THE GREATEST ERA OF THE GAELS? REASSESSING GAELIC CULTURAL ACHIEVEMENT IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Donald E. Meek
It is, I believe, safe to say that we all carry around in our minds short-hand definitions of individual periods in history. The principle that we employ is to identify the salient event or process in a particular period, and then to define the period in these terms. I think of such labels as ‘The Age of Improvement’ or ‘The Age of Enlightenment’, or ‘The Dark Ages’. The first two labels imply that before such and such a period, there was little or no ‘improvement’ or ‘enlightenment’ worthy of the name. Of course, the terms ‘improvement’ and ‘enlightenment’ are used in a fairly technical way, but their overall effect, when employed in short-hand, thumb-nail encapsulations of that sort, is to ‘spin’ history in certain directions, to load the dice, to close the debate. The last-mentioned label covers several centuries, and implies that we can know very little about the centuries concerned, because of the loss of evidence. The adjective ‘dark’ also has connotations of non-enlightenment, or non-improvement, as if ignorance and barbarity ruled OK throughout the length and breadth of the land. In fact, the evidence is not entirely lost, nor is the period entirely dark – far from it, if we are to judge only by the great legacies of art and sculpture from Britain and Ireland in the early Middle Ages.
Even if we do not go as far as to provide short-hand titles for particular centuries, we can all too easily define our centuries by using what we consider to be their main distinguishing event or process of events. If I were to mention the sixteenth century, for example, many of us would think automatically of the Reformation; the seventeenth century would immediately invoke the Civil Wars; and the eighteenth century would likewise conjure up the Jacobite Rebellions. All of these events or processes undoubtedly were significant, but they were assuredly not the whole story of these periods. These happenings made an impact on Scotland and, specifically, the Scottish Highlands and Islands. If we were to move into the nineteenth century, the evidence might become a little more arguable, but it would nevertheless remain hostage to short-hand characterisation. For some, the century might be the ‘Age of Industry’, with the so-called ‘Industrial Revolution’ (another misnomer, perhaps?) driving it along; for others, it might be the ‘Age of Education’; for still others, it might be the ‘The Age of Dispersal’; and, for those looking at the harsher processes of social change that swept different parts of Britain in the context of industry, education and reconstruction, it might become simply the ‘Age of the Clearances’. This last dimension of the nineteenth century – the dislocation of the people by adverse forces – would certainly fit the popular perception of the period as it unfolded in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Few stop to consider what the word ‘clearance’ actually meant or means; and, as a result, other processes, other factors in motivating and in moving the people, including self-determination, are swept away, obscured, or relegated to the margins of active consideration. Indeed, it can be said that, in characterising the nineteenth century in the Highlands and Islands as, broadly, the period of the so-called ‘Highland Clearances’, that is exactly what happens. Thought and reflection are, at worst, disengaged in favour of the popular shibboleth, the short-cut, identikit image of a dispirited and dejected people.
‘Going with the flow’ in this way can affect professional and analytical approaches too in all sorts of subtle ways. Looking across the years, I can see that my own output of essays and edited collections of Gaelic verse has been shaped sub-consciously, if not wilfully, to some considerable extent by the ‘clearance and revival paradigm’ of Highland history. So let me hang first, if we are to have a hanging! More recently, however, I have tried to make amends, and I have made a very determined effort – which I will endeavour to supplement in this lecture – to ensure that a balanced perception of the nineteenth century is made available. If I move away from my own work, I find it fascinating that most of the historical studies of the nineteenth century Highlands have also focused on the ‘Clearances’ and their consequences. I think of the massive and important work of my good friend, Professor Eric Richards, for example, as representing the high-water mark of fine writing on the theme of clearing and social dislocation in the Highlands and Islands. The theme is explored further, but with a brighter and more resilient approach, in the context of the Land Agitation which began to affect certain parts of the Highlands and Islands from the 1870s, and led to the passing of the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act of 1886. Historians such as Professor James Hunter, Professor Tom Devine, Dr Ewen Cameron and the Rev. Dr Alan MacColl have contributed greatly to our understanding of the Land Agitation, with some significant degrees of revision and reinterpretation beyond the original Hunter thesis.
I mention the word ‘revision’ with some trepidation, because it has come to be associated with a deliberately iconoclastic approach to the ‘nostra’ and the shibboleths and the received wisdoms of our time. Even I have been called a ‘revisionist’ – something that I find very odd – and I have been called an ‘irascible uncle’ too, when I have attempted to set the record straight in other areas. I have not taken to denying the ‘Clearances’ or to any such crimes, because the evidence stands. I am not trying to rewrite history in any misleading way; so there is no need to arrest me when I next come off the Clansman at Oban. I have certainly found it necessary to revise my views, and to present revisions of earlier positions, but at no time have I set out to be deliberately provocative. My concern has been, and remains, to uncover evidence which has been hitherto hidden or ‘off limits’, often because it is in Gaelic, and often too because some of us, even those of us with Gaelic, have been so mesmerised by dominant interpretations, or so seriously detained by much less worthy academic diversions, that we have not had time to do justice to it. The Gaels, in fact, have left a very sizeable body of evidence in their own language, in journals, periodicals and books, as well as in manuscripts. The prevalent notion that the Gaels could not read or write prior to 1872 is yet another of the indefensible misunderstandings in which we are all too frequently, and sometimes quite contentedly, trapped. And we should note also that the surviving evidence encompasses the oral record too, with a great deal of commentary on the processes of the later nineteenth century, for example, by those who did what we have not done and can never do, namely, live through the events and experiences that shaped that era. Some survived to tell the tale until the 1960s and 1970s, and I knew several at first hand.
The result of over-concentration on the ‘clearance paradigm’ of Highland history is that just about everything is cleared, at least in the minds of those who cannot see, or perhaps read, the achievements of the nineteenth century. The Gaels are perceived as weaklings, driven away from their lands; they do not respond to the events of their time; they have few leaders of note; they cannot read or write; they do not write about scientific subjects in Gaelic; they have few, if any, books; and those who have some sort of residual ember in their hearts produce poor song, filled with romantic yearnings for a never-never land, a Shangri La, an arcadia over the mountains. Within such a paradigm, we hear little or nothing about the Gaels who negotiated change; the Gaels who provided leadership, at home and abroad; the Gaels who put Gaelic education on a sure foundation; the Gaels who created printing-presses which survived for over a century; the Gaels who invested in industrial developments, particularly in shipping, and shaped Scotland, and even Britain and its Empire; the Gaels who defined cultural policy as a result of their coming together in urban environments such as that of London; the Gaels who stayed on their crofts and enjoyed life as much as they could, composing songs and poetry, narrating tales and traditions, and passing their language and culture effortlessly to the next generation – in short, the Gaels who made us what we are today. From time to time, we are made aware that such may have existed, but their contribution has somehow been overshadowed by the grim spectre of the ‘Clearances’ and the ‘disappeared’.
So…let’s think the unthinkable for a minute, and imagine that social displacement from the Highlands to the Lowlands and beyond may have had some useful consequences. In broad terms, let us imagine that leaving one’s homeland and entering a different culture could be beneficial, once the initial discomfort had passed; let’s consider that new worlds could be conquered, in more ways than one, and new centres of energy created; let’s envisage an invigorating era in which revolutionary technology could be applied as readily to the enhancement of Gaelic as it could to the enhancement of English; let’s consider that culture could be strengthened in the midst of social and industrial upheaval; let’s imagine that Gaels themselves could be the leaders in such development; and let’s look for some evidence that might support such propositions.
In the remainder of this lecture, I would like to present such evidence under the broader headings of (1) Strategy, politics and debate; (2) Publishing and printing; (3) Prose and verse; and (4) Scholarship and folklore collecting. Here I will attempt to offer a first look at the ‘alternative big picture’, which deserves to be treated in a full-size book, but which will be presented here with a ‘broad brush’. The evidence that I present will be derived not only from my own enquiries, but also from projects by PhD students and post-doctoral workers, which have been initiated in the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies since I arrived in Edinburgh for my second tour of duty in 2002. It seems entirely appropriate that, in this Valedictory Lecture, I should offer a view not only of the nineteenth century, but also of the exciting advances in relevant research which have occurred during my time in one section of the University, and in which I have participated at various levels.
In terms of general background, there is one dimension above all others which characterises the nineteenth century for the Gaels, as for the entirety of Britain. This, as Thomas Carlyle noted, was the ‘Age of the Machine’. The arrival of machine technology revolutionised many of the basic ways of seeing, and interacting with, the world. The machine redrew the demographic map of Britain, setting up new centres of industrial energy, which then attracted migrant populations. The machine provided means of travel to and from these centres, by steamship and by steam train. The machine facilitated the production of endless artefacts, including books and journals and newspapers, and aided their distribution. We could go on in that vein. Let us, however, note merely two further matters of wider significance to our general theme. The first is that the machine led to the creation of what could be termed ‘new communities’ of workers, centred on the machine, caring for it and ensuring its efficiency, and, of course, its productivity. The second is that the record shows quite clearly that Gaels were as much to the fore as any others in these ‘new communities’.
The concept of kin and family was, in effect, refashioned or extended in this context, with the emergence of new dynasties, with new skills, connected (at the top of the social ladder) by wealth and patronage based on that wealth, and (further down the social ladder) by wages derived from the application of technology. Networks, as we would call them today, began to appear in various guises and contexts. If I were to mention the name of David MacBrayne, for example, most present would recognise it, not only as a favourite theme of my own, but also as that of a world-famous shipping magnate who developed Highland and Hebridean maritime communications from 1879. David MacBrayne’s grandfather was a Gaelic speaker from the Lochgilphead area of Argyll, who moved to Glasgow and became a merchant. The MacBraynes are an excellent example of the Gaels who took up mercantile ventures, and prospered, and helped others to do so. Again, if I were to mention Sir William MacKinnon of Balinakill, in Kintyre, he would be known to some of us as a major donor to Edinburgh University Library; but to me he is known first and foremost as the founder of the British India Steam Navigation Company, one of the greatest shipping companies of the Age of Empire. If we look at the evidence for Gaels in the employ of such men, and their role at the heart of new communities, we need go no further than the Census Returns for 1881, and take a look at the ships in Highland and Hebridean harbours on the census date – ship after ship crewed by a majority of Highlanders and Islanders, alongside a minority of Lowlanders, Irishmen and continental Europeans, brought together by the servicing of the machine – in this case, the steamship. This point applies to virtually every aspect of the evidence that I now wish to assemble.
(1) Strategy, politics and debate: Dispersal of Gaels to the cities of Scotland and England was a very important catalyst in the creation of strategy for the Highlands and Islands. Relocation to the cities – the ‘energy centres’ of modern Britain, with machines and industry in abundance – meant that Gaels sought new ways of retaining and encouraging their Gaelic interests, and this quickly led to a symbiotic relationship between urban Gaels and Lowlanders, and also with those Gaels who remained in the Highlands. ‘Intellectual kindreds’ were formed, as well as, or in tandem with, kindreds based on Highland territorialism. These ‘intellectual kindreds’ might well be classified as ‘networks’ nowadays.
No better example of the Gaels’ achievement in the urban context can be found than the work of the Highland Society of London, and the Gaelic Society of London. London appears to have attracted Gaels of considerable intellectual and political power who were willing and able to commit themselves to the improvement of conditions in their homeland. In her Edinburgh PhD thesis of 2005, which I had the privilege of supervising jointly with Professor William Gillies, Dr Janice Fairney has provided an extremely important overview of both societies, and their contribution to Gaelic culture. The Highland Society of London, established in 1778, was more obviously concerned with ‘improvement’, and took to do with such matters as the preservation of piping, the development of fisheries, and the revision of the Excise Act. For our purposes, its particular significance lies in its call, as far back as 1786, for the creation of a Gaelic Professorship in one of Scotland’s universities, with Edinburgh in its sights. It continued to make the case for the Gaelic Professorship, and the call was taken up by the Highland Society of Scotland, and more notably by the Gaelic Society of London. Eventually, thanks to the catalytic effect of Professor John Stuart Blackie on home turf, Edinburgh established its Chair of Celtic in 1882, almost a century after it was first proposed in London.
The Gaelic Society of London, founded in 1830, had a considerable influence on the course of events in the Highlands. Although it was mainly a literary society, it strongly encouraged Gaelic education in the schools, and held regular debates and lectures. It was prepared to lobby MPs as required, to institute enquiries into education, and to provide finance. It formed a close relationship with those politicians who espoused the crofters’ cause in the late nineteenth century, among them Dr Roderick MacDonald, MP. Through migration from the Highlands and Islands to London, Gaels established a bridgehead, so to speak, in the corridors of power, even in the Palace of Westminster itself, and used their opportunities well for the improvement of their homeland.
The Highland and Gaelic Societies of London, by virtue of their position in the British capital, commanded a position of power which could not be matched by similar associations in Scotland’s cities. Nevertheless, the nineteenth century witnessed the creation of numerous societies in Scottish towns and cities, which promoted Gaelic cultural interests, and continue to do so to the present, among them the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, and the Gaelic Society of Inverness. Migration to the Scottish cities provided platforms in every sense for the improvement of conditions for Gaels at home. Energy existed in the cities, and, in that context, many Gaels were prepared to roll up their sleeves in order to provide leadership and labour on behalf of their culture.
(2) Printing and publishing: If London illustrates the interaction between migrant Gaels and cultural politics, with some very considerable achievements to its credit, we could, I think, claim that Glasgow illustrates a similar interaction between Gaels and industry, for the greater good of the Gaelic world. Gaels found employment in the industrial cities, in the cotton factories, the iron foundries, the shipyards, the railways, the utilities, the police forces, and so on. The extent of that interaction remains to be explored in full, but the record, both prose and verse, shows that they did so with vigour and considerable skill. Gaels also took hold of industrial enterprise and shaped it to meet their own needs. This is most evident in printing and publishing, a theme which I was compelled to investigate when I co-operated with Dr Bill Bell in the creation of the third volume of the Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland.
As with several major developments in the nineteenth century, the origins of Gaelic printing and publishing are earlier than 1800. Edinburgh and Glasgow provided printing facilities for Gaelic books prior to 1800, and Edinburgh, particularly through the output of MacLachlan & Stewart, led the field until the mid-nineteenth century or thereabouts. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did the balance begin to alter in favour of Glasgow as the principal producer of Gaelic printed books. It did so very largely because of the contribution of Archibald Sinclair, a native of Mulindry in Islay, who set up a printing press in Glasgow in 1848. Archibald Sinclair, who was forced to leave Islay because of difficult economic circumstances, is an excellent example of the displaced Gael who turn adversity to advantage in the wider cause of Gaelic culture. Archibald Sinclair was succeeded in the business by his son and grandson, both named Archibald, and the business, generally known as the Celtic Press, continued to function until 1951. At that point it was taken over by Alexander MacLaren, whose business in its turn was taken over in 1970 by the Gaelic magazine, Gairm, which functioned from 1952 to 2002. There is therefore a direct link between a displaced Islayman of the mid-nineteenth century, and late-twentieth century Gaelic publishing in Glasgow.
The Sinclairs are important not only as printers and publishers – in industrial terms they were experts in hot-metal and letter-press printing – but also as diversifiers of Gaelic literary output. Gaelic publishing in the nineteenth century was overwhelmingly religious, with some significant early-century collections of poetry. MacLachlan & Stewart specialised in what I have called rather wryly ‘puritanism and pedagogy’, but the Sinclairs pushed the boundaries in every respect, producing collections of secular song, stories, translations, political pamphlets, and so on. In this they both recognised and developed the changing tastes of Gaelic readers, who, having been brought up on a very strictly religious diet at home, were beginning to broaden their literary horizons quite markedly in an industrial environment.
(3) Prose and verse: Noteworthy advances towards the provision of a less religious selection of Gaelic reading material were being made from the early 1820s, and in this too industrial developments played their part. The most important contributors were Gaelic-speaking clergymen who had moved from the Highlands and Islands to Lowland charges, and of these the best known was the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod, ‘Caraid nan Gàidheal’ (‘The Friend of the Gaels’). MacLeod realised the value of nurturing the emerging Gaelic readership on a varied diet of religious and secular reading, and combined both in various ways, using the periodical as his literary vehicle. He began to write quite deliberately for the printed medium, but, as another Edinburgh graduate, Dr Sheila Kidd, now lecturing at the Department of Celtic at the University of Glasgow, has amply demonstrated, he owed a considerable debt to well-established oral templates. The original publishers of MacLeod’s journals were W. R. McPhun of Glasgow, and William Blackwood of Edinburgh, and these Gaelic ventures, which spanned (broadly) the years between 1829 and 1843, appeared when journals in English were being developed as literary media in Britain. Through these Gaelic journals, a tradition of printed Gaelic prose, a good part of it non-religious, was established. That, in itself, was one of the greatest achievements of the nineteenth century.
One of the many questions which arises in this context is to what extent the writing in these Gaelic journals reflected the world of the time. I found myself considering that topic when examining the development of steamships in Scotland. I turned to one of the essays of the Rev. Norman MacLeod, which was published in his journal, An Teachdaire Gaelach, in 1829, and described a journey by a small group of Highlanders on board the new-fangled steamship, Maid of Morven, from Morvern to Glasgow. The more I examined the piece, the more astonished I was by its sophistication and clever symbolism. MacLeod, so often seen as a staid establishment figure and a ‘politically correct’ cleric, was interacting with, and satirising, the literary genres of his time published in English. He had obviously become weary of the travellers’ accounts of the previous decade or so, with their often pompous ‘take’ on the Ossianic Highlands, and he decided to subvert them by putting rustic Highlanders, rather than snooty Englishmen, at the centre of the story. I have published my analysis in the Review of Scottish Culture, vol. 20 (2008).
One point which struck me after I had published my article was the fact that MacLeod had anticipated by some 70 years one of the themes explored, in a similarly symbolic mode, by Thomas Hardy, namely the effect of the machine on rural rhythms and lifestyles. In his Gaelic account, MacLeod draws attention to the engine of the ship and the engineer, who is a Gaelic speaker, but who has been cooped up by the engine. The rustic Highlanders who visit his domain on board ship cannot understand what he is trying to tell them about the engine.
‘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.’
‘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.’
In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, first published in 1891, Hardy provides a cleverly nuanced account of a threshing machine, and its effect on Tess and the harvesters, and he draws particular attention to the engineer:
A little way off there was another distinct figure; this one black, with a sustained hiss that spoke of strength very much in reserve. The long chimney running up the ash-tree, and the warmth which radiated from the spot, explained without the necessity of much daylight that here was the engine which was to act as the primum mobile of this little world. By the engine stood a dark motionless being, a sooty and grimy embodiment of tallness, in a sort of trance, with a heap of coals by his side; it was the engine-man….What he looked he felt. He was in the agricultural world, but not of it. He served fire and smoke; these denizens of the fields served vegetation, weather, frost and sun.
It is worth noting that some of the very earliest prose descriptions of steamboats and steam trains in Scotland are to be found in Gaelic, written by Norman MacLeod. Journals, of course, continued to be published throughout the nineteenth century – with longer and shorter lives – and these made an enormous contribution to Gaelic literature – and also to language. The Gaelic linguistic register was extended, expanded, and pushed into new areas as Gaels confronted machines and industry, and harnessed them for themselves, or came to terms with them.
As with prose, so with poetry, song and verse. The nineteenth century forced Gaelic song into new subjects, embracing steamships and steam engines, the thrills and spills of cities, with the attendant need for new terms of expression. Song and verse were applied to express the emotions generated by clearance, social change and dislocation, but also to highly experimental attempts to recreate epic historical encounters, celebrate the lives of ministers, collectors and scholars, and even traditional clan chiefs. The changing world of the clan chief in the early nineteenth century, with the gradual infiltration of Lowland ways, and the accompanying challenges to the role of the poet, are detectable in the song and verse of my fellow-islander, John MacLean, Poet to the Laird of Coll, whose output was studied in detail by Dr Rob Dunbar in his fine 2007 Ph.D. thesis, supervised by Professor Gillies and myself.
(4) Scholarship and folklore collecting: John MacLean, as well as being a poet, was a collector of song. He was a man of his time, not a relic from a bygone age. The nineteenth century was pre-eminently the period in which Gaelic scholarship and folklore collecting emerged in forms which we would recognise today as the forerunners of the disciplines still conducted in the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies at Edinburgh, and in the corresponding Celtic Department of Glasgow and the section in Aberdeen. These important advances were, in part, driven by a recognition of gaps in the record (as in the case of John MacLean), but also by the needs of the newly literate Gaels for whom Norman MacLeod compiled his journals. There were other developments too, which drove educational initiatives. The translation of the Bible into Scottish Gaelic was completed in 1801, and published in Edinburgh, and in 1807 the Highland Society of London published the Gaelic versions of James Macpherson’s Ossian.
These salient literary events, which owed a great deal (once again) to Gaels in the cities, led directly to the compilation of a significant number of dictionaries and glossaries. These have been studied by Ms Lorna Pike in 2003-4, in the course of a project to establish a new Gaelic dictionary project on historical principles – an inter-university enterprise funded at various stages by the Gaelic Language Promotion Trust, the Carnegie Trust, the Leverhulme Trust, and Bòrd na Gàidhlig. Lexicography, including a major dictionary of 1831 carrying the names of the aforementioned Norman MacLeod and Daniel Dewar, became a significant strand in Gaelic scholarship until the end of the nineteenth century, reaching its pre-1900 high-water mark with the publication of Alexander MacBain’s Etymological Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic in 1896.
Alexander MacBain, a native of Badenoch and the Headmaster of Raining’s School in Inverness, represented a new breed of Gaelic scholars who came to power in the second half of the nineteenth century, and swept out the hoary Ossianic speculation of the preceding fifty years. The operating principles of the new scholars, whose pioneers included the Revs John Kennedy and John Cameron, both Free Church ministers, were based on the methods of German scholars who had expounded the pedigree of the Celtic family of languages. Professor Donald MacKinnon, the first occupant of the Chair of Celtic at Edinburgh when appointed in 1882, also represented this stream of scholarship. MacKinnon had a deep interest in lexicography, but he was also among the earliest scholars to attempt a definition of the hallmarks of the Gaelic people, based on the evidence of their proverbs, and he had an immense knowledge of Gaelic tradition in the round. For the next thirty years, MacKinnon was the presiding genius in Gaelic and Celtic studies in Scotland, gathering round him a circle of enthusiastic men of letters – poets, prose-writers and folklore collectors – and ensuring that Edinburgh became synonymous with the best scholarship in the field. Among the beneficiaries of his support were, for example, the outstandingly original and avowedly ‘modern’ writer of Gaelic prose, Donald MacKechnie, an ‘exiled Gael’ from Jura, and the folklore collector, Alexander Carmichael.
An interest in collecting traditional material, centring on Gaelic tales, had developed in the first half of the nineteenth century, spearheaded by John Francis Campbell of Islay, whose Popular Tales of the West Highlands in four volumes was published between 1860 and 1862. Campbell employed a number of different collectors when gathering his tales, including Alexander Carmichael, best known today as the compiler of the first two volumes of Carmina Gadelica, published in 1900. Carmichael was, of course, an exciseman, and collected most of his material when stationed in Skye and the Outer Hebrides in the second half of the nineteenth century. His vast compendium of material, which eventually furnished another four volumes of Carmina Gadelica, is currently the subject of a major ground-breaking project, run jointly by Edinburgh University Library and the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, which has proved to be extremely productive and is awaiting funding for its third stage. Already the project has produced a major volume of essays, edited by Dr Donald William Stewart, Gaelic Researcher for the project, who was described recently as ‘the outstanding Carmichael scholar of our time’.
Campbell and Carmichael were far from being the only major workers in this field, and I would like to conclude this section by referring to a very important lady – a real lady, if you like – Lady Evelyn Stewart Murray. Lady Evelyn, from Blair Castle, who was encouraged by Professor MacKinnon, recorded a splendid collection of Gaelic tales from Highland Perthshire in the early 1890s. These have now been edited by Tony Dilworth and Sylvia Robertson, under my guidance, and form a sumptuous volume which will soon be published by the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society.
That, then, is my ‘broad brush’ picture of the nineteenth century – painted in brighter colours than usual. As you will appreciate, I myself have had my eyes opened to the dynamism and productivity of this remarkable era. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of researchers at the University of Edinburgh, and specifically in the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, I have been given a grandstand view of its unfolding riches – and the chest is not yet empty, believe me.
This lecture has been entitled somewhat provocatively, ‘The Greatest Era of the Gaels’ – with a question mark. Could this title ever be applied fairly to the nineteenth century? Could it replace ‘The Age of the Clearances’? My own response is that it could, if we consider the cultural achievements of the period, as I have tried to do this evening. It may not cover every aspect of the century, but it certainly fits the emerging cultural profile.
In my view, Gaelic cultural achievements in the nineteenth century were quite outstanding, in their depth and breadth and in their foundational roles – foundational, that is, for everything that followed in the intellectual and cultural realm. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been the beneficiaries of the Gaelic enterprise of the nineteenth century. Such enterprise came about because those Gaels who remained in Scotland, but who had migrated to the Lowlands, as well as those who had gone further afield (for example, to London), were able to harness the benefits bestowed unquestionably by the redistribution of the Gaelic people, and their implanting in ‘centres of energy’, as I have called them. The cities and migration and industry – and the grasping of opportunity – are central to it all.
Despite the emigration of many Highlanders and the contradictory and sometimes destructive forces at work, nineteenth-century Gaels seem to me to have been empowered with a remarkable cultural vitality which has not been matched since 1900, and it is all the more noteworthy because of adverse social circumstances.
Here’s to the nineteenth century, and to those who laboured in it. May we – and particularly you! – in the twenty-first century go and do likewise!