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Scottish Gaelic: Poetry in the Highlands

Classical Literature

Scottish Gaelic: Poetry in the Highlands

MacIan print of Highlanders wearing kilts and plaids separately


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB and John Priest, B.A Cert. Min

Scottish Gaelic is a direct descendent of an early medieval language, Old Irish, and has produced amazing literature with beautiful poems which are sometimes even set to music. Nevertheless, too many Scots still ignore this treasure of their culture or even think that there is no Scottish poetic tradition in any other language but Lowland Scots, which is related to English. In this article we have selected a few wonderful pieces of poetry produced by natives of the Scottish Highlands.

John Stewart: Poet and Soldier

Among the best known poets of Scottish Gaelic was the eighteenth century Jacobite poet Iain Ruadh Stiùbhart (John Roy Stewart of Strathspey). His most acclaimed poem is called “The Day of Culloden”, a reference to the Battle of Culloden that took place in 1746 in which the Highland clans and their allies were defeated by the government army. This is when the English started creating legislation to ban everything related to Highland culture, including language, music, and traditions. This then led to poets like Stiùbhart being forced into exile where they wrote to express their grief. Here is an excerpt taken from his most famous work:

Ò gur mòr mo chùis mhulaid,
’S mi ri caoineadh na guin atà ’m thìr;
À Rìgh! bi làidir, ’s tu ’s urrainn
Ar nàimhdean a chumail fo chìs

“Great is the cause of my sorrow,
As I mourn for the wounds of my land
O God, be strong, thou art able,
To keep in subjection our foes”


Jean Finlayson: Love Poetry

Another interesting feature of Scottish Gaelic literature is the many talented women who wrote poetry. One such example is Jean Finlayson (Sìne NicFhionnlaigh in Gaelic) who wrote the beautiful “Fear a’ Bhàta” which tells of her love for a fisherman named Dòmhnall MacRath. Unlike with most love stories, however, they get married in the end.

“Fear a’ Bhàta” has been set to music and recorded by many renowned Scottish artists. Here is an extract from Sine Nicfhionnlaigh’s most famous work:

Ged a thuirt iad gun robh thu aotrom
Cha do lughdaich siud mo ghaol ort
Bidh tu m’ aisling anns an oidhche
Is anns a’ mhadainn bidh mi ‘gad fhaighneachd

“Although they said you were flighty
That did not lessen my love for you
You are in my dreams at night
And in the morning I ask for you.”

Sìleas MacDonnell: Eulogies for Dead Kinsmen

Another poetess worthy of mention is Sìleas MacDonnell who wrote 23 poems in Gaelic. Her poetry, like John Stewart’s, is mostly based on political themes, especially laments dedicated to her kinsmen and friends killed during the uprisings. Her style of composing was fairly structured and formal, and she is perhaps best known for her elegant lament for the clan chief Alasdair of Glengarry. It is possible that the depth of feeling evident throughout is a reflection of her grief for her own husband and daughter. Here is a portion of it:

Cha robh do dhàimh ris a’ chritheann
No do dhligheadh ris an fheàrna;
Cha robh bheag ionnad den leamhan;
Bu tu leannan nam ban àlainn.

“You had no kinship with the aspen,
owed no bonds to the alder; there was none of the
lime-tree in you; you were the darling of beautiful women.”

Her poetry was not always melancholic, however, as she also wrote humorous pieces in which she gave advice to unmarried women.


At least until the reopening of the Scottish Parliament, the condition of Scottish Gaelic was tenuous at best. According to a recent census, only 1.1% of the Scottish population still speak Gaelic. It is our belief at the Carmenta Latin School that a language with such a great poetic tradition must be preserved; consequently, we aim to increase awareness of this beautiful language. We also hope that more people within and outside of Scotland will become interested in studying it in the near future.

If you are interested in Scottish Gaelic, please visit our site at

André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Latin, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, and German and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. He has also worked as a tutor and teacher in a number of languages. Mr. Gurgel has been instrumental in expanding the Carmenta Online Latin School’s presence in a variety of social media.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.

John Priest
Prof. John Priest graduated from University College London with a B.A. Hons. in Classical Greek and Latin, with Comparative Philology. He also earned a Cert. Min. (HMCO) from Harris Manchester College at Oxford. In his spare time, he studies the history and literature of the Celtic languages and their dialects. Prof. Priest currently tutors Latin, Ancient Greek, French, Italian, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Welsh for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.

Click here to see Magister Priest’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.



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