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The Modern Scottish Minstrel

The following is from Volume I of The Modern Scottish Minstrel; Or, The Songs of Scotland of the Past Half Century in Six Volumes:


To The Modern Gaelic Minstrelsy

We are indebted for these observations on the Highland Muse to the learned friend who has supplied the greater number of the translations from the Gaelic poets, which appear in the present work.

The suspicion which arose in regard to the authenticity of Ossian, subsequent to his appearance in the pages of Macpherson, has unjustly excited a misgiving respecting the entire poetry of the Gael. With reference to the elder poetry of the Highlands, it has now been established[2] that at the period of the Reformation, the natives were engrossed with the lays and legends of Bards and Seanachies,[3] of which Ossian, Caoillt, and Cuchullin were the heroes. These romantic strains continued to be preserved and recited with singular veneration. They were familiar to hundreds in different districts who regarded them as relics of their ancestors, and would as soon have mingled the bones of their fathers with the dust of strangers, as ventured on the alteration of a single passage. Many of the reciters of this elder poetry were writers of verses,[4] yet there is no instance of any attempt to alter or supersede the originals. Nor could any attempt have succeeded. There are specimens which exist, independent of those collected by Macpherson, which present a peculiarity of form, and a Homeric consistency of imagery, distinct from every other species of Gaelic poetry.

Of an uncertain era, but of a date posterior to the age of Ossian, there is a class of compositions called Ur-sgeula,[5] or new-tales, which may be termed the productions of the sub-Ossianic period. They are largely blended with stories of dragons and other fabulous monsters; the best of these compositions being romantic memorials of the Hiberno-Celtic, or Celtic Scandinavian wars. The first translation from the Gaelic was a legend of the Ur-sgeula. The translator was Ierome Stone,[6] schoolmaster of Dunkeld, and the performance appeared in the Scots Magazine for 1700. The author had learned from the monks the story of Bellerophon,[7] along with that of Perseus and Andromeda, and from these materials fabricated a romance in which the hero is a mythical character, who is supposed to have given name to Loch Fraoch, near Dunkeld. Belonging to the same era is the "Aged Bard's Wish,"[8] a composition of singular elegance and pathos, and remarkable for certain allusions to the age and imagery of Ossian. This has frequently been translated. Somewhat in the Ossianic style, but of the period of the Ur-sgeula are two popular pieces entitled Mordubh[9] and Collath. Of these productions the imagery is peculiarly illustrative of the character and habits of the ancient Gael, while they are replete with incidents of the wars which the Albyn had waged with their enemies of Scandinavia. To the same period we are disposed to assign the "Song of the Owl," though it has been regarded by a respectable authority[10] as of modern origin. Of a portion of this celebrated composition we subjoin a metrical translation from the pen of Mr William Sinclair.

The Bard, expelled from the dwellings of men by plunderers according to one account, by a discontented helpmate according to another, is placed in a lone out-house, where he meets an owl which he supposes himself to engage in an interchange of sentiment respecting the olden time:--


O wailing owl of Strona's vale!
  We wonder not thy night's repose
Is mournful, when with Donegal
  In distant years thou first arose:
O lonely bird! we wonder not,
  For time the strongest heart can bow,
That thou should'st heave a mournful note,
  Or that thy sp'rit is heavy now!


Thou truly sayest I lone abide,
  I lived with yonder ancient oak,
Whose spreading roots strike deep and wide
  Amidst the moss beside the rock;
And long, long years have gone at last,
  And thousand moons have o'er me stole,
And many a race before me past,
  Still I am Strona's lonely owl!


Now, since old age has come o'er thee,
  Confess, as to a priest, thy ways;
And fearless tell thou unto me
  The glorious tales of bygone days.


Rapine and falsehood ne'er I knew,
  Nor grave nor temples e'er have torn,
My youthful mate still found me true--
  Guiltless am I although forlorn!
I 've seen brave Britto's son, the wild,
  The powerful champion, Fergus, too,
Gray-haired Foradden, Strona's child--
  These were the heroes great and true!


Thou hast well began, but tell to me,
  And say what further hast thou known!
E'er Donegal abode with thee,
  In the Fersaid these all were gone!


Great Alexander of the spears,
  The mightiest chief of Albyn's race,
Oft have I heard his voice in cheers
  From the green hill-side speed the chase;
I saw him after Angus brave--
  Nor less a noble warrior he--
Fersaid his home, his work he gave
  Unto the Mill of Altavaich.


From wild Lochaber, then, the sword
  With war's dread inroads swept apace;
Where, gloomy-brow'd and ancient bird,
  Was then thy secret hiding-place?


When the fierce sounds of terror burst,
  And plunder'd herds were passing on,
I turn'd me from the sight accurst
  Unto the craig Gunaoch lone;
Some of my kindred by the lands
  Of Inch and Fersaid sought repose,
Some by Loch Laggan's lonely sands,
  Where their lamenting cries arose!

Here follows a noble burst of poetical fervour in praise of the lonely rock, and the scenes of the huntsman's youth. The green plains, the wild harts, the graceful beauty of the brown deer, and the roaring stag, with the banners, ensigns, and streamers of the race of Cona,--all share in the poet's admiration. The following constitutes the exordium of the poem:--

Oh rock of my heart! for ever secure,
  The rock where my childhood was cherish'd in love,
The haunt of the wild birds, the stream flowing pure,
  And the hinds and the stags that in liberty rove;
The rock all encircled by sounds from the grove,
  Oh, how I delighted to linger by thee,
When arose the wild cry of the hounds as they drove,
  The herds of wild deer from their fastnesses free!
Loud scream'd the eagles around thee, I ween,
  Sweet the cuckoos and the swans in their pride,
More cheering the kid-spotted fawns that were seen,
  With their bleating, that sweetly arose by thy side,
I love thee, O wild rock of refuge! of showers,
  Of the leaves and the cresses, all glorious to me,
Of the high grassy heights and the beautiful bowers
  Afar from the smooth shelly brink of the sea!

The termination of the Sub-Ossianic period brings us to another epoch in the history of Gaelic poetry. The Bard was now the chieftain's retainer, at home a crofter and pensioner,[11] abroad a follower of the camp. We find him cheering the rowers of the galley, with his birlinn chant, and stirring on the fight with his prosnuchadh catha, or battle-song. At the noted battle of Harlaw,[12] a piece was sung which has escaped the wreck of that tremendous slaughter, and of contemporary poetry. It is undoubtedly genuine; and the critics of Gaelic verse are unanimous in ascribing to it every excellence which can belong either to alliterative art, or musical excitement. Of the battle-hymn some splendid specimens have been handed down; and these are to be regarded with an amount of confidence, from the apparent ease with which the very long "Incitement to Battle," in the "Garioch Battle-Storm," as Harlaw is called, was remembered. Collections of favourite pieces began to be made in writing about the period of the revival of letters. The researches of the Highland Society brought to light a miscellany, embracing the poetical labours of two contemporaries of rank, Sir Duncan Campbell[13] of Glenurchay, and Lady Isabel Campbell. From this period the poet's art degenerates into a sort of family chronicle. There were, however, incidents which deserved a more affecting style of memorial; and this appears in lays which still command the interest and draw forth the tears of the Highlander. The story of the persecuted Clan Gregor supplies many illustrations, such as the oft-chanted Macgregor na Ruara,[14] and the mournful melodies of Janet Campbell.[15] In the footsteps of these exciting subjects of poetry, came the inspiring Montrose wars, which introduce to our acquaintance the more modern class of bards; of these the most conspicuous is, Ian Lom[16] or Manntach. This bard was a Macdonald; he hung on the skirts of armies, and at the close of the battle sung the triumph or the wail, on the side of his partisans.[17] To the presence of this person the clans are supposed to have been indebted for much of the enthusiasm which led them to glory in the wars of Montrose. His poetry only reaches mediocrity, but the success which attended it led the chiefs to seek similar support in the Jacobite wars; and very animated compositions were the result of their encouragement. Mathieson, the family bard of Seaforth, Macvuirich, the pensioner of Clanranald, and Hector the Lamiter, bard of M'Lean, were pre-eminent in this department. The Massacre of Glencoe suggested numerous elegies. There is one remarkable for pathos by a clansman who had emigrated to the Isle of Muck, from which circumstance he is styled "Am Bard Mucanach."

The knights of Duart and Sleat, the chiefs of Clanranald and Glengarry, the Lochaber seigniory of Lochiel, and the titled chivalry of Sutherland and Seaforth,[18] formed subjects of poetic eulogy. Sir Hector Maclean, Ailein Muideartach, and the lamented Sir James Macdonald obtained the same tribute. The second of these Highland favourites could not make his manly countenance, or stalwart arm, visible in hall, barge, or battle,[19] without exciting the enthusiastic strain of the enamoured muse of one sex, or of the admiring minstrel of the other. In this department of poetry, some of the best proficients were women. Of these Mary M'Leod, the contemporary of Ian Lom, is one of the most musical and elegant. Her chief, The M'Leod, was the grand theme of her inspiration. Dora Brown[20] sung a chant on the renowned Col-Kitto, as he went forth against the Campbells to revenge the death of his father; a composition conceived in a strain such as Helen Macgregor might have struck up to stimulate to some deed of daring and vindictive enterprise.

Of the modern poetry of the Gael, Macpherson has expressed himself unfavourably; he regarded the modern Highlanders as being incapable of estimating poetry otherwise than in the returning harmony of similar sounds. They were seduced, he remarks, by the charms of rhyme; and admired the strains of Ossian, not for the sublimity of the poetry, but on account of the antiquity of the compositions, and the detail of facts which they contained. On this subject a different opinion has been expressed by Sir Walter Scott. "I cannot dismiss this story," he writes, in his last introduction to his tale of the "Two Drovers," "without resting attention for a moment on the light which has been thrown on the character of the Highland Drover, since the time of its first appearance, by the account of a drover poet, by name Robert Mackay, or, as he was commonly called, Rob Donn, i.e., Brown Robert; and certain specimens of his talents, published in the ninetieth number of the Quarterly Review. The picture which that paper gives of the habits and feelings of a class of persons with which the general reader would be apt to associate no ideas but those of wild superstition and rude manners, is in the highest degree interesting; and I cannot resist the temptation of quoting two of the songs of this hitherto unheard-of poet of humble life.... Rude and bald as these things appear in a verbal translation, and rough as they might possibly appear, even were the originals intelligible, we confess we are disposed to think they would of themselves justify Dr Mackay (editor of Mackay's Poems) in placing this herdsman-lover among the true sons of song."

Of that department of the Gaelic Minstrelsy admired by Scott and condemned by Macpherson, the English reader is presented in the present work with specimens, to enable him to form his own judgment. These specimens, it must however be remembered, not only labour under the ordinary disadvantages of translations, but have been rendered from a language which, in its poetry, is one of the least transfusible in the world. Yet the effort which has been made to retain the spirit, and preserve the rhythm and manner of the originals, may be sufficient to establish that the honour of the Scottish Muse has not unworthily been supported among the mountains of the Gael. Some of the compositions are Jacobite, and are in the usual warlike strain of such productions, but the majority sing of the rivalries of clans, the emulation of bards, the jealousies of lovers, and the honour of the chiefs. They likewise abound in pictures of pastoral imagery; are redolent of the heath and the wildflower, and depict the beauties of the deer forest.

The various kinds of Highland minstrelsy admit of simple classification. The Duan Mor is the epic song; its subdivisions are termed duana or duanaga. Strings of verse and incidents ([Greek: Rhapsôdia]) were intended to form an epic history, and were combined by successive bards for that purpose. The battle-song (Prosnuchadh-catha) was the next in importance. The model of this variety is not to be found in any of the Alcaic or Tyrtæan remains. It was a dithyrambic of the wildest and most passionate enthusiasm, inciting to carnage and fury. Chanted in the hearing of assembled armies, and sometimes sung before the van, it was intended as an incitement to battle, and even calculated to stimulate the courage of the general. The war-song of the Harlaw has been already noticed; it is a rugged tissue of alliteration, every letter having a separate division in the remarkable string of adjectives which are connected to introduce a short exordium and grand finale. The Jorram, or boat-song, some specimens of which attracted the attention of Dr Johnson,[21] was a variety of the same class. In this, every measure was used which could be made to time with an oar, or to mimic a wave, either in motion or sound. Dr Johnson discovered in it the proceleusmatic song of the ancients; it certainly corresponds in real usage with the poet's description:--

"Stat margine puppis,
Qui voce alternos nautarum temperet ictus,
Et remis dictet sonitum pariterque relatis,
Ad numerum plaudet resonantia cærula tonsis."

Alexander Macdonald excels in this description of verse. In a piece called Clanranald's Birlinn, he has summoned his utmost efforts in timing the circumstances of a voyage with suitable metres and descriptions. A happy imitation of the boat-song has been rendered familiar to the English reader by Sir Walter Scott, in the "Roderigh Vich Alpine Dhu, ho! ieroe," of the "Lady of the Lake." The Luineag, or favourite carol of the Highland milkmaid, is a class of songs entirely lyrical, and which seldom fails to please the taste of the Lowlander. Burns[22] and other song-writers have adopted the strain of the Luineag to adorn their verses. The Cumha, or lament, is the vehicle of the most pathetic and meritorious effusions of Gaelic poetry; it is abundantly interspersed with the poetry of Ossian.

Among the Gael, blank verse is unknown, and for rhyme they entertain a passion.[23] They rhyme to the same set of sounds or accents for a space of which the recitation is altogether tedious. Not satisfied with the final rhyme, their favourite measures are those in which the middle syllable corresponds with the last, and the same syllable in the second line with both; and occasionally the final sound of the second line is expected to return in every alternate verse through the whole poem. The Gael appear to have been early in possession of these coincidences of termination which were unknown to the classical poets, or were regarded by them as defects.[24] All writers on Celtic versification, including the Irish, Welsh, Manx, and Cornish varieties, are united in their testimony as to the early use of rhyme by the Celtic poets, and agree in assigning the primary model to the incantations of the Druids.[25] The lyrical measures of the Gael are various, but the scansion is regular, and there is no description of verse familiar to English usage, from the Iambic of four syllables, to the slow-paced Anapæstic, or the prolonged Alexandrine, which is not exactly measured by these sons and daughters of song.[26] Every poetical composition in the language, however lengthy, is intended to be sung or chanted. Gaelic music is regulated by no positive rules; it varies from the wild chant of the battle-song to the simple melody of the milkmaid. In Johnson's "Musical Museum," Campbell's "Albyn's Anthology," Thomson's "Collection," and Macdonald's "Airs," the music of the mountains has long been familiar to the curious in song, and lover of the national minstrelsy.[27]

[2] Highland Society's Report on Ossian, pp. 16-20.

[3] Genealogists or Antiquaries.

[4] Letter from Sir James Macdonald to Dr Blair.

[5] M'Callum's "Collection," p. 207. See also Smith's "Sean Dana, or Gaelic Antiquities;" Gillies' "Collection" and Clark's "Caledonian Bards."

[6] Highland Society's Report on Ossian, pp. 99, 105, 112.

[7] Boswell's "Life of Johnson," p. 320, Croker's edition, 1847.

[8] "Poems by Mrs Grant of Laggan," p. 395, Edinburgh, 1803, 8vo. The original is to be found in the Gaelic collections.

[9] Mrs Grant's Poems, p. 371; Mackenzie's "Gaelic Poets," p. 1.

[10] See Mrs Grant's "Highland Superstitions," vol. ii. p. 249. The original is contained in Mackenzie's "Gaelic Poets."

[11] See Johnson's "Journey to the Western Islands."

[12] Stewart's Collection, p. 1.

[13] Report on Ossian, p. 92. Sir Duncan Campbell fell at the battle of Flodden, Lady Campbell afterwards married Gilbert, Earl of Cassillis.

[14] Mrs Grant's "Highland Superstitions," vol. ii. p. 196.

[15] Mrs Ogilvie's "Highland Minstrelsy." For the original see Turner's Collection, p. 186.

[16] Reid's "Bibliotheca Scotica Celtica." Mackenzie's "Gaelic Poets," p. 36.

[17] Napier's "Memoirs of Montrose." In this work will be found a very spirited translation of Ian Lom's poem on the battle of Innerlochy.

[18] Mackenzie's "Gaelic Poets," pp. 24, 59, 77, 77, 151; Turner's "Gaelic Collection," passim.

[19] See the beautiful verses translated by the Marchioness of Northampton from "Ha tighinn fodham," in "Albyn's Anthology," or Croker's "Boswell."

[20] Mackenzie's "Gaelic Poets," p. 56.

[21] Johnson's Works, vol. xii. p. 291.

[22] Poems, Chambers' People's Edition, p. 134.

[23] Armstrong's "Gaelic Dictionary," p. 63.

[24] Edinburgh Review on Mitford's "Harmony of Language," vol. vi. p. 383.

[25] Brown's "History of the Highlands," vol. i. p. 89.

[26] Armstrong's "Gaelic Dictionary," p. 64.

[27] See also Logan's "Scottish Gael," vol. ii. p. 252.

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