UNARGUABLY the most important book of 2019, and some would say even of the 21st century thus far, is An Ubhal as Àirde / The Highest Apple: An Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature, edited by Wilson McLeod and Michael Newton.

Its importance is easily described. This is the first single book to introduce the whole world of Scottish Gaelic literature, from the seventh century to the present, to a Gaelic readership and also to an English-language readership, internationally, in reliable scholarly form, indicating oral traditions that precede and continue alongside it, and the debates, hostilities and resistances that have accompanied it, in a bilingual edition.

This is a literature of which the vast majority of Scottish and international readers in the 21st century will have no knowledge whatsoever and only an infinitesimal percentage will have a good working knowledge of the literature as a whole. But between the two covers of this book, a dedicated reader unacquainted with any of it and fluent only in English can find her or his way through the literature of the Scottish Gaelic language. And a new language is no less than a new world, and a new world is also another way of seeing this one. And for readers fluent in Gaelic, to see the whole terrain presented in this way must be a profound affirmation of value.

There are four sections. As a brief survey of the skyline changing through history, their titles serve a vital purpose: “Saints, Scribes and Sea-Lords 600-1600”; “Risings, Repression and Assimilation 1600-1800”; “Clearance, Migration and Resistance 1800-1900”; and “Decline and Revitalisation 1900 to the present”. What a wealth of human experience, happy, courageous, tragic, resolved, enduring, is indicated in those headings.

The Wee Ginger Dug wrote last Tuesday (“Gaelic must be treated like a national language”, January 28, 2020): “Road signs in the language are not there for the benefit of Gaelic speakers who might get lost without them – instead, their function is to signal that this is a place where the Gaelic language is respected, welcomed, and encouraged.” That truth should be coupled with the understanding that, as the Dug puts it: “It is a matter of fact that at one point in Scottish history, the Gaelic language was the sole or dominant language everywhere in the Scottish mainland north and west of a line drawn very approximately from Gretna Green to Musselburgh.” To quote from the Introduction to The Highest Apple: “By the eleventh century, Gaelic had spread throughout almost all of what is now mainland Scotland and had become established as the language of the first unified Scottish monarchy, the kingdom of Alba that emerged from the ninth century onwards. Gaelic was briefly the dominant language in Scotland, the language of institutional power, but language shift in the south and east of the country during the late Middle Ages, driven by a range of political, social, and economic factors, meant that from the fourteenth century onwards Gaelic became largely confined to the mountainous north and west” and strongly negative attitudes towards Highlanders developed in the south and south-east from the 1300s to the 1600s, and then the Highlands were embroiled in British national politics, “especially during the Jacobite period between 1689 and 1746”.

In other words, the bitter linguistic hostility we see today has its own history of prejudice, but the history of Gaelic predates it.

How to counter that prejudice and hostility? Effectively, we should learn the language. But not everyone has the capacity to learn languages as readily as some, and it has always seemed to me possible and desirable to foster what the Dug calls respect, welcome and encouragement, if we are all more appreciative of the quality of literature composed in languages we cannot understand. I am no more fluent in French, Russian or Italian than I’m capable of easily climbing high mountains but I can learn about them, understand something of what they are, how they work, and what they mean. And to that end, this book is invaluable.

The introduction gives succinct summaries of what the Gaelic language is, its origins and social history, and the ways in which personal names are constructed, and its significance and potential in contemporary Scotland.

Part one, “Saints, Scribes and Sea-Lords 600-1600” establishes the connection between Scottish Gaelic literature and “the much larger body of material from Ireland”. Many texts centred in Ireland have Scottish subjects or settings, some were composed for Scottish patrons; generally, “Scotland functions as a land of refuge or exile from the Irish perspective, simultaneously familiar and exotic”.

The National:

YET that relationship also suggests that for a long time, the provenance of Scotland and Ireland was singular – people in what we now see as Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and elsewhere too, shared a territory with local allegiances but a common commerce of understanding. This understanding accommodated relative priorities but the borders – including the seas – could be crossed. This common provenance is exemplified in the collection of the Book of the Dean of Lismore, compiled in Perthshire in the early 1500s, which collects work in Latin and Scots as well as Gaelic, some of it centuries old, including early versions of ballads associated with Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors.

Early medieval literary production centred on the monasteries, but then secular institutions arose dependent upon aristocratic patronage, and bardic schools developed metrical and thematic norms. The MacMhuirich dynasty became hereditary bards to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles and later to Clanranald, professional poets with high social status. Their work was characteristically ornate, formulaic, reserved and formal. There was also a tradition of narrative prose in Gaelic, much of it connected to the “cycles” of stories and ballads describing the adventures of warriors such as Cú Chulainn, and then of Fionn and the Fianna. These stories and songs inhabit Scotland as well as Ireland, and roam through this shared provenance, centuries before the British Empire existed.

One of the great virtues of this anthology is that it includes not only the original texts and translations of them but also related material which shows how Gaelic in Scotland was being thought of and commented upon at key moments in the past. Thus, we have extracts from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, John of Fordun’s Chronicle of the Scottish People, John Mair’s History of Greater Britain, and William Dunbar’s flyting with Walter Kennedy.

In the second section, 1600-1800, we experience the breaking of traditional Gaelic society and the shattering of its social institutions. Some classical poems from the earlier period survive but professional training withers, and new compositions intended to be sung become more familiar. Community gatherings at the ceilidh house were occasions of increasing social value for singing and storytelling. The vigorous folk culture gave rise to songs recorded from the oral tradition, including working songs like the “waulking songs” sung by groups of women as they shrunk the cloth to make longer-lasting garments. Another category was “puirt à beul” or “mouth music” (sound poetry before it had been invented), intended to accompany dancing.

DESPITE the immense political and social disruptions of the 1700s, some of the greatest of Scottish Gaelic poems were composed at this time, including Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s “The Birlinn of Clanranald” and Duncan Ban Macintyre’s “Praise of Ben Dorain”. Other individual poets stand out, including William Ross and Dugald Buchanan, and a widening range of literary expression addressing a broad range of topics also comes from this period.

Once again, the larger cultural and literary context is taken into account in the anthology, not least the contribution of James Macpherson’s “Ossian” texts, which, while based loosely on genuine tradition, were reworked to such an extent that metropolitan tastes were piqued. Their international vogue escalated curiosity about Scottish Gaelic literature far beyond expectation. We are given extracts from Macpherson but also from Samuel Johnson, and from responses to Johnson’s pontifications, so the whole controversy is placed in its historical moment. Seumas Mac an t-Saoir (James Macintyre, 1727-99) supplies one of the strongest denunciations of Johnson: a “slimy yellow-bellied toad” who “came from England / For the aim of slandering Scotland” after enjoying the civility and hospitality he was given there.

The third section, 1800-1900, charts the Highland Clearances, the transformations of land use and the travels and emigrations of the Gaels, forced and otherwise, their encounters with previously unknown peoples, places, ideas and experiences. Deeply involved in the crofters’ struggle for land rights, Mary MacPherson or Màiri Mhòr nan Òran (Big Mary of the Songs, 1821-98) exemplifies the former component of the literature, while Iain MacGill’Eathain (John MacLean, 1787-1848) gives an account of the latter, warning of the hardships and deprivations awaiting new settlers in Nova Scotia.

Gaelic and its literature become increasingly contested in education, the church, publication, and the financial priorities of Empire. In the context of clans, families and local communities internationally, they become stretched. The interest and commitment among individuals such as the academic Professor John Stuart Blackie, the fanciful writer “Fiona MacLeod” / William Sharp and the collectors and recorders – pre-eminently, Alasdair MacGilleMhicheil (Alexander Carmichael) – bring new ways of approaching the literature into play.

THE fourth section, from 1900 on, is aptly entitled “Decline and Revitalisation”. Some texts signal despair at the decline of Gaelic, some signal wild but intensely-felt hope in its revival. We can read what CM Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) envisioned, what Alex Salmond promised, what some who would dismiss the language and its people once wrote. But we can also feel the resurgence of self-confidence in the resistance to enforced decline in Sorley MacLean’s work from the 1940s, and in the great writers of the later 20th and early 21st centuries, not only George Campbell Hay, Derick Thomson, Donald MacAulay and Iain Crichton Smith, but a host of new writers of Gaelic fiction and plays – two of the most astonishing developments in Gaelic literature of recent decades. And we can see that resurgence continuing in a contemporary generation, including Christopher Whyte, Meg Bateman, Rody Gorman, Angus Peter Campbell, Alison Lang, Anna Frater, Donald Meek, Niall O’Gallagher and Peter Mackay.

There is a feast of material here that will take as much time as we give it to revitalise our understanding of Scottish Gaelic literature, and to offer the respect, welcome and encouragement it demands.

The book’s title arises from an anonymous proverb: “Bidh an ubhal as fheàrr air a’ mheangan as àirde.” / “The best apple will be on the highest bough.” Of course, this book should be in every school and home in the country and in the office of every politician, and it should be read by every literate person, cover-to-cover and then dipped into at least once a week, for the health of the nation and the enrichment of all our people.

Another Gaelic proverb goes like this: “Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is ceòl.”/ “An end will come to the world, but love and music will endure.”

The love and music in this book are surely the most enduring things.