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.


Alexander Fraser’s Efforts to Establish Celtic Studies in Ontario

I’ve written two previous blog posts about aspects of the legacy of Alexander Fraser (Kiltarlity / Toronto, 1860-1936), a Scottish Gaelic scholar about whom I’ll be speaking at the Second World Congress of Scottish Literatures in Vancouver this June. Fraser is an interesting and complex subject, not least because of his identity as a Gael and his involvement in Gaelic affairs (something largely neglected by previous biographical studies). In this particular blog post I’ll be bringing together the material that I have regarding his educational efforts to organize and establish the field of Celtic Studies in Ontario universities.

A little background may be useful. As a set of subordinated ethnic groups subsumed within an anglocentric empire, the languages and cultures of Celtic peoples have been marginalized within the institutions of higher learning in the British Isles since their foundations. A degree of the resurgence of self-confidence is evident in the 1880s in Scotland, and in 1882 the first Chair of Celtic Studies was established in Edinburgh. Such accomplishments emboldened Gaels to strive for further recognition in formal institutions, not least in universities. Such efforts seem to have yielded much less success in the North American diaspora than in native lands.

The current Celtic Studies Program at the University of Toronto was established in 1981 after Robert O’Driscoll had been working on it for thirteen years. As we’ll see here, Fraser began his efforts at creating a centre in Ontario no later than 1903. And as a relevant comparison, Dr. Alexander Maclean Sinclair began teaching a Celtic Studies course at both Dalhousie University (Halifax) and St. Francis Xavier University (Antigonish) in 1907.

According to a biographical sketch which appeared in the Celtic Monthly 1.20 (1912), Fraser had a long involvement in educational circles in Ontario:

“His interest in educational and historical affairs has been long and active. For twelve years he was a Trustee of the Collegiate Institute of Toronto, the educational link between the public schools and the University. He was in turn Chairman of all of the standing committees, and of the Board, rendering enduring service in the organization of studies … For three years he taught Gaelic to the students of Knox College.”

My plan for this blog entry – which is intended to help me organize materials and share a few thoughts – is to simply present the primary sources I have, with bits of commentary around them.

Setting a Course

The Toronto Mail newspaper reported on November 25, 1903 that Fraser addressed the Canadian Catholic Union to argue for support of Celtic Studies. In regards to the Irish language in particular, he said

“there had been very little indeed done in Canada, although the Celtic element was particularly strong in the country. Toronto University ought to have at least a Celtic lectureship, and if the Celts of Canada or of Ontario – the Irish, Scotch, Welsh — were to unite in demand for such it would have to be granted. Money ought to be subscribed apart from this by the wealthy Celts of Canada to establish an institute for research in the Celtic field and for stimulating a love for the history of their united race. …”

Of course, such “stimulation” was necessary, as educational authorities held Celtic languages and cultures in contempt and as beneath the notice of “true civilization,” which was supposedly the exclusive claim of English society.

The January 1904 issue of the Scottish Canadian (printed in Toronto) reprinted a report from the Evening Telegram, covering Fraser’s campaign:

“The proposal made the other day to have a Celtic lectureship in connection with the University, is not one that should be put aside without some consideration. In this quarter of Ontario, containing as it does a large proportion of people of Celtic origin, there is bound to be no small constituency of students interested in Celtic history and literature. As it is, there is no opportunity afforded these by the University of acquiring any knowledge of those subjects. … Another argument, however, in favor of a Celtic lectureship being established is the fact that it is impossible to understand fully English history and literature without intimately the extent to which the Celts have influenced English life and thought. And how can that be gained without an exhaustive study of Celtic works in the original?”

Lectures at MacMaster University

I have not yet determined the extent of Fraser’s engagement with Ontario universities and the courses that he was able to offer, but amongst his papers in the Archives of Ontario is a notice of his “Introductory Course of Lectures in Keltic History and Literature” offered at McMaster University, “held under the auspices of the McMaster University Literary Society at 8 o’clock in Castle Memorial Hall.”

The three lectures were as follows:

First Lecture (January 17th, 1913) – The Kelt: Identity, Geographical Distribution, History.
Second Lecture (January 31st, 1913) – Keltic Literature: Brythonic.
Third Lecture (February 14th,, 1913) – Keltic Literature: Gadelic [sic].

I do not know Fraser’s influences for the organization of this material, but it is interesting that it appears very similar to notes written by Rev. Alexander Maclean Sinclair about the topic as early as 1879. It may well be that they are both drawing from common framework dominant in contemporary scholarship.

Honorary Doctorate From St. Francis Xavier University

An issue of the Scottish Canadian (I do not have the date) reported gleefully about the meeting of the Gaelic Society of Canada in Toronto on 17 May, 1913 that one particular initiative had succeeded:

“That the Gaelic Society of Canada, whose main object is to encourage the study of the Gaelic language and literature, and scholarly research in the Keltic field, has learned with satisfaction and appreciation, of the worthy bestowal of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa, on Alexander Fraser, LL.D., F.S.A. Scot. (Edin.), by the University of St. Francis Xavier, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, in recognition of his scholarly attainments, especially in Keltic Literature and History, and his long and valuable services … The Society congratulates the University at Antigonish, on being the first University in Canada to thus recognize Keltic scholarship academically – as has been done for many years in Germany and Great Britain, and hopes other Universities in this great Dominion, that owe so much to the Keltic people, may appreciate this welcome example.”

St. Francis Xavier University was a symbolically important and relevant institution to bestow this recognition upon Fraser, given that it was established by Gaelic speakers in a large and dense settlement of Gaelic communities, and because the most celebrated Gaelic scholar on the continent – Alexander Maclean Sinclair – had been resident there attempting to lay the same sort of foundation. Fraser’s honorary degree could have the effect of validating the efforts of both men – who were, incidentally, Protestant in religious affiliation, being honored by a Catholic institution.

Fraser’s address to the audience at St. FX was printed in the local newspaper The Casket on May 22, 1913, a portion of which I give below. Several things are notable about what he says:

  1. He begins by sketching an outline of the early history of Christianity and the introduction of associated scholarship into the Gaelic world, drawing an implicit parallel between the “civilizing” of pagan Europe and colonial North America (a topic I’ve discussed in Seanchaidh na Coille).
  2. Like many other Gaels of his time (e.g., Maclean Sinclair), Fraser’s identification with Gaelic culture allowed him to transcend denominational differences and work easily with both Catholic and Protestant communities.
  3. His course of study of the Celts extends the narrative into the North American diaspora.
  4. He seems to downplay any strong antagonisms or innate incompatibilities between “Kelt” and Saxon, thus reflecting a deference to the dominant anglophone hegemony of his time in Canada and the wider empire.
  5. He accordingly does not argue for the intrinsic value of Gaelic as a living language worthy of equal recognition with English, but rather as an intellectual resource for studying the past.
  6. He nonetheless argues for the place of Celtic Studies in Canadian higher education, pointing to the vacuum left by its absence.
  7. He concludes with a brief Gaelic slogan, calling “the troops” to defend their birthright.

Here is the extract from his address that I’ve transcribed:

I desire to assure your Lordship and the Faculty that I esteem very highly the association I have been permitted to form with this University, having regard, in an especial manner, to what it represents as an institution of learning …

Antigonish reflects the genius of the Scottish race from which her organization sprang and her activities have been largely maintained. As the historic mists rise off ancient Scotland, we find St. Ninian completing Candida Casa, the monastery he dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, at Whithorn, in A.D. 402. A prince’s son, he dedicated his learning to God and preached the Gospel from Galloway to the Grampians, founding churches and civilizing the people. …

[more medieval history] … light and learning were held aloft by by the church, until, the time being ripe, the zeal of a few scholars who lectured on Philosophy, Logic and Canon Law at St. Andrews, was [sic] rewarded by Bishop Warlaw by obtaining from the Pope in 1411 the Charter of Scotland’s oldest university, that of St Andrews, which, next to Iona, is Scotland’s sacred shrine. The new born institution was nourished by church benefactions, contributions from the church tiends, and some crown grants. …

Thus we see that upholding the national tradition of our Fatherland, the three oldest universities were founded and supported by the Church as part of her work, and that secular – arts – as well as theological studies were provided for. …

It is obvious that such things as I have been referring to place every patriotic Scot, familiar with the early history of his country, under a deep obligation, and I have this in view when I say that I highly appreciate the honor just conferred on me by a University like yours which in Canada is a link with our great historic past, and seeks, as it does, to exemplify and uphold the Scottish ideal of true education.

You have been kind enough to refer to my interest in Keltic History and Literature. I reciprocate the sentiment, and congratulate this University on what, in this represent, it has done and is doing. The Rev. Mr. Maclean Sinclair, your lecturer in Keltic, is known as a Master of varied accomplishments in the Gaelic field. The chain that binds students in Gaelic together gains in strength what it may lack in length, and many lovers of our literature and lore are deeply grateful to him for ever ready help in their researches. It is not too much, moreover, to say, that when the tale of Gaelic in these Maritime Provinces in Canada is told in the future days, the feature of the narrative will be the extensive collection of Gaelic poetry he has, with infinite pains and devotion, gathered together, preserved, and given in permanent form to the public.

Whatever you are doing here we are beginning to try to do in Ontario. True, the Gaelic Society has, since its organization some twenty-fine years or so ago, some excellent work to its credit. Under its auspices classes in elementary Gaelic grammar have been conducted; Gaelic song and music and Gaelic preaching have been encouraged in a practical manner. Statistics of the Highland Settlements of Ontario, with pioneer reminiscences have been collected and collated which will prove valuable to future investigations of local history.

As an encouragement for the study of Gaelic literature, a Gaelic Fellowship was established a few years ago, under the provisions of the Society’s charter and a few gentlemen have been recipients of this honor. For some time a Gaelic class for advanced students was held at Knox College, drawing from Toronto University and affiliated colleges. Blackboard methods, alternating with critical lectures were followed, and the work was both interesting and fruitful. Out of this arose the desire to found a University lectureship in Keltic History and Literature on a permanent financial basis. A Committee was formed, the University authorities were sympathetic, and I had the grateful privilege this winter of inaugurating the course, as Honorary Lecturer. We have every reason to believe the project will succeed. …

I do not advocate the teaching of the Gaelic language in our universities except in so far as that may lead to competent instruction in Keltic philosophy; but I take this ground, that the content of Keltic History and Literature ought to be made known to students in Canadian universities,— not exactly on the same basis as philosophy, science and moderns (in these days of rampant pragmatism), but on the same basis as the higher classics, English Literature and History.

The content of the Keltic field is not unknown to most of you, nor to me would this be an opportune time to venture to describe it. It may be interesting to the uninitiated, however, to give an outline of the ground I tried to cover this winter at Toronto. My scheme was one of twelve lectures, each one introductory to its subject, and each prepared for non-Gaelic speaking students.

I. The family connection connection with the Teutons: (a) prehistoric Kelt and Teuton in Central Europe, and the history of the Keltic wars in Greece, Asia Minor, Illyria, and Italy; (b) Keltic and Germanic tongues,– the original common stock, especially home words,— father, mother, brother, etc.

II. Keltic and Latin, (especially Goidelic); Historical neighbors,– evidently in agricultural age,– bos, taurus, equus, ovis (Oisg).

III. Gaulish and British; Historical connections; Relics of Gaulish language.

IV. Early Christian Britain; a golden age; afterglow of legend and romance.

V. Early Irish legends and ballads; the Tuatha de Dannan, Cuchullin Cycle, Ossianic.

VI.— Early Keltic Art: Sculpture, scroll patterns, illuminated books, Literary exertions, tales, etc., Christian poetry, Latin hymns.

VII. The Keltic war of Britain and Ireland, 450 to 1000 A.D. The welding of races.

VIII. The Scottish Gael in the Middle Ages. Poetry and legends, imitations of the Ossianic: Keltic element in Scottish nationality; Wars of Scottish Independence.

IX. Kelt and Saxon in Ireland; the plantations; Kelticizing the Saxon; Literary activity.

X. The Scottish Gaels in the 18th century; The Jacobites; Macdonald and the Bards; Macpherson’s Ossian.

XI. The Modern Keltic Movement; the Eisteddfod; The Irish Gaelic League; the Scottish Gaelic Societies.

XII. The Keltic Element To-day:– in shaping the British Empire; in English Literature; in Canada and the United States. …

Why should Canadian universities lag behind in this field? If there [sic] objects and functions be to awaken a true love for learning, Keltic in its widest sense cannot justly be ignored. The Kelt belongs to a race whose history spreads over Europe and the British Isles, a race whose ancient remains offer to the anthropologist and archaeologist alike most valuable material for the elucidation of the obscure history of men … Without a knowledge of the Kelt the history of Europe is incomplete, that of Great Britain and Ireland, hopelessly confused. And, having such a heritage should not we, the offspring of the Gael in Canada, insist that due place and credit be accorded to it in our halls of learning?

Canada owes much to the Kelt – the Kelt of France, of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It were a small return, educationally, were the history of a people that has entered into the warp and woof of our population – into the very making of Canada to such an extent as has the Kelt should be revealed to the students in our universities. You, young gentlemen, can do much in such a sacred cause. The field was never better tilled, nor the harvest more promising than at present.

Will you, and all of us, accept the legacy, and assume, for the still virile remnant of our race, the obligation that, it would seem, destiny itself has called upon us to discharge? For the name and fame of our fathers will you as was wont of old raise the Gaelic bratach, le cath-ghairm nan laochraidh, – clanna nan Gàidheal ann an guaillibh a chéile!

The Future of the Campaign

The last I know of this effort are the minutes of the meeting held at No.294 Avenue Road Toronto on the 23rd August, 1913 (also in Fraser’s papers in the Archive of Ontario). Present at the meeting were Neil Robertson, chairman. Hugh MacDonald, secretary; Hugh Ray, Donald Fraser, John M. Robertson and Alexander Fraser.

It was resolved to start collecting funds immediately to endow the lectureship; to convey formal thanks to McMaster University for hosting the inaugural lectures; and that lectureship be named after Fraser.

Did they raise any funds? What became of them? Those are open questions to me at present … Regardless, I consider the apparent failure of this initiative to be a real tragedy, not just because of the loss of an early opportunity to develop the field in North America in a major centre of learning, but also because of the default direction of all of the human capital represented by the sizable Celtic diaspora in Ontario.

In other words, the very large number of people in Ontario, and indeed Canada, who came from families who spoke Breton, Gaelic, Irish, Manx and Welsh, saw little opportunity for honoring or enshrining their own languages, histories and cultures in the formal institutions of their nation, but had instead to invest their life energies into upholding and enriching the language and culture and values of an anglocentric empire. The modern myth of a homogenous “English Canada” bloc is built by ignoring such history and this pattern of deference to anglocentric norms has certainly not been to the benefit of the native peoples of this continent.


Michael Linkletter (2006). “Bu Dual Dha Sin (That was His Birthright): Gaelic Scholar Alexander Maclean Sinclair (1840-1924).” Unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University.

Michael Linkletter (2009). “The Early Establishment of Celtic Studies in North American Universities.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium (29): 138-53.

Michael Newton (2003). “ ‘Becoming Cold-hearted like the Gentiles Around Them’: Scottish Gaelic in the United States 1872-1912.” eKeltoi 2: 63-131.

Michael Newton (2013). Ed. Celts in the Americas.

Michael Newton (2015). Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada.

Michael Newton (2016). “Gaelic Organizations in Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Ontario.” International Review of Scottish Studies 41: 37-71.

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’).

User Interface Design as a Collaborative Process

These are brief notes about the process of user interface / experience design and how I’ve been shepherding the process in recent years, and currently in the Digital Innovation Lab.

How User Interface Design Emerges

User interface design is not a science, not the result of a formula or diagnosis. It is the result of a creative process that attempts to negotiate between application needs, technological capabilities, a conceptual model and collective bargaining between human contributors.

Design is a result of negotiation between tradeoffs: what seems like a good design and tradeoff for me may not be for others. It is, therefore, vital to include multiple contributors and perspectives!

Collecting Requirements

Although the design and target of a software application (whether or not it is implemented as a web-based application) may evolve over time, the first step you should take is to collect basic information about the goals of the platform and the target audience:

  • What is its purpose? What goals are to be supported by its use?
  • Who is the intended audience? What are their abilities and background?
  • What are use-case scenarios?

Determining Technical Affordances and Limitations

The next step I recommend is determining the capabilities and limitations of the technology upon which the application will be running. This is particularly important for web-based applications, given the wide range of devices that end-users might be using. You can ask such questions as:

  • What is the range of devices and technologies that will be used?
  • What are their current and foreseeable capabilities, affordances, and limitations?

For example, devices with a mouse have the ability to hover without selection, unlike (most) touch screens.

Graphic User Interface Design Principles

Although GUIs have matured greatly through the years and standardized widgets and toolboxes provide ready-made solutions to many design challenges, and there are many different guidelines for designing application interfaces, the following principles have remained most useful in my own process of formulating a GUI:

  • Create a clear and consistent conceptual model of the data and application’s methods of dealing with it
  • Deploy clear and familiar metaphors
  • Group similar things together in visual space
  • Create intuitive spatial movements and patterns
  • Provide good default settings: user only inspects/changes if needed
  • Invite the user to explore the interface through low-risk experimentation

Use Focus Groups

Bringing in multiple collaborators can usually enhance your creative processes and synergies, as long as everyone is committed to respectful dialog and negotiation over aspects of design. Although different projects may need different stages of design, I have in my work in the DIL broken design into three stages, bringing in collaborators with particular backgrounds for each:

  • Conceptual design: Decide what the application is meant to do (and not do), and the relevant set of metaphors and analogous processes. Bring in stakeholders who are your potential end-users.
  • Graphical user interface design: Decide how those goals and metaphors are to be translated into a set of icons, images, and layout on the display. Bring in potential end-users as well as people will design skills (such as graphic designers and GUI programmers).
  • Software implementation: Decide how the software will be implemented: which platforms, frameworks and libraries to use. Bring in collaborators, peers with relevant experience, system administrators, etc.

Avoid Blank-Page Syndrome: Create then Critique

It can be overwhelming for people to start every design dialog from scratch. In recent years I have created an initial proposal in a collaborative online document (e.g., GoogleDocs) that everyone can read and comment upon beforehand. This accelerates the process by giving a starting point, even if it is flawed or incomplete.

In the case of GUI design, you may wish to use an online design tool.

Brainstorm Freely, then Winnow

Let everyone freely contribute ideas and concepts and analogies in the early stages of brainstorming. Narrow these down to viable options later.

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!

A Paean to the Bagpipe in Nova Scotia, 1816

The “Great Highland” bagpipe is now an iconic symbol of Scottishness in Scotland and abroad, but inadequate attention has been paid to how Highlanders themselves perceived, described and discussed their musical traditions and instruments amongst themselves. The following poem is, as far as I know, the earliest surviving commentary in Gaelic – thus composed by Gaels about their own tradition, for “internal” discussion, as it were – about the bagpipe and its role in Gaelic tradition that survives from the North American diaspora.

I transcribed the text several years ago from the newspaper The Casket and Barry Shears recently asked me to provide a usable edition and translation for a new book project on which he is currently working. It is an interesting poem that provides us with important insight not just about the bagpipes but about self-perceptions at this very transitional point in time, as the Gaelic community was re-establishing itself in a new geographical and socio-political context.

Notes and Analysis

The text is essentially a panegyric – the dominant rhetorical mode of Gaelic poetry – to the bagpipe in which the instrument is addressed directly and, to a degree, personified. This is not an uncommon literary convention, but there are not many other Gaelic poems that work quite in the same way (Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s “Moladh Mòraig” is another). The poet’s social role as panegyrist and a warning to the subject of praise to maintain standards is particularly explicit in lines 79-81. The sound of the bagpipe is compared to a frightening shriek (lines 17, 38 and 54), although it is also (as in many other Gaelic sources) compared to the sound of a bird (line 15) and a Gaelic choral song (line 31).

The poet alludes to the human bagpiper but he remains un-nnamed, a secondary figure in comparison to the instrument itself. I am unsure of the identity of this bagpiper, although Barry may know who is intended. Regardless, the agility of his fingers and hands is noted by the poet (lines 10 and 74).

Also central to the piece is the militaristic role of the instrument and the musical tradition. It is absolutely crucial to take into account the Gaelic community’s desperate and servile need for external validation via military employment (as I have discussed at length in my recent volume Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, pp. 68-120, 507-14). Highlanders were experiencing severe social trauma and physical dislocation at this time and attempting to push against the dominant anglocentric narrative of the inferiority and deficiency of Gaelic culture and society. Militarism provided a means for Highlanders to assert their value to an empire expanding through the use of force and violence, imagery which is striking in this text (lines 19-48).

As has been noted by previous scholars, conflict against the French (see lines 31-45) was instrumental in cementing a sense of Britishness in this period, and warfare between the two empires extended into battles in North America. The poet shares a marked note of self-congratulary reassurance that the people of England grew to appreciate Highlanders’ martial skills (lines 55-57). There is only a muted reference to the Jacobite Cause (lines 58-60).

It should be noted that the original text contained a number of errors and irregular spellings, so some emendations have been necessary. I am relatively certain about the text as it now stands in this edition.

Edition and Translation

Rann do’n phìob mhóir Ghàidhealaich a rinneadh ’s a’ bhliadhna 1816 le neach àraid air dha a bhràthair (a thàinig ’s an àm sin da’n dùthaich seo mach á Albainn) a chluinntinn a’ cluich ro thaitneach air a’ phìob, thuirt e na focail seo a leanas.

1 A chorr-fheadanach,
  Nan dos mór-fhuaim:
Thig ceòl leadarra
5 Gun obadh,
  Ás do sgòrnan.

’S e dian ruith-leumach,
Fìor mhireagach,
Gun bhith sgòdach,
10 Le meur mhìn-bhuilleach,
Nan cliath bhinn-fhuaimneach,
Gun dìth eòlais,

Lìonte, sgoinneil thu,
’S fhiach do cheileireadh,
15   ’S gach big chomhnard;
Bu mhiann loinneil leinn,
Do sgiamh eireachdail,
  ’Thighinn ’nar comhdhail.

’S neo-ghann spiorad bhuat,
20 An àm tionalaidh
  Do dh’fhir òga;
Cha teann giorag riuth’,
Ach sannt mire-chath
  An strìth comhraig.

25 Gach pong chuireadach,
Toirt fonn iomairt dhoibh
  Le sunnd mòrail,
Gach sonn bunailteach,
Bu throm buillean bhuath’
30  An camp fòirneirt.

Nuair chluinnte luinneag bhuat,
Ged b’ aingidh Bonapart,
  Rinn fann-bhuilleach e;
’S a mheall a phròis air,
35 Tighinn teann bu duilich leis
  Air rang do chomhlain.

Rinn’ call fuileach air,
Le’n ceannsgal ’s t’ iollagaich,
  A ghléidh buaidh-làraich,
40 Air Frangaich ghuineadach,
Nach mall air gunnaireachd,
  A threut gu bàs i.

Fhuair cliù mar thoilleadh iad,
Bho Dhiùc Wellington,
45  Le’n sgoinn ’s an àraich:
Fuil dhlùth ’g imeachd leò,
’S lùbadh mhuineachan,
  Air ruinn na stàilinn.

Crùnludh faramach,
50 Toirt dùsgadh caithreamach
  Do shuinn shàr-bheum;
Le sùrd casgairt orr’,
Smùid ’s spealtaireachd,
  Chluinnte an rànail.

55 Bu lìonor batail leò,
’S miadhail Sasann orra
  Gu gnìomh gàbhaidh;
Nam b’ fhiach acainean
Gach triath air gaisgichean,
60  Cha strìochdadh Teàrlach.

Tha t’ fhuaim neo-airtnealach,
Bheir cruadal sgairtealach,
  Do dhùthchas Ghàidheal;
Deagh bhuaidh a thachairt riuth’
65 Bheir nuallan taitneach ort:
  ’S ann diubh mo bhràthair.

Gach coigreach ’chlisgidh tu,
Gun chorr fiosraich ort,
  Na eòlas nàduir,
70 An comhraig sgrios-bhuilleach,
Bheir leòn dha, misneach ann
  Do cheòl, toirt tàth ast’.

Tha uaislean measail
Air do chuairtean clis-mheurach
75  A cluichear làn-mhath
Le fuaim dheas-làmhach,
Bheir buaidh theas-ghràdhach,
  A chluinntear àghmhor.

Thuirt mi ’n urrad ud,
80 Toirt cliù ’s urram dhuit:
  ’S cùm gun tàir e;
’S a’ phuing, chan urra’ mi,
Chionn sin, sguiridh mi,
  ’S gum bu slàn leat.


A poem to the Great Highland bagpipe that was composed in the year 1816 by a particular person after he heard his brother (who had immigrated at that time to this country from Scotland) playing very melodiously on the bagpipe: he uttered these following words.

1-6: O pointy chantered-one, (who is) long beaked, and has drones that make great sound: melodious music comes abundantly out of your throat.

7-12: It is vigorous, quick-leaping, truly animated, without any deficiency; with a precisely striking finger of a melodious run of notes, with no lack of skill.

13-18: You are perfected and efficacious, every smooth chirp is worthy of celebration; we sincerely wish for your elegant shriek to meet up with us.

19-24: You do not lack spirit when it is time to gather up the young men; dread will not visit them, but rather a lust for fighting in the strife of combat.

25-30: Every enticing (musical) note provides an impetus to them with majestic energy; every steadfast warrior pounds out heavy blows in the war camp.

31-36: Even though Bonapart is bellicose, he would become faint-hearted when he would hear a song from you; his arrogance failed him, he was sorry to come close to a column of the battalion.

37-42: Their power and your shriek, that won the battle, caused him a bloody loss, and a loss to the fierce French; swift in their use of guns, continuing until they died (?).

43-48: They received the honour they were due from the Duke of Wellington from their efficacy in the battle-field: shedding copious amounts of (enemy) blood and breaking necks on the points of steel-blades.

49-54: A booming “crowning movement” [section of pìobaireachd] giving a triumphant awakening to hard-pummeling heroes; with the excitement of combat in them, gunpowder-smoke and melee, the roar (of the pipe) could be heard.

55-60: They fought many battles and England esteemed them for dangerous deeds; if the concerns of all chieftains for warriors had been heeded, [Prince] Charles would not have lost.

61-66: Your high-spirited sound gives fierce resilience to Gaelic heritage; it is good luck to encounter those who give a pleasant report of you: my brother is one of those (who do).

67-72: Every stranger, who knows nothing of you beyond the obvious, who you would startle in death-dealing combat that will wound him, there is inspiration in your music that weakens (the enemy’s) cohesion.

73-78: Nobles are fond of your quick-fingered cycles that are expertly played with fine-handed sound, that has a passionate effect, that is heard gloriously.

79-84: What I have just said gives you praise and honour: do not bring it reproach; I cannot add to that, and so I will stop; farewell to you.


Thanks to Hugh Cheape for suggesting an emendation on the Gaelic text and feedback about it.