The Gaelic Literature of Argyll
Donald E. Meek
(This is a revised and expanded version of a talk given at the Conference on ‘Neil Munro and Writers of Argyll’, held by the ASLS in Inveraray on 11–12th May 1996.)
Argyll is a region of great significance in the development of Gaelic literature. A scan through the evidence contained in bibliographies and in such books as Professor Derick Thomson’s invaluable Companion to Gaelic Scotland shows that, since the early Middle Ages, Argyllshire writers, scribes and composers have made major contributions to the growth of Gaelic literature. Literary creativity, ranging from the copying of manuscripts to the writing of books, has been evident in Argyll since the time of the Lordship of the Isles (c.1200–1493). We can trace such creativity even further back to the Island of Iona and the work of Columban and post-Columban monks in their island ‘university’ in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. The Iona monastery was a highly literate community, engaged in the making and copying of manuscripts, recording in Latin events of local and national significance, and maintaining close links with other Columban houses in Ireland. Iona was, of course, located within the early Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, whose heartlands were broadly coterminous with the later county of Argyll, and whose principal fortress, Dunadd, lies in the present day Mid-Argyll. We could devote a whole lecture to the so-called Dark Ages to the end of the Lordship of the Isles and the rise of the Campbells, who were also patrons of the Gaelic arts. The Campbells’ importance in this respect is often overlooked.
Literary creativity thus has a long history in Argyll, but in this lecture we will focus on the Gaelic evidence, particularly in the period since 1500. During that time, creativity in Gaelic has been so pervasive that there are few parts of the county which cannot lay claim to at least one writer or composer of some significance who originated there, and who made his or her mark on modern Gaelic literature.
There are some small problems of definition which arise when discussing the Gaelic literature of Argyll. First of all, there is the need to define Argyll itself. As one whose formative years in the area predate the local government reorganisation of 1975, I think (and will for ever think!) primarily in terms of the ‘old’ county of Argyll, extending on the mainland from the Mull of Kintyre to Kinlochleven on the east of the Great Glen and to Fort William on the west side, and embracing the Inner Hebrides as far north as Tiree and Coll. Nowadays, of course, the area is included in Argyll and Bute Region, having been part of the massive Strathclyde Region from 1975 to 1996.
Then there is the difficulty of setting restrictions to the ‘of’ in the phrase ‘of Argyll’. Is it the place of origin of the writer, or the place in which the ‘composition’ was done, which should determine the validity of the definition? Many of the writers ‘of Argyll’ who are discussed in this paper produced their material when living outside the county, but the identity of the majority with Argyll, usually through birth or childhood upbringing, is not in doubt. After 1800, it is generally the case that the most productive Gaelic writers from Argyll were resident outside the county, usually in Glasgow or Edinburgh, and, in another context, they could be included among the Gaelic writers of Glasgow or Edinburgh. One very fine modern Gaelic poet, Duncan Livingstone (1877–1964), who was a native of Torloisk, Mull, emigrated to Pretoria, and wrote some splendidly prophetic verse on the twentieth-century challenges which were to confront white rule in South Africa. He thus has a claim to be included in any forthcoming survey of the Gaelic literature of Africa!
The opposite process did, of course, occur, and the county became home to writers who originated in other parts of the Highlands and Islands. Often these were ministers or schoolmasters. If we were to compile a list of such people, it would include modern Gaelic writers such as the Rev. Dr. Kenneth MacLeod, of Road to the Isles fame (or notoriety), who was a native of Eigg, but was latterly parish minister of Gigha. It would also include Dr. Iain Crichton Smith, a native of Lewis who has lived in Oban and later in Taynuilt for a large part of his active literary life, and who taught English in Oban High School for many years. When I was a fifth-year pupil in Oban High School in 1965-66, Dr.Smith was my English teacher, and the Rector of the school was the distinguished Classical scholar, John MacLean. At the same time as Iain Crichton Smith was enriching Gaelic literature with his innovative short stories and poems (and explaining the significance of Sorley MacLean’s poetry!), John MacLean was translating the Odyssey into Gaelic. Both men had a great interest in Gaelic literature, and encouraged their pupils to take an interest in it too; but they also practised what they taught - and that was very impressive. With the infectiously pro-Gaelic activist, Donald Thomson (a Lewisman), in charge of the Gaelic Department, and Donald Morrison (another Lewisman!) also teaching Gaelic and writing short stories and Gaelic articles, Oban High School was a veritable Gaelic academy in those days! Among more recent Gaelic writers who have been attracted to the county is Myles Campbell, a Gaelic poet and prose-writer who hails from Skye, but who has been resident in Mull for a considerable period.
There are also some ‘borderline cases’ whose activities seem to straddle both sides of the county boundary, or who, while originating just over the border, drew inspiration from events on our side of the line. The virulently anti-Campbell Gaelic poet of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century Iain Lom (otherwise known as John MacDonald) illustrates the point; while belonging geographically to Keppoch (in Inverness-shire) on the ‘other side’ of the line, he was a frequent visitor to Argyll, and he loomed very large in the Argyll literary consciousness - so large, in fact, that he is given a prominent place in Neil Munro’s John Splendid. Iain Lom’s best known poem is his ‘Là Inbhir Lòchaidh’ (‘The Battle of Inverlochy’) commemorating the defeat of the Campbells by Montrose’s men in 1645. The poem is a series of painful verbal sword-strokes, cleaving the Campbell pride to its heart, and extolling the MacDonalds (especially Alasdair mac Colla) in the glitter of the blade. The outstanding eighteenth-century Gaelic poet, Alexander MacDonald, was another ‘borderline case’ and also a great tormentor of the Campbells!
There is, of course, great danger in thinking of literature too much in territorial terms; we need to recognise that literature is not a product of places but of people, whose inspiration is drawn not only from places, but also from events and happenings and processes of thought which may originate far beyond their own districts. What finds expression ‘in Argyll’ may be part of a thought-process which comes from the other side of the world. This is particularly significant in the Argyll context, since the county was so close to the Lowlands, and was exposed to ‘new’ modes of thought (e.g. the Reformation) earlier than other parts of the Highlands.
Notwithstanding these contextual challenges, I have decided to devote the main part of my paper to a Gaelic literary tour of Argyll, looking at different types of literature, and identifying some of the persons and places of significance in the creation of that literature. In this way you will gain some familiarity with the main features of the Gaelic literary landscape of Argyll.
As we travel along on our imaginary outing, I will name salient writers who belong to Argyll, pointing to the specific areas of the county in which they were reared or with which they were closely connected, and commenting very briefly on their significance. I also will leap across hills, valleys and centuries to mention some of their successors. For the purposes of the tour I will restrict my definition of ‘literature’ to what has been written down on paper, and more specifically to what has been published in print. Indeed, one of the distinctive features of Argyll is the high number of Gaelic writers whose works achieved printed form. To round off, I will try to answer the question of why Argyll has been such a productive county in terms of Gaelic writers.
First of all, we are going to visit places, and meet persons associated with the writing of Gaelic prose, both religious and secular, and then we will change gear, so to speak, and look at persons and places associated with Gaelic poetry.
The first stop on our quest for Gaelic prose writing must be Carnassarie Castle in Mid-Argyll. The very first Gaelic printed book to appear in Ireland or Scotland was published in Edinburgh in 1567, but it was produced in this imposing castle which stands just above the main road through Mid-Argyll, not far from Kilmartin. The occupant of the castle in the 1560s was a powerful and influential clergyman called John Carswell, who enjoyed the patronage of the 5th Earl of Argyll. If you go into the castle, you will see on the lintel of the main door the words Dia le ua nDuibhne (‘God [be] with Ua Duibhne‘, Ua Duibhne being the Campbell Earl of Argyll). With the warm support of the Earl, John Carswell became a Protestant at the time of the Reformation, and translated into Gaelic a fundamentally important book of the Scottish Reformation, namely John Knox’s Book of Common Order. The Book of Common Order was a directory for the conduct of worship in the Reformed churches. Carswell’s translation, calledFiorm na nUrrnuidheadh, was of great importance for the implantation of Reformed doctrine in this part of the Highlands; it would have been used by Gaelic-speaking ministers like Carswell himself who were formerly priests in the pre-Reformation church. But the book was of even more importance for the future of Gaelic; it established the tradition of printed Gaelic, and it used the Classical Gaelic of the Middle Ages as the vehicle for the transmission of Protestant doctrine. It also laid down a standard – the Classical standard – for the spelling of Gaelic. This is important because other scribes, notably the compilers of the Book of the Dean of Lismore (1512–42), a manuscript which takes its name from the title and office of James MacGregor, one of its scribes, were operating in Fortingall on the Eastern edge of the Highlands, and employing a spelling system for Gaelic which was based on the systems of Middle and Early Modern Scots. If these scribes had beaten Carswell to the printing press, the spelling of Gaelic might have been very different; it might have resembled that of modern Manx. Carswell’s foundational book ensured that there was to be continuity between the Gaelic literary conventions of the Middle Ages and those of the modern era.
The vision which inspired Carswell’s work was not only that of a Protestant Highlands; it was also a vision of a region whose literary culture had made a successful transition from script to print. Carswell was very much aware of the implications of the technological revolution of his own day, and in his Epistle to the Reader he wrote of the ‘information super-highway’of contemporary Europe.
Acht atá ní cheana, is mór an leathtrom agus an uireasbhuidh atá riamh orainde, Gaoidhil Alban agus Eireand, tar an gcuid eile don domhan, gan ar gcanamhna Gaoidheilge do chur a gcló riamh mar atáid a gcanamhna agas a dteangtha féin a gcló ag gach uile chinél dhaoine oile sa domhan; agus atá uireasbhuidh is mó iná gach uireasbhuidh oraind, gan an Bíobla naomhtha do bheith a gcló Gaoidheilge againd, mar tá sé a gcló Laidne agus Bhérla, agas in gach teangaidh oile o sin amach, agus fós gan seanchus ar sean nó ar sindsear do bheith mar an gcédna a gcló againd riamh, acht gé tá cuid éigin do tseanchus Ghaoidheal Alban agus Eireand sgríobhtha a leabhruibh lámh, agas a dtámhlorgaibh fileadh agus ollamhan, agus a sleachtaibh suadh. Is mór-tsaothair sin ré sgríobhadh do láimh, agas féchain an neithe buailtear sa chló ar aibrisge agas ar aithghiorra bhíos gach én-ní dhá mhéd dá chríochnughadh leis.
(Great indeed is the disadvantage and want from which we, the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland, have ever suffered, beyond the rest of the world, in that our Gaelic language has never been printed as all other races of men in the world have their own languages and tongues in print; and we suffer from a greater want than any other in that we have not the Holy Bible printed in Gaelic as it has been printed in Latin and English, and in all other tongues besides, and likewise in that the history of our ancestors has never been printed, although a certain amount of the history of the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland is written in manuscripts, and in the tabular staves of poets and chief bards, and in the transcripts of the learned. It is great labour to write that by hand, when one considers what is printed in the press, how smartly and how quickly each work, however great, is completed thereby.)
Erasmus himself could not have put the case more clearly. Carswell’s role underlines the importance of the Protestant Church in laying the foundation of Gaelic prose.
Since Carswell’s time, clergymen of the Reformed Church in Argyll have played a major part in the creation of Gaelic literature, particularly Gaelic prose literature. Clergymen were not so keen to compose original Gaelic poetry, though Carswell did compose a poem to send his book on its way; they did, however, contribute massively to the development of Gaelic prose, especially religious prose. Ministers of the seventeenth-century Synod of Argyll, following Carswell’s example, translated catechisms into Gaelic, and even set to work on a translation of the Bible into Gaelic. The Old Testament reached completion by 1673, and was apparently available in manuscript. Sadly, it did not reach print, because of the political and ecclesiastical turmoil of the times. When the Bible was eventually translated into Gaelic, between 1755 and 1801, Argyllshire men again played their part in the task, the most notable Argyllshire contributor being the Rev. Dr John Smith (1747–1807), a native of Glenorchy and minister of Campbeltown, who translated the Prophetic Books in a revolutionary manner resembling the ‘dynamic equivalence’ versions of today. His work annoyed some of his colleagues, and it was later brought into line with the ‘word equivalence’ of the other translators. Argyll was indeed a ‘dynamic’ and highly creative area!
We now move northwards at great speed, and reach the other end of the county. We cross the water from Oban to Morvern, and call in briefly at the Manse of Morvern, where we find further evidence of the contribution of Argyll to Gaelic prose. This is a place which contributed massively to the diversification of Gaelic prose literature of the nineteenth century, since it was the home of a family of MacLeods with roots in Skye, who produced a distinguished succession of ministers, whose best known modern representative was the Rev. George MacLeod, Lord MacLeod of Fiunary. The Manse of Morvern was the boyhood home of the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod, otherwise known as ‘Caraid nan Gàidheal’ (‘The Highlanders’ Friend’) whose father was the parish minister of Morvern. MacLeod was the editor of the first Gaelic periodicals to be devoted to the regular publication of prose and verse. These periodicals were An Teachdaire Gaelach (1829–31) and Cuairtear nan Gleann (1840–43). MacLeod was successively minister of Campbeltown (1808–25), Campsie (1825–35) and St Columba’s, Glasgow (1835–62). He established the two periodicals in an attempt to provide a wide-ranging diet of good, informative reading in natural idiomatic Gaelic for the large numbers of Highlanders who were becoming literate in Gaelic through the work of the Gaelic schools and General Assembly schools from the opening years of the nineteenth century.
Today Norman MacLeod’s work may seem stodgy and dull, but in its own time it was very important in extending the range of Gaelic prose. Much of the available Gaelic prose material which had been written before his time consisted of translation of English puritan prose works, and it was heavily weighted towards doctrinal knowledge. MacLeod provided a variety of new prose styles, including dialogues, essays and short stories. The aim of the periodicals was didactic, but it was a broad-minded type of didacticism. In his venture he was ably assisted by two other Argyllshire men. One of these was his own son-in-law, the Rev. Archibald Clerk (1813–87), a native of Glen Lonan, who was latterly minister of Kilmallie. Clerk edited MacLeod’s collected works. The other Argyllshire man who helped Norman MacLeod was Lachlan MacLean (1798–1848), a native of Coll, who was a merchant in Glasgow.
Archibald Clerk has a further claim to distinction. He was the first editor of the Gaelic Supplement of Life and Work, first published in 1880, and continuing still, under the able editorship of the Rev. Roderick MacLeod of Cumlodden (although, sadly, we have to accept that he is a native of North Uist!). Another Argyllshire man, Donald Lamont (1874–1958) from the island of Tiree, edited the Gaelic Supplement for over forty years (1907–51). During most of this period, he was parish minister at Blair Atholl, Perthshire. Under Lamont’s ceaselessly provocative pen, the Gaelic Supplement became the main vehicle for thematic and stylistic experimentation in Gaelic; it carried sermons, essays and short stories. Lamont had a particularly lively imagination, and was not afraid to create ‘factional’ characters and scenarios, and to use these to carry the message he wanted to communicate. He was obviously aware, to a remarkable degree, of the opportunity he had, as a clerical writer, to contribute constructively to the well-being of the Gaelic language. His concept of a Gaelic Supplement was not one that ran in the rails of ecclesiastical convention, restricted by doctrinal rigidity and enslavement to purely homiletic styles.
The tradition of printed Gaelic prose was established primarily by writers from the mainland of Argyll, but, as the contributions of MacLean and Lamont indicate, writers from the islands were of great significance to the growth of modern written prose. One very fine writer of Gaelic prose came from the island of Jura. He was Donald MacKechnie (1836–1908). MacKechnie, who was resident in Edinburgh for most of his life, wrote essays in which he empathised with the animal world – cats, dogs, and deer – and discovered a close affinity between them and himself. He was the first Gaelic writer to internalise the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and to acknowledge its implications for the relationship between humans and animals. He had a wonderful sense of humour too, writing a splendid essay on the theme of ‘Going to the ant’. He describes vividly how he sat down on an ant-hill on the Salisbury Crags, and, having got ‘ants in his pants’, had to pull off his trousers in dire emergency. His dog, seeing his master in this ‘state of nature’, went slightly crazy ... and the whole chaotic scenario was witnessed by a rather ‘proper’, well-to-do lady. The moral of the story is that one must not take proverbs too seriously, lest primordial chaos and embarrassment should be the result. In his satirical and (philosophically) existential approach to life, MacKechnie differed markedly from his contemporaries, and not least from his close friend, Professor Donald MacKinnon (1839–1914), a native of Colonsay who became the first Professor of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh in 1882. MacKinnon contributed extensively to the Gaelic periodical, An Gàidheal, in the 1870s and onwards, and was the first major literary critic who wrote in Gaelic. He expounded, rather ponderously, the meaning and philosophy of Gaelic proverbs, and provided assessments of the works of Gaelic poets.
In our tour of the prose-producing areas of Argyll, we have touched on Carnassarie and Morvern and Glen Lonan on the mainland; and among the islands we have mentioned Tiree, Coll, Jura and Colonsay, but we must also pay tribute to Islay. There is one major literary figure connected with that island who deserves our attention – John Francis Campbell of Islay (1822–85). The son of the last Campbell laird of Islay, he was perhaps the first Gaelic scholar to acknowledge the special importance of the prose tales which circulated in oral transmission. He organised a band of collectors who wrote down the tales from the mouths of reciters, and later, between 1860 and 1862, a selection of these tales was published in four volumes entitled Popular Tales of the West Highlands. Campbell’s Popular Tales were no more than a small sample of the immense richness of the Gaelic story-telling tradition. Adventures of heroes seeking their fortunes, of great warriors overcoming tremendous odds to win fame, were the stuff of legend, and the inspiration of men; and it seems to me that Neil Munro was well aware of, and particularly influenced by, the riches of traditional story-telling in Argyll. He would have known full well of the particular contribution which the Campbells - first John Francis Campbell, and then Lord Archibald Campbell - had made in this field, by recording what Lord Archie called the ‘waifs and strays of Celtic tradition’.
Storytelling was very much part of Gaelic culture in Argyll, and the county produced a number of minor writers who had some considerable significance in their own time, and whose works would have been known to Neil Munro. I think, for example, of Henry whyte from Easdale (1852–1913), who was a stalwart of the late nineteenth-century Highland ceilidh circuit in Glasgow, and produced volumes of humorous tales; and I think too of the Mull writers, John MacCormick (d.1947), who produced the novel Dùn Alainn (1912), and John MacFadyen (1850–1935), with his series of books of humorous tales and poems, of which Sgeulaiche nan Caol (1902) is an example.
The tales told by Neil Munro often allude to the Gaelic literary activity of the area, especially that of the poets. This is particularly evident in John Splendid, for example, where Munro frequently refers to Gaelic song and verse. Gaelic poetry, like Gaelic prose, has a long history in the county, and it is pre-eminently with poetry that the literary activity of Argyll is connected in the popular mind. A literary tour of the places associated with Argyll poets would take us to the native areas of some of the greatest poets of Gaelic Scotland. Starting in the north, we would look across to Dalilea in Island Finnan, the early stamping ground of the formidable poet, Alexander MacDonald (c.1698–c.1770), otherwise known as Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, who served his reluctant time as a schoolmaster in Ardnamurchan, before becoming Prince Charles’s Gaelic poet-laureate, and lampooning the Campbells with his barbed wit. Later, after the ‘Forty-five, MacDonald was active in Inverness-shire, becoming baillie of Canna. MacDonald is widely regarded as the greatest of the eighteenth-century Gaelic poets, certainly in terms of intellectual fire. His volume of poems, Ais-eiridh na Seana Chànoin Albannaich, was the first volume of verse by a Gaelic vernacular poet to be put in print. It appeared in 1751, but because of its Jacobite sentiments, it was burnt by the public hangman in Edinburgh. Only a few copies of the original printing of the book have survived. MacDonald’s poetry had a profound influence on his contemporaries in Argyll, notably (it would seem) Argyll’s best known poet, Duncan MacIntyre.
Coming down towards Tyndrum (a village on the western edge of Perthshire!), on the road southwards from Glencoe, we would skirt the lower edges of a mountain which has ‘the honour above every mountain’, namely Beinn Dobhrain, which was celebrated by the Gaelic poet Duncan MacIntyre, better known as Donnchadh Ban Mac an t-Saoir (1724–1812). MacIntyre is the Gaelic nature bard par excellence; he celebrates the wonderful productivity which can be achieved when humanity and nature are in a co-operative harmony. His poem, ‘Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain’ (‘In Praise of Ben Doran’), is perhaps the finest poetic description ever made of the wildlife of any region in the British Isles. Duncan MacIntyre was, of course, unable to read or write, but many of his poems were written down by a native of Glenorchy, the Rev. Donald MacNicol, parish minister of Lismore. His verse was published in 1768.
Gaelic poets and songsters of lesser stature than Donnchadh Ban were active throughout Argyll. We could call at many places, and find an almost inexhaustible number of poets in all of them, particularly of the local ‘township bard’ type, commemorating events and personalities within their own districts. Representatives of the nineteenth-century poetic tradition on the mainland include Dr John MacLachlan, Rahoy; Calum Campbell MacPhail, Dalmally; Iain Campbell, Ledaig; Evan McColl, Lochfyneside; and Dugald Gordon MacDougall, a native of Dunach in Kilbride parish. MacLachlan and MacPhail, in particular, observed, and commented on, the patterns of social change as their areas were transformed by ‘improvement’ and clearing.
Poetry and song flourished strongly in the islands from the Middle Ages to the present century. The Lords of the Isles acted as patrons to the poets until the end of the Lordship in 1492, and thereafter the patronage of lesser kindreds, who filled the vacuum left by the Lords’ demise, grew in significance. Particularly noteworthy is the role of the MacLeans, including the MacLeans of Duart and the MacLeans of Coll, in maintaining poets of considerable stature. Island lairds too were often skilled in song. The ‘township bard’ is well attested in most island communities, especially in the context of crofting, after 1800. Tiree was particularly rich in poets of this kind. Some island poets achieved major recognition within the wider Gaelic area. Islay, for example, was the home of one of the best of the nineteenth-century Gaelic bards – William Livingstone (1808–70), who composed memorable verse on the clearances in Islay. Two editions of his poems were published.
The Gaelic poets of Argyll, like those of other parts of the Highlands and Islands, had a tremendous appreciation of the value of their own local communities. A sense of place has always been important to Gaelic writers, but it has probably been more evident in verse than in prose; it is epitomised in the lines in John Splendid, where the young Elrigmore, fresh home from the continent, says,’Shira Glen, Shira Glen! If I was bard I’d have songs to sing to it, and all I know is one skulduddry verse on a widow that dwelt in Maam!’ Argyll itself has been not only the home of the poets; it has been the creator and inspirer of poets, right down to our own time. One of the greatest Gaelic poets of the twentieth century is George Campbell Hay (b. 1915), whose roots were in Tarbert, Loch Fyne, and who celebrated the beauty of the Kintyre landscape and the achievements of its people, particularly the fishermen who were among the last custodians of the Gaelic language and culture of the area.
Looking across the centuries, we can see that Argyll has been highly productive of Gaelic literature, both prose and verse. Literary activity extended from the Middle Ages down to the present century, and the region has contributed massively to the development of Gaelic literature. Perhaps the most important contribution that Argyll has made to that development has been in facilitating the transition from oral tradition to manuscript, and from manuscript to the modern printing press, thus ensuring that there was, and is, a modern Gaelic printed literature. Writers born in Argyll led the field in the production of Gaelic printed books; the first Gaelic printed book comes from the county, and almost all the composers and collectors whom I have mentioned published printed volumes of their works. It is worth noting, in passing, that a native of Islay, Archibald Sinclair, established the Celtic Press in Glasgow in the second half of the nineteenth century, to ensure that Gaelic material was printed. In this he gave a singular service, not only to natives of Argyll, but also to other Highlanders until the 1920s, when the business was taken over by Alexander McLaren.
At the outset, I said that I would try to offer some explanation of why Argyll has such an important place in Gaelic literature. What made this county so productive of Gaelic composers and literary leaders?
Perhaps the fundamental reason is that Argyll was, throughout the centuries, a region in which there was a Gaelic literate class who were used to plying their literary crafts, and expressing their thoughts on vellum, parchment and paper. Literary creativity was given a high place from the time of the Lordship of the Isles onwards, and patronage continued through the Campbells and other local families. The value of literacy was maintained by the schools. When formal schooling began to come to the Highlands, Argyll was provided with parochial schools and grammar schools from an early stage in the seventeenth century. Not all of these schools were sympathetic to Gaelic, but in 1706 the parochial school in Lochgoilhead had a teacher who was capable of writing Gaelic, and he may have taught his scholars to do the same.
If schoolmasters were not always sympathetic to Gaelic, the clergy of Argyll certainly used the language, and greatly aided its development as a literary medium. The Protestant clergy in Argyll were less tied to doctrinal straitjackets than their colleagues in other parts of the Highlands. The evangelicals of the northern Highlands tended to regard Argyll as a rather ‘moderate’ region. It is certainly true that the more profoundly world-denying evangelical movements which altered the religious shape of the northern Highlands and Outer Hebrides were less influential in Argyll, though they were by no means absent. As far as Argyll was concerned, these post-1800 movements came very late in the ecclesiastical day, and did not displace the foundation of broad-minded humanism (in the Renaissance sense) which has already been laid by Carswell and his successors. This allowed sacred and secular to breathe together more freely, and even ministers of small, intensely evangelical bodies such as Baptists had a high degree of cultural awareness and published volumes of hymns; Duncan MacDougall, a native of Brolas in Mull who had close connections with the Ross of Mull, became the founding father of Tiree Baptist Church (1838), and put his hymns into print in 1841. His sister, Mary, was the composer of a Gaelic hymn, ‘Leanabh an Aigh’, which is famous today as the carol ‘Child in the Manger’. Mary also composed secular verse.
The proportion of ministers who were natives of the region and contributed constructively to the development of Gaelic literature per se is thus probably higher in Argyll than in any other district of the Highlands. The county had a liberal and liberating atmosphere in which writers could pursue their callings. This continuing feeling of liberation may partly explain why Gaelic writers from other parts of the Highlands still find it a congenial place.
The openness of Argyll was created not only by its religious complexion but also by its geographical position as a threshold area of the Highlands. This was its weakness as well as its strength. People from Argyllshire travelled backwards and forwards to the Lowlands with relative ease. As a consequence, the fashions of the Lowland south entered Argyll more quickly than they entered other parts of the Highlands; witness, for example, the ready reception of Protestantism in the region shortly after the Scottish Reformation. Printing accompanied Protestantism, allowing Gaelic tradition to take printed form faster in Argyll than in any other part of the Highlands and Islands. Argyll was a multicultural, cosmopolitan region, but this had dangers for Gaelic. The overall result is very evident. Today there are very, very few active Gaelic writers who are natives of Argyll, and the primary roles in developing and maintaining Gaelic literature in Scotland have passed to writers who are natives of the northern Highlands and the Outer Hebrides.
Note also the following collections of verse:
Copyright © Donald E. Meek 1997
Last updated 19 August 2010.