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Chorus Award Winner 2015: SoundSational Community Music

by simon @ Scotland Sings

Congratulations to SoundSational Community Music who won the Milestone Award category. We asked them the following questions. Tell us more about the choir SoundSational Community Music is a non profit community arts organisation. We have around 450 per week through our doors and we work with another 200 offsite each week. Our aim is to […]

Michigan energy companies partner to showcase Careers in Energy throughout the state

Michigan energy companies partner to showcase Careers in Energy throughout the state

CRWE World

- Careers in Energy Week to give nearly 200 students across Michigan real-life career experience- Launch of first-ever statewide welding competition for high schoolers DETROIT, Oct. 12, 2017 /PRNewswire/ -- DTE Energy, Consumers Energy a

DuPont Advanced Printing to Highlight New Inks at SGIA

by Jamar Laster @ News – Impressions

DuPont Advanced Printing, Wilmington, Del., a business unit of DowDuPont Specialty Products Division, will highlight new additions to its digital-ink offerings this week during the 2017 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) Expo in New Orleans, to be held Oct. 10-12. The company will showcase its recently launched DuPont Artistri Xite S2500 (medium-viscosity) and S3500 (high-viscosity) […]

The post DuPont Advanced Printing to Highlight New Inks at SGIA appeared first on Impressions.

Ayr Choral Union Anniversary – Chorus Award 2016 Milestone Winners

by allisonwatson @ Scotland Sings

More news this week from another of our winning choirs. This is the 140th Anniversary of the formation of Ayr Choral Union – one of Scotland oldest choirs with a continuous history as an organisation since October 1876. They are performing a Celebration Concert of their “greatest hits” on Sunday, October 30 2016, with some […]

Horsecross Arts Celebrates Scotland Sings!

by linzimurphy @ Scotland Sings

In celebration of Scotland Sings, Horsecross Arts has organised a Singing Trail – a circuit of three public venues around Perth City centre where you can watch the performances of 15 different Perth and Kinross vocal groups. From early morning until mid-afternoon, each group will serenade you for 10 minutes at each venue beginning in […]

Warm Up for Scotland Sings 2nd and 3rd November

by simon @ Scotland Sings

Come and warm up at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in preparation for Scotland Sings! – a coming together of singers, choir leaders, and community song groups to inspire, and build participation in Scotland Sings initiative on 30th Nov – 2nd December: Friday 2nd November 4 – 6.30pm – Finding Songs A feast of resources and […]

Kettle Bilers by Emma Martin

by simon @ Scotland Sings

This song won joint first place in our Nòs Ùr 2017 songwriting competition. Read the press release. Kettle Bilers by Emma Martin This is the first song that I’ve composed from a collection that I’m writing about the time of Jute Mills in Dundee from the late 18th through the 19th century. The Kettle Bilers refer […]

'Celtic Christianity' and St Columba

by noreply@blogger.com (Donald Meek) @ Passages from Tiree

St Columba and ‘Celtic Christianity’

Donald E. Meek


Some time ago, on 9 June, which is the accepted date of the Festival of St Columba, I listened to a talk on the saint.  I am always both interested in, and wary of, such talks, as they are very likely to present a ‘Columba’ who does not conform to the picture that I have of the saint, if I have a ‘picture’ of any kind.  This talk was no exception to the general rule.

Several points made by the speaker remain vividly in my mind.   First, I was struck by the assertion that, in 563 AD, Columba moved from Ireland to what the minister called a ‘foreign country’, that is, Scotland.   Those of us who are speakers of Gaelic and/or Irish can immediately see the misconception at the heart of that claim.  We know that the western seaboard of what is now Scotland is likely to have shared the same culture as Ireland, that is, Goedelic or early Gaelic culture.  The density and vitality of that culture in the islands of western Scotland at that time are not clear, but Columba was by no means in foreign territory when he arrived in Iona.  It is highly likely that Gaelic-speaking people had been there many, many times before him.  Indeed, it could be argued that, in terms of its position, Iona was a bridgehead between similar cultures, not a dividing-line between different cultures.

If our friend had read Vita Columbae, Adomnán’s ‘Life of Columba’, composed a century after the saint’s death, it would have been evident that there was very little sense of ‘strangeness’ in Adomnán’s presentation of Iona and what was known as Dál Riata – there was, of course, a Dál Riata in Scotland, as well as in Ireland.   However, it would have been equally evident that the land occupied by the Picts beyond Druim Alban was truly ‘terra incognita’ to Columba, a land of hostility where there was competition, opposition and danger, compared with the relatively warm atmosphere of Iona and its environs.  It is a measure of the ‘otherness’ of Pictland that Columba encountered a dangerous monster in the River Ness – so dangerous that it killed one of his monks.   In other words, when Columba went to visit the king of the Picts, as Adomnán relates, he did venture into ‘foreign territory’, but it is unlikely that Iona would have been ‘foreign’ to him.  

Second, the speaker emphasised Columba’s affinity with the natural world, and how he and his monks lived in harmony with nature.  That was the ‘Celtic way’.   And for many people today, that is the ‘Celtic way’.   But was it the ‘Columba way’?   Not if you read Adomnán’s Vita Columbae, and follow his adventures in Pictland beyond Druim Alban.  There hostile animals have to be slain, like the boar that falls down dead by the saint’s very word, the verbum sancti.  The affinity with the natural world which was, apparently, typical of the ‘Celtic way’ was reflected in simplicity of lifestyle, and, in contrast to the so-called Roman church of the early Christian centuries, it avoided structures and organisations.  Well, no; not if you read about the synods of early Ireland to which Adomnán refers in his Vita Columbae, and had a bearing on Columba’s own life.  One could add too that there was plenty of ‘structure’ in the paruchia or group of monasteries established by Columba.  He was boss, and he supervised their overall operations.  Sometimes I think of him as the Chief Executive of a group of businesses, and thus much closer to our own management-driven form of secular life than we might dare to think.  Abbots of monasteries, like Chief Executives in our own day, were powerful people.

From there it was but a short step for the speaker to emphasise, thirdly, Columba’s natural kindness, the loving and generous atmosphere of the ‘Celtic Church’ in which he and his monks operated, and so on.  Well, again, on the basis of the Vita Columbae, we have to disagree, if we reflect on the power of the saint’s curses, his ability to foretell the demise of the wicked, and his potentially malevolent powers.   These have to be set alongside his periods of prayer locked away in Hinba, with bright light shining from his cell, his angelic visitations, his insights into the future – his positively supernatural attributes did exist, but so also did his negatively supernatural aspects.

One point that speaker made quite correctly, if we accept Adomnán’s Vita Columbae as a correct record of Columba’s life, was his love of the Psalms and the Psalter.   That is also suggested by objects like the the Cathach or ‘Battler’, a Psalter attributed to Columba’s penmanship.

I use these points from a commemorative talk on St Columba to illustrate how Columba weaves in and out of myth and reality, between Columba as we might wish him to be, and Columba as he may well have been.  I say ‘as he may well have been’, because we have to be aware that even what we may term our ‘historical sources’, that is to say, Adomnán’s Vita Columbae and its constituent parts, also has its own set of ‘myths’ at its heart.  Columba, it would seem, was subject to manipulation within a century after his death.  Indeed, I would go as far as to say that Adomnán wanted to give his saint the very best possible ‘make-over’, and consciously drew parallels between Columba and Christ, mainly in the realm of the miraculous, where similar miracles are attributed to Columba as are recorded of Christ in the Gospels. 

To make Adomnán’s Vita Columbae stand as an historical source, we have to be extremely judicious in what we are prepared to accept as history, and we have to peel off a considerable amount of later legends which were grafted on to the real life of the saint for various purposes, political, spiritual, canonical, or whatever.  Some might even be prepared to say that the real essence and value of the Vita Columbae lie not in the portrayal of the saint, but in the portrayal of his context, and the details that are furnished about the life and work of the monastery of Iona, as well as the political and social structures of Scottish Dál Riata .  In other words, even by the end of the seventh century, Columba has entered the realm of myth and its accompanying ‘functions’, and we are not dealing with the straightforward evaluation of an historical figure.  He is a literary figure too, made to carry messages on behalf of writers from a later day. Saints were ‘up for grabs’, particularly at times of special commemoration, because of their posthumous powers and their status after death, and if we do not recognise that, we wander into the Vita Columbae at our very considerable peril.

This takes me to the second part of the title of this talk, namely ‘Celtic Christianity’.  As many of you will know, back in 2000 I put my life on the line, and wrote a book entitled The Quest for Celtic Christianity.   This book was my response to what I considered to be an increasingly irritating movement that wanted me, as a Gaelic speaker and Celtic scholar, to affirm its basic presuppositions about saints and monks within what the movement called ‘Celtic Christianity’.  ‘Celtic Christianity’ was, and is, built on foundation pillars (very shoogly ones, of course!) which were similar to the points made in the talk to which I referred at the outset of this lecture – the missionary character of the saint (or saints), venturing into foreign territory, and converting the inhabitants to the Christian faith; the warm rapport between the saint (or saints) and the natural world; and the saint’s (single or plural!) natural kindness, generosity and love for all people.  In addition, the ‘Celtic Christianity’ movement of the 1990s made great play of its understanding that so-called ‘Celtic saints’ had achieved a happy compromise between pre-existing pagan or non-Christian practices and the Christian faith itself.  Allegedly, the ‘Celtic saints’ had been prepared to accept different aspects of ‘paganism’ or pre-Christian beliefs as part of a syncretistic form of Christianity which, said its advocates, we ought to recapture and emulate in our own time.

Over a decade later, and now well into the twenty-first century, what I find fascinating in retrospect is how the twentieth century seemed to be obsessed with ‘Celtic Christianity’ as the century came to a close.  Saints who for many years had remained largely unknown to the great British public suddenly achieved fresh profiles, and new ‘vitae’ were published, often in the shape of compact little paperbacks, complemented by dapper volumettes of ‘Celtic prayers’, beautifully illustrated with modern interpretations of so-called ‘Celtic art’, derived from the high crosses and other insignia of the ‘Celtic Church’.  The so-called ‘Celtic way’ was the way to go, or so many believed, at the end of the twentieth century.  New centres of ‘Celtic’ devotion appeared, pilgrimages became very fashionable, and so too did trails which followed the footsteps of the saints.  You could go for a ‘Celtic retreat’ in Lindisfarne, for example, or you could undertake a pilgrimage to Iona or to any number of places associated with saints, including, of course, our ubiquitous Columba.  Given the sense of place which was generated, and the notion of secure location, it was easy to assume that everything was genuine.

It was all a very sentimental, touchy-feely time, and stood in the sharpest possible contrast to the way in which the twentieth century had begun.  Things were much more macho, much less gooey, back then. The heroes then embraced by secular (rather than religious) society were not saints.  Rather, they tended to be sinners, failures in their own time, who, in spite of their faults, had been elevated to the status of great soldiers and explorers and missionaries. General Charles Gordon of Khartoum is perhaps the best known of the soldiers who became household names within a Christian interpretation of their ‘heroic last stand’.  On the side of the explorers, I think of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the tragedy of his race to Antarctica which turned him into a national hero, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, alongside Titus Oates.  Again, there was a profoundly religious aura to Scott and to Oates, as presented to the public after their deaths.  At the same time, the star of David Livingstone was still shining brightly.  He was seen as the archetypal missionary figure, opening darkest Africa for the bright rays of the Christian gospel. 

Almost all of these figures were subsequently knocked off their pedestals by researchers who went back to the documentary sources for the relevant periods, and reached very different conclusions about their roles.  I well remember when Tim Jeal’s ‘revisionist’ book on David Livingstone appeared.  I was a student at Cambridge then, and I was astonished when I read Jeal’s verdict on the old Scottish ‘saint’.  He had been a total failure as a missionary, more or less, and he was not a very pleasant person in many respects.  In fact, he had been instrumental in letting the British Empire into Africa, and had helped to fuel, rather than to eliminate, the slave trade.  He had been a poor father, spent little time with his wife, Mary Moffat, and so on…The ‘debunking’ of Livingstone, the Presbyterian saint, complete with his relics, continues, as does the properly academic and historical reassessment of the man and the myth.

At the end of the twentieth century, we were in a very different post-colonial, post-Imperial world.  Our old heroes had fallen off their plinths.  No more soldiering, no more exploring, no more imperially-nuanced missionary activity for us.   Our heroes were now ‘celebrities’, on radio and television; sportsmen and sportswomen, but especially the former, and many of them footballers; we had Princess Diana too, with much weeping at her untimely passing, and in all of this the saints of the ‘old Celtic Church’ were making a curious come-back.   In the process, they were being secularised, working their way down the ladders to avoid being ‘on a pedestal’, and becoming more and more like ourselves, the wayfarers of the new millennium.  They were our new role-models, the trans-denominational harbingers of a new age to come, offering an easy-going ‘Celtic alternative’ to the pressurised, managerially-driven and bottom-line-focused society of our demented age, and conveniently refashioned in our own image.  And ‘our’ meant everyone, Protestants, Catholics, the back-to-nature movement, the Glastonbury-goers, the tree-huggers of Tiree, and all shades in between.

And so I did what others had done to misrepresentations of earlier heroes…I applied the axe of reason to the root of the sentimental tree of wishful thinking which purported to represent the lineage of Columba and other saints.  I gave the movement quite a drubbing, and said, in my most profoundly pedagogic and Columban tones, ‘Get back to the sources, you brood of poisonous vipers, you pack of misleading, devious sinners!’   As one reviewer summarised my book, ‘Irascible Uncle Mocks Tree-huggers’!

Of course, when you do go back to the sources, what you find is that the remaking of saints, including Columba, is no new thing.  Even Adomnán participated in something of the kind when he wrote his biography of Columba, and added his own ‘spin’ to the formation of the saint.   Later, in 1532, Mánus Ó Dómhnaill employed collectors to gather tales and stories about Columba, which he then fashioned into another vita Columbae, this time in Irish, namely Betha Colaim Chille.   What we might call ‘the quest for the historical Columba’ has to tread a careful path through even our earliest sources.  The ‘Columba-makers’ have been going at it for a long, long time.

It is tempting to say that, along with the saints themselves, ‘Celtic Christianity’ has been bubbling down the centuries. That, however, would be wildly misleading. We must remember that, in the medieval and late-medieval context, Columba was still operating within a cult, or at least within a form of devotio which respected his name, and afforded him due reverence as a patriarchal figure of the Catholic church.   This was the case in both Scotland and Ireland.  Both Adomnán and Mánus Ó Dómhnaill, separated by almost a thousand years and operating on different sides of the North Channel, compiled their Lives of Columba out of respect for, and in honour of, the saint.

Matters changed in the Protestant areas with the arrival of the Reformation.  Columba was not a figure of devotion within Protestant belief after 1560 – far from it.  His name was, however, used to invest Presbyterian Calvinists with a respectable pre-Reformation pedigree through their supposed Culdee predecessors, or to lend prestige to a Protestant church building.  We must also bear in mind that Columba could be used for political purposes in the Middle Ages and later. 

We cannot therefore use ‘Celtic Christianity’ as a naïve label to cover everything.  My own view is that ‘Celtic Christianity’, which begins with the retro-conversion of Columba into a pre-Protestant Presbyterian, and offers a way of bringing Columba and other saints within the reach of Protestants without the embarrassment of Catholic rituals, is essentially a disingenuous Protestant hi-jacking.  Its overall message is: ‘We are not Calvins come lately; we have been here before, but in another guise – that of Columba and his followers!’

Bearing in mind the categories which we must distinguish, let us consider briefly some of the ways in which Columba has been commemorated across the centuries, whether ‘cultivated’ out of respect or (finally) appropriated to aid various causes.  Some of these will be dealt with more fully in other papers by later speakers, and I will provide only a few examples under each heading, to set the wider scene.

Land and landscape:  Columba’s name appears in place-names in Ireland (Gleann Colm Cille in Donegal), the Hebrides (I Chaluim Chille, which is, of course, Iona; Eilean Chaluim Chille in Loch Erisort, which takes its name from its church), and in the west and east of mainland Scotland, though predominantly in the west.  In eastern Scotland, a good example of a Gaelic place-name containing the element Colm is Innis Choluim, or Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth.

Lore and legend: Columba became a figure of legend very early in his posthumous career, as the stories in Adomnán’s late-7th century Vita demonstrate.  By the time Mánus Ó Dómhnaill came to compile his Renaissance-style compendium in 1532, Columba was very much associated with legends attached to particular locations in Donegal, in the manner of dindshenchas or the ‘lore of famous places’, a well-known medieval category of Gaelic/Irish history.  In Donegal, he was presented as a rather frightening figure, short-tempered and possessing the ability to prophesy death to those who disturbed his relics or insignia.   In my native island of Tiree, he was likewise associated with the cursing of the rock in Gott Bay, Mallachdaig, when its seaweed broke, and his coracle (which had been moored to the seaweed) drifted out to sea.  He appears too in Gaelic proverbs and prayers, chiefly in Carmichael’s compendia known as Carmina Gadelica.  St Columba’s Day, Latha Chaluim Chille chaoimh, was regarded as a good day on which to begin a new initiative. He was also regarded as the protector of the poor and disadvantaged.  In Gaelic Scotland, he is a relatively benign figure, compared with the more formidable figure in Donegal.

Politics: From the outset, Columba was closely associated with political intrigue, as it affected the kings of Dál Riata .  He was also taken over by the Vikings, and in one saga he is portrayed as appearing in a dream to Alexander II, king of Scotland, in company with Viking warriors and prophesying his death at Kerrera if he did not turn back.

Poetry: Colum Cille, seen as the defender of the poets, was himself regarded as a poet in the Middle Ages, and several poems were ascribed to him.

Medieval dedications:  Dedications to St Columba, in the Gaelic and Latin forms of his name, are not uncommon. In St Kilda, two chapels were dedicated to him.  In my own native island of Tiree, for example, the two medieval chapels (12-13th century) at Kirkapol, one of which functioned as the local parish church until comparatively late, were dedicated to Colum Cille.  Another chapel at Soroby at the other end of Tiree was similarly dedicated.   Here in Lewis the saint is commemorated at what appears to be an early medieval site known as Teampall Chaluim Chille, in Eilean Chaluim Chille, Loch Erisort.  There is a church with a similar name in Benbecula.  The saint is also commemorated in Eaglais na h-Aoidhe or St Columba’s Church, Aignish, as it is sometimes called, built by the MacLeods in the late 14th century, and recognised as ‘the principal church in Lewis until late medieval times’.  These churches continued to be associated with burial grounds.

Protestant denominational dedications: The transfer of Colum Cille to a new denomination was reflected first in Londonderry, when the new Protestant cathedral was dedicated to Saint Columb in 1633.  Dedications to ‘Columba’ or ‘St Columba’ are well known in Scotland too, and span both the Protestant denominations, including the Free Church of Scotland, with St Columba’s Free Church in Edinburgh, for example.  The Church of Scotland has its own St Columba dedication in Glasgow, carried by a church much frequented by the Gaelic population of Glasgow in earlier days.  These Protestant dedications appear to be most prominent in the cities of Ireland and Scotland – certainly so in Scotland.

Ecumenism: In the later twentieth century, Columba and his fellows were refashioned as a means to escape from, rather than to reinforce, Protestantism in its more ‘restrictive forms’.  They were seen as representing a more refreshing, free-flowing.  The Church of England, in particular, embraced the so-called ‘Celtic saints’ in this way, and new groupings were also formed, free of earlier denominational labels.

Cultural initiatives:  At the end of the twentieth century, in 1997, the 1400th Anniversary of his death, Columba gave his name to two new ventures in Skye, Arainn Chaluim Chille at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, and Columba 1400 at Kilmuir. Iomairt Chaluim Chille also began at this point, and helped to reconnect Ireland and Scotland in a shared sense of Gaelicness. And his role as a connector of Ireland and Scotland continues to the present.  I need hardly say that we are here today partly because of the saintly trail known as Slighe Chaluim Chille. 

It strikes me that, even at this late stage in his posthumous career, Columba is still developing his virtues, and remains a very good saint to have on your side!  But be wary as you travel with him, and be prepared to do penance.   He could well punish you for carrying a plaster saint, even a plastic one, who is constantly being reshaped to meet the needs and aspirations of the centuries, reflected not only in the churches, but also in many other interested parties who want to make the saint ‘work for them’!



Broun, Dauvit, and Clancy, Thomas Owen (eds), Spes Scotorum: Hope of the Scots: St Columba, Iona and Scotland.  T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1999.

Herbert, Máire, Iona, Kells and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988.

Lacey, Brian, Colum Cille and the Columban Tradition. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1997.

Lacey, Brian (ed.), Manus O’ Donnell: The Life of Colum Cille.  Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1998.

Meek, Donald E., The Quest for Celtic Christianity.   Handsel Press, Boat of Garten, 2000.

Sharpe, Richard, ed. and transl., Adomnán of Iona: Life of St Columba. Penguin Books,  London, 1995.

Worden, Sarah (ed.), David Lingstone: Man, Myth and Legacy. National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2012.

















Blog no.2 – Getting stuck in to some songs!

by simon @ Scotland Sings

So, having met and blethered with Ellen at the last session we were keen to do more singing this time. I have been enjoying her CD ‘On Yonder Lea’ since I saw her last and was particularly taken with the songs ‘Far Over the Forth’ and ‘Mary Mild’. I have been listening to different versions […]

Renewing the Tradition – Some Photos

by allisonwatson @ Scotland Sings

We can’t quite believe that this was almost a month ago. Very heart warming to read all your feedback and some good suggestions for our next round of workshops in November too – stay tuned!  In the meantime here are some great photos taken by Ros Gasson for our Renewing the Tradition workshops February 2017. Enjoy! […]

Tinto Singing School

by simon @ Scotland Sings

We are very happy to announce our first joint residential between Scotland Sings and Tinto Summer School from the 10th – 13th July at Wiston Lodge. As you know singing is brilliant fun, it makes you smile and when people sing together their days just get better! We are looking encourage young people (men and woman) […]

Gareth Malone’s forming a new Youth Choir

by simon @ Scotland Sings

Great opportunity to join a new Gareth Malone Youth Choir! Closing date 26th April… Text from website Join Gareth Malone as he plans to create a new British youth choir “as you’ve never heard before”. The music-maestro is launching a UK-wide search for accomplished singers aged 18-25, and has issued a call to arms to […]

Maeve Mackinnon to Join us as Gaelic Song Leader in Taynuilt

by allisonwatson @ Scotland Sings

The news gets better and better!! Maeve Mackinnon will be joining Rory Haye as Renewing the Tradition Workshop Leader in Taynuilt on Saturday 18th February. Alyth McCormack’s lovely waulking song “Latha dhomh ‘s mi falbh an àird” will be taught by Maeve with Rory leading on our new commissions from Eric Bogle and Rab Noakes. Maeve […]

Gaelic verse and song: Gaelic township bards

by noreply@blogger.com (Donald Meek) @ Passages from Tiree


Donald E. Meek


It gives me great pleasure to deliver this lecture to the Gaelic Society of Inverness [in 1995].  I am especially pleased to give my lecture in Balnain House, which offers a fitting venue for a paper which aims to explore a field which, in its living form, combines both poetry and music.  This will be the sixth occasion on which I have addressed the Society.  I read my very first paper here in Inverness exactly twenty years ago, and I am very grateful indeed for the opportunities which I have been given by this Highland institution to explore, over the years, different aspects of Gaelic tradition.

Looking over the topics of my previous lectures, I am aware that on three occasions I have talked about the importance of Gaelic ‘poetry’, and in two of these I have been concerned to demonstrate the significance of traditional Gaelic poetry – more accurately ‘song’ – in understanding different aspects of historical processes in the Highlands and Islands in the nineteenth century.  I have always taken the view that Gaelic poetry/song is a source of great value in providing a picture of the life and work of Gaelic communities in Scotland and beyond.  This evening I wish to expand somewhat on my customary theme, and to talk more generally about a very important dimension of traditional Gaelic verse, namely that composed in the various townships and communities of the Highlands and Islands by bards who were highly esteemed in their individual localities, but who have not yet achieved the status which is due to them in the wider world of Gaelic literature and scholarship.


Approaches of scholars and editors

Township verse was probably composed by many bards across many generations in the Highlands and Islands. It is one of our best and most durable products within the Scottish Gaelic oral and literary traditions.  Yet it seems to me that it has been seriously neglected by academic scholars in the course of this century.

There are various reasons for such neglect.  The first reason I would offer is that there has been a general tendency on the part of the academic community to concentrate on more specialised topics of research; to look at the minutiae of language and linguistic function, rather than at the products of language, or at those artefacts which have been created using Gaelic as a medium of expression.  Literature, all too often, has been the quarry for linguistic exemplification.

Again, Gaelic literature, and more particularly the literature produced in Gaelic communities, has been undervalued as a source of information, perhaps because it belongs to a group who are more often spoken and written about, than offered the chance to express their own views, as they do through verse.  The slant of Gaelic scholarship tends to lie away from the Gaelic communities themselves.

The second reason for the neglect of Gaelic township verse is that, where standards of literary criticism have been applied, township verse has been relegated to a rather lowly position in comparison with other more exalted forms of verse - the fine products of the eighteenth century, on the one hand, and the modern poetry of the twentieth century on the other.  Modern literary critics who have commented on Gaelic poetry of this kind have dubbed it 'village verse' and its creators have often been called 'village bards'.  The use of the term 'village' has been a little unfortunate in several respects; for one thing, many districts of the Highlands and Islands where such poetry flourished have had few, if any, villages, and the poetry has been composed in the context of communities and townships.  More seriously, however, the use of the term 'village' sets up an implied contrast with the 'city' and with 'urban' values.  Those who have been the most influential literary critics within the Gaelic world have tended to be the purveyors of critical standards which have been formed by the world beyond the Highlands, and there is a tendency on the part of some to apply these values to Gaelic song and verse in such a way that what is traditional and local is somehow seen to be inferior to what is produced in the minds of those who dwell in the metropolis.

Modern Gaelic literary criticism has also been inclined to focus attention on the quality of individual items of verse, and the canon, or profile, of the poets as performers has been given less prominence. On the basis of the quality of their verse, 'village bards' are perceived as the 'poor relations' of the eighteenth-century poets and the twentieth-century modern poets; as a result, they are put in a kind of Gaelic 'kailyard' which does not have the exotic plants of the earlier or later centuries.  'Village bards' are often seen as lacking in originality, or lacking in power, compared with the greater poets; it can, I think, be conceded that there is a degree of inevitability in the themes that are pursued, but that does not rule out originality in the use of language, idiom, and expression.  Some 'village bards' have great skills in language; others are, of course, much less impressive, and we must be wary of giving them accolades simply because they belong to the 'ordinary people'.

It must also be said, however, that the type of poet which we are discussing is difficult to define in clear and simple terms. The term 'township bard', which I have used rather than 'village bard', is itself misleading.  It is tied to its own set of preconceptions, and would tend to relate the poets to the crofting townships of the period after 1800, when, in fact, it would seem that poetry of this kind was composed long before the process of allocating crofts began in the Highlands.  Perhaps we should think of a term like 'locality bard', rather than 'township bard'.  As I will argue later in this paper, it is probably misleading to think rather narrowly of a class of poet who is a 'village bard' or a 'township bard'; the evidence tends to suggest that the craft, so to speak, was broader than that, and that it was adaptable across time and place.  Certainly, the perception that people in the Highlands and Islands had of the poet remained the same; what changed, and brought changes in the poet's functions, was the audience and the context – the community, if you like.  Poets could migrate to the Lowland cities, or much farther afield, as they often did, and their gifts as 'township bards' would be developed in the urban context, in Pollokshaws or in Pretoria.

It is worth noting, by way of comparison, that the counterpart of the township bard or locality poet of Gaelic Scotland is known in Ireland and Wales.  I am not aware that the Irish have a particular term for him.  In Wales, however, a poet of this kind is called bardd gwlad, 'poet of the rural area' or 'country poet'.  Again, one tends to run into the distinction between the town and the country, which is not in my view particularly helpful.  Welsh scholars have voiced their own concerns about the problems of definition, in much the same way as I am doing now with regard to the 'township bard'.

The terminology used by the critics, then, has not done justice to the role or function of the 'township bard’;  indeed, it has tended to create difficulty in accommodating the 'township bard' into the wider frame of reference. Pigeon-holing has brought negative connotations, and this has led to some disparagement of the poets’ role.  Poets of larger status such as Seonaidh Phàdraig, otherwise known as John Smith from Lewis, the Iarsiadar Bard, are set apart from the others, even though much of their verse lies within the tradition of the 'township bard'.

A further reason for the distortion of the image of such poets is the piecemeal and individualistic manner in which the collecting and editing of Gaelic poetry and song has been conducted over the years.  The works of the poets have usually been gathered by individual collectors who have then worked faithfully to edit the songs concerned.  There has not been, to my knowledge, any specific attempt to gather Gaelic poetry of the various periods in Gaelic literary history, and there has been no consistently sustained project to provide editions of texts.  The result has been a certain unevenness in the texture of what survives.   Most notably lacking has been commentary on the functions of the poets whose work has been collected, leaving us with only the songs and very little of the context for which they were composed. As a result, we have lost a great deal of evidence which would almost certainly permit us to achieve a better appreciation of the role of the poet in its proper context in the Highlands and Islands.

Although we lack perspectives on the poets' craft, we do have a large number of gatherings of verse by individual poets, and these are of great importance.  Several date from the second half of the nineteenth century, and a large number have been produced by modern publishers such as Gairm Publications, which have given singular service in this respect.  Individual gatherings, particularly those from our own time, form the corner-stone of our understanding of the tradition as a whole. So far, however, we do not have any general anthology of Gaelic township verse, although we do have collections of considerable importance. The most substantial anthologies of the verse that I have in mind were compiled before 1950, and tend to represent particular localities; I am thinking here of such collections as Bàrdachd Leòdhais(1916) and Na Bàird Thirisdeach(1932). Other wide-ranging, such as The Poetry of Badenoch, edited by the Rev. Thomas Sinton, also come within this category.

Existing editions and texts are a sample of what the tradition was like; they do not cover all of it, and much more remains to be recovered, even from the living tradition of the present day.  Earlier reservoirs exist to be tapped. A scan through nineteenth-century newspapers, for example, shows that there were many township poets who were active in that period, and enjoyed the patronage of the newspapers.  A good example of the recovery work that can be done here is the series of talks and articles produced by the Secretary of this society, Mr Hugh Barron, whose diligence in recovering song and verse has been remarkable over the years.  One excellent illustration of this is the selection of songs by the Glenurquhart bard, Ewan Macdonald (Eoghann Shìm).  Such gathering reminds us of the riches of tradition which were current in areas which are now no longer Gaelic-speaking.  Songs often preserve for us not only the voice of former poets, but distinctive dimensions of community life which made mainland communities different from those in the islands.  Any future survey of work would take these dimensions into account.

My aim this evening is not to produce a comprehensive survey of all township bards in the Highlands and Islands; I think that it would be rather ambitious to attempt such a survey at this point, especially in the context of a single hour.  My aim, in the remainder of this paper, is to raise issues that still need to be addressed about the roles and functions of the Gaelic township bards, and especially the origins of such poets.  It would be my hope that my paper will provide a starting-point for a project aimed at re-assessing township poetry, its origins and development.

Poet and community

In seeking to assess the role and function of the township bard, the all-important dimension that needs to be recovered is the poet and his songs in relation to his community.  Although township bards did express personal and personalised sentiments (for example, their experiences in love), they often aimed to express ideas which would be understood and appreciated within their communities.  They articulated not only their own perspectives and feelings, but also, as appropriate, the corporate perception of the community.  Thus, the well known song, 'Manitoba', composed by the Tiree bard, John MacLean of Balemartin, in 1878 when a group of islanders were emigrating, expressed not only his own sorrow, but also that of the community.  In many ways, it is more important to consider the work of the township bard in relation to the community and its needs, than to apply standards of modern literary criticism which may not always be relevant.    The rich theme of the craft, purpose, and performance of the township poet is only now being opened for discussion, notably in the recent Ph.D. thesis by Dr Thomas McKean, who has analysed the work of the Skye poet, Iain MacNeacail, otherwise known as 'An Sgiobair'.  Dr MacKean's work is exemplary in that he has spent time with the 'Sgiobair', getting to know the context in which he composed his poems.

It is interesting to note that the importance of the poet's relationship to the community has been emphasised with regard to the Welsh bardd gwlad.  The eminent Welsh critic, Saunders Lewis, writing in 1939, defined the role of the 'country poet' or 'folk poet' as follows:

'The folk poet was a craftsman or farmer who followed his occupation in the area where he was born, who knew all the people in the neighbourhood and who could trace their family connections, who also knew the dialect of his native heath, and every story, event and omen, and who used the traditional social gift of poetry to console a bereaved family, to contribute to the jollifications at a wedding feast, or to record a contretemps with lightly malicious satire.  His talent was a normal part of the propriety and entertainment of the Welsh rural society, chronicling its happenings, adorning its walls and its tombstones, recording its characters, its events, its sadness and its joy.  It was a craft; the metres, the vocabulary, the praise and words of courtesy were traditional.  It was not expected that it should be different from its kind.  It was sufficient that it appropriately followed the pattern.'

With some obvious adjustments, this assessment could apply to the profiles of Gaelic township bards.  I would also add that a major comparative study could be attempted of the roles and functions of the Gaelic township bard and his Welsh (and Irish) counterparts.

Background to the Township Bard

In examining the background to the Gaelic township bard, it is useful to remind ourselves that the verse produced by such a poet usually covered certain well-defined themes.  That is what I mean by the term 'profile' - or, to put it another way, the township bard normally had a portfolio of verse which was distinctive.  His (sometimes ‘her’) output would include poems in praise of the locality in which s/he lived; poems in praise or dispraise of local worthies or people of significance within the wider world which impinged on community consciousness; poems on events or developments of particular importance in the life of the community, or external events which would affect the community; and often there would be a good deal of humour, sometimes at the expense of modern inventions, fashions, and fads.

The profile of the township bard, as we know him today, had certainly come into existence by the nineteenth century. Neil Morrison, the Pabbay Bard (born in 1816), is one of the earliest examples we have of a Gaelic poet operating with a distinct locality, and covering the range of verse that we would now regard as characteristic of such a poet - praise of the native heath, in contrast to the isolation of 'Eilean Dubh Phabaidh'; panegyric verse on an important figure (Lord Dunmore), elegy on spiritual leaders (Iain Gobha), humorous verse, and satire, on such subjects as the braxy, and rats.  He also composed the only poem known to me on the Potato Blight of 1846.   The light but firm touch of the Pabbay Bard suggests that he was composing within what was already a long and stable tradition.  His roots lay in Scarista, Harris, and the audience for his songs would have been primarily in that area.

It is not easy to identify or observe the processes which created profile of a bard like Neil Morrison, but the evidence from other islands tends to suggest that change within Gaelic society was at least a catalyst in the emergence of this type of poet.  What we need to acknowledge, of course, is that the change took place at different times, and proceeded at different rates, in different parts of the Highlands and Islands.

Perhaps I can most effectively illustrate the significance of social change in altering the profile of the township bard with reference to the island of Tiree.  I was fortunate to have been reared in Tiree at a time (the 1950s and early 1960s) when knowledge of, and respect for, traditional poets were still evident among the older generation of Gaelic speakers.  These Gaelic speakers were born in the 1870s and 1880s and were brought up in the full richness of Gaelic literary and linguistic tradition, a richness which was beginning to fade by the 1950s.  For such speakers, their own Gaelic bards were major figures who were admired for their verbal dexterity and their capacities to celebrate, memorialise and, if necessary, satirise aspects of community life. The Gaelic speakers that I knew were perfectly capable of distinguishing different levels and applications of poetic skills.

Two Tiree poets, whose labours cover the late eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth,  were held in great esteem in the island, above and beyond the normal 'run' of bards, and their profiles demonstrate the change in the poets' role and the concomitant change in society.  Both poets were, and are, known as 'John MacLean' in English; the one was Iain mac Ailein, Bàrd Thighearna Cholla, who flourished at the end of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth; and the other was Bàrd Bhaile Mhàrtainn, the Balemartine Bard.  The nomenclature bears witness to the change in context and function; the first John MacLean held the honorific office of poet to the Laird of Coll, while the second John MacLean was associated with the crofting community of Balemartine.  Patronage had changed; the one poet looked to the Laird, while the other looked to the community, for approval and inspiration.

In 1818, a year before he emigrated to Nova Scotia, Bàrd Thighearna Cholla published a collection of poems Orain Nuadh Ghaedhlach, which included a selection of his own poems and those by other similar poets.  We can see from the selection that MacLean lived in a world in which the lairds and tacksmen were the dominant social group.  MacLean composed poems in honour of the Laird of Coll, but also in honour of lairds in Mull and mainland Argyll.  He also included in the selection poems composed by other Tiree bards in honour of the tacksmen, and some of these poets included men who established minor bardic dynasties capable of producing songs in the context of the emerging crofting communities. Bàrd Thighearna Cholla himself composed other types of song - often humorous ones - focused on events affecting the lives of the ordinary people, but these were not included in his 1818 volume.  The ambience of the volume was aristocratic, and it was only in MacLean-Sinclair's late volume Clàrsach na Coille, that MacLean's 'ordinary' poetry was published (though it has to be noted that it was subjected to considerable change, and even re-composition, by the editor!)

Township poetry, commemorating the personalities and happenings of the post-1850 crofting community, is the sort of material that we see most prominently in what survives of the second John MacLean's output.  There is little in his poems in the way of verse in honour of worthy people beyond the crofting class.  The actions of the crofting community in Tiree, the threats to its survival, the foibles and mannerisms of the people of his own immediate neighbourhood (like the now famous Calum Beag) – these are among his most obvious concerns.  The community itself and, in a broader sense, the island, are what gives cohesion to the overall picture.  Bàrd Bhaile Mhàrtainn is recognisable today as a 'typical' township bard.

It is, however, arguable that the first John MacLean, Bàrd Thighearna Cholla, was also a township bard or community poet, though not in same sense as Bàrd Bhaile Mhàrtainn.  What makes the two MacLeans different is the nature of the communities which they were targeting.  The poets were each affirming the existence and vitality of the Gaelic township or community as it existed in their times.  The lairds and tacksmen were still very much a reality in the Tiree known to Bàrd Thighearna Cholla, but their days were numbered, and he stood on the cusp between old and new.  By the early 1800s, the old tacks were being broken up to create crofts, and the townships associated with run-rig were going out of existence. By the mid-century, the old-style lairds had vanished, and crofting had established itself, although some tacks, held by new-style tenant-farmers, remained into the twentieth century.  The community known to the Balemartine Bard was one in which the crofting class was a dominant social group which needed affirmation and defence.

The social process which imparted distinct differences of emphasis to the poetry of the two Tiree bards involved the loss of social stratification.  The 'phasing out' of the cultured middlemen of Gaelic society, the tacksmen who supported the old-style townships, was part of a process which began in the late 1730s.  The impact of the loss of the these men on the social stability and cultural institutions  of the Highlands has been noted by historians, but what has perhaps not received so much attention is the effect that their departure may have had on social institutions such as that of the poet.  It is quite evident that the tacksmen themselves were men of culture, capable of composing Gaelic verse, and it is noticeable that the verse styles associated with them are closer to the forms of seventeenth-century Gaelic poetry.

We do not know what degree of interaction there was between poets and songsters of the 'ordinary class', so to speak, and the more aristocratic bards within the ranks of the tacksmen, but it is possibly significant that some of the themes covered by poets of the tacksman class were later taken up by the township poets, most notably the theme of social dislocation itself.  Some of the earliest Gaelic verse protesting against rent-rises and consequent emigration, long before sheep appear in the Highlands, comes from the tacksmen.  A specimen of such verse can be found as early as 1739; by the second half of the nineteenth century the theme is associated primarily with the poets of the land agitation.

The decay of the tacksman class and the emergence of the crofting communities are likely to have been catalysts in the fashioning of the township bard as he appears at the end of the nineteenth century.  Society was now less stratified, and the Gaelic poets looked to people of their own social status for patronage and inspiration.  The collective crofting communities in individual localities fulfilled the role of patrons, and also provided the subject matter and the audience for the poets.

As a consequence of the change in the stratification of the community, there was change not only in the subject-matter, but also in the status and style of the poetry which came to be associated with it. Local worthies, rather than lairds or tacksmen, became the subjects of praise and satire, and were commemorated in poems which carried less of the traditional imagery than did the poems in praise of the tacksmen and lairds.  The 'panegyric code' (as identified by Dr John MacInnes) was maintained, but it was reallocated, and made to serve different needs and themes.  This can be seen, for instance, in the way in which the poets of the Land Agitation applied the panegyric style to leaders of the crofting communities, and commemorated 'battles' against landlords, factors and forces of the law.

Township bards and the pre-1800 Gaelic poets

The poetry of John MacLean, Bàrd Thighearna Cholla, forms a bridge between two communities: the old community of tacksmen and tenants, and the new community of crofters.  But how far back before 1800 can we trace some of the features of the later nineteenth-century township poets?  If we take it that one of the main characteristics of the typical township bard is a well defined locality, we can find some clear evidence of such localities among our eighteenth-century poets.

It seems to me that some of our eighteenth-century poets qualify for exploration in this light. The North Uist poet, John MacCodrum, is a good example of the larger version, so to speak, of the poetic type represented by John MacLean, Bàrd Thighearna Cholla.

Again, Rob Donn MacKay is worthy of consideration within the township class, since he had a very well defined community, consisting of tacksmen and tenants, which he was prepared to satirise and chastise in his verse.  Rob Donn's poetry is particularly strong in the area of social criticism, and we must ask when social criticism became a significant part of the function of the township bard.  Is there a continuum here with the kind of criticism that was voiced by Roderick Morrison, the Clàrsair Dall, when he mounted is attack on the change in social values occurring at Dunvegan by the end of the seventeenth century?

Another candidate who seems to me to be one of the most obvious examples of a community poet who flourished in the eighteenth century is Duncan Bàn MacIntyre (1724-1812), one of our most prominent Gaelic bards.  MacIntyre has a very marked sense of locality - centred, of course, on his beloved Beinn Dòbhrain.  His nature poetry, celebrating the splendour of the mountain, and later lamenting his own separation from it, may well have contributed to the prominence of the theme of the 'homeland' in the compositions of later township bards.  It is, indeed, arguable that MacIntyre's 'Cead Deireannach nam Beann' ('Final Farewell to the Mountains') was something of a trend-setter, especially for exiled poets.  Again, the influence of MacIntyre's tunes and metres is evident in the work of later township bards who often held MacIntyre in high esteem.

When comparing the works of the later township bards with those of Donnchadh Bàn, there are differences in scale which  are very evident.  It is as if function, and even aspects of style, have been scaled down in proportion to the creation of smaller communities.  But is the change governed solely by the creation of smaller townships?  Why is there such an obvious change of tone and style between the Gaelic poetry of the eighteenth century and that of the nineteenth?


Bards of the global community

The 'township bard' has probably been in existence for many centuries, though not necessarily in quite the guise that we think of him today; I have argued that what has changed is not the bard as such, but the bardic profile, and consequently the qualification that we attach to the bard, and his (or her) function. The community with which the poet can identify, and the various activities within the community which he can commemorate and celebrate, have changed too. Within the poet's approach to the community, we can expect to find particular types of poems or themes, though what these are, and how they might be expressed, depend on the norms and expectations of the community as it exists at the time of composition.

This is quite evident in the poetry of the twentieth-century township bard.  One has only to take the verse of Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna of North Uist to see how the 'global township' has impinged on the profile of a traditional Gaelic poet.  Dòmhnall Ruadh produced fine verse when serving in the First World War, including his outstanding poem, ''Illean, march at ease'.  He also lived to see the horror of the the H-bomb over the horizon.  Again, Dòmhnall Ruadh Phàislig anticipated the arrival of the dreaded 'rockets' in Uist, and composed his 'Oran nan Rocaidean', using the ever-popular trend-setting tune of Bàrd Bhaile Mhàrtainn's 'Calum Beag' to give a grim irony and a strong singability to his anti-nuclear protest.  The Uist bards, indeed, had substituted rockets for swords in the traditional order of things.  No further comment seems necessary on the flexibility and skill of the traditional township bard.

Collecting the material

Before any new research or reflection on the role of township poetry gets under way, it would be highly beneficial to embark on a project to gather the material that exists, in a variety of forms and in various locations across the Highlands and Islands, as well as in the archives of the BBC and such institutions as the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.  Poetry and song of this kind have been gathered by the Comuinn Eachdraidh in various parts of the Highlands, and particularly in the Islands.  Co-ordination would be required, and it would be wise to think of a strategy which might link the resources of several communities and also harness the contributions of scholars in the universities.  This could be achieved by employing the benefits of modern technology.

Because of advances in technology, we live at a time of unprecedented opportunities in terms of data-gathering and analytical capacity; and it would be a quite splendid development if an effort were made to gather existing Gaelic township verse on to a computerised database, where it could be accessed and made available to a wide range of scholars, teachers and other people interested in the history and culture of their own communities.   


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by noreply@blogger.com (Donald Meek) @ Passages from Tiree



Donald E. Meek


It gives me much pleasure to be present at this conference in memory of a a distinguished writer who was also my teacher, when I was a pupil in Oban High School in 1965-67.  Iain Smith's inimitable style remains vividly in my mind - the unending flow of humour, the many puns, the fits of helpless laughter as the teacher wrapped himself round the wastepaper basket and enjoyed his own jokes at least as much as his pupils did.  Humour often interrupted - or should I say, enhanced? - the day's classes, but the fact that our teacher was also one of Scotland's leading literary figures was not allowed to interfere with regular teaching; the syllabus took precedence over the artist, the curriculum was more important than the poet.  Only now and again, and in the strictest confidence, would Mr Smith (as he then was) reveal that he was a writer.  Once that confidence was established, the more trusted pupils might be given weekend reading, as I was on several occasions, consisting of wadges of transparent copy paper, blasted through with heavy typewriter bombardment, which contained drafts of poems, short stories and unpublished novels, in both Gaelic and English.  Here was creativity indeed, and a sense of cameraderie in the great art of original composition.  Trusted pupils were permitted to assess their teacher's homework.


Iain Smith valued the friendship and companionship of creative minds, of both pupils and poets.  On certain weekends, as he would disclose later, he would go to Edinburgh to enjoy the company of fellow poets, such as MacDiarmid, MacCaig, MacLean and Brown.  It was from Iain that I first learned of these mighty men of modern Scottish verse.  His visits to the literary pubs of the capital were his intellectual ceilidh time, when he and his friends regaled one another with creative gossip and new compositions.  On these occasions, Iain was in the midst of his creative soul-friends, and his 'ceilidhs' with them were one of his personal delights.


Iain also frequented other, more traditional forms of ceilidh in Oban itself, and brought Monday-morning reports of these.   At the emotional level, he took great pleasure in Gaelic songs, and revelled particularly in the work of Duncan Ban MacIntyre.  The annual Donnchadh Ban ceilidh was one of his special delights.  However, he was also fairly critical of much of the traditional output of Gaelic verse.   After an English class, if there was time to speak, he would sometimes talk about poets such as the popular nineteenth-century song-writer, Neil MacLeod, whose verse he did not appreciate.  He found MacLeod, as I remember, particularly shallow and unsatisfying; MacLeod composed some of the best known songs in Gaelic, like 'An Gleann san robh mi Og'.   As I can now appreciate much more clearly, Iain had a great dislike of romanticism, and of false facades, whether in poetry, people or place (and I will develop that later as the main theme of my talk).   The Gaelic poets whom he admired were those whom he considered to have broken through to the reality of human existence.  Thus, among the eighteenth-century poets, he liked Donnchadh Ban, but he also valued Rob Donn MacKay, and translated major poems by both of these poets into English.  Of the nineteenth-century poets, he enjoyed the work of Mary MacPherson, and often enthused about her song 'Nuair bha mi og'.  The twentieth-century poets were, however, his special friends - Sorley MacLean, Derick Thomson and Donald MacAulay.


When it came to Gaelic prose, as distinct from Gaelic poetry, Iain was much more reticent, and when pushed into a corner he had little to say of a complementary nature.   I cannot remember him ever enthusing about a Gaelic prose writer.  In reviews in the periodical, Gairm, however, he would occasionally let his feelings show. I gained the impression that Gaelic prose was a big disappointment to him.  He particularly disliked the school texts which he had to read as a boy; he found little to admire or to enjoy in the ponderous prose which was often presented in large black print in Blackie's Gaelic readers.  For him, the style and language took precedence all too often over the thought, and that was unacceptable in his eyes.  As his reviews make clear, Gaelic prose ought to be concise, clear and simple in style, and it ought to carry an intellectually satisfying, and enjoyable, message.  His own Gaelic short stories were constructed with precisely those aims; no Gaelic prose writer ever wrote such simple and unadorned prose as Iain Crichton Smith, and few have ever probed the dilemmas of human existence with such a sharp eye.  Despite the intellectual perspective, however, he was also one of the first writers to appreciate the need for good, attractive children's writing in Gaelic, with themes and styles that would appeal to children.  (I will speak later about his children's fantasy novel, Iain am-measg nan Reultan.) In his prose, the sparseness, the bareness of the style and the sharply analytical focus, the emphasis on the mind rather than the body, the enjoyment of the metaphysical rather than the physical, were (I am sure) intended as a deliberate challenge to traditional Gaelic writing.  There is a similar sparseness in the style of his Gaelic poetry, compared with traditional models; it is not the complexity of the metre or the profusion of language typical of the traditional poets that we find in Iain's verse.   Rather, it is a rejection of metre and style of that kind.   Language for language's sake (that is to say, rhetoric), or metre for metre's sake (that is to say, verse), was not Iain's primary concern, though he loved to play with language, and had a pun-gent wit; language was a vehicle for the expression of thought, and so too, insofar as it was relevant, was metre.


Thus the traditional Gael, reared in the old ceilidh house or familiar with its conventions, and used to richness of language as a primary constituent of 'good' Gaelic literature, would probably find Iain's output 'bare', if not 'barren', devoid of aesthetic appeal, difficult to enjoy and hard to understand, and he or she would probably brand it as 'un-Gaelic'.  Again, some of the themes that he pursued - his concern with the mind, with philosophy, with psychology, with the meaning of existence - would not have been attractive to the average man or woman on the croft.  The conclusion of the average Gael often was that 'his poetry is beyond me'.  My own feeling is that Iain's work has yet to be fully appreciated.  As time moves on, it will appeal most naturally to 'new Gaels'; to the pupils who have gone through the Gaelic-medium units, and whose worldview has not been shaped by the croft or the creel; to those adults who have learned the language and identify with a non-Gaelic culture in the first instance; and to those who have moved from the traditional concerns of the Gaelic community to a more global view of literature.  


Here we encounter something of a conflict - one of many conflicts, I would say - at the heart of Iain Smith's Gaelic work. On the one hand, Iain was writing for the Gaelic community, and he belonged to that community; but, on the other hand, he was coining new literary styles, and subverting some of the most important stylistic hallmarks of the traditional Gaelic community.  He was concerned to provide new, original approaches to literature, whereas the conventional Gaelic community admired imitation of earlier models, or worked in well worn tracks. His connections with the Gaelic world remained strong, but he was not wholly part of that world; he was 'of that world, but not in it' (if I may reconstruct a well-known phrase). His work includes satire as well as sympathy, powerful defences of the Gael and Gaelic, as well as merciless attacks on the Gael's 'sacred cows', including the church.  He was, by any standards, a complex individual.


The complex relationship between Iain Smith and the Gaelic world finds one of its symbolic centres, so to speak, in his frequent allusions to the ceilidh - and I want to make that my theme in this talk.  In Iain's work, both in his critical writings and his creative pieces, the ceilidh symbolises aspects of the traditional Gaelic world. Iain had something of a love-hate relationship with the ceilidh.  On the one hand, he enjoyed ceilidhs hugely, but on the other he often disliked them; he was, as he said, a 'double man', living with two different cultures and struggling to accommodate them.  His views of the ceilidh show his bi-valency, so to speak.  The gregarious side of him longed for the companionship and the friendship of the ceilidh, but intellectually he rejected much of ceilidh culture.   His enjoyment, or lack of it, depended on what was in the ceilidh, and what kind of ceilidh it was.


If you read his splendid essay, 'Real People in a Real Place', you will find that Iain has a lot to say about ceilidhs, and distinguishes two types.   He draws a distinction between the 'old ceilidh' of the traditional Gaelic community - the one that Derick Thomson considered to have been destroyed by the evangelical Calvinism of Lewis - and the 'new ceilidh' of exiles in the cities.  With the traditional sort of ceilidh he could empathise; as he saw it, it was a cohesive act of the community, and had a mix of songs and tales which came from the community itself.  His most dismissive comments were, however, reserved for the exiles' ceilidh.  He regarded the city ceilidhs, which often gave precedence to romantic songs, as acts of self-delusion.  This is what he says (p. 23):


'The new ceilidh has now become a concert, with "stars" in kilts twinkling from platforms in great halls in Edinburgh or Glasgow.  The songs have become nostalgic exercises, a method of freezing time, of stopping the real traffic of Sauchiehall Street, a magic evocation of a lost island in the middle of the city.  The traditional ceilidh which was held in the village in the village ceilidh house was a celebration of the happenings of the village, it was alive, it was a diary and a repeated record.  The ceilidh as it is now practised is a treacherous weakening of the present, a memorial, a tombstone on what has once been, pipes playing in a graveyard.'


To understand the prominence of the 'new ceilidh' in Iain's work, we have to bear in mind that he himself was an 'exile', in the sense that he lived and worked away from Lewis.  That created tensions for him.  He was acutely aware that the state of exile could produce misleading views of the original homeland, and that these could be recycled by the folk at home.   Nostalgia of this kind could also divert people from the real tasks around them.  Just occasionally, however, I wonder if Iain Smith himself was not being a trifle romantic in his perception of the traditional ceilidh.  For one thing, this would have been the very place where the traditional tales about the Gaelic heroes - Fionn, Cu Chulainn, Conall Gulban and the rest of them - would have been recited with vigour and gusto, with their many prolix 'runs' and rich vocabulary.  Here too we would have found Gaelic poetry and song which would have reinforced traditional models.  Iain's prose and verse challenge and ultimately reject these models.  Consequently, his concept of the 'new ceilidh' which he himself wanted is at once very different from that of both the exile and the native.  His preferred 'new ceilidh' - the target audience of his own songs and tales, rather than the exile's 'new ceilidh' - is a ceilidh of the mind, where intellectual freedom, rather than slavish imitation of existing models, is practised.   It is devoid of romanticism, and encourages the search for reality rather than a retreat into self-delusion.  It is global rather than insular in its worldview.


Iain uses various devices, including satire, to show the irrelevance of the exile's ceilidh to the contemporary world.  Despite the general view of him as a relentless intellectual, Iain had the ability to write for young people, and did so in a couple of books, one of which is his children's fantasy, Iain am-measg nan Reultan. In this story, two youngsters, Iain and Rita, arrive in Mars, in the company of some very untraditional Gaelic heroes, Dan Dare and Desperate Dan - the comic characters of Iain's boyhood and mine.  When they reach Mars, they are first taken to a 'Mod', which has contextualised itself in the Red Planet, and is going full swing when they enter.  For Iain Smith, the Mod is an extension of the exile's pointless ceilidh, and the Mars Mod is a confused experience (p. 40):


Chaidh iad a-steach gu sàmhach is shuidh iad aig a' chùl.  Bha fear le tartan dearg is aodann dearg a' seinn oran.

B'e ainm an òrain 'Thugainn do Mhars'.  'S e seo a chiad sreathan:

'O thugainn a leannain gu dùthaich nam planaid
Gheibh thu dambaddy is górav...'
'Se 'dambaddy' seòrsa de bhiadh is 'górav' seòrsa de fhìon.

Bha triùir dhaoine 'nan suidhe a' sgrìobhadh.

Ars a' chailleach, 'Tha iad a' toirt comharraidhean dha.'  Bha am pàipear air an robh iad a' sgrìobhadh dearg, is am peann dearg cuideachd.  Ars a' chailleach, 'Dh'fhàg sinn an Talamh o chionn iomadh bliadhna air ais, ach mar a chì thu tha sinn a' cumail suas nan seann nòs.  Air oidhche na Bliadhn' Uire bidh Andy Stewart againn cuideachd ach tha e gabhail móran airgid airson a thurais.'

Nuair a bha an t-òran crìochnaichte thubhairt fear na cathrach: 'Tha mi duilich nach tàinig Tormod fhathast.  Bha dùil againn ris as a' phlanaid Venus ach dh'éirich rudeigin don t-soitheach aige.  Chan fhada gus an tig e a dh'aindeoin sin.'

They went in quietly and they sat at the back.  There was a man with a red kilt and a red face singing a song.

The name of the song was, 'Come to Mars'.  These were its first lines:

'O come, my sweetheart, to the land of the planets

You will get dambaddy and górav...'

'Dambaddy' is a kind of food, and 'górav' is a kind of wine.

There were three men sitting writing.

The old woman said, 'They are giving him marks.'   The paper on which they were writing was red, and the pen was red too.  The old woman said, 'We left the Earth many years ago, but as you see we still keep up the old customs.  On Hogmanay we wil have Andy Stewart also but he takes a lot of money for his trip.'

When the song was finished the chairman said: 'I am sorry that Norman has not come yet.  We were expecting him from the planet Venus but something happened to his spaceship.  However, it wil not be long until he arrives.' 

The song which is being sung, 'Thugainn do Mhars', is a parody of  popular Gaelic songs in which the poets invite their sweethearts to visit their native islands. The first line echoes 'Tiugainn, a leannain, do Scalpaidh na Hearadh', while the second imitates the catalogue of 'delights' which the sweetheart will find in the island.   The Gaelic of Mars has evidently produced new words, which, when translated by the author, turn out to be terms for food and drink.  The second item 'gorav' seems to echo the Gaelic adjective, 'gòrach' ('foolish').  This clever little joke makes the point that intellectual satisfaction cannot to be found in such songs; they descend too easily into meaningless, formulaic catalogues, imitative of one another and easily carted around the Gaelic solar system, with its stars and moonshine.  Iain also takes a swipe at Scottish entertainment more generally, and gently satirises some well known Scottish entertainers: Andy Stewart represents the couthy but colossally expensive variety, while Norman (Who?) represents the funny but hugely unpredictable variety. Andy's expenses are astronomical, while Norman's non-appearance in Mars is explained by a spaceship accident.


The hò-rò-gheallaidh in Mars is the reductio ad absurdum of the exile's 'new ceilidh', but what of the ingredients of Iain Smith's own 'new ceilidh'?  If Iain were organising a ceilidh, what songs would he put on the programme?  My own intuition is that he would, in fact, attempt to balance old and new, and that he would provide a set of new songs to be sung alongside the old, and thus provide some intellectual fibre.  His concept of the songs which might be appropriate in his 'new ceilidh' is put on display in his collection, Biobuill is Sanasan-reice ('Bibles and Advertisements').   Here he has an important sequence entitled 'Ochd Orain airson Ceilidh Uir' ('Eight Songs for a New Ceilidh'), which has been anthologised in other collections.  The last poem in the sequence - Poem 8 - takes the 'invitation formula' that he has satirised in the context of Mars (pp. 21-22).  In this song the sweetheart is invited to visit, not some Hebridean island such as Uist or Lewis, but Japan, where she is to reflect on the destruction wrought by the dropping of the atomic bomb, which destroys not only people but 'sense'.  The traditional 'escapist culture' is here identified with the ceilidh halls of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and Iain makes the point that, in the way that they are sung, even the songs of Duncan Ban MacIntyre are sanitised to some extent, in the interests of 'the lies that make clouds around our generation'.


The sequence contains other poems which make essentially the same point, namely that it is not possible for anyone with an active mind to seal the islands and Gaelic culture off from the wider world, to retreat irresponsibly into romanticism, and to lock the door on the atrocities of the twentieth century, including the holocaust.  We are in the world of the 'global village' here, and the 'global village ceilidh'.  Indeed, in Poem 3 in the sequence Iain sees himself standing in a concentration camp, and taking part in the execution of the Jews in a gas chamber, in which the gas is 'mar cheo Leodhais air creagan fuar'' ('like the mist of Lewis on cold rocks').   Here, the mist which is so often magical and mystical in Gaelic song  (Skye is traditionally 'Eilean a' Cheò', for example) is being associated with the cold-blooded horror of Hitler's policies in far-away Germany.  Far from obscuring the past, the mist brings a terrible tragedy closer to home, and the poet shares in the corporate responsibility for what has happened.


In the light of that responsibility, and particularly the destruction of war, Iain feels that he has to set a question mark against commonly accepted aesthetic values, such as natural beauty, whether in people or in the physical world. External matters cannot be accepted at face value.  He cannot compose a love-poem to order, so to speak; it has to arise from his own experience; he has to feel the real agony of love within himself.  Traditional Gaelic poets admired the physical, and described it in detail, whether in terms of the human form or the shape of the land, its mountains and lochs. Although he is well aware of the beauty around him, Iain Smith rejects physical sources of inspiration for his verse, whether these be mountains, stars, an overseas voyage or the cultural delights of London.  He makes this clear in his 'Eight Songs for a New Ceilidh'.  He prefers what he can see and feel inside his own heart; although this makes for a dangerous and isolated existence, it is by this means (paradoxically) that he will touch universal themes.  The contribution of Lewis to that process of self-probing and self-analysis has been the very opposite of what the island has done for the romantic exile, since it has given an unromantic edge to his poetry, though it has given him an internal musicality: 'but it was the bareness of Lewis that made the work of my mind like a loom full of the music of the miracles and greatness of our time'.


It is very evident from this sequence of poems alone that Iain Smith found music very attractive; he was pulled inexorably towards the songs of the Gaelic world, including the great songs of war-time romanticism, such as Domhnall Ruadh Choruna's 'An Eala Bhan' ('The White Swan'), which was his particular favourite.  In his volume Biobuill is Sanasan-reice, Gaelic songs have a very prominent place.  He writes his own poetic commentary on 'An Eala Bhan', for example, in which he sees the swan as the inevitable symbol of romantic hope and warmth and creativity at a time of destruction (p. 37).  He makes his own remarkable response to 'beanntan na Hearadh' ('the mountains of Harris').  His poem 'Nochdadh ri Beanntan na Hearadh' (p.25) superimposes on the bare landscape of Harris the modern, 'external' commercial world of neon lights, eventide homes, cafes, advertisements, guitars, nylon, and Woolworth's shops. This grotesquely incongruous picture - a peculiar double exposure in which Oban seems to be have fallen on top of Harris - makes its own point very forcefully; the islands cannot be isolated from the 'big world out there'.  It will come to them, bringing its own value system, and its own challenges to the mind as well as the body.  The ominous closing lines of this poem - 'the green that is not the green of the sea swimming on the face of a sailor' - are a pointer to the distemper which the new world will bring to the islands.  This volume, it may be noted, was published in 1965, and almost forty years on we can see that Iain's grimly ironic reworking of a romantic motif had more than a hint of prophecy in its lines.


This prophetic glimpse of a changing world in the islands - a world which is no romantic hideaway but one that is relentlessly connected to the malaises of the modern day - brings me finally to prose, and to one of the most fascinating of Iain's stories, An t-Aonaran ('The Loner'), published in 1976.   It is a novella, or a long short story, just about the right size for a ceilidh of the traditional style.  It seems to me that the plot - the arrival of a mysterious loner in the village - is probably not original, though an event of this kind did apparently happen in Bayble; Iain has almost certainly been inspired by a powerful Gaelic short story called 'Iomhar Mòr', which was published in An Cabairneach, the magazine of Comunn na h-Oigridh, in 1950, and was reprinted in an anthology of Gaelic short stories in 1970.  The theme is, of course, much older than 1950; the arrival of a stranger of some sort - a Norseman, a fairy visitor from the otherworld, an enemy of the kindred - is a well known motif in many traditional Gaelic stories that would have been told and retold in the old-style ceilidh house across the centuries.  The heroes of the community were able to take their stand against him, or do whatever was necessary to honour traditional values.


The original type of 'stranger' tale was meant to send a shiver through your spine, but Iain is concerned to send a shiver through your mind.   In Iain's extended version, we have no heroes, only anti-heroes.  Dougie, one of the first characters we meet in the book, owns the local shop and is a source of news, but he has been a soldier in the army, and often speaks of tanks and Fascists, but this has not prepared him to cope with the challenge in the story.  The story is set in Lewis, in a community which the author knows well, namely Bayble.  The trouble begins in a Nissen hut, which has become home to a mysterious stranger whose intrusion into the community triggers a whole range of reactions, most of them hostile, to his appearance.  The story is told through the eyes and words of a retired schoolmaster, with whom the author can obviously identify.  Not one of the local characters in the story actually succeeds in conversing with the stranger; he remains a largely unknown quantity throughout the book, dwelling apart from the rest of the village.  He is a drop-out, we assume, and he has left the rat-race in order to commune with nature.  Yet, although he has left one place and fails to enter the life of another, he has a potent effect on the village.  He is a catalyst towards self-examination on the part of the schoolmaster, who is forced to reflect on his own life, which has been one of dullness and tedium.   His wife, whom he met as a student in Edinburgh, has died of cancer, and when she went to the island with her husband, she abandoned some of her earlier skills and interests, notably her violin playing.  The violin, gathering dust and now unused, is a leitmotif in the novella.   The transition to Lewis has stifled her artistry; the beauty which her husband saw in the sea and moor killed her innate beauty.


In this way, Iain takes a highly traditional theme - and old-style ceilidh theme at the heart of Gaelic creativity across the centuries -  and redirects it in order to explore the meaning of beauty, and ultimately the meaning of life itself, for that is the main theme of the book.  All the main characters, including pre-eminently the narrator, are shown to be 'loners', divorced from others, and communicating largely with themselves; their only point in common is their dislike of the stranger, their blundering attempts to second-guess him and to understand his motive in coming to the village.  They consistently think the worst of him.  As they do so, they are affected by the same existential disease, and become alienated from themselves and from their callings; even the minister is unable to preach the sermon that he has prepared for the Sabbath day, and comes to seek the advice of the schoolmaster.  Finally, they succeed in driving the stranger from the village on a trumped-up charge.  They have lost their sense of being human, as part of a wider family of human relations; and they are themselves lost in existential anonymity and ambiguity.  They are all 'loners' looking for meaning.  There is no ceilidh in this book, no Highland hospitality, no tolerance, no meeting of minds; only suspicion and failure and a kind of perverted voyeurism, preying on other people's failings and waiting to see who will 'crack' first in this tension-ridden place of unfulfilment.  It is as if Iain Smith has written a creative commentary on one of the famous lines of Murdo MacFarlane, the Melbost Bard, who, when he went to Canada, complained in his famous Gaelic exile song that 'there was no ceilidh on the prairie'.  There is no ceilidh in Bayble.  Without the ceilidh, as Iain states in 'Real People in a Real Place', the community becomes a void. An t-Aonaran portrays that void, and could be read as a plea for real and realistic ceilidhing in a broken world.  The ceilidh has to be put back into the soul-destroying flatness of the postmodern prairie.   


There are many ironies in this book, many conflicts and contradictions. One is the comment that it makes on the state of exile.  One need not leave Lewis to be an exile; it is possible to be exiled from one's real self, and that is surely part of the message of An t-Aonaran. All this goes to show that, despite the romantic external image of the islands, life there - the internal reality - is no different from that in other parts of the world.  The characters are just as much lost in their existential nightmares as are the people of London or Edinburgh or Los Angeles.  Thus, although An t-Aonaran is a story set in a village in Lewis, it has a universal application.  It takes the lid off Bayble, so to speak, and but it reveals the bigger Babel within the human condition, the Babel in which a deep communicative disorder is only just below the surface.  Despite their use of language, it is not possible for these twentieth-century islanders to communicate effectively with each other or to accommodate another person.  It is a frighteningly realistic book - frightening in what it has to say about leading double lives, about hypocrisy, salaciousness and noseyparkerism.   It is, for better or worse, about real people in a real island - not romantic people in a romantic island.


And that sums it up.  Iain Smith's Gaelic writings, both prose and verse (and I have touched on only the merest fraction of these in this paper), are intended to be relevant to the Gaelic world, but to be a challenge at various levels - a challenge to make Gaelic styles more flexible, a challenge to dump romantic dreaming about the islands, a challenge to avoid escapism, a challenge to 'get real', as we would say today, and to face real issues.   Behind the challenges, however, was a deep concern to take Gaelic literature forward - to pull it out of its concern with itself, with its own narrow world, and to make the Gaelic writer central to the wider literary world, rather than 'off the edge of things' in some romantic cul-de-sac.   Nowadays, we talk about the need to 'normalise' or 'equalise' the Gaelic language by bringing it up to a par with English in the life of the Scottish nation.   Iain Smith's aim from the very outset was, I believe, the 'normalisation' and 'equalisation' of Gaelic literature in terms of the wider literary world.  The ceilidh, in his view, had to be taken out of the hands of the exiles, out of the music halls of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and repatriated to the Highlands and Islands -  repatriated, that is, among real people in a real place, who would sing real songs and tell real tales.  But it had also to be repatriated intellectually and chronologically.  It had to deal with the here and now, and not merely with the dead and gone.  It had to be able to function cross-culturally, and its best pieces had to be able to stand on both sides of the linguistic frontier separating Gaelic and English.


In approaching Gaelic literature in this way, and by providing what I have called 'songs and tales for a new ceilidh', Iain Crichton Smith was an undoubted pioneer, unique in many respects.  His ability to compose prose and verse on similar themes in Gaelic and English, and his desire to use both languages, set him apart from his contemporaries.  In his hands, the Gaelic ceilidh became multicultural, and Gaelic literature was dragged singing into the global ceilidh house.

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Appreciation of Professor Derick S. Thomson: funeral oration, as delivered

by noreply@blogger.com (Donald Meek) @ Passages from Tiree


When I arrived at the Department of Celtic at 6 Lilybank Gardens, University of Glasgow, in October 1967, and met the redoubtable and already famous Professor Derick Thomson, I could not possibly have imagined that I would have the privilege of standing here today to deliver the Address at the Memorial Service for my former Professor.  Derick Thomson was an awe-inspiring man, gentle as a dove, strong as a horse – indeed, stronger than many horses – and, like Scotland’s national emblem, the thistle, prickly, powerful and defensive when challenged.   I often trembled in his presence, because he had a way of making you tremble.  I had to draw on my reserves of energy to speak to him when he was behind his solidly protective desk in his immaculate ‘sanctum’, looking every inch the scholar, and speaking in his gentle tones.  I will always remember his sharp eyes, his dark hair, his glasses, his tweed jacket…his tendency to look out of the big bay window when the conversation was reaching its natural conclusion or going in the wrong direction.  I will never forget his voice, its measured tones, its Lewis flavour (‘am blas Leòdhasach’), its almost hypnotic quality.  Nor will I ever forget his handwriting, which was beautifully artistic, fluent and strong, the mark of the person who always used a fountain pen, ‘got it right first time’, and seldom scored out a word.  

If I often trembled in his presence, the Professor also had a way of putting me incomparably at my ease.  When ‘off duty’, so to speak, he would recline in his chair, drop the academic persona, take out a cigar, chuckle warmly, smile – and become ‘Derick’, Derick the storyteller, the joker, the mischievous rascal who wanted to see how I would respond when he disarmed me with unexpected humour and a well-turned anecdote, which I was meant to understand at several different levels.  Sometimes it took a week or more for slow-minded people like me to grasp all the nuances!  I still think about his stories, his clever phrases, the twinkle in his eyes, the movements of his face and his eyebrows, his glasses rising and falling as his expressions changed.  Glasgow University Staff Club was the place in which he relaxed best, after lunch, and I will always associate ‘Derick’ with the Club, and Professor Thomson with Lilybank Gardens. 

Derick and the club, of course, had deeper implications; it was in such contexts that he won me over, pulling me into his confidence, asking me to edit a book, to consider an article.  I became part of his club, and even part of his mind-set.  He was subtle, highly sociable, good at getting his way, outstanding in his ability to comprehend the essence of other people, and to notice any qualities in these people which could become grist to his mill.  He was a man of many, many talents, and even many personalities, certainly many personae.  He was a man of many agendas, all of them focused on Gaelic and on Scotland, and the good of both.  It also has to be said that he was a formidable adversary.  You didn’t cross Professor Thomson, and expect to get away with it.  If he didn’t like what you were doing, he would tell you! Along with all his other personae, Derick carried the persona of the schoolmaster, and, if he inspired us, he could also terrify us, by taking us into his ‘sanctum’ for a ticking-off. 

So, here I am, reflecting, remembering, and even attempting to assess one of the strongest and most influential people I have ever known.  Trying to summarise him in a mere twenty minutes is an impossible task.  He was unquestionably a colossus of twentieth-century Scotland, and I do not mean ‘Gaelic Scotland’ alone.  He belonged to the nation of Scotland, he loved Scotland, he was a Scottish Nationalist, and he was totally committed to the cause of Scotland, even when it was unfashionable to be committed to Scotland.  One of the ‘golden moments’ with Derick, which I can remember vividly and with enormous pleasure, was when I went to lunch with him in the Staff Club on the day that Margo MacDonald won the Govan By-election.  He was elated, full of joy, as if the future of Scotland was assured – and for him it was assured.  He was an optimist from beginning to end, and, although some of us, like myself, simply could not match his boundless energy and his long-haul capability, he did instil into us a very real commitment to what we regarded as important – and, of course, what he regarded as important.  With Scottish Nationalists triumphantly in power in twenty-first century Scotland, I often think of Derick, and the pleasure he must have derived from seeing such a remarkable change.  Not that he would have regarded it as ‘remarkable’. He saw it coming, of course.  He told me thirty years ago.  I am not sure if many would regard Derick Thomson as a prophet, in addition to his many other qualities, but there was assuredly a touch of that in the man. He always had his eye on the future.  As a poet, he composed a poem on ‘Playing Football with a Prophet’, and, in some ways, that sums up Derick – he asked you to play his game with him, and he would tell you the result long before it happened!

The relaxed and playful Derick is one (only one!) of the personae which appears in his poetry.   If you want to get close to Derick, read the compositions of Ruaraidh MacThòmais, as they show you how he ‘ticked’.  There is much fun there, many a joke, many a punch-line which strikes you with the force of a cannon-ball which has been gently wrapped in cotton-wool.  There is also a very, very serious side, or set of sides, to his verse.  It is ‘vers-atility’ with a capital V!  You will see his life history there, his likes and dislikes, his hopes and fears, expounded not in some direct CV-style narrative, but through the philosophical art of a profound but accessible thinker who felt deeply about each move he made, from one context to another, from Bayble in Lewis in the late 1930s to the streets of Glasgow in a twenty-first century cosmopolitanism. Life, for him, was a voyage of self-definition, in the contexts of new places, new cultures, new worlds.  It was a matter of adapting to new worlds, but also of  adapting new worlds to his own needs, while remaining at heart the Gael, the Scot, the Nationalist.  He took Gaelic to these new worlds, and showed ‘why Gaelic matters’.

As his first book of verse, An Dealbh Briste, shows, Ruaraidh MacThòmais was made acutely aware of the dilemmas, the hard decisions, facing Gaelic-speaking young people in pursuit of higher education, when he himself left Lewis at an impressionable age to begin his immensely distinguished academic career at the University of Aberdeen.  I latched on to his poetry at that stage in my own life, and it provided for me (and no doubt for many others) what could be termed a ‘shared biography’, which helped me to understand my own cross-cultural and emotional predicaments.  I cannot adequately express the consolation and self-understanding that I gained from each successive volume.  I could hardly wait for the next one to appear.  I remember how, at a lecture, he let slip that An Rathad Cian had just been published.  As soon as the lecture was over, my good friend and contemporary at Glasgow, Jo MacDonald, and I took the first (Number 10) bus from Gilmorehill to 29 Waterloo Street, where Gairm Publications had its headquarters.   We climbed the stairs which almost caused us to fall backwards with the tilt on their steps – they were so badly worn! – and returned clutching our copies of the book.  It was thrilling for us to be close to an active Gaelic poet, who was also ‘our teacher’!   He was a major figure in the Scottish literary firmament, standing alongside Hugh MacDiarmid, George MacKay Brown and Norman MacCaig, as well as being one of the ‘famous five’ Gaelic poets of modern Scotland, who included his younger Bayble contemporary, Iain Crichton Smith (my English teacher, in Oban High School).

Derick Thomson, with the support of Finlay J. MacDonald, was the founder of the celebrated Gaelic periodical Gairm, established in 1951. It was through Gairm, which was distributed to secondary schools throughout the islands, that I first became familiar with the names of Ruaraidh MacThomais and Finlay J.  Potentially dull Gaelic hours were transformed by hilarious stories, which caused the pupils and teacher to laugh heartily together.  Gairm became, without question the vehicle for a creative revolution in Gaelic literature, far beyond the schools. Edited by Derick for just over 50 years, and appearing four times a year, it was a phenomenal achievement in its own right, demonstrating the capacity for sustained hard work and creative thinking which were his hallmarks. Profits from Gairm, and no doubt fair amounts of his own money, were ploughed into the creation of Gairm Publications, which continued to publish books into the 1990s. Gaelic publication was facilitated further by the creation of Derick’s brainchild, the Gaelic Books Council, in 1968 – and it continues to this day as an essential corner-stone of Gaelic publishing, going from strength to strength and existing independently of the university. His visionary thinking also led to the establishment of the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic in the early 1960s.  Although the original venture faltered because of lack of funding, it has now been resurrected, with its own co-ordinator, and its invaluable archive at Glasgow is being digitised in twenty-first century style.  Thus restructured, the ‘Dictionary’ is now producing outputs beyond his imagining.

 Derick Thomson was unquestionably ‘the man with the plan’ not only for Gaelic literature, but also for Gaidhlig ann an Albainn, ‘Gaelic in Scotland’, the title of splendid little book which he edited and published in 1976, as ‘a blueprint for official and private initiatives’ relating to Gaelic.  My copy has fallen apart with use, but, 36 years later, I still keep it by my side.  It is quite excellent, and I realise, as I handle its individual pages with the respect they deserve, that those of us who have tried to ‘do something’ for Gaelic are, by and large, doing no more than finessing the templates which Derick Thomson and his team created all those years ago.  They are still relevant.  Before the concept of ‘language planning’ was officially invented and turned into a profession in its own right, Derick Thomson was already ‘on the job’ for Gaelic.

Long-term commitment to the totality of Gaelic – the totality of Gaelic, and not merely to one aspect of the language - was wedded to a sharp rational mind, which appears to me to have been outstandingly versatile, active and agile, right to the end. That sharp mind was the dynamo which empowered the young man from Bayble to graduate from the University of Aberdeen with a First Class degree in English Literature and Celtic.  After war service Derick embarked on the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Tripos at Cambridge, established by the pioneering scholars, Hector Munro Chadwick and his wife Norah Kershaw Chadwick, who wished to encourage bridge-building and interdisciplinary study between the Celtic and Germanic strands in early British cultural history.  He achieved similar distinction there, and in his last volume of verse, Sùil air Fàire, he included Norah Chadwick in his special poetic gallery of unforgettable friends, effortlessly mingling the good folk of Lewis and Cambridge.

Thereafter, Derick studied at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, under the guidance of the Rev. Professor J. E. Caerwyn Williams, for whom he had an immense respect.  Wales added Welsh to his quiver of specialities, and he edited a superbly useful edition of Branwen Uerch Lyr for the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.  When I was learning Welsh at Glasgow, I could hardly believe that ‘my Professor’ had produced that little gem of a book, alongside his constant output of articles and books relating to Gaelic, old and new.  His books included the seminal work, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s Ossian, in 1951, and An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry in 1974, as well as the utterly indispensable  Companion to Gaelic Scotland in 1983.

Derick Thomson served through the ranks of the academic profession in Scotland, in Edinburgh (where he assisted Professor Myles Dillon and was a collector of Gaelic tradition for the new School of Scottish Studies), Glasgow (where he taught Welsh, alongside Professor Angus Matheson), Aberdeen (where he was Reader in Celtic) and finally Glasgow, this time as Professor from 1963 until 1991.  When I went to Glasgow in 1967, I was overwhelmed by the energy and freshness of the department, with its younger and older lecturers, full of ideas, tilting at old notions, and creating new ways of seeing the linguistic, literary and socio-linguistic worlds.  It was an exciting place to be, there in the terrace at Lilybank Gardens, where you went in the door of No. 6 as Professor Thomson looked through this window and watched you making your ascent on the steps!

I remember some very funny moments in the Lilybank lecture-room, interspersed, of course, with some very serious learning!  We were all astonished one day when Professor Thomson arrived wearing bright, canary-yellow socks!  The things we noticed, when we really ought to have been studying!  ‘Am faca tu stocainnean a’ Phroifeasair?’ arsa tè rim thaobh.  (‘Did you see the Professor’s socks?’ asked a girl by my side.)  On another occasion, he walked into the lecture-room as one of my contemporaries, well known to some of us, was in full satirical flow, giving us a mock-lecture on the Cardinal Vowel Scale, and making the most horrendous noises imaginable.  The august Professor, who had no doubt heard the cacophony in his ‘sanctum’ below the lecture-room, burst into helpless laughter as he came through the door, and we all enjoyed the hilarity of the moment.

‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very Heaven!’ said William  Wordsworth in The Prelude, when remembering the heady days after the French Revolution.  I could have said the same of Glasgow back in the late 1960s.  It was tough going too, hard work, as you struggled your way up and over the relentless salmon-leaps of Old Irish, Middle Irish, Old Welsh, Middle Welsh, Modern Irish, Modern Welsh, Early Modern and Modern Gaelic, alongside their respective literatures, with some Manx, Cornish and Breton for those who could last the pace of the torrent.  Derick Thomson put a strong emphasis on literature, including twentieth-century literature, which was a very welcome break from the traditional emphases.  His lectures were always magnificently crafted, and enormously interesting, whether he was expounding the Book of the Dean of Lismore, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (who was a special favourite of his), Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, Somhairle MacIlleathain, or even the mysterious Ruaraidh MacThòmais, who was mentioned with earth-shattering objectivity from time to time!

I have mentioned the words ‘plan’ and ‘template’ already.  As I look back, I realise that, as in his thinking on Gaelic in Scotland, so also in his academic teaching – Professor Derick Thomson was ‘the man with the plan’, the ‘Thomson Template’.  He was in the business of ‘moulding’ his students, and not merely in the job of banging dry and dusty knowledge into their skulls, though there may have been some of that, especially when it came to Old Irish and Middle Welsh!  When he got you under his spell, he could certainly mould you!  When I completed my degree in 1971, and was still a little uncertain about the future, I was told that I was going to Cambridge, and to Cambridge I went.  No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’.  When I returned to Glasgow in 1973, I approached Professor Thomson with a proposal for a PhD, but he wasn’t too encouraging.  ‘Some of us have managed very well without it,’ said he!   Of course, he became my supervisor, and I now realise that he was testing my resolve, and warning me (correctly) of the challenge that lay ahead, as I toiled away part-time until 1982.  I have kept all his comments, in his immaculate hand-writing, to this day, as they are so insightful.

Derick Thomson, scholar, teacher, Professor, language planner, poet, businessman, editor, politician, propagandist, chairman of boards and trusts in abundance, was in my view ‘uniquely unique’.  He was multi-talented, multi-skilled, multi-disciplinary – multi- just about everything you can think of.  That, together with the speed of his mind, and his determination to do the job, meant that he was enormously influential, and as a consequence he could make enemies as well as friends, or perhaps a bit of both in the same persons!  He had also come from a very rich traditional Gaelic culture in Lewis, which had been interpreted to some extent for him within a ‘magisterial’ context – the ‘magister’ being the local schoolmaster and none other than his father, James Thomson, who was for many years headmaster of Bayble School, and himself a distinguished poet.  However, what remains in my mind are the ways in which Professor Derick Thomson acted as a modernising mediator of the old, so that it became highly relevant in a new context.  That applied as much to his politicking as it did to his teaching, as much to his planning as it did to his poetry.  He took his opportunity, in the second half of the twentieth century, following the ravages of the Second World War, to stamp his own vision on Gaelic and on Scotland.  It is not too much to say that that vision made Gaelic what it is today, with its numerous means of enlightened support, but it also went some way to making Scotland what it is today.

So we remember him in the multiplicity of his persons, the immensity of his contributions to Scotland, to Gaelic, to the Celtic languages and their literatures.  Professor Thomson has passed on, and he will be much missed, and often remembered.  But he has built an astonishing ‘memorial’, which is not pompous or self-glorious in any way. It is around us and within us.  It will endure as long as Gaelic lasts.  For that we are most profoundly grateful.  Ceud mìle, mìle taing, a Ruaraidh, a charaid, airson na rinn sibh dhuinn uile.  Chan fhaic sinn ur leithid tuilleadh.


Donald E. Meek, MA (Glasgow, 1971), BA (Cantab, 1973), PhD (Glasgow, 1982), DLitt (Glasgow, 2011), FRHistS, FRSE.

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Scots and Gaelic: words and their meanings: 'Giving stick to the minister'

by noreply@blogger.com (Donald Meek) @ Passages from Tiree


Aspects of Lexical and Idiomatic Interaction between Gaelic and Scots

Donald E. Meek


Over the last few years, prior to relinquishing my post at the University of Edinburgh, I was persuaded (against my better judgement, I fear) to give some thought to words and phrases which appeared to be common to both Scots and Gaelic.  My first excursion or safari into this dangerous jungle was signalled by the publication of a study of the verb skail in Scots and sgaoil in Gaelic.  This study demonstrated some core correspondences in meaning and use between the two languages, but it also showed that there were a number of significant differences.  My second excursion, which can be fairly called such, as it owed a lot to the steamship, looked at the way in which a verb form in Scots, namely steamin’, used of a well-known human condition, created a corresponding idiom in Gaelic, by means of the noun smùid, ‘haze, steam’, which came to mean ‘drunken stupor, spree’.  As I argued, the Industrial Revolution had generated this usage in Scots, through the convention of sailing on steamships on the Clyde (presumably), and making the most of the refreshments down below. As Gaels met Scots and doubtless participated in the delights of steamship travel, the Gaels were exposed, not only to an expanding drinks cabinet, but also to a process of ‘semantic nudging’ through contact with Scots.  As a result, Gaelic had extended the use of one of its nouns, which it deployed with such verbs as gabh and thogto give the desired nuance.  In the case of skail and sgaoil, we (or at least I) could see a verb which was used in similar forms in both languages, and which seemed to share a semantic frontier from an early stage.  In the case of steamin’ and smùid, it was more a matter of idiomatic transfer, at a comparatively late date, with a good splash of humour as well as aqua vitae.


The third example of ‘linguistic cross-over’ between Scots and Gaelic which I want to discuss in a very preliminary way today is also in the field of idiom, and, like the use of smùid in the sense of ‘inebriation’, it has a dash of humour, and tends to exist most commonly in an oral context, that is to say, generally outside polite dictionaries, fine prose and good conversation (in every sense).   My own feeling is that it is the result of humorous interplay and quite probably some deliberate ‘misunderstanding’ between Scots and Gaelic in a particular contact-zone and at a particular level.  In my time, Gaelic speakers were known to take English phrases and give them them a new and slightly ironic ‘spin’ in their transferred Gaelic forms (e.g. ‘Bòrd a’ Chongested’, for English ‘Congested Districts Board’, and ‘Job a’ Chreation’ for English ‘Job Creation Scheme’).  I suspect this process has a long history, but that it may have had a rather fragile existence, with phrases being pulled across to both sides of the Scots/Gaelic linguistic boundary in a bilingual context to match the mood of the moment.  Some of these phrases, however, entered more robust currency, and have survived to the present, because they have matched a particular context, and are still ‘apt’ within that context (as in the case of smùid).


The two parallel phrases which I want to consider today are Scots ‘stickit minister’ and Gaelic ‘ministear maide’, the latter meaning, at face value, ‘minister of wood, wooden minister’.  Face-value meaning is not, of course, the only meaning of any word, and I would like to consider the Gaelic phrase ‘ministear maide’ first, before turning to look at ‘stickit minister’.


I first encountered the phrase ‘ministear maide’ when I was a very innocent secondary pupil in my first year of trying to come to terms with the wild youngsters at the other end of my native island, Tiree.  I had only recently moved from my former ‘secure unit’ in the primary school in Ruaig, where we were held in captivity by an extremely volatile and tawse-loving teacher with no Gaelic, and I had gone to Cornaigmore Junior Secondary School (now Tiree High School).  After the horrors of the concentration camp at Ruaig, it was a thoroughly liberating experience, with plenty of opportunities to use Gaelic in the classroom and in the playground.  I can now see in retrospect that playgrounds, in the old days when there were no child-minders or spoil-sport assistants of various sorts, were excellent places for extending one’s vocabulary in all sorts of ways.  I heard words on the playground, in both Gaelic and English, which were not normally in my parents’ vocabulary, and I soon learned not to check their meaning when I returned home.  At a very early stage in my career, therefore, I was familiar with that fine principle of historical lexicography, namely to accumulate examples, and to deduce meaning from these, if only because a sound thrashing awaited me if I ever mentioned that word at home.  Anyway, on this particular day, a slightly older pupil from Cornaig engaged me in a Gaelic slanging-match.  As he was the grandson of the local miller, some things were said by the upstart from Caolas about short measure at the mill.  My flyting-partner then replied that I wouldn’t know about these things anyway, as I was the son of a ‘ministear maide’.  Touche!  As it happened, my father was a Baptist minister, and, in addition to maintaining the family croft in Tiree, he acted as minister for the local Baptist congregation during a period of extended vacancy.  I had normally heard my father mentioned with great respect, and this was something of a shock.  I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but I knew that it had nothing to do with the fact that my father had a fine pair of hands and was also known for his knacky boat-building.


I knew enough to tell me that the term ‘ministear maide’ was derogatory.  I remembered the phrase because of its clever alliteration, and I thought of the various kinds of ‘maide’ that we had around the house.  We had ‘maide buntàta’ (‘potato stick’), which was like the oversized leg of a bed, and which I used regularly to clean the potatoes in a bucket of water.  The potatoes were swirled round in the water by a vigorous application of the ‘maide buntàta’.  I then thought of ‘each maide’, the Gaelic for a wooden horse, and normally used when I would take hold of a big piece of wood, and go stride-legs across it, as if it were a horse.  This was not the same as having a posh and shiny wooden horse, of the kind that sits serenely in big lounge windows nowadays.  ‘Maide’, in short was not a well-shaped piece of wood – it was rough and ready, on the whole.  ‘Maide tarsaing’ (‘a cross-beam’) was used of the rafters, and ‘ceanna-mhaidean’ (‘head beams’) for the roof-beams of a house.  The usually generic term for wood in Gaelic was ‘fiodh’ (which orginally meant ‘forest’ too), and the normal term for a stick was ‘bata’.  A small stick for the fire was ‘bioran’.   So the word ‘maide’ had a nuance which favoured its use in ‘ministear maide’, in addition to its alliteration with ‘ministear’.  It seemed to me to match the use of the English word ‘wooden’, as used of a sluggish performance or of someone who was perceived to be a bit of a blockhead.


Gradually, as I grew up and gained admission to closer and more intimate levels of conversation, I heard the phrase ‘ministear maide’ being used of other ministers, besides my father – which was not very reassuring, I have to say.  Most of the time, it was applied to ministers who were poor preachers, and whose preaching was generally not of the spontaneous, evangelical kind favoured by most Gaelic people in Protestant areas.  When I went to Glasgow University in the late 1960s, I came across the phrase in a collection of Gaelic proverbs which I was editing as my Honours project – subsequently published as The Campbell Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings.  Proverb or saying 122 in that collection is as follows:


B’ annsa leam ministear-maide na madadh ministeir.

I would prefer a ‘wooden minister’ to a hound of a minister.


The phrase, ‘madadh ministeir’, ‘hound of a minister’ employing ‘madadh’ (a less than polite word for ‘dog’) as its first element had been coined cleverly on the basis of ‘minstear maide’ itself, and so one could see that this phrase had aided the creation of what might be termed a ‘reverse parallel phrase’.


The original compiler of the proverb collection, the Rev. Duncan M. Campbell, who was the minister for a period of Cumlodden Parish Church in Argyll, wrote a note to explain the proverb, and there is touch of glee in his clarification:


‘After the Secession of 1843,’ he wrote, ‘the ministers of the Church of Scotland were called ‘ministearn-maide’ (‘wooden ministers’).  This was the observation of a ploughman who served first with a parish minister, and then with a Free Church minister.’


The latter was, of course, the ‘madadh ministeir’, the ‘hound of a minister’, who was evidently even less palatable than the ‘ministear maide’.


I suspect that the Rev. Duncan Campbell was rather sensitive about these matters, as he himself was doubtless well known as the perfect example – if such were needed – of the ‘ministear maide’.  After some drink-related incidents which befell him in Cumlodden, and which included a break-in to his own church, he had to leave his charge at the end of the nineteenth century. According to the propaganda disseminated at the time, he went to Germany and gained a PhD at the University of Bonn.  When I researched his life, I bombarded Germany with enquiries about Campbell and his alleged PhD, but there was no evidence that he had ever acquired the degree in Bonn, or anywhere else for that matter.  Nevertheless, he was credited with the doctorate, and arrived in Grimsay, North Uist, as a schoolmaster, where he was feared for his rather ferocious discipline.  Perhaps, in his case, both ‘ministear maide’ and ‘madadh ministear’ came together in an unhappy harmony.  When in Grimsay, he helped Edward Dwelly with the compilation of his monumental Illustrated Dictionary, and Dwelly has the above proverb tucked coyly into his magnum opus, under ministear, translated and glossed with Campbell’s explanation, but without giving any other examples of the phrase ‘ministear maide’.  Remarkably too, the source of the phrase, which we can be certain was the aforesaid ‘Doctor’ [sic] Duncan Campbell, is not noted or given the standard abbreviaton ‘DC’ which indicated Campbell’s contributions to other parts of the dictionary.  Clearly there were sensitivities about this submission, and that is hardly surprising, given the unsavoury reputation of the source.


We may note here too that none of the printed Gaelic dictionaries known to me includes ministear maide as a head-word, and I am sure that few, if any other than Dwelly, actually cite the phrase.  I have not yet checked the slips in the Archive of the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic, but I suspect that the evidence in that collection will not be any more extensive.  The term has generally existed, as I have said, in speech, and in particular contexts which were not consistent with the drawing-room.  It is also quite rare in literary sources.  Given the high profile of ministers in the making of these literary sources, that should not surprise us too much either.


And now to the ‘stickit minister’ of Scots.  It seems to me more than self-evident that the Gaelic phrase ‘ministear maide’ is a reflex of the Scots ‘stickit minister’, but with the deft use of ‘maide’ (‘beam of wood’) rather than ‘bata’ (‘stick’).  Of course, if you consult SND you will soon discover that the word ‘stickit’ has little to do with the noun ‘stick’ or with wood of any kind, but everything to do with the verb ‘stick’.  A perusal of the very helpful selection of entries in SND shows that the past participle ‘stickit’ was used in religious and pedagogic contexts (as well as more generally) from at least 1700.  It was applied to dominies, ministers or ministerial candidates who ‘stuck’ in one way or another (or who, in today’s jargon, had ‘come unstuck’ at a critical moment, or had failed to make the grade in their chosen career). 


Thus, SND defines the relevant uses of ‘stick’ as (5) ‘To come to a premature halt in (whatever one is doing)…’ or in the case of the past participle, when used of people, ‘halted in their trade or profession, failed, insufficiently qualified, unsuccessful’.  Scott’s Guy Mannering(1815) tells of a clergyman who ‘became totally incapable of proceeding in his intended discourse, and was ever afterwards designated as a “stickit minister”.  Hogg (1820) speaks of a ‘sticket shopkeeper’, and Chambers’ Journal (1838) of a ‘sticket precentor’.  William Alexander in Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk (1871) has a ‘sticket doctor’.  The ‘stickit minister’ appears in the Kailyard writings of Crockett in the 1890s, while as recently as 1950, L. J. Saunders stated in his Scottish Democracy,


‘The “stickit minister” who could not get a charge was not indeed a completely legendary figure’. 


And to that one can only say ‘Amen’, on the basis of the one ministerial career to which we have alluded in this talk.


Whether he stuck in the middle of his sermon, or in the middle of his career, the ‘stickit minister’ of Scots earned a place in Scots literature, but I suspect that he existed much more fully, like the Gaelic ‘ministear maide’, in oral discourse.  It is highly likely that it was through such oral discourse that the ‘stickit minister’ of Scots was transferred across the linguistic boundary, and given a ‘make-over’ as the ‘ministear maide’ of Gaelic.  The principal criterion in the making of the Gaelic ‘ministear maide’ was his failure to satisfy, not necessarily the standards of university or divinity hall, but the evangelical standards which became the hallmark of many Highland parishes in the course of the nineteenth century, particularly after the Disruption. It is a supreme irony that the very man who seemingly provided Edward Dwelly with his unique citiation of the ‘ministear maide’, namely Duncan Campbell, the defrocked minister of Cumlodden Parish Church and thereafter schoolmaster in Grimsay, North Uist, was an outstanding example of this unfortunate group.  In his eyes, it was doubtless gratifying to feel that a ‘madadh ministeir’ was indeed worse than a ‘ministear maide’, though many in the Highlands and Islands might disagree.


In conclusion, therefore, we can say that the relationship between Gaelic ‘ministear maide’ and Scots ‘stickit minister’ confirms that the languages did indeed exchange idioms.  In this case, we can be fairly sure that the phrase originated in Scots, and that it was recast cleverly when it crossed the linguistic boundary into Gaelic.  In attempting to pinpoint such a transactional context, I have frequently wondered who might have been the first to use the Gaelic term, and by what means it passed into popular currency.  We might also wonder where the first exchange occurred.  Was it in the context of exiled Gaels in the Lowlands who encountered non-evangelical ministers in certain contexts, picked up the phrase ‘stickit minister’, translated it into Gaelic, and exported it to the Highlands and Islands?  Certainly a context that is both bilingual and religiously nuanced is required to explain this interesting transaction.  And we might add that humour, of a rather barbed kind, was another ingredient in the exchange.  All of this raises interesting questions, and adds a colourful dimension to the ‘mairch an’ mell o’ Scots an’ Gaelic’.

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Affordable Internet Marketing in Michigan

by Karla Taglioni @ Go Pro SEO | Michigan SEO Company

Affordable Internet Marketing in Michigan One of the most cost-effective ways to market your Michigan website is to have your site professionally marketed to the major […]

The post Affordable Internet Marketing in Michigan appeared first on Go Pro SEO | Michigan SEO Company.

Growing Harmony – Intensive Singing Weekend

by allisonwatson @ Scotland Sings

We know from the great feedback we had after our Renewing the Tradition weekend that some of you would have liked the workshop to have lasted longer. Here’s a great opportunity to join three great workshop leaders for a long weekend of intensive harmony singing at Wiston Lodge, just 40 miles from Edinburgh and Glasgow.  […]

Singing For Delight Workshop News!

by allisonwatson @ Scotland Sings

A great opportunity for everyone who loves to sing and to use their voice is coming to Angus on 9-11 September 2016. Led by Christine Kydd and Jeannie Maclean the weekend workshop will allow participants to experience the Alexander Technique and natural singing all set in the hills and rivers of rural Angus – delightful! For more […]

Chorus Community Music Awards 2017

by allisonwatson @ Scotland Sings

All the nominations are in and nominees selected for the next round which will include a public vote. The timeline for the awards has been tweaked a wee bit to allow folks to get back to us with final details and will now run as follows Voting on final nominations from Monday 5th June to […]

Singing helps COPD sufferers

by linzimurphy @ Scotland Sings

Another brilliant example of singing helping to improve health! “Around the world an estimated 64 million people are struggling to breathe on a daily basis. But could a simple sing-song bring the relief they are looking for?” Read the full article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25231910

Joycorp Collectibles

by bodhi @ Portfolio – Blue Sky Custom Web Designs

Joycorp Collectibles is an online store based out of beautiful Queensland, Australia. An online ecommerce starter presence was all that was needed for this up and coming family based business.

Keeping up the work!

by simon @ Scotland Sings

I had lot’s of homework from my last session with Anne, so I done the listening exercises and practiced the songs from previous weeks. I used my guitar for a simple accompaniment while doing Mary Hamilton this time and we both agreed there was an improvement and the guitar didn’t get in the way of […]

Wighton Heritage Centre

by simon @ Scotland Sings

Instead of going to Sheena’s house this week I got to be a massive geek at the Wighton Heritage Centre. We looked through several really interesting collections – Wighton’s collection was a bizarre mix of dirty songs copied from Thomas D’Urfey and more respectable tunes from Gow and Marshall. The Thompson collection was really interesting […]

After tea…

by simon @ Scotland Sings

I arrived at Rona from Sabhal Mor in Skye just before teatime. Once we’d finished the lovely meal we tucked into the songs. I went into these lessons with Rona with intention of learning songs connected and similar to pipe tunes. With Rona’s huge knowledge of pipe tunes and song we soon got stuck in to learning. These songs […]

Voting Now Open in CHORUS Community Music Awards 2017

by allisonwatson @ Scotland Sings

Hands up for Trad have had a great response to the nomination round of this year’s CHORUS Community Music Awards. Voting is now open and closes at 5pm on Friday 16th June. A great range of community music projects are represented across five different categories.  Why not get involved and help them to celebrate and highlight just some of our great Scotland […]

LIFE IN LIMERIX 2012-September 2014

by noreply@blogger.com (Donald Meek) @ Passages from Tiree


2012 - September 2014 

composed by

Donald E. Meek



King Alex is up extra high,

And soon he’ll be learning to fly:

He’ll be the first fish

To wing a good dish

To gourmets who love salmon pie.





To cut a great Gordian knot,

Find a Gordi to give it a shot:

He knows how it’s made

And just the right blade –

He’s a gaffer to beat the whole lot!





We remember in seventy-nine

How the light that was going to shine

Was covered in thatch,

And we were no match

For the knights that came up the line.





The way to win the wild tribes

Is to offer some beautiful bribes:

Give them some beads

To wear on their weeds,

And they’ll eat off your hand with good vibes!





Will the vote be a NO or a YES?

I’ll give it my very best guess!

It could be a NO,

But could also go

To a YES, if the NO will show less!





When I feel that my brain has gone dead,

I find it helpful to stand on my head:

That reverses the flow

Back up to my toe,

And relieves feet that are easily lead.





One of golf’s glitterati is Rory,

Who's stroking the tees in his story,

Driving each shot

To just the right spot,

Hitting eagles and birdies with glory!





The Brig has lined up his troops,

The Cap has Marines on the poops:

Weapons are ready,

Aims are quite steady –

Let’s fight till each ‘How-is-yer’ droops! 





Nick Clegg has lost all his juice –

It’s been stolen from under his hoose:

He’s been low on fuel

Since he opted for dual,

And the cap on his tank’s been quite loose.





Said Skeleton Dick, ‘I’m in gloom,

As Leicester will host my new tomb:

I tell not a porkie –

I’m really a Yorkie,

And its Minster would give me more room.


‘For half a millennium I lay

Under tar in a grim parking bay:

Some even would wee

Over fine royal me –

And do worse if they got their own way.


‘Leicester is where I went bust

When my innards crumbled to dust:

They thought that the Boss

Was not Worth a toss –

For tourists I’m clearly a must.’





The Commonwealth star in my book

Is the wonderful Wellington Duke:

The flashy new cone

On his cranial bone

Gives Glasgow a winning new look!


I’ve no time for Kylie Minogue

And Lulu is long out of vogue:

But that man of metal

Preserves his fine fettle –

And tops all with his beautiful brogue!





Just to think of old Jimmy Troup

Still makes me fear I will poop:

His shouts and his bellows

Against females and fellows

Made bulls seem a docile group.


If he heard any noise at the door,

He would belt outside with a roar,

Pull in the villain,

Give him a grillin’,

And knock confidence out of his core.





Said a Sámi to his wife, ‘Have you seen

Any reindeer out on the green?’

To which her reply

With a twinkling eye,

Was, ‘Not a single drop has there been!’





A trader who lived in Killin

Developed a large dorsal fin:

When he swam in Loch Tay,

His neighbours would say,

‘He was really a shark deep within!’





The great cabinet fell on the floor,

And old Tobies flew out the door:

The need for nice lookies

Is met by the rookies –

China dolls that all voters adore.





How thoughtful of dear Sarah Vine

To fire grapeshot at Dave up the line,

While others make plain

They’re drinking champagne

Since the fizz has gone out of Mike’s wine!





A dangerous app is an andy,

For, though it delivers the candy,

It’s best in the morning

And carries a warning

That its p.m. performance is bandy.





Labour’s pledge to deliver an owl

Causes twitchers to call it a ‘foul’:

But out in the woods,

Where JSA broods,

You can now hear a hoot and a howl.





The American Dream is now palin’

Amidst some capitol wailin’:

Wise John McCain

Said without strain –

‘Ah’ll aska to come for some sailin’’





What a terrible term is ‘extremist’

When uttered by one who’s ‘supremist’,

Who just will not see

That it’s really he

Who could truly be termed the ‘extremist’.





First undeserving Iraq was Sadammed,

And now Shia al-Malaki’s slammed:

Good for the West

At its meddling best –

If McCain has a brain, then I’m damned!



In the twelve pages of fact-free answers to FAQs sent to me by Blair’s snivel-servants in the Iraq Policy Unit in May 2003, the following FAQ appeared: 

‘Are you worried about a Shia takeover in Iraq?’  

Answer: ‘No.  The coalition is working closely, and successfully, with local clerics of all denominations as the process for delivering fully representative government for Iraq continues.’

Looks as if the ‘process’ is continuing – and most successfully too – eleven years later. 

What a ‘policy statement’ this is!  Well worth keeping for posterity.  If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it could possibly have been written.   You couldn’t make it up – but someone did.  I definitely found WMD – the World’s Maddest Document – inside the Iraq Policy Unit. 

PS  John McCain thinks that al-Malaki should now step down or resign.  Just the time to articulate such helpful thoughts – on target as always.  Good on ya, John.  It’s your country, isn’t it?




When Nicola saw the new bees,

She said to King Eck, ‘If you please,

I’m now a ‘has been’

As they have a Queen,

And my sting’s not as strong as all these!’





How thoughtful of dear Mr Blair

To appear like a ghost from thin air,

To help us remember

On eighteenth September

How We May Dispose of his scare!





The horse that they had in old Troy

Was a foal compared with the ploy

Of Gove’s fine stallion

With its big battalion

Of Ofsted inspectors – what joy!





A day-tripper who tripped to Tiree

On the ‘Clansman’ became sick at sea:

It appears he was gassed

In the Bar as he passed

Because of vehicle fumes from Deck C.





The problems that thrive in old Brum

Give Dave good cause to be glum:

Two Michaels now fight

About which one is right –

And Theresa’s right there in the scrum!





A peculiar concept’s ‘extreme’,

As it’s the ‘other’ who’s always off-beam:

But now we have two

Who really know who

Is extremely extreme up in Bream.



The poet thought that it would be distasteful - not least 'metri causa' - to use the vulgarism 'Brum' of that noble city, and he decided that 'Bream' was aesthetically a little bit more up-market. Poets are normally conservative in their use of diction, but this bard is somewhat counter-cultural.




There was a young man from Dalbeattie

Who was addicted to writing graffiti:

One night the daft dude

Wrote something quite rude –

And then a sentence from Sergeant McVeetie!





An unscrupulous cook from Loch Ness

Served Real Monster Pie with some cress:

When patrons protested,

She quickly confessed it –

‘There’s no meat, and the taste is a guess!’





I’m delighted that I’m not a ‘Celt’,

To be dug from a bog for my belt,

To be misunderstood

By the wise of each brood,

Who proclaim that they know how I felt!



Attributed to Versatilitix, the Great Celtic Bog Bard.  According to painful poetic scholars and grubby literary excavators, he excelled in maintaining the Bardic Bog Standard.  His like will never be exhumed again.  For that at least, we may be grateful.





Prof Meek will become Prof Zimmer

The moment he catches a glimmer

Of the glorious fame

Bestowed by that frame,

When age makes his roots appear slimmer!





Thàinig leabhar de bhàrdachd an-diugh,

Agus bha e cho dorcha dubh,

’S gun duirt mi rium fhìn,

‘Nach grànda a’ bhinn

Air bàrd bha cho grinn na chruth.’





The forty-year torrent of rain

Is stopping over yonder in Spain:

While tumbling down,

It’s swept off a crown,

And thrown some poor wrecks on the plain.





When the sea gave ‘LOTI’ some whacks,

She was quickly told to make tracks

To a Mersey dry-dock

And wait for the shock

Of the Birkenhead Drill in her cracks!





As the ‘LOTI’ went past Tobermory,

A passenger cried, ‘I am sorry

The ship doesn’t call

At this port at all.

Is the next one Craignure or Creagorry?’





The ‘QueenVic’ is no beauty at sea:

An ugly block of apartments is she:

Impressive in size,

But hard on the eyes,

And not a patch on the Second ‘QE’!





A Professor who worked in Dundee

Said, ‘Scottish art is the top of the tree:

Peploe, Cadell,

JoLoMo as well,

Vettriano, ‘The Broons’, and ‘Desp D’.’





A green-fingered girl from Montrose

Grew a beautiful, prize-winning rose

Straight out of her head,

Most radiantly red,

With black thorns that arose in sharp rows.





A guesthouse near links at Carnoustie

Was considered decidedly fusty:

So a lodger brought Eau

De Cologne for her beau,

And its fragrance is now not so dusty!





No mountain can match Bennachie –

A most wonderful profile has she!

The dear Mither Tap

Looks great on a map,

But she is truly far better to see!





On the lovely landscape of Menie,

Trump has caused trouble to many:

But a turbine array

Standing clear in the bay

Will put a hole in one’s turning a penny!





At Arbroath you always can tell

The height of the tide and the swell:

If you look out to sea,

It’s as clear as can be –

Each rock can be tolled by the Bell!





A yachtsman who called at Stonehaven

Found himself being pecked by a raven:

He said, ‘It’s absurd

To be clipped by a bird,

When my beard doesn’t even need shavin’!’





An outlandish young man from Montrose

Showed the world that ‘anything goes’:

In a day of great heat,

He stood nude in the street,

And adopted a nonchalant pose.





There was a mad joiner from Tealing

Who decided to remake a ceiling:

When handling each rafter,

His plans became dafter,

And now his top storey needs healing!





An unfortunate tourist in Rum

Was stung by a midge on the bum:

Though well up to scratch,

He was clearly no match

For the little ‘All Blacks’ in the scrum!





The Sleeper will now get a tow

From the engine of mighty Ser-co:

From railways to ferries,

It will pick all the cherries,

As down the West Coast it will go.




Lord Oake has now shott his bolt,

Having failed to cause a revolt,

But, because of the poll,

The bell soon will toll –

The ding-dong will disclose every dolt.





An unfortunate bard is Meek:

He hasn’t developed mystique:

His verse is too clear,

And we greatly fear

That he must be de-barred from our clique!


Obscurior P. Obscurius, OBE,

Transparency Officer

Poetic Licensing Agency




The Green Welly Stop has a poodle

That it feeds on its best chicken noodle:

But it sports a boot,

Tail, tum and snoot,

And now a wag’s made a doggerel doodle.




Without the Green Welly Stop,

My plumbing surely would pop,

But that Burberry jacket,

My wallet can’t hack it –

And I keep welly clear of the shop!




That dreadful poet, Walter Scott,

Composed profound tommy-rot:

He’d begin at the end,

Write round the bend,

And cover each rhyme with a blot.





Three cheers for brave Andy Scott:

His Kelpies now top the whole lot:

Helix them all –

His horses will haul

The Forth and the Clyde into shot!




An Angel with outstretched arms

Is raising some mighty alarms:

She says, ‘Come off it!

Your only true Prophet

Is Mammon and all of his charms!’




The Angel of the North is glad

At the prospect of getting an ad

To tell consumers

The finest bloomers

Can be purchased at Morrison’s pad.





When Roger ran down the stairs,

The banister broke unawares;

All records he smashed,

Till he finally crashed

Into history’s tape for old squares.



It is hard to believe that sixty years have passed since Roger Bannister ran the mile in less than four minutes.  In my boyhood, he was the hero of the hour.






Lady Lieutenants on subs

Are bound to brighten these tubs,

Enhance concentration,

Improve navigation,

And give Davy Jones’ Locker less rubs.




A diva who sailed on a sub

Disclosed to friends in a pub

That, during a dive,

At song number five,

Her low notes came out as a glub.




I love it when folk say ‘Take care!’

As I’m a stupid and foolhardy bear:

To make a great fuss,

I leap under a bus,

And play ‘Chicken’ each day for a dare!




DT has come up for ayr;

Neither East nor West will he spare;

When he’s at the T,

The green grass will D,

And each birdie fly off in despair!




Let's build a splendid array

Of turbines out in the bay,

To improve the view

And give Trump his due –

His wind is quite strong, I would say!




I hear a great deal o’ bad hootin’

Aboot Alex an’ dear Mr Putin:

But let’s be aware

O’ yon Bush an’ Blair –

They did a fair bit o’ cahootin’.





I’ve met so many great saints,

Ordinary folk with some taints,

That if I were the Pope,

I’d just have no hope –

Ten thousand breaks all Vat constraints!




Someone has broken my clippers,

And my nose no longer smells kippers:

So I think I will sue,

And, if I get my due,

I’ll want to put on my best slippers!




Cornwall is now in the ‘Fringe’:

Its culture has got the right tinge:

Life on the edge,

Brings it a pledge –

‘The Celts will get rid of your cringe!’




Rowan is long past his ‘post’,

But likes to appear as a ghost,

To let us all know

He’s still on the go,

And may well be better than most.





‘We’re so sorry at the CBI:

We’ve not lost our way – aye, aye!

It’s an honest mistake,

So, for my sake,

Give us time to re-bake the pie!’




I could weep for the poor CBI,

As companies wave it goodbye!

Its vote for the ‘No’

Backfired from below –

And wrote a big ‘Yes’ in the sky!




Stratford is making great play

Of William, who, some critics say,

Is no more than a name

Of considerable fame –

But it’s not curtains yet for his day.


In truth, it is tasteless to leer

Or stir a tempest in very small beer:

Mercy’s not strained,

Nor kindness constrained,

If he gets one more shake of his spear.




When Sir Alex abandoned the boys,

He hand-picked a leader named Moyes,

And scored an own goal

Which unmanned his role –

The net return has exposed all his ploys.




When Gibraltar blew up a genny,

The odds were no odder than any:

As the mighty explosion

Crossed the great ocean –

You bet that our Dave spent a penny!


‘Ladbrokes and Hill know the score:

We’ve got them a haven off-shore:

I keep the tax low,

And that way, you know,

My debtors keep clear of my door!’





Three cheers for dear monster Nessie!

She’s given us another wee guessie!

She came up to stare,

Blew a bubble of air,

And the papers have got a great pressie!




You can tell by the cut of his hair

That Jong-un has truly great flair:

Great power resides

In short back and sides -

North Korea’s shear joy is right there!




If you can speak to the bees,

You may well be the person to please

All drones still alive

In humanity’s hive –

Just in time to find honey with ease!





A generous artist is Banksy

Who likes to play a wee pranksy:

He paints a fine pic

On wood or on brick –

Let us drink to his stealth as a thanksy!




Brucie is losing his pep,

And has taken a very big step

Right out of the show,

But I’d like to know

What strictly has kept the old chep!


When the ‘Eagle’ would land in Tiree,

In the fifties, when I was quite wee,

I’d see Bruce Forsyth

All chirpy and blithe -

Saying, ‘It’s really so nice to see me!’




Let’s hope it will not be a guess,

But that Tian Tian will really say YES!

Canny Yang Guang

Has played it too lang -

Will his ‘better together’ impress?




At the Commonwealth Games, what a start!

Don’t go if you’ve got a bad heart!

With a roar and a rumble

The Red flats will tumble –

Scotland’s rubbish is state-of-the-art!




The Sahara is sending some dust,

With the texture and colour of rust,

To brighten the fields

And increase the yields

Of England’s crumble-dry crust.


To avoid it, they say, is a ‘must’,

If you are somewhat weak in the bust:

If it goes up your nose

Or tickles your toes,

You’ll be sure to explode in disgust.




I’m glad it has not been my fate

To be appointed the Poet Laure-ate:

Andrew’s strong motion

And Duffy’s devotion

Are much meeter for good and for great.





When I last had a look in the pot,

A Lamborghini was topping the lot;

But please do not mention

The thing called a pension,

Because that’s what I really have not!





‘Loch Seaforth’ will take to the water

And be hailed as Lewis’s daughter;

But in her fifth year

A new tune will appear –

She’ll be a ferry fine sheep for the slaughter!



Composed to mark the launch of the new Lewis ferry, ‘Loch Seaforth’, on 21 March 2014.




Human life on Jupiter’s moon

Will be visible to all very soon;

My first rocket up

Will give a good ‘trup’

To any star who mars my own tune.



On my instructions, only one-way tickets will be available from the Inter-galactic Travel Agency.    The intolerance of tolerance is, once again, the name of the game, and those who think that Earth and Jupiter’s Moon are ‘better together’ are in for a big shock.




Hypocrites are hard a-tootin’

Their horns at dear Mr Putin:

He wants his reign

To embrace the Ukraine -

Not Afghanistan or Iraq - for some shootin’!





Attenborough’s an ancient bird,

Whose croaks are never absurd:

He’s now a great sage,

Like an owl in old age,

And ‘To-weet-to-you’ ’s his last word.



David Attenborough gives the regular ‘Tweet of the Day’ just before 6 a.m.  His sweet tweet is very appealing in the early morning.




London’s magnificent Mare

Is currently grooming its hair:

In Twenty Sixteen,

It could be a ‘Has Been’,

But it could also race Dave for a dare.




Nach sinne gu dearbh a bha boc

Mus d’fhuair sinn stiúireadh bho GhOC;

Gun rian is gun reac,

Mar chú mhúin air sneac,

Ach an-diugh gheibh sinn leasacha loc!



(as delivered in his tearful  ‘Thank you’ speech)


‘What a terrible night for gravity!

I fell straight down a cavity!

Enslaved in chains,

I felt great pains,

Till McQueen killed Monster Depravity.’



Everyone, except those on the red carpet, will know that Oscar was the son of Oisean/Oisin/’Ossian’, son of the incomparable Gaelic hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill, known among the vulgar Irish as ‘Finn mac Cool’.  He is acknowledged in Ireland as the first cool hero in literature.  Oscar was renowned for being hot in battle; so the globe had warmed up a bit by the time the third generation arrived.  Last night was bad for his reputation, though, as some say he was rather fool and hallucinating.  Not the first time, I should say.




My Luddite brain’s in a trap,

Caught in a touch-screen gap:

I scrape like a hen

With soft-tipped pen,

And a message comes up, ‘Mind the app!’




O Doctor, I loathe my nose –

It really does ruin my pose:

Your knife with a skim

Would help me to swim,

Blowing bubbles as my cut-water glows!




Bradford’s own Imran Khan

Must try to leave Pakistan,

And attend the chancel

Or they may cancel

His innings as their Bat-man.



There is apparently some concern that the world-famous, universally-admired, globally photogenic cricketer, now politician in Pakistan, namely Imran Khan, is not attending the Graduation Ceremonies at the University of Bradford.   Well, if universities will insist on disparaging academic learning and giving Chancellorships to celebrities and Princesses with dubious academic credentials, they can take what they (don’t) get.




Old mother Hubbard went to the cupboard

To get dear Nigel a bone,

But when she got there, he said, ‘Don’t you dare:

U kip out of this, u old crone!’





Dear England will try to comply

With Maths as taught in Shanghai:

Stiff Chinese rigour

Is good for the figure,

And their checkers can sure multiply!




Aberdeen will get excess gas

From two bores that well may pass:

Dave rigs a show

To pump out the ‘NO’,

While Alex spouts, ‘YES, we are class!’





Hairdressers may curl up and die,

But Eve’s curlers reach for the sky;

She keeps a cool head,

And no hair will be shed,

Until her waves have bronze in their dye!




Glasgow has found a new Rector,

Whose whistle will waken the sector:

On dear Gilmorehill,

His sound will be shrill –

An’ he’s no done yet, that detector!





Mr Speaker is chasing the yobs,

Dave and Ed and their mobs,

The Kilkenny cats

With Public School spats –

The Westminster pack of low knobs.




I love my dear Comfort Zone,

Where all is familiar and known:

‘Please don’t disturb’

Is my favourite blurb:

Anything ‘Other’ would cause me to groan!





Dè idir a thachair don Ghàire?

Na Gàidheil ’s iad cho dùr, mo nàire!

Greann air gach gnùis

A’ cagnadh gach cùis,

’S fiughair ri tuilleadh trioblaid air fàire!





Osborne, Alexander and Balls

Are a union that truly appalls:

They go for our throats,

Don’t give two groats,

And join farces when Dave issues calls!




Queen of the Uplift, Ms Mone,

Allegedly uplifted her phone

A little too far

When driving a car –

And the rest has a-rrest-ful tone!




As the playing-fields of Eton sink,

Dave the Brave has had cause to think:

‘What a great loss!

We’ll not get a Boss

From the mud, the mire and the stink!


‘And we really must keep the old pound

To bail out the flood-sodden ground:

I’d prefer to get votes

With no need for boats,

To avoid a wettish collision next round!’




A seasoned newsman is Snow:

His dispatches go with the flow;

He wades in the flood

Without sticking in mud –

The bore of Channel Four is not slow!




A dictator old Trump will not be:

Scotland has whacked him off tee;

He’ll land on poor Doon

Not a moment too soon –

A long shot is just right for DT!




Today they want ‘concrete solutions’

To reduce the daily ablutions:

But surely that stuff

Has caused trouble enough –

They’ll be suffering next from ‘con-cushions’!




Westminster has pulled on its wellies,

As coverage is good on the tellies:

Ed’s up to his knees,

Nigel’s fair breeze,

And ‘Cam-shron’ is dooking in Dwelly’s.



‘Dwelly’s’ is a reference to Edward Dwelly’s ‘Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary’, published at the beginning of the 20th century – in Herne Bay, Kent.  I was amused to hear Dave’s reference to the meaning of his name, ‘Crooked Nose’, when he was making his sporting appearance in the former Olympic Stadium.  However,  I was particularly amused to note that he made no reference to Gaelic, as that would surely have shown the world that he really did know something about Scotland beyond the usual platitudes.




Paterson is in a big Pickle;

Critical flow is exceeding a trickle;

The Somerset Levels

Now produce devils,

And Lord Smith is caught on their sickle!




When the Dook goes dooking for treasure,

He will give Tobermory some pleasure:

He’ll find an old mug

With MacBrayne on its lug,

And say, ‘They owned this ship too for good measure!’




Dook Torquhil is praying for gold;

So he’s trying hard to get hold

Of whatever old brass

May yet come to pass

From a galleon that’s nothing but mould.


These unfortunate Dooks, the Argylls,

Suffered greatly from having few piles

Of good, ready cash

When needing to stash

Some lucre for their laxative styles.


So each has been dreaming of Mull,

And desperate to find that fine hull,

Packed full of treasure

Far beyond measure –

But the ‘treasure’ so far has been dull!


They’ll search to the end of time

But they won’t find a single dime:

The boys from Spain

Carried arms for pain,

And their cargo of gold was sub-prime!



Given that most of my satirical subjects merit only one limerick verse each, my FB friends will understand from the four verses above that I am not exactly thrilled to read of the current Duke of Argyll’s latest ploy.   It has certainly been well rehearsed within the family over many, many years – a party piece to give the otherwise unemployed something to do? – and has cost more to mount than has ever been gained.  One of my earliest recollections of Tobermory Bay is seeing a grey diving-support ship there in the mid-1950s.  Even then, the Duke’s venture was considered a laughing-stock.  How many attempts have been made since then by the Dukes to find the legendary Spanish gold?   Such evidence as is available from wrecks of the 1588 Spanish Armada in comparable circumstances, e.g., that of ‘La Trinidad Valencera’, discovered in Kinnagoe Bay, Donegal, in 1971, does not suggest that these vessels were filled with gold.  They were fighting ships, carrying military hardware which was for use mainly on land (as tended to be the case with such ships at that time).   The idea that the Tobermory ship was carrying gold seems to reflect the general association of Spanish ships with South America, El Dorado, and treasure.  If there’s anything there, it will be in the shape of weapons (cannon etc.), but not much more.




If you’re afraid the Union will end,

Please do phone a Scots friend

Across the far Border

And give her an order

From Dave to stop the bad trend.





While Putin is playing HIS games,

Olympian Dave shares his aims:

‘Be you red, white or blue,

Your Country Needs You –

To cheer Team GB’s Greatest Names!’




How similar are Johnson and Crow:

Both love to have their own show:

The one flaps his wings,

The other’s hair springs,

And each claims that the other says ‘No!’




Britain has built a stealth drone

With an electronic mind of its own:

This worker strikes

For as long it likes,

And puts an end to life with a groan.


This Taranis is not like the Crow,

As Bob likes a bit of a show;

It makes little noise,

Has considerable poise,

And moves fast with a deadly blow.




‘Michael, you must write a hundred lines:


And may I just mention

That you’ll get detention

If your excitement develops worse signs!’



In honour of some BBC Radio presenters


How greatly I miss Charlotte Green!

Her voice had a beautiful sheen.

She now reads the scores

For footballing bores,

But the News has become a ‘has been’!


Yet still we have dear Auntie Corrie,

Whose tones, when low, I am sorry

To say they’re so deep

They send me to sleep –

Like the wind sighing round an old corrie.


No newsreader can beat Susan Rae,

Whose voice resembles the Tay:

The sounds of Dundee

Bring us much glee,

As she recites the gloom of each day.


Sarah Montague wakens my clay

With public-school tones that say

‘I’m sure I am right;

Ha, ha, I will fight

With Humphrys about the time of the day!’


John in the meantime has slain

Another Demon with mighty disdain:

‘Do you mean to say

That you cannot stay

Till I’ve drawn the last drop from each vein?’





A wonderful Captain was Noah:

His ship was a ferry fine go-a:

It conveyed man and beast

In pairs, west and east,

Until the flood was considerably lowa.





There once was a Queen of Tonga,

Whose books would balance no longa:

‘What does one do?’

She cried, ‘Must one too

Solicit a gold sovereign from Wonga?’




That the girls who live down in Stoke

Shave in the Plough is no joke:

Their room has a socket

That would power a rocket –

Their electrickery beats every bloke!





A breakfast of fruit and fibre

Helped Romans to swim the Tiber,

And Julius Caesar

To catch every geezer

Who made trouble north of the Khyber!



This was composed this morning in a Fawlty Towers motel in Stoke-on-Trent.  I’m still trying to find poetic words to express my confusion yesterday morning, when I discovered that the shaver socket in our bedroom wasn’t working.  The pull-cord had broken ‘at source’.  When I went to reception to ask where I could find a WORKING shaver socket, I was told by the /duty officer’ that the only one he knew of was in the LADIES!   I joke not – at least, not intentionally.  I replied, ‘My goodness, you must have some ladies down here!’   Anyway, I went into the LADIES, and there, sure enough, was a working shaver socket.  I had to set a guard on the door.  I will go through the same procedure again tomorrow.  In the meantime, the fine breakfast menu has inspired the above effusion, and I’m sure my experience in the LADIES will produce an equally fine b(e)ardic gem, when my PTSD settles down.





I feel sorry for poor Rabbie Burns:

Daft Scots now take it in turns

To make a daft guess

If he would say YES

Or NO in Referendum returns!



The end of NOYES campaign can’t come quickly enough for me, as it has shown so much downright silliness and shallow thinking.  It has also stirred many noisy and pointless antagonisms.  Trying to work out the mind of Burns on the matter of the Referendum is the latest stupidity.  Then was then, and now is now.   I don’t give two hoots whether Burns or any other poet would have said YES or NO.  Nor do I care what he thought THEN about the ‘parcel of rogues in the nation’ in his own time.  We have different ‘parcels’ NOW – and we have to make up our own minds.




I race my red Lamborghini

When I’m at home in Tireeni,

I show my best smile

To my fans in that isle –

And I love it when cops interveni!




Alas for the fine ‘Hamnavoe’,

Now trashed by that ghastly Ser-co!

A grim Viking thug

With an ugly blue mug

Adorns her white hull with dire woe!




The news that stout Donald Trump

Is about to stand on the stump

Will make gravity shake

And stability break -

 We’ll awake with the quake of his thump.



The quake will be followed by a major tsunami in the Atlantic.  The Hebrides will need to look to their coastal defences, and make sure that all necessary precautions are in place before the arrival of great splash from the half-Lewisman.




A fox that fell out with a cleg,

Got a nasty sting on his leg;

But the fox bit back,

The cleg got a crack,

And had to buzz off to his keg.




Time to get out the detector!

Snowden is keen to be Rector

Of dear Gilmorehill

Where his spying will thrill

 Our Anton who succeeded old Hector!



Who could ever remember (I mean ‘forget’, of course) the glorious reign of Sir Hector Hetherington, father of Alistair of the Beeb?  Happy days at the Principal’s Lodge when Hector was at home.   It was Sir Charles Wilson in my day.

Even happier now, I believe, and I am sure Professor Muscatelli, the current Principal, will welcome the excellent news about Edward Snowden’s willingness to stand as Rector on behalf of the students.  Wow!  It will be like having Jimmy Reid as Rector all over again.  Let the sit-ins begin….




A fortunate man is Hollande,

Of whom all the ladies are fond:

But fool would she be

Who reckoned that she

Was the only one in ‘le monde’!




As Cambridges sign’s drop the ‘pos’,

Grammarian’s grieve it’s sad loss:

Confusion will reign

In many a brain,

With compensation thats bound to be gros’s.




A London dame with a cat

Once found it dead on the mat;

She said, ‘I must flee

To furthest Tiree,

And bury it where it first sat.’


So she set off with her shovel

To perform a rite that was novel;

The cat flew in a box

Through security blocks,

And was soon in-tiree-d in the grovel.





The world has gone truly bananas!

Monkeys must stop their old mannas!

That fruit is too sweet,

So they can’t get a treat –

They now have to live with banned-anas!




‘Today’s the day for our bonus –

So please don’t bother to phone us:

We’re having a pause

To sharpen the clause

That makes you pay, since you own us!’




Is toigh leam fhìn an Seann Nòs,

‘Bogey Roll’ bh’aig na bodaich nam òig’:

Bu duirche an toit

Na ceò às a’ phoit,

’S e a’ fiaradh gu ciar do na neòil!


Bidh farpais ann aig a’ Mhòd

Feuch cò as motha nì ceò,

A’ deoghal na pìob

Le lasair mhòr bhrèagh’,

’S gheibh am fear ’s duirch’ am Bonn Òir!





How do you live as ‘First Lady’,

If the Boss is a little bit shady?

If you’re No. 2,

Can you make do

When the First Man acquires an up-grady?



Well, there’s nothing new in that question, is there?   I am reliably informed that it was common (sorry, I know it’s not the right word, given the context) enough among the ‘high heid yins’ at one time, and that it was also a trait of the ‘royals’ that some of us admire so passionately.




Young Jessica’s now on her way

With a baton that’s hard to relay:

Nine months on the road

In marathon mode –

But the last lap will be worth the delay!




A wonderful beast is the Sphinx:

It scratches its block and it thinks:

It lifts its big hands

Out of the sands,

Wags its stone tail, and blinks.


It runs to the Nile, and it drinks,

But when it steps in, it sinks:

‘This is not fair, O!

‘Dum spiro, spero,

But I fear this fine river now stinks!’



The Sphinx has seen a lot in its time, and has learned many languages, including Latin. ‘Dum spiro, spero’ means literally ‘While I breathe, I hope’ (= ‘Where there’s life, there’s hope’).  It has to speak in terms familiar to itself, of course, and I can only presume that its reference to ‘pyramid’ may be a veiled allusion to the political structure of the present day.  Of course, the Sphinx doesn’t like modern architecture either, and we may be better to read this ancient poem at face value.

This last line is based on a reading in an ancient papyrus which has recently come to light.  A more recent papyrus reads: ‘But I fear this new pyramid stinks!’  Scholars have suggested emending ‘pyramid’ to ‘government’. 




Dear Marks & Sparks will be vexed

That Meeks buy their breeks from Next:

It’s surely the brand

That has to be grand:

At the heart of a textile is – text!





Our old friend Nigel Farage

Is going to build a barrage

To stop the Huns

Afflicted with runs

From swimming across for triage!





There once was a bank called the Royal,

To which we were all very loyal.

It’s now doing fine,

With six in a line –

How’s that for being downright disloyal?




Prince Harry is now bristling a beard,

And One says, ‘It’s just as We feared:

He needs a close shave,

So We’ll sharpen a stave,

And push to have his thistles all cleared!’




Dave’s barber is dyeing with glee;

He’s been given a gong as his fee:

‘If you deco-rate

My balding pate,

I’ll decorate you – MBE!’





No rest for the wicket from crashes:

England’s hopes are reduced to ashes.

How sad it must look

To old Captain Cook –

His namesake’s poor crew getting lashes!





Edward Snowden has reached a peak

By giving the world a wee peek

At the devious ways

The USA plays

‘I Spy’ and ‘Hide and Seek’!




‘We don’t have a list of the pits!

Scargill’s betraying the Brits!’

So said Mrs T,

But now we can see

Her game-plan for seventy hits!



And our trust in politicians goes even further down the mine-shaft.  If gold rust, what shall iron do?




Margo is now a great Dame:

Penelope has achieved her aim:

She and old Jerry

Made us so merry –

But Barbara was really my flame!




Fhuair sinn sàr-fhacal bhon t-sàr,

Tè bhog nach eil eòlach air blàr,

Seach an tè iarainn

A sgriosadh na ceudan -

Tè a bhreabadh gach tòn air a bàrr!



Nach ann oirnn a thàinig an dà Mhagaidh!





Somewhere there’s always a Maggie

To clobber the world with her baggy:

So please do not spank

Your kids for their prank –

Just leave it to dear Baggy Maggie!



’Atkins off to her!




If TV’s Hogmanay’s still dry,

I hope Jackie the Bird will fly

To a land far away

For a very long stay,

And give the old year a GOOD bye.


I think I have long had my Phil

Of Cunningham’s doting key-drill,

Drooling with pride

On Auld Reekie’s backside–

I’ll go daft if I must see him still.





Raise a glass to the gallant ‘Heb Isles’

For beating fierce storms in the kyles:

Tiree was amazed

When, nothing fazed,

Norman berthed her at Gott with big smiles!




Here’s to the heroic ‘Heb Isles’,

The best-looking ferry by miles!

Since leaving the Ouse,

She has paid all her dues,

And has brought in the money in piles!





Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller –

Could any name be a syllable fuller?

She ran MI5,

And no-one alive

Should imagine that s/he could fool her!





Said Auld Nick to Biggs, ‘I can tell

That you dined out on your fame very well;

You had a toast

On an alien coast,

So I’ve prepared you a roast in Hell!’




Ronnie Biggs, in his grubbiest suit,

Stopped the ‘Stiffs Express’ on its route:

Driver Death said, ‘Board,

Yourself and your hoard –

I want YOU as part of MY loot!’




Let’s now eat, drink and be merry,

For the Mallaig-Lochboisdale ferry:

She’s had a bad blow

And seldom will show,

But she’s on paper – and that’s worth a sherry!




Dave’s glorious Afghan win

Will surely make everyone grin:

The Taliban too

Will welcome his view,

As his words are a triumph of spin.




Goddess Gaia has now left the earth,

And was last seen on high over Perth.

Good luck, Milky Way!

You can have her to stay!

Her absence from here leaves no dearth.




Happy sixtieth, Minnie the Minx!

Your fans will buy you some drinks!

Your roary red hair

Is in perfect repair,

And you still keep your readers in kinks!




We’ve just arrived new on Tiree,

And we’re happy as happy can be:

We’ll write in our blogs

About natives with clogs –

On islands we’re experts, you see.




‘Boris Island’ will be one of our gems:

It will adorn the mud of the Thames:

Let’s hope for a splash

And a mighty big crash

 When the Mayor lands flat on the flems.





The stars, when receiving more prizes,

Make speeches full of surprises:

They offer their thanks

To all in their ranks,

To the world and his wife – and Devizes.



My thanks go to Sir Bradley Wiggins, who made the announcement, to the BBC for sponsoring the Sports Personality of the Year, to the voters who voted for Andy Murray (a huge surprise), to Martina Navratilova for going out of her way to take the trophy to Andy, to Andy Murray for receiving the trophy so graciously and for making such a thankfully boring speech, and to you, my dear FB friends, for putting up with my thankless limericks.  Without you, I just wouldn’t be where I am today, i.e. on Facebook.  Please don’t thank me – just thank yourselves.  PS  Is there anyone else I should have thanked?  PPS Devizes is the biggest of the surprises.




The dear old Man in the Moon

Is not in good Christmas tune:

The Rabbit has landed

As China commanded,

And will dig up his carrots quite soon.



How many carets are there in moon dust?




I met a fine toff with a drawl

Who spoke about ‘urban sprawl’:

I resisted a smile

Since this distant isle

Will quite soon be part of it all.



People don’t always think about how their presence may, in the long run, defeat their aim in seeking out the solitude of islands.




Auld Reekie has raised a few drams

To honour its long-delayed trams;

Down Murrayfield way

Before break of day,

They managed to avoid some grand slams!




Dave will ‘turn the “Brit” round’,

Like a tanker in old Plymouth Sound:

But is his big boat

Well and truly afloat,

Or is she high and dry on bad ground?



There are certain contemporary words and phrases which I hate.  Another of these (in addition to ‘toxic’) is ‘turn (a)round’.  Cameron claimed (again) on ‘The World at One’ a few minutes ago that he is going ‘to turn Britain around’.   What exactly does he mean?   I hear his colleagues telling us that they are going to ‘turn our economy around’….and so on.   Preserve us from such glib, repetitive, fashionable, parrot-talk!  What can they not say, ‘We hope to address our economic problems in the following ways…’  Dave is certainly turning Britain round, and his heading is very much East.   Does he mean that he wants to ‘turn the country into a wholly-owned subsidiary of China?




Mrs T. brought down a big wall,

And the east had a mighty hard fall;

But Dave in the east

Cares not in the least

If the Great Wall should stand taller than tall.




'Britannia' wallows to lee,
Held up by the great China Sea:
That eastern ocean
Will now be her potion -
Dave's bailing her out on his knee!



'It's the Yuan, not the Yen, Mr Dave;
It will save you from having to save:
We're ready to come,
We'll count the sum -
To bank on our checkers you crave!'




A ship once moored at Shanghai,

Had masts that reached to the sky:

Her crew on the shrouds

Disappeared in the clouds -

Shanghaied up on high in Shanghai!




As High Speed arrives in Bejing,

Dave opens the doors with a swing:

‘Please come aboard

To deposit your hoard:

My yen is the same as your zing.’




The Raasay folk welcome the ‘Hallaig’,

But alas for Lochboisdale and Mallaig:

South Uist folk say

On a calm, peaceful day,

‘Cà’il Mac?  Chan eil a’ LOTI a’ callaig!’




What a star is Angela Night!

In darkness she burns so bright!

There’s plenty of choice

So let us rejoice –

Press the switch, and turn on the light!



The last time I heard Ms Night, she was trying hard to make sense of the banks, and to hold up all the burnt-out meteors that were falling from that star-spangled sky.  Now she is training her flare on the energy pulsars, making sure that they will achieve critical mass, and won’t suffer the same fate as Ison.  Armour shining in the night, rather than a knight in shining armour!



She's there wi' her braw rolling-pin,
Hingin' oot, wi' a big cheesy grin;
'When Ally comes hame,
Ah'll gie him the blame,
An' land him a crack oan his chin.'
Hard life being a poet - though I'm not a Real One, thank goodness, or I'd be up all night receiving messages from the Muse. I think she's gone digital with the rest of them, as she seems to run on big gigs these days. I don't know how a Real Poet can survive the Muse's download. The occasional 'dump' is bad enough, as this shows. I can't work out why I wrote this, or who or what the Muse had in mind when she sent it to me. If any of my FB friends can enlighten me, I'll be eternally grateful. Iain Crichton Smith had the same problem, I'm glad to say. Hadn't a clue what his own poems meant. 'They must have meant something when I wrote them' was his position on these mysteries when I asked him. You can see how he prepared me well for my poetic career, and opened my receptivity to the Muse. Look forward to some elucidation from the literary critics on FB.



The eye's on the mirror - rear view:
The gear-lever's gripping the screw:
For the past we all yearn,
So it's full speed astern;
But I'd prefer to go forward - wouldn't you?


This was inspired (if that is the right word) by the sight of that tired, old slogan from yesteryear, 'I'm backing Britain', appearing as part of the 'No' Campaign. So original, so meaningful, so novel and fresh. Boy, am I weary of the Yes/No game!





Is it an attempt to provoke,

Or just another wee joke?

Spain’s little ship

Is merely a blip,

But brave Brits are going for broke.


‘Ambassador, tell us right now

Why YOU have created this row!

As we own the Rock,

You mustn’t knock

Britannia’s wreath on her brow!’



Jolly good, what?   They’re at it again, and we’ll have to recall the ‘Illustrious’ from the East, what?  Or else get CalMac to send the mighty ‘Clansman’ down with some hardware to scare the pants off the Spannies?  Arf, arf!  Another cigar, Admiral Rodney-Nelson-Cameron?  Try your three barrels this time, and given them what for, eh?




Chez Trump can surely combine

Golf with a distant tur-bine:

Drive with great might,

And hit it just right –

‘Holes in one’ will soon wreck the line!




Between Rumsfeld, the Duck and Trump,

Poor ‘Donald’ should be put in the dump;

The once-worthy name

Has been covered in shame

By a fool, a quack and a grump!




If you’re good at arranging your Flowers,

You’ll be seen to have blooming fine powers;

You can grow on a bank,

Indulge a wee prank,

And be refreshed by the best of the showers!





The Princess is wanting some mare,

Though her taste in meat is quite rare:

A kick in the ham

Will spice up her spam,

With a polo to round off her share.





Pompey’s been buried in lava,

Causing much pain and palava;

The price of the ‘No’

Is beginning to show –

The ‘Union’s’ holed, but Govan will have a!





Two Eds may be better than one,

But I’d prefer to have none,

Than to lose my brains

To show my disdains –

And fire dud balls from my gun!




Here's to bright Teneriffe,

Where a year is only too brief,

And fair Lanzarote

Where nothing is grotty,

And sunshine dispels all your grief!



When we thought of Teneriffe,
Someone said 'Ton o' grief',
And for Lanzarote,
They said 'Lanzagrotty' –
So we decided to head for Crieff!


Energy really does matter,
According to political chatter,
But the overall aim
Is always the same –
To make the fat cats a lot fatter!



What is that noise on my phone?

Angela, please leave me alone!

O, it’s you, Barry?

I thought it was Harry,

Just checking my thoughts on the throne!




I remember dear Father Flash,

Who cut a bit of a dash,

With his fast cars

And drinks at the bars,

Until his collar came off in a crash.



Not a literal ‘car crash’, please note, but one which was, in his terms, quite a bit worse.




There once was a Bishop of Bling

Who enjoyed a bit of a fling;

He smiled at the VAT,

And his livings were fat,

Until his Patter put paid to his zing.




He said he'd found his Nirvana
Somewhere to the west of Canna;
By way of reply
I said with a sigh,
'I've searched all my days, but Ah canna!'



Please come to the happiest Isles,
Where people always wear smiles;
Where neighbours don't fight
And transport is right,
And 'empties' are not seen in piles.



This is my considered response to the recent survey which concluded that the people in Na h-Eileanan Siar, Orkney and Shetland were the happiest in the UK, while the denizens of Stoke-on-Trent had the lowest levels of life satisfaction.



Dave’s beautiful huskies and sledge

Have gone hurtling over the edge;

Some dirty green tacks

Were spread on their tracks –

Now they barely hold on to the p-ledge!




Theresa's fancy removal van
Has been given a lifelong ban;
She's declared SORN,
And can't toot the horn
At those silly jay-walkers who ran!




How fine to hear that the Jack

Will never come under attack,

Nor will it flag,

Unravel or sag,

Until the Union one day gets the sack!



Is it a ‘Jack’ or is it a ‘Flag’?  That was the great question that confronted the vexillologists, who have now pronounced that it can be either!  Banner headlines indeed.




Whatever has happened to Danny,

That chap who would sell his own granny?

I thought he was strong,

But clearly I’m wrong –

He’s a wee, cowering back-door sort of manny!




A fellow whose name is Paul Dacre

Is King in his own little acre;

He is the ‘Mail’

Who never will fail –

A confident mover and shaker!



Today the dear Royal Mail
Is going for a mighty big sale;
This great flotation
Will rip off the nation -
Fat cats will get cream in the Pale!



Paterson may step on the gas
To bring his slaughter to pass;
He'll not lack supply
In the Big House down by -
Guff and puff form most of its mass!




If you badger a brock in its sett,

He'll give you as good as he'll get;

Paterson's shot

Has now gone to pot,

And he's put an 'own goal' in the net!




The Brocks have won the first sett

By moving the posts and the net;

Owen shouts ‘Fowl’

Like a dreary old owl –

‘Team Badger – TB – ’s hard to get!’




Buck House in the baton has sent

A message with splendid intent,

To invite to the games

All men and dames -

Hoy spoke weel o’ the Glasgow event!




The message has been sent via Hoy,

Which could be a dangerous ploy;

The Old Man could say,

‘We’ll do things my way,

And hold them in Kirkwall with joy!’




It’s rare to see a bat on a bike,

With a message that most folk will like;

Put a spoke in his wheel

To help common weal,

And ring his bell frae north o’ the Dyke!





A horse in Lewis is in danger

Of losing its luxury manger;

To a semi-detached

With service unmatched,

Gray Lady Too is no stranger.


The ‘Mail’ is sending a hack

To the horse’s mouth up in Back,

To grab a great tale

While holding a pail –

Let’s hope that the horse has the knack!


The owner is truly most noble,

And also a little bit global,

But CNES’s old nags

Have torn her to rags –

Human rights for a horse are ignoble.





Lord Sugar is not always sweet;

He’s in trouble because of a tweet;

Less of the cane

And more of the brain

Might help him when out on his beet.





The ‘Lewis’ has gone to the Garvel:

That she sails at all is a marvel:

Since she switched to peat,

There’s been nothing but heat –

So she’ll now be re-rigged as a carvel!





As everyone in Edinburgh knows,

The Bobby has got a black nose;

But now it shines white,

And Greyfriars at night

Is lit by its glit as it glows!



Greyfriars’ Bobby’s black snout has been a cause of the greatest concern to his many admirers.  Sadly, the tip of that incomparable snout, possibly through constant stroking and other expressions of the deepest affection, lost its authentic hue and turned pale, thus desecrating the great legend of the loyal hound.  So the fine nose was repaired recently by the application of black lead.   The lead had scarcely dried than the nose began to shine white again, possibly through the intervention of advocates of the ‘Nos’’ campaign.  Who nose?




The 'Muirneag' brought Bounty at night,
And Kit-kats too got their bite;
But now nothing Mars
Her path to the stars -
Her future's a Turkish Delight!



The celebrated CalMac cargo-vessel ‘Muirneag’ served Lewis (alongside the ‘Isle of Lewis’) for many a long and weary year, plodding back and forth between Stornoway and Ullapool during the night, with all the essentials required for life in that part of the Utter Hebrides.  In 2013 she was sold to interests in Turkey, and left Stornoway for good, much to the sorrow of the people of Lewis.




The embryonic Referend Um
Is stuck in the panda's tum;
With no sign of 'Yes',
We'll just have to guess
When the cub's independence will come!





Caolas – township of millionaires,

Great Lords and Ladies with airs,

And a couple of ‘locals’

Wearing bifocals,

And beating the grass to find hares!



Perhaps we should read ‘hares’ as ‘heirs’?  Who knows where this re-reading might run?  What I do know is that my native township of Caolas, Tiree, has been transformed during my lifetime from a community of Gaelic-speaking people to one with only a tiny number of Gaelic speakers (less than half a dozen).  The native stock has all but died out.  In their place, some non-native year-round residents have arrived, but more marked is a wealthy holiday-making elite with summer houses.  Their mansions now fringe the Caolas coastline.  If this change were to be replicated across Tiree over the next fifty years, I would expect the population to drop to perhaps no more than 100 native Tirisdich, and a resident non-native population of perhaps 200 (not stable in the longer term, as many are in retirement), with a seasonal increase of 500-700 related to windsurfing etc. in summer.    It is no surprise to me that the loss of population for the decade 2001-2011 has been so serious.  What does amaze me is that there seems to be no comment in ‘An Tirisdeach’ from anyone in a position of leadership in the island, assuming that the island does have a leader or leaders, of course.  Declining population will affect the viability of the current senior secondary school, the ferry services, the care home, and much else – so it is a very, very serious matter, and needs to be addressed.  It is not pleasant, believe me, to live through the death of a Gaelic-speaking community, as I have done…Plenty of hares, of course, though there are few heirs!



Can you tell me the colour of Ed?
As a Brit, he's blue, white and red;
But to be in the pink
He’s now had to think -
And keep crimson as part of his thread!



Ed has developed an itch
To play with the energy switch;
But bosses have said,
'The light is at red;
You will not get a green from us, titch!'




UKIPpers are whipping up froth,

Laundering all their political cloth;

A shower of smuts

From one of their sluts

Stained their bloomers as they looked for their broth.



Their broth was in a dirty fridge.  The English language is sure causing some daft politicians a lot of trouble these days.  The world has gone mad.  I didn’t realise that the word ‘slut’ had changed its meaning so drastically that its use now, even as a ‘dirty joke’ (!!) in a political environment, merits the withdrawal of the whip from a member.  I think that sort of reaction deserves the application of the whip to a certain backside.  ‘Faragery’ needs to find a place in the dictionary – or the use of the word ‘Farage’ should be banned, on pain of execution.





A wise owl, entrusted with rings,

At a wedding spread its broad wings;

To wit, not to woo,

It snoozed out of view –

It doesn’t give a hoot for such things!

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by noreply@blogger.com (Donald Meek) @ Passages from Tiree


Donald E. Meek


My aim in this paper is to consider a very small part of a very large theme. The presentation of aspects of the Christian faith in twentieth-century Gaelic prose is a subject worthy of much deeper study and reflection than can be attempted here.  For our purposes it suffices to note that, in the course of the century, Gaelic writers adopted a much more critical attitude towards the Protestant church in the Highlands than had been evident in the nineteenth century.  This was due partly to the loss of the church's authority in key domains.  It had been the primary vehicle of Gaelic publishing in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century, and particularly in the second half of that century, Gaelic publishing was diversified and largely secularised, thus allowing new voices to challenge older ones.   Voices within the church also became more critical of its role, as is evident in the writings of the Rev. Donald Lamont, the editor of the Gaelic Supplement of the Church of Scotland magazine, Life and Work, from 1907 to 1951.  Lamont's 'Cille Sgumain' sketches, which focused on an imaginary parish and its minister, the Rev. Neil MacFarlane, B.D., included letters allegedly sent to him by parishioners.  By using such devices, Lamont was able to create 'critical distance', and to produce mildly satirical accounts of parish events.[1]  Lamont stimulated other, non-clerical, writers, most notably Finlay J. MacDonald, whose hilarious story, 'Am Basàr' ('The Bazaar'), daringly took passing swipes at communions, conventions and other church meetings.  MacDonald's main character - a talkative lady called 'Seonag' - was a development of Lamont's 'Seònaid Eachainn'.[2] 


MacDonald's theme - rather out-of-touch Highland characters trying to come to terms with new trends in church life, such as the holding of a bazaar - is echoed in the concerns of several Gaelic short stories from the 1950s, which appears to have been a decade of particular significance in the development of this genre.  In what follows, I intend to restrict myself to a trinity of modern Scottish Gaelic short stories, and to concentrate on only one of these stories before discussing some wider aspects of the theme as reflected in two recent novels.


Two of the three short stories are by well-known writers. The one is Derick Thomson's 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' ('The Minister's Wife'), first broadcast on radio in 1953, and the other is Finlay J. MacDonald's 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh' ('Before the Public'), first published in the Gaelic periodical Gairm in 1958.   Both short stories deal with aspects of Christianity in the Scottish Highlands, and particularly with the power and influence of the evangelical Protestant church.  Thomson's 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' concerns the most important family in the church's hierarchy, namely that in the manse, and explores the worldviews of the minister and his wife.  The wife is an incomer to the Gaelic community, with a love for, and interest in, the world of Nature, while her husband is the conventional Gaelic minister.  He conforms until he has a serious accident, and falls over a cliff in pursuit of his wife's dog.  During a brief period of recovery and prior to insanity, he temporarily appears to embrace his wife's perspectives.[3]


MacDonald's 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh' likewise focuses on the manse family, but specifically on the minister's daughter, Seonag.  She is very much aware of the pressures exerted by her privileged position.  She is expected to conform to the expectations of the community and of the manse family; but she becomes pregnant, and has to make some difficult decisions relative to these pressures.  Her friend and the father of her child is Pàdraig, a medical student. Pàdraig comes under the influence of her father's new-style American preaching, and, just before Seonag tells him her news, he informs her that he has made a far-reaching decision to abandon medicine and become a minister.[4]  Both stories share some common ground, since they explore the theme of community expectations and the individual's conformity, or non-conformity, while also introducing a very subtle interplay of deep human instincts and primordial pressures.


The provenance of 'Iomhar Mòr'

My main concern, however, is with the oldest of the trinity of tales, namely 'Iomhar Mòr' ('Big Ivor'), a story which first appeared in 1950 in An Cabairneach, the innovative Gaelic magazine of the Portree branch of Comunn na h-Oigridh, the young people's branch of An Comunn Gaidhealach.   Its authorship is unknown, and therefore we do not have the problem of 'privileging' the story with an authorial context.  In the case of the other two tales, we know something about Derick Thomson and Finlay J. MacDonald, and we may find it hard not to search for biographical dimensions and personal agendas in their work.   With regard to 'Iomhar Mòr', we may speculate that so assured a tale did not come from the pen of a secondary school pupil, and we may suppose that it was contributed by a mature writer.   We could suggest possible authors among the 'usual suspects' of that period, but no writer among those who have published a collection of stories has owned up. We may have our suspicions, and these may be enhanced by the present discussion, but we are not at liberty to go beyond the general mask of An Cabairneach.  The magazine was edited by the Gaelic teacher at Portree High School, Iain Steele, and appeared only occasionally - in 1944, 1945, 1950, and 1962.[5]


The publication of 'Iomhar Mòr' in 1950 is interesting in the light of later developments in Gaelic literature.  It pre-dates the founding of Gairm in 1952, and it contains within it some themes which were to appear in subsequent Gaelic writing, most notably Iain Crichton Smith's novella, An t-Aonaran (1976).[6]  I am not suggesting that Smith is the author of this tale; the stylistic evidence, in fact, rules this out.  I am, however, implying that 'Iomhar Mòr' has a very important place in the history of modern Scottish Gaelic literature, and that its significance is worthy of some acknowledgement.


The rediscovery of 'Iomhar Mòr' after some twenty years of neglect is due to Dr Donald John MacLeod, who included it in his very useful anthology of Gaelic short stories, Dorcha Tro Ghlainne (1970).  There 'Iomhar Mòr' was presented sequentially as the ninth out of thirteen stories edited by Dr MacLeod.  MacLeod's selection was organised round the theme of mothachadh an duine a' fàs, air a chumadh, is a' crìonadh ('the awareness of man as he grows, is moulded, and declines').[7]  To some extent, MacLeod's selection was a response to a new surge of interest in the short story among Gaelic writers of the late 1960s, and owed much to John Murray's contributions to the genre.  Murray's 'Feòil a' Gheamhraidh' ('Winter Meat') is the first story in MacLeod's selection.[8] I myself first encountered 'Iomhar Mòr' in MacLeod's anthology, and I never forgot it after my first spine-tingling reading.  It has lived menacingly in my mind since 1970, and recently it sprang to the forefront of my thinking when I was teaching a first-level class on modern Gaelic literature.  Here I wish to suggest alternative interpretations of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  I aim to place it within the context of the two other tales that I have summarised, but I hope also to relate it to some key themes of late twentieth-century Gaelic literature, both prose and verse.  In today's terminology, I want to re-read and re-position 'Iomhar Mòr'.



First, let me offer a very brief summary of 'Iomhar Mòr'.   The tale begins with a flash-back to a funeral in Cill Cheidh, which is that of Iomhar Mòr, recently deceased.  The author tells us of his - and, for the moment, I presume authorial masculinity! - considerable unease when attending the interment of Iomhar in a particularly hallowed part of the graveyard, Reilig nan Naomh, where only the truly great men of the faith have been buried in the past, and where no-one in the recent past has been buried.  He recollects that his grandfather told him of an occasion on which the earth of Reilig nan Naomh spewed up the coffin of a stranger who had been buried there at an earlier period.  By this stage, however, the old traditions about the graveyard had been largely forgotten or were regarded as mere superstitions.  The author, however, feels that he must warn the men of the community not to be so precipitate in placing Iomhar there, but he is over-ruled by Dòmhnall Chaluim, who has a very bad conscience about the way in which the community first treated Iomhar. Dòmhnall Chaluim relates that  Iomhar Mòr is worthy of his place of rest, having repaid the disdain of the community with kindness, and that he himself has been the beneficiary.  The author submits to Dòmhnall's view, albeit reluctantly.  He goes on to tell how Iomhar Mòr came to Geàrraidh.  Nobody knew where he had come from; he just appeared, and took up residence in a black house on Dòmhnall Chaluim's croft.  Iomhar's abrupt assumption of tenancy caused great anger to Dòmhnall, and the matter was the talk of the town.  Indeed, after an unsuccessul attempt to evict Iomhar, Dòmhnall and Iomhar fought it out, and Dòmhnall got the backing of the local youth in a sustained attack on the house.  Matters reached the law-court, but the judge ruled in favour of Iomhar's remaining in the house.  Thereafter the village was filled with fear and tension, and Iomhar and Dòmhnall were at daggers drawn.  However, a complete change in attitude occurred, and Iomhar came to be highly esteemed.  The cause of this remarkable shift was a child who had gone missing - Dòmhnall Chaluim 's child.   Every place was searched, and eventually the author and a companion found their way to Iomhar's house.  Iomhar showed immediate sympathy for the community, and changed his usual frown to a look of pity.  He also made straight for Dòmhnall Chaluim and promised to help him in every possible way to find the child.  The two men were reconciled, and went to search the shore together.  The child was not found - but a left shoe belonging to a child was discovered on the edge of the machair.  Thereafter, matters improved; Iomhar was accepted as a member of the community, and he and Dòmhnall buried the hatchet.  The author got to know Iomhar reasonably well, and went to visit him on his death-bed.  Iomhar asked him to clear the house after his death, and to return the key to Dòmhnall Chaluim.   After the funeral the author began to search the house, and began in the lower part.   As he was at work in a dark corner - not quite as dark as the rest - he found something which, he claimed, explained his feeling of unease at the funeral.  His discovery was no less than a little shoe - the shoe for the right foot of a child.  And there, with the reference to the second shoe, the story ends.


The chilling twist in the tail of this story is memorable, and all the more since it resonates with public concerns in the present time.  Though this story is set somewhere in the Highlands, it is broad in its theme, and timeless in its relevance.  That in itself is no small achievement.



How then should we interpret 'Iomhar Mòr'?   We can understand the tale in different ways, but I would suggest three possible routes to take:


(1) We can see this as no more and no less than 'a good story'.  We are given a lot of emotional ups and downs in the course of the tale; fear and unease (at the very beginning), mystery (with the stranger's arrival), conflict (between the stranger and the village and between him and Dòmhnall Chaluim), sorrow (the missing child), reconciliation (between Iomhar and Dòmhnall Chaluim and the village), and finally that spine-chilling sense of injustice, right at the end, culminating in the cliff-hanger on which the storyteller positions the possible deed of the stranger.  We ask ourselves whether Iomhar found the shoe and kept it, so as not to cause further pain in the community, or whether he is directly involved in the disappearance of the child.  We can 'enjoy' all of the various tensions created throughout the work, and leave the story there. 


(2) We may read 'Iomhar Mòr' without making too much of the identity of the main character, and confine our interpretation to the reactions of the community which is portrayed in the story.  Iomhar need be no more and no less than an incomer who has an abundant measure of the rather arrogant style that Highland people attribute to such new arrivals; his particularly overbearing manner causes tension at communal and individual levels.  This tension is resolved by a crisis; the crisis causes the stranger to pull close to the community, and reconciliation is thereby achieved. The stranger is then given a place of esteem.  Vulnerability is thus a key theme; the community is able to resist the stranger to a certain extent, but capitulates when something goes wrong.  The sympathy of the stranger at a time of crisis is sufficient to reverse previous antipathies, and to gain him lasting respect.  We may read the story as a warning to Gaelic communities not to to accept sweets from strangers.  Like children, Gaelic communities are vulnerable to the blandishments of outsiders.


(3)  Our third interpretation would carry forward the points made in the second interpetation, but it would make much more of the person of Iomhar Mòr.  He is not just an alien person; he is an alien power. That alien power can be interpreted in various ways. Is the new power personal or collective?  If the latter, is the power that of the church?  Or a new power within the church? Or a new power within society, of which the church is a part?  How, then, is that power regarded by the writer? Is it seen as benevolent or intrinsically evil, or both, wearing the mask of benevolence and concern at critical moments in the life of a community, but using the weak moments in community confidence to gain a dangerous foothold in its value-system?


The opening paragraph of the story identifies the source of the author's unease as Iomhar Mòr's funeral, and the decision to give him a resting place in Reilig nan Naomh, which was reserved for the fathers of the faith.  This suggests that we are meant to read the story as a spiritual allegory of some kind.  We may note the words that are actually used to portray Iomhar Mòr and his actions.  Dòmhnall Chaluim talks of him in terms which are reminiscent of the biblical account of Christ, 'despised and rejected of men', but repaying rejection with kindness:


Thainig e nur measg...gun daoine, gun chuideachd, gun chàirdean, agus cha be a' bhàidh a nochd sibh dha; thionndaidh sibh ur cùlaibh ris agus mhag sibh air.  Ach an uair a thainig an dòrainn an rathad a bha mo theaghlach-sa, phàigh Iomhar Mòr ana-ceartas le caomhalachd agus coibhneas, agus bhon latha sin gus an latha 'n diugh bha e na chùl-taic s na chomhartachd dhòmhsa agus dhuibhse.[9]


('He came among you...without relatives, without companions, without friends, and it was not a warm side that you showed him; you turned your backs on him, and you mocked him.  But when distress came the way of my family, Big Ivor paid for injustice with compassion and kindness, and from that day until today he has been a support and a comfort to me and to you.')


One can hear the homiletic cadences in that commendation.


Yet Iomhar is also described as an duine caol àrd dorcha ud ('that tall thin dark man').  He has na sùilean dubha nimheil ud ('those black poisonous eyes') as he skulks down the road.  The only sound that comes out of his house is bragadaich mar gum bitheadh am fear a bha stigh a' briseadh mhaidean ('banging as if the man inside were breaking sticks').  Children are immediately in fear of him:  Cha leigeadh tu leas ach Iomhar Mór ainmeachadh ris an leanabh bu mhiosa sa Gheàrraidh agus bha e cho modhail ris an uan ('You had only to mention the name of Big Ivor to the worst child in the Geàrraidh and he became as well mannered as a lamb').[10]  Unquestionably, Iomhar is seen by the writer as a bogey-man, and an evil power - but whom or what does he represent?


Those of us who know the poetry of Derick Thomson will think fairly readily of another incomer who is very similarly portrayed - fear àrd caol dubh / is aodach dubh air ('a tall, thin black-haired man / wearing black clothes').  This is, of course, Thomson's Bodach-ròcais, the title of a poem first published in An Rathad Cian(1970).  The bodach-ròcais ('scarecrow') comes into the cèilidh house and destroys or represses the natural cultural pursuits of the story-tellers, singers and card-players who are inside.   Like Iomhar Mòr, he is a destructive force, and possesses a supernatural ability to take the goodness from pastimes previously regarded as wholesome - thug e 'n toradh as a' cheòl ('he took the goodness out of the music').  Thomson's scarecrow figure is, of course, the stereotypical, evangelical Calvinist minister of nineteenth-century Lewis.[11]  Iomhar Mòr appears to carry a similar symbolic significance.  Part of his persona is religious, and it also has destructive tendencies.  But he is unlikely to be a symbolic John Calvin. Can we find a more convincing contemporary context?




The contemporary context

We have already noted that the story first appeared in 1950, and that it predates two stories, by Thomson and MacDonald respectively, which have religion and evangelical Christianity as their theme. These were written in 1953 ('Bean a' Mhinisteir') and 1958 ('Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh').[12]   The 1950s, and particularly the period 1950-55, were a time of heightened religious activity in both the Highlands and Islands and the wider Scottish mainland.  In Lewis between 1949 and 1953, the Faith Mission evangelist, Duncan Campbell, was at the centre of a religious awakening which is often regarded as the last significant religious revival in the British Isles, though there smaller awakenings elsewhere in the Hebrides in the later 1950s.[13]  We may note that Duncan Campbell was not a native of Lewis; he hailed from Benderloch in Argyll, and was technically a stranger in Lewis, even though he spoke and preached in Gaelic.[14]


Evangelical campaigning was also found in the Scottish Lowlands.  In 1955, the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow was the focus of the Tell Scotland crusade conducted by the American evangelist, Billy Graham.  The impact of Billy Graham on both ministers and people throughout Scotland was substantial.[15]  This is reflected in the story 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', in which the change of style and emphasis evident in Seonag's father is ascribed to the influence of the American evangelist.  Seonag is portrayed as being dismayed at her father's new style:


S bha gràin a beatha aice air an t-searmonachadh ùr ris an robh a h-athair riamh bho chaidh e gu coinneamhan an Amaireaganaich.  Cha robh guth air na seann searmoin chiùine, chomhartail a b' àbhaist cridheachan a bhlàthachadh; cha robh ann a-nise ach an t-iompachadh, an t-iompachadh.  Agus an èigheach.[16]


('And she truly hated the new preaching which her father had adopted ever since he went to the American's meetings.  There was no mention of the old, gentle, comforting sermons that used to warm hearts; there was nothing now but conversion, conversion.  And the yelling.')


It is of significance that Seonag's father adopts the new preaching mode at a time of family crisis, following his wife's death.  Unable to derive consolation from his 'traditional' faith, he goes to Glasgow, and comes back a changed man, with a new gleam in his eye and a new power in his preaching.[17]   Billy Graham is the 'stranger' who helps him to conquer his crisis, and whose style is absorbed into a Highland community through imitation.  The minister is thus the conduit through which new and disturbing expressions of the Christian faith enter the community, and challenge its earlier values.  The parallel with 'Iomhar Mòr' is striking, and suggests that the two stories may have been composed by the same author.


Gaelic poets as well as prose-writers were aware of new religious influences in the Highlands and Islands.  A change of emphasis in contemporary Lewis preaching in this period is noted also by Donald MacAulay in a poem pointedly entitled 'Soisgeul 1955':


Bha mi a raoir anns a' choinneamh;

bha an taigh làn chun an dorais,

cha robh àite suidhe ann

ach geimhil chumhang air an staighre.


Dh'éisd mi ris an t-sailm: am fonn

a' falbh leinn air seòl mara

cho dìomhair ri Maol Dùn:

dh'éisd mi ris an ùrnaigh

seirm shaorsinneil, shruthach -

iuchair-dàin mo dhaoine.


An uair sin thàinig an searmon

- teintean ifrinn a th' anns an fhasan -

bagairt neimheil, fhuadan

a lìon an taigh le uamhann is coimeasg.


Is thàinig an cadal-deilgeanach na mo chasan... [18]


Here the poet recollects his experience of being at a cottage meeting in which the music and prayer were in tune with the culture, but in which the sermon was hostile and alien.  Although the poet was saved (in another sense) by the pins and needles in his feet, this new, passionate evangelicalism affected many young people at broadly the same stage of life as Seonag and Pàdraig in MacDonald's story.[19]


This brings us back to 'Iomhar Mòr'. In particular, we may note the manner in which the stranger commandeers a cottage, and is potentially implicated (by the author's parting shot) in the fate of a missing child, perhaps implying that the new force has the power to steal children from the community.  If the main thrust of 'Iomhar Mòr'is religious, its primary concern is likely to be not the old-style 'Calvinism' of an earlier day, but the new evangelists and the passionate new evangelicalism, entering the Highlands and Islands forcefully in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  An Geàrraidh, the setting of 'Iomhar Mòr', already has a Christian tradition, symbolised by Reilig nan Naomh, the section of the graveyard reserved for the finest local saints.  The impact of the new evangelicalism and people's reactions to it may be one of the writer's concerns.  Thus, after an initial period of opposition and rejection, Dòmhnall Chaluim is converted (in the religious sense) to Iomhar Mòr as others were to Christ.


But could the thrust of the tale be broader than contemporary evangelicalism? The primary concern of the writer, it seems to me, is to ponder how much is gained - or lost - by both the individual and the community in the process of accommodating the stranger.  As a consequence of the new understanding between Iomhar and Dòmhnall Chaluim, old customs and time-honoured traditions are over-ruled in deference to the former enemy of the community, as the ironic burial of Iomhar Mòr in Reilig nan Naomh indicates.


Here it is relevant to recollect that the late 1940s and the 1950s were a time of reassessment in the Gaelic communities after the Second World War. The war had made these communities vulnerable to intrusion by big powers such as the British army and the Royal Air Force.  By 1950, when 'Iomhar Mòr' was composed, new initiatives were being undertaken in an attempt to preserve some of the riches of Gaelic culture in the Highlands and Islands, as the creation of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh in 1951 indicates.  These new initiatives proceeded alongside further major intrusions in the later 1950s, like the Rocket Range in Benbecula, which was stoutly resisted initially, but came to be a mainstay of the local economy, while also acting as a de-Gaelicising influence. 


We should note, in fact, the quiet symbolic subtlety with which 'Iomhar Mòr' has been written.  We have to read between the lines, and extrapolate these wider concerns from the text in a manner reminiscent of short stories such as John Murray's 'Feòil a' Gheamhraidh'.  In this respect, the story contrasts with 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' and 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', where the targets are identified clearly.  'Bean a' Mhinisteir' is more restrained and symbolically closer to 'Iomhar Mòr'.  The minister's wife, who is the 'stranger' in terms of the conventions of the village, is the catalyst for her husband's fall - a concept charged with theological and biblical significance.  The outcome of the tragedy makes us think deeply, since it results in the minister's temporary awareness of a wider world before insanity finally takes over.  'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', which leaves little to symbolism, is probably the frankest story yet written in Gaelic on a religious theme, since it uses 'shock tactics' to galvanise the reader.  It is thus at the other end of the spectrum from 'Iomhar Mòr', though the two stories do have significant points in common.


'Stranger fiction'

The theme of 'Iomhar Mòr', namely the stranger who comes into the community and causes tensions of all sorts, became a very marked feature of Gaelic writing after 1970.  It is particularly evident in Iain Crichton Smith's An t-Aonaran ('The Loner') of 1976.  The frame of Smith's novella is strikingly reminscent of 'Iomhar Mòr'. Indeed, the two are so close as to suggest that 'Iomhar Mòr' may have been something of a catalyst for Smith.  In An t-Aonaran, however, the stranger's presence is used by the author as an opportunity to explore the existential theme of meaninglessness.  The stranger has opted out of normal existence, and his impact on the village is described by a retired schoolmaster called Teàrlach. In reacting with deep mistrust and suspicion to the newcomer in their midst, he shows that such 'loneliness' is an integral part of his own existence, and that it is also a malaise found more generally within the village.  Few are devoid of its symptoms.  Even the minister suffers a loss of verbal articulation, and comes to the schoolmaster for advice because he is unable to declaim the sermon which he has prepared for a particular Sunday service.[20]  In Smith's novella, evangelicalism hovers on the edge of existentialism, and is seen to lose power as a communicative force when the arrival of the aonaran plunges the village into its fatal bout of second-guessing and self-examination.  The church and its members are almost invariably portrayed as somewhat distasteful people who are spiteful and negative in their views of others.  Indeed, one is left to wonder to what extent the author wishes to imply that the church is largely responsible for the alienation of people from one another, in terms of understanding both 'incomers' and those who are natives of Gaelic communities. It is significant that, apart from the schoolmaster himself, it is Cairistìona, boireannach dona Crìosdaidh ('a bad Christian woman') who never misses the communions, who thinks the worst of the stranger. In a manner directly recalling 'Iomhar Mòr', she suggests that he may even be a child-molester.[21]  Eventually, the schoolmaster 'arranges' the departure of the stranger from the village.   The plot of Smith's novella therefore works in the opposite way from that of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  The stranger is ejected in the former, while he is accepted in the latter, but loss and a nasty feeling of injustice accompany both processes.


The 'stranger' motif in modern Gaelic literature, and particularly the presence of the aonaran ('loner'), is thus used very effectively to comment on common modern dilemmas.  As it develops beyond 'Iomhar Mòr', the motif retains a surprisingly close link with religious matters. Religious influence in Gaelic communities is one of the strands in a much more recent story with another aonaran at its heart, namely Alasdair Campbell's short novel, Am Fear Meadhanach ('The Man in the Middle') (1992).[22] This aonaranis not a stranger to the Gaelic world but a native of Lewis, namely Murchadh MacLeòid, who is suffering from cancer and returns to spend his last days in his native community. He is therefore meadhanach('middling') in terms of his health. The 'returning exile' has been a teacher in Glasgow, and obtains a part-time teaching post in a school not far from his village.  He belongs to a family of four, and is meadhanach ('in between') since he has two brothers, the younger a doctor and the elder a highly regarded minister in the Free Church.  The latter is Dòmhnall M. MacLeòid, regularly referred to in the novel as an t-urramach ('the reverend').   The novel is to some extent a satirical overview of a number of different but interlocking communities, notably the main character's family, his local community and the wider Gaelic world, as well as the ever-present network of the church. The speaker's elder brother, an t-urramach, is a thinly disguised caricature of a well-known Free Church minister of a similar name. Murchadh often contrasts himself with his brothers, but particularly with an t-urramach. Most importantly, Murchadh has no faith in God, in contrast to an t-urramach's dogmatic certainty. The difference between the two brothers is worked out at various practical levels.  An t-urramach is a 'high achiever', as is Uilleam, the doctor, who writes books and belongs to the 'arty' Gaelic set.  Murchadh, on the other hand, has had a humdrum existence as a schoolteacher of the kind in Iain Crichton Smith's An t-Aonaran, and regards himself as a failure.  Murchadh is unable to appreciate either Uilleam's books or an t-urramach's best-selling volume of Gaelic sermons, and all three brothers are shut out from one another's literary worlds:


Nàire air an urramach nach do leugh e a-riamh leabhar a sgrìobh a bhràthair bho cheann gu ceann.  Thuirt mi ris nach b'urrainn dhomhsa treabhadh tromhpa a bharrachd.  Bidh an t-urramach fhèin a' sgrìobhadh.  Bha laoidh a sgrìobh e anns a'  Mhonthly Record.  Agus leabhar beag shearmon, cruaidh trì notaichean, bog not' agus leth-cheud sgillinn.  Searmoin, leis an Urr. Dòmhnall M. MacLeòid, M.A.  Sin an tiotal a tha air.  Chaidh mi 'm bogadh annsan aig Searmon 1, duilleag 1, ach cha d'fhuair mi na b'fhaide na sin fhèin; ach cheannaich gu leòr chrìosdaidhean an leabhar, thathas air ath-chlò-bhualadh ceithir turais, 's tha 'n t-urramach a' dèanamh prothaid bheag às, chan eil fhios a'm an ann dha fhèin no dhan eaglais.  Ach chan e sgrìobhaiche nàdurrach a th' anns an urramach.  Tha e nas ealanta le theanga na tha e le peann.[23]


('Shame upon the reverend that he never read a book that his brother wrote from beginning to end.  I said to him that I could not plough through them either.  The reverend himself writes.   There was a hymn which he wrote in the Monthly Record.  And a little book of sermons, hard-back three pounds, soft-back a pound and fifty pence.  Sermons by the Rev. Donald M. MacLeod, M.A.   That's its title.   I immersed myself in it at Sermon 1, page 1, but I got no further than that; but plenty of Christians bought the book, it has been reprinted four times, and the reverend makes a little profit from it, though I do not know whether it is for himself or for the church.  But the reverend is not a natural writer.  He is more skilful with his tongue than he is with his pen.')


The satire in this passage will not be lost on those familiar with the writings of the real Macleod.  The speaker goes on to state that, in his opinion, the most gifted writer in the family was his sister Margaret, who wrote splendid, but grammarless, letters about her global travels until she married a widowed missionary in Malaya.  Thereafter, her grammar improved markedly, but her topics became much more serious, embracing the corruption of human nature and the plight of the world.[24]


The speaker's view of the destructive effect of religious experience is transparent.  It is particularly interesting that the Lewis Revival of the 1950s, with Duncan Campbell at its centre, is recalled in a section in which Murchadh reflects on why the Headmistress of the school in which he works never married:


Eadar dleasdanas is diadhachd, ciamar a bha dol a shoirbheachadh le fear-suirghe co-dhiù?  Thàinig an cùram oirre, mar a thàinig air iomadach tè dhe seòrs', nuair a bha Donnchadh Caimbeul air chaoch anns na h-Eileanan, aig toiseach nam 50s.  Làithean neònach, daoine mòr a' toirt na leap' orr' aig àird a' mheadhan-latha, daoine eile a' bruidhinn mun deidhinn; oidhcheannan cho murrainneach, sàmhach 's gun cluinneadh tu, air leth-siar a' bhail' againn, fuaim na h-aibhne a' dòrtadh, man morghan, fon an drochaid shìos anns a' ghleann.[25]


('Between duty [to her parents] and devotion to God, how would any suitor have got anywhere anyway?  The cùram (i.e. concern of soul) came upon her, as came upon many a woman of her kind, when Duncan Campbell was going mad in the Islands, at the beginning of the 50s.  Strange days, grown-ups taking to their beds at the height of mid-day, other people talking about them; nights so sultry and quiet that you could hear, on the far side of our township, the sound of the river pouring, like rough sand, under the bridge down in the glen.')


Yet the writer provides a warm-hearted picture of Iseabail, the Headmistress.  Despite her religious commitment, she retains her sharp wit and good humour, and is herself subjected to local criticism for her choice of hat at a Christmas service: 'Abair bonaid air tè-aidich!' ('What a hat for a professing woman!').[26]


This deft portrait and the ongoing discussion of the impact of the 'Campbell revival' on reproductive patterns (an age-old canard) reinforces the argument at the heart of this paper, namely that the religious experiences of the early 1950s stimulated not only the churches, but also a group of modern Gaelic writers who began to adopt a critical, and at times strongly dismissive, stance towards the new crusade- or revival-based brand of evangelicalism.





'Iomhar Mòr' deserves to be taken out of its somewhat obscure place in the history of Gaelic writing in the twentieth century.  The present study suggests that it belongs, at least in part, to a small but formative cycle of tales and poems produced in the 1950s which adopted a critical attitude towards evangelical experience in the Highlands, as themes and styles of preaching changed.  This was the period which helped to determine how the Gaelic poets and prose-writers of the later twentieth century viewed Highland evangelicalism, and it is important to note that they were reacting, not so much against what might be termed 'traditional Highland religion', but against the hybrid species which was being created partly through the influence of American crusade-evangelism.  This too was the period when the Highlands and Islands began to accommodate both alien intrusions for the sake of economic regeneration and  initiatives for the preservation of Gaelic culture.  The uneasy relationship between the old and the new, between the outsider and insider, is the central theme of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  It anticipates - brilliantly - many of the stresses and strains and hard choices that were to afflict the Gaelic communities in the second half of the twentieth century.


'Iomhar Mòr' is also generically important.  Appearing in 1950, it was the first in a series of modern creative interpretations of strangers in the Gaelic communities. The stranger depicted within it offered a powerful symbol which could be deployed at various levels, and was particularly useful in identifying and 'earthing' a complex range of forces which were vexing Gaelic writers and their communities.  In particular, the 'stranger/loner motif' allowed writers sufficient distance and disguise to engage in a critical evaluation of the impact of religion in the Highlands and Islands, as seen from a number of different angles.  The tension which such evaluation could create, even when using masks, is reflected in the fact that 'Iomhar Mòr' was published anonymously and the writer has never owned up.  Subsequent writers felt no such need for anonymity.  Yet, despite the freshness which each writer brought to the picture, their themes and even their images overlap, and some of these can be traced back to 'Iomhar Mòr'.  'Iomhar Mòr' thus appears to have foreshadowed and encouraged a major development in the Gaelic literary output of the second half of the twentieth century.   Pardoxically, therefore, it seems that the stimulus of contemporary evangelicalism and social change, however negative in the eyes of the poets and prose-writers, has greatly aided the growth of modern Gaelic literature.[27]

[1] Thomas M. Murchison (ed.), Prose Writings of Donald Lamont (Edinburgh, 1960).
[2] Iain A. MacDhòmhnaill (ed.), Crìochan Ura (Glasgow, 1958), pp. 28-34.
[3] Dòmhnall Iain MacLeòid (ed.), Dorcha Tro Ghlainne (Glaschu, 1970), pp. 58-65.
[4] Ibid., pp. 46-57.
[5] Ibid., pp. 73-79, 126.
[6] Iain Mac a' Ghobhainn, An t-Aonaran (Glaschu, 1976).
[7] See the fine introduction in MacLeòid, pp. 9-21.
[8] Ibid., pp. 22-25.
[9] Ibid., p. 74.
[10] Ibid., pp. 75-76.
[11] Donald MacAulay (ed.), Nua-Bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig: Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems (Edinburgh, 1976), pp. 164-5, which contains an English translation.
[12] MacLeòid, p. 126.
[13] Nigel M. de S. Cameron et al. (eds), The Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Edinburgh, 1993), p. 715.
[14] Ibid., p. 217.
[15] Ibid., p. 376.
[16] MacLeòid, p. 47.
[17] Ibid.
[18] MacAulay, pp. 192-5.
[19] For a discussion of twentieth-century Gaelic poets and the Christian faith, see Dòmhnall E. Meek, 'An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd?  Bàird na Ficheadamh Linn agus an Creideamh Crìosdail', in Colm Ó Baoill (ed.), Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig: Proceedings of the Scottish Gaelic Studies Conference held at Aberdeen University in August 2000 (forthcoming).
[20] Mac a'  Ghobhainn, pp. 67-71.
[21]  Ibid., pp. 7-9.
[22] Alasdair Caimbeul, Am Fear Meadhanach (Conon Bridge, 1992).
[23] Ibid., pp. 33-34.
[24] Ibid., p. 34.
[25] Ibid., pp. 51-52.
[26] Ibid., p. 53.
[27] I am very grateful to Professor Donald MacAulay for his comments on an early draft of this paper.

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Religious studies: Preaching in the Scottish Highlands

by noreply@blogger.com (Donald Meek) @ Passages from Tiree



Donald E. Meek


The pleasure of giving this Warrack Lecture is offset by the knowledge that the remit implicit in the title, 'Preaching in the Scottish Highlands', is potentially very large indeed.  At least two of the other subjects which form separate Warrack Lectures in this series could be accommodated inside my theme.  In fact, the theme is worthy of a series of lectures in itself.  In this lecture I will need to be highly selective in those aspects which I choose to discuss. Given the constraints of time and knowledge, I will need to restrict myself to the post-Reformation period, and more specifically to the years since 1790, when printed material becomes available.  This means leaving aside the Middle Ages and specifically the period of the so-called Celtic saints like Columba and Mael-ruba and the myriad of less famous mortals who proclaimed the Christian Gospel in the Highlands and Islands in the millennium between 563 and the Reformation.1


The main thread which I intend to develop in this very selective lecture is that of preaching in the Scottish Highlands in relation to its cultural context.  The Scottish Highlands, by which we mean the Highlands and Islands, have been, and to a certain extent still are, a Gaelic-speaking area.  Gaelic is now spoken by approximately 65,000 people throughout Scotland, about half of whom are to be found in the Western Isles and western mainland  of Scotland.  The other half are in the Scottish Lowlands, mainly in the Glasgow conurbation, and scattered across mainland Scotland.  A century ago the number of Gaelic speakers in the Highlands was very much larger.  It goes without saying that English has gradually displaced Gaelic in extensive areas of the Highlands; the strongest concentration of Gaelic speakers is to be found nowadays in the Outer Hebrides.2


It is fair to state that, since the Reformation, the Protestant Church has acknowledged the importance of Gaelic as a part of ministry.  There have been times when the commitment of the church to Gaelic has faltered.  This happened largely because the church was never committed to Gaelic per se; Gaelic was a medium for the communication of the Gospel.  In other words, the language was no more than a route to gain access to the minds and souls of Highlanders. Despite such a utilitarian view of Gaelic, it can be said that, on balance, the Church of Scotland acknowledged the importance of Gaelic, and throughout the centuries it has tried to preserve a Gaelic ministry in its Highland charges.  Latterly it designated its parishes 'Gaelic essential' or 'Gaelic desirable', and thus attempted to ensure that Gaelic ministers were appointed to those charges which were deemed to require Gaelic preachers.


All the other Protestant churches and denominations active in the Highlands have employed, and in some cases continue to employ, Gaelic preachers - the Episcopal Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church, and also the smaller nonconformist bodies, like Baptists and Independents, or Congregationalists, as they are more frequently known nowadays.  I myself was brought up in the Inner Hebridean island of Tiree in the 1950s and 1960s.  My father was a crofter, but he was also a Baptist minister, who served in the Inner Hebridean islands of Colonsay, Islay and Tiree.  Much of his ministry was in Gaelic; throughout my boyhood, I heard at least one Gaelic sermon every Sunday, and frequently more than one.  Usually, the morning service in the Baptist church was in Gaelic, and the evening service was in English.  My father retired from active ministry in 1965, and entered the history books as the last Baptist minister who used Gaelic regularly in a Highland charge.  I have thus lived through the death of Gaelic preaching in one denomination - and I rather fear that there are clear signs that the same process is now affecting the other denominations. Gaelic-speaking ministers are currently in very short supply, and, as far as I can judge, the various Protestant churches are not doing a great deal to stimulate a continuing interest in Gaelic.  Proclamation, not preservation, is their main goal.3


The Protestant churches have been the main 'users' of Gaelic as a preaching medium, but the Roman Catholic Church likewise has employed Gaelic in its services in the Highlands and Islands, and continues to do so.  Since the Second Vatican Council, it has made much more extensive use of Gaelic in preaching and worship. The Diocese of Argyll and the Isles has a small but well-sustained body of Gaelic-speaking priests who serve charges in the islands of Barra, South Uist and Eriskay, and on the western edge of the Highland mainland. The Gaelic priests of the Highlands and Islands are usually natives of the islands that they serve, and are very close to the everyday lives of their people and their communities. Their preaching is immediately recognisable to the Protestant Gaelic ear, not only by its different doctrinal emphases, but also by its register and diction. Put simply, Roman Catholic preaching style is closer to ordinary, spoken Gaelic than Protestant preaching normally is. Protestant preachers use a more elevated style of Gaelic, based on the Classical Gaelic heritage which the Protestant church inherited from the Middle Ages.  This may seem slightly paradoxical, but it is, in fact, the case that Protestants have been much more wedded to upper register than Catholics.4


Gaelic preaching was, and is, to be heard not only in Highland pulpits; it has also found a significant place in Lowland pulpits, notably the pulpits of the Gaelic chapels which were built in Scotland's cities from the late eighteenth century in order to provide spiritual nourishment for the many Highlanders who found their way to the cities for employment. Here in Aberdeen, for instance, a Gaelic congregation was established in 1785, largely for the benefit of Highlanders who came to work in the granite quarries in Rubislaw. The chapel which the congregation later erected, and which was located for a number of years in Gaelic Lane (where the old building can still be seen), was a focal point of Gaelic activity. Pre-eminently it provided a platform for Gaelic preachers, among them some distinguished graduates of King's College and Marischal College.5  In passing, we may note that a very high proportion of Highland ministers, including some of the area's finest Gaelic preachers, were graduates of this university.6


Highlanders went farther afield than the Lowlands and eastern fringes of Scotland; they emigrated in substantial numbers from the early years of the eighteenth century, and sometimes took their preachers with them - or found new preachers.  Preaching had a very important place in the emigrant context. It is very significant that the first Gaelic sermons to have survived in print were published far from the Highlands - in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1791.  Both were preached at Raft Swamp in 1790 by the Rev. Dougal Crauford, a native of Arran, no doubt to a large number of Crauford's Highland compatriots who, since the late 1730s, had been creating a substantial Gaelic colony in that part of what is now the USA.7


Bibles and literacy

Having given you an overview of preaching in the Highlands and beyond, let me now pick up my main thread, namely preaching in the Highland cultural context - or contexts, since we are dealing with Gaelic and English in the region, though my main interest will inevitably be in Gaelic preaching.  Preaching in Protestant pulpits in the Highlands reflected its cultural context in the first instance by being, very largely, an oral art.  Literacy on any signficant scale - by which I mean the capacity to read and (usually) to write - did not begin to penetrate the Highlands and Islands effectively until the end of the eighteenth century, and more particularly the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the establishment of the Gaelic Schools Societies from 1810.  When it eventually  began to take effect through the work of the Gaelic Schools, literacy had a strong link with the Gaelic Bible, since the Gaelic Bible was their principal text-book.8


Until literacy began to spread through the influence of the Gaelic Schools, it was restricted very much to the 'learned class' in the Highlands, and to a large extent Gaelic literacy continued to be the preserve of the 'learned class' - pre-eminently ministers and schoolmasters - even after 1800.  That class inherited, and preserved, some of the skills of the Gaelic learned orders of the medieval world (1200-1600) - the poets, historians, sculptors, masons and medical men who were patronised by the Gaelic aristocracy. The Classical Gaelic literary line, so to speak, can be traced through John Carswell, who translated the Book of Common Order into Classical Gaelic in 1567, and thus provided the first Gaelic book ever printed.  In the seventeenth century, the literary line runs through several very important Episcopal clergymen in Ireland and Scotland - and these men were of great importance in providing the first Gaelic translations of the Bible. Bishop William Ó Domhnaill had produced a Classical Gaelic translation of the New Testament by 1602/3, and by 1640 Bishop William Bedell had completed his translation of the Old Testament into Classical Gaelic.  The latter was published in 1685.  These translations were used in Gaelic Scotland too, and in 1690 they were transliterated from Gaelic font (with its many abbreviations, which made them difficult to read) into Roman font by the Rev. Robert Kirk, the Episcopal minister of Aberfoyle, who produced the first Gaelic 'pocket Bible'.  The Classical Gaelic Bible texts, and especially 'Kirk's Bible', as it was called, laid the foundation for the translation of the Scottish Gaelic Bible, which was much indebted to its Irish (Episcopal) predecessors.9


The translation of the Bible into Scottish Gaelic was achieved in two stages by Presbyterian ministers. The New Testament, largely the work of the Rev. James Stuart of Killin, was completed in 1767 and the Old Testament, the work of several scholars, including James's son, John, was finished in 1801.  These translations were sponsored by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), a body which began to establish schools in the Highlands in 1709.  The SSPCK initially aimed to eradicate Gaelic by teaching English in its schools, but by the mid-eighteenth century it had changed its tactics, and arranged for the translation and ultimate publication of the Gaelic New Testament in 1767. The Old Testament was translated thereafter in sections.10  The availability of the whole Bible after 1801, and the major revision of 1807, led to the creation of the Gaelic Schools Societies which were, as we have noted, central to the spread of Gaelic literacy.


The first printed sermons

The influence of Bible-based literacy, reflecting the gradual use and absorption of the new translations, probably stimulated the appearance of printed Gaelic sermons.  The Gaelic Bible helped to create a literate ministry, and also a broader readership.  One of the first Gaelic sermons ever printed, preached  at Raft Swamp, North Carolina, in the autumn of 1790 by Dougal Crauford, drew its theme from Micah Chapter 2, verse 10: 'Eiribh agus imichibh, oir cha 'ne so bhur tamh' ('Arise, and go, for this is not your rest') - a text which must have had considerable poignancy in the emigrant context.11  The Gaelic version of the preaching text was derived from the 1786 translation of the Prophets, made by the Rev. Dr John Smith of Campbeltown.12  The Raft Swamp version of Micah 2: 10 did, however, employ a different word for 'rest'; it used tàmh  and also àite tàimh rather than Smith's còmhnaidh ('dwelling') - perhaps pointing to some degree of fluidity and variablity in the Gaelic Bible versions, between printed and oral, or memorised forms.  An 'oral Bible' was very much part of the Highland people's spiritual equipment, and one can still encounter 'texts' which are known in forms different from those in the printed versions.  These may well go back, in some instances, to the manse-made translations which were used by ministers before the Scottish Gaelic Bible became available.13


The 1790s witnessed the printing and publishing of more Gaelic sermons, some by Crauford himself, in both Fayetteville and Glasgow.  Printing of Gaelic sermons 'caught on' gradually in Scotland, but it never became a major industry, and I am often struck by how few Gaelic sermons were ever printed.  The first ministers to put their sermons into print, like the Rev. Ewen MacDiarmid (who published a fine collection of his sermons in 1804),14 were often located outside, or on the edge of, the Highlands, and were associated with specific groups, like migrant Highlanders or, interestingly, Highland soldiers.  MacDiarmid was, for a period, the minister of Glasgow Gaelic Chapel.  He was also an important collector of Gaelic songs and lore - as well as being warmly evangelical in his sermons.15


Despite a sporadic interaction with the printing press across the years, and the regular publication of Gaelic sermons in periodicals such as the Gaelic supplement of Life and Work, Gaelic preaching remained what I have already called an 'oral art'.  The hallmark of the greatest Gaelic preachers was their capacity to deliver sermons orally without reference to paper or notes.  This reflected the fundamentally important place of oral skills in the Highland context; the telling of traditional Gaelic tales was likewise an oral art - an art to which the Gaelic sermon was indebted to some extent.  The pre-eminence of orality was, to a certain degree, increased still further when evangelical Christianity began to penetrate the Highlands and Islands.  The preacher was expected to deliver a message from God, a message which was spontaneous and given to preacher and people in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The use of paper, and the reading of a learned and laborious discourse, became the hallmark of the Moderate preacher.  One of the most dismissive Gaelic terms for a poor preacher was that he was a ministear pàipeir - 'a minister of paper'.


Of course, Highland ministers were not entirely free from paper. The paper-free pulpit was as much an ideal then as the paper-free office is today.  The very existence of the Raft Swamp sermons  indicates that Dougal Crauford was a highly literate man who was able to write out his sermon long-hand in a manuscript, and I suspect that he did so before he delivered the sermon.  In fact, many Highland ministers made outlines of their sermons before they delivered them; some used slates, on which they wrote in chalk, and then wiped off their notes; while others wrote outlines on paper, or even drafted full texts. Some manuscript collections of Gaelic sermons have survived from the eighteenth century to the present day.16 The important thing was that the preacher should not appear in the pulpit with a large and bulky manuscript, and proceed to read it to the expectant congregation! The same condition applied to English sermons too.  It was not a question of language, but of inspiration.


Sermons, delivered spontaneously from the pulpit, were very important in the Highlands. The sermon was the centre-piece of worship.  In many parts of the Highlands and Islands, the whole experience of Gaelic worship was focused in the phrase aig an t-searmon ('at the sermon').  'An robh thu aig an t-searmon an-diugh?' ('Were you at the sermon today?') was the great Sabbath-day question in my part of the Hebrides.  The profundity of preaching is underlined by one Raft Swamp sermon.  It comprises some 16 pages of tightly packed print, which must have taken at least an hour and a half to deliver!17


Themes and theologies

I have given you some account of the wider context of preaching in the Highlands and among emigrant Highlanders.  I now turn to consider themes and styles.  Moderate preaching - the preaching of virtues and morals - was known in the Highlands, but it fell out of favour as the Highlands became progressively evangelical in the course of the eighteenth century and pre-eminently the nineteenth.  When Archibald Farquharson, the Congregationalist minister in Tiree, made a preaching tour of Barra and South Uist in 1838, he lodged with the parish minister in Barra, and attended his preaching in the parish church.  This was what he wrote in his Journal:


'3d [June] Lord's day.  Heard Mr Nicholson preach who did not begin till 1 o'clock.  The sermon was very barren, not calculated to be useful to a single soul, and I should suppose from want of attention, that none of the hearers would take a single sentence with them.  Such a death-like scene I never witnessed.  There were about 60 present.  And I should suppose that nearly one half were there on my account.  The Sabbath before I was told there was not above 20 present. At the conclusion of his discourse, I commenced out side in the shelter of the church, but owing to a very heavy shower of rain, we had to take shelter in a house not far distant.  All the people came to hear with the exception of the few who look upon themselves as the gentry.  I suppose they considered it under their dignity to hear a Dissenting Preacher.  However the poor common people came to hear, and although I could not say that they heard gladly, yet they listened attentively.  Intimated that I would preach again in the evening.  Accordingly about 60 attended who listened with very good attention to what I considered the words of eternal life.  At the conclusion of the discourse I gave them tracts and directed their attention to what I considered the most important of them.'18


Here the 'death-like scene', presided over by the non-evangelical parish minister inside the church, is contrasted with the evangelical proclamation of the 'words of eternal life' in the open air. In the mainland Highlands, of course, in areas such as Easter Ross, preaching with a Puritan flavour was well known as far back as the seventeenth century, but it was only after 1800 that evangelicalism reached the furthest Hebrides.  As it did so, evangelical preachers gained immense prominence, and the Disruption of 1843 guaranteed that Moderate death would be swallowed up in evangelical victory.19


Some standard features of evangelical preaching are very clearly anticipated in one of the first printed Gaelic sermons, to which I have already referred.  Dougal Crauford's discourse at Raft Swamp in the autumn of 1790 majored on the need to forsake the things of this world.  This was to become one of the keynotes of Highland evangelical preaching during the next century.  This was what he said:


'Criochnachui' onoir agus urram, basaichi maise agus gach dealbh is fionalta a chuaidh riamh a sgeudacha le feòil, falbhaidh beartas as an tsealladh le sgiatha grad, imichidh foghlum agus gliocas air falbh, agus dichuinichear gach ni a chuireas a bheatha so fa chomhair 'ar suilean; ach mairidh subhailce gu siorruidh, se onoir amhain beatha agus sonas gach ni tha iomlan, mor, agus maith.' 20


('Honour and privilege will perish, beauty and every finest image which was ever bedecked by the flesh will die, wealth will vanish from sight with swift wings, knowledge and wisdom will depart, and everything that this world puts before our eyes will be forgotten; but virtue will last forever - honour consists solely in the life and joy of every thing that is perfect, great and good.')


Crauford directs his hearers to seek the place of true satisfaction, to be found only in Christ. Yet, while this was a prominent note in evangelical preaching, it was not the only one.  The application of God's law, and sinners' disobedience to that law, was (and remains) a very important theme. Alexander MacLeod of Uig, reputedly the first evangelical minister in Lewis, who was inducted to his charge in 1824, kept a diary, in which he sometimes wrote (in English) his sermon outlines.  On April 30th 1826, he wrote:


'Preached from the 32nd of Jeremiah, 40th verse, on the Everlasting Covenant.

1st, Considered the awful state of those who are under the broken covenant - under the curse in every duty, and their seeming blessings given to and enjoyed by them under the curse.

2nd, The properties of the new covenant (1) eternal (2) of peace, (3) of promise, (4) new, (5) well-ordered, (6) made sure in all things etc.

3rd,  The Administrator of the blessings of the covenant who gives the legacy to his legatees, even to the elect of God.  (1) He does this in the capacity of a prophet, witness and interpreter.  He explains his own testament, and executes and administers the same.  (2) He acts as an advocate or prevailing intercessor in whose hands no case has ever failed. (3) He acts as a powerful king.  He administers conviction, conversion, life, light, power, sanctifying grace in every duty and trial, sanctification and eternal life.'21


The logical progression of the preacher's mind, from law in the Old Testament to grace in the New, is very clear. While law and grace were much to the fore in Highland preaching, some of the most famous preachers of the Highlands and Islands had a very deep concern for the physical, as well as the spiritual, well-being of their hearers.  None was more distinguished in this respect, as in many others, than the Rev. Dr John MacDonald of Ferintosh, the 'Apostle of the North', one of Aberdeen's most distinguished graduates.22 MacDonald's most memorable sermons were often preached at communion services, commonly held out of doors, and his style was highly emotional, frequently causing paroxysms among his hearers. In spite of such emotionalism, however, MacDonald had a very down-to-earth side to him. He preached a remarkable sermon on the cholera epidemic of 1832, taking as his text the words of Paul to the Philippian jailor - 'Do not harm yourself'.  MacDonald saw the cholera epidemic as God's judgement, but he exhorted the people to do everything possible to keep themselves from harm, particularly by listening to those who had been sent to provide healing and relief; those who failed to do so, MacDonald argued, would be guilty before God of having failed to discharge their duties towards their own bodies.23


Preachers could also use sermons as political vehicles, even in the theologically conservative Highlands, in which abasement before God was more likely to be encouraged than rebellion against overbearing landlords. A distinctly liberationist note was sounded against consolidating masters of the soil by Lachlan MacKenzie of Lochcarron in the later eighteenth century. This note reasserted itself in the 1880s, when ministers like the Rev. Donald MacCallum (1849-1929), who led crofters in their reaction against landlordism, preached what he called the 'land gospel', promoting a form of liberation theology which did not go down well with his fellow ministers.24  Berating one's fellow ministers was, of course, one of the less admirable roles to which Highland preachers applied their rhetorical skills, especially during and after the bitter ecclesiastical strife of the late nineteenth century.25


Style and delivery

I must hasten to discuss style very briefly.  Looking across a range of printed sermons, both Gaelic and English, preached in the Highlands over the years, I am very much aware of a considerable variety of approaches.  Of course, the printed sermons are but a poor shadow of their original, orally delivered forms. They do not preserve anything of the physical animation of the preacher, his gesticulations and pulpit drama, as he warmed to his theme, and implored his hearers to attend to God's Word; they contain little trace of the modulation of his voice, his accent, or his mannerisms, though dialectal features are frequently preserved.  It was normal for Highland preachers to project their voices by means of a heigtening of pitch as the sermon progressed, as happens in Wales.  This was known to us in Argyllshire as the minister's duan, 'song, tune'. Yet, even if they do not catch the cadences, printed sermons at least give us an outline of what the preacher said, and here we can see a considerable variety of styles and approaches. There are many sermons, particularly those preached in the northern Highlands and Islands, which are in effect theological treatises, departing little from straight exposition of the Bible text.26   There are also others which are much more anecdotal, making extensive use of story and illustration, closer to the type of preaching characteristic of Lowland pulpiteers like Alexander Whyte of Edinburgh.27   Some Highland ministers, like Robert Finlayson of Lochs, in Lewis, were experts at locating biblical events and characters in their own communities.  Even Noah could become a local worthy with a boat, like all other good crofters.28 Less ponderous evangelical preaching, putting more emphasis on personal response and decision-making, and often leaning towards the vernacular language, was more common in the Inner Hebrides than the Outer Hebrides, and more likely to be found in revivalist contexts than in the regular proclamations of Calvinist ministers.29


Sermons were produced to meet a wide range of contexts across the years; in addition to what we regard as the normal church setting, sermons were regularly preached in the open air, especially at communion services, when thousands would gather together; others were preached on emigrant ships, prior to departure; and still others were preached by enthusiastic itinerant preachers to small congregations in cottages, in the harvest field or by the shore. Itinerant preachers were particularly gifted in making sermons relevant to the contexts of their audiences.  Themes like road-building, harvesting, fishing and the burning of dead scrub, lent themselves readily to biblical illustration.  In 1841 a Baptist itinerant preacher, James Miller, encountered a group of wood-cutters at Connel Ferry on one occasion, and records in his journal:


'I told them God would cut down the wicked, and cast them into the fire, as they did the trees which they were cutting for charcoal.'30


As a result of variations in themes and contexts, there was, and there is, no single type of sermon which can be called characteristically 'Highland'; there are many such types.  Yet there were, and there are, certain expectations which Highland and specifically Gaelic preachers tried, and still try, to satisfy. For one thing, within the predominantly Protestant tradition, it was important to hold to the Scriptures and to expound them. As I have said, the Raft Swamp sermon of 1790 is very much in the evangelical mould, and draws richly on Scripture, and this approach was maintained loyally, especially in the northern Highlands and Outer Isles.  The weight of exposition was sometimes lightened by exemplum and illustration, and some ministers, like the celebrated eighteenth-century minister, John Balfour of Nigg, were particularly well known for their parables and anecdotes. The ministers' ancedotes tended to survive longer in popular memory than the rest of their sermons.  They were, and are, frequently recounted whenever and wherever sermon-loving Highlanders meet together.  Highland sermons owed much to both the Bible and traditional forms of story-telling - and that relationship is clear to the present day.  Tales about ministers, their sermons, and especially their illustrations, have become a narrative cycle in themselves.31


The influence of preaching on Gaelic culture

In conclusion, let me say a little about the manner in which preaching has influenced Gaelic, and Highland, culture. I have mentioned some aspects of the process whereby culture influences preaching, but the other side of story is no less important.  Because the sermon was a central art form in the Highlands, it influenced a great deal of creativity, both oral and literary. It honed the mind and sharpened the expression of preacher and hearer alike.  It is possible to detect the impact of pulpit phraseology in Gaelic poetry, from the time of Mary MacPherson (1821-98), the Skye poetess of the nineteenth century, to that of Sorley MacLean, one of our most famous twentieth century Gaelic poets, who died in 1996.  Mary MacPherson prided herself in having listened to the Rev. Roderick MacLeod, Skye's great evangelical leader and a thorn in the flesh of the Established Church, preaching at Fairy Bridge in times of spiritual revival in the early 1840s.32  Her verse contains many echoes of the rhetoric of preaching, as does the much more modern poetry of Sorley MacLean, whose rhetorical roots were in the Free Presbyterian tradition of the island of Raasay.33 In the academic cloisters, Professor William J. Watson (1865-1948), Gaelic Scotland's foundational Celtic scholar, who occupied the Celtic Chair at Edinburgh, used to tell his students that he well remembered the powerful Gaelic preaching of the Rev. Dr John Kennedy (1819-84), Dingwall, whose services he had attended as a young boy with his parents.34


Preaching thus contributed something to the development of Gaelic poetry and scholarship, but it contributed even more to the shape of Gaelic prose.  The earliest Gaelic periodicals were produced by ministers who were naturally inclined to homiletic styles of exposition, even when dealing with everyday matters. Witness, for example, the foundationally important prose writing of the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod, Caraid nan Gàidheal ('The Friend of the Gaels') (1783-1862).35  In the same tradition were the Rev. Alexander MacGregor (1808-81),36 and, in the twentieth century, the Rev. Donald Lamont (1874-1958), and the Rev. Thomas M. Murchison (1907-84).  Lamont and Murchison were distinguished editors of the Gaelic Supplement of Life and Work, through which they made an enormous contribution to the development of modern Gaelic prose.37


Gaelic preaching also shaped broadcasting, and thus entered the realm of modern 'electronic orality'. In 1923, Gaelic broadcasting was initiated in Aberdeen with a Gaelic religious address. An annual Gaelic service from King's College Chapel became a regular feature of Gaelic output from 1926.38 Gaelic radio has given a central place to Gaelic preaching, with weekly Gaelic services being maintained to the present.  Gaelic producers still tell amusing tales of Gaelic preachers of an earlier generation who could not be prevailed upon to produce a written script, far less a typed one, but who - in true Highland oral style - would hold forth fearlessly before the microphone for precisely the right number of minutes, much to the unspeakable relief of the producer. The video-recording of Gaelic services since the early 1990s, for transmission on Gaelic television, has provided a late, but very valuable, record of those aspects of preaching which the printed page and the radio have not been able to capture.39


The centrality of preaching, and its influence in broadcasting and literature in the Gaelic world, can be seen as a virtue or a vice, depending on your standpoint, but it is probably true to say that, on balance, preaching in the Highlands had its negative, as well as its positive, aspects as far as the culture is concerned. It was, in a thoroughly scriptural phrase, a two-edged sword, which could not only deliver liberation but also deal death, particularly to traditional cultural icons. It has probably contributed as much to rigidity as it has to revitalisation.   Since the Second World War, however, and more markedly since the 1960s, the power and influence of Gaelic preaching have declined sharply, and Gaelic poetry and prose have become largely secular occupations. The output of the pulpit can no longer be said to be the touchstone of the best Gaelic.


Where, then, does preaching stand in the present-day Highlands?  How highly is it rated as a part of worship?  This depends on your location, and especially on your church and denomination. Gaelic preaching has all but vanished from the smaller churches, such as Baptists and Congregationalists, and the supply of new Gaelic preachers for Free Presbyterian pulpits has all but ceased. The larger Presbyterian bodies still have the resources and the cultural commitment to give Gaelic preaching a significant place.  The Free Church of Scotland retains the highest proportion of current Gaelic-speaking and Gaelic-preaching ministers.40  In such a context, one can yet hear sermons which bear a striking resemblance to Dougal Crauford's autumnal discourse at Raft Swamp, North Carolina.  Oral delivery, unaided by notes or manuscript, is also maintained by some evangelical preachers, but, as memory spans shorten, as concentration begins to lapse, and as ministerial stamina declines, in the Highlands as elsewhere, the once dreaded ministear pàipeir - the paper-bound minister or his lay representative - is much more prominent.  As my old Gaelic-speaking friends in Tiree would have said, with a knowing nod of the head after a disappointing morning service and a poor sermon delivered from a conspicuous piece of paper, perhaps by the giver of this lecture, 'Is e seo là nan nithean beaga'- 'This is the day of small things'.  



1. For this early period, see Alan Macquarrie, The Saints of Scotland: Essays in Scottish Church History AD 450-1093 (Edinburgh, 1997).

2. General information on Gaelic and Gaelic culture can be accessed readily in Derick S. Thomson (ed.), The Companion to Gaelic Scotland(Oxford, 1983). 

3. For a general introductory account of the relationship between the churches and Gaelic culture, see Donald E. Meek, The Scottish Highlands: The Churches and Gaelic Culture (Geneva, 1996). 

4. Donald E. Meek, 'God and Gaelic: The Highland Churches and Gaelic Cultural Identity', in Gordon McCoy (ed.), Aithne na nGael (Belfast, forthcoming), touches on this matter, and takes forward the discussion in Meek, The Scottish Highlands, by using the categories established by Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (London, 1952). 

5. Ian R. MacDonald, 'The Beginning of Gaelic Preaching in Scotland's Cities', Northern Scotland, 9 (1989), pp. 45-52; Ian R. MacDonald, Glasgow's Gaelic Churches: Highland Religion in an Urban Setting (Edinburgh, 1995); Ian R. MacDonald, Aberdeen Gaelic Chapel (Edinburgh, forthcoming). 

6. This important topic is currently being researched by Dr Ian R. MacDonald (see note 5). 

7. Douglas Kelly, Carolina Scots: An Historical and Genealogical Study of Over 100 Years of Emigration (Dillon, S.C., 1998), is true to its title, and provides important discussion of the use of Gaelic in the Carolina emigrant churches; for some biographical details of the Rev. Dougal Crauford (otherwise Dugald Crawford) (1752-1831), see p. 130. 

8. Donald E. Meek, 'The Bible and Social Change in the Nineteenth-Century Highlands', in David F. Wright (ed.), The Bible in Scottish Life and Literature (Edinburgh, 1988), pp. 179-91 (187-9). 

9. Donald E. Meek, 'The Gaelic Bible', ibid., pp. 9-23. 

10. Ibid. 

11. Searmoin a chuaidh a liobhairt aig an Raft-Swamp, air an fhichioda' latha don cheud mhios don Fhoghmhar 1790, le D. Crauford, Minister (Fayetteville, 1791), p. 34.  This is the 'text' at the beginning of the second of the two sermons, which are published in the one book.   I am very grateful to Mr David G. Williams, San Francisco, for providing me with copies of these important sermons, and also for encouraging me to research their background, themes and styles.  I hope to edit the sermons in detail elsewhere; my comments in this lecture amount to no more than preliminary scene-setting. 

12. Leabhraichean an t-Seann Tiomnaidh, Earrann IV (Dun-Eidean, 1786). 

13. Meek, 'Gaelic Bible', p. 19. 

14. Searmona le Mr. Eobhann Mac Diarmaid Ministeir ann an Glascho, agus na dheidh sin an Comrie (Duneidin, 1804). 

15. Derick S. Thomson (ed.), The MacDiarmid MS Anthology (Edinburgh, 1992). 

16. Kenneth D. MacDonald, 'Prose, Religious (eighteenth century)', in Thomson, Companion, pp. 240-2. 

17. Searmoin...aig an Raft-Swamp, pp. 34-50. 

18. William D. McNaughton (ed.), Archibald Farquharson's Journals (Glasgow, 1996), p. 5. 

19. Douglas Ansdell,  The People of the Great Faith (Stornoway, 1998). 

20. Searmoin...aig an Raft-Swamp, p. 34. 

21. D. Beaton (ed.), Diary and Sermons of the Rev. Alexander MacLeod, Rogart (Inverness, 1925), p. 16. 

22. John Kennedy, The Apostle of the North (Glasgow, 1978 repr.). 

23. Daoine air an Comhairleachadh an Aghaidh bhi Deanamh Croin orra Fein - Searmoin, a thugadh seachad an' Inerpheafaran aig an am do bhris an galar d'an goirear an colera mach sa bhaile, le Eoin Domhnullach (Inbherneis, 1832). 

24. Donald E. Meek, '"The Land Question Answered from the Bible"; The Land Issue and the Development of a Highland Theology of Liberation', Scottish Geographical Magazine, 103, No. 2 (September, 1987), pp. 84-9. 

25. Cf. Ian R. MacDonald, 'Pulpits and Parties', in the Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland, October and September, 1998, pp. 212, 236. 

26. For an accessible sample of Highland preaching (in English) in different styles, see D. Beaton (ed.), Sermons by Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands (Inverness, 1930). For a Gaelic exposition of the Parables by the Rev. Donald John Martin, see Calum MacIllinnein (deas.), Teagasg nan Cosamhlachdan leis an Urramach Domhnull Iain Mairtinn, (Edinburgh, 1914). 

27. This genre is - broadly - represented in the sermons of the Rev. Malcolm MacLeod; see T. M. MacCalmain (deas.), An Iuchair Oir: Searmoinean leis an Urramach Calum MacLeoid (Sruighlea, 1950). 

28. Roderick MacLeod, 'The John Bunyan of the Highlands: The Life and Work of the Rev. Robert Finlayson (1793-1861), Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, 54 (1984-86), pp. 240-68.  According to Norman MacFarlane, cited by MacLeod (p. 254), Finlayson 'clothed those ancients in the Lewis tweeds and made them speak in the Lewis accent.' 

29. Comparatively few examples of Inner Hebridean searmons, especially those by Baptists and Independents, have been published; I hope to edit some of my late father's sermons, which are meticulously preserved in his notebooks. 

30. Reports of the Baptist Home Missionary Society for Scotland (Edinburgh, 1829-46), 1841, pp. 19-20. 

31. This appears to be the religious equivalent of secular story-telling; the words and deeds of famous ministers form a substitute for those of the heroes of traditional lore. 

32. Dòmhnall E. Meek (deas.), Màiri Mhòr nan Oran (Dùn Eideann, 1998), t.d. 21. 

33. MacLean pays tribute to the oral prose of some of the most powerful Gaelic preachers of the twentieth century, notably the Rev. Ewen MacQueen; see William Gillies (ed.), Ris a' Bhruthaich: The Criticism and Prose Writings of Sorley MacLean (Stornoway, 1985), p. 109. 

34. For this insight, I am very grateful to my relative, the Rev. Malcolm Lamont, Inverness, who was one of Professor Watson's students. 

35. For a brief introduction, see John MacInnes, 'Caraid nan Gaidheal', in Thomson, Companion, p. 35. 

36. MacGregor's work is currently being edited by Dr Sheila Kidd, Department of Celtic, University of Glasgow. 

37. For Lamont, see Thomas M. Murchison (ed.), Prose Writings of Donald Lamont (Edinburgh, 1960). 

38. Donald E. Meek, 'Gaelic Broadcasting: The Early Years (1923-30)', a report prepared for the Gaelic Advisory Committee of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland, May 1978. 

39. The earliest recordings were made by Tern Television, Aberdeen, and Abu-Tele, Skye. 

40. According to Free Church figures for 1995, 'there are just over 100 Free Church ministers in Scottish charges, 36 or 37 of whom preach in Gaelic'.   This amounts to just over one-third of ministerial capacity; the proportion in the Church of Scotland is probably considerably lower.          


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Professor Derick S. Thomson (5 August 1921 – 21 March 2012)

Derick Thomson – Professor of Celtic, Gaelic scholar, teacher, language planner, poet, writer, editor, businessman, politician, propagandist, chairman of boards and trusts in abundance - was a colossus of twentieth-century Scotland.  In both the sharpness of his mind and its many practical applications, he carved a niche for Gaelic (first and foremost) and for himself (as a ceaseless promoter of the language in word and in print) that is unlikely to be replicated in the near future, and will certainly never be surpassed.

Privileged with a gifted ancestry, steeped in traditional Gaelic culture, Derick Thomson was born in Stornoway in 1921, but he was reared in Bayble, Point. His father James Thomson, a stalwart of the Church of Scotland and a published poet, was for many years headmaster of Bayble School.  His mother’s people from Ceòs – from whom he derived his middle name ‘Smith’ – were noted for their wealth of Gaelic song and story.  Thomson’s Lewis upbringing thus facilitated and combined many of the strands which would later characterise his own career as a magisterial and multi-talented exponent of Gaelic language and literature, a creative poet and a commentator on island life and society, including its ecclesiastical dimensions.

Thomson graduated from the University of Aberdeen with a First Class degree in English Literature and Celtic.  After war service in the RAF, he embarked on the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Tripos at Cambridge, established by the pioneering scholars, Hector Munro Chadwick and his wife Norah Kershaw Chadwick, to encourage bridge-building and interdisciplinary study between the Celtic and Germanic strands of Britain’s cultural heritage.  He achieved similar distinction there, and then proceeded to the University College of North Wales, Bangor, to study with the Rev. Professor J. E. Caerwyn Williams, for whom he had an immense respect.

Splendidly equipped for analysing the wider Celtic family of languages and related cultures, Derick Thomson served through the ranks of the academic profession in Scotland, first in Edinburgh (where he assisted Professor Myles Dillon and collected Gaelic tradition for the new School of Scottish Studies), then Glasgow (where he taught Welsh, alongside Professor Angus Matheson), followed by Aberdeen (where he was Reader in Celtic) and finally Glasgow again, this time as Professor from 1963 until 1991.  His academic hallmark lay pre-eminently in placing Gaelic literature, rather than the minutiae of the language itself, at the centre of his curriculum.  The rebalanced programme for Celtic and Gaelic studies was particularly evident at Glasgow, where, as Professor, he built a powerful and vibrant department which was at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, and contributed immensely to the formation of Gaelic teachers, broadcasters, writers and academics.  All the main Celtic languages and their literatures were taught, with Gaelic at the centre.  In presenting Gaelic afresh within this broad perspective, Thomson formulated new approaches to scholarly analysis and understanding, while encouraging wider interest, as is evident in his many books and articles, among them The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’’ (1952), An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry (1974), and his indispensable Companion to Gaelic Scotland (1983).

Thomson’s name will always be associated particularly closely with Glasgow, as it was there that he laid, and later built upon, the foundations of his distinguished and multi-faceted career, within and beyond the cloisters. In Glasgow in 1951, with the support of Finlay J. MacDonald, he established the celebrated Gaelic periodical Gairm. It was through Gairm, which was distributed to secondary schools throughout the islands, that many became familiar with the name and persona of Thomson’s alter ego, Ruaraidh MacThòmais. Gairm became without question the vehicle for a creative revolution in Gaelic literature, far beyond the schools. Edited by MacThòmais for just over 50 years, and appearing four times a year, it was a phenomenal achievement in its own right, demonstrating his unrivalled capacity for sustained hard work and creative thinking. Profits from Gairm, and no doubt fair amounts of his own money, were ploughed into the creation of Gairm Publications, which continued to publish books into the 1990s. Gaelic publication was facilitated further by his brainchild, the Gaelic Books Council, founded in 1968. It continues to this day as an essential corner-stone of Gaelic publishing, going from strength to strength and existing independently of Glasgow  University, where it began.

Ruaraidh MacThòmais’s creativity was evident in every aspect of Gairm, from its business and trading arrangements to his concise editorials, penetrating reviews, Gaelic short stories and essays – but it was manifested pre-eminently in his verse.  For MacThòmais, poetry in traditional and modern (free verse) forms was the breath of artistic life, animating no less than seven volumes – An Dealbh Briste (1951), Eadar Samhradh is Foghar(1967), An Rathad Cian (1970), Saorsa agus an Iolaire (1977), Creachadh na Clàrsaich (1982, his collected works, up to that point), Maol Garbh (1995), and finally his retrospective and valedictory Sùil air Fàire (2007).  Like the forms of his verse, his themes changed across the years, spanning the hankerings of the young exile for Lewis, his reactions to city life in more settled middle age, the umbilical nature of his relationship to Lewis (forever central to his world), his political perceptions of Scotland, Highland and Lowland (he was a forthright and unashamed Nationalist), his expeditions to the hills of Perthshire (where he lived for some years), and his cameos of multi-cultural Glasgow in the 1990s and early 2000s.

From 1950 onwards, Derick Thomson was unquestionably ‘the man with the plan’ not only for Gaelic literature, but also for Gàidhlig ann an Albainn, ‘Gaelic in Scotland’, the title of an influential little book which he edited and published in 1976 as ‘a blueprint for official and private initiatives’ relating to Gaelic. Subsequent language promoters, by and large, did no more than finesse the templates which Derick Thomson and his team sketched out.  Before the concept of ‘language planning’ was officially invented and turned into a profession in its own right, Derick Thomson was already ‘on the job’ for Gaelic. His visionary thinking also led to the establishment of the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic at Glasgow in the early 1960s.  Although the original venture faltered because of lack of funding and a less than robust long-term strategy, it has now been resurrected as Faclair na Gàidhlig, with its own Skye-based co-ordinator, while its invaluable archive at Glasgow is being digitised in twenty-first century style.  Thus restructured, the ‘Dictionary’ is producing outputs beyond Thomson’s imagining.

Derick Thomson was, in sum, a creative genius, whose many activities have shaped both Gaelic and Scotland.