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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Celtic Literature
II. Scottish
Critical Introduction by William Sharp (1855–1905) and Ernest Rhys (1859–1946)
 
EARLY Celtic literature in Scotland is so intimately allied with the Irish, that much of the previous section must be held to belong as much to the present one. We shall not need to recapitulate here what is there dealt with. The two Gaelic currents began to separate, if almost imperceptibly, even then; and only in century-long stages, after passing the point marked by the mediæval recapitulators of Ossian and St. Patrick. How closely intermingled these currents were up to that point may be learnt from the evidence of such exquisite lines as those preserved by the Scottish Dean Macgregor, entitled ‘Ossian Sang’:—

  SWEET is the voice in the land of gold,
  And sweeter the music of birds that soar,
When the cry of the heron is heard on the wold,
  And the waves break softly on Bundatrore.
  
Down floats on the murmuring of the breeze
  The call of the cuckoo from Cossahun,
The blackbird is warbling among the trees;
  And soft is the kiss of the warming sun.
  
The cry of the eagle of Assaroe
  O’er the court of Mac Morne to me is sweet,
And sweet is the cry of the bird below
  Where the wave and the wind and the tall cliff meet.
  
Finn Mac Cool is the father of me,
  Whom seven battalions of Fenians fear.
When he launches his hounds on the open lea,
  Grand is their cry as they rouse the deer.
  1
 
  The last verse is eloquent as to the common traditions of the Scots and Irish Gael. Ossian is dealt with separately under his own proper heading, however, and we need not discuss here his interest, literary and historical.  2
  Turning to St. Patrick, let us accept provisionally the account that makes him of Gaelo-Brythonic race, born about 387 A.D. at Kilpatrick on the Clyde,—Strathclyde being an old famous region of the northern Brythonic stock. The remains, in prose and verse, of the early Scottish literature dealing with St. Patrick are of course not so numerous as the Irish; but as the two were freely interchangeable 1 in the early period when his record was being written down, it follows that where Irish memoranda of his true and his legendary history, his hymns, and so forth, existed, the Scottish chroniclers and bards would accept them without feeling the need of making a separate record. Nor must we forget, in speaking of St. Patrick, that the pre-Christian romantic mythology, with its Firbolgs and ancient heroic gods, giants, and men, is just as much to be limned into the background of the picture in the case of early Scottish as in that of Irish Gaelic tradition and its earliest scriptive forms.  3
  Curiously enough, if Scotland gave Ireland the saint that in course of time became almost its national symbol,—Patrick,—Ireland in turn gave Scotland its dearest saint,—Columba. He was born in 521, near Temple Douglas (Tulach-Dubh-glaise); in 545 founded a church in Derry; later, the famous church at Kells; and in 563, after some jealousy had been at work against him, he left for Ireland, and after pausing at Colonsay, he went on to Ia, now known the world over as Iona. Iona has become now the locus classici of the Gaelic, not to say the whole Scottish race. Recently, a writer of profound imagination, Miss Fiona Macleod, has dated from its lonely shores the dedication of that impressive book ‘The Sin-Eater, and Other Tales,’ showing how it still keeps for those of the true faith its old effect:—
  “I mo cridhe, i mo ghraidh,”
(Isle of my heart, isle of my love,)
as Columba is said to have called it. His followers, the little sacred circle of twelve, ‘the Family of Iona,’ had to be militant with a vengeance: Milesian—or soldiering—as well as cleric, in their work; and the old traditions are full of references to their fight against the Féinne and the house of Ossian. But having so far prevailed as they did, they became in turn the chroniclers of the very things they had fought against. So in a sense, and a very real one, Iona is the first center of the literature of the Scots Gaels to which we can point. The total effect of Columba, or Columcill, upon Gaelic life and literature, Irish and Scots, was immense indeed; to gather whose force one must read in the ‘Book of Deer’ and the old Irish MSS. on the one hand, and the Latin hymnology of the Celtic church on the other.
  4
  But in speaking of Columba let us not forget the tender and beautiful figure of St. Bridget,—another of that mysterious train, including Merlin and St. Patrick, which has associations with Strathclyde—
  “Bonnie sweet St. Bride of the
    Yellow, yellow hair!”
  5
  St. Bridget, the St. Mary of the Gael, whose story has been retold by Miss Fiona Macleod in ‘The Washer of the Ford,’ may first be found depicted by the side of Patrick and Columba in the famous antique relic, the ‘Domhnach Airgid,’ dating back to the sixth or seventh century. She appears constantly in Gaelic hagiology, and with poetic as well as saintly fame casting a halo about her yellow hair. O’Curry’s ‘MS. Materials,’ and other collections make it possible, luckily, for other than purely Gaelic students to read of her as she appeared in early time. She is a peculiarly interesting figure, because in the Celtic races women have always counted peculiarly; and there are signs that they will count even more in time to come. St. Bridget (Brigit, Bride, Breed), then, is the type for all time of the Celtic womanhood dowered with divine inspiration, poetry, and charm.  6
 
Note 1. “The early literature of the Scottish Gael,” says the Rev. Nigel MacNeill in his interesting work ‘The Literature of the Highlanders,’ “cannot be well understood apart from early Irish literature. The ballads of the two countries describe the same struggles, the characters engaging in the strife are the same and bear the same names.” [back]
 
 
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