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.
See also: Scottish literature in the Middle Ages
In early Middle Ages what is now Scotland was culturally and politically divided. In the West were the Gaelic-speaking people of Dál Riata, who had close links with Ireland, from where they brought with them the name Scots. Very few works of Gaelic poetry survive from the early Medieval period, and most of these are in Irish manuscripts. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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, continued until they were suppressed from the seventeenth century. Members of bardic schools were trained in the complex rules and forms of Gaelic poetry. Much of their work was never written down, and what survives was only recorded from the sixteenth century. 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. 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.
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 Norman French. Although resembling the language spoken in northern England, it became a distinct dialect from the late fourteenth century onwards. As the ruling elite gradually abandoned Norman 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. 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. 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. These include Aithbhreac Inghean Coirceadal (f. 1460), who after being widowed composed a lament addressed to the rosary of her late husband, a Tacksman of Clan MacNeil and the constable of Castle Sween.
The same book also includes three poems by Iseabail Ní Mheic Cailéin, the daughter of Colin Campbell, Earl of Argyll and Chief of Clan Campbell (died 1493). Iseabail married William Drummond, Chief of Clan Drummond. She became the grandmother of David Drummond, 2nd Lord Drummond of Cargill and is the ancestor of all subsequent Earls of Perth.
By far the most famous of Iseabail's three poems is Éistibh, a Luchd an Tighe-se, which Thomas Owen Clancy has described as, "a fairly obscene boast to the court circle on the size and potency of her household priest's penis. The authenticity of the attribution to Iseabail has been questioned, but without substantial grounds."
In a 2017 article about Scottish Gaelic erotic literature, Peter Mackay suggested that Iseabail may have been following the established tradition in Scottish Renaissance literature of exposing, mocking, and criticizing the sexual sins of priests and consecrated religious. Mackay conceded, however, that Iseabail's poem could just as easily be an unashamed celebration of female promiscuity and lust.
The poet Walter Kennedy (d. 1518?), who was one of the Makars at the court of James IV, was a native speaker of Galwegian Gaelic and was the younger brother of a Tacksman of Clan Kennedy, based in Galloway, South Ayrshire. While Kennedy was denounced by William Dunbar in The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie for being of the "Irishry" (meaning "Gaeldom") and Kennedy may well have written poems in his native language, his poetry in Middle Scots is all that now survives.
During the Scottish Reformation, the Book of Common Order was translated into Gaelic by Séon Caramel, Bishop of the Isles, and released via the printing press in 1567. This is considered the first printed book in Scottish Gaelic though the language heavily resembles Classical Irish.
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. The tradition of Classical 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 Captains of Clanranald, still working in the early eighteenth century. Nevertheless, interest in the sponsorship of panegyric Gaelic poetry was declining among the clan leaders. Gaelic was gradually being overtaken by Middle Scots, which became the language of both the Scottish 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, Unlike many of his predecessors, James VI actively despised Gaelic culture. 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, such as Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (c. 1615–1707), a member of Clan MacLeod from the Isle of Harris. Iain Lom (c. 1624–c. 1710), a member of Clan MacDonald of Keppoch from Lochaber, was a Royalist poet and was appointed poet laureate of Scotland by King Charles II during the Restoration. Iain Lom delivered a eulogy for the coronation, and remained loyal to the House of Stuart even after their overthrow in 1688, opposing the Williamites and later, in his vituperative Òran an Aghaidh an Aonaidh, denouncing the 1707 Act of Union.
The use of Scottish Gaelic suffered when Highlanders were persecuted after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and during the Highland Clearances.
In the song Là Sliabh an t-Siorraim, Sìleas na Ceapaich, the daughter of the 15th Chief of Clan MacDonald of Keppoch, sings of the joy upon the arrival of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, the indecisive Battle of Sheriffmuir and the state of uneasy anticipation between the battle and the end of the Jacobite rising of 1715. Sìleas is also known for her 1723 lament for the Chief of Clan MacDonald of Glengarry, Alasdair a Gleanna Garadh, which hearkens back to the mythological poetry attributed to Amergin Glúingel.
Roderick Macleod "the Younger", 19th Chief of Clan MacLeod, inspired the Bard Roderick Morison to compose Òran do Mhac Leoid Dhun Bheagain ("A Song to MacLeod of Dunvegan"). The song was meant to rebuke MacLeod for not fulfilling "the obligations of his office". Instead of patronizing the Bards and holding feasts at Dunvegan Castle for his clansmen, Morison was disgusted that the Chief had become an absentee landlord in London, who, "spent his money on foppish clothes". In the poem, Morison urged the Chief in vain to emulate his predecessors.
Hamish Henderson said of the song, "It's one of the great songs in the Gaelic tongue, and the poetic concept in it is very great. The poet says that he left the castle, and he found on the slopes of the mountain the echo of past mirth, the echo of his own singing. And he then has a conversation with the echo about the fate of the House of MacLeod." Henderson performed the song at the 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival, during which he erroneously named the target of its satire as being Roderick the Younger's later successor Norman Macleod.
The Scottish Gaelic poet and lexicographer Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair may be said to rank first among all bards of the Scottish Gaels, perhaps with only Sorley MacLean, of more recent fame, as an exception. He "owed little or nothing either to his predecessors or his contemporaries" in the field of poetry and many of his poems are available in anthologies of Scottish poetry.
He was the second son of Maighstir Alasdair (Fr. Alexander MacDonald) who was the Non-juring Church of Scotland minister (this was prior to the Scottish Episcopal Church splitting from The Kirk) of Kilchoan and Tacksman of Dalilea in Moidart.
While teaching at a school run by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge at Kilchoan, the bard 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 1751 poetry collection Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich (The Resurrection of the Ancient Scottish Language). His lexicography and poetry were both informed by his study of old Gaelic manuscripts, an antiquarian interest which also influenced the orthography he employed.
Although Gaelic poetry was once assumed to be isolated from the literature of other languages, Alan Riach argues that Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair was very much aware that he was living at the same time as the Scottish Enlightenment. According to Riach, "With Duncan Ban MacIntyre, you have someone who is illiterate but fluent in Gaelic, and composes his poetry to be sung, to be performed, as music; with Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair and The Birlinn of Clanranald you have an extremely sophisticated poet who reads fluently in a number of languages. So he’s familiar with Homer and Virgil and the great epics of classical literature. He’s familiar with poetry being written in English at the time. He’s familiar with poetry written in Scots. His own writing in Gaelic is part of that continuum, part of that context."
As an observer of the natural world of Scotland and a military officer and war poet during and after the Jacobite rising of 1745, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair also remains the most overtly nationalist and anti-Whig Gaelic poet of the era and his 1751 poetry collection Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich was accordingly burned by the public hangman in Edinburgh.
Due to the often "arbitrary and malicious violence" that Hanoverian Redcoats inflicted, the aftermath of Culloden is still referred to in the Highlands and Islands as Bliadhna nan Creach ("The Year of the Pillaging").
Other Scottish Gaelic poets produced similar laments on the Jacobite defeats of 1715 and 1745. Mairghread nighean Lachlainn and Catriona Nic Fhearghais are among the 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. 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) 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".
At Gairloch during the same era lived the Romantic poet William Ross, who is, according to Derick S. Thomson, "justly regarded as the leading poet of love of the eighteenth century." Despite being widely viewed as a, "love-lorn romantic who died of unrequited love" for the noblewoman Mòr Ros (Lady Marion Ross), William Ross was very capable of poking fun at himself, as he did in the self-flyting poem Òran eadar am Bàrd agus Cailleach-mhilleadh-nan-dàn ("Exchange of Verses between the Poet and the Hag-who-spoils-poems").
His poetic range also covered Scotch whisky, chasing girls, and an iconic lament over the death in exile of Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1788.
In his 1783 poem Moladh Gheàrrloch ("In Praise of Gairloch"), William Ross describes the Highland winter sport of shinty (Scottish Gaelic: camanachd, iomain), which was traditionally played by the Gaels upon St. Andrew's Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Handsel Monday, and Candlemas. The Bard's account of the annual match played upon New Year's Day at ebb tide upon the Big Sand (Scottish Gaelic: Gainmheach Mhòr) of Gairloch, is, according to Ronald Black, "as succinct a description as we have of the great festive shinty matches of the past."
William Ross is said to have burned all his manuscripts, but his verses survived in Gairloch as oral poetry. They were ultimately written down from the dictation of those who had memorized them and published posthumously.
More recently, William Ross' poetry was a major influence upon Sorley MacLean, who remains one of the most important figures in 20th century Gaelic literature. MacLean considered William Ross' last song, Òran Eile, "one of the very greatest poems ever made in any language", in the British Isles and comparable to the best of William Shakespeare's 154 sonnets.
The North Uist poet John MacCodrum, the official Bard to Sir Alexander MacDonald of Sleat, composed poetry criticizing both the Scottish clan chiefs and the Anglo-Scottish landlords of the Highlands and Islands for the often brutal mass evictions of the Scottish Gaels that followed the Battle of Culloden and on mundane topics such as old age and whiskey.
Among MacCodrum's most popular anti-landlord poems mocks Aonghus MacDhòmhnaill, the post-Culloden tacksman of Griminish. It is believed to date from between 1769 and 1773, when overwhelming numbers of Sir Alexander MacDonald's tenants on the isles of North Uist and Skye were reacting to his rackrenting and other harsh treatments by immigrating to the district surrounding the Cape Fear River of North Carolina. The song is known in the oral tradition of North Uist as Òran Fir Ghriminis ("A Song of the Tacksman of Griminish"). The song is equally popular among speakers of Canadian Gaelic in Nova Scotia, where it is known under the differing title, Òran Aimereaga ("The Song of America").
Among the "earliest Scottish Gaelic poets in North America about whom we know anything", is Kintail-born Iain mac Mhurchaidh, descendant of the Clan Macrae tacksmen of Inverinate, who emigrated at the urging of Rev. John Bethune to a homestead along McLendons Creek, in what is now Moore County, North Carolina, around 1774. He continued composing Gaelic-poetry there until his death around 1780.
In the traditional Scottish culture of the Highlands and Islands, hunting was a traditional pastime for both nobles and warriors and eating fish or seafood was considered a sign a low birth or status. By this time, however, hunting was being increasingly treated as poaching by the Anglo-Scottish landlords. Iain mac Mhurchaidh had already composed a poem complaining that his hunting rights were being restricted and, for this and many other reasons, he decided on emigrating to the Colony of North Carolina.
He had no intention of going alone and composed many Gaelic poems and songs in which he urged his friends and relations to join him. In those poems, like many other Gaelic poets who were urging emigration during the same era, Iain mac Mhuirchaidh complained that warriors were no longer valued and that greed had come to mean more to the Chiefs and the Tacksmen than honor, family, or clan ties. Iain mac Mhurchaidh always concluded his poems by arguing that the Gaels would do well to abandon such a corrupted nobility and emigrate to the New World.
During the American Revolution, Iain mac Mhuirchaidh and his son Murdo Macrae fought as a Loyalist soldiers in the famous Highland charge at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge in February 1776. Even though his son fell, Iain mac Mhurchaidh later fought again as a Loyalist under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of King's Mountain in 1780. His many war poems which celebrate the British cause remain an important part of Scottish Gaelic literature.
According to Michael Newton, Iain mac Mhuirchaidh the war poet so inspired the Gaels settled along the Cape Fear River to rise up and fight for King George III that American Patriots, "treated him with great severity."
In 1783, the year that saw the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the Highland Clearances in Inverness-shire, Cionneach mac Cionnich (Kenneth MacKenzie) (1758–1837), a poet from Clan MacKenzie who was born at Castle Leather near Inverness, and who died at Fermoy, County Cork, Ireland, composed the only surviving Gaelic poem of the era which takes up the Patriot, rather than the Loyalist, banner - The Lament of the North. In the poem, Cionneach mac Cionnich mocks the Scottish clan chiefs for becoming absentee landlords, for both rackrenting and evicting their clansmen en masse in favor of sheep, and of "spending their wealth uselessly", in London. He accuses King George III of England both of tyranny and of steering the ship of state into shipwreck. MacCionnich also argues that truth is on the side of George Washington and the Continental Army and that the Gaels would do well to emigrate from the Highlands and Islands to the United States before the King and the landlords take every farthing they have left. The poem appeared in MacKenzie's poetry collection, Òrain Ghaidhealach, agus Bearla air an eadar-theangacha.
The poet Mìcheal Mór MacDhòmhnaill emigrated from South Uist to Cape Breton around 1775 and a poem describing his first winter there survives. Anna NicGillìosa emigrated from Morar to Glengarry County, Ontario in 1786 and a Gaelic poem in praise of her new home there also survives.
Main article: Ossian
James Macpherson (1736–96), the nephew of Ewen MacPherson of Cluny, was the first Scottish poet to gain an international reputation. Claiming to have collected poetry by the demigod Ossian from the Fenian Cycle of Celtic mythology, Macpherson published translations from Scottish Gaelic that he proclaimed were an equivalent to the Classical epics of Homer and Virgil and which immediately became an international sensation. Fingal was published in 1762 and was speedily translated into many European languages. Its awe of the natural world and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of ancient legends did more than any single work to create the Romantic movement, especially in German literature, where it influenced Herder and Goethe. Eventually it became clear that the poems were not exact translations from the Gaelic, but Mythopoeic adaptations. MacPherson had collected many contradictory accounts of the same stories from the Fenian Cycle and then adapted them into a coherent plot in order to suit the aesthetic expectations of his readers.
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. 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. The first well-known translation of the Bible into modern Scottish Gaelic was begun in 1767 when Rev. James Stuart of Killin and Dugald Buchanan of Rannoch produced a translation of the New Testament. Very few other European languages have made the transition to a modern literary language without the wider availability of a much earlier vernacular translation of the Christian Bible. The lack of a well-known translation until the late 18th century may well have contributed to the decline of Scottish Gaelic.
The Highland Clearances and widespread emigration significantly weakened Gaelic language and culture and had a profound impact on the nature of Gaelic poetry.
Lord Selkirk's early settler in Canada Calum Bàn MacMhannain, alias Malcolm Buchanan, left behind the song-poem Òran an Imrich ("The Song of Emigration"), which describes his 1803 voyage from the Isle of Skye to Belfast, Prince Edward Island and his impressions of his new home as Eilean an Àigh ("The Island of Prosperity"). Ailean a' Ridse MacDhòmhnaill emigrated from Glen Spean, Lochaber to Mabou, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1816 and composed several Gaelic poems in the New World. The most prolific emigre poet was Iain mac Ailein, a native of Caolas, Tiree, and the former chief bard to the Chief of Clan MacLean of Coll, who emigrated with his family to Pictou County, Nova Scotia in 1819. In Nova Scotia, Iain Mac Ailein is known colloquially today as, "The Bard MacLean".
Robert Dunbar has dubbed MacLean, "perhaps the most important of all the poets who emigrated during the main period of Gaelic overseas emigration".
Dr John MacLachlan, the author of Dìreadh a-mach ri Beinn Shianta, a poem on the Clearances in Ardnamurchan, is unusual for his outspoken criticism of the Anglo-Scottish landlords. More recently, the poem has influenced Sorley Maclean, who wrote a poem addressed Dr. MacLachlan.
In Sutherland, Eòghainn MacDhonnchaidh (Ewan Robertson, 1842–95) of Tongue was called "the Bard of the Clearances"; is most famous for his song Mo mhallachd aig na caoraich mhòr ("My curses upon the Border sheep") mocking, among others, the Duchess of Sutherland and Patrick Sellar. The song has been recorded by notable singers Julie Fowlis and Kathleen MacInnes. There is a monument to Robertson in Tongue.
A similar poem in Gaelic attacks James Gillanders of Highfield Cottage near Dingwall, who was the Factor for the estate of Major Charles Robertson of Kincardine. As his employer was then serving with the British Army in Australia, Gillanders was the person most responsible for the mass evictions staged at Glencalvie, Ross-shire in 1845. The Gaelic-language poem denouncing Gillanders for the brutality of the evictions was later submitted anonymously to Pàdraig MacNeacail, the editor of the column in Canadian Gaelic in which the poem was published in the Antigonish, Nova Scotia newspaper The Casket. The poem, which is believed to draw upon eyewitness accounts, is believed to be the only Gaelic language source relating to the evictions in Glencalvie.
Uilleam Mac Dhun Lèibhe (1808–70) protested against the mass evictions ordered on Islay,in the Inner Hebrides, after the island was purchased by James Morrison in the poem Fios Thun a' Bhard ("A Message for the Bard") 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 Òran, 1821–98), whose verse has been criticised for its lack of intellectual weight, but which embodies the spirit of the Highland Land League agitation of the 1870s and '80s and whose evocation of place and mood has made her among the most enduring Gaelic poets.
Emigration also resulted in Gaelic-speaking communities abroad, most notably in Canada and the United States, which both produced a very large quantity of literature in the Scottish Gaelic language outside Scotland. Canadian and American Bards made sense of their relationship to their homeland as a diaspora in both romantic poetry praising their "an t-Seann Dùthaich" (English: "the Old Country") and political songs about the Highland Clearances. Many songs, such as "O mo dhùthaich," contain both themes.
In the Gaelic-speaking settlements along the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, the first books published in the language were religious tracts for the use of local Presbyterian congregations. The first such book, Searmoin Chuaidh a Liobhairt ag an Raft Swamp ("Sermons at Raft Swamp"), was published by Rev. Dùghall Crauford, a Presbyterian minister from the Isle of Arran, at Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1791. An edition of Dàin Spioradail ("Spiritual Verses") by Rev. Pàdraig Grannd was printed on the same press in 1826. The Gaelic-language by then was already going into decline. According to Marcus Tanner, despite the post-American Revolution redirection of Scottish Highland emigration towards Canada, a Scottish Gaelic-speaking community continued to exist in North Carolina, "until it was well and truly disrupted", by the American Civil War.
As there was at first no Gaelic-language printing press in Atlantic Canada, in 1819, Rev. Seumas MacGriogar, the first Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian minister appointed to Nova Scotia, had to publish his collection of Christian poetry in Glasgow.
Printing presses soon followed, though, and the first Gaelic-language books printed in Canada, all of which were Presbyterian religious books, were published at Pictou, Nova Scotia and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1832. The first Gaelic language books published in Toronto and Montreal, which were also Presbyterian religious books, appeared between 1835 and 1836. The first Catholic religious books published in the Gaelic-language were printed at Pictou in 1836.
In 1835, while living on a homestead at Glenbard, near Addington Forks, Antigonish County, Nova Scotia, Tiree-born poet Iain mac Ailein published twenty of his works of Christian poetry in Gaelic at Glasgow under the title, Laoidhean Spioradail le Iain MacGilleain ("Spiritual Songs by John MacLean").
Lochaber poet Eòghann MacLachlainn 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 Gaelic verse of Fr. Allan MacDonald (1859–1905), a Roman Catholic priest who was stationed at Oban, South Uist, and Eriskay, is mainly Christian poetry. 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, Fr. MacDonald praises the beauty of Eriskay and its people. In his comic verse drama, Parlamaid nan Cailleach (The Old Wives' Parliament), however, Fr. MacDonald lampoons the gossiping of his female parishioners and local marriage customs.
Under to the 1872 Education Act, school attendance was compulsory and only English was taught or tolerated in the schools of both the Lowlands and the Highlands and Islands. As a result, any student who spoke Scots or Scottish Gaelic in the school or on its grounds could expect what Ronald Black calls the, "familiar Scottish experience of being thrashed for speaking [their] native language."
In 1891, An Comunn Gàidhealach was founded in Oban to help preserve the Scottish Gaelic language and its literature and to establish the Royal National Mòd (Am Mòd Nàiseanta Rìoghail), as a festival of Gaelic music, literature, arts, and culture deliberately modelled upon the National Eisteddfod of Wales.
Before serving in the Seaforth Highlanders in British India and during the Fall of France in 1940, however, Gaelic language war poet Aonghas Caimbeul attended the 300-pupil Cross School on the Isle of Lewis after the 1872 Education Act. He later recalled, "A Lowlander, who had not a word of Gaelic, was the schoolmaster. I never had a Gaelic lesson in school, and the impression you got was that your language, people, and tradition had come from unruly, wild, and ignorant tribes and that if you wanted to make your way in the world you would be best to forget them completely. Short of the stories of the German Baron Münchhausen, I have never come across anything as dishonest, untruthful, and inaccurate as the history of Scotland as taught in those days."
Even so, large numbers of the Scottish people, both Highlander and Lowlander, continued to enlist in the British armed forces and Scottish regiments becoming renowned worldwide as shock troops.
For this reason, literary critic Wilson MacLeod has written that, in post-Culloden Scottish Gaelic literature, anti-colonialist poets such as Duncan Livingstone "must be considered isolated voices. The great majority of Gaelic verse, from the eighteenth century onwards, was steadfastly Pro-British and Pro-Empire, with several poets, including Aonghas Moireasdan and Dòmhnall MacAoidh, enthusiastically asserting the conventual justificatory rationale for imperial expansion, that it was a civilising mission rather than a process of conquest and expropriation. Conversely, there is no evidence that Gaelic poets saw a connection between their own difficult history and the experience of colonised people in other parts of the world."
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.
The cowboy poet Murchadh MacGilleathain ("Murdo MacLean"), a native of Coigach in Wester Ross, was one of many Gaels who emigrated to the American West prior to the Great War. Around 1910, MacGilleathain expressed his loneliness and homesickness in a song-poem composed upon his cattle ranch in Montana: 'S ann a fhuair mi m' àrach an taobh tuath de Alba mhòr ("It was in the north of great Scotland that I was reared"). As he expressed hope to do in the song, Murchadh permanently returned home to Coigach and his song was collected and recorded by the School of Scottish Studies from Maighread Cros in the village of Ceann Loch Iù, along Loch Ewe, in Wester Ross.
In 1917, Rev. Murdoch Lamont (1865-1927), a Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian minister from Orwell, Queens County, Prince Edward Island, published a small, vanity press booklet titled, An Cuimhneachain: Òrain Céilidh Gàidheal Cheap Breatuinn agus Eilean-an-Phrionnsa ("The Remembrance: Céilidh Songs of the Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island Gaels") in Quincy, Massachusetts. In Rev. Lamont's pamphlet and due to his work as a collector, the most complete versions survive of the Canadian Gaelic oral poetry composed upon Prince Edward Island before the loss of the language there, including the 1803 song-poem Òran an Imrich ("The Song of Emigration") by Calum Bàn MacMhannain (Malcolm Buchanan) and Òran le Ruaraidh Mór MacLeoid by Ruaraidh Mór Belfast, (Roderick MacLeod), both of whom were from the district of Belfast, Prince Edward Island.
When the First World War began, Scotland was filled with patriotic euphoria and an enormous number of young men rushed up to enlist in the British armed forces. During the war, the devastating effectiveness of Highland charges in trench warfare caused the kilt-wearing soldiers the Scottish regiments to be dubbed, "Die Damen aus der Hölle" ("The Ladies from Hell") by the soldiers of the Imperial German Army on the Western Front. In the 1996 memoir The Sea Hunters: True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks, American author and explorer Clive Cussler revealed that his father, Eric Edward Cussler, served with the Imperial German Army on the Western Front during World War I. In later years, Eric Cussler used to tell his son that French Poilus were, "mediocre fighters", that British Tommies were, "tenacious bulldogs", and that American Doughboys, were, "real scrappers." Eric Cussler always added, however, "But my German comrades took anything they could all dish out. It was only when we heard the bagpipes from, 'The Ladies from Hell,' that we oozed cold sweat and knew a lot of us wouldn't be going home for Christmas."
Despite their effectiveness, however, the Scottish regiments suffered horrendous losses on the battlefield, which included many war poets who wrote in Scottish Gaelic.
The Scottish Gaelic poet John Munro, a native of Swordale on the Isle of Lewis, won the Military Cross while serving as a 2nd Lieutenant with the Seaforth Highlanders and was ultimately killed in action during the 1918 Spring Offensive. Lt. Munro, writing under the pseudonym Iain Rothach, came to be ranked by critics alongside the major war poets. Tragically, only three of his poems are known to survive. They are Ar Tir ("Our Land"), Ar Gaisgich a Thuit sna Blàir ("Our Heroes Who Fell in Battle"), and Air sgàth nan sonn ("For the Sake of the Warriors"). Derick Thomson – the venerable poet and Professor of Celtic Studies at Glasgow – hailed Munro's work in his Companion to Gaelic Scotland as being: "the first strong voice of the new Gaelic verse of the 20th century".
Ronald Black has written that Munro's three poems leave behind, "his thoughts on his fallen comrades in tortured free verse full of reminiscence-of-rhyme; forty more years were to pass before free verse became widespread in Gaelic."
Pàdraig Moireasdan, a Scottish Gaelic bard and seanchaidh from Grimsay, North Uist, served in the Lovat Scouts during World War I. He served in the Gallipoli Campaign, in the Macedonian front, and on the Western Front. In later years, Moireasdan, who ultimately reached the rank of corporal, loved to tell how he fed countless starving Allied soldiers in Thessalonica by making a quern. Corporal Moireasdan composed many poems and songs during the war, including Òran don Chogadh (A Song to the War"), which he composed while serving at Gallipoli.
In 1969, Gairm, a publishing house based in Glasgow and specializing in Scottish Gaelic literature, posthumously published the first book of collected poems by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna. The poet, who had died two years previously in the hospital at Lochmaddy on the island of North Uist, was a combat veteran of the King's Own Cameron Highlanders during World War I and highly talented poet in the Gaelic language.
According to Ronald Black, "Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna is the outstanding Gaelic poet of the trenches. His best known song An Eala Bhàn ("The White Swan") was produced there for home consumption, but in a remarkable series of ten other compositions he describes what it looked, felt, sounded and even smelt like to march up to the front, to lie awake on the eve of battle, to go over the top, to be gassed, to wear a mask, to be surrounded by the dead and dying remains of Gaelic-speaking comrades, and so on. Others of his compositions contain scenes of deer hunting, a symbolically traditional pursuit of which he happened to be passionately fond, and which he continued to practice all his life."
Unlike Charles Sorley, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Dòmhnall Ruadh believed himself to be fighting a just war against a terrible enemy. The Bard's anger over the futility of the war only boiled over after the Armistice.
In 1924, a Canadian Gaelic poetic tribute to the Canadian Corps soldiers of the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) was composed by Alasdair MacÌosaig of St. Andrew's Channel, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The poem praised the courage of the fallen Canadian Gaels and told them that they had fought better against the Imperial German Army than the English did, while also lamenting the absence of fallen soldiers from their families and villages. The poem ended by denouncing the invasion of Belgium and vowing, even though Kaiser Wilhelm II had managed to evade prosecution by seeking and being granted political asylum in the neutral Netherlands, that he would one day be tried for war crimes and hanged. The poem was first published in the bilingual Antigonish newspaper The Casket on February 14, 1924.
According to John A. Macpherson, "After the war, Dòmhnall Ruadh returned home to Corùna, but although he was thankful to be alive, he was, like most other returning soldiers, disillusioned. The land which they had been promised was as securely held by the landlords as it had ever been, and so were the hunting and fishing rights."
Many years later, Dòmhnall expressed his feelings about the years that followed the war in his poem, Caochladh Suigheachadh na Duthcha ("Changed Days"). He recalled the poverty of his youth and how he and his fellow Gaels went away to war and frustrated the Kaiser's war aims at a truly unspeakable cost in lives. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Scottish landlords of the Highlands and Islands stayed home and got richer. He recalled how after the war there was no work and how the Gaels emigrated from Scotland to all corners of the world. For those who stayed, there was no food except what was grown and ground by hand and supplemented by occasional discreet defiance of the landlords' bans on hunting and fishing.
Dòmhnall used to often say of those same years, "If it weren't for the gun and what I poached, it would have been dire poverty."
In his poem Dhan Gàidhlig ("For Gaelic"), Dòmhnall urged his fellow Gaels to "forget English", saying he had no use for it. He urged his listeners to remember their warrior ancestors from the Scottish clans, who never gave way in battle while there was still a head on their shoulders. Dòmhmnall compared the Gaelic language to a tree that had lost its branches and leaves. But he said that if people were to dig and weed around the base of its trunk, the tree would grow again and spread its leaves and branches. Dòmhnall expressed the hope that the descendants of the Gaels who were evicted during the Highland Clearances would return from around the world to hear from those who had stayed how heartlessly the landlords treated their ancestors. Dòmhnall also expressed a vision of the Scottish Gaeldom prosperous and teeming with children and how sheep, with which the landlords replaced those whom they evicted, would be replaced with Highland cattle. Dòmhnall concluded by predicting that the women in the milking fold will sing Gaelic songs and recite Gaelic poems as they work.
The poet Duncan Livingstone (1877-1964) was born in his grandfather's Croft at Reudle, near Torloisk on the Isle of Mull. His father, Donald Livingstone (Dòmhnall Mac Alasdair 'ic Iain 'ic Dhòmhnall 'ic Dhonnchaidh) (1843–1924) was a joiner and stone-mason. According to the family oral tradition, the poet's paternal grandfather was the uncle of the missionary and explorer David Livingstone. The Poet's mother was Jane MacIntyre (Sine nighean Donnchaidh mhic Iain) (1845-1938), a native of Ballachulish who was said to be the grandniece of the Gaelic poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre (1724-1812).
After serving in the British Army during the Second Anglo-Boer War, Livingstone emigrated permanently to South Africa in 1903. While living a comfortable and prosperous life with his wife in Pretoria, Livingstone published several poems in Gaelic about the Second World War. They included an account of the Battle of the River Plate and also a lament, in imitation of Sìleas na Ceapaich's iconic 1723 lament, Alasdair a Gleanna Garadh, in honor of Livingstone's nephew, Pilot Officer Alasdair Ferguson Bruce of the Royal Air Force, who was shot down and killed during a mission over Nazi Germany in 1941.
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). He was raised in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which he later described as "the strictest of Calvinist fundamentalism" on the Isle of Raasay. He had become, by the outbreak of World War II, a Communist-sympathiser. MacLean was also a soldier poet who wrote about his combat experiences with the Royal Corps of Signals during the Western Desert campaign. MacLean's time in the firing line ended after he was severely wounded at the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1941.
MacLean's most famous Gaelic war poem is Glac a' Bhàis ("The Valley of Death"), which relates his thoughts on seeing a dead German soldier in North Africa. In the poem, MacLean ponders what role the dead man may have played in Nazi atrocities against both German Jews and members of the Communist Party of Germany. MacLean concludes, however, by saying that whatever the German soldier may or may not have done, he showed no pleasure in his death upon Ruweisat Ridge.
Following the war, MacLean would go on to become a major figure in world literature. He was described by the Scottish Poetry Library as "one of the major Scottish poets of the modern era" because of his "mastery of his chosen medium and his engagement with the European poetic tradition and European politics". Northern Irish poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Seamus Heaney has credited MacLean with saving Scottish Gaelic poetry.
Aonghas Caimbeul (1903–1982), a Scottish Gaelic poet from Swainbost on the Isle of Lewis, had served during the Interwar Period with the Seaforth Highlanders in British India. While there, Caimbeul had heard Mahatma Gandhi speak and had also seen the aviator Amy Johnson. Therefore, upon the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Caimbeul rejoined his old regiment and saw combat against the invading Wehrmacht during the Fall of France. After Major-General Victor Fortune surrendered the 51st (Highland) Division to Major-General Erwin Rommel at Saint-Valery-en-Caux on 12 June 1940, Caimbeul spent the rest of the war as a POW at Stalag XX-A, near Thorn, in Occupied Poland, where he mostly did unpaid agricultural labour.
In his award-winning memoir Suathadh ri Iomadh Rubha, Caimbeul recalled the origins of his poem, Deargadan Phòland ("The Fleas of Poland"), "We called them the Freiceadan Dubh ('Black Watch'), and any man they didn't reduce to cursing and swearing deserved a place in the courts of the saints. I made a satirical poem about them at the time, but that didn't take the strength out of their frames or the sharpness out of their sting."
Caimbeul composed other poems during his captivity, including Smuaintean am Braighdeanas am Pòland, 1944 ("Thoughts on Bondage in Poland, 1944").
After a three-month-long death march from Thorn to Magdeburg which he graphically describes in his memoirs, Caimbeul was finally liberated on April 11, 1945. He returned to his native Swainbost and spent his life there as a shopkeeper until he died at Stornoway on January 28, 1982.
Aonghas Caimbeul's collected poems, Moll is Cruithneachd, were published at Glasgow in 1972 and were favorably reviewed.
Caimbeul's memoirs, Suathadh ri Iomadh Rubha, which won the £200 prize in a contest offered by the Gaelic Books Council, were also published at Glasgow in 1973. Of the memoir, Ronald Black has written, "It is a remarkable achievement consisting as it does of the memoirs of an exciting life, woven together with a forthright personal philosophy and much detailed ethnological commentary on tradition and change in island communities during the twentieth century, all steeped in a solution of anecdote, sometimes brilliantly funny. It is the twentieth century's leading work of Gaelic nonfictional prose."
Calum MacNeacail (1902-1978), a Scottish Gaelic poet from Gedintailor, Isle of Skye, served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. In his 1946 poem Cùmhnantan Sìthe Pharis ("The Paris Peace Treaties"), MacNeacail praised the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and threatened the same fate against Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov if they continued refusing to cooperate with the Western Allies.
After returning home following combat in the North African Campaign, Sorley MacLean abandoned the stylistic conventions of the Bardic tradition and opened up new possibilities for composition with his poem Dàin do Eimhir (Poems for Eimhir, 1943). Considered MacLean's masterpiece, the poems deal with intertwining themes of romantic love, landscape, Scottish history, the Highland Clearances, and the Spanish Civil War. They are among the most important works ever written in the Scottish Gaelic language.
His work inspired a new generation to take up nea bhardachd ("The New Poetry"). These included Deòrsa Mac Iain Dheòrsa, (1915–1984), Lewis-born poets Ruaraidh MacThòmais, (1921–2012) and Iain Mac a' Ghobhainn, (1928–98). They all focused on the issues of exile, the fate of the Gaelic language and bi-culturalism. Aonghas MacNeacail, (b. 1942), amongst the most prominent post-war Gaelic poets, was influenced by new American poetry, particularly the Black Mountain School.
On March 28, 1956, when BBC Scotland played a recording of a Scottish Gaelic language ceilidh by the soldiers of the King's Own Cameron Highlanders during the Korean War, Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna, who has served in the same regiment during World War I, was listening. He later composed the poem Gillean Chorea ("The Lads in Korea"), in which he declared that the recording had brought back his youth.
From his home in South Africa, Gaelic-poet Duncan Livingstone contemptuously mocked the collapse of the British Empire after World War II with the satirical Gaelic poem, Feasgar an Duine Ghil ("The Evening of the White Man").
The subsequent rise of the Afrikaner nationalist National Party and its White Supremacist policy of Apartheid, however, troubled Livingstone deeply. The Poet's nephew, Prof. Ian Livingstone, recalls, "I visited Duncan (from Uganda) at his hotel (the Union Hotel, Pretoria) in 1959. He was resident there. Later, when I was back in Uganda, he sent me a long poem, in English (10 pages) on Sharpeville, where some 77 Africans had been shot dead by police (mostly in the back). This had obviously affected him greatly. Unfortunately, I don't have the copy anymore."
The Sharpeville massacre also inspired Livingstone to write the Gaelic poem Bean Dubha' Caoidh a Fir a Chaidh a Marbhadh leis a' Phoiles ("A Black Woman Mourns her Husband Killed by the Police").
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). 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.
Modern Gaelic poetry has been most influenced by Symbolism, transmitted via poetry in English, and by Scots language poetry. Traditional Gaelic poetry utilised an elaborate system of metres, which modern poets have adapted to their own ends. Deòrsa Mac Iain Dheòrsa looks back beyond the popular metres of the 19th and 20th centuries to other forms from early Gaelic poetry. Donald MacAuley's poetry is concerned with place and community. 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- ).
Scottish Gaelic poetry has been the subject of literary translation not only into English, but also into other Celtic languages. For example, the poetry of both Maoilios Caimbeul and Màiri NicGumaraid has been translated into the Irish-language, and John Stoddart has produced anthologies of Gaelic poetry translated into Welsh.
Scottish Gaelic literature is currently undergoing a revival. In the first half of the 20th century only about four or five books in Gaelic were published each year. Since the 1970s this number has increased to over 40 titles per year.
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. Established contemporary poets in Scottish Gaelic include Meg Bateman, Aonghas Phàdraig Caimbeul, Maoilios Caimbeul, Rody Gorman, Aonghas MacNeacail and Crìsdean MacIlleBhàin. Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, an award-winning poet cemented the place of second-language Gaelic learners and gay people in his 2014 collection, Deò.
According to Natasha Sumner, the current revival of Canadian Gaelic in Nova Scotia was largely instigated by Kenneth E. Nilsen (1941-2012), an American linguist with a specialty in Celtic languages. During his employment as Professor of Gaelic Studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nilsen was known for his contagious enthusiasm for the distinctive Nova Scotia dialect of the Gaelic-language, it's folklore, and it's oral literature. Several important figures in the recent Canadian Gaelic revival, including the poet Lewis MacKinnon (Lodaidh MacFhionghain), have credited Nilsen with sparking their interest in learning the Gaelic language and in actively fighting for its survival.
In a major innovation, the 2011 Royal National Mòd, held at Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, crowned Lewis MacKinnon (Lodaidh MacFhionghain), a poet in Canadian Gaelic from Antigonish County, Nova Scotia, as the winning Bard. It was the first time in the 120-year history of the Mòd that a writer of Gaelic poetry from the Scottish diaspora had won the Bardic Crown.
Following Prof. Nilsen's death in 2012, Antigonish bard Lewis MacKinnon (Lodaidh MacFhionghain) composed a Gaelic-language poetic lament for his former teacher, which is titled Do Choinneach Nilsen, M'Oide.
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 by 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), Tilleadh Dhachaigh (2009) and Fuaran Ceann an t-Saoghail (2011). Other established fiction writers include Alasdair Caimbeul and his brother Tormod, 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.
Lewis MacKinnon's 2017 Canadian Gaelic poetry collection Ràithean airson Sireadh ("Seasons for Seeking"), includes both his original poetry and his literary translations of the Persian poetry of Sufi mystic Rumi, all of which are themed around the seasons of the year.
Within Gaelic drama, two Gaelic theatre companies were recently professionally active: Fir Chlis and Tosg, which was managed by the late Simon MacKenzie. Most recently, the Gaelic drama group Tog-I, established by Arthur Donald, has attempted to revive the sector.
It was perhaps seven or eight hundred yards from our trenches to the German line, nearly half a mile, and over this space went the Ladies from Hell, as the Germans call the Scottishers.
"Ladies from Hell" was a nickname given to kilted regiments during the First World War, by the Germans that faced them in the trenches (Die Damen aus der Hölle).