Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Nineteenth-century studies: Gaelic perspectives on steam power



Donald E. Meek


When Professor William Gillies was appointed to the Chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh in 1979, a tremor of excitement shook the Gaelic world. No less remarkable was the University’s intention to appoint two new lecturers to assist the young Professor.  I had the great good fortune to take up one of these posts in the autumn of that year, and I taught alongside Professor Gillies and the Rev. William Matheson, then Reader in Celtic, until Mr Matheson retired a year later, when we were joined by the second lecturer, Ronald Black.  The ‘Edinburgh Triumvirate’ (as we were called) remained intact until I departed to Aberdeen in 1992.  For me, the 1980s were a particularly happy and pleasant period at Edinburgh – in retrospect, a Golden Age – when the world seemed young, opportunities for creating new courses were extremely welcome, as well as exciting, and new horizons in research beckoned on every hand.  Bureaucratic interventionism was hardly known, Professors still commanded their disciplines, and the Research Assessment Exercise had not been invented, though measuring-rods for academic productivity began to be fashioned ominously in the mid-1980s.  In an atmosphere of liberty and equality in the David Hume Tower (where Celtic was then located), to say nothing of fraternity (and sorority) in the University Staff Club, it was a particular delight to construct and teach a range of new courses, which, inter alia, aimed to replenish the supply of academic teachers for other Departments of Celtic in Scotland. One of these courses was on nineteenth-century Gaelic literature.  Professor Gillies’s support for my teaching of this course, and his consistent encouragement to explore the nineteenth century from new angles, consolidated my natural interest in the period.  Discussion of relevant themes, ideas and scholarly approaches – for most centuries, including the nineteenth! – was very much on the agenda of the ‘Edinburgh Triumvirate’ in those arcadian years.   


It is indicative of my lasting delight in the exploration of the nineteenth century that, as my Valedictory Lecture, delivered at the University of Edinburgh on 14 November 2008, I should have chosen to speak on ‘The Greatest Era of the Gaels?  Reassessing Gaelic cultural achievement in the nineteenth century’.  I dared to argue provocatively that, in spite of massive social dislocation in the Highlands and Islands, the Gaelic people had succeeded in conquering adversity to a degree hitherto not fully acknowledged, particularly in their robust and constructive interaction with industrial developments in the Scottish Lowlands.  In the course of the lecture, I referred to the significance of the industrial machine in reshaping society throughout Britain after 1800:


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’.[1]


Despite this, the theme of Gaels and industry has been little studied.  There has been considerable study, however, of the migration of Gaels to the Lowlands of Scotland and to the cities, by scholars such as Professor Charles Withers,[2] but so far the interaction of Gaels with industry, and especially with the workshops of Clydeside, has not been examined in any detail.  We know that many Gaels came to the cities, and we think we know what they did, but, in truth, we understand only in small part how they prepared themselves for the industrial environment and how they reacted to the experience.  The process of entry into the industrial world, and assimilation to its norms, has remained relatively, though not totally, obscure. 


External commentators, who usually have little or no access to Gaelic sources, seem content to crunch statistics, and to refrain from putting flesh on any of the figures.  Consequently, contemporary scholarship presents stick people, swirling in from the ‘periphery’ and assuming a somewhat emaciated and skeletal life in the industrial smog – rather like a scene from an L. S. Lowry painting, with lots of thin, bustling individuals in the foreground and tall, smoking chimneys in the background, but not much in the way of illuminating characterisation or revealing glimpses of what went on behind the scenes.  Internal commentators, who do have access to Gaelic sources, have so far concentrated their attention largely on the ‘social Gael’ in Glasgow, in the context of Highland territorial associations and Gaelic societies.  The ‘political Gael’ too has been studied in some depth, as has the ‘ecclesiastical Gael’, but to date the ‘industrial Gael’, and especially the Gael who tells his story in his own language, remains a surprisingly elusive figure.[3] 


Study of the ‘industrial Gael’ has probably been retarded by broader presuppositions, as well as by lack of access to the sources.  It can be presumed all too easily that Gaels, being rural people, would not have had much to say about industry, and that they were, in any case, labourers, rather than commentators.  It can also be assumed, even by Gaels themselves, that little or no relevant evidence exists in Gaelic.  The notion that Gaels did not discuss industrial or scientific matters in Gaelic, or put their views in writing, is remarkably pervasive.  The evidence may not be plentiful – we still require to ascertain its full scale and scope – but some very significant material is, in fact, readily available to those who have a mind to ferret it out, make the effort to understand it, and piece it together.


The present chapter is very much a preliminary step towards an overview of the ‘industrial Gael’.  The material to hand provides samples at different points in the nineteenth century, namely the end of the 1820s, the early 1840s, and finally the 1860s and early 1870s.  This allows us to reflect on changes in subject-matter and perspective in the commentaries and voices that we hear, and the attitudes that they represent.


(1) Introducing the steam engine: 1829

In the 1820s, a clerical spokesperson for Gaelic, with a very dominant voice and great  literary talent, emerged –  the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod, ‘Caraid nan Gaidheal’, who was a native of Morvern in Argyll, and minister of churches in Cambeltown, Campsie and latterly Glasgow (St Columba’s).  MacLeod was the founding father of Gaelic journals and journalism.[4]  Given his professional calling, he is frequently perceived as primarily a composer of sermons, or sermonic writings, greatly influenced by the style of the Gaelic Bible.  However, not only does MacLeod tackle industrial and scientific matters with considerable panache, he also commands a variety of styles, on which the influence of the Gaelic Bible is merely one among many.  MacLeod’s industrial and scientific concerns are at least as apparent as his homiletic, literary and political inclinations.   In fact, his Gaelic writings in general are highly adventurous for their time, and his industrial and scientific essays particularly so.  His first journal, An Teachdaire Gaelach, initiated in 1829, provided the earliest detailed prose account in Gaelic of a steamship in Highland waters – the celebrated Maid of Morven of 1826 – with perceptive contextual commentary on the significance of the steamship to Highland commerce and culture.[5]   This well-managed composition originated in MacLeod’s strong interest in the steam engine, which, in different shapes and forms, appears as a leitmotif in many of his writings in An Teachdaire Gaelach, but especially in those with an urban theme, aimed at providing guidance for Gaels who have recently arrived, or will soon arrive, in the cities.   Factories driven by steam power, the problems of the workers, including some early ‘strikes’, and the allure and dangers of the urban environment, are all grist to MacLeod’s didactic mill. The industrial world was new and exciting in the 1820s, but, of course, potentially dangerous and menacing for uninitiated and ‘innocent’ Gaels.


MacLeod’s writings are often dialogues between ‘stick characters’, usually an authority figure like himself, disguised under a pseudonym, and a rustic figure or two, in need of enlightenment.  Sometimes, however, as in his account of the Maid of Morven, MacLeod employs monologue, in which a representative figure writes a letter from his city base to his wife who is waiting anxiously at home.  In certain cases too, MacLeod writes explanatory essays, and such is the format of his account of the steam engine, which appeared in the third issue of An Teachdaire Gaelach.  Its style and intent can be sampled in the following explanation of how the steam engine functions:


Tha coire anabarrach mòr air a dheanamh do iarann no dh’umha, air a lìonadh le uisge, agus air a thoirt gu goil.  Anns an dòigh seo, tha mòran deathach’ ag èirigh a tha a’ dol tro fheadan mòr farsaing, cosmhail ri baraille fada iarainn, a tha ag èirigh o mhullach a’ choire seo.   Anns an fheadan seo, tha slat iarainn air a cumadh co dlùth theann agus nach faigh an deathach suas eadar i agus am feadan, ceart mar a chìthear air gunna-sgailc. Nuair a leigear an deathach a-staigh don fheadan ann an ìochdar na slaite seo, sparraidh i suas i le anabharr cumhachd; cha luaithe ruigeas i gu h-àrd, na dh’fhosglas àite àiridh a leigeas a-staigh steall uisge, a dh’fhionnaraicheas an deathach a chuir suas e, agus anns an àm cheudna tha àit’ eile fosgladh gu h-àrd a tha leigeadh deathach ùr a-nuas os a chionn, agus mar seo ga sparradh air ais leis a’ chumhachd cheudna leis an d’èirich e.  Anns an dòigh seo tha ’n t-slat a tha cur na h-acfhainn air fad fo ghluasad a’ dìreadh ’s a’ teàrnadh le neart do rèir cumhachd na deathacha a tha air a chàramh rithe.[6]


A very large vat [boiler] is constructed of iron or brass, filled with water, and brought to boiling point. By this means, a great deal of steam rises which moves through a large wide duct [cylinder], like a long iron barrel, which ascends from the top of this boiler.  In this cylinder, there is an iron rod [piston] which is fashioned so tightly and closely that the steam cannot seep upwards between it and the cylinder, just as one sees with a pop-gun.  When steam is allowed to enter the cylinder, at the base of this piston, it thrusts it upwards with immense force; no sooner does it reach the top than a particular place [valve] opens which admits a jet of water, which cools the steam which thrust it upwards, and at the same time another place [valve] opens at the top which allows fresh steam to enter on top of it, and thus thrusts it back with the same force as caused it to rise. In this way, the piston that causes the entire equipment [machine] to move rises and falls [reciprocates] with power in proportion to the power [pressure] of the steam which is applied to it.


This is quite evidently an accurate description of a double-acting steam engine, which is placed vertically above its boiler.[7]  The basic principles of the engine are explained to Gaelic readers by extending the semantic range of existing Gaelic vocabulary, most of it familiar in domestic contexts (e.g. coire, ‘kettle’) or in outdoor use (e.g. feadan, ‘natural duct for water, rill’, slat ‘stick, fishing rod’).  A very homely touch is apparent in MacLeod’s reference to a gunna-sgailc, a type of elementary ‘pop-gun’ which was still well known as a toy in Tiree in the 1950s.  It consisted of a wooden (or brass) pipe, with a mobile rod at the lower end; the upper end was thrust into a potato, or similarly soft but firm substance, which would adhere in part or in whole, thus creating both a potential missile and an effective seal for the tube.  When the rod in the lower section of the tube was struck hard by the right hand, the ‘missile’ in the upper section would be impacted by the rod, and fly out with considerable force.   Greater explanatory challenges are, however, created by technical items such as ‘valve’, for which MacLeod uses the rather unspecific noun, àite, ‘place’, in Gaelic.


MacLeod then proceeds to enumerate the various industrial contexts in which steam power is already being applied – pumping water from mines (as he notes, the earliest application of the steam engine), the pulling of coal wagons in England, and the manufacture of maritime gear (blocks, sheaves etc.) for naval purposes in Portsmouth, as well as the fashioning of anchors, the fastening of copper sheathing on ships, and the manufacture of cotton and silk.  Attempts are being made, he says, to apply steam power to carriages, though this is still at an elementary and dangerous stage.  Nevertheless, according to MacLeod, the total steam power being utilised in Britain is equivalent to that of one hundred thousand horses.  MacLeod proceeds to note the application of steam power to ships, and the reduction in travelling-time that such development will encourage.  His view of steam is that it will bestow innumerable benefits (sochairean) on humanity, and his vision for the world, in such a context, is optimistic; he concludes by stating his belief that the steamship will be a very effective vehicle in the promulgation of the Christian gospel to the ends of the earth, at a time when a powerful missionary impetus is emerging in the land.  The passage is followed by three verses of Gaelic poetry from ‘Craobh-sgaoileadh a’ Bhìobaill agus an t-Soisgeil’ (‘The Promulgation of the Bible and the Gospel’) by James MacGregor of Pictou, Nova Scotia.[8]


(2) Taming the ‘iron horse’: the early 1840s

MacLeod was well aware of the difficulties which had to be surmounted by steam traction on land before it became a safe and reliable means of transport.[9]  This contrasted with maritime development.  By 1829, steamships were already consolidating their position in the West Highlands and Islands, but development of railways was appreciably slower.  As a result, it took longer for the Gaels, and indeed for Scotland as a whole, to become accustomed to railways than it did for the nation to accept and utilise steamships.  There were also difficulties of a geophysical kind. Ships could sail on an already-made highway, namely the sea, but railways required to be constructed by dint of hard effort, following natural contours, laying sleepers and lines, and overcoming a considerable number of seemingly insuperable obstacles, including the creation of embankments, cuttings and, of course, long tunnels. In the extent of labour required from ‘navvies’ to surmount these obstacles, the construction of the railways resembled the creation of the ‘navigations’ or canals which had been constructed in Scotland in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth.[10]


It was not until the 1840s that railways began to make marked progress in Britain, and, as a consequence, the decade was known for its ‘railway mania’.[11]  Speculation and investment in the railways were rife and unregulated, prompting emotional, if not hysterical, reactions on a considerable scale, as reflected in contemporary writing, with passionate arguments for and against the railways.  Satires were written on early engineers and investors, in such journals as Blackwood’s Magazine.[12]  Quite commonly, the early railways were blamed for giving people ‘neuroses’ of various kinds, and much writing was openly hostile to their development.[13]  Such antipathy can be found in novels throughout the nineteenth century, as, for example, in Charles Dickens’ work, Dombey and Son, published in 1848, in which the railway is seen as ‘the power that forced itself upon its iron way – its own – defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle’.[14]


In Lowland Scotland, as the ‘railway mania’ proceeded in the 1840s, new lines were opened, including the Glasgow, Paisley & Greenock railway in 1841.[15]  This was a most important railway for Clydeside, and had particular relevance to Gaels who had settled in considerable numbers in these parts.  Initially, however, Gaels too appear to have been a little reluctant to let the train take the strain, as they seemed to believe that the train created the strain!  In such circumstances, the railway required to be presented positively to potential users.


Supporters of the railway, as of the steam engine and the steamship, included the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod, who wrote a strongly pro-railway piece in Gaelic on the Glasgow, Paisley & Greenock railway, five years before Dickens, in Dombey and Son, presented his critical view of railway development.  MacLeod’s offering was published in his second Gaelic journal, ‘Cuairtear nan Gleann’ (‘The Traveller of the Glens’), which flourished between 1840 and 1843.    In this item, MacLeod used dialogue, posing as ‘Cuairtear nan Gleann’ (‘The Traveller of the Glens’), and taking the leading part in an illuminating conversation with a favourite rustic character, a clod-hopper from Tiree by the name of Eachann Tirisdeach (‘Hector the Tiree man’).  Eachann had just returned from a trip to Paisley on a steam train, and was not at all enamoured of his experience.  He was still suffering from ‘train shock’, and told the ‘Cuairtear’ of his gratitude to be alive:


Nach robh mi ann am Paisley air carbad na smùide; ach carson a bhithinn a’ gearan; ’s ann agam tha ’n t-adhbhar taingealachd gu bheil mi beò, ’s nach do shèideadh a suas mi am bloighdean anns na speuraibh.  O! b’ e buaireadh an Fhreasdail, do dhuine sam bith na bheachd, cuid a chunnairt a ghabhail do leithid a dh’ àite, fhad ’s a tha comas nan cas aige no dh’faodas e suidhe an cairt schocraich, chiallaich, air boitein connlaich.[16]


Wasn’t I in Paisley on the steam carriage [train]; but why should I complain; I have good reason to be thankful that I am alive, and that I was not blown up in smithereens in the skies.  O! It were a tempting of Providence, for any man in his right mind, to employ the means of endangering himself in travelling to such a place, as long as he was able to walk or sit in a smooth-running, sensible cart, on a bundle of straw. 


He then described the journey itself:


A-staigh do charbad na smùide chàirich iad mi; ag ràdh rium gum bithinn cho socrach, shàmhach, fhoisneach ’s ged a bhithinn ann an cathair-mhòir taobh an teine.  Ghabh mi beachd air a’ charbad – chunnaic mi fear na stiùireach a’ gabhail àite, le ailm iarainn na làimh, agus fear eile san toiseach mar gum biodh fear-innse nan uisgeachan ann, ag amharch a-mach.  Bha smùid às an t-simileir, ’s na h-uile nì sàmhach, socrach nas leòr.  Chaidh mi staigh, agus shuidh mi dlùth don uinneig chum sealladh a bhith agam air an dùthaich.  Tiota beag na dhèidh sin chuala mi beuc mòr – ràn tùchanach àrd, agus an sin fead oillteil. ‘Ciod e seo?’ arsa mise ri Niall; rinn esan ’s an Latharnach gàire.  ‘Siud agaibh, athair’, arsa Niall, ‘sitirich an eich iarainn, ’s e togairt falbh.’  ‘Sitirich na h-oillt,’ arsa mise, ‘leig a-mach mi.’  Ach bha an doras air a dhruideadh.  Thug an t-each iarainn stàdag – bhuail an carbad anns an robh sinne, ’s cha mhòr nach do phronnadh m’ fhiaclain an aghaidh a chèile.  Thug e ràn eile, agus fead; agus an sin leig iad siubhal a chas da – ’s thàr e às.  Thòisich an stairirich ’s a’ ghleadhraich.  ‘’N i seo a’ chathair-mhòr, a Nèill?’ arsa mise.  Bha e dol a-nis na shiubhal, ’s cha b’ e siubhal an eich, no luas an fhèidh; cha tugadh ceithir chasan riamh do bheò-chreutair air an talamh a-bhos, no sgiathan do dh’eun sna speuraibh shuas, na chumadh ris.[17]


Into the steam train they thrust me, telling me that I would be as comfortable, quiet and relaxed as though I should be sitting in the big chair beside the fire.  I observed the train – I saw the steersman taking his place, with an iron helm in his hand, and another man in the front as if he were the teller of the waters, looking out [ahead].  Steam was coming from the chimney, and everything was perfectly quiet and peaceful.  I went in, and I sat close to the window so that I could get a view of the countryside.  A split second  after that I heard a great roar – a high, hoarse bellow, and then a blood-curdling whistle. ‘What is this?’ I said to Neil; he and the Lorn lad laughed.  ‘That, father,’ said Neil, ‘is the neighing of the iron horse, getting into the mood for moving off.’  ‘What horrible neighing,’ said I, ‘let me out.’  But the door had been closed.  The iron horse took a stride – the carriage in which we were travelling banged, and my teeth were almost crushed against one another.  He emitted another roar, and a whistle; and then they let him go as he wished – and he charged off.  The clattering and banging began.  ‘Is this the big chair, Neil?’ said I.  He was now going at speed, and it was not [comparable to] the swiftness of the horse, or the quickness of the deer; no living creature that could keep up with him had been endowed with four feet on the earth beneath, nor had any [such] bird been endowed with wings in the skies above.


Eachann continues in like manner to tell of the terror created by another ‘horse’, a steud-each (‘steed’), as it hurtles past at very close quarters, hauling scores of wagons.  He tries to enjoy the countryside, but houses and haystacks, trees and fields, seem to be in a whirl, dancing the Reel of Tulloch.  The iron horse then plunges through a tunnel, and Eachann construes the English word, directly used by Neil, his son, as the Gaelic donnal (‘whine, cry of pain’). Dizzy and disorientated, Eachann eventually reaches Paisley.  When he has described his experience, the omniscient ‘Cuairtear’ sets about his main task of presenting the beneficial side of the steam train, which he describes as ‘an aon dòigh shiubhail as innleachdaiche fhuaras riamh a-mach le mac an duine’ (‘the most ingenious means of transport that has ever been discovered by man’).[18]


The piece is relaxed and good-humoured, with a great deal of fun.  It is highly likely that it echoes, and to some extent draws on, contemporary popular writing in English on the railway theme.  It contains an element of burlesque, as, for example, in the possibility of a ‘blow up’ (calqued into Gaelic as sèideadh a suas), which furnished contemporary cartoonists with entertaining material. Stock characters appear, among them the inevitable posh traveller, on this occasion a lady who is fat and loquacious, and whose high-pitched voice outdoes the clatter of the iron horse.  Nevertheless, the experience is deftly transferred into Gaelic.   The engine and train are neatly domesticated by calling the engine an t-each iarainn (‘the iron horse’), a Gaelic calque of the common English phrase of the time.  (This phrase probably originated in the practice of using horses to tow railway wagons prior to steam engines.)  As a counterbalance to rather alien calques, the piece employs warmly domestic metaphors and scenes that Gaels would know, including reference to farmyard noises such as the sitirich (‘neighing’) of the horse.  Maritime metaphor and comparison are also used, as is evident in the description of the driver with his ‘helm’, and the second man (presumably a guard?), who resembles a ‘teller of the waters’ and was positioned at the bow of a ship to warn the helmsman of any difficult seas ahead.


The train, MacLeod contends, is in fact good for you, despite its noise, clatter, banging, and shaking.  Eachann had been enticed to take it by his son, Neil, who was courting a young lady in Paisley, and, as Eachann notes, despite his misgivings, she turned out to be a good-looking and acceptable wench.  The sub-text of the piece is therefore that travel by railway can lead to pleasant discoveries, even at the human level, including the comely ladies of Paisley.  What MacLeod emphasises primarily, however, is the convenience of the train, its speed, its ability to take you from A to B and back again, without fuss – despite all the bumps and clangs and bangs.


Through the words of Eachann Tirisdeach – the archetypal Luddite – MacLeod’s piece expands to embrace the implications of the railway for rural areas.  One of these is the danger that it will pull goods into the urban environment, thus impoverishing the hinterlands, and making the city grow at the expense of the countryside.  Urbanisation, with the city portrayed negatively by Eachann Tirisdeach as a greedy pig, eating the food of the smaller animals, is the principal concern of the remainder of the dialogue.  MacLeod employs a reduction ad absurdum when Eachann states that it was only when the pig was finally killed that the other animals had enough to eat.  The future could not be discontinued, nor could the steam train be decommissioned.


MacLeod’s writing on this theme, and on others, appears to have influenced the literary output of his readers, as well as their attitudes to contemporary ‘wonders’.  From about this period we can trace numerous ‘iron horse poems’ in Gaelic, which may have had their origins in MacLeod’s initial treatment.  Commonly, the ‘horse’ is portrayed, as in MacLeod’s account, as an extremely agile beast, full of happy energy, leaping across fields, going its own way joyfully, and showing its paces in every way.  The iron horse, in short, has been domesticated, and becomes ‘one of our own beasts’.[19]


(3) Experiencing tramways, ironclads and furnaces: c. 1860-1875

The development of the railway theme in Gaelic, and the emergence of further subjects of industrial significance, can be followed into the second half of the nineteenth century in a little-known volume of song and verse composed by a certain Iain MacAonghais (John MacInnes) from the island of Lismore, and published by the well-known Glasgow printer and publisher, Archibald Sinclair in 1875.[20] MacAonghais was an industrial blacksmith in Glasgow, and appears to have been a kenspeckle figure in Gaelic circles.[21]


At first sight, his volume contains much that could be described fairly as pleasantly conventional and relatively unambitious, even in terms of the Gaelic output of the later nineteenth century.   It begins with a poem in praise of Highland soldiers, and follows this with another on the Glasgow Highland regiment. Predictably, there are songs in praise of the poet’s native Lismore, and on several of the societies and bodies which helped to sustain the social and cultural life of the Gaels in Glasgow in the 1870s.  The importance of the volume, however, lies in its verse on industrial topics.  MacAonghais’s work includes a specimen of ‘iron horse poetry’, but also several compositions which show an Argyllshire Gael interacting happily with various important dimensions of Glasgow’s industrial life, among them the tramways, the shipbuilding yards of Robert Napier in Govan, contemporary iron warships, and an iron foundry. 


(a) Iron horses and other horses

MacAonghais’s song on the iron horse is very much of its kind, and echoes a number of the themes and sentiments of MacLeod’s prose piece, providing in effect a reprise of its principal humorous metaphors.  Once again, the journey takes place on the Glasgow, Paisley & Greenock railway, but on this occasion the composer sets off from Greenock.  Rather playfully in conclusion, he suggests that the iron horse would render useful assistance on the croft at home. All of this is stereotypical within the genre.


O sgiamhadh is shradadh e,

Mar mhial-chù [t]ro achaidhean;

’S e toit a bha na srian às,

’S [o] bheul a’ tighinn lasaraich.


Air fhiaradh a rachadh e,

Gam shnìomh [t]ro na beallaichean,

’S e sitirich sna speuran,

’S e sèideil ’s a’ langanaich.


Bu cheutach an gearan e

Gu cliathadh san earrach leis,

’S thoirt dhachaigh dhuinn na mòna,

’S an ròd às na cladaichean.[22]


O he would squeal and emit sparks,

Going through the fields like a greyhound;

Smoke, as it belched, formed his reins,

And from his mouth flames were coming.


He would travel sideways,

Making me weave through the passes,

Neighing into the skies,

Blowing and bellowing.


He would be a fine garron

For harrowing in springtime,

And to take the peat home for us,

As well as the seaweed from the shorelines.


Much more interesting is MacAonghais’s song, ‘Oran mun Tramway’ (‘Song on the Tramway’).  Here his overriding concern is with real horses, in this case the horses that pulled Glasgow trams in the 1870s, some 2,000 of them, according to Charles Oakley.[23]   The 1870s were known as the period of ‘tramway mania’ in Glasgow, and, as the system developed vigorously, it generated arguments for and against it in the manner of the railways in the 1840s. 


The poet is worried about the potential ill-treatment of the horses, because they are likely to be frightened by the noise, stressed by heavy uphill hauls, and denied  sufficient food and bedding.  In a manner reminiscent of Eachann Tirisdeach in MacLeod’s narrative, he is also generally rather hostile to the whole concept of the tramway, believing that it will be very costly, replace roads that were perfectly acceptable before it arrived, and encourage people to be lazy and spend their time complaining about public transport. 


Na h-eich air chrith air an casan,

’S eagal orr’ gun tig an latha,

Dh’fheumas iad bhith dol gar tarraing

Thairis air an Tramway.


Iad nan seasamh anns na stàbaill,

’S iad a’ mionnachadh nam bàillidh

’S am Probhaiste cho math ri càch

A chuir an àird an Tramway.


Gun choirc’ aca nam praisich,

’S gun chonnlach an dèan iad cadal,

’S thugaibh fhèin a-nis ur barail

An caidreabh air an Tramway.[24]


The horses trembling on their feet,

Terrified that the day will come

When they must go to haul us

Over all  the Tramway.


They are standing in the stables,

Cursing the city baillies,

And the Provost along with the rest

Who set up the Tramway.


They have no oats in their mangers,

And no straw on which to sleep,

And you yourselves can now give your opinion [of]

Their happy time on the Tramway.


He also provides some excellent descriptions of the early horse-drawn trams, their drivers and conductors.


’S fear air thoiseach ann an cathair,

’S còta mollach air gan slaiseadh;

Cha dèan ruith leis feum, ach sradadh,

’S gallap air an Tramway.


’S fear air deireadh aig an staidhir,

’S poca leathair air is casag,

’S putain gheala, togail faraidh

’N aiseig air an Tramway.[25]


And a man at the front in a chair,

With a hairy coat, whipping them;

Trotting does not satisfy him, only sparking speed

And a gallop on the Tramway.


And a man at the back at the stair,

With a leather bag and cassock,

With white buttons, collecting the fare

For conveyance on the Tramway.   


All in all, MacAonghais’s song provides a fascinating and unexpected window on the early Glasgow tramway system from a contemporary Gaelic perspective, made all the more valuable because the conflicts and debates which it highlights can be confirmed in the contemporary record.


(b) Shipyards and warships

There are two songs on shipyards and warships in the collection.  The first celebrates the launch of the warship, HMS Black Prince, from Robert Napier’s yard in Govan.  MacAonghais informs us that the Black Prince was the first of a particular class of warship – the revolutionary new ‘ironclads’ – to be built in Govan, and that the second was HMS Hector.[26]   In the overall sequence of production, the Black Prince, launched in 1861 and completed in 1862, was in reality the second of the new class, and at that time the largest vessel to have been built on the Clyde.[27]  The class leader, the Warrior, was launched at Blackwall in 1860, and is still preserved at Portsmouth.[28]  The third vessel, also built by Robert Napier, was indeed the Hector.[29]  As befits the ship’s name and figurehead, a ‘massive and beautiful’ representation of the Prince,[30] MacAonghais personifies the Black Prince, and comments cleverly on the ‘buttons’ in its steel coat, i.e. its rivets, which, he claims, ‘we sewed with the hammer’.  In other words, MacAonghais himself was evidently a shipyard worker who had helped to build the ship.  He mentions how its frames had to be heated in a furnace before they could be bent into shape, and this was no doubt his own particular contribution to the building process.


Saoil thu fhèin nach e tha làidir,

Stàilinn tha na chòta,

’S na putain tha sìos mun cuairt air,

Dh’fhuaigh sinn leis an òrd iad.


H-uile aisinn tha na phearsa,

Sac do dh’each air còmhnard,

’S dh’fheumte ’m blàithteachadh san fhùirneis

Mun lùbadh iad òirleach.[31]


Don’t you think that he is a strong fellow,

With steel in his coat,

And the buttons that surround him down below,

We sewed them with the hammer.


Every rib that is in his body

Would be a burden for a horse on level ground,

And they had to be heated in the furnace

Before they would bend an inch.


According to the poet, the Black Prince and the Hector had a sister-ship, the Malabar.    MacAonghais states correctly that she was employed as a troopship, and he also alludes to the ‘Rionnag’ (‘Star’) which she carried.[32]  This is a reference to the ‘Star of India’ (an award for service in India instituted by Queen Victoria in 1861), and a representation of the ‘Star’ on her decorative scrollwork would have been appropriate for HMS Malabar, as she served the Indian Government.  In fact, a fine contemporary photograph of the vessel exists, taken as she was being fitted out at Napier’s Lancefield yard in 1867, and it shows the emblematic ‘Star’ on the ship’s port bow.[33]  Napier is praised for producing all three ships – ‘Is cliù do Napier còir iad’ (‘They bring fame to kindly Napier’). The poet surmises that the vessels may be posted to Abyssinia. 


As a typical British subject, whose Gaelic identity was subsumed within a greater imperial loyalty, MacAonghais rejoiced in the Black Prince’s potential to give Britain naval supremacy over such countries as France, which had produced the very first ironclad.[34]  His hopes were not realised, however.  The Black Prince had a remarkably undistinguished career, though she survived until 1923.[35]


The second song does not name the vessel concerned, but it does describe it in such a way that it is clearly recognisable as a warship, with ‘the nose of a porpoise’, i.e. a ram bow, and a ‘hole like a cave above your shoulder-blade’, possibly a reference to the aperture for the funnel.[36]  The song, however, uses the Gaelic name ‘An t-Achadh Bàn’ of  ‘Fair Field’ in Govan, where the ship was built.  This does not necessarily imply that the ship was built by John Elder, whose company was later known as ‘Fairfield’s’, as this would be too late relative to the publication date of MacAonghais’s book.[37]  The ship in question may well have been another of the ironclads, quite probably HMS Invincible, launched by Robert Napier in 1869.[38]


(c) Foundries and furnaces

MacAonghais also produced a song entitled ‘Oran mun Gharadh-iarainn san robh mi dol a dh’obair’ (‘Song on the ironworks in which I went to work’).[39]  It is not clear whether this was a foundry or a shipyard, as ‘gàradh-iarainn’ was commonly the Gaelic term for the latter.  It is, on balance, probable that it was an iron foundry, and that MacAonghais, following an apprenticeship, moved from the foundry to better employment in Napier’s shipyard.


In this poem, there is a remarkable description of an iron worker and fellow blacksmith called Teàrlach Dùghlach (‘Charles MacDougall):


’S gu bheil Teàrlach Dùghlach dhiubh,

Fear-ùird cho math ’s th’ air Cluaidh e,

’S chan eil gin an Glaschu

Bheir garadh às a’ ghual ris,

Le gàirdeanan cho comasach

Gu chumail gus a bhualadh,

’S gun toir e dh’ ionnsaigh d’ òrdugh e,

Gun ochd den òirleach bhuaithe.[40]


Charles MacDougall is one of them (the iron workers);

He is a hammerman as good as any on the Clyde,

And there is none in Glasgow who can compare with him

In getting heat from the coal;

With shoulders that are so capable,

To hold it [the iron] so that it can be beaten,

He will make it conform to your specification,

Without being short by an eighth of an inch.


Here we have a man being celebrated as an industrial hero – surely a fascinating extension of Gaelic praise poetry.  One wonders whether ‘Teàrlach Dùghlach’ might have been another Gaelic speaker, who would have listened with pleasure to this encomium.  In his song on the Black Prince, MacAonghais makes the point that Gaelic is ‘a’ chainnt nach fhaigh mi chur an cleachdainn’ (‘the language which I cannot put into practice’),[41] which implies that English is the language of the shipyard, but this does not rule out the likelihood that Gaelic song of the kind composed by MacAonghais was aimed primarily at fellow Gaels in the foundries and shipyards.  The ‘Gaelic industrial poet’, like other Gaelic poets, would have functioned within a congenial, like-minded community with an appreciative ear for song.



The songs of Iain MacAonghais are a very powerful indicator, in themselves, that Gaels were not infrequently at the very heart of ‘the workshop of the Empire’, as industrial Clydeside was commonly known, and that they were well able to record and celebrate numerous aspects of their experience.  It would seem that Norman MacLeod’s pro-industrial exhortations earlier in the nineteenth century had been well heeded, and that, by the second half of that century, ‘ordinary’ Gaels in dungarees had come to terms with the challenges of industry, to the extent that they were not only pleased to turn a penny in the great ‘workshop’, but also extremely proud of their skills and handiwork. 


Gaels also commemorated their experiences in Gaelic.  The evidence cited in this chapter shows that very important stages in Scottish industrial development, beginning with the steam engine itself, proceeding to the application of steam propulsion to transport, and culminating in the production of the first iron warships of the Royal Navy, are well covered in Gaelic literature of various kinds.  The passages under discussion also demonstrate several of the ways in which Gaelic speakers adapted the Gaelic language and its lexis to industrial concepts.  Much further Gaelic material of this kind remains to be edited and assessed to round out the picture.


The existence of such Gaelic evidence, of which the present chapter furnishes only a sampling, throws down a challenge to historians, and particularly to those of their number who operate without a knowledge of Gaelic.  Any attempt to assess nineteenth-century Scotland will remain seriously flawed and incomplete unless, and until, historians take full account of Gaelic sources.  The immense importance of taking cognisance of the ‘Gaelic view’ when assessing Scottish life and letters was among the many fundamental principles which Professor William Gillies enunciated, and put into practice fearlessly, when he assumed the Chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh in 1979.  Thirty years later, at the conclusion of a distinguished career, he would doubtless reiterate these self-same principles, which have been guiding lights to his many former students and, not least, to those staff members who were privileged to develop their scholarly skills under his ground-breaking, generous and genial leadership. [42]






[1] Donald E. Meek, ‘The Greatest Era of the Gaels?  Reassessing Gaelic cultural achievement in the nineteenth century’, Valedictory Lecture, University of Edinburgh, 14 November 2008 (unpublished).
[2] Charles W. J. Withers, Urban Highlanders: Highland-Lowland Migration and Urban Gaelic Culture, 1700-1900 (Phantassie, 1998).
[3] For a series of studies well grounded in Gaelic sources, with some discussion of Gaelic speakers’ involvement in urban industry (most notably printing and publishing), see Glasgow Baile Mòr nan Gaidheal:City of the Gaels, ed. Sheila M. Kidd (Glasgow, 2007).
[4] Donald E. Meek, ‘Gaelic Literature in the Nineteenth Century’, in Enlightenment, Britain and Empire (1707-1918):  The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, 2, ed. Susan Manning, Ian Brown, Thomas Owen Clancy and Murray Pittock (Edinburgh, 2007), 253-66; Sheila M. Kidd, ‘Tormod MacLeòid: Àrd-Chonsal nan Gàidheal’, in Kidd, Glasgow, 107-29.
[5] Donald E. Meek, ‘Early Steamship Travel from the Other Side: An 1829 Gaelic Account of the Maid of Morven,’ Review of Scottish Culture, 20 (2008), 57-79.
[6] ‘Mu Inneal na Deathacha’, An Teachdaire Gae’lach, Aireamh III (July 1829), 64-67.  It should be noted carefully that MacLeod’s early and highly informative essays on the steam engine are omitted from the anthology of his works compiled by Archibald Clerk, Kilmallie, and cited in footnote 15.  They may have been set aside because they were too scientific and mechanical in their themes relative to the main parts of the larger corpus.  A close reading of the individual issues of his journal will therefore be essential in future research.
[7] See, in general, Ben Marsden, Watt’s Perfect Engine: Steam and the Age of Invention (Royston, 2002).
[8] Donald E. Meek, ‘Craobh-sgaoileadh a’ Bhìobaill agus an t-Soisgeil: A Gaelic Song on the Nineteenth-century Missionary Movement’, in Fil súil nglais; a Festschrift in honour of Colm Ó Baoill, ed. Sharon Arbuthnot and Kaarina Hollo (Ceann Drochaid 2007), 143-62.
[9] MacLeod provided an update on the progress of steam propulsion, ‘Mu Charbad na Smùide’ (‘On the Steam Train’), in An Teachdaire Gae’lach,  Aireamh VIII (December 1829), 176-77.  In this article, MacLeod comments on the ability of an engine in England to pull a forty-ton load, the improvement in boiler strength so that the danger of explosion is reduced, the engine’s capacity to carry sufficient fuel (coke) to sustain it for fifty miles, and the provision of iron track for the engine and carriages.  Nevertheless, the laying of iron track throughout Britain was a massive undertaking, which proceeded piecemeal.
[10]For general discussion of the railways, see Christian Wolmar, Fire & Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain (London, 2007), and with specific reference to Scotland, see P.J.G. Ransom, Iron Road: The Railway in Scotland (Edinburgh, 2007).
[11] Wolmar, 87-107; Ransom, 43-79.
[12] Ransom, 56-57.
[13] Ralph Harrington, ‘The Neuroses of the Railway’, History Today, 44: 7 (July 1994), 15-21.  I owe this reference, and a copy of the article, to the kindness and eagle eye of Dr Donald William Stewart.
[14] Cited in Harrington, 20.
[15] Ransom, 47.
[16] Caraid nan Gaidheal: The Gaelic Writings of Norman MacLeod D.D., ed. A. Clerk (Edinburgh, 1867), 152-62 (153).
[17] Ibid., 154-55.
[18] Ibid., 153.
[19] For a representative specimen of the genre, see Caran an t-Saoghail: The Wiles of the World: Anthology of Nineteenth-century Gaelic Verse, ed. Donald E. Meek (Edinburgh, 2003), 134-39.
[20] Iain MacAonghais, Duain agus Orain (Glaschu, 1875).
[21] Donald MacLean, Typographia Scoto-Gadelica (Edinburgh, 1915), 229.
[22] MacAonghais, 63-64.
[23] Charles A. Oakley, The Last Tram (Glasgow, 1962), 21-27.
[24] MacAonghais, 52.
[25] Ibid., 53.
[26] Ibid., 46-48.
[27] Fred T. Walker, Song of the Clyde: A History of Clyde Shipbuilding  (Edinburgh, 2001), 131-32.
[28] For general discussion of ‘The Early Ironclads’, see An Illustrated History of Ships, ed. E. L. Cornwell (London, 1979), 131-35.
[30] Walker, 132, contains a photograph of the vessel and a caption describing its figurehead.  The Warrior and the Black Prince were the last two Royal Navy vessels to carry figureheads.
[31] MacAonghais, 47.  It should be noted that the use of steel in constructing ships of this kind was relatively new, as was the use of iron.
[32] Ibid., 48.
[33] Michael Moss, The Clyde: A Portrait of a River (N.p., Lomond Books, 2002), 89.
[34] This was La Gloire of 1859.  Her launch initiated a competition between nations to improve warship design and strength; see Cornwell, 131.
[35] Walker, 132.
[36] Neither the Warrior nor the Black Prince had ram bows; this appeared initially on the ironclads of the later 1860s, as can be seen on the Malabar of 1867.  The Gaelic word toll, ‘hole’, came to be used generally of the cargo hold of a ship.  This does not seem appropriate in this context.
[37] MacAonghais, 64.  Professor Michael Moss, University of Glasgow, kindly informs me that ‘Fair Field was quite large and probably included some of the ground which Napier's Govan yard occupied.  It all belonged at one time to either the Cathedral or the Bishopric of Glasgow.’  Robert Napier’s Govan yard was successively at Govan Old (from 1841) and Govan East (from 1850), but he also had another yard (owned initially by Robert’s cousin, David) on the other side of the river, at Lancefield, close to the present-day Kingston Bridge. See Walker, 168-71.
[38] See for a very helpful listing of ironclads, with illustrations.
[39] MacAonghais, 69-71.
[40] Ibid., 70.
[41] Ibid., 46.
[42] The outline of this chapter was given a trial run over the academic ‘measured mile’ at a seminar held by the Department of Celtic, University of Glasgow, on 9 December 2008.  I am very grateful to those who attended the seminar, and made important points in the subsequent discussion.  Professor Michael Moss, University of Glasgow, was most generous in assisting me with the identification of the ironclads and in clarifying locations of Clyde yards.  Dr Donald William Stewart, University of Edinburgh, found an excellent and highly relevant article (footnote 12) which he passed on to me at precisely the right moment.  It proved to be the key to understanding MacLeod’s intention in his principal piece on the steam train.

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