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row minds. Many of them patronised the arts and sciences. To the industry of the monks, whose labours drained morasses, and converted the most barren wastes into terrestrial paradises, we owe the preservation
of what still remain of the Greek and Latin • classics, the greater part of which would,
otherwise, have been lost amidst the confusion and revolutions of the middle ages.
But though the religious frenzy of Knox's disciples hath deprived us of many Gaelic manuscripts, yet, as the Bardish profession continued to be encouraged in many families till the middle of the last century, some relics of ancient poetry escaped the general depredation. An English gentleman in the employment of government; who had resided a considerable time in the Highlands, giving an account of the country and people to a friend in London;* tells him, that being in the house of a chief who kept a bard, he ordered him one day to sing a song. " The " bard readily obeyed; and with a hoarse “ voice, and in a tune of few various notes, “ began, as I was told, (continues the gen“ tleman) one of his own lyrics, and when “ he had proceeded to the fourth or fifth s stanza, I perceived by the names of seve66 ral persons, glens, and mountains, which “ I had known or heard before, that it was “ an account of some clan battle. But on “ his going on, the chief (who piques him" self upon his school-learning) at some “ particular passage, bade him cease, and u cried out to me, there's nothing like that " in Virgil or Homer.”
* These letters were printed for S. Birt, Ave-Maria-lane, London, 1754, in two volumes. I presume they are now only in the possession of very few people.
The song, though informed and understood by the gentleman to be of the bard's own composition, most probably was some of Ossian’s heroic poetry. For had it been merely an Ode, the Chief, who seems to have been a scholar, would never have compared a composition of that nature to the epic majesty of Homer and Virgil. And it was very possible for one, ignorant of the language, to mistake the names of persons and places.
Be that as it may, this writer, though no way partial to the Highlanders, yet confesses, that among the lairds, he met with some, who surprised him with their good sense and polite behaviour. Of the lower class he likewise observes, that “they are “ civil, when kindly used, and ever since I " have known the Highlands,” says he, “ I never doubted but the natives had their - share of natural understanding with the “ rest of mankind."*
* These accounts differ widely from those given by Pinkerton, (see note p. 32.) who will not allow them, even at the present day, to be better than mere savages. Notwithstanding, on the authority of Dr. Blair, he admits the reality of one half of Ossian's poems, the principal reason why he rejects the rest is, that the preservation of them by tradition," are ideas which could 66 not have occurred, but to a Celtic understanding.” Nevertheless, speaking of the Gothic poetry, he tells us, “ that it forms “ one of the most singular features in the history of human “ manners. Its familiar and constant use is so remote from s6 modern ideas, nay from the practice of any barbaric nation, "ancient or modern, that it seems to us almost incredible. Yet “ nothing is more certain, than that to be taught the composition 5 of verse, and the use of arms, formed the whole Gothic edu“ cation. Verše was in such familiar use among them, that it " was common to accost a stranger in verse, who at once an- '. :56. swered in the same. The Scalds were only men more distin. s guished for this talent; and. who from superiority in it, were
• This writer says, the natives used the Irish characters, but at the same time observes, few could write in them. Their ignorance in this respect hath since increased: far from writing, not one in a thousand now can read them. A custom has prevailed for years, even in writing the Gaelic, of using the Roman letters. On this ac
61 led especially to practise it. But even to understand the ver6 ses, it was requisite to have studied poetry much ; for their 66 metaphors are so violent and remote, and the construction so 66 entirely changed, that a poem was required to be committed " to memory, and often revolved, before it could be thoroughly 66 understood. As a specimen of the figures, gold is called the “ dragon's bed, and the tears of Freya—poetry, the present or " the drink of Odin-a combat, the bath of blood-the sea, the “ field of pirates—a ship, the horse of the waves ; &c. &c. -" Hardly any idea was expressed in simple and direct terms. “ Hence the obscurity is prodigious ; and to explain one ode of 66 the Edda, Eric Hallsen, an Islandic poet of the last century, " employed ten years, and was forced after all, to give it up in “ despair. Nor does this darkness arise from the metaphors '" only, but from the construction, which is so perverted, that " the most perverted part of a Greek or Roman poet seenis plain “ English to it.” See Pinkerton, vol. i. p. 389.
If the preservation of 'Ossian's poems by tradition, “ are • ideas which could not have occurred but to a Celtic under«standing.” What an intellect must he possess, who can suppose (as Pinkerton does) such difficult compositions, could for ages be handed down without letters.
count, the Highland Society, find a difficulty in procuring persons of sufficient knowledge to translate ancient manuscripts. Ever since the Bardic profession has ceased, the Gaelic has been on the decline. Men of property have quitted the country. If occasionally they visit their estates, educated, and perhaps born abroad, they cannot converse with their tenants. Thus the language floats in the breath of the ignorant, which from emigration, and introducing lowland shepherds, it in a few years must undergo a rapid change, or be entirely lost. O'Halloran complains of the Irish being equally neglected.
The habits of the ancient Highlanders widely differed from the present; they formerly resided at home. Though letters were confined to the clergy, bards, and persons of superior rank; yet the lower orders, unlike the mechanics and labourers of other countries, were not in general tied down to continued toil and hard drudgery. The occupation of tending cattle, gave many of them an opportunity of acquiring no incon