JOHN Purser ended his reading of Macpherson’s Ossian a fortnight ago noting the characteristic of loss in some of the ancient Gaelic texts, feelings of gloom, sorrow and despair. When we enter the Gaelic world of the 19th century, that sense takes on new meaning, with Donald MacLeod’s Gloomy Memories, or, to give it its full title: Gloomy Memories in the Highlands of Scotland versus Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Sunny Memories in (England) a Foreign Land: or a Faithful Picture of the Extirpation of the Celtic Race from the Highlands of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1841; second edition Greenock, 1856; third edition, enlarged and improved, Toronto, Canada, 1857, reprinted Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Oban 1892 and reissued in the 1980s as Highland Clearances: Donald MacLeod’s Gloomy Memories (Fort William: Nevisprint, no date).

Written entirely in English, this searing account of the Highland Clearances by a contemporary witness is a detailed indictment of the landowners ultimately responsible for the Sutherland Clearances and the people they authorised to carry out the evictions. It is prose non-fiction, but it’s central to any understanding of 19th-century Scottish literature. It was first published as journalism and read at the time by Karl Marx, then the London correspondent of the New York Daily Tribune. In 1853, Marx wrote in the London periodical The People’s Paper: “The history of the wealth of the Sutherland family is the history of the ruin and the expropriation of the Scotch-Gaelic population from their native soil.”

In the power of Marx’s rhetoric, founded on MacLeod’s first-hand accounts, the history and myth of the Highland Clearances were brought to a broader

English-language readership. The significance of the Gaelic story crosses from the world defined by the language to an international context of politics, society and human morality to which literature in the widest sense is a lasting testament.

Contrast Gloomy Memories with Queen Victoria’s Journals, where rhapsodic intoxication with the unpeopled Highlands emphasises the picturesque and scenic: here is the empty wilderness, a spectacle for the delight of the viewer, as opposed to a lived-in landscape with a vulnerable economy. In the three opening paragraphs of her Journal for September 8, 1848, giving her “First Impressions of Balmoral”, the following words pile up on each other like so many unreliable cars in a bad road accident: “pretty ... picturesque ... nice ... pretty ... charming ... beautiful hills ... beautiful wooded hills ... calm ... solitary ... All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils ... The view of the hills towards Invercauld is exceedingly fine.”

Despite such rapture, and unlike the Sutherlands, Victoria was to become a patron of the Gaelic arts, protecting and encouraging the language. She was not in the same category as the landowner evictors.

But even today, next time you travel to the far north of Scotland and visit the Smoo caves, which Walter Scott writes about in his journal of a tour of Scotland, take your time and go through Strathnaver. It’s one of the most beautiful long valleys in all of Scotland. Yet you cannot miss the loneliness and emptiness of the place. In his book, Invisible Country: A Journey through Scotland (1984), James Campbell writes of the people he met there, and the legacy of the Clearances that persists over centuries. More than a hundred years earlier, another study of the landscape and economy of the edge of the Highlands, A Journey from Edinburgh through Parts of North Britain (1802; new edition 1811), by Alexander Campbell (1764-1824), a native Gaelic speaker and music tutor to Walter Scott, included trenchant comments on the evils being visited upon the Highlands. They became even more devastating as the century progressed. Campbell went on to publish Albyn’s Anthology (1816-1818), collecting Scottish melodies and poems after extended travels throughout Scotland.

This work of reclamation and revalidation of the traditional was common throughout the work of native Gaelic poets distinguished by their attachment to particular places. In the 19th and 20th centuries, William Livingston (1808-70), Duncan Johnston (1881-1947), Charles MacNiven (1874-1944) and Duncan MacNiven (1880-1955) all had their roots in Islay and the island is at the core of their work. In the islands of Mull and Lismore, traditional bards included Lachlan Livingstone (1819-1901), John MacDonald (1883-1940), James MacDonald (1885-1970) and Lachlan MacDonald (1889-1956), whose work is collected in Maighread Dhomhnallach Lobban’s Lachlan Livingstone and his Grandsons: Bards of Mull and Lismore (2005). Traditions crossing centuries are described by Eric Cregeen and Donald W Mackenzie in Tiree Bards and Their Bardachd: The Poets in a Hebridean Community (1978), while Timothy Neat and John MacInnes, in The Voice of the Bard: Living Poets and Ancient Tradition in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1999) track these traditions through the 20th century.

However, Gaelic poetry in the 19th century shows most characteristically a widening range, as the Gaelic-speaking people whom the poets represented were relocated throughout Scotland and the world. Many continued to live in their native territories, maintaining family traditions and clan loyalties, but many others were victims of British imperialism, just as there were many who did that Empire’s work, both in British cities and in colonial and military positions overseas. John MacFadyen’s Song On General Gordon praises the martyr of Khartoum as a warrior laid low, “a hero in time of need”.

In Bertolt Brecht’s great play Galileo, the main character hears his apprentice sigh, “Unhappy is the land with no heroes!”

His reply is salutary: “No. Unhappy is the land that is in need of them.”

The essential collection of the poetry of the era is The Wiles of the World: Anthology of 19th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse, edited by Donald E. Meek (2003), where the thematic grouping of poems indicates their diversity of locations, subjects and perspectives. We’ll come back to these poems next week.