Bàird Ghàidhlig na Ceapaich Gaelic Bards of Keppoch

About the collector:
Rev Dr Alexander Irvine

Alexander Irvine was born on 1 November 1773 in the parish of Fortingall, Perthshire. He was the youngest child of James Irvine, a tenant farmer, and his wife Janet Menzies. He went to school in Fortingall and later went on to attend university at St Andrews. He was awarded his doctorate in Divinity from the University of Edinburgh in July 1812 .

During Irvine’s childhood, there was a new sense of pride in Scotland’s Gaelic heritage. The Highland societies of London and Scotland were founded around this time (1778 and 1784) and both served as another focus and outlet for this new found enthusiasm in Celtic antiquities.

Irvine’s own love of Gaelic poetry had begun early: ‘I was not twelve years old’, he wrote in 1822, ‘when I began to compose in Gaelic in prose & verse. I was early captivated by the beauties of Gaelic poetry, especially the more ancient. For two and thirty years, I made the Gaelic language my study, & my amusement…’ .*

Having finished his studies at St Andrews in 1796 Irvine was ordained as a missionary in the summer of 1797 at Kintra in the south-west of Mull. In 1799 he took up work as a missionary in Rannoch. In February 1805 he was established as minister of Fortingall and soon afterward he married his long- standing friend Janet ‘Jessie’ Stewart, daughter of Robert Stewart of Garth, ‘Fear Ghairt’, a renowned Highland landowner. From 1806 onwards, until his death, Irvine was minister of Little Dunkeld, which is the parish across the river from Dunkeld. He is best known in association with this parish, while his friend Robert MacDonald took over from him in Fortingall in 1806.

The inspiration to collect poetry himself probably came just after this time and he seems to have carried out most of the collecting himself. He mentions in some of his correspondence that this had meant a considerable expense. He doesn’t say too much about how he gathered material other than to say he recorded the poems ‘as [he] got them with all their imperfections’. His intention was not so much to preserve their authenticity but to ‘shew how superior the ancient bards were to most of those who followed them’. Ɨ

During his relatively brief career, Irvine was successful in combining church leadership with Gaelic scholarship and was instrumental to ensuring a substantial amount of Gaelic literature survived. Apart from his significant scholarship and contribution to promoting Gaelic studies, his poetry collections are his most tangible legacy. Irvine died on 31 July 1824 in Little Dunkeld and his early death was deeply regretted by many.

His Gaelic collections made their way to the National Library of Scotland in several instalments over more than a century. His papers, correspondence, and unpublished works give a unique insight into his life and his activities in the field of Gaelic studies.◊

Within his own manuscripts, there is a volume containing poetry of Iain Lom and Sìleas na Ceapaich ˠ that was copied from the collections of the Rev. Robert MacDonald (1770-1842), a descendant of the MacDonalds of Keppoch who had studied Divinity at St Andrews at roughly the same time as Irvine.

Taken from a longer article published by Dr Ulrike Hogg, Manuscripts Curator (Gaelic, music and early modern collections) National Library of Scotland.

*Manuscript reference: Ingliston MS.A.i.5(3), Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, Ingliston
Ɨ Manuscript reference: Ingliston MS.A.i.5(3), Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, Ingliston
◊ Library reference Acc. 13156 and MSS.14877-14882
ˠ Library reference: MS.14879