Gaelic Literature in Perthshire: Elegy to Donald MacLaren, Callander and St Fillans

It is very encouraging to see Gaelic again receiving support and visibility in Perthshire, given that there was a large and thriving Gaelic community there for centuries, only dwindling in the twentieth century. As people in Perthshire work to restore this beautiful language and culture to its proper place on the land and in their hearts, I hope they will look to the many remains left behind by those who nurtured it for so long.

I see, for example, that there will be a Gaelic day in Crieff (originally ‘Craoibh’ in Gaelic) on May 19th, an Evening of Scottish Culture on 28 May will happen in Strathearn, with an active effort to find Gaelic performers, the National Mòd will be hosted in Perth in 2021, and so on.

I fell in love with Perthshire when I lived in Scotland in the 1990s, and during the time I finished my PhD in Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, I amassed a huge collection of Gaelic materials from Highland Perthshire. I have so much of it that I planned out a 5-volume series covering the distinct regions of Perthshire. I finished the first book – Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid (From the Clyde to Callander) – with only a little support, and have been hoping over the last twenty years to find the funds needed to complete the work on the other four books. Keep in mind that this was the homeland of some major Highland clans: MacGregors, Campbells, Robertsons, MacLarens, Buchanans, Menzies’s, MacNabs, and MacDiarmids, just to name a few. The difficulty in finding patronage for such basic scholarship is indicative of the marginalized status of Gaelic heritage, despite the successes the descendants of these people may have found in the anglophone world in later generations.

In any case, I offer the following elegy as a taster of the sorts of beautiful Gaelic literature that awaits. This elegy was composed in 1880 by Domhnall MacLabhrainn (‘Donald MacLaren’) of Ardveich, Lochearnside (near St Fillans) to a man of the same name who had been living in Callander. The Callander man had worked as a guide, and some of the praise to him in this song-poem refers to his skills in this occupation, making implicit comparisons to the role of a chieftain and other social leaders in Highland society. Until fairly recently, Callander was considered to be the gateway to the Highlands and was the destination of many tourists from the Lowlands and further beyond. And, like Lochearnside in the nineteenth century, Callander was strongly Gaelic-speaking.

I do not currently know anything further about the subject of the poem, but the author was a noted authority on Gaelic tradition who was said to have a number of family manuscripts which contained Gaelic materials. I do not know what became of those documents, but MacLabhrainn’s command of both the language and the literary tradition is notable in this text. Also noteworthy is the degree of affection demonstrated between men, which later Victorian-era sensibilities rendered inappropriate.

Original Gaelic

Dhomhnaill chaoimh, chaidh thoirt uainn
Bhith ’gad chumhadh – mo thruaigh! –
Thug mo dheuraibh mar stuadh mu m’ léirsinn

’S trom am buille is as cruaidhe
Ghnàthaich freasdal gu m’ bhual’
‘S chan eil leigh ann – mo thruaighe! – nì feum dhomh.

Mar chraoibh tha mi gun rùsg
No mar loingeas gun stiùir
On là chàirich iad thu ’s na <déilean>.

’S i do chomhairle ghlic
Nì mi ionndrainn a-nis
Bha i luachmhor dhomh tric is feumail.

’S geur is as gort chaidh mo lot
’S cràiteach cianail mo chor
’S mi mar aonaran bochd ’ad dhéidh-sa.

Bròn is mulad ’gam chràdh
’S mo chridhe ciùrrte gach tràth
’S mór mo dhoilgheas gach là on dh’eug thu.

Sheas thu riamh dhomh an gràdh
Dìleas daingeann mar bhràthair
’S tiamhaidh mise on dh’fhag thu ’d dhéidh mi.

B’ òg thug mi dhuit luaidh
A dheagh chompanaich shuairce
B’ e mo roghainn do’n t-sluagh gu léir thu.

Tha Baile Chalasraide ’n-tràth-’s
Dubhach tùirseach mu d’ bhàs
’S beag an t-ioghnadh dhoibh bhith cràiteach deurach.

’S iad chaill an ceann riaghailte
’S am fear-iùil bu mhaith ciall
An sàr cheann-uidhe bha riamh mar stéidh dhoibh.

Do na bochdan ’nan airce
Bu tu ’n dìon ’s an cùl-taice
Bheireadh biadh dhoibh is pailteas eudaich.

’N àm dhuit suidhe gu lòn
Bu tric aoighean mu d’ bhòrd
Riamh bu phailte-làmhach còir thu sìne’ riu.

‘S tric mo smuaintean air Dùghall
’S trom ’s as dubhach do ghnùis
Fhuair thu saighead a chiùrr gu geur thu.

Rinn siud sgàinteach ’ad chliamh
Thainig smàl air do ghrian
’S chaidh do dhòchas a spìon o chéile.

’S tu chaill an ceann iùil
A sheasadh dìleas ri d’ chùl
’S nach faiceadh le shùilean beud ort.

’S lionmhor uasal is bochd
Tha nar dùthaich fuidh sprochd
’S iomad cridhe tha goirt agus reubta.

Bha iad tearc measg sluaighe
Aon thigeadh ris suas
Ann an tuigse, ann an uaisle ’s sam beusan.

Bha buadhan ’inntinn toirt barr
Ann am breithneachadh ard
Cosnadh cliù dha as gràdh nan ceudan.

Bu neo-lochdach a ghluasad
Stòlda faicilleach stuama
Bha mór mheas aig an t-sluagh gu léir ort.

Ged chuir iad thu ’n-trath-s’
Chladh nan leacainn fuidhe ’n làr
Chaoidh cha dealaich mo ghràdh ’s mo spéis riut.

’S gearr an ùine gus am bi
Mise dlùth dhuit ’am shìne’
Agus caidlidh sinn shìos le chéile ann.

’S nì ar dùslach ’n siud tàmh
Gus an tig oirnne Là-bhràth
’S an téid trompaid gu h-ard shéideadh.

’S cluinnear linne ’s an uaigh
’n t-ard sgàl ud bhios cruaidh
Is grad-éiridh sinn suas le chéile.

’S cha dèan tinneas no bàs
Sinne sgaradh gu bràth
’S chaoidh, cha mhothaich sinn cràdh no éislean.

My Translation to English

O dear Donald, who was taken from us,
It is because of mourning you – my woe! –
That tears like waves take away my sight.

The blow is hard and severe
That fate has dealt to me
There is no doctor – my woe! – who can help me.

I am like a tree without bark,
Like a ship without a rudder,
Since the day they put you inside the coffin planks.

It is your words of wisdom
That I miss now;
They were frequently valuable and useful to me.

I was wounded sharply and sorely,
I am hurting and longing,
I am like a sad loner without you.

Sorrow and melancholy afflict me
And my heart is constantly tortured
I have difficulty every day since you died.

You always defended me in love,
Loyal and steadfast like a brother
I am melancholy since you left me behind.

I loved when I was young,
O fine, gentle companion,
You were my favourite of all people.

The town of Callander is presently
Grieved and afflicted by your death
It is no surprise for them to be pained and in tears.

They have lost a careful leader
And a sagacious guide
The excellent leader who gave a foundation to them.

To the poor in their affliction
You were their shelter and their support
Who would give them food and ample clothing.

When it was time to seat down for a meal
You would often have guests at your table
You always treated them generously and kindly.

I often think of Dougald
Your countenance is heavy and depressed,
You received an arrow that pierced you sharply.

That created a lesion in your side
Your sun has been eclipsed
And your hope has been torn apart.

You lost the leader
Who would stand loyally at your back
Who would never see you hurt.

Many is the noble and peasant
In our land who are depressed
Many is the heart that is sore and torn apart.

There are few amongst the population,
None who could compare to him,
In understanding, nobility, and in virtues.

His mental faculties were superior
Regarding the judgment of important matters,
Earning him renown and the love of hundreds of people.

His carriage was flawless,
Composed, watchful, modest:
There was no one who did not have the greatest esteem for you.

Although they have now sent you
To the graveyard, under the soil,
My love and affection for you will stay with me forever.

The time will not be long
Until I will be laid out close to you
And we will sleep together down there.

Our dust will repose
Until the day of judgment comes
And the trumpet will be sounded loudly.

We will hear it in the grave
That loud squawk that will resound
And we will arise together.

And no illness or death
Will ever separate us again,
And we will never again experience pain or affliction.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Keith Sanger says:

    Well the subject of the poem would seem to have been a Donald MacLaren, Wool-merchant who lived in The Square. Callander. He died single, aged 71 on the 7 February 1880 and his parents were a Robert MacLaren ‘Dyer’ and Jane MacLaren ni MacLaren.

    According to the 1871 census he was also living in the Square then and had two servants. According to the census he was born in ‘Balquihidder’ and that opens up a number of interesting possibilities since although Maclaren was a local ‘name’ so was MacGregor many of whom changed their names to MacLaren. A notable example being the Earl of Atholls piper circa 1700-post 1716, ( he got on the wrong side of the events in the previous year and despite his Lairds intervention was sent for transportation and no further record).

    Okay, so it is a public holiday weekend and I am dog and housesitting so only having limited accessto my normal research papers this has helped to pass some time between dog walks

    1. I’m not sure that this is the same man — it was not an unusual name. He is explicitly described as a fear-iùil in the text, which was submitted to a newspaper a bit later (10 May 1880).

      1. Keith Sanger says:

        No it is not an unusual name but I did ‘sweep’ either side of 1880 and we are well into the age of statutory recording of deaths. There were only 8 people of that name recorded as deaths in the whole of Perthshire over a 10 year period and only two of them in Callander. The woolmerchant was the most likely as the other was a 19 year old apprentice mason.
        Perhaps the close relationship indicated in the poem and the fact that the wool merchant was unmarried might be a clue?

      2. Thank you for looking into this. This may be the correct identification, it just doesn’t match what I expect from the text — although that itself is not entirely unusual. I’ll have to ask you via email about how you find these details.

  2. Makere says:

    I’m inspired by this, my father’s people being from Clunie, Perthshire. I’ve recently been under the misapprehension that the area was not strongly Gaelic. Looking forward to going back there next month.

    1. The majority of the place names in the area, inc Clunie (< Cluain “field clearing”), are Gaelic in origin. However, this parish was essentially on the Gaelic-Lowland border in the late medieval / early modern period.

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