The Great Stag of Monadh Liath

The Central and Eastern Highlands was full of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders until the early twentieth century, when the ethnocidal effects of depopulation and anti-Gaelic educational policies finally came to fruition. Gaels were keen hunters and the deer were frequent prey, but the relations between Gael and deer were not just about slaughter: there is plenty of other lore and tradition that shows affection and symbiotic relations that existed between these “Highland tribes.” I was reminded of this recently when writing an essay about the Gaelic sense of place for a project about The Cairngorms, as well as when reviewing the work of my friend Alec for this project and musing on a blog post by my friend Griogair Labhraidh.

Amongst the remnants of lore that remain of these areas of Gaeldom are stories about a beast called Damh Mór a’ Mhonaidh Liath (‘The Great Stag of Monadh Liath’). I saved a couple references to it in my notebook but have vague memories of having seen others. It may simply be the Highland equivalent of ‘the big fish that got away’, but it is also possible that it has an echo of lore about supernatural beasts. I give the texts I have here in hopes that others may contribute what they know.

An article in The Highlander (27 October 1880) makes reference to an article in Caraid nan Gàidheal (1841, page. 101; the original article is called ‘Thogainn Fonn air Lorg an Fhéidh’).

The eachdraidh air Damh Mór a’ Mhonaidh Liath am Bàideanach air an do loisgeadh leis na sealgairean a b’ fhearr cuimse ’chaidh do’n bheinn, fichead is fichead uair, is dh’fhairtlich orra fuil a tharraing ás. Fad leth cheud bliadhna, bha muinntir na dùthcha sin eòlach air. Agus is iomadh duine tapaidh a chaill cadal na h-oidhche is craiceann nan cas air a thòir gus mu dheireadh an do leònadh e le duine uasail de Chloinn Domhnaill; thuit e ach co-math, co-dhiubh, dh’éirich e is tharr e ás. Deich bliadhna fichead ’na dhéidh sin, mharbhadh a’ cheart damh seo ’m bràigh Bhàideanach is fhuaireadh am peilear a chuireadh ann leis an Domhnallach dà bhliadhna fichead roimhe sin ’na ghualainn! Cha b’ urrainn do Dhamh Mór a’ Mhonaidh Liath bhith fo sheachd fichead bliadhna dh’aois.

There are stories about the Great Stag of Monadh Liath in Badenoch at which the hunters with the best aim who ever went to the mountain shot, scores and scores of times, and they failed to draw any blood out of him. For fifty years, the folk of that region were familiar with him. Many a skilled man lost his night’s sleep and the skin of his feet in pursuit of him until he was finally wounded by a gentleman of the Clan Donald; he fell down, but in any case, he arose and fled away. Thirty years after that, this same stag was killed in the braes of Badenoch and the bullet that the MacDonald put in him twenty-two years before that was found in his shoulder! The Great Stag of Monadh Liath could not be under one hundred and forty years of age.

There is another reference to him in a Gaelic story written by Fionn (Henry White) called ‘Fearchar Òg’ in the volume Sgeulachdan Fìrinneach (True Stories), vol. 2, p. 191:

air a làimh chlì bha a’ fosgladh ro na glinn tha ruith rathad Loch Tréig, àite-comhnaidh Damh Mór a’ Mhonaidh Liath, a bha cho sean ris a’ cheò is air nach do rinn urchair riamh dolaidh. …

… on his left hand side that was opening before the glens, there is the length of the road to Loch Tréig, the residence of the Great Stag of the Monadh Liath, who was as ancient as the mist and on whom a shot never made an injury. …

This description of the beast sounds a bit less naturalistic and a bit more legendary than the previous. The stag is given a slightly different locality as well. The two items taken together seem to indicate fragments of lore with a wider provenance and great significance. But I hope others can add what they know to this!

Rev. Neil MacNish of Cornwall, Ontario: Some Biographical Notes

It is amazing what you can stumble upon on Google. I included a Gaelic text from the Rev. Neil MacNish in my volume of Canadian-Gaelic literature, Seanchaidh na Coille // Memory-Keeper of the Forest, and only sparse biographical notes, as I could not easily find details about his life. I have just stumbled upon some very interesting details about him via a Google search which are worth sharing to help to fill out the story of Gaels in Ontario and indeed Canada and North America.

There is a full biographical sketch of MacNish in the University of Toronto Monthly 5 (1904-5), pp. 249-251. Here are some highlights:

It is fitting that something more than a passing note should be made concerning the recent death of the Rev. Neil MacNish, of Cornwall [Ontario], who was a distinguished graduate of this University [of Toronto] , and who never failed in loyalty and attachment to his Alma Mater. A man of singularly modest and retiring disposition, who shunned all the arts of self-advertisement, Dr. MacNish, by his learning and intellectual force, made a name for himself which his fellow Highlanders throughout Canada should not willingly permit to be forgotten in the years to come. No Scotsman of our time devoted himself more un selfishly and energetically to keeping alive the language, the literature, and the traditions of the Gael; and no one, in an age of material aims and the passion for wealth, loved learning more sincerely for its own sake. Neil MacNish was a son of Duncan MacNish, a highly respected factor and farmer of Argyleshire, Scotland, who brought his wife and children to Upper Canada many years ago, and settled in the County of Elgin. Being destined for the church, young MacNish matriculated in the University in 1858.

After completing his college studies in Canada, MacNish went to Scotland to obtain his theological education. He studied both at Glasgow and Edinburgh, obtaining the degree of B.D. at the latter institution. For a short time he was assistant minister in one of the parishes of the Church of Scotland, preaching in Gaelic to large congregations, exhibiting thus early the fluency and proficiency with which he could speak the ancient language of his forefathers. Returning to Canada he was ordained a minister of the Kirk of Scotland in this country, and was appointed assistant to the Rev. Hugh Urquhart, D.D., of St. John’s Church, Cornwall. On Dr. Urquhart’s death a year or two later, Mr. MacNish was appointed minister. He wielded a strong influence in the district, which was settled chiefly by the descendants of Highlanders, and with all these, whatever their creed might be, the young minister was on terms of friendly intimacy.

Although it was seldom necessary to conduct Gaelic services, as the members of his congregation were English-speaking, Dr. MacNish occasionally preached in that tongue at an afternoon service, when many persons came from the neighbouring County of Glengarry to hear the language of their ancestors. He frequently visited Montreal, where there was a -numerous Highland population, and when asked to do so, would give a Gaelic service. In this way he cultivated a taste for reviving Gaelic until the board of the Presbyterian College, Montreal, invited him to institute a Gaelic course for students who might be called to churches in those portions of Quebec or the Maritime Provinces where Gaelic continued to be commonly spoken. The literary part of this course of lectures was thrown open to alL who desired to attend, and for several years his class-room was filled by many who enjoyed his discourses upon the early literature of the various branches of the Celtic race. Dr. MacNish’s thorough acquaintance with the literature of ancient and modern Europe, upon which he drew freely, gave to his Gaelic course a fame and popularity which ex tended beyond the college world. He was the founder and first President of the Gaelic Society of Montreal, and interested himself in securing the publication of its Transactions.

Dr. MacNish left many warm friends throughout Canada who admired him for his scholarly gifts, his staunch attachment to his race and the traditions of the Celts, his generous disposition, and high sense of honour. Tenacious of his opinions, and courageous in giving them utterance, whether or not they ran counter to the popular prejudices of the moment, it is significant that he played his part in a community of mixed races and creeds with dignity, forbearance, and old-fashioned courtesy. Amongst Highland Catholics he was held in high esteem for his character and intellectual attainments ;and such was his loyalty to his Celtic fellow-countrymen that on more than one occasion, notably at the funeral ceremonies, those who professed a different creed were present as a tribute of respect to one who “bore without abuse the grand old name of gentle man,” and who justly deserves to be remembered for his fine qualities of head and heart.

Although I have not conducted a thorough search, I have encountered at least three articles he wrote on Celtic / Gaelic literature or history that were published in the Proceedings of the Canadian Institute. One of these is “Recent Contributions to Gaelic and Manx Literature” vol 1.1 (Feb. 1897). He begins this article by celebrating the resurgence of new literary activity evident in Gaelic at the time, particularly under the auspices of An Comunn Gàidhealach. It is noteworthy that he understands the linguistic vitality and potentiality of Gaelic, and appreciates it relationship with other Celtic languages. This supports my assertion in recent work that Gaels in Canada – regardless of whether they were in urban or rural settings – did not see nor need see any inherent inability of the language to function in and adapt to conditions in Canada, particularly as they saw hopeful signs in Scotland itself.

A veritable Renaissance has in recent years been observable in the study of Gaelic and of Gaelic literature. Never since Fingal was King of Seallama, and since Malvina gladdened the declining years of Ossian, has so much attention been paid to Gaelic, and to Gaelic traditions and folk-lore: and have so many men of scholarly ability and taste devoted themselves to the study, and, indeed, to the development of Gaelic. For it has always been conceded that Gaelic possesses intrinsic qualities of an extraordinary kind; and that, therefore, it can, in able hands, take on beautiful and diversified forms and developments. Evolution, in the truest acceptation of the term, is characteristic of Gaelic ; insomuch that, were scholars of ability and ingenuity to turn their careful attention to it, it could continuously assume larger and wider proportions. Such a momentum in favour of the language and literature of the Gael has now been gathered, that anything like retrogression is not to be apprehended, so far as regard is had to the production of Gaelic poetry and prose. …

Regrets are now unavailing, that the other members of the large Celtic family did not, centuries ago, follow the example of the Welsh in the way) of holding annual gatherings for the honouring and perpetuating, in healthful and ever- increasing vitality, of their own particular language with all its literature, and with all its traditions, that could in that case be found to pertain to it. H a d such gatherings been in existence for centuries, it may. be confidently maintained that Scottish and Irish Gaelic as well would to-day have treasures of valuable literature in prose and verse of which too high an opinion could not be formed ;— treasures which, unhappily, have sunk into the deep sea of forgetfulness. Much praise is to be awarded to those intelligent and enthusiastic Gaels, who were successful some six years ago in establishing the Gaelic Mod,— an annual gathering at which prizes are given, after the example of the Welsh Eisteddfod, for the best productions in Gaelic prose and verse, in vocal .and instrumental music, as well as in other attainments of a literary and artistic character. …

It must be regarded as a strong indication of the present vitality of the Gaelic language that a translation of the Book of Common Prayer into Gaelic, for the benefit of the Gaelic members of the Scottish Episcopal Church, was published during last year. The translators have performed their work well, as a general rule. With commendable propriety, advantage was taken of the Gaelic version of the Bible, which is in common use in Scotland, for the purpose of presenting, in a Gaelic dress, those portions of Scripture that, along with the Psalms, go to form a considerable portion of the English Prayer-Book. It is, at least, interesting to know that in Argyllshire itself there are several Episcopal ministers who conduct religious services in Gaelic. …

A Gaelic sermon preached by MacNish before the Gaelic Society of Toronto on June 14m 1896, was printed into Toronto, also demonstrating the use of the language in that city by immigrant Gaels. There is still so much to be explored about the legacy of Gaelic immigrants in North America, both in archives and on the internet.

Alexander Fraser courting the Welsh of Toronto

My friend and fellow Celtic scholar Robert Humphries (in Spring Green, Wisconsin) has very kindly passed on to me a reference to Alexander Fraser attending a St. David’s Day Banquet in Toronto in 1914 (from the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, April 3, 1914). This surely confirms his efforts to create a pan-Celtic coalition to back the creation of Celtic Studies at the University of Toronto.

Scan of article below.


Argyllshire Tradition in Canadian Exile

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I’m working on a paper about the literary and cultural legacy of Alasdair Friseal (aka, “Alexander Fraser”) for the next World Congress of Scottish Literatures in Vancouver this June, and in this blog post I’ll examine another aspect of that legacy.

Fraser was the first archivist at the Ontario Archive and was a central figure in the Scottish Gaelic circles in Toronto, and beyond, in the turn of the nineteenth century. He conducted his own fieldwork in Ontario and collected transcriptions from Gaelic oral tradition collected by other people in Canada, some of which were printed in Gaelic columns of the many newspapers and periodicals that Fraser edited.

One of Fraser’s friends and collaborators was Eóghann MacColla (aka “Evan MacColl”), a celebrated Gaelic poet native to Loch Fyneside in Argyllshire who spent many years in Ontario and also became a central figure to Gaelic life in the Canadian province. He is noted as being an authority on Gaelic literary tradition and history who entertained many Gaels with a similar interest in their heritage in Canada (see Seanchaidh na Coille, 401-406). Both of MacColla’s parents (Domhnall MacColla of the MacColls of Glas-Dhruim and Màiri Chamshron of Garbh-Choire) belonged to native Argyllshire families and the traditions which MacColla inherited and recorded belong to a deep vein in that district.

Folder F-1015-6-2-2 in Fraser’s papers in the Archives of Ontario contain a letter to the archivist written by MacColla which contains two songs from the poet, both from family tradition (given at the end of this blog post). There are several interesting things to note about the contents of this letter. First, that MacColla had an excellent command of Gaelic orthography, showing no lack of confidence about his level of education in the language. Second, the first song describes a réiteach – an engagement ceremony – which was a common Gaelic custom that survived until recently in the Hebrides; songs giving details of these rituals are quite rare, so the text is valuable. Third, MacColla sees no problem in adding two verses to the song he inherited from family tradition.  Fourth and finally, the second song that he gives — the “sheiling song” – is clearly a variant of a waulking song that is still sung today in Barra. This is one of many examples of how Gaelic oral tradition provided a solid and unifying cultural foundation that  encompassed all Gaelic speakers, from Cowal to Lewis to Glenisla.

I noted many years ago (in Am Bràighe, c. 1997) that Eóghann MacColla possessed a copy of a very important manuscript transcribed by a Rev. MacColl that contains variants of texts (mostly of Argyllshire provenance) as old as the sixteenth century. A selection of these texts were printed in volumes 1 and 2 of the periodical the Highland Monthly (1889, 1890), having been copied by MacColla, but the rest of the manuscript has not been accounted for. I’m pleased to say that I found some further remnants of the copied MacColl manuscript in Alasdair Friseal’s papers in the Archives of Ontario (namely in a small notebook dated Nov 2, 1895 and July 27, 1895 in F1015 – MU 1090). Hopefully the rest of it will be discovered in the future.

Especially given the massive and rapid depopulation of the Highlands that occurred in the nineteenth century, and the migration of those masses to North America, a huge vacuum has been left in the documentary record as to the Gaelic traditions and literary expressions of the mainland. Some portion of this might still be recovered by scholars searching through the cultural remains of immigrant communities of North America. Wouldn’t it be great if educational institutions on this continent started to provide support for this type of research?

Song Texts from MacColla’s Letter

Song One: “Còrdadh Ghillebeairt” describes a réiteach; all but last two lines (by him) are old; MacColla learnt this text when he was very young.

Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Ithe is òl aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Aran is feòil aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Cearcan is geòidh aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Fìon agus beòir aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Branndaidh gu leòir aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Cluich agus ceòl aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Sean agus òg aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt

(last two lines added by MacColla himself)
Deireadh na ròic aig cordadh Ghillebeairt
Bathaisean breòit’ aig cordadh Ghillebeairt

Note from MacColla on song two: “It is fully sixty years since I last heard sung the shieling song … I give it as my father used to sing it, barring one or two very slight alterations.”

Bha mi ’n raoir air àirigh bhuaile
Hug orin ò, hug òrin o
Ged a bha, cha b’ann gle shuaimhneach
Huth o eile, hug orin o

Thàin am balach dubh mu m’ thuaiream
Cha d’fhuair e ach cuireadh fuar bhuam
Sgaoil e bhreacan fliuch air m’ uachdar
Dh’iarr e ’n sin uam pòg nach d’fhuair e
Thuirt e rium nach robh mi suairce
’S thuirt mi ris nach robh e uasal
Bhuail mi breab air, thilg mi bhuam e
’S rinn mi leaba ’n cois na luatha
Mo ghaol sealgair an làn-daimh
’S an Rinn Mhaoil ri taobh na tràgha
Siubhlaiche nan dùn ’s nam fireach
’S òg fhuair thu mo rùn gun sireadh
On sann leat b’fhearr leam bhith mire
Greas a-nall gun tuille cuirre!

Salutations to Winnipeg-Lewis Gaels in 1913

I’ve recently come across a very short Gaelic ode to an organization in Winnipeg formed by immigrants from the Isle of Lewis which is worth comment. I found the original Gaelic text in the book Bàrdachd á Leódhas (Gairm, 1969). The editor did not provide a source or author for the poem.

There are several things of note about the short poem.

First is the deeply religious expression of communal identity at that point in time: faith in Providence is expressed in general, but certainly the religious element of Lewis-folklife is what separates them from the “wild natives” of the region (line 5 – although I suspect that mnathan “women” may be a typo for mathan “bear(s)”).

Second is the value placed on the Gaelic language and culture of the community and the expectation that they will be able to sustain their ancestral tradition (lines 7 and 8). This hope is expressed many times by immigrant Gaels in the early stages of their emigration experience, although many also later expressed disillusionment and bitterness about the lack of support to make this aspiration real, including members of the Winnipeg community itself (see Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, pp. 250-56 and this blog post).

Note that the nickname “language of the heather” for Gaelic is an apt one, given the ubiquity of heather in the Highlands as well as the use of heather in the nickname for Lewis itself (Eilean an Fhraoich “the Isle of Heather”).

Comunn Leódhais Winnipeg, 1913

1. Mìle fàilte air muinntir Leódhais – ge b’e àit’ am bheil ac’ comhnaidh –
Buaidh ’s beannachd bho Iehòbhadh comhla;
Freasdal Dhé ’gan dìon bho ghàbhaidh, stòr gun dìth air tìr ’s air sàl dhaibh
Coirc’ is eòrna ’s torr buntàta, crodh is bàth[ai]ch is lìn.

5. Ma chuir Sealbh a-mach gu Iar sibh, measg nam beann is nam mnathan fiadhaich,
Far nach fhaic sibh cuan no siaban, feadag chiar no naosg,
Bithibh aoidheil, coibhneil, càirdeil – far nach caill ur clann a’ Ghàidhlig:
Cùl na làimhe ris a’ ghràisg a chàineas cainnt an fhraoich.

The Lewis Association of Winnipeg, 1913

1. A thousand welcomes to the people of Lewis – wherever they live –
Both success and blessings from Jehovah;
May God’s Providence protect them from danger; may they have abundance on land and on sea,
Oats and grain and plenty of potatoes, cattle and byre and textiles.

5. If Fate has sent you westward, amongst the mountains and the wild women,
Where you cannot see the ocean, or sea-spray, the plover or snipe,
Be cheerful, kind, friendly – Where your children will not lose their Gaelic:
Defiance to the rabble who disparage the language of the heather.

Gaelic Language and Identity in Glengarry, Ontario, 1901

I’m preparing for a talk at the Second World Congress of Scottish Literatures (in June in Vancouver) on the literary and cultural activities of Alasdair Friseal (“Alexander Fraser” in English). He’s an interesting and complicated man (the first archivist of the Province of Ontario, among other things) who left an important but largely unexamined Gaelic legacy.

I’ve already edited and translated several things he wrote in my recent anthology of Canadian-Gaelic literature, Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, but he wrote and edited much more, such as the address to the first annual meeting of the Clan Donald Society in 1901 printed in the brochure I examine in this blog post. The brochure is titled Cànain agus Cliù ar Sinnsearan and was printed in 1901.

I have translated the text of this address into English from the original Gaelic below and precede each paragraph with a number in square brackets for reference. You can find a digitized scan of the original Gaelic text at this webpage (unfortunately I’ve been told that it is not accessible in every country).


One word in the title of this brochure requires some discussion: cliù. Etymologically it refers to what is heard, but in common usage it signifies the reputation that a person acquires through their behavior and actions. It has positive associations, by default, as other terms would be used for infamy, and in particular it often refers to the exemplary precedents set by role models. It is a concept at the centre of the Gaelic literary world, given that the role of the poet was to uphold traditional ideals and those who lived up to them through the composition and performance of texts. I have chosen to translate cliù as “renown,” but it should be clear that it carries a deep communal and historical resonance in Gaelic.

Friseal makes a number of very important points about identity, culture and oral tradition in this address, ones that are entirely consistent with Gaelic perspectives across generations that I have examined in previous articles (such as “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad”) and books (Warriors of the Word for Scotland and Seanchaidh na Coille for Canada), but that contrast with common contemporary beliefs and assumptions.

Gaelic identity, in specific, is Friseal’s concern: he does not conjure any generalized notion of Scottishness; he does not invoke tartans or tartanism or other forms of symbolic ethnicity. While he does refer to the Highlands and the heather (paragraph 3), these provide geographical associations rather than any essentialized tokens or sublimations for ethnic expression. Like many other Gaels before and after him, Friseal states explicitly that language, not ancestry, is at the core of Gaelic identity and he provides evidence of this (also in paragraph 3) in the form of the assimilated population of early Gaelic settlements in Canada as well as an aristocrat who rejected his own Gaelic ancestry.

While it may not be clear in the translation, in the original Gaelic the terms for Gael and Highlander (as ethnonyms), Gaelic and Highland (as adjectives), Gaeldom and the Highlands (as locales and communities) are all the same: it is only the recent alienation of language from culture that has created the distinction.

It’s also interesting to note the difference between this Gaelic cultural stance and the orientation of modern clan associations. Many descendants of the Highland diaspora today who join clan associations experience “Scottishness” through a narrow lens of genealogy or surname affiliation, that is, solely through people sharing the same surname (or supposed septs of the same clan federation). Friseal delivered this talk to the first annual meeting of the Clan Donald Society, yet he downplays any such exclusive focus on the MacDonalds, even to the point of naming and setting aside the great founder figures and warrior-figures of the clan (paragraph 6). He instead states that their common identity as Gaels is the most important issue (paragraph 1) and extols the achievements of the common Gael in the domestication of the landscape (paragraph 6).

Given that language is key to Gaelic identity and culture, Friseal spends the majority of his address exhorting his fellow Gaels to sustain it and to value it. He explicitly names some of the factors working against the transmission of Gaelic (in paragraph 5), such as the stigmatization of the language during cultural conflict with anglophones and the perceived competition between the material rewards available through English and an allegiance to Gaelic based on non-material factors. He peppers his text with lyrics from popular Gaelic songs and makes explicit mention of how oral tradition keeps memory of specific places and historical experiences alive in communal memory (paragraphs 3, 6, 8, 12 and 14).

There is a very notable aspect of visual symbolism in the booklet, and that is the use of “Celtic knotwork” at the beginning and end of the book. This appeared at the same time as a few other Gaelic publications (such as Carmina Gadelica) were drawing on this medieval artistic heritage. It seems to be indicative of the growing “pan-Celtic consciousness” of the era and its appearance is noteworthy in a brochure printed in Gaelic in Canada.

It should be explicitly noted that there are a number of concepts around identity and culture Friseal does not invoke: he never mentions the notion of whiteness, Britishness, or even Scottishness. He never says that he is proud of his clan, nor does he disparage the French or any other ethnic group, or overplay military stereotypes or militancy. He merely underscores the importance of the Gaelic language and culture, its role in expressing and maintaining Gaelic identity, and its perilous condition at the time. These, I will argue, are features of most of his writings in Gaelic and contrast with the discourse of racialism and anglocentric triumphalism that we generally expect in anglophone discourse of the time.


[Blurb below the portrait of Friseal]

“Reminiscing about the good humour of the old days. Respectfully, I am Alexander Fraser.”

[1] O, great leader, and gentle women and men: I consider it one of the greatest privileges that my compatriots in Canada have ever been bestowed upon me to have received an invitation to be with you here today, at this great spectacular gathering for the Clan Donald Society. I do not have suitable words to express to you the pleasure that it gives me to be with my compatriots here at the first annual meeting of this organization, and to be gazing at the kind visages of the Gaels of Glengarry, people who are famous as true Gaels throughout this country and throughout the Highlands of Scotland. Under the patronage of Clan Donald, this large crowd meets today, and if there is one of the Highland clans that has garnered renown beyond the others in Canada, it is the MacDonalds. But, as the poet said, – “We are all brothers, give me your hand,” – we are here as Gaels, and especially as the Gaels of Glengarry, to be exhorting and encouraging each other, to sustain the customs, traditions and renown of our ancestors – especially their renown.

[2] We have acquired as a people an invaluable heritage from our forefathers – religion, virtue, loyalty, natural beauty, kindness, morality, generosity, and many other assets, and the golden vessel in which those virtues are stored is the pure, melodious tongue of our forefathers. It would be a sad and ugly day for the Gaels if Gaelic were to die :— a dark, sad day on which the most precious gift which we have ever received from our mothers and fathers would be forever lost.

[3] My compatriots — I am before you today with two primary messages — on the one hand, keep alive our mother tongue; on the other hand, keep alive the renown of our ancestors. When Gaelic will die, the glorious crown of the Gael will fall from his head; the emblem of our people will be blotted out from the history of the world; the pine tree will shoot out its branches, and the heather will open its pink-blossomed leaves on the Scottish mountains, as always – they will not change, for they follow the eternal habits of nature; but, alas! The pine tree will no longer be the emblem of the Clan Alpine on that sorrowful day, or the heather the emblem of the Clan Donald, for in the absence of that ancient language that “Adam spoke in Paradise itself,” where would the Gaels be? They would not be able to be found throughout the peoples of the world. Don’t we find evidence of this in our own country? On every side of the great St. Lawrence River, in Quebec City, there are MacDonalds and Frasers, branches of the MacGillivrays, MacIntoshes, MacKenzies, MacLeans, Munros and Rosses, and other people with Highland names; generations of Gaels who came to Canada about 150 years ago. The names are there, but are they Gaels who bear them? Alas, they are not, but people who became French in their language, in their traditions, in their religion and in their hearts. It’s not long since Sir John Ross, a person who was, according to the opinion of many a seanchaidh, the heir of the Earldom of Ross, said that he would rather be a member of the French Parliament in Canada, than to be a great lord among the Gaels of Scotland. Likewise, the thoughts of many men have been corrupted by worldly desires, and there is no escape from this conclusion, that the end of our generation will be likewise, when Gaelic bows its grey, aged, honorable head, and gives its last breath. It will not leave a people who will be called “Gaels” in its wake, since the generations who will follow us will be swallowed up in the fatal, forgetful ocean of the world.

[4] But, must that happen? Is the condition of Gaelic so bad and hopeless as this? It is difficult to answer those questions. If the Gaels would arise, as they should, there would be no doubt about the matter. It is still in their own hands to deliver a solid victory. Are we, the Gaels as a whole, doing would we can do and should do in this matter? It must be admitted, with sadness, with great sadness, that we are not. In many families, very little is done to acquire a knowledge of Gaelic. Isn’t this a shameful thing? Is it any wonder that some of us are pained about this back-sliding? I entreat you to lend an open ear to these words, and to be repentant, before it is too late. I am unfurling the victorious banner of Gaelic open before you today; I am casting its sails open on the wind; I am obliging you, o men and women of Glengarry, – children of the warriors, generation of the renowned people from whom you spring – that you will not rest and that you will not fail, until you carry this banner to enduring, eternal and foundational victory!

[5] Will it be said that it was left to the Gaels of our day to sell our birthright for money? for worldly contentment? for the tainted gold of mercantilism? or that the language was betrayed because of the mockery of the Englishman? Is it a trivial matter for us to be as irresponsible as this? O Gaels! Take careful attention that we do not make ourselves a laughing stock and cause of shame to the generations who come after us. Let us be loyal to our language today, let us teach it to our children, and let us pass it down as we received it, pure and uncorrupted, from our forefathers.

[6] A word or two now about the renown of our ancestors. I don’t intend to speak about Conn of the Hundred Battles, or Colla, or Somerled, or the poets, or the brave warriors who belonged to Clan Donald, at this time. That history is inscribed in the poetry of our land, and will be known for as long as people speak and write Gaelic. But at the heart of this Gaelic county, where I am standing today, I would like to speak about our fathers and mothers who settled in Canada. They were Highland soldiers who won Canada for the British Crown in 1759. Highland claymores protected the country in 1812, and again in 1837, 1866 and in 1884. Our compatriots have not diminished in heroism; they are soldiers, as is their birthright. But as the poet said:

[7] “Alexander the Great was no warrior
Nor Caesar who forced Rome to surrender …
But he is a warrior who earns victory
Over the fear of life and the horror of death,
Who meets with a courageous heart
Everything which is destined.”

[8] Even though the history of our soldiers is renowned, it is very appropriate that we should honor the people who left their homes in the Highlands and who came into the thick, dark forests in Canada, and who opened up this country for the world. We can hardly understand the extent of the toil they undertook, to be clearing the land and laying a foundation for the country that will endure the ages. Circumstances were hard for the majority of them; they have no luxury in their homes, there was no elegance around them. But the hearts in their bodies were courageous, their arms were strong, optimism guided their steps and there was no fear that the heroes would give up. Their labours are clear here today. Observe the fertile, productive fields that encompass us – land as beautiful as any on which the merciful sun of Providence shines warm rays; those are the fields, those are the homes, that your forefathers left to us to possess. Often do you sing the songs of the Old Country; about

[9] “The isle of Mull, the prosperous isle
The sunny isle, which the salt water surrounds.”

[10] And songs about “The green isle of Islay,” “Islay of the grass,” “where the goodly nobles would be.” You have never seen grassy Lochaber, or the Scottish Highlands. That is where I was born, and until the day I die, my love for the land of my birth and ancestors will never diminish.

[11] “I love the Highlands, I love every glen,
Every waterfall and corrie in the land of the mountains.”

[12] Although that is true indeed, I am telling you here, today, that I have never in Scotland or England seen grasslands more beautiful, rich, productive or elegant than the grasslands that your forefathers won from the marshes and the forests, that they left to you. Therefore, keep up their memory in name and in renown. Build a memorial in your hearts for their sake; and let their feats be written down in the history of the country. Follow in their footsteps closely, proclaim that you descended from them and that you are proud of their renown.

[13] These two things. The renown and language of our people. Do not let the day come in which they are rejected.

[14] “I love Gaelic, her poetry and her music,
It has often uplifted us when we were harmed;
It is what we learned in the days of our youth
And what we will never leave until we lie down in the sod.”

Lady Baublehead’s Funeral: A Parable of Scottish Highland Historiography

Lady Baublehead was someone I only saw from a distance, sometimes in brief flashes through the windows of the mansion of the sprawling estate I espied on my long walks through the countryside beyond our village. By this time she was already entering old age, reportedly falling into a state of dementia which only increased after the demise of her husband, Lord Baublehead, rumour had it, accelerated by family squabbles over the future of their collective legacy.

When the funeral was held in our parish church, I was too curious not to enter anonymously and surreptitiously into the ritual proceedings, and try to learn more about her, and the goings-on of the reserved yet illustrious family.

The first to speak at the funeral was Dr. Wiesner, cousin to Lord Baublehead, who was present at the time of her death. His manner, as expected of a man of his rank and learning, was cool and collected as he addressed the assembly. “I shall be as objective as possible, presenting only the facts as they stand. Lady Baublehead was born Sarah Stewart, on February 22, 1922 in Staffin, the Isle of Skye, weighing 8 pounds, 9 ounces. She received very high marks throughout her education, earning distinctions in English and Mathematics in particular. She met Lord Baublehead when they were both students at Edinburgh and were wed on June 3, 1956. Only one child issued from their union, Margaret. Lady Baublehead experienced increasing levels of dysphasia after the death of her beloved husband in 1999. She passed away last Wednesday from related complications. That completes my account.”

The doctor disappeared with a dramatic swish of the black curtain behind the coffin.

Lord Baublehead’s sister, Lady Wrymouth, emerged from the front bench, walking with a steady, stately gait to the pulpit. “We are greatly saddened by the death of our beloved sister,” she stated with decorum. “She was a great asset to our community, indeed to our entire nation. She gave of herself generously whenever anyone asked of her help. She was there with me when I was working tirelessly on my charity for the orphaned children of veterans, just as she exerted herself selflessly with me when I was labouring in the garden. We are so proud of the improvement she was able to effect in her own life through being adopted into our family, having refined herself from a simple and rude state of affairs to that of polish and civilisation.  She thus offers a model of progress for all those who wish a better life for themselves and others. If she were here herself, we have no doubt that she would reassure you not to suffer on her account, but only to reflect on your own path, have hope and be grateful.”

She returned to the front bench, apparently only now allowing herself to express grief, without her face being exposed to the rest of the congregation. After a long and awkward pause, a woman arose from the opposite bench. The sorrow was much clearer to read on her countenance, even under her dark veil. She carried a compact black book in her hand and opened it as she reached the pulpit.

“This is my mother’s diary. It allows her to speak for herself, over the years, in a way that others cannot. She found it very difficult to leave the community of her birth and the language of her youth. She was courageous and adventurous, able to accommodate herself to the expectations made upon her – learning English, donning apparel previously unknown to her, moving in circles of people previously strange to her – but she was seldom allowed to assert her own opinions or spend her time as she would have preferred.” At this, there was some uncomfortable stirring and coughing from some of the family.

But she continued. “The name she bestowed on me at birth is Maighread, her own mother’s name, although she was willing concede that an English version of my name be used by those who could not pronounce it. She taught me her native language and we spoke it in the privacy of our home and on family visits to Skye, but it was not considered polite to use around others. My father did not entirely disapprove of our language and did not insist that we abstain from our linguistic habits, and he even shielded us from the censure of the rest of his family. Mother was exposed to the disapproval of others after his passing.”

“It was her wish that our home become a museum to the history of her people on her passing, and that is my wish as well. Although many of her brothers and sisters, and their children, have little interest in maintaining the memory of their humble origins, she preferred to celebrate and commemorate all that which built the foundation of her life, and that of many others who did not enjoy the privileges that she married into – even if the strain added greatly to her unhappiness.”

There was an impassioned discussion between neighbours after the funeral was over, with some saying that the doctor was the only person qualified to speak authoritatively about Lady Baublehead, and that the daughter was far too close to the issue to be objective. Others professed preference for the words of Lady Wrymouth, noting her fine, noble sentiments and her advocacy of all that is worthy of emulation. It was a curious proceeding. Some said that the daughter was hoping to find a publisher who could put her mother’s diary into print, to help to settle the conflict over the family inheritance, but seeds of doubt about the lucidity of Lady Baublehead, especially in her later years, have been well sown now – Highlanders are, after all, known to be prone to odd flights of fancy that cannot be taken seriously, and even Lady Margaret must have a touch of that madness –, and the Wiesners have great influence amongst people of letters.