The following song-poem was one of many excellent Gaelic texts that I could not manage to fit into the anthology Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada, due to lack of space and time. I’m presenting it here as it’s a fine example of Gaelic poetry that has received no previous public or scholarly attention, and it allows us to see the historical value of such texts.
The song-poem was composed by Alasdair MacGilleMhaoil (Alasdair mac Eóghainn mhic Ghill-Easbuig mhic Domhnaill Duinn). Alasdair was born in 1764 in Reisibol, Suaineart but was raised in Lochaber from a young age. In 1802 he left for Gleann Garaidh (Glengarry), Ontario, with many others of the region. He passed away in 1853. (For more biographical details, see Seanchaidh na Coille or the article in IRSS.)
If you wish to read the Gaelic and English versions of this without being influenced by my interpretative notes, scroll down.
Alasdair composed this song-poem to his brother-in-law Donnchadh/Duncan (of whom he was exceedingly – some might say excessively – fond) not long after he (Alasdair) settled in Ontario. Alasdair is urging him to emigrate and join him in America, and to do so, he describes a hypothetical voyage in a grandiose vessel, detailing the route that he should take.
Although the geographical points of reference are realistic, the piece as a whole is a work of the imagination drawing strongly from older Gaelic literature describing the sea-based military might of the native Gaelic élite (see older song-poems of this nature in Black, and Ó Baoill and Bateman). Alasdair praises and elevates the social stature of his subject of address, Donnchadh, by drawing from what John MacInnes has deemed the “Gaelic panegyric code,” the traditional rhetoric of eulogy developed by the professional Gaelic literati over a span of centuries.
This rhetoric is apparent in the conventional praise of generosity, especially in the form of alcohol dispensed to friends and guests (lines 10-11, 52), as well as the description of the command of a sailing ship (esp lines 23-24, 45-50), which implies the ability to lead a group of stout men, and hence ability to rule.
At the same time, the poet expresses his sadness over parting with ancestors whose graves were traditionally understood to provide stable grounding and legitimacy for future generations (lines 41-44).
I do think that this song-poem has great literary merit and historical value. The editor and publisher of the booklet that printed it in 1882 must have thought so too. After all, it provides a mental and cultural thread of continuity from medieval Highland life into North American immigrant communities.
But I think that we can go much further than that. Remember that this voyage never actually happened – the text was an act of the imagination, and a very heroic one at that. Why was this significant to this audience? Highlanders saw themselves at this point as a defeated people, at the mercy of their old enemies who were now driving them out of their homes. The Battle of Culloden was seen as a major turning point in Gaelic history, after which anglophones were perceived as unwholesome victors forcing unwelcome changes that ultimately lead to emigration (see discussion in Seanchaidh). Indeed, Marian McLean’s study verifies the weight of prejudice and externally-imposed difficulties under which Gaels in Lochaber laboured in this era.
A number of Gaelic texts, especially song-poems (given their lofty rhetoric and traditional role describing cultural paragons), from this period reflect the need of Gaels to soothe their wounded pride and recoup a semblence of their self-esteem by drawing from the canon of heroic literature. Rather than bowing to defeat and conquest, such texts allowed Gaels to reimagine their present in terms of the better pasts they kept alive in cultural memory and steel themselves for the challenges that lay ahead in the emigrant experience (see further discussion in Seanchaidh na Coille, 130, 142-45, 247). This was, in other words, a culturally-specific form of community re-empowerment, born of the Gaelic literary imagination.
This illustrates the value of this kind of material and why it should not be acceptable for the reclamation and study of it to continue to be neglected. Gaelic texts give us direct insight into the inner life of Highland immigrants and their shared legacy as the inheritors of a sophisticated civilisation. They put us in touch with the hopes, fears, anxieties, coping mechanisms and social strategies of Gaelic communities. They provide us with revelations not available in DNA tests, geneaological charts, ship logs, or census figures. They tell us what Gaels felt was important to them in a medium and style reflecting their own tradition and identity. It is our own heroic mission to understand them on their own terms and celebrate them as the priceless cultural relics that they are.
Òran a rinn am bàrd do bhràthair céile dha fhéin, a dh’fhàg e ’na dhéidh ann an Albainn is nach deachaidh riamh do America. Bha e fuireach air a’ Chamdail ri taobh abhainn Lòchaidh, an Loch Abar. B’ ainm Donnchadh MacGilleMhaoil, no mar a theireadh na h-eòlaich ris gu cumanta, Donnchadh Bàn mac Aonghais mhic Dhonnchaidh mhic Iain.
1 Is toigh leinn am fear bàn
A tha tàmh aig Lòch;
Thig a-nall gun dàil
Is gheobh thu fàilte ’s pòg.
5 Donnchadh bàn na Rìnic,
Fear gun ghruaim gun mhì-ghean,
Nan tigeadh tu ’n tìr seo
Chuirinn dhìom gach bròn.
Cridhe farsaing fialaidh
10 Ceannaicheadar an fhìona
Bu tu làmh ga dhìoladh
Is cha b’ e breug no bòst.
Is duilich leam mar tha thu
Fada bho do chàirdean;
15 Cuir do bhàrc air sàile
Is lean gu dàn’ an tòir.
Faigh bho’n òg Mac Ailpein
Iubhrach dhìonach dharaich
Bhios gun ghaoid gun ghaiseadh,
20 Sgiobair gast’ air bòrd.
Iubhrach shocrach dhealbhach
Sgoilteas an cuan meanmnach;
Làmh air stiùir neo-chearbaich
Chumas fairg’ fo sròin.
25 Biodh i air a dlùthadh
Le sàilean na giùbhsaich;
Is lannan ùr bho’n òrd.
’N àm dhut a bhith seòladh
30 Mach bho Ionar Lòchaidh
Roinn an Corran comhnard
Muir gun chòntraigh mhóir.
Roinn an Linne Sheilich
Druim na Linne Liosaich;
35 Dubhairt, cum ri d’ dheas-làimh
Is an làimh eile ’n t-Òb.
Cum do chùrsa dìreach
Seach an t-Eilean Ìleach
Mach bho bhonn Chinn Tìre
40 Is cùl do chinn ri Comhghall.
Cùl do chinn gu dìlinn
Ri dùthaich do shinnre
Ged a tha na mìltean
Diubh ’s a’ chill fo’n fhòid.
45 Iar a’ ghaoth neo-lapach
Biodh i’ n-ear gu d’ fhacal
Làmh air stiùir a mharcaich
Is biodh a h-astar corr.
Cum do ghabhail is cuimhnich:
50 Na toir géill – gabh suim deth –
Gus an ruig thu Quebec
Far am bi suinn ag òl.
Fuirich là no dhà ann
’Cur do sgìos air farradh
55 Is tog do shiùil an àird
Mo Mhontreal, a sheòid!
Nuair gheobh mi do litir
Leumaidh mi le briosgadh;
Bidh mi làn do mhisnich
60 Is thig mi ’chlisgeadh beò.
I have updated the orthography of the text but not made substantial changes other than those noted here.
Line 5: The original source gives the place name as “Reinic.” I don’t know which place name is intended, but I have altered it to suit the intended rhyme.
Line 34: The source was damaged, making the place name somewhat illegible. It looks like “Linne [?]easaich,” which I have interpreted as “Linne Liosaich.”
Line 50: Original has “na toir ceill.”
My English Translation
A song that the poet for his own brother in law, who he left behind him in Scotland and who never came to [North] America. He lived at Camdail beside the river Lochy, in Lochaber. His name was Duncan MacMillan, or as his friends commonly called him Fair Duncan son of Angus son of Duncan son of John.
(1-4) We like the fair man who lives at Lochy; who will come immediately and get a welcome and a kiss.
(5-8) Fair Duncan of Reinic, a good-natured man: if you would come to this country, I would cast away all unhappiness.
(9-12) An expansive, generous heart; a buyer of wine; yours is the hand to dispense it, and it is no lie or boast.
(13-16) Your condition saddens me, so far from your relations; put your vessel on the sea-brine and follow keenly the pursuit.
(17-20) Get a water-tight oaken galley from young MacAlpine that will be without defect or mishandling, with an excellent captain on board.
(21-24) A handsome, steady galley that will carve the mettlesome sea; a hand on the reliable steering-wheel that will keep the sea below her prow.
(25-28) Let it [the galley] be constructed from the beams of the pine-forest; doubled cross-beams, with fresh roves [pounded?] under the hammer.
(29-32) When it is time for you to sail out from Inverlochy, [take?] the Point of Corran on the level, [when] the sea is not at highest neap tide.
(33-36) [You’ll pass] the point of Loch Linnhe, the ridge of the water of Lismore; keep Duart on your right hand, and Oban on your other hand.
(37-40) Keep your course straight past the island of Islay; out from the base of Kintyre, facing away from Cowal.
(41-44) Turn your back forever to the land of your ancestors, even though there are thousands of them in the graveyard below the sod.
(45-48) The west wind strong, let it come from the east at your word; a hand on the master steering wheel, and let her achieve great speed.
(49-52) Keep your direction and remember: do not yield – take no [further] heed – until you reach Quebec, where the heroes drink.
(53-56) Stay a day or two there, putting your exhaustion behind you, and then raise your mast for Montreal, o hero!
(57-60) When I will receive your letter, I will jump up briskly; I will be completely excited and suddenly revived.
Black, Ronald. An Lasair: Anthology of 18th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001.
McLean, Marianne. The People of Glengarry: Highlanders in Transition, 1745-1820. Toronto and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991.
Newton, Michael. Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the ForestL Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada. Sydney, C.B.: Cape Breton University Press, 2015.
Newton, Michael. “Of Goats and Men: A Literary Relic of Gaelic Ontario.” International Review of Scottish Studies 39 (2014): 1-25.
Ó Baoill, Colm and Meg Bateman. Gàir nan Clàrsach / The Harp’s Cry: An Anthology of 17th-Century Gaelic Poetry. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1994.