Home  »  library  »  poem  »  II. Scottish: St. Bridget’s Milking Song by Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp) (1855–1905)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

II. Scottish: St. Bridget’s Milking Song by Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp) (1855–1905)

By Celtic Literature

Variant on an old Gaelic poem from ‘From the Hills of Dream’

O SWEET St. Bride of the

Yellow, yellow hair:

Paul said, and Peter said,

And all the saints alive or dead

Vowed she had the sweetest head,

Bonnie sweet St. Bride of the

Yellow, yellow hair.

White may my milking be,

White as thee:

Thy face is white, thy neck is white,

Thy hands are white, thy feet are white,

For thy sweet soul is shining bright—

O dear to me,

O dear to see,

St. Bridget white!

Yellow may my butter be,

Soft and round:

Thy breasts are sweet,

Soft, round, and sweet,

So may my butter be:

So may my butter be, O

Bridget sweet!

Safe thy way is, safe, O

Safe, St. Bride:

May my kye come home at even,

None be fallin’, none be leavin’,

Dusky even, breath-sweet even,

Here, as there, where, O

St. Bride, thou

Keepest tryst with God in heaven,

Seest the angels bow,

And souls be shriven—

Here, as there, ’tis breath-sweet even,

Far and wide—

Singeth thy little maid,

Safe in thy shade,

Bridget, Bride!

Passing from the early legendary hagiological chronicles of the Scots Gaels, we come to a period when the reader must be content to go again to Irish sources for his knowledge of the continuators of Gaelic literature. What we have said previously of the Irish may be referred to here. The mediæval scribes and bards busied themselves mainly with reproducing the past, though with a vivid coloring out of their own living present. When we have referred all of their subject-matter dealing with the saints and heroic figures of primitive history to its own period, all that remains is curiously little. Unfortunately, it is less than it might have been, if it had not been for the terrible and often wanton destruction of MSS. which has bereft us, in Scotland especially, of some of the richest treasures the Celtic genius has produced. It is only needed to instance the tailor who was found cutting up an ancient MS. for patterns, to show how almost inconceivably wholesale the havoc thus done has been in the last six centuries.
Some of the most interesting and valuable of the Scottish contributions to Gaelic literature are in what we may call ballad form. Such is the tragic tale of ‘Deirdrê,’ in the Glen-mason MS. (thirteenth century), which is preserved in the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh. Others again are versions of poems correspondent to those given, for instance, in the ‘Book of the Dean of Lismore.’ Of this heroic poetry much would have been lost if it had not been for the zeal of collectors, who for the last five centuries have been collecting in old MSS. or from the mouths of the Highlanders the ballads and tales of old time. “The last and greatest of the ballad and tale collectors,” says Mr. MacNeill, “was Mr. Campbell, who in 1859–60 traversed the whole Gaelic area; and assisted by intelligent Highlanders formed large collections, of which he has given a considerable quantity to the world in his four volumes of tales. All these are genuine productions.” We may quote further what the same writer says of the uncertain chronology of these ballads:—“They may have been composed centuries before they were committed to writing. We have fragments, such as the Glen-mason MS., written as early as the twelfth century, in the hand and language common to the learned in both Albin and Erin at the time. The ‘Book of the Dean of Lismore,’ however, is written phonetically to represent the spoken language of his day, and is mainly in the Perthshire dialect.” Cuculain and many other of the heroes that we mentioned in our Irish article reappear in these ballads; and in them the Féinne fight out their ancient battles to the bitter end. A new and rather different coloring is lent, too, to the Scottish ballads by the Norse element, and the constant wars in which the Vikings and the Gaels encountered time after time lend some of their finest episodes to this poetry.
If we turn from the ballads to the prose tales and romances, we find the same strong resemblances and the same significant differences. The Irish have always the more fluent and eloquent a faculty in prose and verse. Their adjectival energy is greater; they are more given to extravagances of style, both in point of sentiment and of humor. The Scotch are on the other hand more simple and more terse, and they touch the deeper notes of pathos and of mystery more often. Nothing more instructive can be devised for the Celtic student than to take the volumes in verse and prose representing the three Celtic lands, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and to compare their style, method, and literary idiosyncrasies. For this comparison Mr. Campbell’s wonderful ‘Tales of the West Highlands,’ in prose, and in verse his ‘Leabhar na Féinne,’ may be cited, with works of Dr. Hyde, Mr. Standish Hayes O’Grady, Dr. Joyce, in Irish; and in Welsh, the ‘Mabinogion’ in Lady Guest’s exquisite English version, or the ‘Myvyrian Archæology.’
In the fourteenth century, which gave Dafydd ap Gwilym to Wales, we find Gaelic becoming more definitely a conscious literary language. But the Dafydd of Scotland came more than a century earlier, being born at the end of the twelfth century. This was the famous Muireadach Albannach (Murdoch the Scot), several of whose poems figure in the Dean of Lismore’s book, and whose effect on succeeding bards was only less powerful than Dafydd’s on his Welsh successors. The Dean’s book has poems, too, by two woman poets: Efric, wife of the last of the famous MacNeills of Castle Sween, and Isabel, Countess of Argyle. Efric’s lament for her husband contains some touching lines; e.g.:

  • “There’s no heart among our women;
  • At the sport, no men are seen;
  • Like the sky when windless, silent
  • Is the music of Dun Sween!”
  • Sir Duncan Campbell, “Duncan Mac Cailem, the good knight,” son of Sir Colin, is another of the poets in Dean Macgregor’s collection; but perhaps we ought to pause here to say a word of the Dean himself. “Sailing in among the inner Hebridean Isles,” says Mr. MacNeill, “we find in the fertile island of Lismore—‘the great garden’—a man in the fifteenth century often referred to in Gaelic literature: the Rev. Mr. James Macgregor. A native of Perthshire,… with a heart filled with the enthusiasm and perfervid spirit of his countrymen, he and his brother got up the collection of songs and ballads” to which we have had occasion so often to refer. But we must pass on now to the later period of Gaelic literature, in which the modern developments have their beginning. The Scots Gael entered on a new phase, we are told, with Mary MacLeod (Mairi ni’n Alastair Ruaidh), who was born at Harris in 1569, and died a centenarian in Skye in 1674. Mairi was as perfect an example of the folk-minstrel as Celtic literature can provide; for she could not even write, although her prosody is elaborate, and her metres often intricate and original to a degree. The first of the distinctively Jacobite bards, who flourished at the end of the seventeenth and through the eighteenth century, was John MacDonald, whose ‘Battle of Inverlochy’ has been vigorously translated by Professor Blackie. Hector Maclean; Roderick Morrison, called An Clarsair Dall, or the Blind Harper; John Maclean, whose songs were heard by Dr. Samuel Johnson and Boswell on their journey to the Hebrides; and John MacCodrum (a poet whose wit and satiric powers remind us not a little of more than one of the Welsh satirical bards), are among the poets of this time who specially deserve note.
    In the eighteenth century, Gaelic Scotland produced some remarkable religious poets, including David MacKellar, author of the well-known ‘MacKellar’s Hymn’; John Mackay; Donal Matheson, who had satirical as well as religious power; Lauchlan Maclauchlan; and Dugald Buchanan.
    The great link between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries is Duncan Ban Macintyre, “a name loved throughout the Highlands and Islands.” The Hunter Bard of Glenorchy, as he is often called,—though his best title is the affectionate Gaelic “Duncan of the Songs,”—was born on the 20th of March, 1724, at Druimliaghart in Glenorchy, Argyll. His first song was composed on a sword with which he was armed at the battle of Falkirk—where he served on the Royalist side as substitute for a neighboring gentleman.
  • “This sword,” says his biographer, Thomas Pattison, “the poet lost or threw away in the retreat. On his return home therefore the gentleman to whom it belonged, and whose substitute he had been, refused to pay the sum for which he had engaged Duncan Ban to serve in his stead. Duncan consequently composed his song on ‘The Battle of the Speckled Kirk’—as Falkirk is called in Gaelic—in which he good-humoredly satirized the gentleman who had sent him to the war, and gave a woful description of ‘the black sword that worked the turmoil,’ and whose loss, he says, made its owner ‘as fierce and furious as a gray brock in his den.’ The song immediately became popular, and incensed his employer so much that he suddenly fell upon the poor poet one day with his walking-stick, and striking him on the back, bade him ‘go and make a song about that.’ He was however afterward compelled by the Earl of Breadalbane to pay the bard the sum of 300 merks Scots (£16, 17s. 6d.), which was his legal due.”
  • Duncan ended his days in Edinburgh, where he died in 1812,—one of the last links of the moving record of the early eighteenth century and its Jacobite associations.
    Duncan was a contemporary of Macpherson’s, and with Macpherson and his ‘Ossian,’ to which a special article is devoted elsewhere, we may well leave our chronicle, forbearing to touch on the debatable ground of later and contemporary Celtic literature in Scotland. Enough to say that Duncan Ban Macintyre has no lack of worthy followers in Gaelic poetry, and that with the Anglo-Celtic development, associated with such names as Dr. Norman Macleod, Professor Blackie, Robert Buchanan, George MacDonald, William Black, and, among new-comers, Miss Fiona Macleod and Mr. Neil Munro, there seems every prospect that the Gaelic spirit promises to achieve greatly in the new centuries to come.