Siol nan Gaidheal
The Heroic Tradition in Gaelic Literature

Languages of ancient pedigree the world over are the vehicles for the transmission of a heroic tradition first expressed in myth and legend and later celebrated in the persons of famous warriors and chiefs. Not least of the languages in which this tradition has been forged is the Gaelic language. A consistent set of values are exemplified by the heroes to which they are attributed, values relating to martial prowess, vigour, personal beauty, reknown and honour unfettered by bourgeois notions of morality. Within this tradition the poet speaks with striking authenticity and elevates the merely human, in the person of his hero, to a state of high esteem that ennobles us all. These heroes are also men of high culture and are praised for maintaining retinues of poets and musicians, as well as for their hospitality and generosity. The antiquity of the language which is used to celebrate them is attested by the place names that litter the countryside commemorating their deeds and serves to integrate man with his environment. This connection with the land serves to imbue the language itself with values of reverence for nature. It inspires and renders the language meaningful in ways which confound the translator. It is however precisely this connection between land and people which must be severed if either are to be exploited, and in this lies the root of the persecution and attempted eradication of the language, its literature and values.

The speakers of that Gothic creole formed from the confluence of dialects of Old Low German, Old Norse, Norman French and Latin which has been rendered capable of subtle forms of expression only by radical infusions of what Johnson complained of as "Gallick structure and phraseology" (as opposed to the Teutonick of his mythical "English undefiled"), find themselves ideally placed to effect this severance, having never experienced the connection themselves. Where the heroic tradition would elevate the human, we find it assaulted by those wishing to commodify it, its authors and audience. Anglicised chiefs expel first the bards from their lands (for example the exile in Islay of Mary MacLeod, Mairi nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, from Skye, in the 17th century). The history of the dispersal of learned retinues who could recite and celebrate a chieftains lineage is tedious and saps the spirit. Thus a language of precision and resonance is replaced by a lexicon of malleable and prosaic terms capable of justifying any atrocity. To this day we find ourself oppressed by the fresh newborn shibboleths spouted by each management consultant, spin doctor, bureaucrat and P.R. Executive.

The Ossian controversy of the 18th century typifies many aspects of this process. We see the poet penalised for the deficiencies of his new anglophone audience. "It tires me to death to read how many ways a warrior is like the moon, or the sun, or a rock, or a lion, or the ocean," said Horace Walpole, "I cannot believe it genuine." Johnson required of MacPherson, who asserted he was translating ancient fragments of heroic Gaelic literature, that he "show him the original." Scholarly opinion to this day delights in concurring with Johnson's dismissal of the work as forgery and yet ignores the original fragment that was made available to Johnson much as he did. It is evident from MacPherson's idiosyncratic orthography that he collected from an oral tradition and yet his detractors prejudice against the "rude unlettered" highlanders would not even permit them to entertain the concept of a Gaelic orthography. Many independent collections of Ossianic poetry were collected during the 18th and 19th centuries, one collector indeed passing himself off as the author. He was ignored of course as not being guilty of the appropriate crime, one which allowed the entire culture to be dismissed. It was MacPherson's assertion that his compilation was a complete work that allowed that. A comparison of these collections, in the hands of fair and acute criticism, is capable of shedding much light on the whole question of Macpherson's Ossian. One thing is beyond question, that the names of Ossian's heroes were familiar to the Scottish Highlanders from the earliest period, the country was teeming with poetical compositions having these deeds as their subjects, that the topography of the country was in every quarter enriched with names drawn from Fingal and his men, and that to say that the whole of this was the invention of Macpherson, is nothing but what the bitterest prejudice could receive as truth.

Today the heroic tradition has become reflexive. It is in the struggle for survival of the language itself that heroic exertions are called for. Yet we live in a world where such exertions that transcend the routine abasement of ourselves as consumers as mass produced as the products we consume are portrayed as subversive, risible, impossible, or whatever serves to discourage us. In response we shall reassert our distinctiveness, we shall not force experience into glibly marketable categories, we shall not leave the old songs unsung.


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