Lament to Scottish Highlands from New Zealand

Dr. Sheila Kidd has a wonderful new article providing a general overview of the Gaelic poets and poetry of Australia and New Zealand, entitled “Kangaroos and Cockatoos: Gaelic Literature in the Nineteenth-Century Antipodes” in Scottish Literary Review 9.2 (2017).  It offers very useful material for comparison with the sources created by Scottish Gaels in North America on which I’ve been working.

One of the poets who was born in the Scottish Highlands but ended up in New Zealand was Donnchadh Mac a’ Phearsain (“Duncan Macpherson” in English). Born at Rahoy in Morvern in the early 1830s, he relocated to Glasgow by 1871 but in about 1880 moved again to New Zealand to join his three uncles. (This biographical information and the song-poem text is taken from Iain Thornber, “The Gaelic Bards of Morvern” in The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness LIII, 1983.)

Donnchadh composed a number of poignant and powerful song-poems, especially laments, some of which he submitted to newspapers. The following is a lament for the Highlands, one of the most compelling of its kind which deserves to be better known. It was printed in The Oban Times in 1914. It must have been composed some time between his emigration c.1880 and its appearance in print.

The place of religion in the poem is interesting. On the one hand, the poet reflects the piety that had really been absorbed by Gaels after the intense proselytizing of the region from the late 18th century. On the other hand, he questions the commitment of the religious institutions in safeguarding Highlanders against the ill-will of landlords (stanza 6), given that many ministers lacked the political independence and personal will to do so. It’s also notable that Donnchadh directly addresses the land itself, carrying on an ancient animism that predates Christianity.

Texts like this help us understand the emotional experience of Scottish Gaels in seeing the physical desolation of their land and the destruction of their culture, language, and identity; why they emigrated; the traumas they experienced, and how those traumas caused rifts in their own psyches and impacted their relationships with other people and ethnic groups.

The Highland Clearances aren’t just about a relocation of families, they are about the hardening of attitudes regarding the ownership of land, the authority of empire over “inferior peoples,” and the commodification of natural resources.

First the original Gaelic text, then my translation.

  1. [Fonn] Albainn aosda, guma slàn dhuit,
    Albainn ghaoil, gur fada uam thu;
    Tìr nan laoch ’s nan gruagach àlainn;
    Albainn aosda, guma slàn dhuit.
  2. Fhir a shiubhlas thar na fairge,
    Thoir soraidh uamsa do’n Mhorbhairne
    D’fhios nan daoine còire dh’earbainn
    Ged a b’ fheudar falbh ’s am fàgail.
  3. Dèan a[m] fàgail an Rathuaidhe
    ’S fad thar sàile, chì mi uam thu;
    Bha mo làithean eutrom uallach
    An glinn uaine Earra Ghàidheal.
  4. Trian dhe m’ bheatha, trian dhe m’ shlàinte
    Gheibhinn fallainneachd no dhà ann;
    B’ fhearr leam deoch de uisge an fhuarain
    Na leann ruadh a tha ri phàigheadh.
  5. Dh’fhalbh an òigridh ’s an robh cruadal
    Sgaoilte farsaing, chaidh am fuadach;
    Cuid an Glaschu air Cluaidh dhiubh
    ’S cuid dhiubh deas is tuath thar sàile.
  6. ’S fuar an làrach ’s an robh diadhachd
    Far an tug mo mhàthair cìoch dhomh;
    Càit’ am bheil an creideamh Crìosdail
    A leig fiadh-bheathaichean ’n ar n-àite.
  7. Chaill sinn ar cànain ’s ar dùthaich
    Tha sinn air fògradh mar Iùdhaich;
    Am fearann fo fhéidh aig Dubhghoill
    ’S nàimhdean ar dùthcha cho tàireil.
  8. Tha mi an dùil nach dùrachd dhìomhain
    Gum faigh na Gàidheil an iarrtas
    Bhith comhnaidh ’s na glinn gu sìorraidh
    Ag adhradh do Dhia ’s a’ Ghàidhlig.
  9. Ged a dh’fhàg mi iomadh bliadhna thu
    Tha mo chridhe blàth ’gad iargain:
    Caladh deisireach na fialachd
    Uaine, grianach, bial Loch Àlainn.

 

  1. [Chorus] O ancient Scotland, farewell to you! O beloved Scotland, I am far from you; the land of the heroes and the beautiful lassies; O ancient Scotland, farewell to you!
  2. O you who travels across the ocean, take a greeting from me to Morvern, to the goodly people in whom I would entrust, even though I had to leave.
  3. Leave them in Rahoy; I see you across the ocean, far from me; my life was light and carefree in the green glens of Argyll.
  4. A third of my life, a third of my health, I got good sustenance there; I would much prefer a drink of water from the pure spring over any brown ale that could be bought.
  5. The youth who were hardy have gone, having been evicted far and wide; some are in Glasgow on the Clyde, others are across the ocean, north and south.
  6. The ruins where there was once worship are now cold, where my mother gave me her breast[-milk]; where is the Christian faith that has allowed wild animals to take our place?
  7. We lost our language and our country; we are exiled like Jews; the utter non-Gaels have settled the land with deer and the enemies of our country are contemptuous.
  8. I hope that it is not an idle wish that the Gaels will get their request, to reside forever in the glens, praising God in the Gaelic language.
  9. Although I left you behind many years ago, my warm [i.e., beating] heart is grieving for you: the southernly harbour of hospitality, the green, sunny mouth of Lochaline.
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