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Aes Dana

The People of Many Arts

This article is an introduction to the arts and culture of Gaeldom that reached
its fullest and richest expression under the Lordship of the Isles, from the
thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The legacy of that period, and the
centuries before it under the kingdom of Dalriada, lives on today in the Bardic
tradition of the Western Isles.
"With...their devotion to religion, literature, music and art, the early Gael
had a civilisation far superior to anything in the south of Scotland or England.
There was a far more literary culture among the Gaels for many centuries before
the Reformation than existed for some time subsequent to that period."
[With Sword and Harp, by W.M. Currie - Clan Mhuirrich 1977]
Aes Dana was the old name given to the people of many arts in Gaelic society.
They were respected, honoured and highly esteemed. Among their ranks were to be
found professionals of all kinds, from physicians, poets and harpers, to bards,
stone carvers and brehons. Their positions were for the most part hereditary, so
that the traditions, lore and skills of each craft were carried on from
generation to generation, becoming more highly skilled and specialised as time
went on. Most of the Aes Dana that were attached to noble families were given
the use of enough land to support their own families.
Among the musicians it was only the harper that enjoyed the status of 'freeman'.
The clarsach was the most important instrument of medieval Gaelic society and
many professional harpers were attached to particular courts of the nobility.
The family of O Senog / MacShenog / MacSenach, whose descendants are now known
as MacShannon, were harpers to the Lords of the Isles. They had lands in
Kintyre. There is little of the harp music of this era that has survived to the
present day. By the eighteenth century the piper was beginning to usurp the
place of the harper.
The bagpipes, or piob mor, are a relatively late development compared with the
clarsach. Nevertheless pipers are heirs to a fine tradition of Highland
piobaireachd (classical pipe music). The MacArthurs are the best known of the
MacDonald pipers, while the MacIntyres were hereditary pipers to Clanranald in
South Uist. Thanks to various collectors over the centuries, we have preserved
today more than 250 ancient piobaireachds.
Along with the harper, the poet held a high place. To this day we still have a
rich tradition of Gaelic poetry; it is almost as if the very gift of rhyme and
word-weaving has been etched onto the Gaelic soul for eternity. Most of the
early poetry consisted of praise poetry, composed to extoll the courage,
hospitality and virtues of chiefs and warriors.
The most oustanding example of the Lordship era were the MacMhuirich family.
Trained in the Irish bardic tradition, they were the hereditary poets to the
Lords of the Isles from 1213 A.D. and after the dissolution of the Lordship, to

the chiefs of Clanranald in South Uist. They have left us some priceless jewels
of heritage, most notably the seventeenth century manuscripts known as the Red
and Black Books of Clanranald.
The most famous of the physicians were the Beatons, or MacBeth family. It seems
that they came from the north of Ireland to Scotland around 1300. One branch of
the family was based on Islay, and another on the mainland of northern Scotland.
They wrote a vast number of manuscripts on Gaelic folk medicine and their
diagnoses and cures, which were renowned throughout Europe, seem to have been
based for the most part on sound medical principles. Sadly, much of this
knowledge has now been lost.
The Morrisons (Clann Mhic Gille Mhoire) were the most famous family of
hereditary judges. They had their base at Habost, on the isle of Lewis but their
jurisdiction was wide indeed, from the Butt of Lewis to the Mull of Kintyre.
During the Lordship a distinctive system of law was maintained, based on the
ancient Irish Brehon laws. There was said to have been a judge in every isle for
the settling of all controversies. This was the legal office of the Brehon, or
The Record Keepers of the Lords of the Isles were the MacDuffies or McPhies of
Colonsay. We must not forget that through the local government organisation
known as the Council of the Isles, the Lordship itself wielded enough power to
maintain order and administrative justice throughout its domain.
The main seat of the Lordship was at Loch Finlaggan, on Islay. Here was the seat
of government and the administrative headquarters of the Lordship. In addition
to the private residence with its great hall for feasts and functions, there was
also the chapel of Finlaggan which ranked alongside Iona in importance. Only the
Lords themselves were buried on Iona, but their wives, children and other kin
had the right of burial at Finlaggan. Also at Finlaggan was the place of
inauguration for the Lords of the Isles, including the sacred "footprint" stone,
similar to the one used by the Dalriads at Dunadd.

Copyright: 1994 Lorraine MacDonald

Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust, Isle of Arran