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217 CHAPTER TEN Performance John J. McGavin and Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart No drama texts exist in medieval Scottish Gaelic sources, and medieval and early-modern Scotland has left few plays in Scots (although those survivors are high quality). It was nonetheless a country immensely rich in that wide field of performance before spectators which can incorporate music, narrative, debate and poetry, and even military displays like tournaments, or theatrical sporting events such as horse racing, as well as text-based theatre.1 But performance is not a term that can be restricted to actions that entertain. Communities, groups and individuals might also employ the public language of performance for other ends, and in other contexts. Thus, one finds performance in ritual, in ceremony, and in staged political events – in the processions of kings entering their major towns; in the staged charity of the rich man to the poor at his gate or his overt patronage of retained fools; in aristocratic funerals; in public demonstrations of judicial punishment; and in those displays of clothing and accoutrements by which men and women who had the financial capacity chose to affirm their identities to their neighbours. Performance is thus central not only to the realm of pleasure but to the public world of assertion; there is often an overlap between these realms and one event can have many different functions.2 This chapter selects examples to reveal the broad range of early Scottish performance; to explore points of connection between apparently differing traditions, modes and genres; and to demonstrate that performance must be understood in relation to the nuances of context. The Edge of Performance The potential of classical Gaelic dán díreach (‘strict metre’) poetry to be performed has recently been the subject of detailed study and speculation . This body of complex, syllabic verse, dating between the twelfth 218 john j. mcgavin and dòmhnall uilleam stiùbhart and seventeenth century, primarily panegyric affirming aristocratic and heroic values, conferring honour and fame, represents a key element of the shared inheritance of the Gaelic culture-region stretching from Munster to Sutherland. Frustratingly, although much is understood concerning the complex metrical and linguistic rules governing its composition, relatively little evidence survives concerning the actual performance of this high status, long-lasting and once ubiquitous genre. Relatively late ethnographic descriptions suggest that typically two individuals were involved: the reacaire or bàrd (not necessarily the poet who composed the piece) responsible for the recitation before the chief or patron, and the clàrsair or harper who offered some manner of musical accompaniment. Given the primary focus upon the meaning of the texts themselves (in which classical linguistic forms were increasingly divorced from everyday speech),3 the construction of the verse according to syllabic count rather than regular metrical rhythm, and the lack of allusion to instrumental accompaniment within the poetry itself, it seems probable that the harper’s contribution was limited to flourishes performed at the beginning and end of verses.4 Later evidence also suggests that certain genres of vernacular poetry and song, extant at least since the end of the medieval period, could be performed for an audience under particular circumstances: these include Fenian or Ossianic lays – most notably in the case of dialogues purportedly between the aged Ossian and St Patrick – and flyting competitions such as those described by Angus Fraser in the early nineteenth century as ‘Rainn co’chaineadh’: a poem consisting of alternate verses of mutual satire between two bards. Satirical contests of this kind were frequent in ancient times as tests of skill and ability in the profession, but it was deemed a disgrace to exhibit any bad feeling towards an opponent – they generally concluded with an embrace, and mutual professions of regard.5 This genre of patently staged antipathy also offered a ‘jocound and mirrie’ opportunity in Scots for William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy, respectively , to exploit prejudicial Highland and Lowland stereotypes in their Flyting at the turn of the sixteenth century.6 The earthiness that they showed in their invective had a counterpart in the enduring popularity of ‘crosántacht’, a medley of semi-classical verse and prose well larded with buffoonery and obscenity.7 The evidence of these genres, and in particular the self-consciously regional slant given to flyting by Kennedy and Dunbar, indicates awareness that tastes could be shared between the Highland and Lowland Scots in the area where poetry shades into para-dramatic performance. However, flyting is not a simple...


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