TO go back to the poets of the first half of the 18th century, before coming forward into the changed world after Culloden, is to go into a more socially coherent and reliably structured literary community.

As we’ve seen in recent essays, praise-songs, laments, riotously funny and physical satires, erotic, comic and playful engagements, tender love songs and poems evocative of person, season and place all retain a vitality and lasting pleasure.

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Poems and songs were also a way of reminding powerful people of their responsibilities to the less well-off in society. In the 1980s, the American poet Edward Dorn pointed out in Proclamation that certain politicians with certain economic priorities were going to do bad things:

“Where there is wealth,

let us create excess ...

where there is need,

let us create hardship,

where there is poverty,

let us create downright misery.”

If the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 resulted in the disruption of social pattern and coherence, presaging three centuries of expanding imperialism, there were still the securities of certain poetic forms.

Among the great laments of this period is Oran do dh’Aiolean Dearg (A Song to Red Allan) by Niall MacMhuirich, the last professional bard of the Clanranald MacDonalds. Here is the first verse and Ronald Black’s translation:

Gur e naidheachd na Ciadaoin

Rinn mo chruitheachd a shiaradh;

Le leann dubh, ’s le bron cianail

Gun drùidh i trom air mo chrioschaibh –

Mo sgeul duilich nach iarr mi ur còmhradh

Mo sgeul duilich nach iarr mi ur còmhradh

Wednesday’s news

Has wasted my frame;

With regret, wretched mourning

It struck hard my defences –

My sad tale’s that I can’t seek your converse,

My sad tale’s that I can’t seek your converse.

Even deeper passion is felt in the equally formal lament by Sileas na Ceapaich / Cicely Macdonald of Keppoch (c.1660-c.1729), Alastair a Gleanna Garadh (Alexander from Glengarry). This is one of the great songs of remorse. Here’s the opening of the sixth verse with Ronald Black’s translation in English:

Bu tu ’n loch nach fhaoidt’ a thaomadh,

Bu tu tobar faoilidh na slàinte,

Bu tu Beinn Nimheis thar gach aonach,

Bu tu chreag nach fhaoidte theàirnadh …

You were the loch that couldn’t be emptied,

You were the generous well of health,

You were Ben Nevis above every hilltop.

You were the cliff that no-one descends …

Recollecting her own bereavement, Cicely puts the death of the heroic chief in a personal context, tenderly acknowledging the vulnerability of his widow and their surviving son.

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Vigour, directness and personal engagement are rising here through traditional forms. Cicely also composed a very funny response to a lurid comic poem in praise of carnality and the pleasures of copulation.

In The Oobie Noogie by George MacKenzie (c.1655-post-1730), an onomatopoeic tour-de-force expressing delight in the joys of sex, in the voices of various women, close cousins to Burns’s Merry Muses, various bodily nooks and crannies are happily, eagerly explored.

Cicely, in response, Against the Oobie Noogie, urges caution, an older woman reprimanding younger folks’ promiscuous lusts.

The essential anthology for Gaelic poems in this tradition is An Leabhar Liath / The Light Blue Book: 500 Years of Gaelic Love and Transgressive Verse, edited by Peter Mackay and Iain MacPherson (2016).

Cicely and Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair / Alexander MacDonald (c.1695-c.1770) come from the earlier, socially coherent Gaelic world, but just as Cicely comes forward to the world after the 1715 rising, Alasdair crosses into the post-Culloden era.

READ MORE: Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair: a great Scot, too aft forgot

I wrote about Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (below) extensively in The National way back on February 12, 2016 (the digital subscription gives access to the archive) and Hamish MacPherson wrote about him on January 14 this year – but we have to pay attention to him in the present context.

He is the major Gaelic poet of the 18th century and one of the greatest poets of Gaelic literature – and indeed of world literature. I challenge you: prove me wrong!

The National:

A Jacobite soldier with Prince Charles in 1745 and Charles’s personal Gaelic tutor, his earlier songs such as Song of Summer and Song of Winter (both from the early 1740s) may have been partly prompted by Allan Ramsay and by James Thomson’s The Seasons (1738), the most influential and radically new poem written in English in the first half of the 18th century.

For some writers, there was a literary and intellectual commerce between the traditions of Gaelic, Scots and English-language writing that it would be easy to underestimate. It may be convenient to see these three traditions as distinct, but such influences cross languages and cultural priorities. However, the political cultures inhabited by each language were changing.

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ALASDAIR’S later Song Against the Highland Disclothing Act (1747) comments on the rule of law suppressing the wearing of the kilt. A Song for the Prince (in praise of Charles Edward Stuart) is a rallying call for the Jacobite cause. Refrain and chorus here include vocal sound-patterns familiar from traditional “puirt a beul” and essential to many Gaelic poetic compositions, across generations.

His greatest single work is The Birlinn of Clanranald (a birlinn is a ship, a large sailing galley, which can be rowed by working seamen, a mode of transport familiar around the islands and coasts of Scotland and Ireland for hundreds of years).

The poem details the work and skills of the crew, the construction and beauty of the ship itself, and the clan’s balanced relations, within the commerce of a sea-based economy. Although that economy is not mentioned in the poem, the collective seamanship of the crew is crucial and the magnificence of the natural world around them is evoked in the last third of the poem, where a violent storm almost engulfs them.

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Realistic detail informs allegorical meaning: the sailors navigate the ship through the tempest, travelling from South Uist in the Outer Hebrides to Carrickfergus in Ireland, reconnecting the two Celtic countries across the violence of the 18th century.

By describing the work of a company of men, a more communal ideal is endorsed than would have been the story of a heroic captain, master and commander. So the journey in The Birlinn of Clanranald represents a major transition in 18th-century Scottish history, through the Jacobite rising of 1745 to an affirmation of Celtic identity shared by Scots and Irish Gaels.

The devastation of Highland culture and grief at its passing were not only figured in stark political commentaries and poignant songs of farewell. In its sensitivity to the natural world, the poem is a counterpart to Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s Praise of Ben Dorain, and Duncan Ban, in Summer Song and Last Leave of the Hills, seems to be saying farewell to the older Scotland he once knew. Yet the poems and songs of both Alasdair and Duncan Ban also have immediate political significance.

The National: Sandy Moffat's Ben DorainSandy Moffat's Ben Dorain

Praise of Ben Dorain and The Birlinn of Clanranald are both poems deeply connected with their historical and political moment, but both have lasting value and meaning beyond that. In the later 18th century, a new strand in Gaelic tradition began to develop, of bards who would be attached to Highland regiments in the British army. This flourished in the 19th century.

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And there is another strand in the tradition: what we now call folk song. The legacy of this began to be more fully understood in the modern English-speaking world when Hamish Henderson and Calum Maclean started recording songs and stories in Gaelic and Scots for the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University in the second half of the 20th century.

Long before that, however, among the pioneering champions of Gaelic as a subject for scholarly research, Professor John Stuart Blackie (1809-1895) was pre-eminent. His efforts established the first Chair of Celtic at Edinburgh University in the 1870s. His life and work is the subject of Stuart Wallace’s John Stuart Blackie: Scottish Scholar and Patriot (2006).

Beyond scholarship, however, remains traditional practice. Puirt a beul (mouth music) can be heard throughout the Gaelic musical world, usually sung unaccompanied. It’s there in the Ceilidh scene in the film Whisky Galore! (1949) and the rock band Cocteau Twins (below) performed or evoked puirt a beul in some of their songs in the 1980s and 1990s.

The National:

Its most wonderful modern performer is Julie Fowlis (b.1978), born in North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, whose various albums include Gach sgeul / Every story (2014) and Alterum (2017).

Puirt a beul means tunes from the mouth – in other words, voiced production that is musically instrumental in style. Details are in Keith Norman MacDonald’s Puirt a Beul: The Vocal Dance Music of the Scottish Gaels, with an introduction and historical notes by William Lamb (1901; new edition, Upper Breakish, Isle of Skye: Taigh na Teud, 2012). These tunes were always performed in dance rhythms and all could be danced to, but they were also performed simply for pleasure, for their own sake.

Sometimes the song-line would be meaningless vocables, sometimes words full of humorous intent, incorporating tongue-twisters.

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The term’s significance for literature is that it suggests the close relation between music, sound and poetic rhythms, structures of meaning in poetry that are expressed through metrical and aural organisation.

The emphasis is on the subtlety and quickness of the component parts of sound patterns.

No greater sophistication or intricacy of understanding exists in any analyses or composition of English-language poetry – not even Norman MacCaig’s.

So as we approach the post-Culloden world, it’s important not to lose sight of the world of pattern and connectedness Gaelic culture had enacted and affirmed for centuries.

That connectedness is still there but it needs to be uncovered, for more conceals it now than ever before.