Put down your tartan, kilt, and family tree, at least for a moment. There is no avoiding the fact that song-poetry not only pervades Scottish Highland life and history but that it has always been the form of cultural expression with the greatest social prestige and cultural weight. While other societies might have considered architecture, or clothing fashions, or oil paintings, or armadas most worthy of their money and attention, this renown and respect was reserved for poets and poetry in the Scottish Highlands and its sister society in Ireland.
If you want to understand the experiences and mental world of Scottish Highlanders in the past, and to a great degree in the present, there is no avoiding the necessity of taking account of the reams of information we have in their own words, meant to express their personal feelings and communal values to one another. Like any sophisticated art form taken up widely in a society, it exists at numerous levels, from the highly trained literary professionals (who exercised great political power up to the eighteenth century) to the village bards who reflected and swayed the opinions of their kinsfolk on matters great and small. But this is a shared, interlinked tradition that has connected all members of Highland society through common bonds of culture, identity and belief.
Do you wonder how Highlanders reacted to the Massacre of Glencoe, or why they fought in the Jacobite Risings, or what they said about the Clearances and subsequent emigration to colonies? Do you wonder how Highland women expressed their passion, or how Highland men expressed their sorrows and losses? What images accompanied Highland children to sleep? What words were sung to Highland cattle as they were milked? Do you want to resolve debates about what Highlanders thought was at the core of their identity? You can go directly to these words and thoughts, and we have centuries worth of these valuable sources. It’s amazing that so many people who wish to celebrate their Highland heritage don’t even know about the existence of this precious literary corpus, a remarkable and beautiful outpouring of thoughts and feelings over a long period of time.
The neglect of Scottish Highland culture, history, and literature in the academy has robbed this venerable heritage of the attention that it needs to be taken seriously and to make resources available to those who wish to understand and study it. Regardless of these hurdles, I have striven for many years to locate these sources, prepare them properly, and put them in the center of my interpretation and teaching of Highland history and culture, such as I offer through Hidden Glen Folk School.
My friend and colleague Dr Wilson McLeod and I have worked for a number of years to complete An Ubhal as Àirde / The Highest Apple, the first comprehensive anthology of Scottish Gaelic literature. It includes over 200 texts of all genres and themes from native Gaels, mostly people in the Highlands but also emigrants in Lowland cities, Canada, the United States, and South Africa.
Do you want to see the Gaelic equivalent of the Mona Lisa, or the Eiffel Tower, or a Lamborghini? Open this volume and read Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh’s lament for his wife (M’ anam do sgar riomsa a-raoir “My Soul Parted From Me Last Night”). Or Iseabail Ní Mheic Cailéin’s poem expressing her excitement at having a suitor (Atá fleasgach ar mo thí “There’s a Young Man in Pursuit of Me”). Or Somhairle MacGill-Eain’s ode to his people and culture in the wake of the Clearances (Hallaig).
This literature is a precious inheritance, yet one that is mostly invisible at Highland Games, clan societies, and St. Andrews commemorations. Hopefully the availability of volumes such as An Ubhal as Àirde, and well-educated proponents, can start to change that. If you wish to honor and learn about your Highland heritage, the best way to do so is to start with their own words and wishes: study the poets and their masterpieces!
See related article in Scottish Field here.