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IV. A SUMMARY OF THE EVIDENCE ADDUCED IN
SUPPORT OF THE AUTHENTICITY
POEMS, WITH FURTHER PROOFs.
For the sake of perspicuity, we shall divide this head into three branches, viz. 1. The Gaelic, which is confessedly a dialect of the Celtic, has been a written language in the Highlands of Scotland, and in parts of Ireland, from very remote periods. 2. The poems ascribed to Ossian commemorating the achievements of Fingal and his warriors, have been for ages recited and sung to music in the Highlands and isles of Scotland, and have for time immemorial been the entertainment of the people. 3. The poems translated by Mr. Macpherson, were collected by him from oral tradition and manuscripts procured in the Highlands; and that similar collections have been made by other persons at different periods, prior to his translation.
1. That the Gaelic was a written language from very remote periods, may be deemed sufficiently proved by the observation already made in Note E to Cesarotti's Dissertation; and by the facts and authorities noticed under the second general head of these Supplementary Observations.* It may therefore suffice to touch briefly on some particular points of evidence, which when summed up with those already adduced, will incontrovertibly establish the truth of our position, as well as the fallacy of Doctor Johnson's assertion, that the Caledonians had been * See page 386 et seq.
always a rude and illiterate people, and that they never had any written language.
When the druids who spoke the Gaelic language, and to whom writing was familiar,* had been driven from the rest of Britain, a few of them retired to Caledonia, and took up their residence in Iona, afterwards called Icolmkill,† where they founded a college, and lived and taught unmolested, until they
Which is thus literally translated:
* Cæsar's Com. B. VI. c. 13.
+ The original name of Icolmkill, prior to Columba's settling there, was Hy. During Columba's Life, it was called Iona, and after his death, it received the name of Icolmkill, that is, the isle of Columba's chapel, compounded of I, island, colm, Columba, and cill, or kill, chapel, church-yard, or inclosed place.
Mr. Pennant, in his Tour, Vol. I. p. 284, second edition, mentions that the Dean of the Isles, and after him Buchanan, describe the tombs of the kings existing at Icolmkill in the time of the Dean. On one was inscribed Tumulus Regum Scotia: in which were deposited the remains of forty-eight Scottish kings, beginning with Fergus II. and ending with the famous Macbeth. In another was inscribed Tumulus Regum Hiberniæ: in which were deposited the remains of four Irish monarchs; and in a third, Tumulus Regum Norwegia, were deposited eight Norwegian princes, or more probably vice-roys of the Hebrides, while they were subject to that crown.
That so many crowned heads, from different nations, should prefer this as the place of their interment, is said to be owing to the following ancient Gaelic prophecy :
Seachd blithna roimh 'n bhraa
Ach snàmhaidh ICHOLUM clairich.
"Seven years before the conflagration
And also the green-headed ISLAY,
But the ISLE of COLUMBA of the harp shall swim
(above the flood.)
were dispossessed by St. Columba in the sixth century. For several ages after that period, Iona was one of the most famous seats of learning, of which this or any of the neighbouring kingdoms could boast; and the language in which almost all their learning was retailed and written was the Gaelic.*
Here then is the groundwork of our first position, and it carries with it a degree of conviction as strong as can well be derived from presumption or probability. Whether the ancient Celts borrowed the Greek, or the Greek the Celtic character, it will hardly be asserted that the Celts were strangers to writing, or that the druids, and particularly those of Britain, were not the literati of that nation. Like printing, when once established, the art of writing is not to be lost in any common revolution of human affairs; and such of the druids as took refuge in Iona, must have carried with them the knowledge of that art, and taught it to their disciples. The druids were dispersed on the introduction of Christianity, but not extinguished; they became Culdees and bards. Say, however, that they were cut off root and branch, their successors were Christians under Christian bishops, and we cannot presume that they were unacquainted with writing; the more especially as it is a matter of notoriety, that for ages afterwards Icolmkill continued distinguished for its learning. What language then was the most likely to be committed to writing by Christian divines deputed from another country to convert the inhabitants of Scotland? That these missionaries under* Dr. John Smith's Hist. of the Druids, p. 68.
stood and might write in Latin need not be denied ; but surely Gaelic, the language of the people, is what they would most frequently have recourse to in propagating their doctrines.* It is not therefore a very violent presumption that some, more industrious than others, committed to writing at a very early period the poetry of their country, which from the moral precepts they contain had given delight to themselves as well as to their progenitors
Dr. Smith, in addition to his sensible reasoning on this subject, adduces the following facts, to prove that the Gaelic was a written language. In the island of Mull, in the neighbourhood of Iona, there has been, from time immemorial till very lately, a succession of Ollas, or graduate doctors, in a family of the name of Maclean, whose writings, to the extent of a large chestfull, were all written in Gaelic. What remained of this treasure was some years ago bought up as a literary curiosity, at the desire of the Duke of Chandos, and is said to have perished in the wreck of that nobleman's fortune. Doctor Smith also mentions having in his own possession a mutilated treatise on physic, and another on anatomy, with part of a calendar, belonging, probably, to some ancient monastery; all in the Gaelic language and character. These pieces, when compared with others of a later date, appear to be several centuries old.
* At this day even all the missionary Societies in Europe qualify their eléves, not only in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, but in the particular dialect of the distant nations to whom they may have missions for diffusing the light of Christianity.
Lord Kaimes too mentions a Gaelic manuscript of the first four books of Fingal, which Mr. Macpherson, the translator of Ossian, found in the isle of Sky, of as old a date as the year 1403.* The late Mr. Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie, who had accompanied Mr. James Macpherson during some part of his journey through the Highlands in search of the poems of Ossian, bears evidence to a similar fact; for in his letter to Dr. Blair, dated the 22d October, 1763,† he says, "Some of the hereditary bards retained by the chiefs, committed very early to writing some of the works of Ossian. One manuscript in particular was written as far back as the year 1410, which I saw in Mr. Macpherson's possession."
The late Rev. Andrew Gallie, minister of Kencardine in Ross-shire, who had assisted Mr. Macpherson in arranging his collection, says, in his letter to Charles Mac Intosh, Esq. a member of the committee of the Highland Society of Edinburgh, that on Mr. Macpherson's return from his tour through the Highlands and Islands he produced to Mr. Gallie several volumes, small octavo, or rather large duodecimo, in the Gaelic language and character, of the poems of Ossian and other ancient bards; and that he remembers perfectly that many of those volumes were at the conclusion said to have been collected by Paul Macmhuirich Bard Clanraonuil, and about the
* Lord Kaimes's Sketches of Man, B. I.
+ See Appendix to the Report of the Highland Society, p. 7.
↑ See Report of the Highland Society, p. 31.