Peter Grant of Strathspey: Theology in Song

All lovers of Gaelic song will be familiar with Calum Kennedy’s heart-rendering ‘Oran mu Leanabh Og’ (‘Song of a Young Child’), but few, I suspect, will be aware of its source.  It was composed by the most prolific of our Gaelic hymn-writers, Peter Grant, and portrays an infant reporting back from heaven to assure his parents that if they knew the bliss he now enjoyed, far from grieving for him, they would be longing to join him.

Grant’s poetry was quintessentially lyrical and in the not too distant past his songs were being sung all over the Highlands.  The first collection appeared around 1809 (when Grant was only 26), the last in 1926: 21 editions in all.  Now his name is all but forgotten, yet not only are these songs treasures in themselves (and quite enough to provide a whole programme for BBC Alba), but his life and work provide a fascinating window into the world of the post-Culloden Highlands.

Peter Grant (Gaelic, Padruig Grannd) was born near Grantown-in-Spey in 1783.  It was the age of Neil Gow, ‘the fiddler of Strathbraan’, when Strathspey was rediscovering its ancient dances and traditional music.  Peter’s father, a popular fiddler, was very much part of this movement, and passed his talent on to his son, who claimed at the end of his life that the only vice he was ever addicted to was ‘amusement’, by which he meant the violin, the song, and the dance.  Even when he occasionally served as precentor in the parish church he accompanied the psalms with the violin, long before any musical accompaniment was heard in the churches of the south.

There was no tradition of piety in the Grant family, but his mother had two sisters, Meggie and Effie Stuart.  They were kirk-loving, Sabbath-keeping ladies, but they were also ardent Jacobites, whose favourite topics of conversation were the wickedness of ‘Beataidh ghrànda’ (Queen Elizabeth) and (‘with flowing tears’) the tragedy of ‘Mairi bhoidheach’ (the lovely Queen Mary).

From the point of view of social history the most important of Grant’s compositions is ‘Gearan nan Gaidheal’ (‘The Complaint of the Gaidheal’). His main complaint is the complete failure of church and state to place biblical Christianity within the reach of the Gaelic-speaking people.  The great symbol of this is the fact that only in 1802 did the Gaidheals at last  have the whole Bible in their own language (a hundred years after the North American ‘Indians’).  But even then few Highlanders could read it.  Grant himself had had just enough schooling to be able to read English, but while he had been taught to read it, he had never been taught him to understand it.  He could make the sounds, but they were the sounds of an unknown tongue.

On the other hand, no one was teaching them to read Gaelic, the one language they could actually understand.  This led to his core complaint.  There were no warm, evangelical preachers to teach them; and they couldn’t teach themselves because, ‘Cha tuig sinn Beurla, ’s cha leugh sinn Gaidhlig’ (‘We can’t understand English, and we can’t read Gaelic’).

Grant’s world, then, was a world in which the Bible was not only inoperative, but unknown.  Yet Strathspey was far from primitive or barbaric.  It had the music of Neil Gow, and it had the endless Fingalian tales.  But it was also a world where people’s heads were filled with fairies, which would have been all very well had they been nice ones, but they weren’t.  They were hobgoblins and other nasties who brought down mothers and children, and which could be controlled only by charms, chants and spells.  Why, then, Grant pleads, do those who so willingly send missionaries to India not send missionaries to the spiritually benighted Highlands?

The decisive moment in Grant’s intellectual and spiritual awakening came when he encountered the poetry of Dugald Buchanan, the Rannoch bard.  The circumstances, once again, speak volumes about social and cultural conditions.  A visitor attending the funeral of a relative spent the night in the Grant home, and at some point in the evening took out a small book and began to sing.  It was Buchanan’s hymn, ‘The Day of Judgement’.  The tune was familiar enough: a well known popular melody.  But the sentiments, allied to the beauty of the language, were such as Grant had never heard.  Aged only twelve, he was completely captivated.  The stranger, seeing this, gave him the book to keep, and even taught him to read a few simple Gaelic words.  Within a year, Peter had taught himself both to read and to sing Buchanan fluently.

Some time later, an uncle on a business-trip south came across a Gaelic book in an Edinburgh book-shop and bought it for him.  It was Joseph Alleine’s ‘Alarm to the Unconverted’, one of the first books to be translated into Gaelic (1781).  What is particularly poignant here is the young Grant’s sense of discovery.  He had never met a ‘converted’ person, and thought none of the kind now existed.  Alleine gave him the idea that there might still be some in the world.

Grant eventually met one: Lachlan Mackintosh, one of the ‘missionaries’ commissioned by the brothers Alexander and Robert Haldane to evangelise the Highlands.  Condemned by the General Assembly of the Kirk, and widely suspected of being preachers of subversion (this was, after all, the era of the French Revolution), these men were widely persecuted.  But Grant found in Mackintosh’s preaching the peace he was looking for, joined him, and eventually (1826) succeeded him as Baptist minister of Grantown-on-Spey. There he would spend the last forty-one years of his life.

Grant’s poetry cannot compare with Buchanan’s for sublimity or consistency.  But he never forgot that it was music and poetry that first stirred his own heart and mind; and in an age when few Highlanders could read their native language his songs probably did more than the words of any preacher to fill their imaginations with the language, doctrines and images of the Bible.

Which serves only to confirm what sages sussed out long since: ‘Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.’  But that is a double-edged sword.  We’re no longer singing Padruig Grannd, or even Calum Kennedy; and we’re proud of it.  But it’s hard to believe that the chants of the football terraces and the extremes of Glastonbury contain the seeds of a bright future.

This article  first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday, 22 November 2013.