Article XI written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign 24 March 1881 – Part A
In a book written by the erratic Professor of Greek in Edinburgh University we find account of most of our Highland bards. Perhaps it might interest your readers if I gave them a short account of them, as I purpose to refer to some of them at any rate, whose poems fell into my hands in my school-days. I will begin with the earliest of them.
Final Macnab, the Red-haired Bard
Finlay Macnab, the “Red-haired Bard,” sang the praises of his patron, Ion dubh McGregor, who was buried in Glenorchy on 28 May, 1519.
A Highland lady, Mrs Grant of Laggan, made a collection of Gaelic poems, and the name of one of them is, “Miann a Bbair Aosda,” or “The Aged Bard’s Wish.” Mrs Grant’s Poems were published in Clark’s “Caledonian Bards” in 1778.
Mairie Nighean Alasdair Ruadh
The most noted poet of post-Reformation times was Mairie Nighean Alasdair Ruadh. Mary was a Macleod. Born at Raudil, S. E. corner of Harris, in 1569. Her father was a son of the chief of the Macleods. She was not a professional poetess, but sang as occasion moved her. She was fond of whisky and snuff, but did not drink to excess. In her younger years she would sit in the castle of the Macleods in a brooding humour, and look upon the high cliffs and the wide ocean. She lived to the age of 105, and was buried in Harris.
|Mary's burial place is in the south transept of Tur Cliamain, St Clements church in Rodel. She directed that she should be placed face downward in the grave (a Norse mode of burying witches).|
A view from the southern transept of St Clement's church looking across the nave to the northern transept opposite.
Mackenzie says of her that she was “the most inimitable poet of the isles,” and the most original of all the poets. She borrowed nothing – thoughts, verse, and rhymes are all her own. The language is simple and eloquent, the diction easy, natural, and unaffected, no straining to produce effect, no searching after unintelligible words to conceal poverty of ideas. The versification runs like a mountain stream over a smooth bed of polished granite. Her rhyme is often repeated, but we do not feel it tiresome or disagreeable. The poems are most eulogistic, but are not the effusions of a mean and mercenary spirit but spontaneous and heartfelt tributes of a faithful and devoted dependant.
Mary was ordered for some cause or other to stop making songs when she was in Mull under the penalty of not being allowed to return to her favourite home in Skye. She promised, because her very life was in Skye, but she found it was impossible to keep from her favourite occupation. On being accused of breaking her promise, she said, “Cha’n oran a th’ann cha’n ‘eil ach cronan “This is not a song, it is only a cronan (mere ditty).
Here are a few verses: -
Be wafted to me!
Rare jewel of mortals
Though banned from my sight,
With my heart I thee worship,
Thou shapeliest knight!
With my heart I thee worship’
Thou shapeliest knight,
Well girt in the grace
Of the red and the white:
With and eye like the blaeberry
Blue on the brae,
And cheeks like the haws,
On the hedge by the way.
O dear son of Mary,
To thee is my prayer,
From danger preserve him,
Whate’re he may dare
When he tracks the wild deer
The lone mountains among,
And climbs the steep corrie
With foot firm and strong
The next few blogs in this series will cover the articles written by Alexander Gunn on Highland Bards. I must say this series of letters have stretched my knowledge of the topic a lot. It seems very impressive to me that in the simple school at Berriedale the pupils had an education broad enough to take in the Highland bards. Fifty years later Gunn is still interested in the topic. He takes some of his comments directly from McKenzie's book, adding authenticy to his remarks.
According to Wikipedia, a bard was a professional story teller, poet and often a music composer. Bards were employed by a patron eg Clan chief or noble and were expected to know the genealogy of that important family and repeat such at important times such as a marriage or a birth. They were also expected to praise the patron’s worth through verse. Bards came from certain families of orators. They had to undergo a rigourous training. Apparently their training involved being shut in a study or room for days at a time lying on their back with a stone on their belly and covering their eyes with their plaid so as to pump their brain for verse.
As well as men, Gunn refers to several women bards – I am not sure that their training was the same as men bards.
Mairie Nighean Alasdair Ruadh
Although Mary was buried in Rodal, there is a memorial stone to her near Dunvegan.
|Dunvegan Old - St. Mary's|