(3) The passengers
Mar a bha sinn a-nunn gu ceann Mhùsdail chuala mi fhèin sgal pìoba air mo chùl, agus air dhomh tionndadh cò bha ’n seo ach balach ronnach de mhuinntir Thiridhe a’ gleusadh a phìoba, an fhad ’s a bheireadh duin’ eile cuairt aisde. ‘Ma ta,’ arsa Para Mòr, ‘Is ceannach air an ubh an gloc.’ Ciamar tha seo a’ còrdadh riut, Fhionnlaigh?’ ars’ esan. ‘Is searbh a’ ghlòìr,’ a deir mise, ‘nach fhaodar èisdeachd.’ Chluich e fa dheireadh ‘Bodach nam brigisean’, agus mun do sguir e dhith, bha mi cho sgìth dheth fhèin, ’s da cheòl ’s a bha mi den bhrigis lachdainn.
Cò bha an deireadh na luinge ach Alasdair Ruadh mac an Abraich, Tighearna Cholla. Mhothaich e dhomh fhèin, agus smèid e orm – cha robh math a dhiùltadh – bha mòran uaislean shìos leis air clàr deiridh na luinge; Sasannaich, Goill, agus Frangaich. Cuid dhiubh a’ leughadh, cuid nan cadal, cuid a’ miananaich, cuid ag ithe. Fear dhiubh le gloinn’-amhairc fhada, rìomhach ra shùil, mar gum biodh e dol a losgadh air Caisteal Dubhaird; mhothaich mi fear fada, caol, glas-neulach le speuclair air a shròin, is bioran ruadh na làimh leis an robh e tarraing dealbh a’ chaisteil. Bha baintighearna mhòr, rìomhach nam measg, agus measan leibideach de chù beag, mollach na h-uchd, ris an robh i a’ brìodal, agus ga phògadh; agus dà mhaighdinn òg leatha, air na robh rud nach faca mi riamh roimhe, brigisean geala anairt, fon chuid eile dan aodach. Thug mi fhèin a-mach a’ phìob mar a dh’iarr iad, ach a’ chiad sgal a thug i, theich gach aon diubh ach aon Sasannach mòr, reamhar, a shuidh mum choinneamh le dhà mheur na chluasaibh, agus sgraing air mar gum bithinn a’ dol ga ithe.
As we were approaching the headland of Musdale, I myself heard the skirl of the pipes behind me, and when I turned who was it but a slobbery lad from Tiree tuning his pipes, for as long as another person would take to play a set of tunes. ‘Well,’ said Para Mòr, ‘The cluck advertises what is in the egg. How does this appeal to you, Finlay?’ said he. ‘ It is bitter talk indeed,’ said I, ‘that cannot be listened to.’ He played in the end, ‘The Old Man of the breeks’, and before he had completed it, I was as weary of himself and his music as I was of the dun trousers.
Who was in the stern of the ship but Red-haired Alasdair mac an Abraich [lit., ‘son of the Lochaber man’], the Laird of Coll. He noticed me, and he beckoned to me – I did not dare to refuse him – there were many toffs down there with him on the quarter-deck of the ship: English folk, Lowlanders and French folk. Some of them reading, some sleeping, some yawning, some eating. One of them [had] a long, fancy telescope to his eye, as if he were going to fire at Duart Castle; I noticed a tall, thin, sallow-complexioned man with a monacle on his nose and a red stick in his hand with which he was drawing a picture of the castle. There was a large, posh noblewoman among them with a poor, wee, hairy yapper of a dog on her lap, which she was fondling and kissing; and there were two young maids with her who wore something that I had never seen before, white trousers of linen, under the rest of their clothes. I myself brought out the pipes as they asked, but the first blast they gave, all of them fled except one big, fat Englishman who sat in front of me with his two fingers in his ears, and with a scowl as if I were going to eat him.
Descriptions of fellow passengers are one of the set pieces in writing of this kind, and it is here that MacLeod’s narrative connects most obviously with other, similar writing. MacLeod’s account of the travellers seen through Finlay’s eyes can be paralleled in Bowman’s narrative of 1825, in Atkinson’s narratives of 1831 and 1833, and Smith’s of 1865. Bowman’s is considerably closer in ambience, as in time. According to Bowman, ‘The passengers on board [the Highlander] were very numerous, but being exclusively a ship of pleasure, they were all people of respectability, some indeed of superior understanding and manners; many of them English, but chiefly Scotch or Hebrideans.’ Bowman’s learned friend, Dovaston, had the knack of pouring forth knowledge, spouting ‘Ossian’ and attracting the attention of travellers (often females), to the extent of upsetting ‘the proper equilibrium of the vessel’. In addition, as they were of the right social class (as retired lawyer and banker respectively), he and Bowman had access to persons of considerable social status. Among them was
a fine young Chieftain of the Isles, called Donald McLean, of Drymnen in Morvern, who possessed extensive property there and in Uist, a part of Long Island, where he manufactured a large quantity of kelp. The small isle of Boreray, one of the most distant of the Hebrides, lying to the north east of St Kilda, belongs to him…He very much reminded us, and particularly among these isles, of young Coll, the laird who so warmly obtained the applause of Dr. Johnson …
and also ‘another young and chatty Highland laird whom we took on board at one of the locks of the Crinan canal. His name was MacDougal’. Bowman misplaced Boreray, of course, as it lies off the north-west coast of North Uist, but his reference to ‘young Coll’ is particularly interesting in the light of MacLeod’s text.
In MacLeod’s narrative, the rustics, Fionnlagh, Para Mòr and Mairsailidh – hardly models of contemporary ‘respectability’ who would ‘cut a dash’ on board ship – travel with passengers at the other end of the social spectrum from themselves. Given such conventional segregation, the high point of the voyage is Fionnlagh’s encounter with MacLean of Coll, who beckons the bashful Fionnlagh down to the quarter-deck. ‘Alasdair Ruadh mac an Abraich’ was the fourteenth (or, according to some, the fifteenth) laird of Coll, a traditional chief who had a keen interest in Gaelic literature. He was the patron of the Tiree poet, John MacLean, ‘Bard Thighearna Cholla’, and to him the bard was indebted for the publication of his book in 1818. MacLean of Coll also appears prominently in Atkinson’s narratives of 1831 and 1833, as Coll had purchased a house to the south of Tobermory in 1828, and seems to have been a regular traveller on steamships. Atkinson had met him on board ship when returning to Glasgow in 1831, and had obtained an ‘introduction’ to the laird, ‘but we had given up the idea of presenting it’ on the second visit to the islands. Finally, to Atkinson’s delight and surprise (given his attire), ‘a decent gamekeeper-like man in a black shooting jacket’ in Tobermory admitted that he was, indeed, Coll. Norman MacLeod’s family at the manse of Fiunary, Morvern, was related to the MacLeans of Coll, through marriage into the Camerons of Glendessary, and this may explain the ease of reference, in a passage tinged with wry humour, bordering on burlesque, and its probable insinuation that the laird of Coll was ‘never off the boat’.
Clearly, such ships were patronised at this stage pre-eminently by well-to-do tourists, who were desperately anxious to meet ‘respectable’ people of their own kind, and not those of Fionnlagh Pìobaire’s class. MacLeod’s clever narrative, however, makes Coll shake hands with an ordinary man of the Highlands, rather than a well-to-do tourist, but it also suggests that, in certain cases, local dignitaries were willing to countenance the ‘lower classes’, particularly if there was a ‘professional’ interest of some kind, such as piping or poetry. This encouraged a narrowing of social distance, even if that was only temporary. For the ‘ordinary’ passenger, ‘being noticed’ by the chief or laird may have added some glamour to the transition to urban squalor, or it may have offered an ‘introduction’ to the Ossianic Highlands, just as ‘sitting at the Captain’s table’ not only reinforced the Captain’s rank, but also offered a ‘feel-good factor’, as well as an introduction to the ‘high command’, for passengers in class-conscious liners at a much later stage. Indeed, Fionnlagh writes home proudly about his encounter with Coll. The ship may thus have acted as a means of reinforcing ‘respectability’, and as a vehicle for a small degree of social integration, by bringing the different classes together on the same deck. On the quarter-deck Fionnlagh also sees the ‘posh noblewoman’ and her maids, whose fashion-conscious urbanity contrasts sharply with the ‘Hieland’ angularity of Mairsilidh Mhòr, who is kept ‘off-stage’ for the entirety of the voyage.
MacLeod’s tongue is firmly in his cheek as he writes. The passage contains a well-controlled element of satire, at the expense of both Fionnlagh and his social superiors, as well as contemporary tourists. The description of the gentleman viewing Duart Castle with the telescope, an instrument to be seen clearly in artistic depictions of steamship travellers from this era, is cleverly nuanced, with its menacing overtones conveyed by the parallel between the telescope and the gun. We may suspect that this vignette contains a strong hint of unease about the dangers of the emerging tourist trade, the probable displacement of older traditions by those of the newcomers, and the sightseers’ impact on the fabric of buildings. Bowman, in fact, was concerned that castles such as Duart would be levelled by the ‘all subduing hand of time’, but MacLeod may imply that tourists themselves – and their ‘gear’ – are even more dangerous than time.
The text may also contain a warning that art for art’s sake is rather effete, and unlikely to benefit the region, as the sketcher on the ship is described as ‘tall, thin [and] sallow-complexioned’. Sketching of landscapes was a common pastime among tourists on such vessels, as Bowman’s references to his own drawings make clear. Indeed, Bowman claims to have induced the captain of the Highlander to change course, and take ‘a sweep along the front of [Staffa’s] magnificent columnar caves…while I took a general sketch of the great façade.’ Fionnlagh’s comment on the ‘Maid’s’ artist, in sharp contrast to Bowman’s unconscious pomposity, cuts the sketcher down to size. Fionnlagh notes too the noblewoman’s kissing of her dog, as well as the pantaloons worn by her maids. He implicitly regards the ship as a cat-walk for promoters of strange garb and purposeless occupations. The message seems to be that such semblances of art, fashion and loving concern for lap-dogs are superficial frippery, at least in the estimation of the horny-handed Highlander. They and their promoters are sent fleeing by the skirl of Finlay’s pipes, which are presumably intended to represent ‘real’ Highland culture. Only a rude Englishman remains on deck, with his fingers in his ears and a scowl on his face. He too may have been a stock character in such writings; on their way to Fort William from Oban, Bowman and Dovaston had the misfortune to encounter ‘the big and vulgar English gentleman, who had long been setting in for the sulks, and whom Dovaston afterwards called “Blubber-chops”…[he] began to be extremely disagreeable’.
The ‘rude Englishman’ and other parallels in the two narratives – most noticeably MacLeod’s delineation of the laird of Coll, and Bowman’s of Donald Maclean of Morvern (in itself, possibly significant, given the MacLeod’s family connections with the area) who has similarities to ‘Young Coll’, suggest strongly that Norman MacLeod had indeed read an earlier travelogue very similar to Bowman’s. In fact, the similarities are so close as to make one wonder whether a draft of Bowman’s narrative, or a certain part of it (perhaps serialised in a magazine?), had crossed MacLeod’s desk at some point, and that he had decided to ‘subvert’ its main features when opportunity arose. Otherwise, we must suppose that the principal features of the Hebridean travelogue as a genre had become so highly conventional by the end of the 1820s that both Bowman and MacLeod knew the standard formulae only too well. This might call into question the ‘factual reality’ of Bowman’s account.
MacLeod’s satirical mode is further illustrated by his description of the ship’s piper, the ‘slobbery lad from Tiree’. Fionnlagh the Piper could brook no rivals, of course, and the contrast between the Tiree lad’s playing (which, despite its imperfections, apparently pleased the tourists) and Fionnlagh’s (which caused them to flee – a neat reversal!) is well drawn. Narratives such as Bowman’s, on the other hand, give a prominent place to the ship’s piper, who is generally well appreciated, as he introduces the ‘high points’ in the course of the voyage, and entertains the passengers. Bowman remarks that
at four o’ clock [on 27th July 1825] we were melodiously awakened by the indefatigable bagpiper, who with his eternal fifths gave us several strathspeys and reels. On board the Scotch steam packets everything is performed when he gives the signal, meals are announced, and the various business of the ship is conducted by this national instrument, and though so late at night when we retired, he gave us a serenade.
MacLeod’s pointed satire on the piper suggests that he was familiar with, and rather weary of, undiscerning accolades of this kind, coming (it would seem) from people who could not tell the difference between good piping and bad. He appears to mock the literary genre, as well as the characters who are portrayed in it. He also uses a ‘rusticity scale’ in measuring the relative ignorance of his Highland figures. The greater their distance from the ‘centre’ (as defined by MacLeod), the more ‘stupid’ they become. Thus the islander – from Tiree! – is evidently ‘farther out’, less skilled and less ‘clued up’ than even the backwoodsman from Morvern.
(4) The ship in a storm
Ma bha ceòl am measg nan uaislean, bha ceòl agus dannsa an ceann eile na luinge. Ach mar bha sinn a’ dol sìos gu Eisdeal, chaidh an ceòl air feadh na fidhle. Bha ’n fhairge na mill agus na gleanntaibh; thòisich soitheach na smùide fhèin ri dannsa. Cha robh ràn a bheireadh am feadan mòr as nach saoileadh tu gun robh muc-mhara ra cliathaich. Cha chluinneadh tu nis ach osnaichean o gach àite. Bha ’n Sasannach mòr a bha fochaid air a’ phìob, ’s a cheann thar beul-mòr na luinge, an impis sgàineadh. ‘An tuilleadh teannaidh ort,’ a deir mise; ‘neò-’r-thaing mur eil pluic pìobair a-nis ort fhèin.’ Ràinig sinn an Crìonan. ‘Is prìseil,’ arsa Para Mòr, ‘a’ chas air tìr;’ a’ chiad fhocal a thàinig às a cheann on a chaidh sinn seachad air beul Loch Faochan.
If there was music among the toffs, there was music and dancing in the other end of the ship. But when we were passing Easdale, the fiddle-music went haywire. The sea became hills and glens; the steamship herself began to dance. With every roar that the great whistle would emit, you would think that a whale was alongside. You could hear nothing now but groans from every place. The big Englishman, who was mocking the pipes, had his head over the gunwale, and it [his head] was on the point of splitting. ‘More pressure upon you,’ said I; ‘you yourself certainly have a piper’s cheek now.’ We reached Crinan. ‘Precious,’ said Para Mòr, ‘is the foot on dry land;’ the first word that had come out of his head since we passed the mouth of Loch Faochan.
The short ‘storm scene’ is here used to demonstrate the manner in which the ship – hitherto portrayed as a relatively alien creation at odds with the natural world and with Highland customs – actually does conform to some of Nature’s ways, and is subservient to them. Nature still has the upper hand, despite the power of the new steam engine to defy it in certain respects. At the same time, the storm and the ship’s performance give Fionnlagh and Para Mòr the opportunity to take a just revenge on their detractors, represented by the ‘big Englishman’ who so disliked Fionnlagh’s piping. Persons filled with disparagement and hubris meet their match. Again, to judge by Bowman’s account, there may be an element of convention in MacLeod’s description, as Bowman refers to his worries about the ‘contention of the elements’ and the ‘very unpleasant sensation’ on board the Highlander on the way to Staffa.
This theme – the steamship in a storm levelling pompous people who possess, or have assumed, non-Highland affectations – was to be reworked in later Gaelic contexts. Scope for presenting the theme even more dramatically increased with the arrival of larger ships which had to bypass the narrow Crinan Canal, and were forced to go round the Mull of Kintyre, as can be seen in Neil MacLaine’s song on the steamship, the Dunara Castle, built in 1875. Maol Chinntìre – ‘the Highlander’s Cape Horn’ – became synonymous with the ultimate test of human and naval endeavour in the West Highlands.
Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, given its potential for a great deal of ‘fun’ and moral didacticism, MacLeod missed the opportunity to describe the Maid’s passage through the Crinan Canal, with its many inns and ‘flesh pots’ which enticed the weary traveller, much to the delight of later Gaelic poets. Instead, he merely notes the ship’s arrival at Crinan, and passes directly to her docking at the Broomielaw. One veil is pulled down, perhaps to minimise temptation, while another is pulled up, to reveal the dangers of the sinful city.
(5) The Broomielaw
Air an là màireach ràinig sinn Glaschu, àite ris an canar am Broomielaw; b’ e sin ceidhe na h-ùpraid. Luingeas na smùide a’ falbh agus a’ teachd làn sluaigh, mar gum biodh an saoghal a’ dol do Ghlaschu, agus an saoghal a’ teicheadh às. O nach d’fhàs mi bodhar leis a’ ghleadhraich a bha ’m chluasaibh, cha chùram leam gun caill mi mo chlaisteachd tuilleadh. Bha sreath dhaoine (portairean a’ cheidhe) air an tarraing suas fa chomhair nan soithichean le ball cainbe mu ghuala gach aoin diubh, agus bràiste rìomhach air uchd. Bha iad seo a’ smèideadh oirnn mar a bha sinn a’ dol gu tìr, a h-uile beul fosgailte mar gum biodh iad a’ cur fàilte oirnn; gach làmh sìnte, agus gach sùil siùbhlach mar gum biodh iad ag iarraidh luchd-eòlais. Bha aon fhear gu h-àraidh a shocraich a shùil orm fhèin, agus air dhomh amharc air gu geur, a dh’fheuch an cuimhnichinn cò e, chuir e làmh ra aid, agus chrom e cheann cho modhail, shìobhalta, ’s nach b’ urrainn domh gun an fhàilt a fhreagradh; ann am priobadh na sùla bha e air clàr na luinge, agus thog e leis bocsa mo phìoba agus màileid Phara Mhòir, cho èasgaidh ’s a ghlacadh gàidsear Thobar Mhoire buideal uisge-bheatha, gun chuireadh, gun chead. ‘Air d’ athais,’ arsa Para Mòr. ‘An cuala tu riamh, mo ghille math, mar a thuirt Clag Sgàin, “An rud nach buin duit, na buin da”?’ ‘Leanaibh mis’, a dhaoine uaisle,’ ars an duine, agus e falbh ceum romhainn. ‘’S ann sa bhaile mhòr fhèin,’ a deir mis’, ‘a tha ’m modh. Is fhad’ on a chuala mi gum bi gill’ aig an fheannaig fhèin san fhoghar.’ Dh’iarr sinn air e gar toirt gu taigh Eòghainn Oig, far an d’rinn iad ar beatha gu cridheil.
The next day we arrived in Glasgow, [at] a place that they call the Broomielaw; that certainly was the quay of commotion. Steamships going and coming full of people, as if the world were going to Glasgow, and the world escaping from it. Since I did not become deaf with the clamour in my ears, I have no fear that I will lose my hearing ever again. A row of men (dock porters) were drawn up before the vessels with a hemp rope about the shoulder of each of them, and a fancy badge on his chest. They were waving to us as we were going ashore, every mouth open as if they were welcoming us; every hand stretched out as if they were looking for acquaintances. There was one man particularly who settled his eye on myself, and when I looked closely to see if I could recognise him, he raised his hand to his hat, and he bowed his head in such a mannerly, genteel way that I could not but respond to his welcome; in the twinkling of an eye he was on the deck of the ship, and he took away my pipe-box and Para Mòr’s bag as nimbly as the Tobermory gauger would confiscate a cask of whisky, without invitation, without permission. ‘Take it easy,’ said Para Mòr. ‘Have you not heard, my fine lad, what the Bell of Scone said, “The thing that has nothing to do with you, do not take anything to do with it”?’ ‘Follow me, gentlemen,’ said the man, as he took a step ahead of us. ‘It is in the big city,’ I said, ‘that one really finds manners. It is a long time since I first heard the saying that even the hoodie crow itself will have a servant in autumn.’ We asked him to take us to Young Eòghann’s house, where they gave us a hearty welcome.
The description of Glasgow, and particularly of the Broomielaw, offered in this concluding section of Fionnlagh’s letter catches the atmosphere and activity of the famous quay, traditionally thick with people, smoke and steamships. The implied contrast with Fionnlagh’s secluded home area is well made. The reference to Eòghann Og acknowledges the existence of a colony of urban Gaels with local segments, whose members provide a ‘home from home’ for recent Highland immigrants. That is one kind of welcome. Of more significance, however, and much less friendly in tone is the characterisation of the ‘welcoming’ shore porters as exploitative and devious, always on the lookout for ‘innocents’ whom they can waylay. Their practice may have called to mind an even more notorious convention, involving ‘crimps’, whose role is explained as follows by Nicolette Jones:
Crimps were swindlers who would take advantage of the system by which sailors were paid in advance, and would swarm aboard ships as they came into port, collecting sailors’ bags together and taking them off to their lodging houses, where the men had no choice but to follow. By various inducements they would part them from their money and then pass them on, as drunk as it was possible to make them, to any old ship in need of men, in exchange for their advance pay on the grounds that it covered their debts.
A more general picture of Glasgow as the ‘alien other’ and as a city of wily and cunning ‘operators’, preying on rather foolish Highlanders, became a stock backcloth for much humorous Gaelic prose and verse in the later nineteenth century, though the theme had emerged much earlier. The rustic who embarked on bàta na smùid (the steamship), and was subsequently led astray in the city, is featured in such songs as Neil MacLeod’s well-known ‘Turas Dhòmhnaill do Ghlaschu’ (‘Donald’s Trip to Glasgow’), first published as ‘Turas Sheòrais do Ghlaschu’ (‘George’s Trip to Glasgow’) in 1877. There the ‘innocent’ is taken to a drinking-den by an attractive girl, has his pocket picked, fights back, and ends up in court facing imprisonment or a fine. Such writing had a strongly didactic intent, as it was aimed at warning Highlanders of the down side of the great city which also held out prospects of employment.
Fionnlagh Pìobaire rounds off his letter by assuring Mary, his wife, that he will write again, and that she and their children are in his thoughts constantly.
Norman MacLeod’s account of the voyage of Fionnlagh Pìobaire and Para Mòr on the Maid of Morven has more than one aim. It is a very skilfully constructed and well nuanced piece which, in a light-hearted manner, tackles a number of issues of relevance to thoughtful, contemporary Highlanders. It examines, first and foremost, the implications of the introduction of steamships – and the industrial revolution itself – to Highland waters. The piece opens with an expression of playfully hostile sentiments, deriving from ‘ignorance’ about the ship, but these are toned down as the voyage proceeds. Mitigation in favour of the steamship is evident when the storm scene contextualises the ship within the laws of nature, and shows her to be ‘rustic-friendly’. There is an element of ambivalence in the portrayal of the new machinery. MacLeod observes its incongruity, and points up the uncomprehending attitudes of his rustic travellers on their first encounter with this ‘wonder’. In so doing, he may be debating the difficult points with himself, as much as with his readers – cleverly ‘sending up’ the novelties, while pointing out their ingenuity. MacLeod’s general concerns – to the extent of being potential areas of worry – relate to the non-Highland passengers carried by the Maid of Morven and their impact on traditional Highland culture, as well as to the ship’s role in conveying ‘innocent’ Highlanders to the sinful cities.
In describing his Highland travellers’ ‘first encounter’ with the ‘state-of-the art’ Maid of Morven, MacLeod pokes sympathetic fun at ‘defensive’ attitudes which have not changed much since 1829. They are, in truth, articulated by successive generations, as naval architecture reconfigures its designs in response to contemporary demands. Dismissal or disparagement of the ‘newest ship’, expressed in colourful Gaelic, can still be heard on island pierheads. The bluff bows, slab-sides, rectangular ‘funnels’ or side-vents, and navigational ‘greenhouses’ (the modern equivalents of bridges and wheelhouses) of present-day car-ferries are sometimes disparaged by ‘traditionalists’ who feel passionately that they are not ‘real ships’, and that they might merit a touch of MacLeod’s (now ‘politically incorrect’) invective as aigeannaich mhaola ghrànda (‘bluff-bowed, ugly, frolicsome females’). In MacLeod’s time, the sailing-ship, large or small, with white sails and tall masts, set the aesthetic standard; in our own time, the ‘acceptable icons’ are provided by memories of elegant, tall-funnelled, turbine steamships, or motor-vessels with derricks on their foremasts, varnished wheel-houses, clanging telegraphs, stumpy, oval funnels, silver service and cruiser sterns – none of which are found on modern car-ferries, whose shape and schedules appear to have reduced the immensely varied ‘experience’ of earlier days to a flat, consumerised predictability. In time, however, novelty becomes normality.
MacLeod’s account also raises cultural and economic issues which have continued to be debated across the intervening two centuries. As John Eddowes Bowman noted perceptively as early as 1825:
These steam vessels have opened so frequent, so expeditious, and so easy a communication between Glasgow and the whole of the Hebrides and the western coast of Scotland, that they are effecting considerable changes in those remote places.
MacLeod, whose family in Morvern was strongly in favour of introducing the steamship to the region, was fully aware that a powerful new means of propulsion had indeed entered the Highlands, and that its success was inevitable. Highlanders would benefit from it, but it would bring losses as well as gains to the people and their area – loss of dignity (as in the case of the engineer, reduced to the status of a perspiring skivvy, although he is also a Gaelic speaker who has conquered the steam engine), loss of cultural identity, and loss of customs; and new fashions would displace older, acceptable ones. Of course, there was also the danger of contamination by, and potential absorption into, the great cities of the south. The warning about Glasgow is consistent with MacLeod’s ethical objectives in seeking to make Highlanders street-wise before they set out from their native heaths. In short, the Maid of Morven acts, for MacLeod, as a greater symbol of progress and even modernity itself, with all its ambivalent rewards and inherent dangers for those who risk the metaphorical voyage.
What was so apparent to Bowman and to MacLeod became even more evident as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries unfolded. In our own time, the arrival and impact of large car-ferries pose major questions of economic and cultural sustainability. Tourism and its implications for individual regions remain an extremely sensitive matter. As cars cram the vehicle-decks of the present-day (and romantically named) Lord of the Isles (1989) or the Clansman (1998), in readiness for daring safaris on fragile Hebridean roads, we can encounter, hanging over the railings, broadly the same sets of people as MacLeod had observed on the Maid of Morven – but in infinitely greater numbers, and across the social scale.
In encapsulating, at the very outset of the ‘mechanical era’, the long-term effects of steamships and their successors as vehicles of transformation for individual people, as well as for the Highlands and Islands, Norman MacLeod’s lively and detailed Gaelic account of his rustic friends on the Maid of Morven is immensely illuminating, and of lasting significance. The ‘subversive’ element of the account, which appears to satirise conventional narratives like that of J. E. Bowman, and to reverse concepts of the ‘Other’, demonstrates furthermore that the Rev. Norman MacLeod was a Gaelic writer of very considerable sophistication, who was not only aware of contemporary literary genres in English, but also prepared to challenge their assumptions.
Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod’s Gaelic style and his use of proverbial sayings
In constructing his account of the voyage on the Maid of Morven, the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod employed the richly idiomatic form of spoken Gaelic which would have been normal in Morvern and, indeed, in most other parts of Argyll (with appropriate dialectal variation) in the early to mid nineteenth century. To younger Gaelic speakers of the present day, MacLeod’s style may seem ‘formal’ or ‘ornate’, but to those who, like the writer of this article, have been privileged to know speakers of nineteenth-century Argyllshire Gaelic, MacLeod’s idiom, register and language level, as expressed through the mouths of his various characters, are entirely natural. In this context, he does not use ‘Bible Gaelic’ or ‘pulpit Gaelic’, which he uses in other writings; rather, he reproduces standard Gaelic speech. It is no small part of MacLeod’s achievement as a Gaelic writer that he was able to extend the range of standard, spoken Gaelic to embrace contemporary subjects like the steamship.
Such Gaelic made frequent use of proverbial sayings which added colour and depth to conversation. These also acted as unconscious indexes to events and happenings in the past which helped to position the speaker relative to his or her experiences in the present. In the context of the Gaels’ encounter with the modern world, as reflected in such matters as the wearing of trousers, the novelty of the steamship and contact with unfamiliar people and the great city of Glasgow, proverbial sayings offered a feeling of security, by referring to others who had endured similar challenges in a more obviously Highland and Gaelic context. Proverbial sayings also encapsulated moral codes which could be used to assess actions and attitudes in, for example, the Scottish Lowlands, and thus to provide a sense of direction in the face of disorientation and uncertainty and ‘Otherness’.
The proverbial sayings used by MacLeod in this piece are as follows:
(1) Cho sgìth dhith ’s a bha dà bhliadhnach eich den ghad, a’ chiad oidhch’ a chuireadh air e.
As tired of it [the trousers] as the two-year old horse was of the halter, the first night that it was placed on him.
(2) Mar bhò mhaoil am buailidh choimhich.
Like a hornless cow in an alien fold.
(3) Is ceannach air an ubh an gloc.
The cluck advertises what is in the egg.
The cluck advertises what is in the egg.
[The implication is that the bird is showing off, and that the egg does not live up to expectations.]
(4) Is searbh a’ ghlòir nach fhaodar èisdeachd.
It is bitter talk indeed that cannot be listened to.
(5) Is prìseil a’ chas air tìr.
Precious is the foot on dry land.
Precious is the foot on dry land.
(6) Cho èasgaidh ’s a ghlacadh gàidsear Thobar Mhoire buideal uisge-bheatha, gun chuireadh, gun chead.
As nimbly as the Tobermory gauger would confiscate a cask of whisky, without invitation, without permission
(7) Mar a thuirt Clag Sgàin, ‘An rud nach buin duit, na buin da.’
As the Bell of Scone said, ‘The thing that has nothing to do with you, do not take anything to do with it.’
(8) Bidh gill’ aig an fheannaig fhèin san fhoghar.
Even the hoodie crow itself will have a servant in autumn.
[Autumn was a particularly busy time of the Highland year, and rural workers – from the highest to the lowest – needed as much help as they could possibly get.]
It is noticeable that proverbial sayings occur in each of the sections of the narrative as analysed above, and that no less than three (6, 7, 8) are used in the final section, all of them occurring specifically in the description of the encounter with the wily porters of the Broomielaw. Here the sayings act very obviously as a counterbalance to the ‘Otherness’ of the porters and their actions, and their use reinforces the rustics’ own understanding. One may suspect that a story (from the popular genre of tales about gaugers) lies behind saying 6. An element of good humour is evident in all of the sayings. With the exception of saying 6, which belongs to a particular locality, all of the above sayings are well known to the present writer (a native speaker of Tiree Gaelic).
MacLeod’s deployment of proverbial sayings is entirely in keeping with natural Gaelic practice, but, in the encounter with the Maid of Morven and the world which she represents, they form part of the psychological shield with which MacLeod’s rustic friends stand their ground, and gingerly negotiate their way towards acceptance of new inventions and conventions, as well as the ‘Other’ of modernity.
On Gaelic proverbs and their uses, see further Nicholson 1996 and Meek 1978.
It should be noted that, in presenting MacLeod’s Gaelic narrative above, the spelling of the original text has been modernised.
An Gaidheal, 1-72 (1871-77). Toronto and Glasgow.
An Teachdaire Gaelach, 1-24 (1829-1831), W. R. McPhun, Glasgow, 1830.
Atkinson, George C., Expeditions to the Hebrides…in 1831 and 1833, ed. David A. Quine, Waternish, 2001.
Bowman, John E., The Highlands and Islands: A Nineteenth-century Tour, ed. Elaine Barry, Gloucester, 1986.
Duckworth, Christian L. D., and Langmuir, Graham E., West Highland Steamers, fourth edition, Glasgow, 1987.
Durie, Alastair J., Scotland for the Holidays: Tourism in Scotland c. 1780-1939, Edinburgh, 2003.
Gaskill, Howard, ed., The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, Edinburgh, 1996.
Gray, Malcolm, The Highland Economy 1750-1850, Edinburgh and London, 1957.
Howells, Richard, The Myth of the Titanic, Basingstoke, 1999.
Jones, Nicolette, The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea, London, 2006.
Laver, James, A Concise History of Costume, London, 1969.
Maclean-Bristol, Nicholas, Warriors and Priests: The History of the Clan MacLean 1300-1570, Phantassie, 1995.
MacLeod, Norman, Caraid nan Gaidheal: The Friend of the Gael: A Choice Selection of Gaelic Writings, ed. A. Clerk, Edinburgh, 1910.
MacLeod, Norman, Morvern: A Highland Parish, ed. Iain Thornber, Edinburgh, 2002.
MacLeòid, Niall, Clàrsach an Doire: Dàin, Orain agus Sgeulachdan, Glasgow, 1975.
Meek, Donald E. ed., The Campbell Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings, Inverness, 1978.
Meek, Donald E., ed., Caran an t-Saoghail: The Wiles of the World: Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Scottish Gaelic Verse, Edinburgh, 2003.
Meek, Donald E., ‘The Pulpit and the Pen: Clergy, Orality and Print in the Scottish Gaelic World’, in Adam Fox and Daniel Woolf, eds, The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850, Manchester, 2002, 84-118.
Meek, Donald E., ‘The Sublime Gael: The Impact of Macpherson’s Ossian on Literary Creativity and Cultural Perception in Gaelic Scotland’, in The Reception of Ossian in Europe, ed. Howard Gaskill, Bristol, 2004, 40-66.
Meek, Donald E., ‘Smoking, Drinking, Dancing and Singing on the High Seas: Steamships and the Uses of Smùid in Scottish Gaelic’, Scottish Language, 25, Glasgow, 2006, 46-70.
Meek, Donald E., ‘Gaelic Literature in the Nineteenth Century’, in Enlightenment, Britain and Empire (1707-1918): The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, 2, ed. Susan Manning, Ian Brown, Thomas Owen Clancy and Murray Pittock, Edinburgh, 2007, 253-66.
Meek, Donald E., and Dunbar, Rob, ‘John MacLean, the Gaelic Bard’, forthcoming in The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland: The Nineteenth Century, ed. Bill Bell, Edinburgh.
Nicholson, Alexander, ed., A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases, with an introduction by Ian MacDonald, Glasgow, 1996.
Nilsson, Fredrik, ‘“The Floating Republic”: On Performance and Technology in Early Nineteenth-century Scandinavian Politics’, Journal of Folklore Research, 34, 2 (1997), 85-103.
Osborne, Brian D., The Ingenious Mr Bell: A Life of Henry Bell (1767-1830), Pioneer of Steam Navigation, Glendaruel, 2001.
Robins, Nick S., and Meek, Donald E., The Kingdom of MacBrayne: From Steamships to Car-ferries in the West Highlands and Hebrides 1820-2005, Edinburgh, 2006.
Walker, Fred M., Song of the Clyde: A History of Clyde Shipbuilding, Cambridge, 1984.
Williamson, James, The Clyde Passenger Steamer: Its Rise and Progress during the Nineteenth Century, Glasgow, 1904.
My thanks are due to Dr Alasdair Durie, who read the first draft of this article, and made several very helpful suggestions for its improvement. My wife, Dr Rachel Meek, likewise proposed several changes which sharpened the argument. I am particularly grateful to Dr Donald William Stewart, University of Edinburgh, who introduced me to Dr Fredrik Nilsson, University of Lund, when the latter was on sabbatical in Edinburgh in 2003-4, and who supplied me with a copy of Dr Nilsson’s article (1997). I benefited greatly from subsequent conversations with Dr Nilsson. Dr Rob Dunbar, University of Aberdeen, kindly clarified the place of Alexander MacLean of Coll within the succession of the Coll chiefs. Dr Sheila Kidd, University of Glasgow, also read the draft at an early stage, and provided helpful perspectives on MacLeod’s aims in the creation of such narratives. I am very grateful too to Dr Kenneth Veitch for his editorial assistance.
 Durie, 2003, 48-52.
 Robins and Meek, 2006, 9.
 An Teachdaire Gaelach, 5 (1829), 106-108: see also MacLeod, 1910, 263-73.
 Meek, 2007, 257-59.
 Williamson, 1904, 10.
 The first Inverary Castle (built 1814) provided this link; see Williamson, 1904, 27.
 Gray, 1957, 175.
 Osborne, 2001, 139-86.
 Robins and Meek, 2006, 3-18.
 Duckworth and Langmuir, 1987, 213, 221.
 Gaskill, 1996.
 Bowman 1986: 99-100
 Robins and Meek, 2006, 13-16.
 Illustration in Walker, 1984, 18.
 Gaskill, 1996, 120.
 Robins and Meek, 2006, 31.
 Cf. Nilsson, 1997, 95-97.
 Howells, 1999, 79-98.
 See further Robins and Meek, 2006, 218-223. This paragraph is based on the writer’s cursory observation of the diachronic functions of West Highland and Island steamships, as described in surviving accounts, Gaelic and English, and on his experience of later vessels serving the Hebrides. In Scotland hitherto, there has been remarkably little study of the steamship (and its motorised successors) as ‘material space’ or ‘locus of transformation’ or ‘stage’ (in terms of both journey and theatre), and little appreciation or analysis of its role in regional transformation. Instead, there has been an overwhelming tendency to provide detailed accounts of individual vessels and the ‘visible’ histories of companies. The crucial wider contexts of Scottish steamships (as of contemporary car-ferries!) – social, sociological, cultural, economic and political – have remained largely unexplored, mainly because they require to be ‘unlocked’ by means of appropriate scholarly theories and disciplines.
 Bowman, 1986, v.
 Atkinson, 2001.
 Williamson, 1904, 34-43; Robins and Meek, 2006, 48-49, 88-89, 216-7.
 Bowman, 1986, 137.
 Nilsson, 1997, 96, cites lines from a Swedish short story written in 1842, which can be compared with MacLeod’s scene of ‘first encounter’ with the Maid of Morven: ‘You are on board a steamship … the machinery is started, the ship makes a retrograde movement and turns .. Friends on the bank wave with their handkerchiefs and parasols, and the first act of journey on board a steamship is ended. Now you turn your eyes away from the vanishing bank and the surroundings you have left behind you. Instead you focus upon the new society on board; you feel a certain republican freedom, a thought of equality rouses you.’ The form of ‘republican freedom’ experienced by MacLeod’s rustics allows them access to different parts of the ship, a ‘right to roam’, from the ‘inferno’ of the engine-room to the exalted quarter-deck where the ‘better classes’ are accommodated.
 Atkinson, 2001, 114.
 MacLeod, 1910, 263-73.
 Meek, 2004, 53-56.
 Robins and Meek, 2006, 11-12, 109.
 Bowman, 1986, 91-92.
 Bowman, 1986, 92-93, 99.
 As Dr Rob Dunbar informs me, the numbering of Alasdair Ruadh within the Coll succession depends on how the line is initiated, whether from Lachlan MacLean or from Hector Ruadh nan Cath (traditionally regarded as the progenitor). The insertion of Lachlan MacLean increases the line by one chief. The style ‘mac an Abraich’ (‘son of the Lochaber man’) derives from ‘Eoin Abrach’ (‘John of Lochaber), who held lands in Lochaber. See Maclean-Bristol, 1995, 31-34, 164-6, 170-2, 190-3.
 Meek and Dunbar, forthcoming.
 Atkinson, 2001, 102, 116-18.
 MacLeod, 2002, 204.
 MacLeod’s account suggests that the stern or quarter-deck of the Maid of Morven accommodated the ‘better class’, while Fionnlagh and his friends were given the midships section.
 Walker, 1984, 17.
 Bowman, 1986, 101.
 Bowman, 1986, 121.
 The wearing of pantaloons by young girls is generally regarded as being in vogue after 1850: ‘Legs were still supposed to be invisible, and in case of mischance it was customary to wear long line pantaloons edged with lace and sometimes reaching to the ankle. Little girls also wore these pantaloons in spite of the fact that their skirts were comparatively short … The formidable Mrs [Amelia] Bloomer came to England in 1851 to spread her gospel and to try to induce women to adopt her sensible and certainly not unfeminine costume. This consisted of a simplified version of the bodice in vogue, and a fairly ample skirt which reached well below the knee. Underneath it, however, were to be seen baggy trousers reaching to the ankle, usually with a lace frill at the bottom…What might be called the trouser complex came into play’ (Laver, 1969, 178-182). As MacLeod’s writing indicates, such fashions were already evident at least twenty years earlier than 1850.
 Bowman, 1986, 126.
 The role of journals such as Blackwood’s Magazine and the Scots Magazine in publishing narratives of this kind deserves further examination.
 Bowman, 1986, 94.
 Jones, 2006, 21.
 Meek, 2003, 152-9.
 Cf. Meek, 2006.
 MacLeòid, 1975, 87-92.
 An Gaidheal, 66 (1877), 171-73.
 The writer well remembers hearing the pioneering car-ferry, Iona (built 1970), being called ‘an lùireach sin’ (‘that tattered old rag’ – lùireach, ‘old rag’, deriving from the Latin lorica, ‘breast-plate’ ) by an irritated islander in Tiree in the mid-1970s. The supposedly advanced Iona was then having trouble with her hydraulic lift, and indecorous comparisons with earlier vessels were made. Her successor, the Claymore (built 1978), was described by another islander as ‘looking like an inverted toothbrush’.
 Bowman, 1986, 124.
 Cf. Nilsson, 1997, 96: ‘In the mid-nineteenth century [in Scandinavia], the steamboat occupied a prominent symbolic position of change and modernity.’
 Robins and Meek, 2006, 224-30.
 Meek, 2002.