Last week John Purser introduced the “fairy music” of the Gaelic “otherworld”. Today, Alan Riach returns to the Gaelic literary tradition in its earliest publications, introducing the MacMhuirichs, the longest-lasting hereditary literary family in history, and returning to the world of the Fianna.

WE’VE noted it before but say it again: Gaelic was once spoken familiarly almost entirely throughout Scotland, as far south as Ayrshire, Galloway and Dumfriesshire. When the difference between Highland, Gaelic-speaking people and Lowland, Scots-speaking people, was noted, it was increasingly predicated on an engagement between them, an interface, a proximity, or even an intermingling.

Members of the same families might be fluent in both Gaelic and Scots, and many knew Latin and French as well. In the early 16th century, William Dunbar satirised his Gaelic-speaking contemporaries but he was familiar with their language, hearing it at the court of King James IV. His “Flyting” with the Gaelic-speaking Walter Kennedy indicates not only antipathy but also familiarity. And Kennedy was an Ayrshire man.

To some degree, Gaelic identity in the Hebrides developed in a continuing relation to the Norse and Scandinavian presence during the late medieval period, and this has continued ever since. In the 21st century, there’s still a strong sense of Norse identity there, especially on Lewis.

In some respects, Scotland may be accurately described as an intrinsically “Nordic” nation. Orkney, and even more clearly Shetland, preserve and celebrate aspects of this inheritance but the Hebrides, over centuries, established Gaelic as the dominant linguistic and cultural ethos, while maintaining the Nordic as part of the culture.

Certainly, there was and is no sense of “pure” cultural identity. Culture is made of different things. And once again, the connection with Gaelic Ireland is of profound importance in the development of this story.

Many Gaelic written texts were collected by James MacGregor (c1480-1551), in The Book of the Dean of Lismore, between 1512 and 1542, in Fortingall in Perthshire, although the earliest written Gaelic text from Scotland is to be found in the Book of Deer, made around 1150 at a Columban monastery in Aberdeenshire, which indicates how far the provenance of Gaelic extended into the north-east – much further across Scotland than it does in the early 21st century.

The Book of the Dean of Lismore collects songs, ballads and stories in verse which evidently arose from the bardic tradition and relate the adventures of heroes and lovers more conventionally attributed to Ireland.

Most of the works in the book are in Gaelic, but there are also a number of texts in Scots and Latin, including extracts from poems by the great makars William Dunbar and Robert Henryson.

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The profession of poetry was separated from the churches in Ireland in the 12th century and secular bardic schools developed, where poets would learn strict forms and styles. Religious works continued to be composed but the principal work of the bards was to legitimise and authorise their aristocratic patrons.

Major events and occasions – domestic (weddings, births and deaths) or political (battles or conflicts) – were their subjects, so their poems can take us through the history and society of their times, demonstrating the communal values they shared. Their work is social and conservative. Romantic ideas of individualism and the agony of creativity are foreign to it. It is deeply embedded in loyalty to, and responsibility for, family and community.

The National: Poet Sorley MacLean, who helped ensure the Gaelic legacy continues in 21st-century Scottish literaturePoet Sorley MacLean, who helped ensure the Gaelic legacy continues in 21st-century Scottish literature

And this legacy comes right through to 20th and 21st-century Scottish literature in Hugh MacDiarmid’s determination to speak and act on behalf of the people of Scotland, in poetry, prose or as a political candidate, or in Sorley MacLean’s invocation of bardic authority in his poems not only about his own people, cleared from their lands, but also about the threat of nuclear devastation in the modern era, or in the approval of Scottish independence by almost all of our country’s major writers in 2014. This is one way in which the history of Scottish Gaelic poetry is influential beyond Romanticism and Modernism on more recent Scottish writing.

The most enduring hereditary family of poets was the MacMhuirichs, who seem to have descended from an Irish poet in exile who appears to have arrived in Scotland around 1215. It is attested that the family included professional poets through 15 generations, with poems recorded across 500 years. Such poems were associated with conflicts like the Battle of Harlaw (1411) and the Battle of Sheriffmuir (1715), praise of chieftains and occasions of celebration or mourning.

We will always need more and more various translations of the great Gaelic poems. The more translations there are, the more intriguing the language itself will be understood to be, by both those of us familiar with it, or still limited by our ignorance of it.

Traditional Gaelic bardic poets used specific forms and familiar repertoires: comparisons for a chief’s excellence might be made with eagles or salmon but never with sparrows or pike. The praise-poem therefore would be composed from familiar images carefully coded in social understanding, so the ability of the poet was tested by the sharpness and freshness of the composition.

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PUBLIC presentation was normal but we know little about the specific performances of poetry in early Gaelic Scotland. Poets may have relied upon a professional actor to recite or sing the work, and there may have been musical accompaniment, with a clarsach or an instrument similar to the lyre. This was professional work, serious entertainment, and had to earn its appreciation. Throughout later Gaelic poetry, especially in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the voices of women are conspicuous and strong, but this is less true of the earlier period.

In the major anthology of early Gaelic poetry, Songbook of the Pillagers, edited by Wilson McLeod and Meg Bateman (2007), the translations give a vivid sense of linguistic vitality and the immediacy of tone and sense. There are two main traditions represented: the Learned Tradition and the Song Tradition. Both include ballads, songs of satire, religion, elegy, humour, love and incitement.

Numerous stand out, to be returned to. Of religious poems, many were composed as if in the persona of Columba. In A Blue Eye Turns we see his homeland of Ireland disappear under the horizon as the saint travels to Scotland.

In O Great Mary, Listen To Me, the sensual attractions of drinking and feasting, the visual delight of gold curly locks and the baby suckling the virgin’s white breast demonstrate a characteristic balance of physical and spiritual understanding.

This is a complement to the more ascetic tone of contempt for the world and the affirmation of the virtues of abstinence which characterize much religious verse.

The idea of egalitarianism, a major theme in Scottish literature generally, with mythical authority, is present in A Little Poem, first printed at the start of John Carswell’s Book of Common Order (1567). Here is my version of the relevant stanza: There is nothing to fear from the children of Adam, All who would love what is right – Nestle there with them, find your right place – Go far, little book, from morning to night.

This, too, connects with the impetus to satirise and undermine pompous authority and endorses the best ideals of the Reformation. But what may be termed the religious poems rest in an integrated way with the Panegyric tradition, the learned work of professional poets in a firm social order, in which praise, satire and celebration have their distinct places and traditions.

However, formal this structure is, it does not preclude the vibrant individuality of single poems, such as the elegy by Muireadhach Albanach (Murdo the Scot, c1200-30), My Soul Parted from Me Last Night or the earliest poems in Gaelic attributed to a woman, O Rosary That Woke My Tears by Aithbhreac inghean Coircadail (c1470) and There’s a Young Man in Pursuit of Me by Iseabal Ni Mheic Caileain (c1500), a courtly noblewoman. Marion Campbell’s Lament for MacGregor of Glenstrae (c1570) was described by MacLean as “one of the greatest poems ever made in Britain”.

The tender intensity of such poems complements the robust ribaldry of others, such as Duncan Has a Powerful Cock (an unembarrassedly detailed description). If some songs appear to endorse sexual appetites generally, others demonstrate more conventional misogyny, as in A Ship Has Appeared on Loch Rannoch where the vessel is constructed from brambles, thorns and cables of reeds, delivering a supernatural visitation of evil women, inimical to men.

Or try this poem, in praise of the island of Arran. It was recorded in the 13th century, although it is possibly much earlier, suggesting the interaction of Gaels on either side of the Sea of Moyle. My English-language version begins like this: Arran, there, running, a company of stags, The sea a bright cloak, heavy round the island’s shoulders – All of it is bountiful, with nourishment for everyone, And the hunt to the high stone ridges ends with blue spearheads made scarlet – Deer running wild on the ridges, And the soft fruit of berries ripening in the valleys – Clear, cold water running in the streams, The trees straight and strong in the forests – This is the favourite hunting ground of the Fianna, rich in game, with fish and fruit in abundance. Some stories tell that Finn’s wife is buried on Arran, on Machrie Moor, one of the most significant Bronze-Age locations in Scotland, where the standing stones mark the centre of a marvellously variegated amphitheatre of gently rising fields, tall mountains in the north and coasts within walkable distance to the west, south and east.

Go there and you can still imagine their presence. It is not far away.