Scottish Gaelic literature

Scottish Gaelic literature refers to literature composed in the Scottish Gaelic language, a member of the Goidelic branch of Celtic languages, along with Irish and Manx.

Middle Ages

Early Middle Ages

In early Middle Ages what is now Scotland was culturally and politically divided. In the West of were the Gaelic-speaking people of Dál Riata, who had close links with Ireland, from where they brought with them the name Scots.[1] Very few works of Gaelic poetry survive from the early Medieval period, and most of these are in Irish manuscripts.[2] There are religious works that can be identified as Scottish, including the Elegy for St Columba by Dallan Forgaill (c. 597) and "In Praise of St Columba" by Beccan mac Luigdech of Rum, c. 677.[3] A series of anecdotes contained in the tenth century Betba Adamnáin (Life of St. Adomnán) are probably derived from works composed on Iona. Outside of these there are a few poems in praise of Pictish kings contained within Irish annals that are probably from Scotland.[2]

Beginning in the later eighth century, Viking raids and invasions may have forced a merger of the Gaelic and Pictish crowns. The Kingdom of Alba emerged, which would eventually become known as the Kingdom of Scotland, and traced its origin to Cínaed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) in the 840s through the House of Alpin.[4] The Kingdom of Alba was overwhelmingly an oral society dominated by Gaelic culture. Fuller sources for Ireland of the same period suggest that there would have been filidh, who acted as poets, musicians and historians, often attached to the court of a lord or king, and passed on their knowledge and culture in Gaelic to the next generation.[5][6]

High Middle Ages

At least from the accession of David I (r. 1124–53), as part of a Davidian Revolution that introduced French culture and political systems, Gaelic ceased to be the main language of the royal court and was probably replaced by French. After this "de-gallicisation" of the Scottish court, a less highly regarded order of bards took over the functions of the filidh, and they would continue to act in a similar role in the Highlands and Islands into the eighteenth century. They often trained in bardic schools. A few of these, like the one run by the MacMhuirich dynasty, who were bards to the Lord of the Isles,[7] continued until they were suppressed from the seventeenth century.[6] Members of bardic schools were trained in the complex rules and forms of Gaelic poetry.[8] Much of their work was never written down, and what survives was only recorded from the sixteenth century.[5] It is possible that more Middle Irish literature was written in Medieval Scotland than is often thought, but has not survived because the Gaelic literary establishment of eastern Scotland died out before the fourteenth century. Thomas Owen Clancy has argued that the Lebor Bretnach, the so-called "Irish Nennius", was written in Scotland, and probably at the monastery in Abernethy, but this text survives only from manuscripts preserved in Ireland.[9] Other literary works that have survived include that of the prolific poet Gille Brighde Albanach. His Heading for Damietta (c. 1218) dealt with his experiences of the Fifth Crusade.[10]

Late Middle Ages

In the late Middle Ages, Middle Scots, often simply called English, became the dominant language of the country. It was derived largely from Old English, with the addition of elements from Gaelic and French. Although resembling the language spoken in northern England, it became a distinct dialect from the late fourteenth century onwards.[8] As the ruling elite gradually abandoned French, they began to adopt Middle Scots, and by the fifteenth century it was the language of government, with acts of parliament, council records and treasurer's accounts almost all using it from the reign of James I (1406–37) onwards. As a result, Gaelic, once dominant north of the Tay, began a steady decline.[8] Lowland writers began to treat Gaelic as a second class, rustic and even amusing language, helping to frame attitudes towards the highlands and to create a cultural gulf with the lowlands.[8] The major corpus of Medieval Scottish Gaelic poetry, The Book of the Dean of Lismore was compiled by the brothers James and Donald MacGregor in the early decades of the sixteenth century. Beside Scottish Gaelic verse it contains a large number of poems composed in Ireland as well as verse and prose in Scots and Latin. The subject matter includes love poetry, heroic ballads and philosophical pieces. It also is notable for containing poetry by at least four women.[11] These include Aithbhreac Nighean Coirceadail (f. 1460), who wrote a lament for her husband, the constable of Castle Sween.[12] Walter Kennedy (d. 1518?), one of the makars associated with the court of James IV, may have written works in the language, although only examples of his poetry in Scots survive. The Book of Common Order was translated into Scottish Gaelic by Séon Carsuel (John Carswell), Bishop of the Isles, and printed in 1567. This is considered the first printed book in Scottish Gaelic though the language resembles classical Irish.

Early Modern Era

By the early modern era Gaelic had been in geographical decline for three centuries and had begun to be a second class language, confined to the Highlands and Islands.[13] The tradition of classic Gaelic poetry survived longer in Scotland than in Ireland, with the last fully competent member of the MacMhuirich dynasty, who were hereditary poets to the Lords of the Isles and then the Donalds of Clanranald, still working in the early eighteenth century. Nevertheless, interest in the sponsorship of panegyric Gaelic poetry was declining among the clan leaders.[14] Gaelic was gradually being overtaken by Middle Scots, which became the language of both the nobility and the majority population. Middle Scots was derived substantially from Old English, with Gaelic and French influences. It was usually called Inglyshe and was very close to the language spoken in northern England,[13] Unlike many of his predecessors, James VI actively despised Gaelic culture.[15] As the tradition of classical Gaelic poetry declined, a new tradition of vernacular Gaelic poetry began to emerge. While Classical poetry used a language largely fixed in the twelfth century, the vernacular continued to develop. In contrast to the Classical tradition, which used syllabic metre, vernacular poets tended to use stressed metre. However, they shared with the Classic poets a set of complex metaphors and role, as the verse was still often panegyric. A number of these vernacular poets were women,[16] such as Mary MacLeod of Harris (c. 1615-1707).[14] Iain Lom (c. 1624–c. 1710) was a Royalist Scottish Gaelic poet appointed poet laureate in Scotland by Charles II at the Restoration. He delivered a eulogy for the coronation, and remained loyal to the Stuarts after 1688, opposing the Williamites and later, in his vituperative Oran an Aghaidh an Aonaidh, the 1707 Union of the Parliaments.[17]

Eighteenth century

The Gaelic inscription plaque on the memorial to the poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre, born in 1724 at Druim Liaghart and who died in 1812.

The use of Scottish Gaelic suffered when Highlanders were persecuted after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and during the Highland Clearances.

The Scottish Gaelic Enlightenment figure Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair compiled the first secular book in Scottish Gaelic to be printed: Leabhar a Theagasc Ainminnin (1741), a Gaelic-English glossary. The second secular book in Scottish Gaelic to be published was his poetry collection Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich (The Resurrection of the Ancient Scottish Language). His lexicography and poetry was informed by his study of old Gaelic manuscripts, an antiquarian interest which also influenced the orthography he employed. As an observer of the natural world of Scotland and a Jacobite rebel, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair was the most overtly nationalist poet in Gaelic of the 18th century. His Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich was reported to have been burned in public by the hangman in Edinburgh.[18] He was influenced by James Thomson's The Seasons as well as by Gaelic "village poets" such as Iain Mac Fhearchair (John MacCodrum). As part of the oral literature of the Highlands, few of the works of such village poets were published at the time, although some have been collected since.[18]

Scottish Gaelic poets produced laments on the Jacobite defeats of 1715 and 1745. Mairghread nighean Lachlainn and Catriona Nic Fhearghais are among woman poets who reflected on the crushing effects on traditional Gaelic culture of the aftermath of the Jacobite uprisings. A consequent sense of desolation pervaded the works of Scottish Gaelic writers such as Dughall Bochanan which mirrored many of the themes of the graveyard poets writing in England.[18] A legacy of Jacobite verse was later compiled (and adapted) by James Hogg in his Jacobite Reliques (1819).

Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (usually Duncan Ban MacIntyre in English; 20 March 1724 14 May 1812)[19] is one of the most renowned of Scottish Gaelic poets and formed an integral part of one of the golden ages of Gaelic poetry in Scotland during the 18th century. He is best known for his poem about Beinn Dorain; "Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain" (English: "Praise of Ben Doran"). Most of his poetry is descriptive and the influence of Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair is notable in much of it. Despite the Jacobite upheavals during his lifetime, it was his experience as a gamekeeper in Argyll and Perthshire in the employ of the Duke of Argyll which had greatest impact upon his poetry. Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain, stems from this period. The significance of Duncan Bàn's nature themed poetry is such that it has, along with that of MacMhaighstir Alasdair, been described as "the zenith of Gaelic nature poetry".[20]

The Ossian of James Macpherson

Main article: Ossian

James Macpherson (1736–96) was the first Scottish poet to gain an international reputation. Claiming to have found poetry written by Ossian, he published translations from the Gaelic that acquired international popularity, being proclaimed as a Celtic equivalent of the Classical epics. Fingal written in 1762 was speedily translated into many European languages, and its deep appreciation of natural beauty and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of the ancient legend did more than any single work to bring about the Romantic movement in European, and especially in German literature, influencing Herder and Goethe.[21] Eventually it became clear that the poems were not direct translations from the Gaelic, but flowery adaptations made to suit the aesthetic expectations of his audience.[22]

Bible translation

An Irish Gaelic translation of the Bible dating from the Elizabethan period, but revised in the 1680s, was in use until the Bible was translated into Scottish Gaelic.[23] Author David Ross notes in his 2002 history of Scotland that a Scottish Gaelic version of the Bible was published in London in 1690 by the Rev. Robert Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle; however it was not widely circulated.[24] The first well-known translation of the Bible into modern Scottish Gaelic was begun in 1767 when Dr James Stuart of Killin and Dugald Buchanan of Rannoch produced a translation of the New Testament. Very few European languages have made the transition to a modern literary language without an early modern translation of the Bible. The lack of a well-known translation until the late 18th century may have contributed to the decline of Scottish Gaelic.[23]

Nineteenth century

The Highland Clearances and widespread emigration significantly weakened Gaelic language and culture and had a profound impact on the nature of Gaelic poetry. The best poetry in this vein contained a strong element of protest, including Uilleam Mac Dhun Lèibhe's (William Livingstone, 1808–70) protest against the Islay clearances in "Fios Thun a' Bhard" ("A Message for the Poet") and Seonaidh Phàdraig Iarsiadair's (John Smith, 1848–81) long emotional condemnation of those responsible for the clearances Spiord a' Charthannais. The best known Gaelic poet of the era was Màiri Mhòr nan Óran (Mary MacPherson, 1821–98), whose verse was criticised for a lack of intellectual weight, but which embodies the spirit of the land agitation of the 1870s and 1880s and whose evocation of place and mood has made her among the most enduring Gaelic poets.[14]

Ewen MacLachlan translated the first eight books of Homer's Iliad into Scottish Gaelic. He also composed and published his own Gaelic Attempts in Verse (1807) and Metrical Effusions (1816), and contributed greatly to the 1828 Gaelic–English Dictionary.

The poetry of Allan MacDonald (1859–1905) is mainly religious in nature. He composed hymns and verse in honour of the Blessed Virgin, the Christ Child, and the Eucharist. However, several secular poems and songs were also composed by him. In some of these, MacDonald praises the beauty of Eriskay and its people. In his verse drama, Parlamaid nan Cailleach (The Old Wives' Parliament), he lampoons the gossiping of his female parishioners and local marriage customs.

Twentieth century

The revitalisation of Gaelic poetry in the twentieth century, known as the Scottish Gaelic Renaissance was largely due to the work of Sorley Maclean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain, 1911–96). A native of Raasay and a native Gaelic speaker, he abandoned the stylistic conventions of the tradition and opened up new possibilities for composition with his poem Dàin do Eimhir (Poems to Eimhir, 1943). His work inspired an new generation to take up nea bhardachd (the new poetry). These included George Campbell Hay (Deòrsa Mac Iain Dheòrsa, 1915–1984), Lewis-born poets Derick Thomson (Ruaraidh MacThòmais, 1921–2012) and Iain Crichton Smith (Iain Mac a' Ghobhainn, 1928–98). They all focused on the issues of exile, the fate of the Gaelic language and bi-culturalism.[14] Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna was a Scottish Gaelic poet who served in the First World War, and as a war poet described the use of poison gas in his poem Òran a' Phuinnsuin ("Song of the Poison"). His poetry is part of oral literature, as he himself never learnt to read and write in his native language. Aonghas MacNeacail (Angus Nicolson, b. 1942), amongst the most prominent post-war Gaelic poets, was influenced by new American poetry, particularly the Black Mountain School.[25]

The 1960s and 1970s also saw the flourishing of Scottish Gaelic drama. Key figures included Iain Crichton Smith, whose plays explored wide ranging themes. Often humorous, they also dealt with serious topics such as the betrayal of Christ in An Coileach (A Cockerel, 1966) of the Highland Clearances in A' Chùirt (The Court, 1966).[26] Iain Moireach's plays also used humour to deal with serious subjects, as in Feumaidh Sinn a Bhith Gàireachdainn (We Have to Laugh, 1969), which focused on threats to the Gaelic language. Other major figures included Tormod Calum Dòmhnallach (1927–2000), whose work included Anna Chaimbeul (Anna Campbell, 1977), which was influenced by Japanese Noh theatre. Fionnlagh MacLeòid's (Finley Macleod) work included Ceann Cropic (1967), which was strongly influenced by the theatre of the absurd. Similarly, Donaidh MacIlleathain (Donnie Maclean), made use of absurd dialogue in An Sgoil Dhubh (A Dark School, 1974). Many of these authors continued writing into the 1980s and even the 1990s, but this was something of a golden age for Gaelic drama that has not been matched.[27]

The first novel in Scottish Gaelic was John MacCormick's Dùn-Àluinn, no an t-Oighre 'na Dhìobarach, which was serialised in the People's Journal in 1910, before publication in book form in 1912. The publication of a second Scottish Gaelic novel, An t-Ogha Mòr by Angus Robertson, followed within a year.[28]

Modern Gaelic poetry has been most influenced by Symbolism, transmitted via poetry in English, and by Scots poetry. Traditional Gaelic poetry utilised an elaborate system of metres, which modern poets have adapted to their own ends. George Campbell Hay looks back beyond the popular metres of the 19th and 20th centuries to forms of early Gaelic poetry. Donald MacAuley's poetry is concerned with place and community.[29] The following generation of Gaelic poets writing at the end of the 20th century lived in a bilingual world to a greater extent than any other generation, with their work most often accompanied in publication by a facing text in English. Such confrontation has inspired semantic experimentation, seeking new contexts for words, and going as far as the explosive and neologistic verse of Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh (1948- ).[30] Scottish Gaelic poetry has been the subject of translation not only into English, but also into other Celtic languages: Maoilios Caimbeul and Màiri NicGumaraid have been translated into Irish, and John Stoddart has produced anthologies of Gaelic poetry translated into Welsh.[31]


Scottish Gaelic literature is currently experiencing a revival. In the first half of the 20th century only about 4 or 5 books in Gaelic were published each year. Since the 1970s this number has increased to over 40 tiles per annum.[32]

With regard to Gaelic poetry this includes the Great Book of Gaelic An Leabhar Mòr, a Scottish Gaelic, English and Irish language collaboration featuring the work of 150 poets, visual artists and calligraphers.[33] Established contemporary poets in Scottish Gaelic include Meg Bateman, Maoilios Caimbeul, Rody Gorman, Aonghas MacNeacail and Angus Peter Campbell.

Gaelic prose has expanded also, particularly with the development since 2003 of the Ùr-sgeul series published by CLÀR, which encourages new works of Gaelic fiction from both established and new writers. Angus Peter Campbell, besides three Scottish Gaelic poetry collections, has produced five Gaelic novels: An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (2003), Là a' Deanamh Sgeil Do Là (2004), An Taigh-Samhraidh (2006) and Tilleadh Dhachaigh (2009) and Fuaran Ceann an t-Saoghail (2011). Other established fiction writers include Alasdair Caimbeul and his brother Tormod Caimbeul, Catrìona Lexy Chaimbeul, Alison Lang, Dr Finlay MacLeod, Iain F. MacLeod, Norma MacLeod, Mary Anne MacDonald and Duncan Gillies. New fiction writers include Mairi E. MacLeod and the writers of the An Claigeann Damien Hirst (Ùr-sgeul, 2009) and Saorsa (Ùr-sgeul, 2011) anthologies. In 2013, the first ever Scottish Gaelic hard science fiction novel, Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach by Tim Armstrong, was published by CLÀR.

Within Gaelic drama, two Gaelic theatre companies were recently professionally active: Fir Chlis and Tosg, which was managed by the late Simon MacKenzie.[34] Most recently, the Gaelic drama group Tog-I, established by Arthur Donald, has attempted to revive the sector.

See also


  1. J. R. Maddicott and D. M. Palliser, eds, The Medieval State: essays presented to James Campbell (London: Continuum, 2000), ISBN 1-85285-195-3, p. 48.
  2. 1 2 J. T. Koch, Celtic Culture: a Historical Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2006), ISBN 1-85109-440-7, p. 1576.
  3. J. T. Koch, Celtic Culture: a Historical Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2006), ISBN 1-85109-440-7, p. 999.
  4. B. Yorke, The Conversion of Britain: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain c.600-800 (Pearson Education, 2006), ISBN 0-582-77292-3, p. 54.
  5. 1 2 R. Crawford, Scotland's Books: A History of Scottish Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), ISBN 0-19-538623-X.
  6. 1 2 R. A. Houston, Scottish Literacy and the Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland and Northern England, 1600–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), ISBN 0-521-89088-8, p. 76.
  7. K. M. Brown, Noble Society in Scotland: Wealth, Family and Culture from the Reformation to the Revolutions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), ISBN 0-7486-1299-8, p. 220.
  8. 1 2 3 4 J. Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland, 1470–1625 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), ISBN 0-7486-0276-3, pp. 60–7.
  9. T. O. Clancy, "Scotland, the 'Nennian' recension of the Historia Brittonum, and the Lebor Bretnach", in S. Taylor, ed., Kings, Clerics and Chronicles in Scotland, 500–1297 (Dublin/Portland, 2000), ISBN 1-85182-516-9, pp. 87107.
  10. T. O. Clancy, ed., The Triumph Tree: Scotland's Earliest Poetry, 550–1350 (Edinburgh, 1998). pp. 247283.
  11. J. T. Koch and A. Minard, The Celts: History, Life, and Culture (ABC-CLIO, 2012), ISBN 1-59884-964-6, pp. 262–3.
  12. J. T. Koch and A. Minard, The Celts: History, Life, and Culture (ABC-CLIO, 2012), ISBN 1-59884-964-6, pp. 33–4.
  13. 1 2 J. Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland, 1470-1625 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), ISBN 0748602763, pp. 60-1.
  14. 1 2 3 4 J. MacDonald, "Gaelic literature" in M. Lynch, ed., The Oxford Companion to Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), ISBN 0-19-211696-7, pp. 255-7.
  15. J. Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland, 1470-1625 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), ISBN 0748602763, p. 40.
  16. K. Chedgzoy, Women's Writing in the British Atlantic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), ISBN 113946714X, p. 105.
  17. Watson, Roderick (2007). The Literature of Scotland. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9780333666647.
  18. 1 2 3 Crawford, Robert (2007). Scotland's Books. London: Penguin. ISBN 9780140299403.
  19. Calder, George (editor and translator). The Gaelic Songs of Duncan MacIntyre. Edinburgh: John Grant, 1912.
  20. Gaelic Song - An Introduction
  21. J. Buchan (2003), Crowded with Genius, Harper Collins, p. 163, ISBN 0-06-055888-1
  22. D. Thomson (1952), The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's "Ossian", Aberdeen: Oliver & Boyd
  23. 1 2 Mackenzie, Donald W. (1990–92). "The Worthy Translator: How the Scottish Gaels got the Scriptures in their own Tongue". Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness. 57: 168–202.
  24. Ross, David. Scotland: History of a Nation. Geddes & Grosset, 2002.
  25. R. Crawford, Scotland's Books: A History of Scottish Literature] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), ISBN 019538623X, p. 653.
  26. I. Brown, "Processes and interactive events: theatre and Scottish devolution", in S. Blandford, ed., Theatre and Performance in Small Nations (Bristol: Interlect, 2013), pp. 37-8.
  27. M. Mcleod and M. Watson, "In the shadow of the bard: the Gaelic short story, novel and drama", in I. Brown, ed., The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature: Modern transformations: new identities (from 1918) (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), ISBN 0748624821, p. 282.
  29. MacAuley, Donald (1976). Nua-bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig - Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems. Southside.
  30. Whyte, Christopher (1991). An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd - In the Face of Eternity. Edinburgh: Polygon. ISBN 0748660917.
  31. Poetry in the British Isles: Non-Metropolitan Perspectives. University of Wales Press. 1995. ISBN 0708312667.
  33. Leabhar Mor website summary of book
  34. Simon MacKenzie Scotsman obituary


Further reading

External links

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