Modern poetry in Scottish Gaelic begins with the brilliant, controversial figure of Alexander MacDonald, better known as Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, who was active during the eighteenth century. His only collection, Aiseirigh na Seann Chànain Albannach (1751), was the first printed book of poetry to be published in any Celtic language.
Yet even at this early stage, the exclusion of Gaelic from the mainstream of European culture is evident. In English, the title of the collection is ‘The Resurrection of the Old Scottish Language’. The use of Gaelic in written poetry from Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair onwards can no longer be taken for granted, but is politicised, a choice that must be argued for. The sense of writing against the grain of history is one which twenty-first century Gaelic poets would recognise, but is in fact more than two centuries old.
The date of Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s birth is unknown. He was the son of Alexander MacDonald, known as Maighstir Alasdair, believed to have been an Episcopalian minister in Moidart. Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair was the second of Alexander’s four sons; he attended Glasgow University, though seems to have left before his studies were completed. He worked as under-baillie in Canna from 1725 to 1727, and in 1729 was employed as a teacher and catechist in Ardnamurchan, a post he retained until 1745.
He took part in the second Jacobite rising in 1745 (and may also have been involved in the first, in 1715). In 1751 he went to Edinburgh for the publication of Aiseirigh na Seann Chànain Albannach, but as the seditious nature of the book condemned it to being burnt by the public hangman, he did not settle in the capital. His later years were of an itinerant nature, and he is buried in Arisaig.
Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s poetic career followed the destruction of the bardic system which sustained a professional class of Gaelic poets serving patrons in both Scotland and Ireland through a common literary language. This was the last point at which Gaelic culture could participate equally in the wider culture of Europe. Gaelic poets since Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair have had to deal with this sense of dislocation from the mainstream, some more successfully than others. Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s response was one which would be taken up again in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Rather than acquiesce to the marginalisation of Gaelic, he sought to re-establish the links between Gaelic poetry and the poetries of mainland Europe. Aiseirigh na Seann Chànain Albannach begins with a poem in Latin, ‘de AUCTORE testimonium’ (‘The Author’s Testament’), a gesture which places his Gaelic poetry on an equal footing with contemporary literature in the other European vernaculars. It is followed by a preface in English, in which the author hopes that the publication of those poems he wrote some time ago, for the amusement of a private gentleman, may afford some entertainment to those versed in this ancient and comprehensive language; and raise in others a desire to learn something of it, if they can be brought to think, that it might possibly contain in its bosom the charms of poetry and rhetoric, those two great sources of pleasure and persuasion, to which all other languages have owed their gradual advancement, and, in these improving times, their last polish and refinement.
Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s familiarity with the Greek and Latin classics, as well as with older Gaelic literature, and contemporary Lowland Scots and English poetry, is on display throughout his work. ‘Marbhrainn do Pheata Coluim’ (‘Elegy to his Pet, Colum’), echoes the famous poem by Catullus about the death of his lover’s pet sparrow (‘Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque…’). In ‘Guidhe no Ùrnaigh an Ùghdair don Cheòlraidh’ (‘The Author’s Petition or Prayer to the Muses’) the author invokes a rhetorical tradition which goes back to antiquity, as he claims that he is without the skill or training necessary to write his poetry and asks the Muses for their help:
Tha speuran mo chomais cumhang nas leòr
Ge farsaing mo mhiann,
Gu balla thogail air stèidh cho-mhòr
‘S clach-shnaighte d’ am dhìth;
Cainnt-shnasda d’am dhìth, ge stracte mo thoil
Tha mi falamh do sgil;
‘S nì gun susbaint ealain gun sgoil
Air suibseic mar mhil.
(The skies of my ability are narrow enough / though my desire is wide, / to build a wall on such a big foundation / I need a chiselled stone / I need a polished stone, though my will is torn / I am bereft of skill / unschooled art is a thing without substance / on a subject like honey)
Elsewhere, in ‘Moladh an Ùghdair don t-Seann Chànain Ghàidhlig’, Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair insists upon the ability of Gaelic to stand alongside more privileged languages in the European tradition such as Latin, Greek and French, deploying a degree of playful exaggeration as he makes his point:
Tha Laideann coimhliont,
Torrach, teann nas leòr,
Ach ‘s sgalag thràilleil
I don Ghàidhlig chòir.
San Athen mhòir
Bha ‘Ghreugais còrr ‘na tìm,
Ach b’ ion di h-òrdag
Chur fo h-òirchios grinn.
(Latin is perfect / fertile, and firm enough / but it is a slavish servant / compared to dear Gaelic. / In great Athens / Greek was outstanding in its time / but it had to put its thumb / under its neat golden girdle.)
Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair is a poet of exceptional range. His surviving corpus includes beautiful love poems, such as ‘Òran d’a Chèile Nuadh-Phòsda’ (‘A Song to his Newly Wedded Wife’), as well as political poems like ‘Òran a Rinneadh a’ Bhliadhna 1746′ (‘A Song Made in 1746’) in which the poet outlines his support for the Jacobite cause. His classically-influenced nature poems ‘Òran an t-Samhraidh’ (‘Song of the Summer’) and ‘Òran a’ Gheamhraidh’ (‘Song of the Winter’) have affinities with ‘The Seasons’ by James Thomson, while ‘Moladh Mòraig’ (‘In Praise of Morag’) contains a strain of bawdry and invective particular to Gaelic verse but which has embarrassed readers and editors from more puritanical generations. In this last work, Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair uses the theme and variation structure of Ceòl Mòr, the most elevated form of classical pipe music, to order his poem. He is at once antiquarian revivalist and formal innovator, a committed writer about the politics of his time and a poetic craftsman, interested in the development of poetic form.
Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s most extended and most famous work is ‘Birlinn Chlann Raghnail’ (‘The Galley of Clan Ranald’), which describes in vivid detail a journey by sea from the Hebrides to Ireland. This poem, which runs to over five hundred lines, is a virtuosic tour de force of descriptive narrative verse. It shows the extent of Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s command of Gaelic verse-forms, the remarkable richness of his vocabulary and his acquaintance with earlier Gaelic literature. The qualities on display here, together with the breadth and variety of his output, have led modern readers to see Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair as the greatest Gaelic poet of the eighteenth century and among the very best of all Gaelic poets.