Picking up from his review last week of An Ubhal as Àirde/The Highest Apple: An Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature, edited by Wilson McLeod and Michael Newton (London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2019), Alan Riach sets out on a new series of essays, thinking about Gaelic literature and how it might be appreciated by readers whose knowledge of the language is limited – or even almost non-existent. How can we come to learn more about this major component of the literature of Scotland?

THE Gaelic tradition is the longest and most continuous literary trajectory in Scotland.

It predates Christianity and comes forward vitally into the contemporary world, but at least since the 18th century, there are violent shifts, breaks and reconfigurations in the story.

These essays offer an overview that gives emphasis to the continuity, while indicating clearly where the violent disruptions happen. The story should be read alongside our understanding of literature in Scots and English.

Anyone claiming authority in the story of “British” literature is a mere chancer if they’re ignorant of the Gaelic tradition. Nobody can claim the excuse that it’s too difficult because of “otherness” since there are fine bilingual anthologies and English translations of Gaelic poetry, and easily available English-language accounts of Gaelic literature.

Finding out about things is the primary desire education seeks to encourage. But ignorance is far more powerful than knowledge. When you see Gaelic place names on signs on roads and in railway stations, many people fear their own ignorance and denigrate them. Come on, pilgrims. Welcome them. If you don’t know what they mean, or how to pronounce them, be assured: there’s a remedy for ignorance.

Without some knowledge of the Gaelic language, we who are limited by English can only go so far.

So how far can we go?

Let me put my cards on the table from the start: I have no fluent knowledge of Gaelic but my name – the word Riach – is a Gaelic word (riabhach, often with the bh silent) and has its own specific meaning. If you’re curious, go to the books or the machines and find out: I’m not telling you here. The point is this: my father spoke no Gaelic and he told me his father didn’t either, so you’d have to go back at least three or four generations in our family to find people who spoke the language of our name. That’s part of Scotland’s story too. Many Scots are like this. Most of us have no Gaelic. Many of us have lost the language of our names.

Just pause on that.

What follows is an attempt to introduce Gaelic literature, predominantly poetry, to English-language readers, by someone who has studied Gaelic a little, but has gained what knowledge he has mainly from English-language sources and from Gaelic-speaking people. No doubt I’ll make mistakes. I’ll be glad to correct them. But I think it’s an attempt worth making.

There’s a good, if dangerous, precedent for this: the best introduction to Russian literature I know is Russia Discovered: Nineteenth-Century Fiction from Pushkin to Chekhov (1976) by the historian, critic and poet Angus Calder (1942-2008), who begins by noting that he has no Russian at all but writes from his reading of the great Russian authors in their English translations.

My essays, like Calder’s book, should at least indicate what predominantly Anglophone readers might straightforwardly have access to. I suspect a lot more people in Scotland have read Russian literature than the Gaelic literature we’re going to talk about here. So let’s be possessed by the intrinsic optimism of curiosity.

As far as we can tell, much of the earliest literature arising in what we now call Scotland is found in the Gaelic stories and songs that were there before writing. These come from people who lived before, during and after the coming of Christianity. These stories of Celtic heroes and lovers have usually been associated with Ireland but they are profoundly part of a shared Celtic identity. Their presence in Scotland should be known much more deeply and much more widely, here and now. There are three main cycles of these stories and songs. The first is of the earliest mythological age, tales of ancient gods and earliest men, the Fir Bolg and Tuatha Dé Danann.

Next are the tales of the Red Branch, among which are the stories of Cuchulain and Skaaha, Deirdre and Naoise, other characters in a fantastic Iron-Age world of martial arts, chariots, duels and outlandish humour. From the point of view of urban people, inhabitants of towns or cities, these are the wilderness people, “others”, hunters, wild and untameable.

Then there are the tales of the Fianna or Féinn, the Fenian cycle, dialogues, songs and stories of the outlaws: “outlaws” here in the sense of characters loyal to legitimate rulers, and not to invaders, usurpers and false authorities. Finn in this sense prefigures Robin Hood: opposing wrong rulers, loyal to a higher legitimacy.

THE first two cycles seem to depict pre-Christian times and the Finn Cycle evokes the arrival of Christianity in the form of St Patrick, so the whole arc seems to extend at least through the first, second and third centuries AD and begins to close with the dialogue between Finn’s son the bard Ossian and the Christian St Patrick.

It’s been argued that this is a late medieval invention, but it’s also arguable that many of these stories and songs have roots that go back at least as far as the early medieval period and some perhaps further.

The scholar of Celtic languages, literatures, history and antiquities Kenneth Jackson (1909-91) once claimed that they opened “a window on the Iron Age” and that while most may have been written around 1100 AD, they preserve an oral tradition coming from six centuries before that. This is disputable, of course, but ultimately it cannot be absolutely discounted. Here’s one of the key stories: Ossian spent his younger years with his father Finn MacCoul and the warriors of a heroic age, then journeyed to the land of the ever-young, returning after long absence to a Christianised world from which his former companions had all departed. The image of that moment is clear but the world it comes from is full of shifts and changes.

One legend has it that Ossian’s mother was a deer, indicating non-hierachical connection between humankind and animals, evident too in the totemic names of clans (as in, Clan Chattan of Caithness, the Province of the Cat). You might think of WB Yeats’s startling metaphor from his poem “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz” where he writes of them: “Two girls in silk kimonos, both/Beautiful, one a gazelle. Similarly, the proverbial “three jewels of the ocean” connect different species: they are lobster (crustacean), mackerel (fish) and seal (mammal), and the seal is also the transformative, shape-shifting selkie.

This relation between people and the natural world is evident, too, in the landscapes of the Gael. Most Gaelic myths and stories take place in identifiable territories rather than a mythical otherworld (not so much Mordor, as in The Lord of the Rings, or Westeros, as in Game of Thrones, but rather much closer to the actuality of Sherwood Forest in the Robin Hood tales, or the real Aegean and its surrounding territories in the Homeric poems). Deirdre and Naoise, for example, occupy the actual Glen Etive and its environs. Skaaha’s castle was near Tarskavaig, on Skye. And the land is still with us.

THE image of “Ossian after the Fianna” – the survivor from an earlier age now in a new world where all the old, high virtues have gone – is one of the most lasting evocations of haunting and loss that underpin many depictions of the Gaelic world, all the way to the 20th century and Sorley MacLean’s poem about the cleared township of Hallaig on his native island of Raasay. Such an evocation survives because it has perennial human application. To be clear: when I say “perennial human application” what I mean is what we find in Homer, Shakespeare, Melville, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Dickens, George Eliot and James Joyce.

The dialogues of Ossian and St Patrick foreshadow those of a number of crucial confrontations in modern Scottish literature, most notably between Fearcher and Maighstir Zachairi in Fionn Mac Colla’s novel about the Highland Clearances, And the Cock Crew (1945). Fearchar, the secular bard of the community, cannot understand Maighstir Zachairi’s compliance with British authorities set upon evicting the people and ending their way of life.

The minister discusses the question with him, all the time knowing guiltily and troublingly that his side of the argument will win by armed force and not by spiritual conviction and lived practice. The confrontation is also at the heart of the conflict between the Old Woman and the Minister in Iain Crichton Smith’s beautifully lucid short novel Consider the Lilies (1968). The stories and songs are ancient. The novels I just mentioned are relatively recent. How can we gauge the truths they all convey? Are they literally connected to place and history? Do they carry truths that might apply in different contexts, adapted to different locations and times?

These are impossible questions to answer. All stories are provisional.

In the end, historians, archaeologists, textual and linguistic scholars can’t verify much about any of them. They are there for you to find and hear or read and enjoy thinking about.

We must not be credulous but we shouldn’t be exclusivist either. We shouldn’t foreclose possibilities that are open to revision. And we should keep in mind what is really resonant and powerful and haunting about them, what has kept them part of a living tradition, in a continuing dialogue for millennia.

Why do I believe these stories and songs are worth our attention?

Because they tell you things about what it is to be human, to feel love and fear and loyalty and betrayal, birth and death, the old and young, what “beautiful” is, what “horrible” means, comedy and tragedy – and the exhilaration of living bodily in a physical world, and about the world of their terrain – both Ireland and Scotland – what it’s like, its landscapes, wildernesses, sunny folds, the waterways between them, rivers, lochs and seas, hard or pleasant weather, places exposed to wind and rain, places of shelter and warmth. They are all about being alive. We have so much to learn from them.

Alan Riach’s free translation of poem III from The Book of the Dean of Lismore

I am Ossian 
I looked on them once, the household of Finn 
Nothing feeble or faint was their way 
I see them all in my memory’s eye 
I follow the men of yesterday 
I lived with them once, the household of Art 
He who would love sweet song to begin 
Nobody ever was better than he 
He lived in the household of Finn 
If you with your eyes had seen what I saw 
Those men and those women, my friends and my kin 
What you never have seen, you never will see 
I have been in the household of Finn 
May mercy this evening fall gently 
Upon what is mine, every sin 
May my soul be spared now from all torment 
I have lived in the household of Finn