Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Gaelic verse and song: Gaelic township bards


Donald E. Meek

It gives me great pleasure to deliver this lecture to the Gaelic Society of Inverness [in 1995].  I am especially pleased to give my lecture in Balnain House, which offers a fitting venue for a paper which aims to explore a field which, in its living form, combines both poetry and music.  This will be the sixth occasion on which I have addressed the Society.  I read my very first paper here in Inverness exactly twenty years ago, and I am very grateful indeed for the opportunities which I have been given by this Highland institution to explore, over the years, different aspects of Gaelic tradition.

Looking over the topics of my previous lectures, I am aware that on three occasions I have talked about the importance of Gaelic ‘poetry’, and in two of these I have been concerned to demonstrate the significance of traditional Gaelic poetry – more accurately ‘song’ – in understanding different aspects of historical processes in the Highlands and Islands in the nineteenth century.  I have always taken the view that Gaelic poetry/song is a source of great value in providing a picture of the life and work of Gaelic communities in Scotland and beyond.  This evening I wish to expand somewhat on my customary theme, and to talk more generally about a very important dimension of traditional Gaelic verse, namely that composed in the various townships and communities of the Highlands and Islands by bards who were highly esteemed in their individual localities, but who have not yet achieved the status which is due to them in the wider world of Gaelic literature and scholarship.


Approaches of scholars and editors

Township verse was probably composed by many bards across many generations in the Highlands and Islands. It is one of our best and most durable products within the Scottish Gaelic oral and literary traditions.  Yet it seems to me that it has been seriously neglected by academic scholars in the course of this century.

There are various reasons for such neglect.  The first reason I would offer is that there has been a general tendency on the part of the academic community to concentrate on more specialised topics of research; to look at the minutiae of language and linguistic function, rather than at the products of language, or at those artefacts which have been created using Gaelic as a medium of expression.  Literature, all too often, has been the quarry for linguistic exemplification.

Again, Gaelic literature, and more particularly the literature produced in Gaelic communities, has been undervalued as a source of information, perhaps because it belongs to a group who are more often spoken and written about, than offered the chance to express their own views, as they do through verse.  The slant of Gaelic scholarship tends to lie away from the Gaelic communities themselves.

The second reason for the neglect of Gaelic township verse is that, where standards of literary criticism have been applied, township verse has been relegated to a rather lowly position in comparison with other more exalted forms of verse - the fine products of the eighteenth century, on the one hand, and the modern poetry of the twentieth century on the other.  Modern literary critics who have commented on Gaelic poetry of this kind have dubbed it 'village verse' and its creators have often been called 'village bards'.  The use of the term 'village' has been a little unfortunate in several respects; for one thing, many districts of the Highlands and Islands where such poetry flourished have had few, if any, villages, and the poetry has been composed in the context of communities and townships.  More seriously, however, the use of the term 'village' sets up an implied contrast with the 'city' and with 'urban' values.  Those who have been the most influential literary critics within the Gaelic world have tended to be the purveyors of critical standards which have been formed by the world beyond the Highlands, and there is a tendency on the part of some to apply these values to Gaelic song and verse in such a way that what is traditional and local is somehow seen to be inferior to what is produced in the minds of those who dwell in the metropolis.

Modern Gaelic literary criticism has also been inclined to focus attention on the quality of individual items of verse, and the canon, or profile, of the poets as performers has been given less prominence. On the basis of the quality of their verse, 'village bards' are perceived as the 'poor relations' of the eighteenth-century poets and the twentieth-century modern poets; as a result, they are put in a kind of Gaelic 'kailyard' which does not have the exotic plants of the earlier or later centuries.  'Village bards' are often seen as lacking in originality, or lacking in power, compared with the greater poets; it can, I think, be conceded that there is a degree of inevitability in the themes that are pursued, but that does not rule out originality in the use of language, idiom, and expression.  Some 'village bards' have great skills in language; others are, of course, much less impressive, and we must be wary of giving them accolades simply because they belong to the 'ordinary people'.

It must also be said, however, that the type of poet which we are discussing is difficult to define in clear and simple terms. The term 'township bard', which I have used rather than 'village bard', is itself misleading.  It is tied to its own set of preconceptions, and would tend to relate the poets to the crofting townships of the period after 1800, when, in fact, it would seem that poetry of this kind was composed long before the process of allocating crofts began in the Highlands.  Perhaps we should think of a term like 'locality bard', rather than 'township bard'.  As I will argue later in this paper, it is probably misleading to think rather narrowly of a class of poet who is a 'village bard' or a 'township bard'; the evidence tends to suggest that the craft, so to speak, was broader than that, and that it was adaptable across time and place.  Certainly, the perception that people in the Highlands and Islands had of the poet remained the same; what changed, and brought changes in the poet's functions, was the audience and the context – the community, if you like.  Poets could migrate to the Lowland cities, or much farther afield, as they often did, and their gifts as 'township bards' would be developed in the urban context, in Pollokshaws or in Pretoria.

It is worth noting, by way of comparison, that the counterpart of the township bard or locality poet of Gaelic Scotland is known in Ireland and Wales.  I am not aware that the Irish have a particular term for him.  In Wales, however, a poet of this kind is called bardd gwlad, 'poet of the rural area' or 'country poet'.  Again, one tends to run into the distinction between the town and the country, which is not in my view particularly helpful.  Welsh scholars have voiced their own concerns about the problems of definition, in much the same way as I am doing now with regard to the 'township bard'.

The terminology used by the critics, then, has not done justice to the role or function of the 'township bard’;  indeed, it has tended to create difficulty in accommodating the 'township bard' into the wider frame of reference. Pigeon-holing has brought negative connotations, and this has led to some disparagement of the poets’ role.  Poets of larger status such as Seonaidh Phàdraig, otherwise known as John Smith from Lewis, the Iarsiadar Bard, are set apart from the others, even though much of their verse lies within the tradition of the 'township bard'.

A further reason for the distortion of the image of such poets is the piecemeal and individualistic manner in which the collecting and editing of Gaelic poetry and song has been conducted over the years.  The works of the poets have usually been gathered by individual collectors who have then worked faithfully to edit the songs concerned.  There has not been, to my knowledge, any specific attempt to gather Gaelic poetry of the various periods in Gaelic literary history, and there has been no consistently sustained project to provide editions of texts.  The result has been a certain unevenness in the texture of what survives.   Most notably lacking has been commentary on the functions of the poets whose work has been collected, leaving us with only the songs and very little of the context for which they were composed. As a result, we have lost a great deal of evidence which would almost certainly permit us to achieve a better appreciation of the role of the poet in its proper context in the Highlands and Islands.

Although we lack perspectives on the poets' craft, we do have a large number of gatherings of verse by individual poets, and these are of great importance.  Several date from the second half of the nineteenth century, and a large number have been produced by modern publishers such as Gairm Publications, which have given singular service in this respect.  Individual gatherings, particularly those from our own time, form the corner-stone of our understanding of the tradition as a whole. So far, however, we do not have any general anthology of Gaelic township verse, although we do have collections of considerable importance. The most substantial anthologies of the verse that I have in mind were compiled before 1950, and tend to represent particular localities; I am thinking here of such collections as Bàrdachd Leòdhais (1916) and Na Bàird Thirisdeach (1932). Other wide-ranging, such as The Poetry of Badenoch, edited by the Rev. Thomas Sinton, also come within this category.

Existing editions and texts are a sample of what the tradition was like; they do not cover all of it, and much more remains to be recovered, even from the living tradition of the present day.  Earlier reservoirs exist to be tapped. A scan through nineteenth-century newspapers, for example, shows that there were many township poets who were active in that period, and enjoyed the patronage of the newspapers.  A good example of the recovery work that can be done here is the series of talks and articles produced by the Secretary of this society, Mr Hugh Barron, whose diligence in recovering song and verse has been remarkable over the years.  One excellent illustration of this is the selection of songs by the Glenurquhart bard, Ewan Macdonald (Eoghann Shìm).  Such gathering reminds us of the riches of tradition which were current in areas which are now no longer Gaelic-speaking.  Songs often preserve for us not only the voice of former poets, but distinctive dimensions of community life which made mainland communities different from those in the islands.  Any future survey of work would take these dimensions into account.

My aim this evening is not to produce a comprehensive survey of all township bards in the Highlands and Islands; I think that it would be rather ambitious to attempt such a survey at this point, especially in the context of a single hour.  My aim, in the remainder of this paper, is to raise issues that still need to be addressed about the roles and functions of the Gaelic township bards, and especially the origins of such poets.  It would be my hope that my paper will provide a starting-point for a project aimed at re-assessing township poetry, its origins and development.

Poet and community

In seeking to assess the role and function of the township bard, the all-important dimension that needs to be recovered is the poet and his songs in relation to his community.  Although township bards did express personal and personalised sentiments (for example, their experiences in love), they often aimed to express ideas which would be understood and appreciated within their communities.  They articulated not only their own perspectives and feelings, but also, as appropriate, the corporate perception of the community.  Thus, the well known song, 'Manitoba', composed by the Tiree bard, John MacLean of Balemartin, in 1878 when a group of islanders were emigrating, expressed not only his own sorrow, but also that of the community.  In many ways, it is more important to consider the work of the township bard in relation to the community and its needs, than to apply standards of modern literary criticism which may not always be relevant.    The rich theme of the craft, purpose, and performance of the township poet is only now being opened for discussion, notably in the recent Ph.D. thesis by Dr Thomas McKean, who has analysed the work of the Skye poet, Iain MacNeacail, otherwise known as 'An Sgiobair'.  Dr MacKean's work is exemplary in that he has spent time with the 'Sgiobair', getting to know the context in which he composed his poems.

It is interesting to note that the importance of the poet's relationship to the community has been emphasised with regard to the Welsh bardd gwlad.  The eminent Welsh critic, Saunders Lewis, writing in 1939, defined the role of the 'country poet' or 'folk poet' as follows:

'The folk poet was a craftsman or farmer who followed his occupation in the area where he was born, who knew all the people in the neighbourhood and who could trace their family connections, who also knew the dialect of his native heath, and every story, event and omen, and who used the traditional social gift of poetry to console a bereaved family, to contribute to the jollifications at a wedding feast, or to record a contretemps with lightly malicious satire.  His talent was a normal part of the propriety and entertainment of the Welsh rural society, chronicling its happenings, adorning its walls and its tombstones, recording its characters, its events, its sadness and its joy.  It was a craft; the metres, the vocabulary, the praise and words of courtesy were traditional.  It was not expected that it should be different from its kind.  It was sufficient that it appropriately followed the pattern.'

With some obvious adjustments, this assessment could apply to the profiles of Gaelic township bards.  I would also add that a major comparative study could be attempted of the roles and functions of the Gaelic township bard and his Welsh (and Irish) counterparts.

Background to the Township Bard

In examining the background to the Gaelic township bard, it is useful to remind ourselves that the verse produced by such a poet usually covered certain well-defined themes.  That is what I mean by the term 'profile' - or, to put it another way, the township bard normally had a portfolio of verse which was distinctive.  His (sometimes ‘her’) output would include poems in praise of the locality in which s/he lived; poems in praise or dispraise of local worthies or people of significance within the wider world which impinged on community consciousness; poems on events or developments of particular importance in the life of the community, or external events which would affect the community; and often there would be a good deal of humour, sometimes at the expense of modern inventions, fashions, and fads.

The profile of the township bard, as we know him today, had certainly come into existence by the nineteenth century. Neil Morrison, the Pabbay Bard (born in 1816), is one of the earliest examples we have of a Gaelic poet operating with a distinct locality, and covering the range of verse that we would now regard as characteristic of such a poet - praise of the native heath, in contrast to the isolation of 'Eilean Dubh Phabaidh'; panegyric verse on an important figure (Lord Dunmore), elegy on spiritual leaders (Iain Gobha), humorous verse, and satire, on such subjects as the braxy, and rats.  He also composed the only poem known to me on the Potato Blight of 1846.   The light but firm touch of the Pabbay Bard suggests that he was composing within what was already a long and stable tradition.  His roots lay in Scarista, Harris, and the audience for his songs would have been primarily in that area.

It is not easy to identify or observe the processes which created profile of a bard like Neil Morrison, but the evidence from other islands tends to suggest that change within Gaelic society was at least a catalyst in the emergence of this type of poet.  What we need to acknowledge, of course, is that the change took place at different times, and proceeded at different rates, in different parts of the Highlands and Islands.

Perhaps I can most effectively illustrate the significance of social change in altering the profile of the township bard with reference to the island of Tiree.  I was fortunate to have been reared in Tiree at a time (the 1950s and early 1960s) when knowledge of, and respect for, traditional poets were still evident among the older generation of Gaelic speakers.  These Gaelic speakers were born in the 1870s and 1880s and were brought up in the full richness of Gaelic literary and linguistic tradition, a richness which was beginning to fade by the 1950s.  For such speakers, their own Gaelic bards were major figures who were admired for their verbal dexterity and their capacities to celebrate, memorialise and, if necessary, satirise aspects of community life. The Gaelic speakers that I knew were perfectly capable of distinguishing different levels and applications of poetic skills.

Two Tiree poets, whose labours cover the late eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth,  were held in great esteem in the island, above and beyond the normal 'run' of bards, and their profiles demonstrate the change in the poets' role and the concomitant change in society.  Both poets were, and are, known as 'John MacLean' in English; the one was Iain mac Ailein, Bàrd Thighearna Cholla, who flourished at the end of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth; and the other was Bàrd Bhaile Mhàrtainn, the Balemartine Bard.  The nomenclature bears witness to the change in context and function; the first John MacLean held the honorific office of poet to the Laird of Coll, while the second John MacLean was associated with the crofting community of Balemartine.  Patronage had changed; the one poet looked to the Laird, while the other looked to the community, for approval and inspiration.

In 1818, a year before he emigrated to Nova Scotia, Bàrd Thighearna Cholla published a collection of poems Orain Nuadh Ghaedhlach, which included a selection of his own poems and those by other similar poets.  We can see from the selection that MacLean lived in a world in which the lairds and tacksmen were the dominant social group.  MacLean composed poems in honour of the Laird of Coll, but also in honour of lairds in Mull and mainland Argyll.  He also included in the selection poems composed by other Tiree bards in honour of the tacksmen, and some of these poets included men who established minor bardic dynasties capable of producing songs in the context of the emerging crofting communities. Bàrd Thighearna Cholla himself composed other types of song - often humorous ones - focused on events affecting the lives of the ordinary people, but these were not included in his 1818 volume.  The ambience of the volume was aristocratic, and it was only in MacLean-Sinclair's late volume Clàrsach na Coille, that MacLean's 'ordinary' poetry was published (though it has to be noted that it was subjected to considerable change, and even re-composition, by the editor!)

Township poetry, commemorating the personalities and happenings of the post-1850 crofting community, is the sort of material that we see most prominently in what survives of the second John MacLean's output.  There is little in his poems in the way of verse in honour of worthy people beyond the crofting class.  The actions of the crofting community in Tiree, the threats to its survival, the foibles and mannerisms of the people of his own immediate neighbourhood (like the now famous Calum Beag) – these are among his most obvious concerns.  The community itself and, in a broader sense, the island, are what gives cohesion to the overall picture.  Bàrd Bhaile Mhàrtainn is recognisable today as a 'typical' township bard.

It is, however, arguable that the first John MacLean, Bàrd Thighearna Cholla, was also a township bard or community poet, though not in same sense as Bàrd Bhaile Mhàrtainn.  What makes the two MacLeans different is the nature of the communities which they were targeting.  The poets were each affirming the existence and vitality of the Gaelic township or community as it existed in their times.  The lairds and tacksmen were still very much a reality in the Tiree known to Bàrd Thighearna Cholla, but their days were numbered, and he stood on the cusp between old and new.  By the early 1800s, the old tacks were being broken up to create crofts, and the townships associated with run-rig were going out of existence. By the mid-century, the old-style lairds had vanished, and crofting had established itself, although some tacks, held by new-style tenant-farmers, remained into the twentieth century.  The community known to the Balemartine Bard was one in which the crofting class was a dominant social group which needed affirmation and defence.

The social process which imparted distinct differences of emphasis to the poetry of the two Tiree bards involved the loss of social stratification.  The 'phasing out' of the cultured middlemen of Gaelic society, the tacksmen who supported the old-style townships, was part of a process which began in the late 1730s.  The impact of the loss of the these men on the social stability and cultural institutions  of the Highlands has been noted by historians, but what has perhaps not received so much attention is the effect that their departure may have had on social institutions such as that of the poet.  It is quite evident that the tacksmen themselves were men of culture, capable of composing Gaelic verse, and it is noticeable that the verse styles associated with them are closer to the forms of seventeenth-century Gaelic poetry.

We do not know what degree of interaction there was between poets and songsters of the 'ordinary class', so to speak, and the more aristocratic bards within the ranks of the tacksmen, but it is possibly significant that some of the themes covered by poets of the tacksman class were later taken up by the township poets, most notably the theme of social dislocation itself.  Some of the earliest Gaelic verse protesting against rent-rises and consequent emigration, long before sheep appear in the Highlands, comes from the tacksmen.  A specimen of such verse can be found as early as 1739; by the second half of the nineteenth century the theme is associated primarily with the poets of the land agitation.

The decay of the tacksman class and the emergence of the crofting communities are likely to have been catalysts in the fashioning of the township bard as he appears at the end of the nineteenth century.  Society was now less stratified, and the Gaelic poets looked to people of their own social status for patronage and inspiration.  The collective crofting communities in individual localities fulfilled the role of patrons, and also provided the subject matter and the audience for the poets.

As a consequence of the change in the stratification of the community, there was change not only in the subject-matter, but also in the status and style of the poetry which came to be associated with it. Local worthies, rather than lairds or tacksmen, became the subjects of praise and satire, and were commemorated in poems which carried less of the traditional imagery than did the poems in praise of the tacksmen and lairds.  The 'panegyric code' (as identified by Dr John MacInnes) was maintained, but it was reallocated, and made to serve different needs and themes.  This can be seen, for instance, in the way in which the poets of the Land Agitation applied the panegyric style to leaders of the crofting communities, and commemorated 'battles' against landlords, factors and forces of the law.

Township bards and the pre-1800 Gaelic poets

The poetry of John MacLean, Bàrd Thighearna Cholla, forms a bridge between two communities: the old community of tacksmen and tenants, and the new community of crofters.  But how far back before 1800 can we trace some of the features of the later nineteenth-century township poets?  If we take it that one of the main characteristics of the typical township bard is a well defined locality, we can find some clear evidence of such localities among our eighteenth-century poets.

It seems to me that some of our eighteenth-century poets qualify for exploration in this light. The North Uist poet, John MacCodrum, is a good example of the larger version, so to speak, of the poetic type represented by John MacLean, Bàrd Thighearna Cholla.

Again, Rob Donn MacKay is worthy of consideration within the township class, since he had a very well defined community, consisting of tacksmen and tenants, which he was prepared to satirise and chastise in his verse.  Rob Donn's poetry is particularly strong in the area of social criticism, and we must ask when social criticism became a significant part of the function of the township bard.  Is there a continuum here with the kind of criticism that was voiced by Roderick Morrison, the Clàrsair Dall, when he mounted is attack on the change in social values occurring at Dunvegan by the end of the seventeenth century?

Another candidate who seems to me to be one of the most obvious examples of a community poet who flourished in the eighteenth century is Duncan Bàn MacIntyre (1724-1812), one of our most prominent Gaelic bards.  MacIntyre has a very marked sense of locality - centred, of course, on his beloved Beinn Dòbhrain.  His nature poetry, celebrating the splendour of the mountain, and later lamenting his own separation from it, may well have contributed to the prominence of the theme of the 'homeland' in the compositions of later township bards.  It is, indeed, arguable that MacIntyre's 'Cead Deireannach nam Beann' ('Final Farewell to the Mountains') was something of a trend-setter, especially for exiled poets.  Again, the influence of MacIntyre's tunes and metres is evident in the work of later township bards who often held MacIntyre in high esteem.

When comparing the works of the later township bards with those of Donnchadh Bàn, there are differences in scale which  are very evident.  It is as if function, and even aspects of style, have been scaled down in proportion to the creation of smaller communities.  But is the change governed solely by the creation of smaller townships?  Why is there such an obvious change of tone and style between the Gaelic poetry of the eighteenth century and that of the nineteenth?


Bards of the global community

The 'township bard' has probably been in existence for many centuries, though not necessarily in quite the guise that we think of him today; I have argued that what has changed is not the bard as such, but the bardic profile, and consequently the qualification that we attach to the bard, and his (or her) function. The community with which the poet can identify, and the various activities within the community which he can commemorate and celebrate, have changed too. Within the poet's approach to the community, we can expect to find particular types of poems or themes, though what these are, and how they might be expressed, depend on the norms and expectations of the community as it exists at the time of composition.

This is quite evident in the poetry of the twentieth-century township bard.  One has only to take the verse of Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna of North Uist to see how the 'global township' has impinged on the profile of a traditional Gaelic poet.  Dòmhnall Ruadh produced fine verse when serving in the First World War, including his outstanding poem, ''Illean, march at ease'.  He also lived to see the horror of the the H-bomb over the horizon.  Again, Dòmhnall Ruadh Phàislig anticipated the arrival of the dreaded 'rockets' in Uist, and composed his 'Oran nan Rocaidean', using the ever-popular trend-setting tune of Bàrd Bhaile Mhàrtainn's 'Calum Beag' to give a grim irony and a strong singability to his anti-nuclear protest.  The Uist bards, indeed, had substituted rockets for swords in the traditional order of things.  No further comment seems necessary on the flexibility and skill of the traditional township bard.

Collecting the material

Before any new research or reflection on the role of township poetry gets under way, it would be highly beneficial to embark on a project to gather the material that exists, in a variety of forms and in various locations across the Highlands and Islands, as well as in the archives of the BBC and such institutions as the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.  Poetry and song of this kind have been gathered by the Comuinn Eachdraidh in various parts of the Highlands, and particularly in the Islands.  Co-ordination would be required, and it would be wise to think of a strategy which might link the resources of several communities and also harness the contributions of scholars in the universities.  This could be achieved by employing the benefits of modern technology.

Because of advances in technology, we live at a time of unprecedented opportunities in terms of data-gathering and analytical capacity; and it would be a quite splendid development if an effort were made to gather existing Gaelic township verse on to a computerised database, where it could be accessed and made available to a wide range of scholars, teachers and other people interested in the history and culture of their own communities.   

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