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Gaelic and Scots in Harmony

Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's Nature Poetry and its sources

Derick S. Thomson

Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair is widely perceived as a poet of unusual energy and power, and one who ranges over a number of themes. Many of these can be attached to the broad classifications of political and Nature poetry. The present paper is an attempt to focus on those poems and segments of poems that fall within the 'Nature' classification. These will illustrate, in themselves, a spectrum which shows much variation in detail and in intensity.

We may begin with a fairly general profile of the Nature poems, gradually clarifying what the term means in Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's case, and analysing particular structures and styles. There will follow on this an attempt to distinguish sources and influences, and to define the use made of these as well as the overriding individual originality that marks his work.

It seems to me that there are eight poems that can be classified fairly unambiguously as Nature poems, although they show wide variations, and a somewhat larger number that feature longer or shorter Nature passages, and there are, of course, sporadic Nature references in other poems. The sequence of these poems, insofar as that is known, will have some bearing on any conclusions reached as to development, and from this point of view it may be helpful to define the appearance of the Nature themes in a chronological sequence. Yet it is probably useful to define the core of eight poems now, before moving to points of detail.

For the central group of eight poems, I would suggest the following, perhaps rough, chronological sequence and grouping 1:


  • Iorram Cuain (1924 ed. 364)
  • Oran an t-Samhraidh (20)
  • Oran a' Gheamhraidh (28)
  • Allt an t-Siùcair (44)


  • Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill (370)


  • Imrich Alasdair à Eigneig (270)
  • Aoir a' Chnocain (276)
  • Fàilte na Mòrthair (36)

It seems likely, however, that some poems with significant Nature passages may be earlier than any of these listed, for example 'Oran d'a Chèile' (238), both 'Moladh Mòraig' (212) and the 'Mì-mholadh' (1751 ed., 26) 2 'Cuachag an Fhàsaich' (234), while others would date from not long after the first group which ends with 'Allt an t-Siùcair' (e.g. 'Oran nam Fineachan' (76), 'Oran mu Bhliadhna Theàrlaich' (I 18), 'Smeò- rach Chlann Raghnaill' (180) and 'Am Breacan Uallach' (356).) so much then for a broad classification and a rough chronological sequence. We can now move to a more detailed consideration which combines the ideas of classification and sequence to some extent.

The three poems 'Oran d'a Chèile', 'Marbhrann do Pheata Coluim' (16) and 'Guidhe no Urnaigh an Ughdair don Cheòlraidh' (10) are all probably early. The 'Oran d'a Chèile' may date from about 1726-7, and the other two may give us a glimpse of the poet before he had found his poetic vocation. The level of Nature reference in these three poems is low, but it is present. So in the poem to the Muses, the poet addresses Apollo as follows:

Apollo, tha m'intinn cho rag
Ri speilg de chreig;
Fàg-s' i gun dàil, so-lùibte mar ghad
Coiniulach bog.

i.e. he wishes his mind to be made flexible as a withe of soft straw. And later he compares the sound of thoughtless rhyme and assonance to a nut without a kernel:

Na tugaibh dhomh saothair nì glagan sa' chluais
'S de thuigse bhios fàs;
Mar chaoch-chnuasach cruinn a nì fuaim
Gun eitean 'na làr.

In these references we sec the easy familiarity with rural, especially woodland imagery which is an important part of the foundation of his Nature poetry. And similarly the pet dove of the 'Marbhrann' is delicately described:

Fhir a b'iteagach, miotagach triall,
Ge bu mheirbh do threòir.

So too its wooing habits:

Bha do mhodh-sìolaich air leth o chàch,
Cha togradh tu suas,
Ach a' durrghail an taca ri d'ghràdh,
Cur cogair 'na cluais.

In 'Oran d'a Chèile', there are four couplers that have Nature references. One is a passing reference to cherries red as vermillion ,(which appears in 'Moladh Mòraig' also), another to the glints of the sun in his wife's hair, while there are the fresh and individual couplets with the salmon-image:

- - - - - - - - - - - bradan,
Bain-iasg gasda, làn-mhaiseach.
Am breac as ciataich' ann mo bheachd-sa
'S dreach mìn, sneachd-gheal sàile dhith.

The incidence of Nature reference, while low, is no doubt significant in early poems.

We have no means of dating 'Moladh Mòraig' closely, as far as I am aware, but my subjective impression is that it is 'early' rather than 'late'. It is of course pre-1751, but perhaps a date in the second half of the 1730s is probable. It may well be an elaborate development of an erotic dream sequence, with the ceòl-mòr structure and imagery consciously posed on it. The Nature references fit easily into such a formal construct, being a fairly conventional additional embellishment. These references are used to describe the glow of Morag's complexion or the sparkle of her appearance. She is a sun, a star, Phoebus, flower-like in her beauty, compared to the colour of berries or cherries, but with lily-white skin, compared to cotton-grass, cinnamon, swan's down. These and other Nature references are well distributed throughout the poem. They are pleasing and effective, but not central to the poem's purpose or structure, being quite subordinate, for example, to the ceòl-mòr and piping imagery and word-play.

There is very little in the way of Nature reference in 'Mì-mholadh Mòraig', apart from one passage in Urlar 2 where there is a quite elaborate and detailed metaphor for Mòrag's inner distortion which is compared to that of a tree that is still beautiful externally, but internally is knotted and decayed, and useless except for burning:

'S ioma craobh sa' choill
Tha fior lòineagach,
Blàth is cairt a crainn
Gu fior shòghradhach;
Ach geàrr i sìos gun mhaill,
'S fiach i às a broinn,
'S gheibh thu fiaclan-goibhr'
Agus còsan innt:
Cha dèan saor gu bràch
Feum da bun no bàrr,
Fiùdhaidh chrìon gun stà,
B'i 'n t-olc bòidheach i:
Leagar i gun dàil,
Spealtar i air blàr,
'S loisgear i gu fàs i
'Na beò-ghrìosaich.

This gives us a glimpse of the countryman's detailed knowledge that lay ready to be tapped.

'Cuachag an Fhisaich' is clearly conceived as a pastoral song, and may well belong to the earliest group of surviving poems. It has a subdued, rather formal Nature background: a dewy May morning, with the rays of the sun catching the tints in the milkmaid's curly musical-stringed hair (teud-chùi cas fàinneach), her cherry-smooth lips, and an attendant thrush. But the description of the girl actually milking is the core of the poem, which is realistic rather than romantic, and has emotional warmth in it too.3

Although regarding the 'Iorram Cuain' as probably a pre-'45 poem, it will be convenient to link its discussion to that of the other sea-poem, the 'Birlinn'.

These, then, are the preliminaries that bring us to the threshold of the Nature poems proper, these poems in which the poet is centrally concerned with natural description. There is good reason to group three of these in the early 1740s or very slightly earlier. The poems concerned are the songs of Summer and Winter and 'Allt an t-Siùcair.' The dating argument runs as follows. 'Oran a' Gheamhraidh' (Song of Winter) has a reference to the summer solstice falling on a named day of the week, which limits the possible years in the second quarter of the 18th c., and 1743 seems the most likely of these. In his Works of the Caledonian Bards, published in 17 78, John Clark of Badenoch included a translation of Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's 'Oran an t-Samhraidh' (Song Of Summer), noting "This poem was composed by a gentleman of universal knowledge, about forty years ago" (p. 183). That reference points to 1738, but we must think of Clark's "about forty years" as a round figure only. It might be argued, however, that the song of Summer came before the Song of Winter, which to an important extent sees Winter as the antithesis of Summer, while the poem contains some stanzas that are actually descriptive of Summer. Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair was resident in Ardnamurchan for much of the 1730s and until 1745, but because of various close similarities between the seasonal poems and his great Ardnamurchan poem 'Allt an t-Siùcair' it is thought that it most probably dates from the early 1740s. It has been argued that an important catalyst for the seasonal poems was James Thomson's Seasons, perhaps especially the expanded version of 1738. We shall return to this point, but meantime may move to a detailed consideration of these three poems.

In 'Oran an t-Samhraidh', the first stanza is based on the opening stanza of a song which had appeared in Vol. I of Allan Ramsay's Tea-Table Miscellany ( 1724).4 The Gaelic poem echoes the metre of Ramsay's, stays close to the sense of his first stanza, but substitutes the feadan or chanter for the lute. This substitution was to become productive later in Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's poem. That is the extent of the Gaelic poet's indebtedness to his 'model': it was no more than a starting device. The descriptive sequence begins in earnest in Stanza 2, with the burgeoning of birch-trees in May, an initial reference to the sun, the first instances of a technique which was to be liberally used (-(e)ach epithets, to which we shall return), and in the final line a reference to animal increase. This is the start of a detailed thematic progression, with succeeding stanzas dealing with trees, animal increase, woods, birds, sun, growth, sun, birds, birds, birds, birds, birds, salmon, milk/increase, calves, primrose, flowers, flowers, birds, birds, birds. The predominance of bird-music and bird-reference is very marked, and these stanzas, nine in all, show much variety e.g. the strutting singing birds are like pipers, they sing in harmony, the wren and the robin do a duct, and there is a good deal of implied comparison with piping, the grouse are courting, the woodcock has his own stanza, and the poem ends with a description of the birds' warbling and their appearance. It may be that the reference chanter in Stanza 1 has helped to heighten the profile of bird-song and so of birds generally. Flowers come next in importance, and then animal increase. There is a stanza entirely devoted to the salmon, and one to calves, while other stanzas have a greater mix of detail, especially in instances where the poet is encapsulating the varied characteristics of summer, or more strictly May, by using a series of descriptive epithets.

One of the most striking techniques he uses for this purpose will repay closer study. In Gaelic the suffix -(e)ach is very common as an adjectival suffix. It can be used widely to create adjectives from nouns, but there are common instances of adjectives ending in -(e)ach where the first part of the word is no longer a separate lexeme. Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair uses both these types of -(e)ach epithets, but it may be suspected that he often invented new instances of the type based on a still separate lexeme, including compounds. There are, furthermore, two fairly distinct usages of such epithets

  • (1) to define the characteristics of an object, or feature, which is the straightforward and common usage,
  • and (2) to build up a series of rather symbolic thumb-nail sketches which create a composite impression.

Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair uses this second method on several occasions in the Summer poem, especially to create a composite picture of the month or season. We can try to contrast these two usages by taking two stanzas as exemplifying them. The first is the salmon stanza:

Birth bradan seang-mhear nam fìor-uisg
Gu brisg, slinn-leumnach, luath,
'Na bhuidhne tàrr-ghealach, lannach,
Gu h-iteach, dearg-bhallach, earrach - -----

The six -(e)ach epithets here all describe the salmon, mostly its physical appearance: it is white-bellied, scaled, finned, red-spotted (long)-tailed. Of these -(e)ach epithets probably tàrr-ghealach is a neologism, though tàrr-gheal is itself not uncommon as an adjective' The first of the series, slinn-leumnach is a little different; it means 'leaping over flat stones', and it is no doubt a neologism too, but its usage is more eccentric than that of the others.

By contrast let us take Stanza 5, which is one of these composite descriptions of the month:

Am mìos lusanach, mealach,
Feurach, failleanach, blàth,
'S e gu gucagach, duilleach,
Luachrach, ditheanach, lurach,
Beachach, seilleanach, dearcach,
Ciùrach, dealtach, trom, tlàth.

There we have thirteen -(e)ach epithets, excluding lurach which does not have a separate lexeme as its first element. Here the month is described as plant-producing, honey-producing, grassy, producing shoots, producing buds, leafy, rushy, flowery, waspy, 'bee-ey', producing berries, misty, dewy. So within the space of six lines the poet is able to build up an impression that has considerable detail, intricacy and variety.

It was a technique which the poet was not slow to exploit. He had introduced it, almost by accident it might seem, in Stanza 2:

Am mìos breac-laoghach, buailteach,
Bainneach, buadhach gu dàir,

where the first three -(e)ach words are of the special type, and buadhach is more ordinary in its function. For convenience, we may refer to the non-symbolic -(e)ach epithet as a Class II one, the symbolic as Class I The second set of -(e)ach words came in Stanza 4, and was a series of four. The third came in Stanza 5, which we have looked at, and included thirteen instances. The fourth came in Stanza 12, and included twenty instances. Altogether there are forty such instances in these four stanzas, with a number of 'Class II' instances in other stanzas of the poem.

I have suggested in previous writings that the Summer song has more excitement and power than the Winter one.5 Now I am not quite so sure. It is true that in several respects Winter is represented as the antithesis of Summer, which is looked back to and forward to with nostalgia and longing. And no doubt it is the case that such attitudes are psychologically true. There are whole stanzas that describe Summer rather than winter e.g. Stanza 10 which describes the fragrant honey-laden heather in flower. The unspoken comment is that winter takes all this away. This is an interesting variant of direct description: description by contrast. Or again, in Stanza 11, the comment is that strawberries and other fruit are gone, milk runs dry. Again, there is a fine stanza about bird-song (No.17) which deals, with the songs of summer, while the final stanza is concerned with the anticipation of summer. There is much throughout about withering, crops falling, darkness, cessation of bird-song, changes in colouration, lowering of temperature. Much of this is presented with sharp, telling detail.

He brings his symbolic adjectival technique to bear here also, although it is relatively late in the poem that it appears, in Stanza 13, which has thirteen -(e)ach epithets in all, ten of them the Class I or more symbolic ones, three the Class II or more standard epithets (here chathach, bhiorach and ghuineach). These epithets all describe the month (of mid-winter presumably). In Stanza 14 there are another thirteen, all Class 1. Some of these are particularly effective, as where he builds up a picture of cold being combated with warm food and clothing: the month is therefore a coughing, coated, breekit, stockinged, waist-coated, buttery, bready, cheesy one, among other things. This is particularly effective, as is the continuing series of eight epithets in Stanza 15. The sharp distinction between the two types of -(e)ach epithets is nowhere more marked than here. So in this poem we have a strong concentration of these epithets at one part of the poem, some thirty-one in all, not as large a list as in the summer song, but just as effective.

The technique of building up a detailed description by using a succession of epithets is of course used in various literatures. What is remarkable in Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's case is (a) the density of the succession in some parts of his work and, more remarkably, (b) the vivid use of Class I epithets.

We may note that the Winter poem begins with a reference to the Summer solstice (the reference that has been used for dating), and it has references to the signs of Cancer, Taurus, Capricorn and Gemini, together with a larger crop of English loanwords (planet, globe, valet, tropic, and hymns). We will return to the possible significance of all this later.

The third of the major Nature poems of this period, 'Allt an t-Siùcair', is the longest, running to twenty-nine stanzas. It is also the most varied, thematically. He begins with the conventional May morning, giving Robin Redbreast and Richard Wren yet another stage on which to act. Birds are also the subject of Stanzas 2 and 11, but he deals in separate stanzas with such topics as trout, bees, the stream and its water, cattle, the carpet of flowers (more than once), nuts and berries, the produce of the place in terms of fish, shellfish, deer, the antics of horses, bucks, roes etc., the lily, sorrel and rushes, ships on the Sound of Mull, crops cut by the sickle with girls singing. And the final five stanzas are concerned with the corrie. In these in particular there is a strong grouping of -(e)ach epithets. There had been a short series of five of these in Stanza 17, but a total of seventeen between Stanzas 26 and 27, and nine in Stanza 29. So there are thirty-one of these epithets in the poem. These do not bring specially new features into play: the technique has been well exploited in the two seasonal poems.

There is a slight blurring of focus in the poem, in that the vantage point of May does not work for all the stanzas e.g. No. 8 with its ripe apples and pears or No. 24 with its harvesting implications. Probably the final block of five stanzas on the corrie spells a failure of balance; at least this would be the modern view. These stanzas were probably the starting-point for Donnchadh Bin's long poem on Coire a' Cheathaich.

Continuing with the main series of Nature poems, we may now turn, but very briefly, to the sea ones. The 'Birlinn' is thought to have been composed close to the year 1750.6 His other sea-poem, 'Iorram Cuain', may be significantly earlier. It is a miniature 'Birlinn', without the detailed structure of the longer poem, or its climactic passage of storm description. In the 'Birlinn' detail is greatly developed, at all parts of the poem, but there are significant recurrences of phrase and situation between the two poems. We sense at various points some unease with the subject-matter. The poet seems to look at the sea with the wonder and distrust of an outsider, while as we saw he empathises with hill and wood and animals. So in the 'Blessing of Weapons' section he is diverted by the thought of the surly badger whose pelt provides the material for the arrows' quiver:

Ann am balgan a' bhruic ghruamaich.

The climactic section of the 'Birlinn' is impressive, yet I am not sure that it convinces entirely, and wonder if this impression arises because the imagination is induced rather than spontaneously activated. There is little doubt that an important source for this passage was the traditional storyteller's 'run' describing a storm at sea, and since we know that the poet had made a copy of such a story, Cath Finntràgha, which includes such a run, his source is not far to seek. He made good use of it, and embellished it marvellously, whatever reservations one may have as to its poetic urgency.

Reverting to the -(e)ach epithets, there are none of Class I (the symbolic ones) in the 'lorram' (though a run of six Class II ones in Stanza 2). Similarly in the 'Birlinn', there are plenty Class II epithets, but none of Class I. Perhaps the more specific, less generalised or abstract subject-matter is a governing factor here.

We may now turn to what are probably the three latest items in the series of Nature poems. In his latter years the poet seems to have moved from place to place, sometimes under external compulsion. Two related poems refer to his stay in the farm of Èigneig in the Glen Uig estate (a Clanranald property), from which he was apparently evicted by the maor or ground officer and he had evidently quarrelled with the local priest also. The first of these is 'Imrich Alasdair à Èigneig', and his description of the place, as infested by adders, full of prickly bushes and thorns, dry, flowerless, full of caterpillars, is vivid and amusing, as is the contrast with Inbhir-aoidhe to which he has moved.7 It is the antithesis of Èigneig:

Baile gun ghlaistig, gun bhòcan,
'S caisrigte gach crann 's gach fòid dheth,
Gun deanntag, gun charran, gun fhòtus,
Lom-làn chluaran, lilidh, 's ròsan.

A mhaghan a' bòrcadh do neòinein,
Stràcte do dheagh mhiosan òirdheirc,
Cha chinn lus bhios searbh am fòid dheth,
Barrach, bainneach, mealach, sòbhrach.

In that final line there is a brief use of the -(e)ach epithets. Then he reverts to Èigneig, telling how he rid himself of all its horrors, including the priest, the biting ants, the claws of the wild-cat etc. All this is very vivid and high-spirited.

'Aoir a' Chnocain' (Satire on the Hillock) is clearly a companion piece, with similar references to the creepy-crawlies, the furze and thorns etc. He curses the hillock, but it seems probable that the poem has a humorous-satiric intention. Both poems clearly show his descriptive power, the obverse in a sense of the non-satirical descriptions of other poems, but to be regarded as just another facet of the same powerful talent.

The final poem in the Nature series is 'Fàilte na Mòrthair' (Salute to Morar). It was in that part of Inverness-shire that he spent his final years, so this may be a poem of the 1760s. It is set in May, and composed in couplets. Again, like the earlier Nature poems, its thematic range is wide: salmon, deer, cattle, birds, produce, flowers, people. It is much more peopled than the seasonal poems were, and more than 'Allt an t- Siùcair' also. It has an infectious, joyous quality, and a light touch. The use of couplets perhaps reduces the volume of cataloguing.

Here again the -(e)ach epithet technique surfaces, this time very strongly, with some forty such epithets, bunched at various points in the poem and generally very effective.

The list of specific Nature poems does not of course exhaust the inventory of Nature writing in the poet's works. Without aiming at exhaustive treatment some brief references can be added to instances scattered throughout his work. We have already looked at some instances which have been judged to be pre-'45. There are others, dating from the run-up to the '45 campaign, its duration, and afterwards. We may look at these as a group, without distinguishing chronological sequence. 'Smeòrach Chlann Raghnaill' (The Clanranald thrush) is in praise and exhortation of the Clan Donald, but uses bird-observation and imagery dramatically from the beginning, also developing the metaphor of the bird singer/poet, e.g. (with key-words italicised),

Tha mi den ghur rìoghail, luachach -
'S math eun fhaotainn à nead uasal;
Ghineadh mi gun chol, gun truailleadh,
Fo sgiathan Ailein Mhic Ruairidh.

There are various descriptions of the bird's singing stance. Thus Nature reference has a fairly high profile in the first half of the poem, before it becomes immersed in its political purpose of proposing a toast to each of the MacDonald chiefs.

Slightly earlier is 'Oran nam Fineachan'.8 Here the Nature detail and imagery are subsidiary, but on easy call, either for the specific simile (Gun tig na fiùrain Leòdach ort / Mar sheòbhgain 's eòin fo spàig - Stanza 12, or Fithich anns an rocadaich/Ag itealaich 's a' cnocaireachd - Stanza 21) or for the more extended purple passage, as in Stanzas 4 and 5. There are examples here of an adverbial use of -(e)ach words which is related to the usage described already, though not identical, as where the appearance And bearing of the MacLachlans is described:

Gu claidheach, sgiathach, cuinnsearach
Gu gunnach, dagach, ionnsaichte. (Stanza 19)

Also from this period is 'Oran mu Bhliadhna Theàrlaich', where Nature references are used

  • (1) to define the atmosphere, and provide symbols of depression and of optimism,
  • (2) in imagery, as where King George's relationship to the Highlanders is equated with the raven's love of the bone.

These references are ancillary, but very effectively deployed.

Some of the post-campaign political poems, such as 'Am Breacan Uallach', have a subdued scale of Nature reference. There seemed to be scope for such reference, however, in the satires which may to this period also. In 'Rannan eadar am Bàrd a us an t-Aireach Muileach' (1924 ed., 280) there is a clever adaptation of a passage from Sileas na Ceapaich's lament for Alasdair of Glengarry.8 This is Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's stanza:

tu Gleann Mhàrtainn thar gach gleannan,
'S tu gach cnoc thar bheannaibh àrda;
'S tu damh as miosa sa' bhuaile,
'S tu dach uachdair nighean a' chlàrsair.
Cha dèanar seobhag 'na chlamhan,
Cha dèanar eala den ròcas,
Cha dèanar faoileann den fhitheach,
Cha dènar pithean de thòmas;
Cha mhò nitear sporan sìoda
De fhìor-chluais na muice;
'S duilghe na sin filidh fìor-ghlic
Dhèanamh de chlì-fhear gun tuigse.

The Aireach replies in kind, often indeed getting the better of the exchange, but we need not doubt that Mac Mh.A. had set the pattern.

This last instance reminds us of one of the purposes of this paper: to consider what influences were involved in the poet's choice of the Nature theme and in his methods and techniques in the Nature poems. This is a large question, and some of the answers to it will necessarily be tentative. We may look, in the time available, at several different kinds of source and influence, making first of all a broad division into Gaelic and non-Gaelic.

In discussing the 'Birlinn', brief reference was made to the descriptive run concerning a storm at sea. The Ship's Blessing in the 'Birlinn' had Gaelic prototypes too, and perhaps it might be argued that the description of the crew members has affinities with descriptions of dramatis personas in Gaelic folk-tales. The iorram was a not uncommon verse form, sometimes used, as by lain Lom, as a vehicle, for praise of chiefs. Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair does not remotely follow lain Lom's pattern either in content or in form, though he does use a strophic stanza of short lines.

The theme of Nature has an ancient history in Gaelic poetry, as seen particularly in earlier Irish examples, whether in the Acallam na Senòrach or in earlier poetry often ascribed to hermits and other religious. Among these are some 9th-11 th c. seasonal poems e.g. a short 9th c. poem of four stanzas on Winter, a longer 10th or 11 th c. one on the same season, which includes references to fish, wolves, birds, the eagle, or a similarly dated poem on Summer.10 There is little or no connection to be observed between this early Nature poetry and Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's though we must suspect some underlying links between the Irish and the Scottish traditions. There is, of course, a recurrent interest in Nature shown in the classical 'bardic' verse, especially in passages where the figure of pathetic fallacy is being used, and such passages feature prominently in Scottish bardic verse e.g. by the MacEwen and MacMhuirich poets.11 Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair would undoubtedly have some familiarity with these, but I do not see evidence of direct influence. The Gaelic religious poets of the late 16th and the 17th c., such as John Stewart of Appin, have short passages of Nature description which they tend to use as illustrations of mutability,12 and one can believe that in such passages the later poet might have seen a facet of a tradition that attracted him. But there are two Gaelic sources in particular where one can see specific models. The earlier of these is the poem ascribed variously to Donnchadh Mòr and to Baothghalach (Mòr) Mac Aodhagàin. This is the so-called 'Breisleach Dhonnchaidh Mhòir', as it is entitled in the Fernaig MS, whether the Donnchadh Mòr in question was thought to be the Ò Dàlaigh religious poet of the thirteenth century or another.13 The same poem is attributed, in the Ratisbon MS, to Baothghalach [Ruadh] Mac Aodhagàin, whose floruit is in the second half of the sixteenth century. George Henderson gives a reading of the poem from the Ratisbon MS14 , and this may be compared with the Fernaig version, transliterated, sometimes precariously, by Malcolm MacFarlane.15 We need not be concerned with the detail: what is clear is that this poem offers a clear instance of the -(e)ach epithet technique, combining both Class I and Class II examples. The first significant bunching of epithets occurs in stanza 4, but stanzas 8 and 9 give a larger and better sample.

Cathair naomh, cathair shiant,
Theasrach, thorach, chòmhradhach;
Cathair bhuadhach, cathair nasal,
Dathach, dualach, dò-chathach.

Cathair chèardach, thrèitheach, dhealbhach,
Altach, amlach, òrganach;
Cathair choinnleach, dheàlrach, shoillsreach,
Lasrach, lannrach, lòchranach.16

Most of the epithets there are of Class 11, but some can be regarded as of Class 1, e.g. òrganach, choinnicach, lòchranach. But perhaps more significantly Stanzas 13 and 14 give -(e)ach-epithet descriptions of each of the four seasons, as follows:

Do dhealbh geamhradh gruamach, rasach,
Raon-fhliuch, lèan-fhliuch, rò-shinteach;
Do dhealbh foghmhar bruthmhor, bronnach,
Cluthmhor, crodhmhor, cnòthasach.

Do dhealbh samhradh geug-ghlan, èibhneach,
Nialach, nèamha, nòdh-dhuilleach;
Do dhealbh earrach sioc-chrann, seacach,
Fliuchmhor, frasach, fearthainneach.17

This has strong points of contact with Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's style. We may note too that the final word, an unusual one in an 18th c. context, fearthainneach, is one he uses more than once. The 'Breisleach' begins with a sun-reference, and Stanza 12, between the two passages quoted, has a reference to Aeolus. There are -(e)ach epithets later in the poem also, and a certain fondness for compounds.

What all this seems to point to is an acquaintance on Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's part with some text of this poem. It was evidently transferable, in a rough way, to Scottish Gaelic and it provides the earliest example known to me, in Scotland, of the adjectival technique discussed. Naturally Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair adapts and expands the technique, and does so significantly.

It is likely that he knew another instance of the technique which is closer to his own time, and which may itself owe part of its inspiration to the poem just described. This is Am Pìobaire Dall's 'Cumha Choire an Easa'. Am Pìobaire Dall lived from 1656 to 1754. W. J. Watson, founding specifically one supposes on the reference to a dead Raibeart,18 took the date of the poem to be c. 1700. In any case it is not likely to be as late as the date of Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's seasonal poems. There are a number of adjectival -(e)ach passages in this poem e.g. the terrain is described as

Mangach maghach aghach teàrnach
Greigheach cràiceach
- - - - - -,

or again

Seamragach sealbhagach duilleach
Mìnleacach gormshlèibhteach gleannach
Biadhchar riabhach riasgach luideach

- - - - - -

or again

- - - - - -
Lochach lachach dosach cràighiadhach
Gadharach faghaidcach bràigheach
- - - -

This instance (and only a few of the epithet-runs have been quoted) would seem to provide a bridge between the 'Breisleach' poem and Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, in the scale and in the variety of the epithets.

Some reference should also be made to the poem 'Moladh Chinn-tìre', which is included in the Turner MS.19 The main part of the MS is thought to date from the 1740s. This poem uses freely various series Of -(e)ach epithets, some of which are of the Class I variety, and there are several correspondences of vocabulary and phraseology with Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's descriptive poems. There are short passages of both MacDonald and Campbell eulogy, and from a detached section which seems connected with the Campbell passage, a retrospective reference to the '15 Rising. The 'Moladh' may be later than Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's seasonal poems, but the matter is not clear-cut.20

I am not aware of other instances of this descriptive technique in sixteenth or seventeenth century Gaelic poetry. Indeed the incidence of Nature description is very sparse in this body of verse. There is a certain amount of Nature reference which is functional and ancillary: Nature is an important source of imagery. This includes the traditional 'tree' imagery, sometimes artfully varied e.g. Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh's

Thuit a' chraobh às a bàrr,
Fhrois an gràinne gu làr...,21

or other kinds of Nature reference, e.g.

Sùil ghorm as glan sealladh
Mar dhearcaig na talmhainn,
Làmh ri gruaidh ruitich
Mar mhucaig na fearradhris,22

or Iain Lom's

Gur mi an gèadh air a spìonadh,
Gun iteach gun lìnidh,23

or his

Cha b'fhas an dùsgadh à 'n cadal
Na madadh-ruadh chur à braclaich,24


Ghlac an fhireadh grèim teanchrach
Air deagh chinneadh mo sheanmhar. 25

In these extracts Iain Lom compares himself to a plucked goose, refers to the difficulty of driving a fox from its den, and in the final quotation says that 'the ferret has seized my grandmother's fine clan in a vice-like grip.' In the case of this poet the Nature detail is predominantly bird and animal detail, used functionally, as imagery, and used very vividly indeed, as in the opening of 'Oran an aghaidh an Aonaidh', the poem deploring the Union of 1707. Such animal imagery may have been attractive to Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, in his satires. Again there is a predominance of bird and animal reference in Sileas na Ceapaich, though she has a striking stanza of tree metaphors in her lament for Alasdair of Glengarry. We saw that Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair borrowed from another of her stanzas in that poem, and there was a family connection (via his wife) between the poets.26

Yet in all this there is no extended Nature description for its own sake (though 'Am Pìobaire Dall' comes nearest to that), no convincing foundation for these elaborate structures which appear in Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's middle years.

Returning to the 'Breisleach' poem it is not suggested that it was the starting point for Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's seasonal or Nature poetry. All that is claimed is that it looks a likely piece in the jigsaw or grid that we may postulate for the poet: that sum, if it could ever be summed, of his experience and imagination. Such a grid is as labyrinthine as the mind itself. Yet we can very probably identify other lines in it. We may turn now to the question of possible influences from outside the Gaelic literary tradition.

Here we should remember that the poet came from a prestigious family, which had close links with the MacDonald clan hierarchy, and through that, links with the Scottish royal house. This no doubt helps to explain his fanatical support of the Jacobite Rising, but it may also have opened doors in his literary experience. His father was a clergyman, a graduate of Glasgow University, and the tenant of Dalilea. It is not likely to have been a house without a library. The evidence of some acquaintance with the Classics is strewn throughout his work, but it is likely that he had access both at home and in his spells away from home (whether as student at Glasgow or as law apprentice in Edinburgh, both conjectural situations) to Scots and English literature. There was an upsurge in book publishing in Scotland which was gathering momentum in the second and third decades of the eighteenth century. James Watson's volumes of sixteenth and seventeenth century Scottish verse (1711 etc.) were an influential landmark, and c. 1713-14 Allan Ramsay, who had been a founder member of the Easy Club in Edinburgh, adopted as his Club name Gavin Douglas. 27 He later included some of Douglas's poems in his Ever Green (1724). Douglas's Aeneid had already been re-issued in 1710. We have already noticed that Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair had used his acquaintance with a Ramsay poem for his own different purposes, and we might suspect that he knew the Tea-Table Miscellany well, and remembered references to Phoebus and Saturn from it, just as he set songs to airs/metres of other songs in Ramsay's collection. But there is some evidence also that he knew and used Gavin Douglas's poetry to greater effect.

Priscilla Bawcutt has pointed out that there are various echoes of Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid in Douglas's Prologues to the Aeneados.28 She finds, for example, that he found most memorable "the splendid planet-portraits, especially those of Saturn, Diana and Phoebus." She sees an echo of Henryson's line from the Lion and Mouse (The prymeros and the purpour violet bla) in Douglas's flower-catalogue in Prologue XII, and sees further influence by Henryson on Douglas in his reference to the Muses. 'This grouping of themes (planets, primrose and flower-catalogue, the Muses) must ring a bell for us in Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair-'s work.29 We can take the matter a little further in making direct comparisons between passages in Prologues 7 and 12 of Douglas's Aeneados and passages in the two Gaelic seasonal poems.

The Prologue to the 7th Book begins with a reference to Phoebus:

As brycht Phebus, schene souerane, hevynnis E,
The opposit held of his chymmis hie,
Cleir schynand bemys, and goldin symmeris hew,
In lattoun colour altering haill of new;
Kithing no syng of heyt be his visage,
So neir approchit he his wynter staige;
Redy he was to entir the thrid morne
In cloudy skyis vndir Capricorne.30

So, to, Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair begins his 'Oran a' Gheamhraidh' (Winter Song) with a description of the sun in the approach to the longest day, before it turns on its course to the winter solstice:

Tharraing grian, rìgh nam planet's nan reul,
Gu sign Chancer Diciadain, gu beachd,
A riaghlas cothrom mun crìochnaich e thriall,
Dà mhìos deug na bliadhna mu seach - - - -
- - - - 'S an sin tionndaidhidh e chùrsa gu sèimh
Gu seasghrian a' gheamhraidh gun stad.31

But it is not until Stanza 12 that he refers to Capricorn:

Thèid a' ghrian air a thuras mun cuairt
Do thropic Chapricorn ghruamaich gun stad,
Bho 'n tig fearthainn chruinn mheallanach luath
Bheir a mullach nan cruaidhtichean sad . . . . 32

It is noticeable that both poets give a high profile to Phoebus. Winter is seen as the antithesis of summer, as has been remarked already: it is notable for its lack of sun, lack of warmth, lack of bird-song, blossom etc. Douglas mentions Phoebus several times, whereas Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair does not use the name until the 18th stanza. But it is probably significant that the sun, which is repeatedly referred to, is called king of the planets in Stanza 1, and in Stanzas 2 and 12 is referred to as masculine, though grian is feminine. In other words, it is Phoebus that lies behind these references to the sun. Yet the series of references shows many differences: the influence, if it is there, is creative not slavish.

Much the same can be said of a series of correspondences in the two poems. One or two instances may be quoted. The ground colour changes:

The grund stude baffand, widderit, dosk and gray,
Herbis, flouris, and gersis wallowit away,
Woddis, forestis, wyth nakyt bewis blout,
Stud strypyt of thair weyd in every hout.33

So too the Gaelic poet:

Chas is ghreannaich gach tulach 's gach tom,
'S dòite lom chinn gach fireach 's gach glac;
Gun d'odhraich na sìthcinean feòir,
Bu lusanach feòirneineach brat
- - - -
Neulaich pàircean is meadair gu bàs - - -.34

Again there is a similar sequence in both poems of trees being stripped (Douglas) and vegetation fading (Mac Mh. A.), followed in each case by a reference to the birds (Small, 76, 11. 11-18; Mac Mh. A., Stanza 4). Or the cold requires warm clothes and food to combat it:

The callour air, penetrative and puire,
Dasyng the bluide in every creature,
Maid seik warm stovis, and beyne fyris hoyt,
In double garment cled and wyly coyt,
Wyth mychty dank, and meytis contortive,
Agayne the storme wyntre for to strive.
(Small, 77, 11. 1-6)

and the Gaelic:

A' mhìos chnatanach, chasadach, lom,
A bhios trom air an t-sonn-bhrochan dubh:
Churraiceach, chasagach, lachdunn is dhonn,
Bheisneach, stocainneach, chom-chochlach thiugh,
Bhrògach, mheatagach, pheiteagach, bhàn,
Le 'm miann bruthaiste, mairt-fheòil is càl . . . 35

Here it is as though Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair had taken a hint from Douglas, and developed the idea more fully and more colourfully.

What emerges from a comparison of the two poems is the strong possibility of influence on Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, but as usual in his case, influence used creatively. The relationship between the two poems remains a healthy one. We can enjoy the individualities of both: Douglas's passage about the night-owl, for example, has no hint of an echo in Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, nor had he any counterpart in Douglas for his view of the fish retiring in winter to the lower depths of the waters.

A somewhat less detailed comparison can be made between Douglas's Prologue to Book XII and Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's 'Oran an t-Samhraidh'. Again there are many similarities. Douglas begins with various references to planets and deities, including Phebus. Phoebus occurs in Stan. 4 of the Gaelic poem, rhyming with speuran (i.e. an e rather than an oe rhyme), and again in Stan. 6, and Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair launches early in the poem on the catalogue of sun-induced growth and increase. Douglas refers to the growth of pasture, on which the cattle graze all day; Mac Mhaighstir Alastair gives a stanza mostly to the calves (Stan. 13). Each poet has a passing reference to the daisy. Douglas refers to the silver-scaled fish in the clear streams, with their shining fins, And chyssell talls, stowrand heyr and thar, while Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair gives a stanza to a minute description of the salmon, with its white belly fins and scales, moving quickly, leaping over flat stones. Douglas, echoing Henryson, refers to the Fresch prymros, and the purpour violet; Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair devotes a whole stanza to the primrose. Douglas refers to bees that - - - - wrocht thar hunny sweit,/By michty Phebus operatiounis. In Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, the month of May is beachach, seilleineach (full of wasps and bees), but it is elsewhere, in 'Allt an t-Siùcair', that he gives over a whole stanza to the bees. Douglas has a short catalogue of birds, followed by a series of references to bucks, harts, calves, fawns, kids, lambs (Small, p.85), while Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair has far more detail about birds, and a compressed reference to the young of animals, May being uanach, mheannanach, mhaoiseach/Bhocach, mhaoineach, làn àil (Stan. 12). But Douglas returns later to the birds, giving a catalogue of them, one, sometimes two, to a line (Small, p. 8 7, 11. 18 ff.). What are we to make of all this? We can easily, it seems to me, make too much. of it, but perhaps too little also. 36

But if we are to look for a more direct stimulus, to the seasonal poems in particular, it is only natural to consider the influence of James Thomson's Seasons. This has been discussed in a little detail in published work, both by myself and by Professor John MacQueen, and I do not intend to go over the same ground again.37 Suffice it to remind ourselves that the original Thomson Seasons appeared separately from 1726 to 1730, with later much expanded editions, as that of 1738. It seems very probable that the 1738 edition was the trigger, eventually, for Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's seasonal poems with continued influence in 'Allt an t-Sùicair'. The detailed evidence is not bulky: the general seasonal theme, a few closely similar sub-themes, the use of compounds, and, more tell-tale, the sharing of a series of key-words, appearing as English loanwords in Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair. MacQueen lists planet, globe, sign, tropic, hymns, Phoebus. It may be worth noting that two of these, planet and Phoebus, also occur in 'Moladh Mòraig', and it may be that the eroticism of certain passages in Thomson's Seasons is echoed in 'Moladh Mòraig' too. MacQueen would further link Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's astronomy, especially in the Winter song, to that of Buchanan's De Sphaera, rather than to the theories that had supplanted Buchanan 's, and he sees a possible exercise of numerology in the same poem which may echo the practices of Henryson, Gavin Douglas and Drummond of Hawthornden.38

What this investigation seems to suggest, then, is a complex build-up of experience and technique, which includes direct and intimate observation of Nature, familiarity with various aspects of Gaelic literary tradition, both vernacular and at least semi-classical, some specific acquaintance with Scots literature, a general background of classical education, and exposure to James Thomson's Seasons. From all areas of this background we can see lines of influence and points of departure, which are sometimes thematic, sometimes technical, sometimes structural, but time after time we find these influences developed and subsumed and transcended as they are fed into the furnace of the creative imagination.


1 For reasons of convenience and accessibility, references are to the location of poems in A. and A. MacDonald, The Poems Of Alexander MacDonald. Inverness 1924 (abbrev. 1924 ed.). Quotations are based where possible on edited readings of the 1751 ed. of the poems.

2. Alastair Mac-Dhonuill, Ais-eiridh na Sean Chànoin Albannaich ... etc. Duneidiunn. 1751. The 'Di-moladh', which the MacDonald editors describe as 'unprintable', is naturally not in the 1924 ed.

3. There is a copy of this poem in the Colin Campbell Gaelic Collection, MS A, 3 in Edinburgh University Library.

4. e.g. 1794 ed., p. 147, 'Song - Tune - Through the Wood Laddie'.

5. e.g. D. Thomson, Introduction to Gaelic Poetry, Gollancz 1974, 162. New ed., Edinburgh University Press 1990.

6. Most printed versions are based on that of the Eigg Collection (1776), but Dr. J. L. Campbell has published the text as contained in Royal Irish Academy MS E ii 1 (746), in Scottish Gaelic Studies IX, Pt. 1 (1961), 39-79.

7. There is a copy of this poem in the Colin Campbell Gaelic Collection, MS C, 3. The title there is 'Imrich Alar. mhic Mhr. Alar. a' Eign[ig] do dh'Innir-aoigh - no o'n tSagairt gus an tEispig': The quotation is based on that version.

8. 1751 ed., 51 ff.

9. For the Sìleas na Ceapaich passage, see especially Colm Ò Baoill, Bàrdachd Shìlis na Ceapaich, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, Vol. 13, 1972, p.72.

10. See D. Greene and F. O'Connor, A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry A.D. 600 to 1200, Macmillan 1967. 98, 134, 137.

11. See for example D. S. Thomson, Introduction to Gaelic Poetry, 45-6.

12. e.g. Fernaig MS, in M. MacFarlane's ed., Dundee 1923, 45.

13. A text of Irish origin, ascribed to 'Donchadh mor o Daluidh', is in Gaelic MS LXXX in the National Library of Scotland (see Mackinnon's Catalogue, 251).

14. TGSI, Vol. 26, 100 ff.

15. MacFarlane, The Fernaig MS, 77 ff.

16. Ibid., 79.

17. Ibid., 79.

18. W. J. Watson, Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig, An Comunn Gaidhealach, 1959,1.3219.

19. Printed in A. Cameron, Reliquiae Celticae, Vol. II, Inverness, 1894 315 ff.

20. Judging from his placing of the poem in Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig, W. Watson took it to be earlier than is suggested here.

21. J. C. Watson, Gaelic Songs of Mary MacLeod, SGTS, 1965, 1 1. 207-8.

22. Ibid., 11. 447-50.

23. A. M. Mackenzie, Orain Iain Luim, SGTS, 1964,11. 83-4.

24. Ibid., 11. 935-6.

25. Ibid., 11. 1770-71.

26. See for example Ronald Black, Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair. The Ardnamurchan Years, Society of West Highland and Island Historical Research, 1986, p. 9.

27See a reference to this in A. Hook, History of Scottish Literature Vol. 2, 1660-1800, Aberdeen University Press, 1987, 66.

28.'The 'Library' of Gavin Douglas', in Bards and Makars, ed. A. J. Aitken, M. P. McDiarmid and D. S. Thomson, University of Glasgow Press, 1977, pp. 121-2.

29. We might see points of contact also between Douglas and Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair in storm descriptions e.g. Douglas in Book III, 49: the storm raised by Aeolus splits 'rovis and syde semmys'.

30. Small, Poems of Gavin Douglas, Vol. III, 74.

31. 1751 ed., 43-4.

32. Ibid., 48. It should be noted, too, that James Thomson has a reference to Capricorn in his 'Winter', 41 ff., but not in the first edition of 1726.

33. Small, Ibid., p. 76, 11. 9-12.

34. 1751 ed., 46.

35. Ibid., 49.

36. The Prologue to Book XIII begins with a description of June which has brief references to crops, produce, birds and bees, with Phoebus again, but less apparent direct influence than Prologue XII on Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's 'Song of Summer'.

37. See e.g. D. S. Thomson, Introduction to Gaelic Poetry, 160 ff., and MacQueen reference in Note 38. It may be worth noting that James Thomson (Preface to 'Winter'), identifies his own two chief models of Nature poetry as job and Virgil. I do not see specific Biblical influence in Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's Nature Poetry, though his language is coloured by pulpit usages to some extent.

38. See John MacQueen, Progress and Poetry, Edinburgh, 1982, Chap. 4.