Fragments Of Erse Poetry
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
Fragments of Erse Poetry (Ossian) collected in the Highlands.
Two Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gallic or Erse language.
Autumn is dark on the mountains; grey mist rests on the hills. The whirlwind is heard on the heath. Dark rolls the river through the narrow plain. A tree stands alone on the hill, and marks the grave of Connal. The leaves whirl round with the wind, and strew the grave of the dead. At times are seen here the ghosts of the deceased, when the musing hunter alone stalks slowly over the heath.
Who can reach the source of thy race, O Connal? and who recount thy fathers ? Thy family grew like an oak on the mountain, which meeteth the wind with its lofty head. Who shall supply the place of Connal ?
Here was the din of arms ; and here the groans of the dying. Mournful are the wars of Fingal ! O Connal !—it was here thou didst fall. Thine arm was like a storm ; thy sword, a beam of the sky; thy height, a rock on the plain; thine eyes, a furnace of fire. Louder than a storm was thy voice, when thou confoundedst the field. Wazriors fell by the sword, as the thistle by the staff of a boy.
Dargo the mighty came on like a cloud of thunder. His brows were contracted and dark. His eyes like two caves in a rock. Bright rose their swords on each side ; dire was the clang of their steel.
The daughter of Rinval was near ; Crimora, bright in the armour of man ; her hair loose behind, her bow in her hand. She followed the youth to the war, Connal her much beloved. She drew the string on Dargo ; but erring, pierced her Connal. He falls like an oak on the plain—like a rock from the shaggy hill. What shall she do, hapless maid ! — he bleeds ; her Connal dies. All the night long she cries, and all the day, O Connal, my love, and my friend ! With grief the sad mourner died.
Earth here encloseth the loveliest pair on the hill. The grass grows beneath the stones of their tomb ; I sit in the mournful shade. The wind sighs through the grass ; and their memory rushes on my mind. Undisturbed you now sleep together; in the tomb of the. mountain you rest alone.
II. RYNO, ALPIN
Ryno.—The wind and the rain are over : calm is the noon of day. The clouds are divided in heaven. Over the green hills flies the inconstant sun. Red through the stony vale comes down the stream of the hill. Sweet are thy murmurs, O stream ! but more sweet is the voice I hear. It is the voice of Alpin, the son of the song, mourning for the dead. Bent is his head of age, and red his tearful eye. Alpin, thou son of the song, why alone on the silent hill ? Why complainest thou, as a blast in the wood—as a wave on the lonely shore ?
Alpin.—My tears, O Ryno ! are for the dead ; my voice for the inhabitants of the grave Tall thou art on the hill : fair among the sons of the plain. But thou shalt fall like Morar ; and the mourner shall sit on the tomb. The hills shall know thee no more ; thy bow shall lie in the hall unstrung.
Thou wert swift, O Morar ! as a roe on the hill ; terrible as a meteor of fire. Thy wrath was as the storm of December. Thy sword in battle, as lightning in the field. Thy voice was like a stream after rain ; like thunder on distant hills. Many fell by thy arm ; they were consumed in the flames of thy wrath.
But when thou returnedst from war, how peaceful was thy brow ! Thy face was like the sun after rain ; like the moon in the silence of night ; calm as the breast of the lake when the loud wind is laid.
Narrow is thy dwelling now; dark the place of thine abode. With three steps I compass thy grave, O thou who wast so great before! Four stones, with their heads of moss, are the only memorial of thee. A tree, with scarce a leaf, long grass which whistles in the wind, mark to the hunter's eye the grave of the mighty Morar. Morar ! thou art low indeed. Thou hast no mother to mourn thee; no maid with her tears of love. Dead is she that brought thee forth. Fallen is the daughter of Morglan.
Who on his staff is this ? Who is this whose head is white with age, whose eyes are red with tears, who quakes at every step ? It is thy father, O Morar ! the father of none but thee. He heard of thy fame in battle ; he heard of foes dispersed. He heard of Morar's fame ; why did he not hear of his wound? Weep, thou father of Morar ! weep, but thy son heareth thee not. Deep is the sleep of the dead ; low their pillow of dust. No more shall he hear thy voice; no more shall he awake at thy call. When shall it be morn in the grave, to bid the slumberer awake?
Farewell, thou bravest of men ! thou conqueror in the field : but the field shall see thee no more ; nor the dark wood be lightened with the splendour of thy steel. Thou hast left no son. But the song shall preserve the name. Future times shall hear of thee; they shall hear of the fallen Morar.
> Since two pieces, called Translated Fragments of Erse Poetry, were published in our Magazine [see Note 26], a small collection of pieces of the same kind has appeared, printed at Edinburgh and reprinted in London ; they are in general well imagined, and the images are natural and striking though few, suiting well with and early age and a barbarous nation, whose language is necessarily figurative, because it is not copious. As the original Erse is intended to be printed, with some future edition of them, it will irrefragably prove their authenticity, which might otherwise be reasonably doubted.
The following are inserted as a further specimen for the gratification of the reader's curiosity :
Son of the noble Fingal, Oscian, prince of men! what tears run down the cheeks of age ?—what shades thy mighty soul ?
Memory, son of Alpin—memory wounds the aged. Of former times are my thoughts ; my thoughts are of the noble Fingal. The race of the king returns into my mind, and wounds me with remembrance.
One day, returned from the sport of the mountains, from pursuing the sons of the hill, we covered this heath with our youth._ Fingal the mighty was here, and Oscur, my son, great in war. Fair on our sight from the sea, at once, a virgin came. Her breast was like the snow of one night ; her cheek like the bud of the rose. Mild was her blue rolling eye : but sorrow was big in her heart.
Fingal renown'd in war ! she cries, sons of the king, preserve me! Speak secure, replies the king : daughter of beauty, speak ; our ear is open to all ; our swords redress the injured. I fly from Ullin, she cries, from Ullin famous in war. I fly from the embrace of him who would debase my blood. Cremor, the friend of men, was my father —Cremor, the prince of Inverne.
Fingal's younger sons arose : Carryl, expert in the bow ; Fillan, beloved of the fair; and Fergus, first in the race.—Who from the farthest Lochlyn ?—who to the seas of Molochasquir ? Who dares hurt the maid whom the sons of Fingal guard? Daughter of beauty, rest secure—rest in peace, thou fairest of women.
Far in the blue distance of the deep, some spot appeared like the back of the ridge wave. But soon the ship increased on our sight. The hand of Ullin drew her to land. The mountains trembled as-he moved : the hills shook at his steps. Dire rattled his armour around him. Death and destruction were in his eyes. His stature,. like the roe of Morven. He moved in the lightning of steel.
Our warriors fell before him, like the_ field before the reapers.
Fingal's three sons he bound. He plunged his sword into the fair one's breast. She fell as a wreath of snow before the sun in spring. Her bosom heaved in death ; her soul came forth in blood.
Oscur my son came down : the mighty in battle descended. His armour rattled as thunder ; and the lightning of his eyes was terrible. There, was the clashing of swords; there, was the voice of steel. They struck, and they thrust : they digged for death with their swords. But death was distant far, and delayed to come. The sun began to decline; and the cowherd thought of home. Then Oscur's keen steel found the heart of Ullin. He fell like a mountain-oak covered over with glistering frost : he shone like a rock on the plain.—Here the daughter of beauty lieth ; and here the bravest of men. Here one day ended the fair and the valiant. Here rest the pursuer and the pursued.
Son of Alpin ! the woes of the aged are many ; their tears are for the past. This raised my sorrow, warrior ! memory awaked my grief. Oscur my son was brave ; but Oscur is now no more. Thou hast heard my grief, O son of Alpin ; forgive the tears of the aged.
Why openest thou afresh the spring of my grief, O son of Alpin, inquiring how 0scur fell ? My eyes are blind with tears ; but memory beams on my heart. How can I relate the mournful death of the head of the people ! prince of the warriors, Oscur my son, shall I see thee no more !
He fell as the moon in a storm ; as the sun from the midst of his course, when clouds rise from the waste of the waves, when the blackness of the storm inwraps the rocks of Ardannider. I, like an ancient oak on Morven, I moulder alone in my place. The blast hath lopped my branches away ; and I tremble at the wings of the north. Prince of the warriors, Oscur my son ! shall I see thee no more !
Dermid and Oscur were one : They reaped the battle together. Their friendship was strong as their steel ; and death walked between them to the field. They came on the foe like two rocks falling from the brows of Ardven. Their swords were stained with the blood of the valiant ; warriors fainted at their names. Who was a match for Oscur, but Dermid? and who for Dermid, but Oscur?
They killed mighty Dargo in the field—Dargo before invincible. His daughter was fair as the morn ; mild as the beam of night. Her eyes, like two stars in a shower; her breath, the gale of spring; her breasts, as the new fallen snow floating on the moving heath. The warriors saw her, and loved ; their souls were fixed on the maid. Each loved her, as his fame ; each must possess her or die. But her soul was fixed on Oscur ; my son was the youth of her love. She forgot the blood of her father ; and loved the hand that slew him.
Son of Oscian, said Dermid, I love ; O Oscur, I love this maid. But her soul cleaveth unto thee; and nothing can heal Dermid. Here, pierce this bosom, Oscur ; relieve me, my friend, with thy sword.
My sword, son of Morny, shall never be stained with the blood of Dermid.
Who then is worthy to slay me, O Oscur son of Oscian ? Let not my life pass away unknown. Let none but Oscur slay me. Send me with honour to the grave, and let my death be renowned.
Dermid, make use of thy sword ; son of Morny, wield thy steel. Would that I fell with thee ! that my death came from the hand of Dermid !
They fought by the brook of the mountain ; by the streams of Branno. Blood tinged the silvery stream, and curdled round the mossy stones. Dermid the graceful fell—fell, and smiled in death.
And fallest thou, son of Morny ; fallest thou by Oscur's hand ! Dermid, invincible in war, thus do I see thee fall !—He went, and returned to the maid whom he loved ; returned, but she perceived his grief.
Why that gloom, son of Oscian? what shades thy mighty soul?
Though once renowned for the bow, O maid, I have lost my fame. Fixed on a tree by the brook of the hill, is the shield of Gormur the brave, whom in battle I slew. I have wasted the day in vain, nor could my arrow pierce it.
Let me try, son of Oscian, the skill of Dargo's daughter. My hands were taught the bow : my father delighted in my skill.
She went. He stood behind the shield. Her arrow flew and pierced his breast.
Blessed be that hand of snow ; and blessed thy bow of yew ! I fall resolved on death : and who but the daughter of Dargo was worthy to slay me ? Lay me in the earth, my fair one ; lay me by the side of Dermid.
Oscur ! I have the blood, the soul of the mighty Dargo. Well pleased I can meet death. My sorrow I can end thus.—She pierced her white bosom with steel. She fell ; she trembled—and died.
By the brook of the hill their graves are laid ; a birch's unequal shade covers their tomb. Often on their green earthen tombs the branchy sons of the mountain feed, when mid-day is all in flames, and silence is over all the hills.
As many doubts have been started concerning the Erse odes printed in your magazine, p. 287, be pleased to assure the public that their originality and authenticity may be fully proved ; that the piper of the Argyleshire Militia can repeat all those that are translated and published, and many more ; and that several other persons can do the same in the Highlands, where they are traditionally remembered.
The controversy about Ossian having been lately revived, both in the newspapers and separate pamphlets as well as in your magazine, not without the intervention of several respectable names, I take the liberty of troubling you with some facts relative to it, which I obtained in an excursion of some months through the Highlands in the summer of the year 1780. I should scarcely have thought them worthy of the public attention if the subject had not been revived with so much ardour ; though they seem to me capable of affording much additional and even new light. If your opinion of them agrees with mine, I shall be happy to see them inserted among your valuable collections.
It had ever appeared to me that the arguments on both sides of this dispute were attended with particular obscurity. The supporters of the ,authenticity of the Ossian of Mr. Macpherson have been 'either unable or unwilling to produce the authorities they pretend to. The antagonists of this opinion, on the other hand, though they cannot deny the existence of peculiar traditional and historic songs in the Highlands, and though they boast of invincible proofs that Mr. Macpherson's Ossian is wholly a forgery and not copied from any such songs, yet even the great Dr. Johnson himself has no claim to any knowledge of them. From such considerations I was induced to believe that the subject might be considerably elucidated by collecting these songs in their original form ; and I therefore made it a part of my business, during my journey through the Highlands, to search out the traditionary preservers of theirs, and procure copies with as much attention and exactness as lay in the power of a foreigner and a stranger to the language. The absurd difficulties I had to encounter with in this pursuit, it is not necessary to enumerate; sometimes I was obliged to dissemble a knowledge of the Erse, of which I scarcely understood six words ; sometimes I was forced to assume the character of a professed author, zealous to defend the honour of Ossian and Mr. Macpherson. It is not, however, impertinent to remark, that after I had obtained written copies in Erse of several of the following songs, I found it very difficult to get them translated ; for though many understand Erse as a speech, few are yet acquainted with it as a written language.
Before I proceed any further, it appears to me requisite, for the clear understanding of what follows, to remark, that the dispute seems naturally to divide itself into three questions : First, whether the Ossian of Mr. Macpherson be really the production of a very ancient Highland bard, called by that name ? or, secondly, whether it be copied from old songs, the productions of the Highlands indeed, but written by unknown bards, and only doubtfully and traditionally ascribed to Ossian ? or, if it be wholly a forgery of Mr. Macpherson's ?
Considerable opportunities were afforded me towards obtaining information on these heads by three several tours which I made in the Highlands. The first of these lay through the internal parts of that country, from Edinburgh to Perth, Dunkeld, Blair in Athol, Tay-mouth, Dalmaly in Glenorchy, Inverara, Loch-Lomond, Dunbarton, Glasgow, Hamilton, and Lanerk. In this tour I was honoured with the company of J. Stokes, M.D., of Worcester, now on his travels abroad, but then a student at Edinburgh, a gentleman eminent for his skill in botany, and a strenuous unbeliever in Ossian. From Lanerk I crossed to Linlithgow, Sterling, Perth, Forfar, Brechyn, Stonehaven, Aberdeen, Strath-Spey, Elgin, and Inverness, travelling along the Eastern coast, or Lowlands, as they are called. From Inverness I proceeded along the military roads, down the lakes, by Fort Augustus, to Fort William ; and still pursuing the military road, crossed over the Black Mountain to Tiendrum. In this stage I visited Glen-Co, famous in Scotland for its romantic scenery, for the massacre which happened there soon after the Revolution, and also for being one of the habitations assigned by tradition to Ossian.
Leaving Tiendrum a second time, I returned by Loch-Ern, Dumblaine, and Alloa to Edinburgh.
Such was the direction of my two first tours through the Highlands. The third, in which I was happy enough to procure far the greater number of the following songs, led me from Edinburgh, through Sterling and Callender, by the Head of Loch-Ern, to Tiendrum for the third, and Dalmaly for the second time. From Dalmaly I went by Loch-Etive, to Oban, where I took boat for Mull, and spent near a fortnight in the Western Isles; visiting Staffa, and Icolmkill, and Morven on the main-land. In my return from Oban, I crossed over to Loch-Aw, Inverara, Loch-Lomond, Dunbarton, and Glasgow, thus finishing my wanderings among the Alps of our island. I think it necessary thus to delineate the track I pursued, that I may remove every doubt respecting the evidence I am about to produce ; as I shall have occasion to refer hereafter to the different stages of my journey.
In the course of my researches I found that, although every district had its own peculiar historic songs, yet the inhabitants of one valley were scarcely acquainted with those which were current in the next. The songs relating to the Feinne and their chieftain, Fion-mac-Coul, or Fion-na-Gaël, whom we call in English " Fingal," are wholly confined to Argyleshire and the Western Highlands, where the scene of their actions is supposed to have lain. In that district almost every one is acquainted with them ; and all, whose situation in life enables them to become acquainted with the subject, are zealous assertors of the authenticity of the Ossian of Mr. Macpherson. Yet it is remark-able that I never could meet with Mr. Macpherson's work in any part of the Highlands ; and many of his defenders confessed that they had never seen it. The only book I met with, which had any immediate connection with- it, was Mr. Hole's poetic version of Fingal, which I saw at Mr. Macleane's of Drimnan in Morven. I do not mean, however, to tax any of Ossian's Highland partizans with direct falsehood ; they have all heard that the stories of Mr. Macpherson relate to Fingal and his heroes ; they themselves have also often heard songs relating to the same people, and ascribed to Ossian ; and on this loose basis, I fear, their testimonies often rest.
The first song relating to the Fienne, which I procured in the Highlands, was obtained from a native of Argyleshire, who was gardener to the Duke of Athol at Dunkeld. Its subject is humorous, and even ridiculous ; for Fingal is not always treated with respect in the Highlands, any more than our King Arthur in the old ballads of this country. A tailor happening to come to Fingal's habitation, found the heroes in such need of his art, that they began quarrelling about precedence, every hero wanting his own clothes made first ; Dermid, particularly, proceeded even to blows in support of his claim. By this means the whole host of the Feinne, or Fingalians, was thrown into confusion; till at length an old hero restored peace by persuading them to turn out the tailor; which expedient was adopted, and Fingal's heroes determined to wear their old clothes a little longer.
Mr. Stuart, minister of Blair, whom I also visited in company with Mr. Stokes, was the only person I met with in the Highlands who expressed any doubts respecting Mr. Macpherson's Ossian. Mr. Stuart told us that there were indeed many songs preserved in Argyle-shire and the Western Highlands, under the name of Ossian, relating to Fingal and his heroes : "but," says he, "we have our doubts with regard to Mr. Macpherson's poems, because he has not published the originals."
Mr. Stuart favoured us with the story of a song, relating to Dermid, one of the Feinne, who had raised Fingal's jealousy by too great an intimacy with his wife. Fingal in revenge, having determined to destroy Dermid, took the opportunity of putting his purpose in execution, by means of a boar which had been slain in one of their huntings. It was a notion in those times, Mr. Stuart added, that walking along the back of a boar, in a direction contrary to the bristles, was certain death. Fingal commanded Dermid to do this, and by that means put an end to his life. I afterwards obtained a copy of this song in the original Erse ; Mr. Smith, also, the editor of a late collection of Ossian's poems, has inserted a copy of it : they both differ in many circumstances from the foregoing account ; Mr. Smith's likewise is much longer and more correct.
Though it be somewhat out of order to sign my name before I come to the conclusion of my subject, yet as the authenticity of the foregoing remarks depends wholly on my testimony, I take the liberty to assure you, on the present occasion, that I have the honour to be, etc.
By the assistance of the Rev. Mr. Stuart, minister of Blair (mentioned in the last magazine), I was directed to one James Maclauchan, a very old man, much celebrated for his knowledge of ancient songs. Maclauchan was a tailor ; those artists being of all men the most famous for this qualification.* I found him in an old woman's cottage, near Blair, entirely willing to gratify my curiosity, and indeed highly flattered that I paid so much attention to his songs ; but as he could not talk English, I was obliged to supply myself with another cottager to translate whilst he sung. The following poem I wrote down from the mouth of our interpreter ; a circumstance which naturally accounts for the ruggedness of the language : the good old woman, who sat by spinning, assured me that, if I had understood the original, it would have drawn tears from my eyes. The poem is an elegy on a gentleman of the clan of Mac Gregor, who died in the prime of life : the author mourns over his deceased patron himself, and describes the sorrow of the rest of his friends. I have some reasons to believe it was published in the original Erse, by Mac Donald, in a collection of Erse poems, printed at Edinburgh about eight or ten years ago [see Note 28] :
" The sighs of my heart vex me sore ; the sight of my eyes is not good : it has raised my sorrows, and doubled my tears ; the man of Doonan is not alive ; there are many gentlemen making his bed, and their sorrow is dropping on their shoes ; his mistress is, as it were, crucified for his love.—It is no wonder she should be sorrowful, for she shall never get such another after him. When I would sit by myself (and consider) the like of him was not to be gotten with or without riches. His heart was raised up, his fiddle at your ear, and his pipes playing about your town. When he would sit down, he heard the sound of his cups ; and his servants serving him while he was at rest.—It is the meaning of my words : how many worthy men who have been great drinkers have died. Of them were Alexander Rowey and Black John of strong arms; I think them far off from me without life.—You were the chief of the people, going far before them, and a good lord of your tenants at home. When you took your arms, they did not rust; every hunting you made there was blood. You got honour going before them ; and although you got more than they, you were worthy of it.* I will never walk west on the road to the (peat) stack any more, for I have lost my mirth and the laird of Reanach."
As I had been informed, in my first excursion through the High-lands, that one Mac-Nab, a blacksmith, at Dalmaly, had made it his business to collect and copy many of the songs attributed to Ossian, I determined upon revisiting Dalmaly, in order to obtain all the intelligence I could from him. He lives in a cottage, not far from the inn and church at Dalmaly, where he boasts that his ancestors have been blacksmiths for near four hundred years ; and where also he preserves, with much respect, the coat-armour of the blacksmiths his forefathers. I found him by no means deficient in ingenuity. A blacksmith in the Highlands is a more respectable character than with us in England. He is referred to by Mr. Smith, above-mentioned, as one of his authorities for the Erse poems he has published ; a circumstance which may perhaps diminish the validity of his testimony with some of the zealous antagonists of Ossian; but as the poems he favoured me with have little agreement with those published by Macpherson and Smith, I think the force of prejudice alone can persuade us to refuse it.§ I have reason to believe that Mac-Nab had never read the Ossian of Mr. Macpherson.
From this man I obtained many songs, which are traditionally ascribed to Ossian. The following poem of " Ossian agus an Clerich" he gave me in Erse; for to him I pretended a knowledge in that language. I had it afterwards translated by Mr. Darrach, a gentleman who lived with Mr. Maclean, of Scallastel, in Mull, as tutor to his children, and who was wholly unacquainted with Mac-Nab. I set down the translation, in the rude form it received from immediate verbal composition. It differs in chronology from the poems of Ossian already published, representing that bard as a contemporary of St. Patrick ; agreeable to a tradition which I found very prevalent in Argyleshire; according to which, St. Patrick was Ossian's.