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A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World

A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World

Carved Stone















Highland Dirk



The Gael

Gaelic had once been the language of most of Scotland and also Ireland. In the Middle Ages the Gaelic tradition continued mainly in the north and west, especially under the patronage of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles.

The Lordship of the Isles fostered in both Ireland and Scotland a vibrant art and a rich oral tradition of poetry and song alongside protecting and providing for its people.

The Lords of the Isles encouraged music, poetry and the arts of sculpture, carving and jewellery making. Although we sometimes know who commissioned work, most of the artists' names have vanished.

Artists, aos-dana (the folk of gifts), and professional people formed an aristocracy of learning, their skills passed down through generations of the same family. Examples of their work that survive show them using the materials to hand - stone, metal, bone, horn - which were shaped and carved with designs. Most of the objects created were functional as well as decorative. The whalebone playing pieces provide a clue as to how leisure time was spent, perhaps in the long winter evenings.

A strong oral tradition kept alive a sense of history and the heroic deeds of ancestors. These were recited in verse and song by the bards whose duty it was to praise the chieftains and their clans. By the 17th century bardic poetry was publicly practised by women. Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, Mary MacLeod, is remembered in the Gaelic tradition as one of the most influential.

The musical tradition was equally strong. Music makers, employed by the clan chiefs, were highly respected. The clarsach or harp was the favoured instrument.

It was not until the 16th century that poetry and prose were written down to any great extent. The two Books of Clanranald are remarkable survivals which help us to understand people and events in a Gaelic perspective: 'what induced me to write…was, when I saw that those who treated of the affairs of the time have made no mention at all of the Gael, the men who did all the service'.

Free-standing stone crosses are seen as symbols of the Celtic or Gaelic tradition in Scotland. Carved stone graveslabs also illustrate that tradition. Like the crosses, they are found throughout the West Highlands, commissioned as memorials to important or influential people.

The carvers of these stones were local craftsmen, although they may have travelled around the Highlands and Islands. These memorials not only provide evidence of individuals, but record details of dress and other features of their lives.

Many of them illustrate aspects of warfare. Until the 17th century, it was customary for island men to spend the summer months as mercenaries in Ireland fighting in clan wars or against the English. This is illustrated on the graveslab of Donald McGill-easbuig. Until about 1600 there were closer cultural ties with Ireland than with Lowland Scotland.

Highland art after 1500

West Highland art continued to flourish after the Lordship was suppressed. Although the carving of crosses and graveslabs came to an end with the Reformation, the characteristic designs survived. They were used to decorate jewellery, weapons and everyday objects until the 18th century, and have since then had a new lease of life, particularly on 20th-century jewellery. Typical features are interlace, spotted animals, foliage and imitations of black-letter script.

The Highland dirk was an all-purpose implement which evolved from the medieval dagger. Dirks could be tools, utensils for eating, and weapons. They were made in the Highlands by local craftsmen, and carried by most men.

Brooches were worn by women in the Highlands, while men used simple pins to fasten their plaids, the typical Highland garment.

The style of ring brooch now thought of as typically Highland came originally from Europe.They liked to decorate every surface. Most of the brooches were engraved and embellished on both sides.

Like brooches, sporrans, a medieval form of purse, had a long tradition and retained their basic design. Earlier sporrans were made from leather or skin alone, often with decorative tassels on their drawstrings. From the late 17th century they were usually fitted with clasps, made of brass, or occasionally silver. These sometimes had complicated opening mechanisms to foil thieves.

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