MANY of the early Gaelic poems and songs of Scotland are associated with the stories of Finn MacCoul and his band of warriors, the Féinn, or Fianna. One outstanding poem, The Glen Beside Me Is Glen Shee, relates the consequence of the love story of Diarmuid and Gráinne, and apparently was only recorded in Scotland, in The Book Of The Dean Of Lismore.

Other songs include more popular, less exalted anecdotes or evocations of wild or domestic animals and birds. The Song Of The Owl (c.1600) by Domhnall mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dàn is a haunting expression of the idea of unity existing between land, people, all living creatures, nature and culture. The Gaelic word for this is “dùthchas”.

In the poem, the owl moves through the air, touching on tree after tree, listening to their murmuring, drinking from rivers and circling the mountains, becoming a connecting witness of land, people, nature, generations living across history and conflict.

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So the poet and the owl become almost indistinguishable. The owl’s inheritance is also the human inheritance, contributing to a shared identity, a creation of culture evoked as the verses are sung: this is a musical composition, a confluence of words, sounds and movement.

The importance of this concept of the connectedness and inter-relationships between land, people and culture, held in the word “dùthchas”, cannot be overestimated. It prefigures our 21st-century idea of the need for ecological balance and care and it helps us read more deeply into the literature of Scotland and the social traditions from which it arises.

The National:

One example: each of the letters of the Gaelic alphabet is associated with a tree name: Ailm (elm) for A, Beith (birch) for B, Coll or Calltain (hazel) for C, and so on. Like the Scots language, Gaelic puts your body to work as well as your mind. Your intellect is bound up with your physical being: throat, muscles, saliva and lips combine with synapses, insight and structuring intelligence.

Nobody should underestimate a language that has a word like “Bruchlas”, meaning the fluttering sound birds make when they land in trees. This is visceral understanding, similar, perhaps, to “twinkling” or “splash” but different. It has its own music. Ignorance of Gaelic is merely an invitation to admit your limitations and try to learn more. And this kind of knowledge always brings profit to the wise.

Up until the 18th century, many Gaelic poets were highly trained and performed a defined social function in Scotland and Ireland, attached to clan chiefs and working through generations in a hereditary role, employing a repertoire of poetic forms, devices and phrases.

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These poets were maintained by the aristocracy (using that term broadly to mean minor or great lairds or chiefs and their families). The poets’ job was to praise or dispraise and to act more broadly as civil servants. Among their familiar genres were eulogies, laments, satires and condemnations. These had serious purpose, defining what was socially endorsed, to be celebrated, grieved for, opposed or despised.

They were not merely entertainment (though they had to catch your attention). They were essential to the values and worldview of Gaelic-speaking society. The satires were believed capable of causing physical disfigurement or injury.

In the 17th century, these poets’ hereditary places were being taken by untrained poets and by the early 18th century, they had gone.

There were also other poets, however. Some were untrained aristocrats, some were the composers of the ballads of the Féinn and some, predominantly women, were composers of work songs. Women were not prominent among the highly trained bards whose work was routinely put into writing, but were prominent in every other category.

The hierarchy was both social and linguistic, placing the work of the trained poets high and the work songs low. Written, “approved” forms were held in common in Scotland and Ireland. Scottish Gaelic vernacular poetry was not normally written down until the 18th century: the more demotic the work, the more likely it was to be a product of verbal virtuosity, and the less likely to be recorded.

But there are borders and exclusions everywhere: The Book of the Dean of Lismore includes misogyny and obscenity but not work songs; the anthologies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries include ballads of the Féinn but exclude work songs. In 1900, Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica included work songs but when the work stopped being carried out communally, the songs were lost. All we can retrieve are fragments.

It would be wrong not to emphasise that both women and men composed and created songs and poems in the Gaelic tradition but it would be equally wrong not to acknowledge that there were these distinctions, hierarchies and priorities of function, social recognition and practice.

And material has been lost everywhere. When a culture is under sustained siege on all fronts, reliance on manuscript tradition is no more a guarantee of survival than reliance on oral tradition.

One of the major poets of the 17th century is Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (c.1615–c.1707), or Mary MacLeod. She was born at Rodel on Harris and spent most of her life at Dunvegan on Skye, in the MacLeod chieftain’s household.

READ MORE: From tender intensity to robust ribaldry: The Gaelic literary tradition

For a time she was exiled by her chief to Mull, perhaps for giving too much praise to his relative, Sir Norman MacLeod of Bernera. She was afterwards recalled to Dunvegan and died there. She is known as one of the more “personal” Gaelic poets emerging in the 17th century, who eventually replaced the classical Gaelic bards. Even so, her poems extol the virtues of her clan, the MacLeods and their heroism, including deeply-felt elegies at their passing and celebrations of love of family.

Essential to our understanding of the whole period is Gàir nan Clàrsach / The Harps’ Cry: An Anthology Of 17th Century Gaelic Poetry, edited by Colm Ó Baoill with translations by Meg Bateman (1994).

This gives us a sense of a coherent tradition in all its complexity. And this tradition was broken in the wake of the Jacobite risings in the first half of the 18th century.

You might say that the battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 was the beginning of the end, and Culloden in 1746 the end of the end.