Scotland: “If only hitting on the right judgment/were instinctive to humankind!”

Today Scotland votes on independence.

As a Welsh neighbour who lived in Scotland for half a decade, I’d love to be voting, but it’s not for me to decide. It’s still a good day to read some Scottish Gaelic poetry, though. Here are three ways to do just that:

  1. Track down an original manuscript: One of the National Library of Scotland’s greatest treasures is half a millennium old. The Book of the Dean of Lismore includes poems in Gaelic, Scots, Latin and English, but fascinatingly, the Gaelic ones are written in a Scots “accent”, with the spelling reflecting Perthshire pronunciation. You can see the manuscript and find out more on the NLS website.
  2. Order a book: There’s been much lament about the fact that so much Gaelic poetry is published in bilingual editions, that the poets often self-translate into English. But it does make it easier for the rest of the world to access. An Tuil/The Flood is the definitive bilingual edition of Scottish Gaelic verse from the last century, edited and translated by Gaelic specialist Ronald Black. One of my favourites in this collection is Katherine Whyte Grant, from Oban, who also translated Schiller from German into Gaelic.
  3. Read a poem online: The Scottish Poetry Library has poems in Gaelic, Scots and Shetlandic, with translations. You can search by language, gender and century to find the right poet for you.

And that’s where I found the perfect poem for today. Meg Bateman’s Mise agus Pangur Bàn/The Monk and Pangur Ban retells the 9th century Irish poem about a cat and his master, each doing what they do best (in her own translation below):

Image ©2014 Denis Brown

Image ©2014 Denis Brown

Chunnaic am manach gum b’ iomchaidh
Pangur Bàn a bhith ri luchan
fhad ’s a bha e fhèin ri sgrìobhadh
sa scriptorium fhuar is luchan rim fògradh.

Ach chan eil an gnothach cho sìmplidh
dhomhsa is an cat làn Whiskas is dallag aige.
An leig mi leis a’ chat cluich le a chreich
is sin na dhualchas,

No an glac mi an creutair sgeunach san t-sluasaid
ach an tilg mi a-mach e san fheur fhada riaslach
far an ruith e air falbh gus an tèid a ghlacadh . . .
is truas dham cho-chreutair san nàdar agamsa?

Nam bu dualach e do Phangur Bàn
greimeachadh air an luch a dh’aona leum
tha e dualach dhomhsa
a bhith eadar dà bharail:

An-dè ’s ann a shàbhail mi an luch;
an-diugh toilichidh mi an cat, ’s mi sgìth . . .
O nan robh am breithneachadh ceart
mar bu dual do mhac-an-duine.

The monk saw it fitting
that Pangur Bàn should be busy with a mouse
while he was busy with writing
in a cold scriptorium with mice to keep down.

But the matter is not so simple for me
when the cat has a shrew and is full of Whiskas.
Should I leave the cat well alone
as playing with his prey is part of his nature,

Or should I shovel up the terrified shrew
and throw it out in the long grass
to scuttle away till next it’s caught . . .
as compassion for others is part of mine?

As it was instinctive for Pangur Bàn
to leap on his prey at one swift bound,
so is it instinctive for me
to hover between two minds:

Yesterday I saved the mouse,
today, being tired, I’ll please the cat . . .
If only hitting on the right judgment
were instinctive to humankind!

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Posted in books, international, literature, poetry, Scotland Referendum, translation

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