Transcript of interview with Colm Ó Baoill
What kind of poetical tradition would Iaim Lom and Sileas na Ceapaich have been part of?
The beginning of the 18th century we had just obviously finished the 17th century which was a century of great change in the Highlands. And the result that was the system of government that centered around what is known as the clan system. And the clan system, in a sense, demanded the existence of poets part of whose function was the support in one way or another but mostly in song of the system as it existed at the time.
What was unique about this Gaelic speaking world that differs from the Lowland one of the same period?
We would obviously have a big difference that we didn’t speak Gaelic in the Lowlands. In general, the Lowlands means the Scots-speaking area. Obviously that’s a big difference and as far as we know, though there are similarities, the clan system which is so typical of the Highlands was, to a large extent, different from the system of society in the Lowlands. Therefore the position of the poet would have been quite different I think.
So poets would have held a position of status within the Highland clan system?
I would think so and when you look at some of the songs they composed you find very clearly that they’re sort of touchy about people giving them due respect. Understandable of course.
Was their role solely to extol the virtues of their clan or was their room for personal and political commentary?
Yes, I think in both cases the answer is yes. There was room for personal and political commentary as you have in the examples of the two poets we’re concerned with here. The poet Iain Lom expresses himself with enormous vigour and strength if he disapproves with what the chief is doing. And we have several examples of that in the one poem which we’re talking about, the Keppoch murder of 1665. He thought justice wasn’t being pursued fast enough so he insisted it get done really fast please. Similarly Sìleas na Ceapaich, she writes, composed rather, a song about the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 and she is quite willing to say which particular chiefs ran away because that battle was a bit of a mess. And certainly chiefs did run away so she is quite justifiably saying they were a bunch of cowards. Some of them. Otherwise of course, she supports the clan system.
Coming from a mainly oral tradition, who would have been their primary audience?
This is a most interesting question because since we find these texts in books, we naturally assume these are poets in the same sense as a poet exists in the Lowlands. Fundamentally, I think it’s important to know that essentially these poets are non-literate. They’re composing, not poetry in the sense of written stuff on pages, but songs. That’s why Sìleas na Ceapaich in particular but also Iain Lom composed these pieces of verse, political and otherwise which were definitely intended to be sung. The audience then was intended to be the generality of the clan. How high up the clan scale - we don’t know if the ordinary working class would have appreciated it or not but fundamentally the purpose of the songs, it seems to me, was the same purpose that modern, written newspapers have in the Lowlands or anywhere else. That is, they provide political views of some importance, helping thereby to hold the whole clan together.
What do the songs of Iain Lom and Sileas na Ceapaich offer audiences today?
When the clan system disappeared in the later 18th century after the Battle of Culloden, fundamentally I think most of this literature disappeared with it and what we have is largely the texts of songs that were written down by scholars after that time and preserved so that they are not really anymore part of the living tradition but are records of the past.