Saturday, 30 March 2013

Nineteenth-century studies: Gaelic literature in the nineteenth century


Donald E. Meek

Of all phases of Gaelic literature, the nineteenth century is probably the least understood by literary critics.  It is perceived generally as a period of poor-quality literature, standing in sharp contrast to the great achievements of the eighteenth century and earlier. This interpretation stems in large measure from the failure of critics to develop a theoretical approach which does justice to the entire spectrum of literary output within this period of immense social, political and cultural upheaval.  A ‘kailyard’ perspective has become dominant, largely because of academics’ deep antipathy to the romantic song of separation and exile common in the late nineteenth century.  Much more robust verse from the previous seventy-five years is often overlooked or played down, and prose is largely neglected.  The problem is compounded by the dominant historical interpretation of the nineteenth-century Highlands.  In broad terms, this model portrays the Highland people as victims of commercial landlordism, which for most of the nineteenth century had been undermining their way of life, with similar consequences for their literary tradition.  Resurgence and optimism returned only in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when romantic song was at its height among displaced Gaels in the Lowland cities. 


Such a model of decay and revival, with (allegedly) only occasional traces of high literary quality, places the possibility of literary renewal towards the end of the nineteenth century, with disappointing results. However, the overall evidence clearly shows that Highlanders were experimenting with new literary forms throughout the century.  Nor was the end of the century devoid of strong output.  Indeed, it could be argued that the massive upheavals of the century imparted some major benefits, since the Gaelic community in Scotland and beyond was compelled by circumstances to find new voices and to develop less vulnerable modes of existence and self-preservation.  It had to discover, for instance, alternative means of maintaining, transmitting and cultivating its literary traditions.

The most notable of these means was the printing press, which flourished in the cities and larger towns where Gaels settled.  Despite the exhortations of John Carswell, who produced the first Gaelic printed book in 1567, Gaelic scribes and literati had been slow to embrace the printing press, partly because presses were not readily available in the rural Highlands and Islands. In the seventeenth century only religious texts (notably psalters and catechisms) were printed in any numbers, while in the eighteenth century printed Gaelic output consisted largely of the works of prominent poets, some foundational verse anthologies, Ossianic volumes, Bible texts and manuals of Christian doctrine.  A revolution in the availability of print then occurred in the context of the industrial century.  In Britain generally after 1800 print became the means of transmitting popular material, in the form of newspapers, chap-books, broadsides and other ephemera.  Through migration and emigration, the Gaelic people discovered this contemporary form of information technology, and they adapted it to their own needs.  An enterprising Islayman, Archibald Sinclair, set up in Glasgow in 1848 an influential printing-press intended specifically to facilitate Gaelic publishing (which it did until the early twentieth century).  The creation of a very sizeable printed Gaelic literature was therefore one of the blessings bestowed by the relocation of the Gaels in the nineteenth century, but this blessing was mixed.  It meant that Gaelic literature was increasingly at the mercy of commercial supply and demand.  Proximity to the printing press and a body of enthusiastic readers, often in urban environments, regulated output, certainly by the last quarter of the century.  

Benefits such as print must be set against deficits.  Far-reaching social changes undoubtedly weakened the Gaelic community, and diluted Gaelic culture through dispersal and fragmentation.  Beginning in the late eighteenth century and generally summarised in the convenient (but misleading) catch-all phrase, ‘the Highland Clearances’, population displacement compelled a substantial proportion of the Highland people to move from traditional townships, and to assume livelihoods very different from earlier patterns of subsistence, which were sustained chiefly by crofting.  Migration and emigration were stimulated on a very large scale, with the result that colonies of Gaelic-speaking people were formed in the Scottish Lowlands, America, Canada and Australia.   The most influential historians to write on this theme have emphasised the vulnerability of the Highland people, and their exposure to forces which seriously damaged their way of life.  These adverse forces, they argue, were dominant until 1870 or thereabouts, when the Gaelic people began to fight back in the context of the Land Agitation.  Rent-strikes and resistance to estate policy resulted in the dispatch of gun-boats and soldiers to the more militant crofting areas of the Hebrides.  In 1886 the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act was passed by Gladstone’s Third Ministry, and security of tenure was achieved. Even so, crofters and cottars continued to protest, and the Highland land question remained live in the twentieth century.  Although it is correct to emphasise the vulnerability of the Highland people and to celebrate their brave stand in the 1870s and the 1880s, it should be noted that strong crofting communities were maintained in the Highlands and Islands throughout the nineteenth century.  The Gaelic people were not mere waifs who were hopelessly cast adrift on the ocean of economic change, until they were rescued by great men in political lifeboats after 1870.  Many determined their own futures, and made decisions to go or stay according to their lights.  At points of crisis throughout the nineteenth century, many Highlanders robustly and proudly joined the British Army, serving in theatres as far apart as the Spanish Peninsula, the Crimea and Egypt. Others travelled the globe as seamen in wind-jammers and steamships.      

The world was shrinking as influential communications networks came into existence, at home and abroad.  Transport links with the Lowland south developed strongly during the nineteenth century, particularly with the arrival of the steamship.  It had reached the southern edges of the Highland mainland by 1815, and it was puffing its misty way into the heart of the Highlands by 1819, when Henry Bell’s celebrated Comet reached Fort William.   By 1820 the Hebrides were within the range of paddle-steamers such as the Highland Chieftain, whose very name breathed high romance, rather than stellar technical achievement.  Vessels of this kind, sailing from the Clyde, offered new vistas for tourists with a yen for remote fastnesses and a desire to view the sublime on Ossianic grand tours to the farthest Hebrides, including St Kilda.  They offered, in effect, a new way of seeing the Highlands – as an extension of the Lowlands.   By the end of the century, the railways had spread their iron tentacles outwards from the Lowland cities, and had reached western seaports such as Oban, the ‘Charing Cross of the Highlands’. By 1870 shipping services were supplied by Lowland-based companies whose owners, like David MacBrayne, became legends in their own lifetimes.  The transport infrastructure which we know today had emerged in firm outline by 1900. 

Better transport facilities encouraged the penetration of the Highlands and Islands by external forces, especially in the realm of popular education.  The chief motivation in this field was religious. By 1750 the thrust of educational bodies such as the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (established 1709) had been tempered towards a more constructive engagement with the Gaelic language.  Key religious books had been produced, most notably the Gaelic New Testament, published in 1767.  In 1801 the translation of the Old Testament was completed, and a revised text of the entire Gaelic Bible was available by 1807.  This stimulated further educational initiatives, chiefly the Gaelic schools societies, active from 1811, which provided travelling schoolmasters, who taught the people in many Highland parishes to read the Gaelic Bible.  This policy was intended to act as a bridge towards the acquisition of English, but initially it helped to reinforce Gaelic.  The displacement of Gaels to Lowland Scotland and the ‘New World’ was complemented by the growth of a Gaelic readership, eager to engage with printed literature.  Reading skills were not, however, widespread, and many people had to rely on existing authority figures, such as the local schoolmaster, to read the new journals aloud at the traditional cèilidh.  Any hopes that Gaelic literacy might increase purposefully were dashed by the 1872 Education Act, which failed to mention the language. 

The periodicals which appeared from the late 1820s were intended to provide material for those who had become literate through the Gaelic schools, and who wanted more to read than tracts and homilies, produced in profusion. The didactic foundation was maintained strongly, and even extended to embrace politics and social issues, but new forms of literature emerged in the process.  As Sheila Kidd has well demonstrated, periodicals played a fundamentally important part in the transition from oral, traditional models of tales and songs, to printed essays, dialogues and hortatory verse, specifically written for a literate readership.  These pre-1850 volumes, compiled during the ‘darkest’ (to us) times of social change, provide further evidence that the pattern of nineteenth-century Gaelic literary development does not conform easily to the ‘displacement model’, with its implication of relentless loss for people and culture.  Losses there certainly were, including losses of older cultural norms, but fresh channels were opened, as displaced Gaels accommodated themselves to new modes of expression and communication, especially in printed journals with some degree of scholarly and clerical control over their contents.        

Nineteenth-century Gaelic literature therefore contains a deeply Protestant and evangelical dimension which influenced styles, forms and themes. Denominational interest in the new journals was strong, and the Protestant churches – Established and Free – became important publishers of Gaelic religious texts. Roman Catholic texts, by contrast, are comparatively few.  This has put another formidable road-block in the way of modern literary critics of a sceptical cast, who have generally been disaffected towards the Highland churches, which they perceive as the enemies of traditional Gaelic culture.  Their view of evangelical Christianity, as a baleful and retrogressive influence, may have some validity at certain periods, but it is hard, if not impossible, to sustain across the totality of the nineteenth century. Rather than dismiss or ignore large pieces of evidence, we need to recognise that, in the nineteenth century, the Gaelic world was changing markedly in response to various pressures.  Literary, religious and political ideologies were brought to bear on Gaelic tradition, with mixed results, many contradictions and not a few conundra.


Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ and its influence

The contradictions and conundra of the nineteenth century are nowhere more evident than in the contribution of ‘Ossian’ to the texture of the time. In the opening up of the Highlands to external influences, ‘Ossian’, conceived by James Macpherson in the early 1760s and recycled throughout the nineteenth century, was unquestionably significant. It stoked boilers, brought ‘noble savages’ out of the backwoods and into public gaze, and encouraged the growth of Highland tourism, by road, sea and rail. The quest for the sublime was, if anything, intensified by the choking smoke of ungainly steamships and the discordant noise of trundling trains. 

‘Ossian’ also left important literary legacies, which, for better or worse, helped to inspire Gaelic authors and composers for much of the nineteenth century.  The publication of the Gaelic text of Ossian in 1807 by the Highland Society of London was of great significance, since it reinstated this ambivalent corpus of material, seemingly without the taint of ‘forgery’ which had stained the English texts of 1760-63.   The influence of ‘Ossian’ can be detected on Gaelic prose and verse in the nineteenth century, and there can be little doubt that it engendered its own ‘revivals’, which complemented and at times intermingled with religious ideals and imperial aspirations.  The romanticism which it engendered, like the steamships which it helped to propel, connected the region to literary concerns in other parts of Scotland.  ‘Ossian’ was Scottish property, though ultimately it moved far beyond Scottish shores and was transplanted into other languages.  Gaelic literature cannot be isolated from developments elsewhere in Scotland.   For this reason it is important that the region should not be seen – as earlier critics have too often perceived it – as a self-contained unit, whose boundaries were assaulted detrimentally by the ‘bad habits’ of the Lowlands.  

The post-1870 wave of Gaelic literary and political activity, for example, requires to be viewed within the ‘Celtic Revival’ which influenced the Scottish Lowlands through such literary and artistic figures as Patrick Geddes and John Duncan.  Gaelic writers, editors and musicians of this period, including Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), whose first two volumes of Gaelic charms, prayers and incantations with the curiously latinate title Carmina Gadelica, were published in 1900 to critical acclaim, moved in Geddes’s circle and sometimes contributed to The Evergreen.   Carmichael likewise associated closely with Donald MacKinnon (1839-1914), who became Scotland’s first Professor of Celtic in 1882, when he was appointed to the Chair at Edinburgh.  Because of his unrivalled knowledge of Gaelic culture, MacKinnon became a member of the Napier Commission of 1883, which investigated crofters’ grievances.  It published its massive report in 1884, with a chapter by Alexander Carmichael. Round all of these men of letters and their coteries in Edinburgh hovered the bearded, windswept figure of Professor John Stuart Blackie (1809-95), scholar of Greek, learner of Gaelic and promoter of all things Celtic and ‘Ossianic’.  Nobody in Scotland more fully exemplified the hallmarks of ‘the Bard’ of the Ossianic world than did the irrepressible, rhetorical Blackie.   His enthusiasm and commitment were key to the founding of the long-awaited Celtic Chair at Edinburgh, just as his political views helped to fuel the crofting resurgence of the period.  Blackie hated trains, but lived happily with other less tangible contradictions of his romantic spirit.  For him, as for many others, romanticism and rebellion went closely together, as did romanticism and the emergence of Celtic scholarship.


Collecting and editing

Romanticism, deriving from the aftermath of ‘Ossian’, laid the foundation of modern Celtic scholarship in Scotland by encouraging the gathering of the tales and folklore of the Highlands, with subsequent attempts at contextualising and analysis. Following the publication of ‘Ossian’ in 1760-63, Highland clergymen were active in collecting Gaelic heroic ballads about Fionn and his heroes.  In the nineteenth century, ‘Ossian’ stimulated further collecting, sometimes by those who were totally opposed to the methodology of James Macpherson.   None was more hostile to Macpherson than John Francis Campbell (1822-85) of Islay, who organised a team of collectors to gather tales in their respective localities, and to send them back to him for editing and (in some cases) publication in his famous Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1860-62).  Campbell’s collectors included Alexander Carmichael, who began his work in the early 1860s, and who earned Campbell’s ire for his failure to distinguish real Gaelic ballads from what Campbell regarded as the counterfeit imitations of ‘Ossian’.  Carmichael and others were also interested in collecting proverbs, which were collated in a new edition of Donald Mackintosh’s Gaelic Proverbs in 1881.



Despite its importance to collectors like Campbell, there has been all too little scholarly engagement with the printed Gaelic prose of the nineteenth century, particularly that composed initially for publication in journals.  Such writing unquestionably forms one of the most significant achievements of the period, and indeed of the Gaelic literary canon as a whole.  The foundational journals, AnTeachdaire Gae’lach (‘Gaelic Messenger’, 1829-31) and Cuairtear nan Gleann (‘Traveller of the Glens’, 1840-43), were both edited by the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod (1783-1862), a prominent minister of the Church of Scotland, whose family roots lay in Morvern, Argyllshire.  Journals of this kind were set in double columns of small print, and carried few, if any, illustrations beyond a wood-cut on their front cover.  Their format was typical of the nineteenth century, and can be paralleled easily in Lowland organs such as Blackwood’s Magazine, on which they were obviously modelled.  The first issue of An Teachdaire Gae’lach (May 1829) opened with MacLeod’s vision of the apocalyptic ‘new day’ of spiritual and educational opportunity that had dawned for the Highlands and Islands:

Buidheachas do Dhia, is mòr, agus is sòlasach, an t-atharrachadh a thàinig nar latha ’s nar linn fèin, air Gàidhealtachd agus air Eileana na h-Alba, a thaobh sochairean spioradail, agus meadhana eòlais.  ’S ann da-rìreadh air an dùthaich a dh’ èirich an latha grianach.  Ach ged a tha e againn a-nis, ann an tomhas mòr na àird a mheadhan-là, chan fhad o na chaochail iad, a chunnaic ùr-mhaduinn an là seo a’ bristeadh os cionn nam beann; latha ’n àigh, trid a bheil lìonmhoireachd nan eileana ait, agus luchd-àiteacha nan creag a’ seinn gu ceòlmhor.

(‘Thanks be to God, great and happy is the change that has come in our own day and generation upon the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, with regard to spiritual privileges and means of knowledge.  The day of sunshine has truly dawned in our country.  But although we have it now, to a large degree at the height of its noon, it is not long since there passed away those who saw the new morning of this day breaking above the mountains; the day of glory, which causes the multitude of islands to rejoice, and the inhabitants of the rocks to sing tunefully.’)   

The contents of these journals ranged widely, aiming broadly to provide edification, enlightenment and entertainment.  The sermon, sometimes accommodated within a wider frame, such as an account of an outdoor communion service, was the chief vehicle for the first of these desiderata, and the informative essay and the dialogue or conversation formed the backbone of the second (the conversation commonly taking place between a well-informed representative of the status quo and one or more ‘rustics’ in need of knowledge or correction).   Entertainment was offered through humorous accounts of incidents in the dialogues/conversations, often ‘scrapes’ of an innocent kind in cities, as the ‘rustic’ encountered an alien way of life.   Indeed, the greatest single factor motivating the journals and their writers was the increasing mobility of the Gaelic community and the need to prepare the Gaelic people for new experiences in the Scottish Lowlands or overseas.   Emigration is a recurrent theme, and it is quite evident that Norman MacLeod and others regarded emigration positively as a means of alleviating contemporary distress in the Highlands.  It is no accident that these early journals crossed the oceans with emigrants, or that they regarded them warmly as links with their homeland.  They were intended first and foremost for Gaels who aspired to ‘better’ lifestyles in an internatonal, globalising context.  This is more than apparent in the choice of publisher (from at least No. 4  of An Teachdaire Gae’lach), W. R. MacPhun, Glasgow, who claimed to have ‘entered into the most extensive arrangements with the various Proprietors of the London, Provincial, English, Irish, Scotch and Foreign Newspapers…’   Publication of An Teachdaire Gae’lach was shared with W. Blackwood and MacLachlan & Stewart, Edinburgh.

The arrival of a new, highly mobile era is evident in other ways.  Alongside accounts of volcanoes and hot springs, which reflected the spirit of contemporary exploration and discovery, modern inventions are chronicled and explained.  An Teachdaire Gae’lach introduced readers to the power of the steam engine, and as early as 1829 Norman MacLeod wrote a splendid account of one of the first steamships to provide a regular service to the West Highlands, the Maid of Morvern.  The ugly, mechanical Maid is sketched through the eyes of Fionnlagh Pìobaire (‘Finlay the Piper’), MacLeod’s stock ‘rustic’ who travels on her to Glasgow, and who describes his adventure in a letter home to his wife Màiri.  The piece is quite remarkable for its accomplishment in matters of technical detail, its clever depiction of the ship’s crew (the Gaelic-speaking engineer perspires hotly, and becomes ‘an oily rag’) and its vignettes of passengers, who include cultured gentlemen with telescopes menacingly directed at Highland landmarks.  Highland chiefs (who spare a word for the bashful Fionnlagh) and refined ladies, with lap-dogs and maids in bloomers, are also on deck.  Highland tourism, as we know it, had arrived.  MacLeod’s broader discussion of the implications of the steamship and its transformational power is extremely clever, and retains its relevance to the present day.  The overall argument (which aims ultimately to reconcile the ‘industrial’ with the ‘natural’) is expressed in robust, idiomatic Gaelic, which is well able to handle contemporary issues.   Nothing could better represent the pulse of the nineteenth century at virtually all levels.  Participant observers like MacLeod knew that they were witnessing events and processes of world-changing significance, and they did their best to prepare others for new experiences.

Similar themes are evident in Leabhar nan Cnoc (‘The Book of the Hills’), an anthology of essays which MacLeod produced in 1834 with an eye to the Gaelic schools.  MacLeod, who encouraged J.F. Campbell to collect Gaelic folktales, set out his agenda with unashamed clarity, admitting his preference for traditonal tales over most of the ‘òrain fhaoin amaideach’ (‘vain and foolish songs’) then being published, but asserting the superiority of the new genre of literature for schools:

’S adhbhar-sòlais, da-rìreadh, gu bheil nithe nas feàrr aig na Gàidheil a-nis ran aithris agus ran èisdeachd, na seann sgeulachdan nan làithean a dh’fhalbh: ach mheas sinn nach robh cron ann an cuid dhiubh a chumail o dhol gu tur air dìochuimhn’, mar chulaidh-annais do linntibh a thig nar dèidh.

(‘It is a cause of delight, indeed, that the Gaels now have better things to relate and to listen to than the old stories of days gone by; but we considered that there was no harm in keeping some of them from being forgotten completely, as a curiosity for generations to come.’)

MacLeod was thus prepared to accommodate a judicious selection of old stories alongside his own freshly-minted prose, and he includes a traditional tale, ‘Spiorad na h-Aoise’ (‘The Spirit of the Age’) in his book. The volume, however, is mainly his own work.  It contains his well-known essay, ‘Long Mhòr nan Eilthireach’ (‘The Emgrant Ship’), in which he describes an imposing sailing-vessel which he sees in Tobermory Bay, in Mull.  The ship embarks emigrants from the surrounding islands, and MacLeod describes poignantly the sentiments of these  passengers, fearful of the long, impending voyage.  Their emotions are heightened by the arrival of a local minister, who preaches to them on the deck of the ship and offers them the consolation of God’s presence on the sea and in their new environments, and gives them Gaelic Bibles.  The biblical message is complemented by powerful symbols derived from the poetry of ‘Ossian’, including the lonely, blind father who is about to return to his glen without his daughter and her family, and the sublime mountain on the horizon, representing (like the ship itself) the steadfast presence of God.  MacLeod likewise produced some rather formal set-pieces in Ossianic mode, like his description of a sunset over the Hebrides, and he apparently tried his hand at short passages of original Gaelic verse in Ossianic style.  Significantly, he and the other ministerial pioneers of printed Gaelic prose tended to be devotees of ‘Ossian’.

MacLeod’s periodicals gave opportunities to other writers to try their talents.  Among these was the Rev. Alexander MacGregor (1806-81), whose formative years were spent in Skye.  Interestingly, MacGregor’s earliest published material (in English) is found in Blackwood’s Quarterly Journal of Agriculture in 1838.  He contributed to MacLeod’s Cuairtear nan Gleann, and also to a subsequent periodical, Fear-Tathaich nam Beann (1848-50), edited by the Rev. Archibald Clerk (1813-87), minister of Kilmallie.  In the 1870s he contributed items to newspapers and bilingual journals.  His topics included the natural world and astronomy, as well as matters germane to Highland politics and the crofter resurgence of the 1870s and 1880s.   In taking the side of crofters against landlords, MacGregor represents perspectives very different from those pertaining before 1850.

By grappling with such a variety of subjects, and by attempting to bridge the gulf between sacred and secular, ministers like MacLeod, MacGregor and Clerk showed considerable versatility, as well as a willingness to create Gaelic prose of a kind quite unlike that of the contemporary religious mainstream.  The latter was driven by a veritable torrent of translations from English, usually of doctrinal works (catechisms etc.) and Puritan classics.   Among these classics were the chief prose works of John Bunyan, whose Pilgrim’s Progress established itself as a firm favourite in its Gaelic guise of Turas a’ Chrìosdaidh, translated by Peter MacFarlane (1758-1832), a schoolmaster in Appin, who also translated the Rev. Hugh Blair’s sermons into Gaelic.   MacFarlane had a skilful touch, and did not allow the original text to dictate his style.   Other, less sensitive, translators of religious works often hugged their original texts to the point of exhaustion, and produced a ponderous style of profoundly theological Gaelic prose.  Blessed with an unusually idiomatic Gaelic translator, Bunyan became a naturalised Highlander, and his words furnished an illustrative touchstone of orthodox religious experience, quoted with approval from Highland pulpits.   Bunyan’s allegories and allegorical figures found their way into Gaelic poetry, and (as happened in English) their resolute spirit contributed to the emergence of political radicalism.  Larger religious texts were accompanied by a welter of ephemeral pamphlets, ranging from translated tracts, scattered throughout the land by itinerant preachers, to polemical leaflets, intended to champion one doctrine or ecclesiology over another.  These leaflets were particularly prominent in the 1830s, and helped to prepare the ground for the Disruption of 1843.  To that extent, religious debate stimulated Gaelic prose, but it tended to produce poor specimens, in which strident argument took precedence over elegant expression.  The consequences of ecclesiastical disruption were largely unfavourable to the viability of multi-purpose journals (which seldom survived more than two or three years) and to the long-term good of broad-minded Gaelic prose.  Gradually, however, the churches began to produce their own Gaelic magazines and supplements, which had a beneficial effect.  The Free Church of Scotland issued An Fhianais (‘The Witness’) from 1845 to 1850. In 1880 the Church of Scotland began its (still functioning) Gaelic Supplement to Life and Work, first edited by the Rev. Archibald Clerk, perhaps the last of the old-style Ossianic scholars.              

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when Gaelic song reached its romantic nadir as the cèilidh-house moved into print, a brand of prose confectionery was also  manufactured, with its emphasis on humour rather than romanticism, and offering couthy anecdotes and anthologies of ‘readings’ for the urban, rather than the rural, cèilidh-house.  This form of writing is well represented in such volumes as The Celtic Garland and Leabhar na Cèilidh, both compiled by Henry Whyte (‘Fionn’) (1852-1913), whose oeuvre included much sentimental Gaelic verse.  Whyte was also a writer of English prose, most notably in the ‘Glasgow Letter’ of the Oban Times, where he gave strong political support to the Highland Land Agitation.  His brother John was another accomplished writer of English and Gaelic prose, who was employed as a journalist by several Highland newspapers.  The two Whytes, of a gifted family who also produced ministers and artists, are interesting for several reasons, but most noticeably as ‘popular’, non-clerical writers who bestrode both the English and Gaelic literary worlds of their time.  Another in a similar mould was John MacFadyen (1850-1935), a native of Mull who found employment as a railwayman in Glasgow, and whose prose and verse compilations were very popular.

This couthy approach, however, was complemented, and held in check, by much more profound experimentation.  In the same twenty-five years as the book-based cèilidh emerged, serious scholars, thoughtful laymen and creative clergymen were hard at work extending the range of Gaelic prose writing into major themes and registers, thus continuing the foundational work of Norman MacLeod and Alexander MacGregor. None was more important in this respect than Professor Donald MacKinnon.  MacKinnon was the first properly equipped literary critic who wrote in Gaelic about Gaelic literature.  In Herderian mode, and with what would be regarded today as excessive deference to ‘Ossian’, he examined Gaelic poetry, and defined the hallmarks of the Gael, using Gaelic proverbs as a substantial quarry.  His analyses appeared initially as a series of articles published in a magazine which was itself entitled An Gàidheal (‘The Gael’).  This magazine was established in Toronto in 1871, but crossed the Atlantic soon afterwards when its founder, Angus Nicolson, removed to Glasgow – yet another significant indicator of the wider international context of nineteenth-century Gaelic literature.    

The emergence of vigorous printed prose may have affected the status and uses of Gaelic verse.  Prose appears to have become the vehicle for ‘important’ contemporary discussion, while popular song increasingly accommodated sentimental idylls about past joys and present miseries.  This dichotomy is clearly demonstrated by the writings of Donald MacKechnie (1836-1908), a native of Jura resident latterly in Edinburgh, whose splendid Gaelic essays describe his earlier deer-keeping days in Jura, and tackle post-Darwinian dilemmas in philosophy.  In MacKechnie’s mind, man and the animals share common faults and failings, and produce similar responses to the world around them.  MacKechnie cocks a snook at the authority figures of the earlier nineteenth century.  Instead of turning to the minister or schoolmaster for instruction and solace, he discusses deep philosophical issues with his dog, Yarrow.  He and Yarrow are both equally ignorant about such matters as the after-life.  As he says to his dog:

Tha thu tur aineolach air na nithe sin; chan fhios duit cia às a thàinig thu, no càit a bheil thu dol, no ciod as crìoch àraid do dhuine no do bheathach. Ach na cuireadh seo mòr-chùram ort, oir nam bithinn-sa cho fìrinneach ’s cho onarach riutsa, dh’aidichinn duit gu bheil mi fhèin anns a’ cheart suidheachadh, ’s tha amharas agam gu bheil mi fhèin ’s a’ mhòr-chuid dem choimhearsnaich air ar tearradh leis an aon pheallan.

(‘You are completely ignorant of those things; you do not know where you have come from, or where you are going, or what is the chief end of man or beast.  But don’t let that worry you greatly, for if I were as truthful and honest as you, I would confess to you that I myself am in the same situation, and I suspect that I and the majority of my neighbours are tarred with the same brush.’)

As the reference to the ‘chief end of man’ (the first question in the Shorter Catechism) suggests, MacKechnie rebelled against what he evidently regarded as the stiff and debilitating constrictions imposed by the church and by rigid interpretations of texts of any kind (including those Gaelic proverbs which had enchanted his learned friend, Professor Donald MacKinnon).  The birth-pangs of twentieth-century scepticism and existentialism, apparent in contemporary English writers such as Thomas Hardy, are more than evident in MacKechnie’s disarmingly self-deprecating prose, which makes its point as much by its light (but richly idiomatic) style as by its content.  By contrast, MacKechnie’s rather anaemic verse wallows in maudlin triviality and imperially-nuanced romanticism, perhaps unconsciously acting as a ‘comfort blanket’ round an increasingly bleak and empty worldview.  Paradoxically for such an accomplished writer of prose, it represents much of what later critics regarded as ‘bad’ in nineteenth-century Gaelic verse.


Song and verse



The main concern of Gaelic literary critics to date has been with Gaelic verse, which, on the whole, they have viewed with little admiration.  From the time of Professor William J. Watson, Donald MacKinnon’s successor in the Edinburgh Chair, critics  have emphasised the ‘wail of the Gael’, when faced by social upheaval and unable to cope with the challenge of new economic systems.  According to the Watson paradigm (1918), the ‘wail’ is expressed in sad, soft, sentimental verse, and there is allegedly little that is robust or powerful in the surviving corpus.  The entire nineteenth century, as assessed by this backwards-extending measuring rod, is a disappointing period in the history of Gaelic literature, when standards fell and poets failed to address the real issues of the time.   The difficulty with this approach is that it is applicable to, and derives from, the evidence of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and only part of that evidence.   It does not properly address the poetic output of the earlier three-quarters of the century, nor does it do justice to the variety of existing material.   It is selective even in the types of verse that it seeks to expound from its formative post-1875 base.  It is noteworthy that this phase of alleged poetic degeneration – typified by the sentimental songs of Neil MacLeod (1843-1913), a Skyeman resident in Edinburgh – occurred when Highland people became more settled and less threatened, and, at least in an urban context, when they could reflect romantically on ‘the land of lost content’ from which they had moved, whether by their own decision or under pressure from landlords.   


The evidence for the entire century offers a much more complex picture, in which chronology can be misleading.   Styles current in the eighteenth century did not stop suddenly in 1800, nor did ‘major’ poets vanish from the scene.  Indeed, older panegyric and learned forms of verse, at their height in the eighteenth century, were maintained throughout the nineteenth, but they served purposes different from those of earlier days. This is exemplified in the verse of John MacLean (1787-1848), Poet to the Laird of Coll.  MacLean, a shoemaker to trade who hailed from Tiree in the Inner Hebrides, emigrated to Barney’s River, Nova Scotia, in 1819, and as a consequence there are both Scottish and Nova Scotian dimensions to his verse.  He crosses boundaries in other ways also.  His verse in praise of the Laird of Coll follows panegyric models which flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and he keeps his eye on lesser lairds and well-to-do tacksmen who were part of the older social order which predated crofting.   Much of it may strike us today as strained and sycophantic, curiously detached from the grim contemporary reality that very few clan chiefs could understand a single word of Gaelic, far less a Gaelic poem composed in their honour.   MacLean was also the poet of his local community of Caolas, Tiree, and he composed much more immediate verse on events affecting ordinary people, such as tragic drownings close to home, and unfortunate liaisons in the dark city of Glasgow.  By emigrating to Nova Scotia, however, MacLean was forced to reconfigure his poetic personae.  Initially, he was confronted by a towering and hostile ‘gloomy forest’, which compelled him to search his own soul, and to say honestly what he felt, without the props of conventional support.  By stressing his own internal perceptions, he conforms to the contemporary romantic paradigm.  The result, however, is a song depicting powerfully what we would now recognise as ‘culture shock’, and it can be transferred symbolically from its original setting to many other contexts.  Eventually, the ‘gloomy wood’ was cut down, and MacLean enjoyed a considerable degree of prosperity, which, in turn, changed the tenor of his verse.  Lacking an earthly patron in Nova Scotia, MacLean’s panegyric instinct turned to praise of God, and he produced a volume of evangelical Gaelic hymns in 1835.  In MacLean’s verse, therefore, we can hear several ‘voices’ addressing us at different stages, and in different ways, all of them reflecting responses, immediate or more considered and long-term, to the vicissitudes of a rapidly changing world.

John MacLean can be described as a learned poet, but he was by no means a lone figure in the nineteenth century.  Broadly similar perspectives, combining a long-standing panegyric tradition with a bold attempt to accommodate new developments, can be found in the verse of Allan MacDougall (c.1750-1828), who praised MacDonell of Glengarry, and condemned the intrusion of shepherds on the Glengarry estates.  In the sharpest possible contrast to his attitude to the shepherds, he welcomed the first paddle-steamers to Lochaber in 1820, and liberally bestowed his encomium on their crews and captains.  His enthusiasm for these mechanical intruders faltered only when Glengarry himself was drowned in 1828 close to his own home in an accident involving a bàta dubh toite (‘black boat of smoke’).  Of a more academic cast than either MacLean or MacDougall was Ewen MacLachlan (1773-1822), Librarian of King’s College,  Old Aberdeen, and a Gaelic scholar of very considerable ability.  MacLachlan translated classical epic into Gaelic, composed verse on the seasons reminiscent of that of the eighteenth century, and fashioned a fine Gaelic elegy in Augustan style for his close friend, Professor James Beattie (the younger, d. 1810).

Two very able poets spanned the middle and second half of the nineteenth century respectively, namely William Livingston (1808-70), from Islay, and John Smith (1848-81) of Iarsiadar, Lewis.   Livingston was a self-taught, but highly erratic, genius who wrote acres of angry, flatulent prose in English, attacking Highland landlords and Scotland’s subjection to English dominance.  This attempt to furnish a Gaelic view of Scottish history is gathered in his sprawling and unkempt volume, The Celtic Character (1850).  Of a very different stamp is his Gaelic verse.  It embraces a range of well-controlled specimens, from large, Ossian-type ‘epics’ recreating key battles (such as that at Tràigh Ghruinneard in Islay in 1598), to concise lyrics on Islay’s former links with Ireland and the achievement of Irish scholars such as Eugene O’Curry.  Livingston lived for a time in Glasgow, and he eulogised several of the stalwarts of the Gaelic community in that city.   Smith, who briefly studied medicine at Edinburgh, shared several of Livingston’s concerns, including a dislike of contemporary landlordism, which he decried (from his experience in Lewis) in a moving song, ‘Spiorad a’ Charthannais’ (‘The Spirit of Kindliness’).  Smith was more of a philosopher than Livingston, and more given to meditating on virtues and vices, which he personified in longish poems.   Again, like Livingston, he could compose in a relaxed vein as required, more in the style of the township poet, who gained prestige as crofting communities were formed in the Highlands and Islands.

The later nineteenth century is, in fact, distinguished for the number of lesser poets who flourished in their local communities and composed in that context, whether in the Highlands and Islands or among migrants and emigrants in the Lowlands, Canada or Australia.  Newspapers and books allowed their work to reach wider audiences than might otherwise have been the case, and print also helped to preserve their verse.  Some, like Henry Whyte and John MacFadyen in the urban context, amused or evoked nostalgia from their hearers.  Others, like John MacLean (1827-95), a township poet in Balemartin, Tiree, entertained his community, composed satires on contemporary foibles, and supported the general demand for land reform.  It is worth noting that the land agitation of the 1870s and 1880s encouraged the re-emergence of older forms of verse (such as incitement to battle), and that these powerful challenges to the ‘establishment’ are quite different from the sugary-sweet sentiment of popular song, often regarded (wrongly) as typical of the nineteenth century.  It is no less noteworthy that the strongest poetic voice in support of the land agitation was that of a woman, Mary MacPherson (1821-98) from Skye, whose tempestuous personal life charged her emotions, and drove her to sympathise with the needs of others.  Màiri Mhòr (‘Large Mary’), as she was called, was a big ‘hit’ on the concert-hall platforms of Glasgow, as well as in the open air.  She attended mass meetings of crofters in Skye and elsewhere, and, emotionally buoyed aloft by powerful rhetoric, glimpsed another apocalyptic ‘new day’:

Chunnaic sinn briseadh na faire,
Is neòìl na tràillealachd air chall,
An là a sheas MacCaluim làimh rinn
Aig Beul Atha nan Trì Allt.

(‘We saw the dawn break, and the clouds of thraldom flee away, the day MacCallum [i.e. the pro-crofter minister and orator, Rev. Donald MacCallum] stood beside us at Fairy Bridge [in Skye].’)   

These meetings were reminiscent of, and in some ways indebted to, the great assemblies which were characteristic of Highland communion services and religious revivals associated with them.  Political and spiritual emancipation went together. 



As a consequence of sustained missionary thrusts into the Highlands and Islands, the region became profoundly protestant and evangelical, leaving only a comparatively small body of Roman Catholics in the north-east Highlands, the north-west mainland, and the islands of South Uist and Barra.  Catholic devotion is expressed memorably in the verse output of the Rev. Father Allan MacDonald (1859-1905) of Eriskay.  In many other parts, however, religious revivals took deep hold at different stages, but particularly in the late 1830s and early 1840s, as the presbyterian evangelical movement began to realign itself under the banner of the emerging Free Church of Scotland.   Smaller missionary bodies, notably Baptists and Congregationalists, produced a straggle of revival-driven churches on the eastern edges of the mainland Highlands and in the southern Hebrides.

The arrival of missionary organisations within the region is an indicator of significant exposure to external influences. Traffic in spiritual ideas was, however, two-way.  The internalised Highland missionary impulse was taken overseas by emigrants, where it intermingled with ‘foreign’ missionary endeavours.  In a further striking exchange of perspectives, global views of ‘foreign’mission were then repackaged for the inspiration of Gaels in the home country, as the Gaelic hymn tradition clearly indicates.  For example, the Rev. James MacGregor (1759-1830), a native of Portmore in St Fillans, Perthshire, reached Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1786, where he became a formidable figure in the Antiburgher church.  MacGregor’s Gaelic hymns, first published in a flimsy pamphlet in 1819, influenced later poets and prose-writers.  His optimistic hymn on the progress of the Gospel rejoices in the civilising power of the Christian faith in the Scottish Highlands, the banishing of barbarism and ignorance, and the achievements of Bible translators and missionaries.  It anticipates the dawning of yet another glorious, apocalyptic day, this time throughout the globe, from the old Hebrides to the New:
Thèid an Soisgeul le sholas mar ghrèin
A dh’ionnsaigh an iar mun cuairt
Ameireaga, ’s Innseanaich fhiat’,
Is Eileanaich cian’ a’ chuain…

(‘The Gospel with its light like the sun will move to the west and surround America and timid Indians, and the remote Islanders of the [south] sea…’)

The poem is quoted extensively in Norman MacLeod’s Leabhar nan Cnoc.  It also  influenced John MacLean (of Nova Scotia)’s verse, and the hymns of several other Highland-based composers.

It is highly likely that, in the nineteenth century, Gaelic religious verse far outstripped secular verse, certainly in quantity if not in quality.   It formed what was virtually a world of its own, with its images and metaphors derived from the Bible, but complementing and mirroring the themes of secular verse.  Just as secular poets, revelling in contemporary imperial conflicts, would often praise military heroes such as Sir Colin Campbell, who gained glory at the Crimea, so religious poets would praise the heroes of the faith. The spiritual verse of the Rev. John MacDonald (1779-1849) of Ferintosh, for example, consists largely of lengthy tributes to departed ministers, whose lives are held out as examples to others.  Some of the largest and most impressive verse compositions of the nineteenth century are, in fact, on religious themes, or influenced by Christian ideas.  This suggests that, as a result of successive evangelical movements in the Highlands, priorities within the broader creative realm had been reordered to a significant extent.      

The pastors and ministers of the early nineteenth century were unashamedly missionary-minded, and they used Gaelic verse as a means of communicating their message and inspiring converts to continue in the faith. Their converts likewise embraced Gaelic verse as a means of articulating their spiritual joys and sorrows for the benefit of others.   The output of the Rev. Peter Grant (1783-1867), minister of the Baptist church at Grantown on Spey, is noteworthy in this regard.  Rejoicing in the spiritual reconfiguration of the Highlands, Grant’s verse lays much emphasis on the trials and tribulations of the individual believer, and anticipates the glory of the future life with Christ in heaven.  Chiming with the tenor of contemporary hymnology in Britain, it is by no means distinctively Highland in its themes, although individual hymns are set to secular Gaelic song tunes.  This clever alliance of sacred themes and secular music ensured the popularity of his verse to the present day.  Grant’s ‘soft’ themes contrast to some extent with those of John Morrison (c. 1796-1852), the Harris blacksmith, who envisaged the Christian life as a wrestling-match between the Old Man and the New within the regenerate Christian.

Although evangelical composers, on the whole, tended to see the present world as a hostile place, not a few produced verse which weaves both sacred and secular strands, and breathes an earthly wistfulness which is intensely moving.  Such a poet was the Rev. Duncan MacLean, Free Church minister of Glenorchy, whose verse (published 1868) is one of the forgotten jewels of the nineteenth century.  It includes an elegy on Thomas Chalmers and another on his daughter and her child, as well as several hymns filled with well-sustained imagery of the natural world, like his poem on the rainbow:

A chuspair àlainn, ghràsmhoir, òrbhuidh,
Urrais àird air slàint’ is còmhnadh,
Biodh d’ fhiamh ghàire ort an còmhnaidh –
Seall an gràdh orm ri uchd dòrainn.
Nuair a reubas stoirm an t-adhar,
Cur nan dùil’ air mhire-chatha,
Luidheas oidhch’ air uchd an latha,
Faiceam soillse do ghnùis fhlathail.

(‘Beautiful, gracious, golden object, lofty guarantee of salvation and help, may you always wear a happy smile – look lovingly upon me as I contend with sorrow.

‘When the storm tears apart the sky, stirring the elements to battle-ardour, and when night falls on the day’s breast, may I see the radiance of your noble countenance.’) 

Such a deft and delicate vision, like the rainbow itself, bridges heaven and earth.  MacLean’s controlled and colourful brush paints out the popular stereotype of the austere, world-renouncing minister of the nineteenth-century Highlands – one of many largely unsustainable stereotypes foisted on this much-misunderstood century.



Nineteenth-century Gaelic literature is far from being naïve or parochial.  It is complex and multi-faceted, accommodating local, national and international perspectives in a globalising age, when local communities came under threat and distant horizons beckoned.  Indeed, a considerable proportion of the surviving corpus has been stimulated by the migration and emigration of Gaelic people from their original localities. Output is also in tune with the wider spirit of the age.  To the extent that it is driven by forces which directed literary development elsewhere in Britain – a point demonstrated by the publication of journals in the first half of the century – nineteenth-century Gaelic literature reflects British, if not broader European, trends. The extensive utilisation of the ‘popular’ printing press radically changed the complexion of Gaelic literary activity, compared with that of the eighteenth century, when only the very greatest composers ‘made it’ into print.  Writers and composers, poets and journalists, of many different skills and of varying competences, are represented in the nineteenth-century canon.  Consequently, overall achievement is by no means uniformly excellent, for there are as many troughs as there are peaks, but it is significant and substantial.  At the very least, it is such that the century deserves to be rescued from unwarranted disparagement and general misconception. 



William Donaldson, Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland: Language, Fiction and the Press (Aberdeen, 1986).

William Gillies (ed.), Ris a’ Bruthaich: The Prose Writings of Sorley MacLean (Stornoway, 1985).

Sheila M. Kidd, ‘Social Control and Social Criticism: The Nineteenth-century Còmhradh’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 20 (2000), pp. 67-87.

Sheila M. Kidd, ‘The Writer Behind the Pen-names: The Rev. Alexander MacGregor’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, 61 (2003), pp. 1-24.

Donald E. Meek (ed.), Caran an t-Saoghail: The Wiles of the World:  Anthology of 19th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse (Edinburgh, 2003).

Donald E. Meek (ed.), Tuath is Tighearna: Tenants and Landlords: Anthology of Gaelic Poetry of Social and Political Protest from the Clearances to the Land Agitation (Edinburgh, 1995).

Derick S. Thomson, An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry (London, 1974).                       


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  2. Happened across your essay today. A great read, and full of great references for further exploration into Gaelic prose. Thank-you