MacCorkill's Scottish - Scottish Deerhound

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Deerhound - In Celtic Poetry

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Deerhounds in Celtic Poetry


Like most other deerhound owners who have watched their dogs thunder over a Highland moor in pursuit of quarry, or gazed at the faces of the same dogs as they sit beside an open fire and into eyes that possess the silent knowledge of centuries, I have often wondered just exactly what did they look like and how were they worked in the distant past.

The development of the deerhound over the last two centuries is fairly well documented, however anything prior to this time in English and indeed European literature becomes a bit vague and occasionally decidedly confusing, with such descriptions as Grey Hounds, Shaggy Greyhounds, Highland Greyhounds, Rough Coated Greyhounds, etc. all at times potentially describing the same dog, i.e. what we today call a Deerhound.

Whilst most Deerhound enthusiasts would know that the forebears of the present hound were often prized possessions of Highland Chieftains, it is interesting to take a detailed look at Gaelic literature and song and establish the use and ownership of such dogs within the complex social structure of the Scottish Gael and to identify a specific Deerhound 'type' bearing a resemblance to the modern day hound from the information available.

The culture of Gaelic Scotland has often largely been neglected through ignorance, prejudice and the limited availability and access to it. By and large, its traditions were oral and many of the precious manuscripts that once existed did not survive the zealots of the Scottish Reformation, Cromwell's occupation and Cumberland's thugs, who masqueraded as a disciplined British Army. However, the oral tradition remained to a degree and songs later recorded on paper have survived as did a few original manuscripts and many contain references to hunting dogs.

Before highlighting hounds in Gaelic song, it is important to look at a simple specific linguistic difficulty that causes as many problems in Gaelic in relation to identifying hounds as the descriptions in English of Grey Hounds, Shaggy Greyhounds, etc.

Many references to hounds are made by the use of the word 'cu' or 'coin' which are the singular and plural of the generic term used to describe any dog or hound of whatever description. Whether a Deerhound is being referred to requires examination of the surrounding text and, on occasions, conjecture.

When the bards are being more specific in their descriptions of hounds, the words mialchu (pl. mialchoin) with variations in traditional spellings or gadhar (pl. gadhair) may appear. Malcolm MacLennan in his Gaelic dictionary gives the etymological root of the word mialchu as the Early Irish words Mil-chu, loosely translated as greyhound.

With the passage of time Mil-chu evolved to Mialchu in Scottish Gaelic meaning animal hound. The 'mial' compound of Mialchu was a deliberately oblique way of referring to a specific animal. The specific animal in question sometimes meant deer and sometimes meant hare. Given the words' early Irish origin and that a long dog type would be required for taking fast moving prey, then I personally think we are looking at an extremely distant forerunner of our present day Deerhound.

Gadhar translates as hound but with the more specific meaning of a slender running hound. The words Mialchu and gadhar generally appear translated into English by Gaelic scholars as Deerhound.

It would appear, then, that the literal name Deerhound was never used in Gaeldom. An examination of song text may provide the reason in that our current day hounds' ancestors would be expected to tackle anything from a hare to a wolf in addition to pulling a red deer stag to the ground which would render the appellation of Deerhound inaccurate.

I have examined the collected works of three famous Gaelic Bards. Mairi nighean Alistair Ruaidh or Mary MacLeod, the Skye poetess was born circa 1615. Her contemporary, Iain Lom, or Caustic John's birth is estimated to have been the year 1624. Their lives and poetic works coincided with the introduction of firearms to the Highlands for hunting, which later affected the use of deerhounds, and were set during a period of time in which the Clan system, though in decline, still reflected the values of an older way of life.

Donnchadh Ban Mac an t-Saoir (Duncan Ban MacIntyre) was born in 1724 in Glenorchy. He served in the Argyll Militia and fought somewhat half-heartedly for the Hanoverian cause during the Forty Five Rebellion. He was later employed as a gamekeeper by the Earl of Breadalbane and Duke of Argyll in the hills and woods of Ben Doran and Glen Etive. His best known songs describe Red Deer and his love of deer hunting.

I have also looked at the collected works of a variety of Scottish Gaelic poets contained in the published extracts of the manuscript known as the Book of the Dean of Lismore. This is the oldest collection of Gaelic poetry possessed in Scotland, having been written over four hundred years ago.

In all the sources examined, the majority of references to hounds are found in panegyric or praise poetry in either eulogy or elegy where the positive qualities of the recipient are sung. These qualities had to conform to the martial society of the era and can roughly be categorised in the following broad terms, i.e. Valour in battle and comeliness of appearance, unstinting hospitality and being a patron of musicians and poets and most importantly for our subject matter - Prowess in hunting.

One of the earliest references to Deerhounds comes from a fine specimen of court poetry composed by the Scottish Bard Giolla Criost Bruilingeach contained in the Book of the Dean of Lismore. In this early fifteenth century song the praises of Tomaltach MacDiarmada, Lord of Magh Luirg in Connacht, are vaunted.


Ar eineach agus ar aithne
'S ar eangnamh i n-iath an fheidh
giolla glaccaomh, bile Banbha
macaomh tighe Teamhra trein.


For generous deeds and wide renown
And for prowess in the haunts of deer
He is a youth fair handed, Banbha's lofty tree
Gallant of Tara's mighty house.


Miolchoin Gharga ar iallaibh ordha
ag Tomaltach 's ceann ar cach;
sguir go moch san aonach uallach
man loch bhraonach bhuadhach bhlath.


Fierce Deerhounds on gold gilt leashes
has Tomaltach, lord of all;
in early morning horse-spans race in the proud assembly
around the moist warm loch of virtue.


Iomdha a theaghlach alainn uasal,
a eideadh 's a eachradh ard;
iomdha a sleagh is lann is luireach
agus fear mall gluineach garg.


Many are his household noble and comely,
his vestures and tall steeds;
many a spear and blade and mailcoat
many a man sedate, strong kneed and stern.


It should be noted that the song was set in a time when a bard from the Western Isles of Scotland would have thought no more about travelling to Ireland than the Scottish mainland.

The next extract comes from the same source as the previous and was composed by Giolla Criost the Tailor. It is a spirited work urging the destruction of wolves as ordained by an Act of Parliament of Scotland, 1st March 1427-28. "Item it is statute and ordanit be the king with consaint of his hail consal that ilk barone within his barony in gaynande tym (suitable time) of the year gar serch and seik the quhelppis of the wolfis and ger sla thaim".


Ata gasradh mhadadh mhaslach
ar lathair Inse Alt Airt;
Lan trudair iad, treig, a Thrionoid
curstar iad dod mhiondoid bhailc.


A noxious pack of wolves
there is upon the meadow of Alt Airt;
foul beasts utterly, abandon them O Trinity
let them be accursed by Thy gentle mighty hand.


Go gcluininn's me i nInbhir Nise
miolchoin ag sgaoileadh na sgonn;
mairg man iadh baladh na mbuicneach
go n-iadh galar tuitmeach trom.


May I hear while I am in Inverness
Deerhounds scattering the brutes;
Alas for him who is wrapt in the stench
of the goat skinned ones;
he shall be wrapt in sore fainting sickness.


This must have been one of the few Acts of Parliament adhered to by the Gaels who took little notice of such when they could.

Mary MacLeod is arguably the most famous of the Scottish Gaelic female Bards. Her life spanned the majority of the Seventeenth Century most of which was spent in the service of the great house of MacLeod.

In this passage from a poem composed circa 1671, she conjures up a magnificent image of Iain Garbh mac Ghille Chaluim of Raasay and his hounds whilst lamenting his death by drowning whilst still a young man.

Bu tu am fear curanta mor
Bu mhath cumadh is treoir
o't'uilinn gu d'dhorn
o' d'mhullach gu d'bhroig
Mhic Mhuire mo leon
Thu bhith an innis nan ron
is nach faighear thu.


You were a great hero
Goodly of form
From your elbow to your fist
From your crown to your shoe
Son of Mary it is my hurt
That you are in the seals' pasture
and shall not be found.


Bu tu sealgair an Fheidh
Leis an deargta na bein
Bhiodh coin earbsach air eill
Aig an Albannach threun;
Caite am faca mi fein
Aon duine fo'n ghrein
A dheanadh riut euchd flathasach.


You were a hunter of deer
By whom hides were reddened;
Trusty hounds would the mighty
man of Alba hold on leash;
Where have I held beneath the sun
One man that would vie
thee in princely feat.


The picture painted here in words by MacLeod is the authentic portrait and embodiment of 17th century Gaelic nobility as opposed to the romanticised images later portrayed by R.R. McIan or the almost comic figures created by the voluminous tartan clad anglicised Scottish gentry from the era of Sir Walter Scott onwards.

Whilst the young man and his hounds may appear like a Homeric figure there was no hypocritical aloofness in Gaelic Scotland in the 17th century. Life could often be short lived and bloody and had to be enjoyed to the full when times were good.

The next extract describes a scene of feasting in the MacLeod stronghold of Dunvegan in Skye. One of the reasons for such excesses, apart from the enjoyment, was for chiefs to display their wealth, status and consequently power to the invited and it is interesting to note that hounds are mentioned albeit in less than glamorous circumstances. In such prestigious company, only prize canine specimens would be present and I think it is a reasonable guess that a deerhound is being referred to in this passage.

Tha bard Mhic Dho'uill air a dhruim
'S e cur as a chionn a chorr
'S am fear thug dhasan a dhiol
thug e biadh do choin 'ic Leoid.


The MacDonald bard is on his back
Throwing up on account of his excess
And the one who gave him (ie the Bard) his fill
Gave food to MacLeod's hounds.


The unfortunate poet referred to was one of the MacDonald of Sleat bards, though I am not sure as to the identity of the MacLeod poet who was lampooning his professional counterpart.

Let us now travel to Keppoch on mainland Scotland by Brae Lochaber and the songs of Iain Lom (Caustic John) who earned his sobriquet as a consequence of his often acerbic tongue.

In this next song, the poet laments the death of both his Chieftain, Angus son of Ranald Og, and his own father, who were killed whilst on a foray into Campbell country at the head of Loch Tay in Perthshire around the year 1640. Iain Lom also participated in the raid and makes poetical allusions by comparing his Chieftain and father to deerhounds.

On a chaill mi na gadhair
Is an t-eug 'gan sior thadhal
'S beag mo thoirt gar an tadhail
mi' m Braighe.


Since I have lost the deerhounds
Whom death is constantly seeking out
It matters little to me if I do not visit
Brae Lochaber.


The choice of literary allusion is significant in that it highlights the implicit courage of hounds. The text may also indicate a high fatality rate amongst deerhounds whilst hunting deer with the reference to death, which is borne out in the comparatively modern references to traditionally worked deerhounds by McNeill of Colonsay et al.

Like his contemporary, Mary MacLeod, Iain Lom was also forced into exile after his vociferous condemnation of the murder of Alexander MacDonald, Chief of Keppoch, and the Chief's brother Ranald by their own kinsmen. In his composition An Oar Song to Dugald's Breed the bard laments his expulsion from Brae Lochaber and compared his plight to that of a hare.

Mo ni 's m'airneis air monadh
Mar ghearr eadar chonaibh
Gun chead tearnadh gu
loinidh measg feoir.


My goods and possessions are scattered
on the hillside
Like a hare among hounds
Without a chance to descend
to the grassy meadow land.


Brae Lochaber was one of the few places where wolves remained in Iain Lom's day. From the same song, the hounds of Clan Donald were still driving the species towards extinction.


'Gam chur a m' fhearann gun adhbhar
'S nach do shalaich mo shadhbhaidh
Mar mhadadh-allaidh is caonnag 'n thoin.


I am ejected from my land without reason
And it is not that I have befouled my lair
Like a wolf with the hunt close on him.


By the mid to late 17th century, the yew bow was being superseded by firearms for both hunting and warfare. Their introduction initiated the demise of the deerhound and almost resulted, in combination with other factors, in the disappearance of the breed.

The most descriptive pieces concerning deer and deer hunting come from the words of Duncan Ban MacIntyre. In one of his best known songs Moladh Beinn Dobhrain, or the Praise of Ben Dobhrain, the bard describes in precise detail the variety of grasses and plants that the deer feed on on its slopes and his intimate knowledge of their habits and manners. Despite his great love of deer, there is no sentimentality as he sings of his pleasure in hunting them with both hounds and gun.

Praise of Ben Dobhrain is a massive piece, in excess of five hundred lines, and is structured in the same way as Ceol Mor, the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. It starts with an Urlar or ground with variations on the theme, the tune gathering momentum slowly until it reaches a frenzied climax in the crunluath variation, the most complex technical movement for the piper. For the poetic climax, Duncan Ban chooses a hunt using deerhounds. I will let the text speak for itself.

'Na fhuirbidh laidir cosgarrach
Ro-inntinneach neo-fhoisinneach,
Gu guineach sgiamhach gobeasgaidh
'San obair bh' aig a sheorsa;
'S a fhrioghan cuilg a' togail air,
gu mailgheach gruamach doicheallach,
'S a gheanachan cnuasaicht' fosgailte
Comh-bhogartaich r' an sgornan.
Gum b' arraideach a' charachd ud
'S bu chabhagach i 'n comhnaidh,
'N uair shineadh iad na h-eanganan
le h-athghoirid na mointich;
Na beanntaichean 's na bealaichean, Gum freagradh iad mac-talla dhuit,
le fuaim na gairme galanaich
Aig faram a' choin romaich....


A strong, bloodthirsty warrior he,
most ardent and impatient,
venomous, yapping, nimble-mouthed
at the work his kind engaged in;
with the bristles of his hair erect,
so shaggy-browed, grim, sinister,
with his gaping jaws wide open,
he is all a-quiver at their throats.
Erratic was that whirling drive,
and it was headlong always,
what time they would stretch out the hoofs
adown the moorland cross-track.
The mountains and the hill passes
would then reverberate to you
the echoed sound of baying call
from the hairy hounds' rampaging...


Before looking at one final song, we should recap on the information discussed. From the earliest source we have a slender hound used for hunting deer amongst other prey. The nomenclature for this dog and its uses remain constant up to and including Duncan Ban MacIntyre's lifetime. This poet adds the description of hairy and shaggy browed. The fact that he is the only, and most modern poet, to elaborate on their appearance has more to do with the evolution of Gaelic poetry as it developed beyond the restraints of the classical, conservative Irish model and into a more vernacular form that allowed the freedom to describe things in more intimate detail, than it does with the evolution of deerhounds.

It would appear from the evidence available in song that our modern day hound is in fact extremely similar to its forebears with only the colour and height of the dog remaining elusive, although undoubtedly smaller in stature than today's norm.

With regard to ownership and use, it would appear that hunting hounds were very much the perogative of the higher social orders as such existed within Gaeldom though possibly not to the same preclusive extent as Lowland Scotland or more so England.

The average deerhound today when at home and at repose will be found lengthwise on the settee or draped over a cushioned armchair and woe betide anyone who would try to evict him. None of the songs so far mention man's relationship with his hounds and it must be presumed that in the past it was purely functional as with any dedicated working dog today. Perhaps the final line of Duncan Ban's poem here shows just a hint of emotion at the loss of a good hound and I shall leave the last word to him.

Culaidh leagadh nan damh donn
Air mullach nan tom 's nan cnoc;
Namhaid nam biast dubh is ruadh,
'S ann air a bha buaidh nam broc; Bha mhaigheach tarsainn 'na bheul,
Thuit iad le cheil' ann an sloc;
Bha iad baite bonn ri bonn,
Is muladach sin leam a nochd.


A power for felling the dun stags
on the top of mounds and hills;
foe of otters and of foxes,
he was the conqueror of brocks,
the hare was cross-wise in his mouth,
they dropped together in a pit,
and they were drowned, cheek by jowl -
Woeful is this to me tonight.


[From: Elegy on a dog that went through the ice with a hare crosswise in its mouth].


References
Bardach Albannach: Scottish Verse from the Book of the Dean of Lismore.
Gaelic Songs of Mary MacLeod.
Oran Iain Luim.
Oran Dhonnchaidh Bhain.
[All the above published by the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society].
The Literature of Scotland by Roderick Watson


Presented for you by:
Nancy MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot USA
Author, Poet
Historian of the Ancient Clans of Scotland

Sources:Mackie's Book of Celtic Poetry
Nora Chadwick's works on Celtic Poetry.



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