MOST of us in Scotland are tourists in our own country, to a greater or lesser degree still trying to find out about the languages, places and traditions we have inherited.

Most importantly for English-language readers, many of these inherited qualities have been easily caricatured into cliché or romanticised beyond recognition. And yet there are things beyond the superficial images that might immediately hook any reader’s imagination: ideas, sound-structures, ways of making meaning that are distinctively expressed in the Gaelic language.

Formal procedures that were regularly employed in Gaelic poetry included such things as personal and local reference, deliberate understatement or exaggeration, lists of adjectives, densely packed imagery, use of food, drink, colour, sensual detail specific to outdoor or indoor location, and repetition, referring back to motifs noted earlier and re-interpreting them. These are all good literary techniques that can become dull with overuse or predictable employment, but in the imaginative work of a good poet they can deliver the cold shock of insight and the warm assurance of recognition.

Gaelic poets were highly sophisticated composers but not necessarily literate. For example, Duncan Ban MacIntyre and Rob Donn were two major 18th-century poets who composed their works without paper and ink, memorising, reciting or performing them as songs. Their poems were written down by others. Linguistic virtuosity does not rely only upon literacy.

However, as formal clan patronage for poets fell away after 1715 and then conclusively after 1746, the place for regular recitation, singing and storytelling became the ceilidh, a quasi-formal gathering in which what we might call verbal (so, not strictly “literary”) skills could be learned and passed on, through oral, unscripted occasions, where presence, memory and commanding enactment were priorities. Every Highland community had ceilidh-houses and workplaces where oral tradition was normal every day and night, so as soon as a good song was heard it would zip around the country maybe as quickly and effectively as the internet. More so perhaps, for they were created and circulated in a community of shared insight and values, rather than one overloaded with useless or misleading information and priorities of exploitation. They were not “poems” as we think of words on a page, they were “words in musical forms”: primarily, things to be heard.

After the establishment of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in 1709, schools began to be built throughout the Highlands. It would be simplistic to polarise native Gaelic oral and written culture and the educational aspect of the ceilidh against written Christian Anglocentric culture and the church schools, but there is a distinction of preference. And there are tragic consequences. The Gaelic 18th century saw a gradual transfer of social authority from clan to church.

For example, “Òran do Raghnall Mac Mhic Aailein” / “A Song to Ranald of Clanranald” by Iain Dubh mac Iain mhic Ailein / John MacDonald (c1665-1725), is considered an address to Ronald, clan chief, who was in France in the summer of 1716, in the aftermath of Sheriffmuir. The poem laments the length of time the chief – hawk-noble, steel-strong – has been absent, leaving his people, in Morar, Uist, Eigg and Canna, all over the Highlands and Islands, still unfailingly loyal, but anxious and uncertain. The chief used to look after widows and orphans, the song concludes: what will happen to the poor people now?

Thirty years later, after Culloden, the tradition of Gaelic poetry and song that had run through centuries was broken. The next generation kept contact with the surviving older professional bards, but while they drew on the tradition, they were establishing individual voices that were not sustained by clan family structure, though there was still a prevalent emotional attachment and loyalty, to families, people, particular things and particular places.

This condition resonates well into the 21st century and suggests one way of approaching the greatness of Gaelic poetry for an English-language reader. Perhaps we might connect it with the poems of Norman MacCaig (1910-96), particularly his poems in the three genres of celebration, sorrowing and condemnation. MacCaig wrote exclusively in English, but his Gaelic ancestry was important to him and his poems show clearly how vivid these genres can be.

Without irony, in “Praise of a collie” (“She flowed through fences like a piece of black wind”), “Praise of a boat” (“in still water gurgling like a baby”) or “Praise of a thorn bush” (“an encyclopaedia of angles”) he uses metaphors and similes that retain cut-crystal brilliance. His laments (especially in the sequence “Poems for Angus”) show how, with minimum resources of language – no multisyllabic rhetoric, phrases pared down to essentials – the utterance of grief at the death of our loved ones is meaningful on the verge beyond which words become silence. And his hate-poems, condemning the loss of language in the Gaelic world, particularly “Aunt Julia” and “Two Thieves”, are angry poems that remain forever angry, partly through the skill of their composition (their use of repetition, imagery, argumentative development) and partly because the reason for their anger is still with us.

In fact, simile is relatively rare in Gaelic poetry and metaphor is primarily a form of straightforward identification. So while MacCaig’s brilliance of observation and allusion might indicate an essential aspect of Gaelic poetic practice, it is not directly aligned with it. In MacCaig’s most explicitly political and longest poem, “A Man in Assynt” (1967-68), he writes of the Highlanders, asking, has it come to this:

that this dying landscape belongs

to the dead, the crofters and fighters

and fishermen whose larochs

sink into the bracken

by Loch Assynt and Loch Crocach? –

to men trampled under the hoofs of sheep

and driven by deer to

the ends of the earth – to men whose loyalty

was so great it accepted their own betrayal

by their own chiefs and whose descendants now

are kept in their place

by English businessmen and the indifference

of a remote and ignorant government.

Consider especially that phrase: “men whose loyalty / was so great it accepted their own betrayal”. There is pathos in that description as well as a kind of modern critical condemnation of outmoded ways of thinking, self-destructive habits of mind and self-sacrificing attitudes of respect and humility.

YET that ambiguity of feeling begs the question, are these ways of thinking really outmoded? The pathos persists. These lines describe a loyalty that cuts across class distinctions and economic strata, something that may derive from quasi-feudal social structures but seems more profoundly based in the social organisation of all great literary tragedy, and comedy: the family.

And by that I mean not the nuclear but the extended family. From that proposition, this sense of loyalty might embrace a whole society, with a multiplicity of personal identities held in a changing but stable equilibrium of land, people and culture, as held in the Gaelic word “dùthchas”. That’s the word I emphasised last week: the importance of its meaning cannot be overestimated. Land, as in all the territory, including island archipelagos and the waterways connecting them; people, as in everyone who lives here, long generations of residents and new settlers too; culture, as in everything humanly and naturally created, including both that which is of palpable benefit and healthy as well as that which is exploitative and inimical to wellbeing, and must be opposed, so, whatever is created. All these are interrelated and at best, held in balance.

Is it fanciful to suggest that that was precisely what the clan system really meant?

To read Gaelic poetry of the 18th century, even if only in English translation, we need to go back behind the landscape MacCaig is describing there.

One place to begin is with Martin Martin (c1669-1718), one of the great early travel writers, who precedes Johnson and Boswell in his account of journeying through the Western Isles. He is a significant witness of life in the islands as he was a native, born near Duntulm on Skye from a family of landowners’ factors. And yet his travel writing often gives the impression that he was not native: he describes what he sees and encounters as if for the first time, with faux innocence and open-eyed wonder, like a new visitor to unfamiliar territories. He graduated from Edinburgh University in 1681 and mapped St Kilda in 1697, publishing A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland in 1703. He entered Leiden University in 1710, taking a doctoral degree in medicine, then living in London till his death. His description of the effects of Scotch whisky is vivid: “at first taste it affects all the Members of the Body” and “if any Man exceed” two spoonfuls, “it would presently stop his Breath, and endanger his Life.”

That smacks of faux naiveté to me. I’m certain Norman MacCaig would have agreed.