Dònull Mac Fhionnlaigh agus Oran na Comhachaig – Donald Son of Finlay and The Song of the Owl by Donald Campbell Macpherson

This article first appeared in Gaelic in “An Gàidheal” of January 1876 and was written by the late Donald Campbell Macpherson “Bohuntine Scholar” under the pen-name of “Diarmad”. It was translated for this magazine by Ann MacDonell whose great great grandparents were Macpherson’s grandparents.

It is the lot of Donald Son of Finlay that a district or two claim him. There are some who say that he was of the people of Braemar, some who say he was a Lochaber man, and there are others who say goodness knows who on earth he was. But there is one thing all agree about him and that is, that it was he who composed The Song of the Owl. But anyone who is familiar with clan history and who studies this poem, will clearly see that it is about three hundred years since Donald lived, and that at least he lived in Brae Lochaber. But even though The Song of the Owl did not exist, Lochaber has not yet completely forgotten him, and it is not natural for any country to completely forget its famous men. I remember,

“Before I put a kilt belt Over my skirt or coat,”

old men talking about Donald. According to their stories he was of Glencoe people, and Finlay his father was a standard bearer to the MacDonalds of Glencoe. His mother was a Lochaber woman. His grandfather on his mother’s side was poet and sportsman or hunter of the Chief of Keppoch and he lived in Creag Uanach. It was with him that Donald was reared from childhood, so that he was even from his earliest days, brought up with poetry and hunting, as he himself says;

“I was since ever I was born In the company of deer and roe-deer.”

When he reached maturity and his father died, he went to stay in Glencoe. It is uncertain how long he stayed there but it is obvious in the poem that he and his chief quarrelled. Whatever the cause of the disagreement, Donald left “John of the House of the Rock”, and he vowed he would never return, and what is more, he did not return. He came because of his old acquaintance with it to Creag Uanach, and he got a welcome and hospitality there. It happened that his grandfather had become unable to work at the time and what happened was that the Keppoch Chief made him bard and hunter. He gave him two villages Creag Uanach and Fearsaid Riabbach. He would spend his time equally between the two, during the summer on a sheiling in Creag Uanach at the upper end of Loch Treig, and at the lower end of the loch he had Fearsaid as winter quarters. As soon as he got himself settled, and when it suited him, he married a Brae Lochaber MacDonald, and they did not enjoy life together for very long. He remained a widower, and the one daughter they had, Mary, stayed without marrying, keeping house for him.

Donald was a well-proportioned man, and not too tall a person. He was active and healthy and lived for a long time. There was no one to equal him with the bow. About anyone good at aiming, to this day it is said, that he is as sure of aim as Donald Son of Finlay. He had an inexhaustible store of songs and stories, and he himself composed many songs, but the only one attributed to him is The Song of the Owl. He cannot be credited with The Aged Bard’s Wish as some would like.

There are many tales told about his archery, his hunting wanderings, about himself and about his mimicry, how he could attract the ear of the deer and other creatures, but it will suffice if I mention one or two things.

During the time of Donald, as has frequently happened since, there was a famous stag living in Gual-an-liath-ghiuthais, and one day then he thought he would take a trip over to get a shot of it. Off he set out over the Blackwater, but as mischance would have it, who was out that day in the hunting hill but Black Duncan of the Cowl and his henchmen, on the same route, and before Donald heard him far or near, he was made their prisoner. There was nothing for it but to accept apprehension, and accompany them to Finlarig. Donald’s name went far and near and because of jealousy, the servants were about to kill him, but the Knight himself was a poet, and he would not let them put a hand on him. As they journeyed on they saw a hind lying beside a well, and mocking him they said “We will free you if you will put an arrow in the right eye of the hind”. This was an unlikely thing because of how the hind was lying and the direction of the wind. But however Donald strung his bow and took stock of the wind and ground between himself and the hind but he couldn’t tackle it. When he failed to attract her attention he made a mewing type of whistle like a fawn, and the hind lifted her head.

He did it again and she turned and came towards him. Then he took the chance and aimed the arrow at her eye, and there was not an inch from tip to tail of the arrow that was not buried. When the Knight saw how excellently he performed he gave him his freedom. Not only that, he gave him an invitation to stay with himself for as long as he lived. Donald thanked him and said, that even if he gave him Finlarig Castle from the foundations, he could not leave the deer and Loch Treig.

At that time much of Lochaber was covered with great woods and wolves could be got at times in it. Donald was one day at daybreak walking beside the Dubh Loch (a loch which is behind Fearsaid Mór) and the bristly one was seen among the stones and logs returning from the Mill where he was looking for prey. He followed it and shot it down and great was his wife’s surprise at the first sight that met her in a free near the door. He killed another of them at Lub-a’-Choire-Chreagaich.

Donald’s house was on the same site on which the white house of Fearsaid is built – today alas belonging to a Lowlander. After he became unable to work, and could only move between the bed and the fire, he was one evening looking out of the window towards the hill, and he noticed a large stag that was stealing up to the garden at the back of the house. Mary was sitting at the fire and she heard her father breathing excitedly. Quietly she rose and asked him what was wrong with him.

“Be quiet,” he said, “bring my bow.”

She thought his death ravings had come upon him – the bow was on the rafters for goodness knows how long a time but she took it down.

“String it,” said he.

“Alas,” said Mary, “there is no one on Lochaber soil today who can string it.”

“You try it,” said he, showing her how to do it and in the ensuing handling the bow was strung. “Where are the arrows?” said he.

Mary got hold of the quiver and put it on his knee. Donald chose an arrow and the stag fell. “Thanks be to God,” he said, “I did not expect to ever again get the like of this, but that is my last hunt.” He ordered that he be buried in the skin of that stag and that a grave be made for him at the door of the church and his face to be towards Chroidhearg – a hill that is above Fearsaid. It does not need to be told that he got his wish. His grave can be seen today across the edge of the brae at the door of Cille Choirill Church, and a stone on it which he himself carried on his back from the hills.

I have heard it said that it was he who said:

Man who walks across my stone,
Look again behind you
And remember that tho’ I am in the grave,
That I was once as fleet of foot as yourself.

Last year a turf and stone dyke and plantation were put around Cille Choirill and the clumsy workmen who were at that work put one of the iron posts through the very middle of the stone just as if they were casting doubt on its authenticity!

Donald and Mary his daughter never quarrelled and she never asked him for anything that he did not give her except one thing. Although he did not have many black cattle he had a few goats on the Garbhdoire. One day half in fun and half in earnest, Mary asked him for the goats and he refused her and said, “whether I am alive or dead I shall not part with the goats.” This induced some humorous man or other to make a tune about it.

But about The Song of the Owl. At the north end of Loch Treig, where the river rises, is called the Deubhadh. A bit from the Deubhadh, Treig spreads itself into a broad dull pool, as if it was just taking breath before it starts cascading down to Inverlair. This dull pool is called the Eadar-loch. In the middle of the little loch can be seen a tiny island, a log-house or crannog as some people call that type of thing. In this island are the ruins of Tigh-nam-Ileadh, and it is there that the Chief of Keppoch would be holding meetings on anything needing settling between himself and the gentlemen of the district. On the Fearsaid Riabhach side is to be seen the ruins of Tigh-na-Fuine, and during a drought the stepping stones going to the island are to be seen. Since Donald was the bard and hunter he was one of the first to receive an invitation. And after he became unfit for work it happened that Raonull Gòrach used to have hunting meetings there, and through forgetfulness or fault he was not asked. Fearsaid is not far from the Eadar-loch and he thought he would go up to it, he and his stick, and white hound. He reached Tigh-na-Fuine but he was late – the feast was finished and the “cattlemen” were across round about it. There was nothing left for Donald but to face Fearsaid again. On his way home he heard over in Stròn, which was then covered with thick woods “the rounded bird of the gentle noise”, and he then began at that very time to compose The Song of the Owl.

The old people were of the opinion that the owl was the oldest bird of the bird world. That comes into Donald’s mind at the beginning of the poem.

He compares her to himself and says that if she were there from ages past no wonder although her spirit would be sad. She answers that she was; and then he asks her whom she remembers seeing in Lochaber, and where would she be hiding in times of strife. She tells that; and on hearing that she would be in Creag Uanach, he makes a similar diversion to praise that place. He praises the deer and their sanctuaries. Then he remembers acquaintances who are no longer alive – the reception that he got that evening -remembering the House of the Rock – and how transitory the world is. He again praises the deer and the hills and takes his farewell of them; and turning tenderly to his white hound, he with great sadness blames old age and concludes.