BY some accounts, 19th-century Gaelic poetry is less impressive than that of the preceding century, yet on the evidence of Donald E Meek’s anthology of poems from that era, Caran an t-Saoghail/The Wiles of the World, it is rich and intricately connected with the processes of industrialisation, colonialism and imperial expansion, and thus also with what was happening in contemporary Scottish literature in English and Scots. Gaelic is essential to the national story.

Uilleam MacDhunlèibhe/William Livingston (1808-70), in Fios chun a’ Bhàird/A Message for the Poet, sees townships wasted by the imported economy of sheep, islanders scattered over the oceans. No-one will answer a call to military service: their homelands have been made desolate. In this landscape, there is neither shelter for the poor nor voices to be heard in song.

Tha Ilse ’n diugh gun daoine;

Chuir a’ chaor’ a bailtean fàs;

Mar a fhuair ’s a chunnaic mise,

Thoir am fios seo chun a’ Bhàird.

(Islay is today devoid of people; / the sheep has laid its townships

waste;/just as I found and as I aw,/take this message to the Poet.)

In “Ireland Weeping” the beauty of the landscape, linking Ireland and the west of Scotland, becomes itself a protest against its own emptiness.

Eilein iomallaich na- Eòrp’,

A thir as bòidhach’ fo cheann-bhrat speur,

Bu tric a chunnaic mi mhòr nam beuc.

Nuair a shèideadh gaoth chiùin on iar-dheas,

’S an iarmailt gun cheathach, guin neul,

Bhiodh na Gàidheil san Roinn Ilish

Ag innse da chèile do sgèimh …

(Distant island on Europe’s edge,/loveliest country under canopy of skies,/often did I see your coast /across the great channel of the cries./When a gentle, south-west wind would blow/and the sky was cloudless and clean,/the Gaels in the Rhinns of Islay/would tell each other of your sheen…)

This is part of the strange process by which real things turn into symbols – and in this case, symbols of themselves. The legacy of the later 18th century saw the prohibition (legal or by emphatic enforcement) of weaponry, forms of clothing and the Gaelic language itself. The land too in its deliberately depopulated emptiness becomes a symbol of itself.

And the legacy of this stays with us, present tense. There’s a gulf between material conditions of actuality and fantasy visions uncoupled from history, imported and imposed. But across that gulf negotiations of one kind or another are always taking place. While the Gaelic-language poets and storytellers of the 19th century were producing extraordinary work like that of Mary MacPherson, as we noted last week, another phenomenon was occurring in the English-language tradition.

Most readers of modern literature will be familiar with the notion of the “Celtic Twilight” and its significance for the early work of WB Yeats, especially in The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), a dialogue between Saint Patrick and Oisin or Ossian, and “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” from The Rose (1893).

The foundations of Celtic identity and the extent to which writers of the Irish revival drew upon them is well-known, not only in Yeats’s work but also in that of Lady Gregory’s versions of the Celtic stories in Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) and Gods and Fighting Men (1904), following retellings by Standish O’Grady, in Early Bardic Literature, Ireland (1879) and The Coming of Cuchulain (1894).

For Yeats, these foundations gave substance to his troubled writing on contemporary political events in Ireland in the early decades of the 20th century. They informed the writing of JM Synge and numerous plays performed in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. But they’re best understood in a deeper historical context, keeping both Ireland and Scotland in mind, with reference to Macpherson’s 18th-century versions of the Ossian stories for a Scottish Enlightenment, English-language readership, and all that followed from that.

Writing on Celtic identity in the 19th century, Matthew Arnold (1822-88) in The Study of Celtic Literature (1891) promoted the idea of the Celts as dreamers, complementing the hard-headed practical-minded Anglo-Saxons, thus fostering the fiction of such priorities in the development of a global British empire.

This connected to the work of Ernest Renan (1823-92) in France, writing on the Celtic “character” in The Poetry of the Celtic Races (1896): “at once proud and timid, strong in feeling and feeble in action, at home free and unreserved, to the outside world awkward and embarrassed”.

But as always, there’s more to it. At the least, the “Celtic Twilight” connected the idea of Gaelic-language literature with English-language readers. Among the most fascinating Scottish writers in this respect was William Sharp (1855-1905), who created an alternative identity for himself in Fiona MacLeod, the fictional author of his neo-Celtic stories, plays and essays.

Sharp himself had grown up learning Celtic stories from his nurse, then travelled to Australia in the 1880s and married his cousin, Elizabeth Sharp, editor of the collection Lyra Celtica: An Anthology of Representative Celtic Poetry (1896), who had her own fascination with “Celtic” identity.

They were childless. “Fiona MacLeod” may have fulfilled the role of a surrogate daughter. Visiting Rome, Sharp identified an affinity between the heroic women of the ancient Roman, Greek and Celtic worlds. His first work as Fiona MacLeod, Pharais (1894), evokes “the Hidden Fire” of the “soul’s desire”. Such predilections are evident even in the titles of his – or her – books of stories and essays, The Winged Destiny and Studies in the Spiritual History of the Gael (both 1904).

The writing of Sharp, or MacLeod, need not be rejected as mere fabrication. As with Macpherson’s Ossian, it drew attention to a world of lived experience which later, more analytic writers would examine on its own terms. If it obscured that lived experience in its time, it also helped a broad readership begin to ask questions about what lay behind such obscurity.

For example, as Ian Brown has discussed in his book, Scottish Theatre: Diversity, Language, Continuity (2013), Sharp’s plays are akin to those of the expressionist Belgian Maurice Maeterlink (1862-1949). Sharp’s first play, The House of Usna (1900) once shared the bill with two plays by Maeterlink, The Death of Tintageles (1894) and Interior (1895). As Brown says, with regard to theatre MacLeod was “located in an intersection of the Celtic revival and European Symbolism”.

And there are further connections. In the first performance of Debussy’s opera Pelléas and Mélisande (1902), for which Maeterlink wrote the libretto, Mélisande was played by the famous Scottish soprano Mary Garden, who is noted in the opening pages of Hugh MacDiarmid’s long poem of 1926, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. And before all these was the first Celtic opera by a Scottish composer, Hamish MacCunn’s Diarmid (1897). MacDiarmid once called for a move “out of the Celtic twilight – and into the Gaelic sun!” but what all these associations and connections suggest is a much richer diversity and far more complex network of connections than have yet been fully explored.

If anyone should doubt the value of Gaelic or Celtic studies, pause awhile on the wealth of complexities I’ve just indicated. If Covid culture in the Coronaverse sometimes seems barren and tiresome, give some thought to these worlds. Approach them with caution, and some respect. Think what might yet be born of them.