The Royal Society of EdinburghRSE @ Lochaber
Gaelic Culture of Lochaber: Lifting the Night – A’ fuadach na h-oidhche
Professor Hugh Cheape and Professor Donald Meek
Tuesday 7 May 2013, The Sunart Centre, StrontianReport by Kate Kennedy
Professors Hugh Cheape and Donald Meek discussed the Gaelic culture of theLochaber region, focusing on the poets and storytellers of the area. This eventcomprised a bi-lingual approach.
Professor Hugh Cheape explained that he would discuss the Gaelic culture of theLochaber region using images of material culture from the distant past. The cultureof the past is often identified by monuments such as medieval castles and burial sites,and by industrial features such as the Caledonian Canal and the lead mines of Strontian. However, the most persistent aspect of culture in the region is the Gaeliclanguage which, within Lochaber, dates back at least 1500 years. Much of the mostuseful source material about Lochaber’s culture can be found not only in the ‘usual’historical tomes, but also in documents detailing studies written by local historians andinterested community members; many of these documents are written in the Gaeliclanguage. These records of history from an ‘insider’s’ viewpoint can be extremelyinformative and enlightening, touching on aspects of life and culture not alwayscovered by the scholarly historical texts.Professor Cheape’s first image showed St Fillan’s bell, a 6
Century relic typical of theCeltic church and a symbol of a missionary church that carried its message by handand mouth within Scotland: a starting point for written history and language. A secondimage relating to early Gaelic culture depicted Cille Choirill
located in theBraes of Lochaber near Roy Bridge. This is a typical example of a very early phase inChristianity, when the church was named after its founder; in this case ‘Cairell’, anIrish saint. The building standing on the site today dates from the 15
Century, but theoriginal 7
Century ‘church’ was actually founded on an earlier important pre-Christiansite, suggesting the location had religious significance even before St Cairell. Thegrave of the Gaelic poet Iain Lom (John MacDonald of Keppoch) is situated at thedoor of the church. However, Professor Cheape explained that this is incorrect, asLom was actually buried elsewhere and the gravestone mistakenly placed here in the1890s. Curiously, however, this grave does mark the burial place of another greatGaelic poet, Domhnall mac Fionnlaigh nan Dan.In terms of the first Millennium, one of the major upheavals in the region related to thearrival of the Norse people in the 8
Century. The Norse reign lasted until the 13
Century and, in addition to changed lifestyles and new traditions, the arrival of thesepeople left a mark on the Lochaber landscape in terms of language; most oftennoticeable in place names. Out of the Norse period of rule developed the extremelyimportant historical era, the Lordship of the Isles. The Lords of the Isles weredescendants of the sons of Somerled of Clan Donald and were very powerful andinfluential, both in Scotland and internationally. They traded within Europe and theirmost important trading port was Galway, Ireland. Remnants of material culturerepresenting this era include gravestones upon which images are carved; not onlydepicting the wealth and power of the Lords but also detailing aspects of everyday life.One gravestone dating from the 15
Century shows detail of a clarsach (harp), similarto that preserved in the National Museum of Scotland which belonged to Queen Mary.