A Gaelic Poem on the Massacre of Glencoe

There are few events in the history of the Scottish Highlands more notorious than the Massacre of Glencoe, which happened on this day (February 13) in 1692. Although the incident has been the subject of numerous scholarly studies based on anglophone sources, Gaelic sources have not  received adequate attention. The most significant Gaelic commentaries about the event in the form of song-poetry are Iain Lom’s ‘Nam faighinn mar dh’iarrainn’, Am Bard Mucanach’s ‘Mìle marbhaisg air an t-saoghal’, and ‘’S mi ’am shuidh’ air a’ chnocan’. While the first two of these have been edited and translated, the third has not previously been given a scholarly treatment.

Some years ago I started on an effort to edit, translate and analyse the last poem of the three in collaboration with Dr. Nancy McGuire. That joint project has not been completed; she has further materials and suggestions which we have yet to integrate into a complete text. I offer at present my initial attempt at an edition and translation, without all of the editorial apparatus included and with the caveat that this edition is tentative until further work is completed. My edition is based on variants in the Dornie Manuscripts, the Northern Chronicle newspaper, Records of Argyll, the Mac-Talla newspaper, and the Celtic Monthly.

First, the original Gaelic (each stanza numbered); Second, the translation, Third, a few interpretative comments.

Original Text

1. ’S mi ’am shuidh’ air a’ chnocan
Chaidh mo léirsinn an olcas
Is mi mar aon mhac an trotain air m’ fhàgail.

2. Tha mi coimhead a’ ghlinne
Far am b’ aighearach sinne
Mur bhith mì-rùin na fine ’s an robh an fhàilinn.

3. Rinn na Duibhnich oirnn leadairt
Ar fuil uasal ’ga leagail
’S bha Gleann Lìomhann ’na sheasamh mar cheannard.

4. Ach nam b’ ionnan d’ ur macnas
’S nuair bha mise ’nur taice
Nàile! Rachadh iad dhachaidh ’nan deann-ruith.

5. Bhiodh MacFhilip le ’bhrataich
Air tùs na fine neo-ghealtaich
Ged a fhuair iad an nasgadh le ainneart.

6. A MhicEanraig nam feadan
’S tric a bha mi ’s tu beadradh
Leis a’ mhuinntir a ghreas don taigh-shamhraidh.

7. Clann Iain nan gadhar
Rinn na h-uaislean a thadhal
Gu moch Di-Sathairn’ a’ chuthaich gun chàirdeas.

8. Dh’fhàg sibh marcaich’ an eich uaibhrich
Reubt’ air ruighe nan ruadh-bhoc
Ann an sneachda trom fuar nam beann àrda.

9. Dh’fhàg sibh làraichean dubha
Far am b’ àbhaist duibh suidhe
’N comann luchd an fhuilt bhuidhe chais amlaich.

10. Fhir Bhail’ Fearna nam badan
Bu cheann-fheadhn’ thu air brataich
Is chaidh smùid a chur ri t’ aitreabh ’na smàlaibh.

11. Bha do cho-bhràthair guailte
Deagh fhear Bhaile nam Fuaran
Leam is goirt e, ’s an uair air dhroch càradh.

12. Ach mas deònach le’r Rìgh e
Bidh là eile ’ga dhìol sin
Agus Maighdeanan lìobhte ’cur cheann diubh.

13. Bidh na Tuirc air an dathadh
’S bidh Rìgh Uilleam ’na laighe
’S bidh cùird mhór air an amhaich dhen an-toil.

14. B’ e mo rogha sgeul éibhneis
Moch Di-Luain is mi ’g éirigh
Gun tigeadh Rìgh Seumas ’s na Frangaich.

15. ’S gum biodh iomain ball-fhaiche
Air fir mheallt’ nam balg craicinn
Loisg ar n-arbhar ’s ar n-aitreabh ’s a’ gheamhradh.

English Translation

(1) I sit on the hillock, my eyesight has failed me, as I am left behind like a toddling only son.

(2) I gaze at the glen where we would be merry, if not for the ill-will of the blemished clan.

(3) The Campbells massacred us, our noble blood being shed, as (Campbell of) Glenlyon stood as commander.

(4) If only you prospered as you did when I was with you, they would go homeward in a rush!

(5) MacKillop would have his war-banner in the vanguard of the indomitable clan, even though they were hemmed in by violence.

(6) O Henderson of the (bagpipe) chanters, often did we sport and play with those folk who hastened to the summer abode (i.e., sheiling).

(7) Clan Donald of Glencoe, (owners) of greyhounds, were visited by the nobility until the early Saturday of brutal frenzy.

(8) You left the horseman of the proud spirited chargers gored on the sheilings of the roe-bucks in the cold, heavy snows of the great mountains.

(9) You left charred ruins where you were once seated in the company of the people of flowing, ringleted, blonde hair.

(10) O tacksman of Baile Fhearna of the thickets, you were the war-bannered war-leader, and your abode was burnt to ashes.

(11) Your dear companion, the goodly tacksman of Baile nam Fuaran, was charred (by fire): an ill hour it was that makes me sore.

(12) But if our King grants it, there will be another day to avenge that, when the sharpened Maidens will behead them.

(13) The boars (i.e., Campbells) will be stained (with blood) and King William brought down, and there will be heavy cords around their necks bringing them misery.

(14) It would be my choice of good news, awakening early on Monday morning, that King James and the French would come.

(15) And that the deceiving men of haversacks, who burnt our corn and our homes in the winter, would be driven back (as though playing) a ball-game.

Notes and Interpretation

It may be inferred from the text itself that the author was a native of the area who was away during the massacre, perhaps for an extended period of time, but composed this song-poem upon returning to see the devastation. It is not surprising for a song circulating for this length of time in oral tradition to become detached from reliable information about its authorship and to gravitate towards a poet of great stature with some connection to the narrative or area. It seems to me most likely that this is the work of an otherwise unattested poet.

Some details in this song-poem can be confirmed by other sources. It implies that the massacre was perpetrated early on a Saturday (verse 7), which was indeed the day of the week of 13 February 1692. Houses were burnt by troops, as mentioned in several lines (9a, 10c, 11a). The harsh weather concurrent with the event is also well known and is reflected in the text.

On the other hand, it is curious that notable victims of the massacre – the lairds of Achnacone and Achtriachtan, and poet Raghnall na Sgéithe – are not mentioned at all in the poem. It may be that the poet had a close personal relationship with the two tacksmen named, Fear Bhaile Fearna and Fear Baile nam Fuaran, but few others. I have not been able to locate Baile Fearna or Baile nam Fuaran, and it may be that these are alternative names for nearby villages where murders did occur, perhaps Achnacone and Achtriachtan.

It is noteworthy that, unlike the two other songs about the Massacre, this song is in iorram metre, normally used for the praise of clan élite and the celebration of noteworthy clan events. The poem seems to reflect the antagonistic relationship between Clan Donald and Clan Campbell in a simplified and polarized manner: na Duibhnich (a reference to the founding figure Duibhne) are shedding ‘our’ blood (verse 3); na Tuirc (a reference to Campbell heraldry as well as their association with Diarmaid of the Fenian cycle) will suffer from future vengeance (verse 13). The association of Clan Donald with Jacobitism, on the one hand, and of Clan Campbell with Hanoverian allegiances, on the other, is also implied by these polarities.

In an article about the seventeenth-century Gàidhealtachd, Allan Macinnes has wisely cautioned that the discourse of clan rivalries in Gaelic poetic sources often masks the complexities of national and international politics which formed the actual backdrop and dynamic of contemporary events. Gaelic poetry as a rhetorical system reflects the highly localised, kin-oriented society of which it was a product; it is not surprising that its discursive practices and literary conventions, well established by the seventeenth century and reinforced by poets in that contemporary ‘crucible’ (as Thomson deems it), could not but reframe the expression of complex contemporary historical events in the terms most natural and traditional to it, i.e., inter-clan rivalry and warfare. It may also be the case that Gaels, especially the non-élite, understood events like the Massacre of Glencoe in these terms, or were at least most easily motivated or mobilised if events were explained in such terms.

Nonetheless, cracks in this traditional literary code do appear in the song: although the poem is a bitter indictment of the Campbells, the ‘vengeance’ called for by the MacDonald poet is capital punishment via the ‘Maiden’ (a guillotine) under the supervision of the civil authorities; he wishes that King James VII would return and depose William and hang the guilty party. These are appeals to the mechanisms of law and order, not the perpetuation of clan feuds.

The likening of the rout wished upon the soldiers (characterised by their leather haversacks) to a field-game  played with a ball – most likely camanachd – is an unusual metaphor in Gaelic song-poetry (although it does occur in Iain Lom’s ‘Latha Inbhir Lòchaidh’).

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2 thoughts on “A Gaelic Poem on the Massacre of Glencoe

  1. Interesting, how much later do you think the poem could be after the event? The ‘placenames’ do not appear in any Glencoe lists I have seen but, it was never a large estate and MacDonald of Glencoe also held extra land in the form of a tack of land on the Appin Estate.
    I am also intrigued by where the verse 6 in your version came from? The impression I had formed was that the McHendrich family including the piper Donald only came into the area after the massacre when there were a number of incomers as the place was re-populated.
    The main tenants who were not directly related to the family in the post 1745 rental were mostly in Carnoch, Apart from Carnoch the other holdings mentioned were Tayfort, the Tack of the Corn Mill of Glencoe and Millcroft thereof and somewhere called Polrig which had at one time been held by the piper before he moved to Carnoch.
    At the time of the 45′ there was a cadet member of the Glencoe family called Donald MacDonald described as a ‘Poet’ who was out in the Glencoe Regiment.

    • You have asked some complex questions that touch on the problematic nature of reconciling oral tradition with conventional forms of history/historiography.

      First, the easy question: verse 6 is attested in both the Dornie Manuscript and in the Northern Chronicle variant.

      Note that your question, “how much later do you think the poem could be after the event” does not represent the complexity of the process of oral tradition. First there is the event; then there is the composition of the poem; then there is oral transmission of the text, in any number of “branches”; then there is the transcription of the text from oral transmissionl … etc. It’s not a single, linear thing.

      It is particularly during the process of oral transmission that “interpolations” can occur, i.e., words, phrases, ideas, etc., that were not part of the original composition but which “make sense” to the performer and audience. And you can imagine how people and ideas and things can enter into the text during the period of transmission that were not present in the original text because they accord with the lived reality of those involved in the process of oral transmission.

      Thus my comments to you in the past that one of my interests is the complexity of reconciling literary representations of events / people / things with “conventional” historical sources.

      Thanks for your comments! I hope that that was helpful, Keith.

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