Clan Donald Society Conference: The Legacy of the Lords of the Isles
William Gillies, University of Edinburgh
Given the deliberate and systematic destruction, in the troubled years following the forfeiture of the Lordship in 1493, of much of the physical heritage of the Lordship of the Isles, and the dismemberment of the territory which had previously been ruled and administered by the Lords of the Isles, their cultural legacy, a tradition of literacy and written literature, becomes especially important to the modern student. Without the testimony of the written word it would be hard to demonstrate the self-confident, widely connected, well-ordered culture which is tantalisingly hinted at by the architectural remains and monumental sculpture. This written record consists partly of the charters and acts of the Lords of the Isles, which have been well edited and annotated by Jean and R. W. Munro, and partly of the literary productions of their learned poets and historians, a small but significant portion of which have survived in manuscript form. Although the Red Book and the Black Book were written long after the disappearance of the Lordship, they are part of a literary tradition that began centuries earlier, and they contain material which was certainly composed and put into written form well within the period of the Lordship.
If we start by asking simply what the Red Book and the Black Book are, they are paper manuscripts written at the beginning of the eighteenth century by members of the aristocracy of Gaelic letters - the professional literati who served as poets and historians to the old Highland nobility. They were written in the Gaelic script and used a conservative form of the Gaelic language, a literary dialect which we call 'Classical Gaelic', and which was used as a lingua franca by the literati - and to a certain extent by their patrons - at a time when the vernacular Gaelic dialects of Ireland and Scotland were becoming ever more divergent. Neither manuscript is physically imposing, but both contain matter of unique interest and importance to Gaelic literature and to Clan Donald.
More specifically, the Red Book was compiled by Niall MacMhuirich, a member of the learned family that had provided generations of poets and chroniclers to the Clan Donald and Clanranald chiefs, and resided in South Uist. His hand is recognisable from a number of MSS he wrote, and his signature is visible on p. 311 of the MS. The Black Book was compiled by several hands, most importantly by Christopher Beaton, a member of another famous Gaelic learned family - one that had provided medical services to the Macleans and several other Gaelic ruling families, but which also included a number of members who joined other professions, including the Church and literature. Christopher may have been employed as a tutor, or similar, in a family of the Antrim branch of the Clan Donald. Although Christopher does not sign his name in the Black Book his handwriting is distinctive, and was positively identified by John Bannerman some years ago.
It is appropriate to add a word here about Gaelic manuscripts in general. The earliest surviving Gaelic writings are found in glosses and commentaries on Latin biblical and exegetical texts from the seventh and eighth century AD. There are strong indications that poetry and tales, laws and genealogies and other forms of Gaelic literature began to be written down at around those times, probably in a monastic context. No such Gaelic writings have survived directly from the heyday of the great illuminated Gospel Books of the pre-Viking era; but copies of all these categories of native literature can be found in MSS belonging to a later phase of creative, editorial and antiquarian activity in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. Literature collected in these MSS belongs to the Old and Middle Gaelic (or Irish) period.
While literary activity up to this point had been closely associated with the monasteries, which had also functioned as centres of artistic patronage with strong lay connections, Church reforms and the introduction of the Continental monastic orders in the Norman period led to a split between ecclesiastical and literary culture, and a system of laicised learned families sprang up, under the secular patronage of kings and lords rather than abbots and bishops. Bardic, medical and legal schools sprang up to cater for the new scholarly classes, which were marked by a strong sense of professional cohesiveness and united by their cultivation of Gaelic literacy. This system survived and enjoyed a mutually supportive, even symbiotic relationship with the aristocracy in Gaelic Ireland and Scotland until the Tudor and Stewart re-conquest of Ireland and the gradual decline of aristocratic patronage of Gaelic arts in Scotland, which took place mostly in the seventeenth century. The intervening period, from the twelfth to the seventeenth century, is known by scholars as the 'Classical' or Early Modern period of Gaelic literature and language.
The Gaelic learned poets, genealogists, lawyers and doctors were all dependent on writing and manuscripts in one way or another, though there was an oral dimension in all their professions. The manuscripts themselves were initially made of vellum, though paper came in to use from the sixteenth century and gradually took over from vellum as the preferred medium. Some MSS contained illustrations and decorated or illuminated characters for headwords and initial capitals, but many were thoroughly workaday in character. The manuscript hand was at all times a development from the Hiberno-Saxon minuscule hand seen in the 9th-century Book of Kells and in modern 'Celtic' alphabets. Despite some scribes' indulgence in the use of contractions, Gaelic MSS are in general very easy to read, since the Gaelic hand (known as corr-litir, or 'pointy letter') could be written quickly without recourse to cursive or long-hand versions.
In terms of bulk the great majority of Gaelic MSS were written, and still reside, in Ireland; but a healthy minority are of Scottish provenance or domicile. Some (e.g. literary or devotional) were held by the aristocratic patrons, others (including medical and legal MSS) by the professionals themselves. Many were lost in the general destruction of native Gaelic society in Ireland and in its decline in Scotland; but some of the more prestigious MSS excited the interest of English bibliophiles, and found their way from such collectors' libraries into the British Museum, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, or the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. Others were taken overseas by Gaelic emigrants at the same difficult time, which explains the presence of Gaelic MS collections in such centres of learning as Copenhagen, Brussels or Paris. From the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century on there was increased appreciation for such matters in Ireland, which led to the building up of the collections of the Royal Irish Academy and, more recently, the National Library of Ireland. In Scotland, the Ossianic controversy created a sudden surge of interest in Gaelic MSS and Gaelic literature from the 1760s on. Out of this interest came the scholarly work of collecting and studying Gaelic MSS, the main repository for which nowadays is the National Library of Scotland.
Within this framework, the history of the Red Book or Leabhar Dearg (hereafter RB) and the Black Book or Leabhar Dubh (hereafter BB) was fairly typical. RB was one of the MSS procured by James 'Ossian' MacPherson when he toured the Highlands in 1760 searching for MS sources for Gaelic poetry to vindicate his claims as to the authenticity of his Ossianic poems in the face of those who, like Dr Samuel Johnson, claimed that the poems were bogus because no Gaelic 'originals' could be produced. When MacPherson's party reached South Uist they called on Clanranald, who sent him to meet his bard, another Niall MacMhuirich who was actually the grandson of the author of the Red Book. According to South Uist folklore, the Book was handed over as a loan, and the family's fortunes started to ebb when their Book was not returned. At all events, the MSS collected by MacPherson were famously deposited with his publishers in London to be inspected by doubters like Dr Johnson. There RB remained until MacPherson's death, when it was passed to the Highland Society of Scotland's committee of enquiry into the authenticity of Ossian. There may have been some sense that the Red Book was indeed on loan, because it was eventually returned to Clanranald.
The early history of BB is less clear. Having been separated at an unknown date from its presumed original locus in Antrim, it surfaced in a Dublin bookstall around 1840, where it was identified and bought by the Scottish historian William Forbes Skene. In 1892, shortly before his death, Skene, knowing that the RB was in Clanranald's possession, sent him BB, presumably believing that the two belonged together. Both were given to the nation in 1944 by the then Clanranald, Angus Roderick, along with a collection of Jacobite memorabilia. That is why RB and BB are in the custody of the Royal Museum of Scotland and not in the National Library of Scotland.
As to their names, the 'Red Book' is really a misnomer. Gaelic tradition in South Uist associated a 'Red Book of MacMhuirich' with the famous poetic family, and people have assumed that the surviving MS was the 'Red Book' because some of its contents sound a bit like the reputed contents of the 'Red Book' of tradition. But it is not red, nor is it as grand as the title suggests. Its central text, the Clanranald History, contains evidence for copying from another, perhaps more imposing MS; and this may have been the 'real' Red Book; but the whole idea of a 'Red Book of Clanranald' may be a fiction. The 'Black Book' has no better authority: it seems to have got its name partly to distinguish it from the 'Red Book', and partly because it has a black cover and contains Clanranald material (amongst much else). I shall, however, continue to call them by their traditional names: the Red Book and the Black Book of Clanranald.
Both RB and BB contain versions of the famous Clanranald History, of which more in a moment. There is a direct relationship between RB's and BB's version, inasmuch as we can see Christopher Beaton's distinctive hand correcting Niall MacMhuirich's text in a couple of places (e.g. at RB, p. 179). Clearly, Niall's text is the 'original', and Christopher was making a copy of it for his own use. It is important to establish this fact, because the two texts differ in other ways, and the textual evidence permits us to say with certainty that Christopher was making the omissions and additions, and not the other way round. Unfortunately, that fact was not recognised by the editors of the text presented in Reliquiae Celticae, which is one of the reasons why a new edition of the Clanranald History is a desideratum. My forthcoming edition attempts to fill the gap, presenting the History as Niall gave it to us in RB.
When talking about Gaelic MSS it is useful to make a distinction between those made for the use of the patrons, i.e. the chiefs and their families, and those made for the literati themselves, i.e. the poets, historians, medics, lawyers, genealogists and so on. An example of the former sort is the duanaire or 'poem-book', which I like to characterise as the verbal equivalent of the family portraits adorning the main stair or public rooms in a Scottish 'big house'. One of the duties of the professional poet would have been to collect the eulogies and elegies which commemorated the major life events and the deaths of the chiefs and their immediate family - including the poet's own compositions - and put them into the <em>duanaire</em>. A number of these poem-books survive, mostly from Gaelic Ireland. Distinct from these are the 'professional' sort of manuscript, which were kept for their own use by the literati. There could be overlaps in content, of course; but this sort of MS can be much more miscellaneous in content, reflecting the variety of professional and informal literary activities which their owners engaged in.
Although the Clanranald History as we have it (in BB only, since the first pages of RB are lost) lacks a formal preamble giving its author's purpose and intended audience, it was obviously of prime interest to members of the Clanranald family. Nevertheless, its present setting, in RB and BB, is less public. Both MSS contain a great deal of material in addition to the History, though the History is the largest and most central item in RB at least. I have suggested elsewhere that it looks as though the History as we have it is a working version, in a dynamic state. At all events, the Books of Clanranald as we have them must both be placed amongst the 'professional' rather than the 'official' class of manuscripts. As such, however, they provide a wonderful window into the life and work of the Classical poet-historians, and of the scholastic literary culture in the Highlands before the demise of patronage of the Gaelic arts. In a sense, the most surprising thing is that this culture survived so late in these branches of the Clan Donald.
RB is now, as I say, acephalous. However, we can work out from the pagination and size of script that it must have begun with the Clanranald History (CRH) pretty much as we find it in BB. CRH is to be taken - or so I argue in my forthcoming edition - as an innovative synthesis of a number of types of pre-existing source material and literary genres. The most important of these sources were (1) the genealogically motivated mythical pre-history of the Gaels, as taught by the bardic poets and used in their verse; (2) annalistically based chronicles of the Lordship of the Isles; (3) similarly based materials for the history of Clanranald; (4) bardic poems about members of the family, and (4) oral accounts of seventeenth-century happenings, notably the Highland campaigns of Montrose and Alasdair mac Colla Ciotaich ('Alexander son of Colkitto'). Part of the innovative side of Niall's CRH was the inter-weaving of poetry and prose. Interestingly, Christopher excised the poems; but I have argued that they can be seen as integral to Niall's 'project', and need to be read as validating the prose narrative. In addition to CRH, RB has sections containing historical and genealogical material that could have been included in CRH but was not so included. I have taken these additional items as indicative of (1) the dynamic or inchoate nature of the text as we have it, and (2) the categories of source material used by Niall in compiling CRH. There are questions as to whether some parts of the History were already created before Niall got to work; but his creative input to all sections can be taken as read. Then there is Classical poetry composed by Niall and other bardic poets, of which two sorts deserve special mention here (1) courtly love poems, a genre that blended the conventions of European amour courtois with those of Gaelic praise-poetry; and (2) poetry belonging to the genre called iomarbhágh or 'poetic disputation', a type of poetry which seems to have blossomed towards the end of the Classical period, in which a number of poets engage in learned controversy over such matters as genealogical claims, as a means of keeping their literary, linguistic and metrical skills honed at a time when bardic schools were being disbanded. There are also a number of pages which Niall left blank in RB, into which a later hand added further bardic poems, including poetry composed by Niall himself. It has been suggested by Ronald Black that this hand belonged to Niall's son Lachlann. BB is much more miscellaneous in character. It contains Irish poetry of various sorts, historical notes and accounts in English, and what I have called 'a variety of geographical, computistic and calendrical lore and learning'. At least two other scribes have contributed significant amounts of writing to the MS. The CRH falls in a section all copied by Christopher Beaton and marked off by him as distinct by means of ink lines drawn round the margins of each page to create a 'box' for the text. In addition to CRH this section contains some further material copied from RB, plus some that may have been contained in a lost section at the end of RB. When studied in conjunction with RB, BB is revealing in regard to the relationship between Niall and Christopher: Christopher copies with great accuracy, on the whole; but one can occasionally see him becoming exasperated by the chattiness that sometimes creeps into Niall's narrative, or substituting material with a more southerly interest where Niall's Clanranald base has led him to give a more northerly orientation to his picture. His attitude to Niall's text consequently ranges between reverential and familiar. His decision to eliminate Niall's poetical interludes, for instance, was a serious intervention; conceivably, he felt they were an inappropriate experiment.
We may turn finally to the evidence our manuscripts contribute to the theme of the present conference: the 'legacy' of the Lordship of the Isles. When the Sleat Shennachie, describing the seating of the magnates of the Isles at Donald Ballach's banquet at Aros, tells how the physician Beaton and the poet MacMhuirich were asked to take their seats before Maclean, MacLeod, MacNeill and all the other assembled chiefs, we capture a glimpse of the prestige accorded to the learned poet (archipoeta in the 1485 charter of Alexander, son of John of the Isles) in earlier times. The 17th-century vernacular poetry of the Blind Harper and Mary MacLeod gives us a poignant reminder of what it felt like to be present in a traditionally bountiful centre like Dunvegan at the time when a new chief was espousing new sorts of culture and entertainment, and turning his back on old customs and preferences. The free or subsidised living which Mac Mhic Ailein was continuing to offer his 'Chronologer and Poet Laureat' right down to the 'Forty-five and beyond was pretty exceptional.
The surviving MSS written or owned by the MacMhuirichs and the poetic compositions attributed to them, scattered between Scottish and Irish libraries, are the visible remnant of the literary activities that they supplied in return for that free living and honoured position during the Classical period. The earliest surviving MacMhuirich MSS are those associated with Cathal MacMhuirich, who flourished in the first half of the seventeenth century. But we cannot doubt that there were earlier such manuscripts, now lost. In the same way that the early sixteenth-century Book of the Dean of Lismore contains both contemporary compositions by Eoin MacMhuirich and poems ascribed to the much earlier figure of Muireadhach Ó Dálaigh, the eponymous ancestor of the MacMhuirichs, so RB contains verse composed by recent MacMhuirich bards, including our Niall himself, but also material composed much earlier for the fifteenth-century John, Lord of the Isles.
There is also an indirect aspect of the legacy. The Lordship of the Isles sections of the CRH clearly preserve echoes of chronicles or annals composed during the period of the Lordship. Although there are unanswered questions about the compilation and transmission of such sources, I have suggested that they were most likely kept in a monastic setting at Iona. If that is correct, we have testimony to another humane side of the activities of the Lords of the Isles, namely their patronage of the Church, and also evidence for the cultivation of Gaelic literacy therein.
In conclusion, I have remarked that RB and BB are physically unimposing. They are actually pocket-sized, and lack illumination or decoration. There are strong suggestions that both were the work-books of working men. But by that very token they capture both the creative and the transmissional aspects of the life of the Gaelic literati, and similarly both the inter-poet and the poet-patron dimensions of their existence. As such they deserve an honoured place in the Clan Donald heritage and in the history of Gaelic Scotland in the late Middle Ages.
WG August 2006
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This article was published on Jul 6, 2015