Written by Abbey Bartz
Whenever I meet someone new in Scotland and they hear my tell-tale American accent, they always ask what brought me to Scotland. I tell them that I am studying Scottish literature at the University of Edinburgh, and, specifically, that I am interested in the Gaelic language and its literature. Their next question is invariably, “Why?”
The question is always polite, but it is always undergirded with skepticism. Why would a girl from Texas want to come to Scotland and learn about a language that most Scots don’t even speak? Why would someone from so far away be interested in a language that is so close to dying out? Why would anyone waste their time on studying a language that has contributed so little literature to the world? Historically, the Scottish Highlanders—the people who spoke Gaelic—were seen as a barbaric, uneducated, backwards race, with little to add to the civilized, learned societies of the world. This image has shifted over the centuries, to the romanticized 18th century idea of the “noble savage,” illiterate and uncorrupted by modernity, to, more recently, poverty-striven crofters who are just barely scraping by and who don’t have anything to write about. Even today, the Gaelic language is regarded with ambivalence, and sometimes scorn, as seen in my interactions with nearly every Scot I met.
Their “why” is not a bad question by any stretch of the imagination. The answer lies in the question itself, and in the surprise and skepticism in their voices when they question why I’m choosing to learn about Scottish Gaelic. My interest in the Gaelic language and literature all started with a poem. A poem with a fascinating story behind it.
In my freshman year of college, I took a class called Intro to British Studies. In that class, we studied an overview of British history and literature, a brief portion of which covered Scottish literature. And it was there that I discovered the first poems I ever loved: a set of epic poems known as the Ossian cycle.
I admit, up until I read the Ossian poems, I hated poetry. We all made mistakes when we were young, so I hope you can forgive me for that. Until that point, I just didn’t get poetry. For some reason, I could never quite grasp what the poet was trying to say, so all the beauty of the poem was lost to me—I was always too busy trying to figure out what the heck the poet was talking about to stop and enjoy it. But with the Ossian poems, I got it.
The Ossian poems were purported to have been written in Scottish Gaelic by a Gaelic bard named Ossian, who tells stories of ancient Scottish heroes and their adventures. The collector and editor of the poems was a man named James Macpherson, who was born in the Highlands and was a native speaker of Gaelic. He was an academic and a poet in his own right, even before he published the Ossian poems in the 1760s. Macpherson claimed that the poems came from an ancient manuscript written in Scottish Gaelic, which he had discovered while traveling in the Highlands. Only fragments survived, but Macpherson translated the parts he could salvage into English and published them for all the world to enjoy. The poems became an international sensation—Napoleon is even said to have even carried a copy of the poems with him during his conquests. Clearly I am nowhere near the first person to fall in love with Macpherson’s Ossian poems, and I certainly hope that I will not be the last.
I don’t think I can explain to you what it was about the Ossian poems that made me fall in love with them. It was probably the knight-in-shining-armor bits that hooked me. I’m a sucker for a good adventure story, especially ones that involve a little romance and a lot of sword-fighting. The Ossian poems had both. And for once, I didn’t feel like I had to work to untangle the mess of metaphors and imagery to get to the story in the poem; it didn’t feel like I was solving a math problem to get to the meaning. I was swept away by the beautiful imagery and the magic of the story. I was so sad that the poems only existed in fragments, because I wanted to read it all. I couldn’t get enough.
After we had all finished reading the poems and gushed about how magnificent they were, our professor pulled back the curtain on Macpherson’s work—it was all fake, every bit of it. Macpherson hadn’t found any ancient Scottish Gaelic manuscripts; no such manuscripts could have existed, because the ancient Scottish Gaelic society was illiterate. Macpherson had written the entire series of poems himself, very (and I mean very) loosely based on actual poems that existed in the oral tradition of Gaelic Scotland. Macpherson, a native Gaelic speaker, had written the whole thing in English, then translated it into Gaelic to add some legitimacy to his task, then translated it back into English and published it. Many 18th century readers and critics fell victim to his ploy, just as I did, because none of them knew enough about Gaelic Scotland to be able to contradict him. But as people started asking Macpherson questions about his manuscripts, his story began to unravel. To this day, scholars still debate how much of the poems were based on real Gaelic stories and how much were purely Macpherson’s invention. You would think that this would have ruined the poems for me, but actually the fact that the Ossian poems were all forgeries made me love them even more. I loved this added level of intrigue and controversy, which continues to the present day.
I think very often we take language for granted, as well as the literature in our language. But imagine for a moment what would happen if English disappeared.
Scholars are still divided on Macpherson’s motives behind the farce. Some believe that he was in it completely for the money and the fame that would come from being the discoverer and translator of such poems. I am of the opinion that he did it in an effort to save a language and a culture that was dying. Macpherson, a Highlander himself, grew up in a time when the British government was vigorously suppressing Gaelic culture, after a series of armed rebellions in the Highlands. He watched as his culture was dismantled, and as the Gaelic language was forcibly replaced with English. In pretending to discover an ancient manuscript in Scotish Gaelic that could stand alongside the epic poems of Homer and Virgil, Macpherson may have been trying to bolster his cultural heritage in the eyes of the cultural elite of Britain. I prefer to think of Macpherson as a hero rather than a crook, because I think that makes a much better story.
Although Macpherson’s poetry was not authentically Gaelic poetry, he did capture the essence of Scottish Gaelic literature, and his work did spark an interest in the actual Scottish Gaelic poems of the Highlands. This controversy led to many efforts by scholars and Ossian enthusiasts to collect real Gaelic poems—which were still circulated, but through oral recitation rather than in writing—and publish them in collections. Many of the (legitimate) Gaelic poems we have today came from these efforts. In reading the authentic Gaelic poems, one can see that, even though Macpherson’s poems were forgeries, they fit in well with the real poetic tradition of the Scottish Highlands. Macpherson’s poems faithfully recreate the atmosphere present in the actual Gaelic poems and songs, with imagery that captures the brooding feeling of the Highlands and the natural beauty of the landscape. Although his poems were inauthentic, there are real Gaelic poems which are even more beautiful, more captivating, and more exciting than his versions. These poems paint a wondrous picture of Gaelic culture, offering a window into how the Scottish Gaels viewed the world.
For example, Donnchadh Ban, a Gaelic poet famous for his nature poetry, composed the poem “Song to Misty Corrie” about a mountain he used to live near in the Highlands. And William Livingstone’s poem “Take this Message to the Poet” relays the effects of the Highland Clearances in the late 18th and 19th centuries, when many Scottish Gaels in the Highlands were forced off their land to make way for large-scale sheep farms owned by the newly anglicized Scottish Gaelic clan chiefs. All these poems give different views of the life of the Highlanders, demonstrating the beauty and depth of Gaelic poetry, and why the Gaelic language is worth saving.
With some Gaelic poems, it is very difficult to find an English translation, as I discovered when researching Alexander MacDonald’s 18th century poem “Am Breacan Uallach” (“The Proud/Noble Plaid”). In this poem, Alexander MacDonald (or Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair, as he is known in Gaelic) expresses his love for the tartan, the traditional dress of the Highlanders, in a time when it was outlawed for many years by the English in an attempt to suppress Gaelic culture. For class, I relied on a translation my professor provided in order to read the poem, but when I searched for a translation online I could find nothing. This demonstrates the need for Gaelic speakers as translators and the lack of scholarship on Gaelic literature. Despite many efforts to save the language and raise the profile of Gaelic literature over the years, Gaelic language is still in jeopardy.
Today, the language is in even bigger trouble than it was when Macpherson published the Ossian poems in the 18th century. Scottish Gaelic is considered an endangered language, a language that is slowly dying as its speakers grow old and die without passing it on to the next generation. There are only about 65,000 Gaelic speakers left in Scotland today, which means that all the speakers of Scottish Gaelic would only fill DKR stadium a little more than halfway. English is the dominant language in all parts of Scotland, and the vast majority of Scots don’t know any Gaelic at all. In fact, in my eight weeks of learning Scottish Gaelic, I know more Gaelic than most Scots will ever learn. Most of them are not at all bothered by this. They are content to let the language die.
But that is exactly why I want to learn it. Because I, for one, am not content to let it die.
Although Scottish Gaelic is—and always has been, to some extent—seen as an inferior language, that does not mean that it is not worth preserving. What few realize is that Scottish Gaelic has a rich literary history, one that goes back centuries. It is a literary tradition that most never give a moment’s thought to, and one most will never dive into.
Most of us can only access this tradition through translation. Although the translations are often beautiful, much of the sense and feeling of the poem is lost in translation. It is impossible to completely capture the imagery and the rhythm of the poem in the original language in the translated version. If we let Scottish Gaelic die, we will be even farther removed from these original versions. The work of translation requires people to not only know the words of a language, but also understand the cultural weight behind them. If the language dies, we lose the ability to access this cultural cargo. The words become superficial instead of symbolic. At that point, the poetry will fade away because no one will understand the worth of it—just as I have observed with the Scots whom I have spoken with about Gaelic studies. Gaelic is not like Latin, another dead language no longer spoken conversationally. Because of Latin’s historical and cultural dominance (through Rome and those cultures which would invoke it), its literature has not disappeared. But if a minority language like Scottish Gaelic was allowed to die, its literature would die with it, and all the beauty and richness of its literary heritage would be lost.
I think very often we take language for granted, as well as the literature in our language. But imagine for a moment what would happen if English disappeared. What if English was suppressed, to the point where there was no point in teaching it to your children because they would never be able to use it outside the home, as Gaelic has been for centuries? What stories that have captured the imaginations of generations would we lose? What songs that speak to your very soul would cease to be intelligible? What poems would wither away like flowers in a harsh winter, losing all their life, beauty, and color? What pieces of our culture would be lost?
That is why I am learning Gaelic. Because when I read Ossian, I felt like I had discovered a treasure trove of beauty, magic, and adventure. As I have learned more and more about the literature and culture of the Scottish Highlands, that feeling has only grown. Knowing that the language is dying, I feel like that treasure chest is about to be slammed shut and tossed into the ocean where it will sink into obscurity, forgotten forever. Most people who dismiss Scottish Gaelic as being unimportant don’t know a thing about the literature that has grown out of it. They have never been whisked away on an adventure by a Gaelic poem, and have never fallen in love with the Scottish landscape because they viewed it through the eyes of a Scottish Gaelic poet.
And perhaps they fail to realize that Scottish Gaelic poetry is not just a thing of the past. Some contemporary Scottish poets still compose poems in Gaelic, and many Gaelic singers still perform songs that arose out of this poetic tradition over the centuries. Gaelic poetry is not just a relic of a lost age; it can also be a window on today’s world. Gaelic is dying, but it isn’t dead yet. Anyone who disregards Gaelic literature, both past and present, is burying the language prematurely.