Gaelic Women’s Poetry

In ancient Gaelic tradition, bards were taught for seven years to perfect a panegyric style in order to depict the lives of the chief who paid them. Bardic poems portrayed chiefs as ideal rulers by emphasizing their accomplishments, alliances, and strengths. A bard’s purpose to present a politicized presentation of a chief was achieved in the Classical Gaelic language. Bardic poems would specifically develop a metre based on the number of syllables in each line (Bateman 13). Due to long lengths, the rhyme and metre of poems were constructed in order to be more easily remembered during their oral presentation. Bards were meant to help elevate a chief through his representation in poetry and in return, bards received a high position in court as well as payment in land, cattle, and gold (Bateman 12). Unfortunately for women, this position was originally occupied exclusively by men and was hereditary.

Despite women’s exclusion from the bardic role, Craig insists, “poetry by women had been at the heart of the coalescing canon of Gaelic literature” (4). Aristocratic women still had the ability to participate in festivities and hear bardic poetry. It is assumed that by listening to court poets, some upper-class women attempted to write their own poetry. Frater and Byrne explain “the women who strayed into the quasi-sacred realms of professional poets by composing verse in the bardic style, were from the upper echelons of Gaelic society” (22). Wealthy women began to use bardic conventions to write about various topics; however, their poetry was not approved of in patriarchal society because it was considered a threat to the role of the male bard. Women daring to write poetry as well as exploring topics that crossed gender boundaries started to change the original intent of Gaelic poetry. Not only did the style of poetry begin to shift, but some women dared to write about sexuality and other subjects which were not considered acceptable for women. The development of various women’s ability to create their own entertainment forced the bardic style to become available to both genders and the role of the bard eventually became obsolete.

“Despite the glimpses of their world which we gain from the songs of the high-born women of Gaelic Scotland, it is not from them that we gain any insight into the way of life and expectations of the majority, but in the vernacular poetry of the ‘ordinary’ women, the lower classes, whose work-songs, love-songs and laments make up the main body of female Gaelic verse produced under the clan system.” (Frater and Byrne 25)

While aristocratic women dared to attempt writing Gaelic poetry, Gaelic poetry is more closely linked with oral tradition as well as the working class. This is due to the number of work songs that have been recorded. Work songs were a form of the folk song tradition, which became popular between the fifteenth and eighteenth century (Bateman 14). People using this form were part of the working class and considered to be “non-literate or unlearned” (Bateman 14). Formal education was very limited especially for women. The Statutes of Iona in 1609 was an attempt to provide more education for women but it was still quite exclusive. Only the eldest daughters of gentlemen with no sons, who had over sixty cattle could attend school (Frater and Byrne 22). Although most women in Gaelic society did not have access to formal education, this does not mean they did not have any education at all. Parents and spouses would sometimes educate women in their family. However, the ability to create poetry was not dependent on education because the oral tradition granted working class citizens the ability to create poetry without the need to transcribe. Un-learned and illiterate females in the working class had more freedom from the social constraints that were forced onto wealthy women. The survival of orally transmitted poems depended on the community accepting it enough to carry it on. However, the topics varied greatly, with the experiences of the working class such as waulking cloth and reaping corn, often being the theme of the poems.

The folksong tradition became a form of oral poetry that was often created by anonymous or multiple authors. While doing physical labor, women often created work songs to pass the time and make their work more enjoyable. Work songs were often created in a group atmosphere where authorship could not be assigned to one person. Oftentimes old songs would be changed or words being altered to suit a different situation. Work songs became a form of poetry for those who might not have the resources or ability to record their work. However, their songs became an important component of the Gaelic culture.

Scottish Waulking Song, 2009 (Courtesy of YouTube)

While milking, spinning, weaving, waulking cloth, or taking care of children, women would sing songs about their experiences. An example of a working song is “chuir m’Athair Mise dahn Taigh Charraideach” which was a waulking song, used to occupy the time while weaving cloth. Women would often develop a meter which would help create a constant rhythm to help them with their work. During the Highland clearances of the nineteenth century, traditional Gaelic poetry was recorded and written down due to the fear that Highland culture would disappear entirely. Poems were written down in order to record the songs that had become popular. By studying the content of these work songs, we have the ability to speculate how women perceived themselves as well as how they perceived society. We can see the issues that women may have had to face due to gender roles and societal restrictions.

Following the dissolution of the bardic role, a new form of poetry was developed. Women began to write poetry describing the issues Gaelic culture was facing. Women wrote about the anxiety of losing tradition, clan tragedies, and shattered culture. They altered poetry from a way of complimenting a chief to a form of writing which could influence society. Poets wrote about important cultural concerns and politics. Unlearned poets began to use vernacular language and metre to express concerns about culture as well as attempt to cause change with their writing. This shift allowed women to enter the role of poet much more easily than when the role of the bard was still in existence. Women began to enter the public sector by publishing their work for the public to read. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the women’s movement allowed women intellectuals to find a public (Kerrigan 7). Greater access to education also helped women achieve a larger public voice.

The Highland clearances created a lot of anxiety for Gaelic society. During this time in Scotland, poems were written down in order to try and preserve them. Scottish families were forced to leave their native land due to the potato famine (1840-1850’s), large taxes, and pressure from the English government. Landowners forced families to move if they were not able to afford steep taxes. During this time, sheep became very valuable and were the cause of many homes being torn down in order to make room for farms. The Highland clearances forced many Scottish clans to emigrate, thus completely breaking the connection between clans and chief.

The Last of the Clan, Painting by Thomas Faed (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Last of the Clan, Painting by Thomas Faed (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Poetry became a way to record tradition while criticizing the changes that had been forced on Gaelic populations by the English monarchy. Gaelic culture became threatened by James VI (1567-1625) when he attempted to assimilate the Highlands with British culture. He forced English settlements to be formed in the Highlands causing landowners to adopt the English lifestyle.

Scottish poets during the nineteenth to twentieth century depict Scotland as being in a time of major change. There was a shift in Gaelic culture since many people were forced to leave the Highlands which greatly decreased the amount of Gaelic speakers. Many Gaelic poets during this period romanticized the old lifestyle in the Highlands as well as mourning their traditional customs (Bateman 16). They use the Highlands as a representation of an idealized time as well as embodying the traditional customs of Gaelic culture. There is a sense of nostalgia for the old lifestyle before the clearances made drastic changes. As the rate of literacy and publication increased, both English and Gaelic had the ability to be written and spread throughout Scotland. Oral tradition no longer obstructed the history of female authors contributing ideas to Gaelic poetry (Frater and Byrne 30). Women and men recorded their desire for the old traditions that had been changed and expressed an anxiety over the decrease in Gaelic speakers in Scotland.

Due to the struggles the Gaelic culture has faced during the nineteenth century, today Gaelic is not Scotland’s primary language. Issues regarding the printing and publishing of Gaelic poetry remain because there is contention about whether to translate these works to increase their accessibility to the general public or to maintain their cultural significance by leaving them in Gaelic. Although individual authors address this issue differently, it demonstrates the continuing struggle to try to maintain the Gaelic tradition in Scotland. The English presence as well as the Highland clearances in the nineteenth century resulted in Gaelic becoming a less common language in Scotland.

The Scottish Highlands, 2012 (Author's photograph)

The Scottish Highlands, 2012 (Author’s photograph)

Works Cited:

Aitken, A. J., and Tom McArthur. Languages of Scotland. [Edinburgh]: W. and R. Chambers, 1979. Print.

Byrne, Michael. “Gaelic Poetry and Song.” A History of Scottish Women’s Writing. Ed. Glenda Norquay. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. 22-30. Print.

Frater, Anne. “The Gaelic Tradition up to 1750.” A History of Scottish Women’s Writing. Ed. Glenda Norquay. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. 1-5. Print

Gifford, Douglas, and Dorothy McMillan. A History of Scottish Women’s Writing. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997. Print.

Kerrigan, Catherine . An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1991. Print.

McCaughey, Terence. “The Gaelic Community of Scotland.” The Maynooth Review 4.1 (1978): 28-34. JSTOR. Web.

Withers, Charles W. J. Gaelic in Scotland. Edinburgh: Donald: n.p., 1984. Print.


Scottish Wauking Song (2009). Courtesy of YouTube.


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