II. Scottish Gaelic Literature.—It is not until after the Forty-five that we find any great manifestation of originality in the literature of the Scottish Highlands. The reasons for this are not far to seek. Just as the dialects of Low German in the middle ages were overshadowed by the more brilliant literary dialect of the south, so Scotch Gaelic was from the outset seriously handicapped by the great activity of the professional literary class in Ireland. We may say that down to the beginning of the 18th century the literary language of the Highlands was the Gaelic of Ireland. During the dark days of the penal laws and with the extinction of the men of letters and their patrons in Ireland, an opportunity was given to the native Scottish muse to develop her powers. Another potent factor also made itself felt. After Culloden the causes of the clan feuds and animosities of the past were removed. The Highlands, perhaps for the first time in history, formed a compact whole and settled down to peace and quietude. A remarkable outburst of literary activity ensued, and the latter half of the 18th century is the period which Scottish writers love to call the golden age of Gaelic poetry. But before we attempt to deal with this period in detail, we must examine the scanty literary products of Gaelic Scotland prior to the 18th century.
The earliest document containing Gaelic matter which Scotland can claim is the Book of Deer, now preserved in the Cambridge University Library. This MS. contains portions of the Gospels in Latin written in an Irish hand with “Book of Deer.” illuminations of the well-known Irish type. At the end there occurs a colophon in Irish which is certainly as old as the 9th century. Inserted in the margins and blank spaces are later notes and memoranda partly in Latin, partly in Gaelic. The Gaelic entries were probably made between 1000 and 1150. They relate to grants of land and other privileges made from time to time to the monastery of Deer (Aberdeenshire). The most interesting portion deals with the legend of Deer and its traditional foundation by St Columba. The language of these entries shows a striking departure from the traditional orthography employed in contemporary Irish documents. The Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh contains a number of MSS. probably written in Scotland between 1400 and 1600, but with one exception the language is Irish.
The solitary exception just mentioned is the famous codex known as the Book of the Dean of Lismore. The pieces contained in this volume are written in the crabbed current Roman hand of the period, and the orthography is “Book of the Dean of Lismore.” phonetic, both of which facts render the deciphering of this valuable MS. a task of supreme difficulty. The contents of this quarto volume of 311 pages are almost entirely verse compositions collected and written down by Sir James Macgregor, dean of Lismore in Argyllshire, and his brother Duncan, between the years 1512 and 1526. A disproportionate amount of space is allotted to the compositions of well-known Irish bards such as Donnchadh Mór O’Daly (d. 1244), Muiredhach Albanach (c. 1224), Tadhg Óg O’Higgin (d. 1448), Diarmaid O’Hiffernan, Torna O’Mulconry (d. 1468). But native bards are also represented. We can mention Allan Mac Rorie, Gillie Calum Mac an Ollav, John of Knoydart, who celebrates the murder of the young lord of the isles by his Irish harper in 1490, Finlay MacNab, and Duncan Macgregor, the transcriber of the greater part of the volume. The poems of the last-mentioned writer are in praise of the Macgregors. A few other poems are by Scottish authors such as Campbell, Knight of Glenorchy (d. 1513), the earl of Argyll and Countess Isabella. A number consist of satires on women. These Scottish writers are still under the influence of Irish metric, and regularly employ the four-lined stanza. They do not appear to adhere to the stricter Irish measures, but delight rather in the freer forms going by the name of óglachas. The Irish rules for alliteration and rhyme are not rigidly observed.
The linguistic peculiarities of the Dean’s Book await investigation, but among the pieces which represent the Scottish vernacular of the day are the Ossianic Ballads. These, twenty-eight in number, extend to upwards of 2500 lines, and form by far the most important part of the collection. Thus the Dean’s Book was compiled a full hundred years before the earliest similar collection of heroic ballads was made in Ireland. In Scotland the term Ossianic is used loosely of both the Ulster and the Fenian cycles, and it may be as well to state that three of the pieces in the volume deal with Fraoch, Conlaoch and the Bloody Rout of Conall Cearnach. It is interesting to note that nine of the poems are directly attributed to Ossian, two to Ferghus File, one to Caoilte Mac Ronan, and one to Conall Cearnach, whilst others are ascribed to Allan MacRorie, Gillie Calum Mac an Ollav and Caoch O’Cluain, who are otherwise unknown. The Dean’s Book was first transcribed by Ewen MacLachlan in 1813. Thomas MacLauchlan published the text of the Ossianic ballads with modern Gaelic and English renderings in 1862. In the same volume W.F. Skene gave a useful description of the MS. and its contents. Alexander Cameron revised the text of the portion printed by MacLauchlan, and his amended text is printed in his Reliquiae Celticae, vol. i. (See also L.C. Stern, Zeitschr. f. celt. Phil. i. 294-326.)
Between the Book of the Dean and the Forty-five we find another great gap, which is only bridged over by a collection which presents many points of resemblance to Macgregor’s compilation. The Book of Fernaig, which is also written in a “Book of Fernaig.” kind of phonetic script, was compiled by Duncan Macrae of Inverinate between 1688 and 1693. The MS. contains about 4200 lines of verse of different dates and by different authors. The contents of the collection are mainly political and religious, with a few poems which are termed didactic. As in the Dean’s Book love-songs and drinking-songs are conspicuously absent, whilst the religious poetry forms about one-half of the contents. In state politics the authors are Jacobite, and in church politics Episcopalian. The Ossianic literature is represented by 36 lines. There are a number of poems by 16th-century writers, among whom is Bishop Carsewell. Mackinnon has pointed out that the language of the Book of Fernaig corresponds exactly to the dialect spoken in Kintail at the present day. The text of the Book of Fernaig is printed in its entirety in vol. ii. of Cameron’s Reliquiae Celticae, and many of the poems are to be found in standard orthography in G. Henderson’s Leabhar nan Gleann. The metres employed in the poems show the influence of the English system of versification. (See Stern, Zeitschr. f. celt. Phil. ii. pp. 566 ff.)
Two other Highland MSS. remain to be noticed. These are the Red and Black Books of Clanranald, which are largely taken up with the histories of the families of Macdonald and with the achievements of Montrose, written in the “Red and Black Books of Clanranald.” ordinary Irish of the period by the Macvurichs, hereditary bards to the Clanranald chiefs. The Red Book was obtained by Macpherson in 1760 from Neil Macvurich, nephew of the last great bard, and it figured largely in the Ossianic controversy. In addition to poems in Irish by Neil Macvurich, who died at a great age some time after 1715, and other bardic matter, the MSS. now contain only three Ossianic poems, and these are in Irish. During the Ossianic controversy the Red Book of Clanranald was supposed to contain the originals of much of Macpherson’s famous work; but, on the book coming into the hands of the enthusiastic Gaels of the closing years of the 18th century, and on its contents being examined and found wanting, the MS. was tampered with.
Mackenzie’s Beauties of Gaelic Poetry contains poems written by a number of writers who flourished towards the end of the 17th century and at the beginning of the 18th. These are Mary Macleod, John Macdonald (Iain Lom), Archibald Mary Macleod. Macdonald, Dorothy Brown, Cicely Macdonald, Iain Dubh Iain ’Ic. Ailein (b. c. 1665), the Aosdan Matheson (one of his poems was rendered in English by Sir Walter Scott under the title of “Farewell to Mackenzie, High Chief of Kintail”), Hector Maclean (also known through a translation by Scott called “War-song of Lachlan, High Chief of Maclean”), Lachlan Mackinnon, Roderick Morrison (an Clarsair Dall), and John Mackay of Gairloch, but we can here only notice the first two. The famous Mary Macleod, better known as Mairi Nighean Alastair Ruaidh