What do we know of 19th-century Gaelic poetry? Alan Riach suggests two main strands: that of the people remaining in the Highlands and Islands, and that of the exiles, songs of both the sorrow of departure and the wonder of new visions

NEW worlds inspire new forms and metaphors. “Eas Niagara”/“Niagara Falls” by An t-Urr. Donnchadh Blàrach/The Rev Duncan Blair (1815-93) compares the vision with steamships, furnace bellows and the day of judgment. In other poems, the Greenock train becomes an iron horse: “the deer could never catch him”.

New experience of industrial cities presents Glasgow overwhelmingly “shop-filled” with “fashions” and cheeses of unprecedented size. Such wide-eyed wonder might seem naive but it can also be edged with reductive irony. Meanwhile, local traditions continued in satires, commentaries, praise-songs, salutations and elegies.

There’s a complex balance of motives at work in 19th-century Gaelic poetry. Personal expression comes through the formality of love poems while at the other end of the spectrum, war poems become more common as Gaelic-speaking soldiers are engaged in Scottish regiments in the British Empire.

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Poems and songs about the Crimean War or Egypt evoke brutally realistic, ferociously committed, patriotic militarism with no “Celtic” sentimentality. “Cogadh a Chrimea”/“The Crimean War” by Alasdair MacDhomhnaill/Alexander MacDonald (fl. mid-19th century), begins: “Buaidh le Breatann’s an Fhraing! / Sgrios air Ruisia thall!”/“Victory to Britain and France!/Destruction on Russia yonder!” Later we read of the commander-in-chief, Sir Colin Campbell (1792-1863):

Gun robh e mar sheabhag san speur

Feadh ealtainn gan sgapadh bho chèil’,

Gearradh nan ceann dhiubh gu smearail,

Le spionnadh a ghàirdeannan treun.

He was like a hawk in the sky

causing the bird flock to scatter,

in manly style lopping their heads off

by the strength of his mighty shoulders.

At the same time, poems and songs of political protest directly engage with deprivations in Scotland and Ireland, by natural disasters or human design. Niall Moireasdan/Neil Morrison

(1816-82) writes of the potato famine: “a plague entered the soil” and the staple food became as sour as coal, “bringing sickness to the stomach”.

Others describe the evictions of the Gaidhealtachd, people forced to make way for sheep farms, land given over to absentee landowners’ hunting estates, generations of young men conscripted as soldiers or “encouraged” to emigrate. Uisdean Ros/Eugene Rose (or Ross) (c.1805-c.1880s) has a “Lament” in which the “Great Factor” is depicted in Hell, the flames all around him forever, in revenge for the women and children oppressed, the people he drove from their homes.

The 19th century saw the development of an international readership eager for stories, songs and poems about the Gaidhealtachd and Scotland generally. Such popular, misty-eyed material fostered a vision of how things had been in a golden glow, “once upon a time”. That vision might infuse supine nostalgia for a benevolent neverland of happy clans, but another, militant aspect was fuelled by the sense that the Gaidhealtachd was being broken down and its people dispersed, that the values of kinship, hospitality and familial support were being destroyed by rapacious mendacity.

One popular song for generations extending well into the 20th century was Malcolm MacFarlane’s Scots translation of “The Thistle of Scotland” by Eoghann MacColla/Evan MacColl (1808-98):

Its strength and its beauty the storm never harms;

It stan’s on its guard like a warrior in arms;

Yet its down is as saft as the gull’s on the sea.

And its tassles as bricht as my Jeanie’s blue e’e.

MacFarlane also translated the lastingly popular “Isle of Mull” by Dhugall MacPhail/Dugald MacPhail:

The Isle of Mull is of isles the fairest,

Of ocean’s gems ’tis the first and rarest;

Green grassy island of sparkling fountains,

Of waving woods and high towering mountains.

Paradoxically, the valorisation of the Highlands and Islands as a kind of utopian heaven-on-Earth or lost Eden may have endorsed not sentimentalism but active resistance to imperial oppression.

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A similar paradox can be observed in the religious Gaelic songs and hymns of the period. Ostensibly adhering to church convention approving the rule of law and establishment authority, these might also invoke a Biblical sense of justice and a religious conviction that could help people find the moral force to stand against unjust authority. A sense of what justice means underlies the Gaelic world. A body of religious and theological writing from the 18th and 19th centuries testifies to this but goes much further back. “The Laws” or “Laghan” is the term by which a number of manuscripts are known, many fragmentary, collectively significant, reaching through centuries, from 6th-century legal documents onwards.

Arguably, they are among the oldest forms of Gaelic “literature”. They describe responsibilities, obligations, forms of restitution, and the prices to be paid for legal transgressions. They confirm social status, including that of bards, jesters and musicians, embodying questions of property and possession, rightful ownership and legitimate actions.

Irish law in the 21st century essentially derives from English law, but Scottish law inherits some aspects of the old Gaelic laws, such as the legal status of corroboration. The details are in Fergus Kelly’s A Guide to Early Irish Law (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1988; reprinted 1991), p. 203: “The evidence of a single witness is usually regarded as invalid. The section on the law of evidence in Berrad Airechta states that ‘one man is not proper giving evidence, it is [necessary for there to be] two or three’.”

Something of the sense of justice of which such laws are evidence, and the need for redress, must have empowered the people who acted in the Battle of the Braes in Skye in 1882, which led directly to the Crofters’ Act of 1884 and the drive to establish better legal rights for Gaelic-speaking people.

Life matters. The fight goes on.