Dun horse of the Gael: “Finlay, the Red Bard, it was He said this” prefaces the poem in W.J. Watson’s Scottish Verse from the Book of the Dean of Lismore (1937). Finlay MacNab was the poet’s name, as we would write it, or Fionnlagh an Bard Ruadh in the Gaelic. Watson says of the poem:
This spirited poem extols the steed of John, chief of Clan Gregor [d. 1519]. It is worth noting that, when the poet describes the horse’s speed, the rhythm is like the flight of a swallow, a fine imitation of fluent undulating motion. The metre is a loose form…in which the lines are not grouped in quatrains. (286)
In the absence of regular form, Watson translates the poem as prose. In The Dean of Lismore’s Book (1862) Thomas M’Lauchlan’s translation begins:
Gael-like is every leap of the dun horse,
A Gael she is in truth,
It is she who conquers and wins
In all that I’ll now sing. (112)
From a later line I sampled “Just like the wheeling mountain winds” as an image of loss in “Proscribe;” and deep into “Hairst,” in the midst of prosecutions for mulatto bastardy, I linked that inheritance to the one I was raised on, reminding myself, in M’Lauchlan’s words, that Finlay, the red-haired bard, said this.
MacNab’s title, bard, identifies him as a poet of the second order, lacking the rigorous twelve-year training of the highest poets, the filidh (singular: file). In the classical Irish tradition, that training was open only to young men from professional poetic families. In the introduction to Duanaire na Sracaire/Songbook of the Pillagers: Anthology of Medieval Gaelic Poetry, Wilson McLeod and Meg Bateman put it thus:
This training, in language, metrics, syntax, genealogy and history, was rigorous and meticulous, and famously required students to compose their works while lying in the dark, and only commit them to writing upon completion. (xxxv)
Bards, though not of such elite pedigree,
played a key political and social role in Gaelic society, offering advice and criticism on political matters with an immense professional self-confidence secured by their elevated status (xxxv).
That status was conferred by the patronage of aristocratic patrons, for whom bards composed panegyrics on important occasions, satires, mock-elegies for enemies, and a wide range of other poems, including religious. They were particularly known for verbal duels with each other, in which no insult was too extreme, so long as it was composed and delivered with panache–a spectacle known in Scots culture as flyting. Of Finlay MacNab’s four surviving poems, three are panegyrics for Ian Dubh MacGregor/Eòin Dubh MacGriogair (“John MacGregor” as Watson gives it) who in 1506 hosted James IV and his hunting party at Beinn Dòrain, and who was, undoubtedly, Finlay MacNab’s patron: “Prince of the house to poets free.” (M’Lauchlan 114).
From close study of the Book of the Dean of Lismore and its cultural milieu, historian Martin MacGregor argues that in 16th c. Scotland language, orthography, poetic form, and literary culture were all more fluid and hybridized than is suggested by the classical binary of file vs. bard. Even a poet of secondary rank, like Finlay the Red-Haired Bard, might have traveled to Ireland to study or to perform. In “Creation and Compilation: The Book of the Dean of Lismore and Literary Culture in Late Medieval Gaelic Scotland,” MacGregor writes:
The artistic world revealed by the Book is much more fluid and experimental, much less prescriptive and deferential, than we might have expected. It suggests that the ability to compose and appreciate Classical verse was geographically widespread… Equally, it suggests that the definition of Classical verse needs to be broadened and blurred so as to embrace or acknowledge poetry that bore varying degrees and kinds of Classical influence without observing Classical standards. Here, the Book points in the direction of what has been dubbed ‘semi-bardic’ verse, a genre clearly well established by the sixteenth century and doubtless originating earlier. This is typified by the marriage of vernacular language with Classical metre. The departures from Classical poetic norms in the Book could reflect limited technical competence, or full competence capable of expressing itself at various levels of purity… This raises further important, currently unanswerable questions about the means by which training in, or knowledge of, Classical poetry was disseminated in Scotland. One hypothesis might start–from the fact that the premier exponents of this literature were apparently all lineages of Irish origin which settled in the west–to argue for a western Gàidhealtachd which was more culturally orthodox, along Irish lines, in contrast to the rest of Gaelic Scotland which was not. Yet the compilers of the Book had no difficulty in accessing a considerable amount of poetry from Ireland, while a poet from outwith the west like Fionnlagh an Bard Ruadh may have travelled to Ireland and been familiar with the courts of Irish secular lords.
In “The View from Fortingall: The Worlds of the Book of the Dean of Lismore,” MacGregor also helps us to recall that though today Fortingall is a mere village, far off the beaten track, in the time of the Dean’s Book it stood “on one of the two major communicative arteries running across Druim Alban, close to the point where they converge before following the [River] Tay into the heart of Atholl, crossing the Highland Boundary Fault at Dunkeld. Centuries earlier, these had been the conduits by which the influence of Iona had reached eastern Scotland” (37)
“The View from Fortingall” (page 70) is also where you can read about James IV’s 1506 hunting party at Beinn Dòrain.
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I shopped widely in the Dean of Lismore’s Book for lines I could recontextualize. Here are a few of them.
From another of Finlay MacNab‘s paean’s to Ian Dubh, I gleaned from both M’Lauchlan and Watson. Here the bard seems as ready to malign the strolling poets as he is to make use of their poems. In Watson’s translation, the poem begins
As to the Song-book of the Pillagers, should you be pleased to write it, I myself have got from the packman somewhat that may go to fill it.
Though many are the evil men who are set on spoiling the folk, not one thing in the world is got from them in return for it.
It is a custom of the strollers, though they should have but a mile to go, that they will not reach until nightfall the house which they make their tryst.
And a few verses later, in M’Lauchlan:
I won’t their genealogy tell,
Of their history nothing I know,
But that they are out at evening
Followed close by their hounds.
Dougall Mac Gille glas is thought to have been not only one of Ian Dubh’s kept poets, but also one of his kinsmen, and his lines of praise pepper the text of Trafficke. From a poem that begins, in M’Lauchlan’s translation, Bold as a prince is John in each gathering I gathered:
White-toothed falcon of the three glens
. . .
Wrath in battle’s hour awaked
. . .
Clan Gregor who show no fear,
Even when with the king they strive
. . .
Prince of the host of generous men,
To Gregor of the golden bridles, heir,
Pity the men whom you may spoil,
Worse for them who you pursue.
. . .
No wonder though bards should fill thy court
All the bards are careful to praise both Ian Dubh and his wife, Elizabeth of Glen Lyon, as generous patrons of poets.
These lines by Gilchrist Taylor (his forename means Servant of Christ) are taken from a poem that reads like an allegory and has been interpreted by some as concerning the capture of the murderers of James I. Watson disagrees, and argues that the poem should be read in context with an Act of the Parliament of Scotland in March 1427/28, in the reign of James I, urging all to serch and seik the quhelppis of the wolfis and ger sla thaim, that is, to search and seek the whelps of the wolves and slay them. Different sources place the death of the last wolf in Scotland in various years ranging from 1697 to 1743. As M’Lauchlan has it:
Though many be the skins of wolves,
Covering our harps, both small and great,
The cold and empty skulls are many,
Given us by these fierce hounds.
. . .
Pleasing to witness hounds pursue
While by Watson the lines are rendered:
Though we have many a wild dog’s skin as cover of harp and of lyre, not fewer are the skulls, cold and empty, that we have of that wild and evil brood.
Father of Christ, send snow along from Lochaber to Renfrew; let there be ashes in Connel from their bony bodies; to speak ill of them is meet.
. . .
I see no pole that lacks a head
In either reading the lines are apt. The rhetoric of human beast and glory in a marvelous hunt appear in bands and proclamations about the MacGregors–who were, specifically, termed the Sons of the Wolf– about Native Americans, and about rebellious slaves. The practice of displaying the heads of victims pour encourager les autres persisted in this country through 19th c. slave revolts and 20th c. lynchings. In 2014, the policeman who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, said that when Brown came toward him he looked “like a beast.” To make change, one of our primary tasks is to revise our imaginations.
Read a history of the wolf in Scotland on the Wolves & Humans Trust site.
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From Barbour & the Scottish Chaucerians: more fragments to scatter–
John Barbour (1320?-1395): The Bruce, the earliest surviving long poem in Scots, narrates events just sixty years before its composition, combining events of Robert Bruce’s life with more conventional chivalric elements. It is particularly significant, though, in its treatment of ordinary people and the new concepts of individual freedom and patriotic loyalty to one’s country, independent of personal loyalty to an individual king. See How Hairst 4-5 Was Built for sampling from this poem + two others about freedom.
A! fredome is a noble thing,
Freedome mays man to haiff liking, [makes; choice
Fredome all solace to man giffis,
He levys at es that frely levys. [lives; ease
A noble hart mayhaiff nane es
Na ellys nocht that may him ples
Gyff fredome failye, for fre liking [fail; free choice
Is yharnyt our all other thing. [yearned for over
Na he that ay has levy fre [Nor; always
May nocht knaw weill the propyrte
The agngyr na the wrechyt dome [affliction; fate
Tha is couplyt to foule thyrldome, [thralldome
Bot gyff he had assayit it. [unless; tried
That all perquer he suld it wyt [by heart; know
And suld think fredome mar to prys [more to praise
Tha all the gold in warld that is.
from The Bruce (~1375)
William Dunbar (1460?-1520?) may have been a Franciscan novice before he came to the court of James IV, in Scotland’s golden age, before the disaster at Flodden. Those for whom Renaissance Scots is a fluid tongue describe him as “the most gifted poetical craftsman Scotland has ever produced.” (Crawford & Imlah, xviii) What makes his poems memorable, however, is not the sheen of skill alone, but a rough, dark lining of emotion and black humor. His surviving poems include the occasional pieces required of a court poet, but his reputation rests on religious poems, on a great dream allegory “The Dance of the Seven Deidly Synnis,” and on satire. His flyting with Walter Kennedy is the first appearance in Scots of the Gaelic tradition of a verbal duel between two poets, a mock-serious genre that today is more likely to occur in prose. (For example, Hamish Henderson’s exchange of letters with Hugh MacDiarmid, in defense of traditional culture as an inexhaustible source for 20th c. poets.) The Dunbar poem best known to readers in English is “Lament for the Makaris,” his great meditation on death, with its catalog of poets who have gone before him. I have sampled the famous first line, among others–
I that in heill wes and gladnes [I that in health was and gladness
Am trublit now with gret seiknes
And feblit with infermite:
Timor mortis conturbat me. [The fear of death unsettles me
Our plesance heir is all vane glory [joy, pleasure
This fals warld is bot transitory,
The flesch is brukle, the Fend is sle [fragile; sly, cunning
Timor mortis conturbat me.
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King James I: Written in the 1490s but scarcely known until its publication in 1783, The Kingis Quair (The King’s Book) is traditionally attributed to James I, who spent eighteen years of his boyhood and youth as a prisoner of the English. Parts of the book are clearly imitations, but its melancholy voice and fresh expression are considered to be the earliest example of lyric feeling in Scots.
Quhare as in ward full oft I wold bewaille
My dedely lyf, fuyll of peyne and penance,
Saing ryght thus, quhat have I gilt to faile [done wrong; lose
My fredome in this warld and my plesance? [happiness
Sen every wight has thereof suffisance,
That I behold, and I a creature
Put from all this–hard is myn aventure!
And from which I also gleaned his metir swete, and graithed, and and furthwhithal my pen I tuke, and this line–
For quhich thogh I in purpose at my boke…
into which I was forced to insert an apocyrphal o, because for the Scots and Irish boke has other meanings now…
* * * *
King James VI–
For gif Nature be nocht the cheif worker in this airt, Reulis wilbe bot a band to Nature, and will mak yow within short space weary of the haill airt…
Ane Schort Tretise Coneining Some Reulis and Cautelis to be Observit and Eschewit in Scottis Poesie, 1584
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Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck (1775-1822) (son of James Boswell): from his “Clan Alpin’s Vow,” on the murder of John Drummond of Drummondearnoch, I gleaned a few bits–
Barter the chase and mountain joy
…parchment rights and dangling wax
* * * *
And a few of the southern poets–
…the light accent is depressed or snatched up, and maketh that sillable short upon the which it lighteth;
…and that were cleane contrarie to the common use…
…that euen in this playne foote of two syllables you wreste no woorde from his natural and usual sounde
George Gascoigne: Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Rhyme in English (1575)
* * * *
I like your late English Hexameters so exceedingly well that I also enure my Penne sometime in that kind: whyche I fynd indeede, as I haue heard you fo often defende in worde, neither so harde, nor so harshe, that it will easily and fairely yeelde it self to our Moother tongue… and Heauen, beeing used shorte as one sillable, when it is in Verse stretched out with a Diastole [i.e., in Ltin and Green poetry, the lengthening of a syllale naturally sorte], is like a lame Dogge that holdes up one legge. But it is to be wonne with Custome, and rough words must be subdued with Use. For why, a Gods name, may not we, or else the Greekes,haue the kindome of oure owne Language…?
Edmund Spenser to Gabriel Harvey, April 1580
* * * *
Is there no other Pollicie to pull downe Rhyming and set upp Versifying but you must needes correct Magnificat: and againste all order of Lawe, and in despite of Custome forcibly usurpe and tyrannize uppon a quiet company of wordes that so farre beyonde the memorie of man haue so peacably enjoyed their seueral Priuiledges and Liberties, without any disturbance or the leaste constrolement?
Gabriel Harvey to Edmund Spenser, 1580
* * * *
That Caesura, or breathing place in the middest of the verse, neither Italians nor Spanish haue, the French, and we, almost neuer fayle of.
Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, 1583
* * * *
There be three speciall notes necessary to be obserued in the framing of our accustomed English Rhyme. The first is, that one meeter or verse be anuerable to an other, in equal number of feete or syllables, or proportionable to the tune whereby it is to be reade or measured. The second, to place the words in such sorte as none of them be wrested contrary to the naturall inclination…of the same… The thyrd, to make fall together mutually in Rhyme… The natural course of most English verses seemeth to run uppon the olde Iambicke stroake… Again, though our wordes can not well bee forced to abyde the touch of Position and other rules of Prosodia, yet is there such a natruall force or quantitiy in eche worde, that it will not abide any place but one, without some foule disgrace…
* * * *
William Webbe, A Discourse of English Poetrie, Together with the Authors iudgment, touching the reformation of our English Verse, 1586
* * * *
Then as there was no art in the world till by experience found out: so if Poesie be now an Art, and of al antiquitie hath bene among the Greeks and Latines, and yet were none, untill by studious persons fashioned and reduced into a method…And if th’art of Poesie be but a skill appertaining to utterance, why may not the fame be with us aswel as with them, our language being no lesse copious, pithie and significatiue then theirs, our conceipts the same, and our wits no less…
…we haue in stead thereof twenty other curious points…Poesie therefore may be an ARt in our vulgar [tongue], and that verie methodicall and commendable…
George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, 1589
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For sources referenced here, you can find FULL CITATIONS in the bibliographies under the SOURCES tab. Many can be found on line.