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Gaelic writing dates back to the Lordship of the Isles (c 1200-1493) and, even before, to the work of monks at Iona. Gaelic prose did not develop fully until the written word became more widely available through the introduction of the Gaelic Bible. Highland-based literature in English is much more recent. Indeed, Highland literature, both prose and poetry of the highest quality in both Gaelic and English, has flourished in 20th century.

Early Gaelic poetry
The oral bardic tradition led to the development of a sizeable body of poetic work in Gaelic. The earliest works are compilations of bardic pieces, including The Book of the Dean of Lismore and the Fernaig Manuscript. The former was compiled between 1512 and 1526, chiefly by Sir James MacGregor, the Dean of Lismore, and his brother Duncan; the latter was compiled by the clan chief Duncan Macrae of Lochalsh around 690.

Iain Lom, Alexander Macdonald, Duncan Ban Macintyre and Mary MacPherson are among the poets of the 17th and 18th centuries. Gaelic poets of more recent times include Sorley MacLean, Aonghas MacNeacail and Myles Campbell.

Gaelic prose
Gaelic prose developed slowly. The Rev Norman MacLeod edited the first Gaelic periodicals An Teachdaire Gaelach (1829-31) and Cuairtear nan Gleann (1840-43), both devoted to prose and verse. Though many would find Macleod’s prose staid and dull today, the same cannot be said of 20th century Gaelic prose. Ian Crichton Smith, Iain Murray, Derick Thomson and Eilidh Watt have in recent years greatly expanded its output and quality.

Highland literature in English
Sir Walter Scott popularised the Highlands through several of his novels, probably as a result of reading James MacPherson’s epic Ossian. Macpherson’s epic (published in 1760 and translated into German by Goethe) was read by Napoleon and praised by Blake, Byron and Walter Scott. Mendelssohn, Schubert and Brahms composed music based on it.
Amongst the most widely read 20th century prose writers associated with the Highlands are Neil Gunn, Neil Munro, Compton MacKenzie, Norman MacCaig and Michel Faber.

Highland life through literature
Much Highland literature in English focuses on life in the Highlands. Examples include Alasdair MacLean’s Night falls on Ardnamurchan, a look at croft life; Lorn Macintyre’s Tobermory Days, provide snapshots of life in Mull from 1950 onwards. Neil Gunn’s fictional portrayals of Highland life are both vivid and accurate particularly in Young Art and Old Hector.

Although Highland literature tended not to be published locally, recent publishing ventures include the publishing house, Balnain Books, and the magazine Northwords. Gaelic poetry continues to thrive, and academic work is given prominence by the Gaelic Society of Inverness.

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