It was a narrow squeak with Fearghas after the first meeting - having spent a dark early evening in a gloomy Inverness hotel, Fearghas showing normal reserve about being foisted out of his house to spend time explaining himself in English to the unlikely pair of Murray Grigor and me. Things got better by email. We were able to hunt down the River Leven poem he was interested in and to enjoy together the contemplation of early Gaelic poems – the little, perfect ones that the monks recorded with apparently accidental permanence in the margins of medieval manuscripts.
Fearghas seems to sense the small rebellions that must have been involved in this. I used to wonder myself how come a monk (poverty, chastity and obedience) had the nerve - given the job of transcribing a book on very precious vellum, a material for which many goats had died and on which many monks had laboured, a labour intended to produce a very valuable piece of literary real estate. There the poor young guy was in the depth of Europe someplace – St Gall, maybe, or Laon or Bobbio – thinking in a language the strangers do not know, scribing in Latin – and he writes, in the margin of this very very special transcription, a poem in Gaelic, a poem which I assume hardly anybody who used the book would understand but which everybody who opens it will surely notice as a sort of mutilation of the book and the text it was made to preserve. How did they have the nerve? What happened to them when they were found out?
Maybe nobody except the Irish guys opened the manuscripts for years. Maybe there was a kind of conversation going on and a communal polishing of a favourite riff, the way traditional players would do it. Some of the poems are versions. The Viking one exists in lots of versions
Fearghas’s favourite seems to be this small epic and his own translation goes about as far as English can travel towards the amazing, brilliant brevity of the old Irish.
Scél lem dúib
gáeth ard úar
High cold blow.
Chilled each quill.
|(Anon, c.900AD – translated by Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh, No 4 in the Great Book)|
Fearghas reads it in our film and you can hear him laugh as the knot of the last line is secured and the poem is left standing there forever – a great achievement, considering the damage that a day’s filming can do to your enthusiam, sense of humour and sanity. It was a hard day. We met at Balloch and immediately had the feeling of understanding nothing about it. It’s on Loch Lomond but it has some of the signs of a working town about it even though the water is overwhelmed with pleasure boats – dozens of white things lying there like zoo animals too depressed to remember who they are or what they do.
It made sense on the map. There is the mighty Loch Lomond with Balloch at the southern end, then a river flowing south to the firth at Dumbarton – Dun Bretain, the fort of the Britons, the Welsh-speaking original people of the place. It was harder to read this history in the way the place now looks, harder for me anyway.
Fearghas did it by placenames. He lived there as a child and wanted to find out how his own place was named. He was looking at place the way a medieval Gael would, when the Dinnshenchas was there to tell you exactly what Fearghas wanted to know.
Dinnshenchas, as we were discussing previously, is a literature of place, forming a typical section in some of the old Great Books, mapping Ireland in words and that was probably why we went to Balloch in the first place. The poem Fearghas remembered in the Inverness car park was a piece of Dinnshenchas about Balloch and the river Leven (Leamhain)
Gearrabhann t’anam each oile
Lá do laithibh do Leamhain
Báidhtior ar bhruach an chlaidh
Your were called ‘Short River in the time of his royal ancestors until Corc of Munster came over the sea, his wavy hair fringeing his eyes.
One day Leamhain, mother of long-haired Maine, and fifty white-footed maidens with her, went swimming at the rivermouth.
She drowned at the shore-edge - Leamhain, daughter of Fearadhac; and you, river, are called Leamhain ever since – not a bad story to tell.
Mind you, unlike some laureates we all know, Muireadhach seems to have kept a good part of himself unblunted by the threat of regular wages and irregular demands and even the Leven poem would have been just what Fearghas would have found useful ages ago.
There are other verses, but don’t bother. It’s by Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dalaigh, whom we met in Oughterard Graveyard with his beautiful lament for his wife. Most Dindshenchas poems are professional work, often as interesting and as uninteresting as acceptance speeches. There’s a long list of people who have to get a mention, they have titles and attributes. A fog of gratitude obscures what sometimes sounds like lots of dirty work and great stories.
At least this poem helps you to see a run-down part of the world as the functioning significant place it used to be when Scotland was a more normal country, when the Clyde was a highway to the Atlantic, when water was not a barrier, but an enabler.
These days the roads scamper around Loch Lomond, there isn’t enough room for the roads that all the traffic thinks it’s using, there are horrible rushes at both extremities of every weekend. I always feel endangered by automobile Glaswegians there; and Glasgow is not a city of mad drivers, it’s a place of mad pedestrians. I started to drive the wrong way up a one-way street there once and was stopped by a little, round old lady who lept off a bus stop and brandished her umbrella at the car. I offered excuses; they were not accepted.
Glasgow, and all around Glasgow, is still a sea territory. It’s just that they’ve forgotten it for the time being. It has become a city that ignores its river, the river it used to live off. The river is lost. This means that the whole west coast is lost and the subtle connections that made Argyll and beyond into connected places. I remember the shock of reading James MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie and realising that Tarbert - the small fishing town that I had just reached by the skin of my teeth and by way of one of the most irrational road journeys of my life - had been rich on fishing and on the ability to get fish to Glasgow directly and fast – by sea, of course. The road has to avoid the lochs, which are everywhere, and the mountains, which are everywhere else. The sea, which now separates, used to connect.
Anyway, we were able to look at the Lomond landscape all the clearer for trying to understand an enigmatic piece of medieval Dinshenchas. Of course, once we understood some of it, we got a hold of Fearghas and got him to walk the territory. We went up and down the river. There were midges, flies and there were strong hints of resort behaviour – picnics, cars, boats and, of course, Young People.
This being more or less Glaswegian territory, we were not offered deference. We were courteously offered opportunities to get out of people’s way and to behave ourselves. It was hard to get a few uninterrupted minutes for Fearghas to recite the Brief Account and the Leamhain poem, to say some autobiographical things, to remember the whole thing and to keep his feet dry. He managed everything, though I worry about his feet.
Because films never know when to leave well enough alone, we took him off to Jamestown, where he grew up, and pumped him for more and more. We ended late and left Fearghas in his brother’s care. He’s still alive and well and cascading many-languaged haiku all over the web from Inverness. Many poets suffered uneccessary cruelty in the making of this film.
Before we all got tired and unemotional, we filmed what looked like a well-wrapped up piece of picturesqueness and Heritage – Dumbarton Castle, on Dumbarton Rock. Fearghas’s An Tuagh is in The Great Book, a straightforward poem - for Fearghas - but it’s about a battle – Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn – and about the lack of Bannockburns of any kind since. So the castle is fine for our purposes. It’s in the care of the National Trust or some other fragrant organisation, sells souvenirs, has friendly women in the office and some discreet charm. I wasn’t looking properly or thinking while we were doing it. I’m Irish; we’ve gotten over the English and we forget how thorough the Roman kind of English were.
Looking at Dumbarton, I wondered if English backbones relaxed a bit when they got to Ireland. We have garrison towns, planter towns and villages and we still have a few horrible bits of military history like the fortifications at Athlone or Carrickfergus Castle. But most of it is rather domestic. The towns and villages were intended to show the natives how to behave and had English civilisation compulsorily designed into them in village greens, geometric grids, upright rigid houses with cold bedrooms and almost useless parlours. By now it all looks quaintly genteel and very faded.
Most of the military stuff is just odd. Dublin Castle, for instance - a big dark presence in history but almost invisible in the actual Dublin. Carrickfergus could be one of those girl’s schools you see exposed to the wind and the rain outside Brighton. You’d wonder if the English ever took us seriously – seriously enough to defend themselves against us properly.
They took Scotland seriously all right. Dumbarton Rock is a mighty and sudden thing, massive and unlike anything around it. It must always have been a stronghold. All we had to do was get ourselves up from top to bottom on foot, ourselves and a camera and a few bits of hardware. After five minutes of a climb we were very very grateful we were neither invading or retreating. Even if Hannnibal was invading, a defending army could have a picnic up there and never have to take their minds off the cucumber sandwiches.
It’s impregnable and it looks it. We read the inscripions and it seems it was built in double quick time, along with Fort Augustus and Fort William, immediately after Culloden and the 1745 disaster. It was hideously permanent. And this is what Scotland got from England, a grip on the throat of the country, a network of fortifications, roads to connect them and a horribly efficient way to get rid of whole populations.
In Ireland we got the Earl of Essex, a pretty boy but easily distracted and Edmund Spenser, John Davys and John Harrington – no angels but every one a poet. Until Cromwell of course. Scotland got The Butcher Cumberland and General Roy; also, eventually, Dr Johnson. We recovered more or less; I don’t think Scotland completely realises what hit it. But it will.
Anyway, Fearghas is, like all sensible people, a Scottish Nationalist of some sort and he was reading An Tuagh for the film. He did it very well. Then The Production got itself very very interested in the many fascinating visual possibilities available when you are in a scenic location and are completely surrounded by Heritage. Dunbarton Rock has cannon, towers, turrets and panoramic views of some very interesting bits of the Clyde, including some of the dirty factory bits – now evolving into the Heritage of the future. It also has the ground of Dumbarton Football Culb – Boghead, very visible from the rock and looking as strange as soccer grounds usually do.
The ground is a perfect rectangle, very perfectly green, looking like a manicured lie, a floozy with great legs, technicolour hair and a raddled face you can’t see from a distance. So of course we spent a good deal of time getting the camera to ignore Boghead. A pity. The position and demeanour of the football field tells you a lot about a place. The Larne pitch is like Boghead, sunk comfortably in the middle of town, no space around it, looking like the first thing that ever happened there, as if everything else grew from that central plot. So is Tynecastle (Edinburgh, Hearts), Barnsley, Stoke, Birmingham City. But Gaelic Football pitches are usually on the edge of town, like Catholic churches, like the old Irishtowns you see on old maps of Limerick and like Dublin’s Irishtown – on the far side of the river to Oxmanstown.
So we never got Boghead into the film. The film’s Dinnshenchas wasn’t broad enough to include it and Fearghas and I were, I think, too overwhelmed by the climb, the fortifcations, the fire power and the feeling that we were standing inside Britain’s iron fist, its networks still more or less intact and still squeezing the life out of Scotland.