Saturday, 30 March 2013

Religious studies: Jesus in Gaelic Scotland



Despite the claims that are sometimes made nowadays for an independent form of 'Celtic Christianity' in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Christianity in the Gaelic west was essentially an imported faith. It shared its doctrines with the wider world of western Christendom.  This was true of the Scottish Highlands and Islands.  Nevertheless, it is equally true to say that, after the waning of the Latinity of the medieval church, and even in the hey-day of that Latinity, the figure, person and work of Christ were indigenised and expressed in terms of Gaelic language and culture.  Christological doctrine and imagery were presented in forms which were meaningful to the Gaelic people across the centuries.   Gaelic Scotland, however, has never had an indigenous or independent tradition of learned theological exposition. Consequently, there have been no novel or distinctively Gaelic views of  the person and work of Christ, and there have been no major Christological debates within the Gaelic sectors of the churches, although there were differences of view on the nature and extent of the Atonement in the Reformed churches.  Calvinist and Ariminian positions are evident, but the overall balance is tilted towards a Puritan understanding of the work of Jesus Christ, made accessible through the abundant translation of Puritan prose works into Gaelic from 1750. Translation of religious texts into Gaelic began some two hundred years earlier, shortly after the Reformation.  Gaelic printing was initiated by the publication in 1567 of a Classical Gaelic version of the Book of Common Order, a key text of the Scottish Reformation.  The translation was undertaken by John Carswell (c. 1520-72), Superintendent of the Reformed church in Argyll.   The Roman Catholic church in the Highlands and Islands has been part of the wider Catholic communion, and its priests, like their Protestant counterparts, have translated some mainstream Christological texts into Gaelic, most notably Thomas á Kempis' De Imitatione Christi, translated by Fr Robert Menzies of Aberfeldy, Perthshire, in 1785, and again by Fr Ewen MacEachen in 1836.  Similarly the Scottish Episcopal Church has depended on the translation of liturgies from English to Gaelic.  In the absence of original doctrinal treatises, poets, preachers and prose-writers had a major role in presenting the figure and person of Jesus Christ, and in making him accessible to the wider community.

The presentation of Jesus Christ in the work of the Gaelic poets can be traced back into the Middle Ages through the classical - and Catholic -  tradition of bardic verse shared by both Ireland and Scotland.  Christ is often mentioned, but seldom is there extensive sketching.  Poets in personal distress, through the loss of leaders, companions and friends, invoke and beseech his name.  Affrica MacCorquodale, for example, composed a deeply moving elegy on the death (c. 1470) of her husband, Neil son of Torquil. Neil was a MacNeill from the island of Gigha (off the west coast of Kintyre), and had been the constable of Castle Sween in Knapdale (Watson 1937: 60-65):

Mar thá Giodha an fhuinn mhín,
Dún Suibhne do-chím gan cheól,
faithche longphuirt na bhfear bhfial:
aithmhéala na Niall a n-eòl...

Má bhrisis, a Mheic Dhé bhí,
ar bagaide na dtrí chnó,
fa fìor do ghbhais ar ngiall;
do bhainis an trian ba mhó.

(Sad is the state of smooth-soiled Gigha;
the fort of Sween I see without music,
the greensward of a stronghold of generous men;
the sorrow of the MacNeills is known to them,

If Thou, son of the living God,
hast made a breach upon the cluster of three nuts,
true it is that thou hast taken our choice hostage;
Thou hast plucked the greatest of the three.)

The bardic - and thoroughly Gaelic - image of the 'three nuts' appears to refer to Neill and his two sons, but the Trinitarian resonance is obvious.  Here Christ is portrayed, in a slightly paradoxical way, as the spoiler of a closely-knit human trinity, though at the end of the poem the poetess beseechs his protection and that of his mother, Mary.

The Roman Catholic tradition of Gaelic Scotland preserved a deeply human picture of Jesus Christ, and it was much more willing than the Protestant tradition to present him in the context of a physical body (including portraiture in paint, sculputure and stained glass), earthly possessions and human emotions.   A homely and distinctly maternal approach is evident in the work of the seventeenth-century Gaelic poetess, Sìleas NicDhòmhnaill (Giles or Cecily MacDonald, c. 1660-c. 1729), who belonged to the Keppoch branch of the MacDonalds.  Her 'Laoidh Mhoire Mhaighdean' ('Hymn to the Virgin Mary'), envisages Christ making his way through Mary's birth-canal and into a world without any comfort (Ó Baoill 1972: 94-101):

'S éibhinn an sealladh a fhuair i
'Nuair thàinig E nuas à colainn;
Rothaill i 'n anartaibh bàna
An Slànair thàinig g' ar ceannach.

Cha d'iarr Macan na h-uaisle
Cuision na cluasag na leabaidh,
Gus an d' éirich leis a' mhàthair
'Ga chur 's a' mhainnseir 'n a chadal.

(Wonderful was the sight she saw
when he came down out of her body;
she wrapped in white clothes
the Saviour who had come to redeem us.

The child of nobility asked
for no cushion, pillow or bed,
till his Mother managed to put him
to sleep in the manger.)

The poetess compliments the Virgin on her faithful mothering of the Christ child.   In contrast to the more delicately maternal images of female poets, the fully grown Jesus, the joiner of Nazareth, is depicted by Fr Allan MacDonald (1859-1905), parish priest of Eriskay, as a Hebridean boat-builder who builds the boat of his church, and appoints Peter as her captain (Campbell 1965: 21-24).  Sea-going imagery is also found in Protestant verse composed in the Hebrides down to the present day, as can be seen in the hymns of Caitrìona MacDonald of Staffin, Skye, who presents Christ as 'Fear a' Bhàta', the ferry-man who will take her and other Christian believers across the ocean of death (NicDhòmhnaill 1987: 47-48).

Although male and female poets can use similar imagery in depicting Christ, it is evident that female poets have a wider range of imgery at their disposal, because of their ability to deploy their feminine instincts.  This is evident in both Catholic and Protestant verse.  Perhaps the most daring presentation of Jesus Christ in the entire corpus of Scottish Gaelic verse is found in a small song composed by an otherwise unknown female poet, Anna NicEalair (Anna MacKellar), apparently in Argyll in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  The translation of the Bible into Scottish Gaelic, completed in 1801, allowed the Gaelic people to transplant images from the Old and New Testaments into Gaelic soil.  In times of spiritual revival, when entire communities were gripped by a desire for an intimate knowledge of Jesus, the expression of such intimacy could become remarkably physical, as Biblical imagery interacted with folksong motifs.  The erotic images of the Song of Solomon were repossessed by Anna MacKellar to express her own experience of being ravished by Christ's love (Meek forthcoming):

'S ann a thug thu dhomh do ghaol
Fo dhubhar craobh an aiteil;
Is co-chomann do rùin
Ann an gàradh nan abhall.

(In fact, you gave me your love
in the juniper's tree's shadow,
and the fellowship of your desire
in the garden with trees of apples.)

Anna concludes her song by alluding to Christ's triumphant resurrection and his continuing work in preparing a place in heaven for her soul. These concepts hint at another, much harder, image commonly found in Gaelic religious verse, namely Jesus as warrior, surpassing all human heroes, because of his divine power and ascension.  This is the theme of the original Gaelic version of the carol well-known in its English translation as 'Child in the manger / Infant of Mary'.  It was composed by Mary MacDonald (1789-1872) of Mull. By putting its primary emphasis on the infant, it was not intended to be a Christmas carol, but to convey the contrast between the humble Jesus, born in a manger with no earthly pomp (cf. the verse of Giles MacDonald), and all other earthly heroes, who, despite their luxury and human prowess, are unable to rise from the dead (Meek forthcoming):

'S iomadh fear treubhach, gaisgealach, gleusda
Chaisg air an steud 's nach èirich dhiubh,
A-chaoidh gus an sèidear trompaid Mhic Dhè,
Ag àrd-mholadh Dhè 's a' seinn a chliù.

(Many a hero, warlike and skilful,
died on his steed, and never will rise,
until Christ's trumpet issues a summons,
praising our God, with song in the skies.)

In these lines, Christ's second coming as judge of the world is anticipated, and it is he who turns the tables and rouses the dead warriors.  The Day of Judgement is one of the most persistent themes in the Gaelic poetic corpus, in both Catholic and Protestant forms. It is most fully represented in the verse of Dugald Buchanan (1716-68), a schoolmaster in Kinloch-Rannoch, Perthshire, who is generally regarded as the supreme Christian poet of the Protestant Highlands.  His lengthy epic poem, 'Là a' Bhreitheanais' ('The Day of Judgement'), portrays Jesus Christ as the Christ of both the cosmos and the Highland glens (MacLean 1913: 18):

Tha 'm bogha-frois mu'n cuairt d'a cheann,
'S mar thuil nan gleann tha fuaim a ghuth;
'S mar dhealanach tha sealladh shùl,
A' spùtadh as na neulaibh tiugh.

(The rainbow forms a circle round his head,
and like the torrent of the glens is the sound of his voice;
and like lightning is the glancing of his eyes,
spouting out of the thick clouds.)

Buchanan also composed a hymn on 'Fulangas Chrìosd' ('The Suffering of Christ'), in which he dwells on Christ's passion in considerable detail (ibid.: 5-13).  Reflections on Christ's death, his suffering and his victorious ascension are also very common in nineteenth-century Gaelic hymnology, but they are treated much more subjectively, notably in the immensely popular hymns of the Rev. Peter Grant (1783-1867), Baptist minister at Grantown on Spey (MacDougall 1926).  While deploying pastoral and biblical images which resonate with rural life in the Highlands (e.g. the Good Shepherd), Grant's pictures of Jesus use comparatively few 'earthly' and non-biblical images.  As Highlanders became more familiar with the Gaelic Bible, it influenced poetic expression, and 'the things of this world' were eschewed (Meek 1996).

Gaelic poets provide the greatest range of pictures of Jesus Christ, drawing on day-to-day experience and also on Scripture.  Prose composers and writers, predominantly Protestant, were more often concerned with the presentation of doctrine, but this offered less scope for creativity.  Harmonisation of New Testament accounts of Jesus' life and death is sometimes found, as in the Rev. John MacRury's Eachdraidh Beatha Chrìosd ('Account of the Life of Christ'), published in Glasgow (1893). Within the Protestant tradition, preachers often cover the same themes as the poets, but with less in the way of metaphorical interpretation.  It is, however, common to find a biblical emblem which provides a theme for a sermon, as can also happen with a hymn.  Thus, the collection of Gaelic sermons by the Rev. Malcolm MacLeod, An Iuchair Oir ('The Golden Key') (MacCalmain 1950), takes its title from its first item, a meditation on Christ as 'the key of David' (Revelation 3: 7), and subsequent sermons in the collection likewise use emblematic themes ('The White Stone', 'The Memorial Stone') representative of Christ.  Sermons generally adhere closely to the words of Scripture and specifically to its teachings.  In his moving account of a communion service held out of doors in his native district of Morvern, the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod (1783-1862), the foundationally important Gaelic prose writer of the nineteenth century, depicts the preacher's message to the assembled multitude as follows (Clerk 1910: 491):   

B' iad na briathran a ghabh am ministeir mar stéidh a theagaisg air an là so, Luc. xxii. 19: 'Dèanaibh so mar chuimhneachan orm-sa.' O'n cheann-teagaisg so, leig e ris doibh ciod e Crìosd a chuimhneachadh; labhair e mu'n eòlas, mu'n ghràdh, agus mu'n chreidimh a tha fillte steach anns a' chuimhne so a chumail; agus ann an cainnt nach faodadh drùghadh air gach cridhe, leig e ris na sochairean lìonmhor a tha 'sruthadh o chuimhne cheart a chumail air Iosa.

('The words that the minister took as the foundation of his teaching on this day were Luke 22: 19: ''This do in memory of me.''  From this text, he expounded to them what it was to remember Christ; he spoke about the knowledge, the love, and the faith which are interwoven in keeping this remembrance; and in language which could not but affect every heart, he expounded the abundant benefits that flow from keeping a proper remembrance of Jesus.')

Yet even at times of communion, with its strict ritual and strong doctrinal emphasis, personal envisaging of Jesus Christ was encouraged, mainly through the Coinneamh Cheist ('Question Meeting') on the Friday of the communion season, at which elders and male members of the churches were given the opportunity to relate their spiritual experiences by responding to a specific biblical text.  Thus, at the 'Question Meeting' held at the time of communion in Stornoway High Church in 1963, Donald MacLeod, Knock, spoke as follows (Na Dulleagan Gàidhlig, 4 (An Giblean 1963): 3):

Bha mi turus a bha seo a muigh anns an eithir air oidhche dhorcha fhiadhaich, agus fear eile còmhla rium.  Cha robh fhios agam càit an robh sinn a' dol.  Nach ann a dh' éirich solus air an fhairge.  Có a bha ann ach m'athair air tìr agus torch aige a chum ar treòrachadh gu cladach, ach shaoil leinn gum b'aithne dhuinn fhìn an t-slighe, agus chaidh an eithir air a tarsaing!  Tha an Tighearna ag iarraidh oirnn a bhith a' gluasad anns an t-solus.  Is esan an Tì as urrainn ar treòrachadh ceart.

('I was on one occasion out in the boat on a wild dark night, and another man was with me.  We did not know where we were going.  Didn't a light appear on the sea.  Who was it but my father and he had a torch in order to guide us to the shore, but we thought that we ourselves knew the way, and the boat capsized!  The Lord asks us to walk in the light.  He is the one who can guide us properly.')

This simple but vivid parable obliterates the distinction between prose and verse in the portrayal of Jesus Christ in Gaelic Scotland.



Campbell, John Lorne (ed.). 1965. Bàrdachd Mhgr Ailein.  Edinburgh. Constable.


Clerk, Archibald (ed.). 1910.  Caraid nan Gàidheal: The Friend of the Gael: A Choice Selection of Gaelic Writings by Norman MacLeod, D.D.  Edinburgh: John Grant.


Na Duilleagan Gàidhlig.  The Gaelic Supplement of Life and Work.  Edinburgh: Church of Scotland.


MacCalmain, T. M. (ed.). 1950.  An Iuchair Oir: Searmoinean leis an Urramach Calum MacLeòid, M.A. Stirling: Stirling Tract Enterprise.


MacDougall, Hector (ed.). 1926. Spiritual Songs by Rev. Peter Grant, Strathspey.  Glasgow: Alexander MacLaren.


MacLean, Donald (ed.). 1913. The Spiritual Songs of Dugald Buchanan. Edinburgh: John Grant.


Meek, Donald E. 1996. 'Images of the Natural World in the Hymnology of Dugald Buchanan and Peter Grant'. Scottish Gaelic Studies, 17, pp. 263-77.


Meek, Donald E. (ed.). Forthcoming.  Caran an t-Saoghail: The Wiles of the World: An Anthology of Nineteenth-century Gaelic Verse.  Edinburgh: Birlinn.


NicDhòmhnaill, Caitrìona. 1987. Na Bannan Gràidh: Laoidhean.  Stornoway: Stornoway Religious Bookshop.


Ó Baoill, Colm (ed.). 1972. Poems and Songs by Sìleas MacDonald c. 1660-c. 1729. Edinburgh: The Scottish Gaelic Texts Society.


Watson, William J. (ed.). 1978. Scottish Verse from the Book of the Dean of Lismore.  Edinburgh: The Scottish Gaelic Texts Society.

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