Bardic Visions in North Dakota

The song-poem by this Scottish Gaelic poet, Domhnall Aonghas Stiùbhart, who spent the latter part of his life in North Dakota, harkened back to the idyllic days of his youth in the Highlands. Like many of his contemporaries, his life’s path consisted of many stages of migration: he was born on the Isle of Skye in 1838, but his family moved to Prince Edward Island (Canada) in 1841. He went to work on the railroad as an adult and eventually settled in North Dakota, where he died in 1914.

Domhnall sent his poem to at least two different newspapers in 1909 (the Oban Times in Scotland and the Casket in Nova Scotia). It echoes the fitful course of his life, recounting in reverse the long journeys he had undertaken across land masses and oceans earlier in life. His text is, to a degree, a reflection of the ancient role of the poet in Gaelic tradition as seer: his mind’s eye traverses the trail home that his heart so much wants to follow. Like many other Gaelic poems expressing a strong attachment to ancestral territory and sense of place, the almost ritualistic enumeration of place names has a strong emotional power. (See Warriors of the Word, 89, 296-304.) These literary devices also feature prominently in another of his surviving song-poems (“Chì mi uam, uam, uam”).

Although Domhnall mentions the Scottish Lowlands (line 54) and names a few places on the Highland-Lowland boundary with names well established in Gaelic tradition (lines 53-6), the majority of the place names he mentions, and the places in which he imagines spending time, are in the Highlands. Gaels’ sense of belonging did not generally extend beyond the Highlands in any strong sense (see lines 24 and 60 in particular).

In his correspondence to the newspapers, he names his current place of residence as “Steuartdail,” which was known in English as “Stewartdale.” It was close to modern Bismark. I assume, but am not certain, that he coined the place name himself to signify his own homestead area. Did he knew any of the Gaels in Manitoba who threatened to move to the Dakotas, dissatisfied with the extreme difficulties they faced in railroad settlement schemes (see Seanchaidh na Coille, 170-5)?

It is perhaps ironic that, like so many of his contemporaries, he laments his exile from his kin and his family’s explusion from their ancestral home (lines 7 and 12), but at the same time defers to the supremacy of the British Empire, only seeking validation for his people as loyal warriors of that authority (lines 61-64). The vision of most Gaelic poets had become highly constrained by imperial conditioning (see discussion in Seanchaidh na Coille, 68-78, 187-9). At least his depiction of the native peoples of the area, the Sioux (line 18), is not overtly negative.

It is noteworthy that this song was modeled on an older Jacobite song. Jacobite songs provided a solid bedrock of song models for many Gaelic poets in North American immigrant communities and he even mentions Prince Charles by name (line 28), suggesting that the choice of this song model was a conscious one. Despite the catastrophic defeat of Jacobite forces at Culloden and the symbolism of that battle in Gaelic tradition as the last independent act of defiance against a hostile, anglocentric state, songs of the Jacobite movement were firmly entrenched in the musical-poetic canon and provided the melodies and choruses (and notes of determination and defiance) used by many “New World” poets.

An informant of the School of Scottish Studies, Johanna MacDonald (1880-1973) of Smiorasairidh, Gleann Ùige, Mùideart / Moidart, sang a portion of this song to Calum Maclean in 1954. (Thanks to my friend Dr. Tiber Falzett for finding this recording and sending me the reference.) You can hear the recording online at this link.

This poem has never received any previous scholarly attention and a few of my interpretations of geographic references are tentative. I would welcome any alternative suggestions about these interpretations.

Original Gaelic Text

Tìr an Fhraoich

Air Fonn — “Ho, ho, rachainn is mi gun rachadh // o-chòin fhéin, le Tearlach”

1 Ho! ho! is mi gun rachadh
O-chòin fhéin, ’se b’ àill leam
Rachainn fhéin gu tìr mo shinnsir
Null a-rithist do thìr nan Gàidheal.

5 Rachainn fhéin a-null do dh’Albainn
’S ann oirr’ dh’ainmichear do ghnàth mi
Is ged is fhada on chaidh ar tearbadh
O! gu dearbh, is tìr mo ghràidh i.

Tha mo dhachaigh ’s an Iar-Thuath seo
10 Le fearainn, taighean, buar is barr innt’;
Is ged a tha, bidh [mi] tric fo ghruaman
Is mise fuadaicht’ o mo chairdean.

Mi ’n tìr fharsaing àrd an fheòir seo
Far am bheil gach seòrsa tàmhach
15 Iad as gach cinneach ’s an Roinn Eòrpa
Is dhe gach seòrsa, dòigh is cànain.

Mi muigh aig abhainn mhóir Missouri
An tìr nan Sioux bha ùdlaidh, gàbhaidh,
Nuair a thàinig mi d’ an dùthaich
20 Is a shuidhich mi air tùs ’s an Dàil seo.

Thionndaidhinn-s’ an-sin air uilinn
Mach gu Muile nam beann àrda;
Dhèanainn tadhal anns an Òban
Is dhèanainn comhradh riu’ ’s a’ Ghàidhlig.

25 Shiubhlainn thairis troimh na Morairne
Is Àrd na Murchan nan stùc àrda
Is bheirinn sùil gu ceann Loch Mhùideart
’S ann a stiùir am Prionnsa Tearlach.

O cheann Loch Seile gu Caolas Shléite
30 Gu Baile ’n Stream is troimh Chaol Acain
An sin gu tìr MhicGilleChaluim
Is ’na sheann chlachan, dhèanainn dàil ann.

Sin bheirinn sùil gu Rubha Thùineis
Is bheirinn sùil gu Rubha Ghearrloch;
35 Ach stiùrainn fhéin staigh gu Port Rìgh
Is an tìr mo shinnsir rithist a tà mi.

Eilean Sgitheanach a’ chèo seo
Nam beanntan móra ’s nan lochan àlainn;
Ris an cainteadh Tìr MhicDhomhnaill
40 Is Tìr MhicLeòid, is cha b’ i bu tàire.

Dh’fhàgainn fhéin tìr àrd Dacòta
Troimh Mhinnesota is gu Chicàgo
Thairis air na Lochan Móra
Is thar Chòmhnaird Chanada as airde.

45 An sin troimh Chanada Ìochdrach
Is sìos Abhainn Naomh Labhrainn;
Thriallainn-s’ troimh na Roinnean Ìosal
Is air Prionnsa Ìomhair, chuirinn fàilte.

An sin rachainn thairis air a’ chuan
50 Tha stuadhach buaireasach do ghnàth,
Marcachd air a tonnan uaibhreach
Gus aig Abhainn Chluaidh ’n tàmhainn.

Chithinn Glaschu, chithinn Grianaig
Is an Tìr Ìosal, iomadh àite:
55 Rachainn fhéin do’n Eilean Bhóideach
Air Rothasaidh chuirinn fàilte.

Ás a sin a-mach gu Arainn
Ach cha b’ fhada chuirinn dàil ann;
Stiùirinn-sa mach gu Cinn Tìre
60 Is Eilean Ìle ’n Tìr na Gàidhlig.

Tìr nan gaisgeach, treuna seòlta
Gu buaidh-chomhrag anns na blàraibh;
Is bu tric a chuidich ris a’ ghlòr
Tha nis a’ comhdach seann Bhritannia.

65 Ged a tha mi an Dacòta
B’ e bhith ’n seann Scotia b’ àill leam
Bhith rithist measg an fhraoich is nan neòinean
Far an robh mi ’n òig mo làithean.

EDITORIAL NOTE:

Line 30: This is printed in the original as “Baile ’n Stream” which I take as a typo for Baile an t-Sròim, although I could be mistaken.

My English Translation

The Land of Heather

(1-4) Ho! ho! I would go, o-chòin, it is what I would like to do, I myself would go to the land of my ancestors, back over to the land of the Gaels.

(5-8) I myself would go over to Scotland, I will talk about her constantly; and although we were parted long ago, o! indeed, she is the land of my love.

(9-12) My home is here in the North-West, with its land, homes, livestock and crops; even so, I am often gloomy, having been driven away from my kin.

(13-16) I am in this expansive, high land of grass where all types [of people] live; they belong to every ethnic group in Europe, from every origin, way of life and language.

(17-20) I am out on the great Missouri river, in the land of the Sioux who were surly and dangerous when I first came to the country and settled in this dale.

(21-24) I would lean back then [and imagine going] out to Mull of the great mountains; I would visit Oban and I would speak to them in Gaelic.

(25-28) I would travel over through Morven and Ardnamurchan of the high peaks; and I would gaze out to the head of Loch Moidart where Prince Charles was directed.

(29-32) From the head of Loch Shiel to the Sound of Sleat, to Strom Ferry [?] and through Kyleakin; thence to the land of MacGilleChaluim [MacLeods of Raasay], and I would visit the old village there.

(33-36) And then I would gave out to Rubha Thùineis and over to the Point of Gairloch; but I would direct myself inland to Portree, and I am back in the land of my ancestors.

(37-40) This misty Isle of Skye of the great mountains and the beautiful lochs which is called “The Land of MacDonald and of MacLeod”: she is not the worst [i.e., she’s pretty good].

(41-44) I myself would leave the high land of Dakota through Minnesota and go towards Chicago, across the Great Lakes and over the plain of Upper Canada.

(45-48) Thence through Lower Canada and down the St. Lawrence River; I would travel through the Lower North Shore [?] and I would welcome Prince Edward [Island].

(49-52) Thence I would go across the ocean, which is always full of swelling walls [of water] and in ferment, mounted on her high-spirited waves until I would come to rest at the River Clyde.

(53-56) I would see Glasgow, I would see Greenock, and many places in the Lowlands; I would myself go to the Isle of Bute and I would welcome Rothesay.

(57-60) From there out to the island of Arran, although I would not tarry there long; I would direct myself out towards Kintyre and the Island of Islay in the land of Gaelic.

(61-64) The land of the warriors who are brave and well-trained for achieving victory on the battlefields and who often augmented the glory that now ornaments ancient Britannia.

(65-68) Although I am in Dakota, I would greatly like to be an auld Scotland, to be again among the heather and the daisies where I once lived in the days of my youth.

Bibliography

Michael Newton. Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.

Michael Newton. Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada. Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2015.

2 thoughts on “Bardic Visions in North Dakota

  1. Yes, a true highlander – but Stuart certainly also acknowledges some of his Lowland roots, the Isle of Bute being a primary Stewart property and center of the Clan Stuart. While we don’t know from his poem what branch of the family he was from, his reference to Bute and Rothesay certainly points to the Stuarts. Note also, your transcription of his North Dakota residence as “Steuartdail.” While you speculate that he may have been drawn to No Dak by other displaced Canadian Gaels, please know that the old “Northwest Territory” including Minnesota and the Dakotas had a strong representative population of Scottish immigrants, many, if not most, lowlanders. [Garrison Keillor and the Scandinavians notwithstanding!] My own family, from Hamilton Scotland, were pioneers in southern Minnesota at a time when the railroads had not extended into the territory opening up to settlement, and they walked alongside their oxcarts the 400 miles from eastern Wisconsin. They were accompanied by two other Scots families, the Cardles [Castle Douglas] and the Ogilvies [Arbroath], also lowlanders. Together they formed their own settlement out on the prairie on land not all that different from Stuart’s near Bismarck.

    • You bring up an interesting point, that of the relevance of Rothesay to someone whose surname is Stewart. Indeed, that seems very likely to be the reason he mentions the spot, as a point of connection to his clan.

      I think you’re mistaken to think that his surname gave him some special sense of connection to Stuarts/Stewarts in the Lowlands or that he had any generally affinity to Lowlanders. There were major ethno-linguistic divides between Highlanders and Lowlanders, as the poem itself demonstrates. None of the other locations he mentions have any particular Stewart associations, but they are rather symbolically important to him as a Gael; they are all in the Highlands or on the H-L border; he names MacDonalds and MacLeods because of the imprint of their names on territories; and he specifically states his allegiance to Gaelic and Gaels (lines 24 and 60).

      I did not speculate that “he may have been drawn to No Dak by other displaced Canadian Gaels”, I only wondered aloud if he knew any others, who may have come before or after he did. There were very strong networks between people as well as via Gaelic periodicals (to which he himself contributed). Lowlanders and Highlanders did not always mix well in immigrant communities — in fact, there was often a great deal of animosity between them. This is discussed, amongst other places, in my article “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity in North America” at this link: https://www.academia.edu/979175/Scotlands_Two_Solitudes_Abroad_Scottish_Gaelic_Immigrant_Identity_in_North_America

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