The Macdonald Bardic Poetry Part 2 by Professor W. J. Watson.

 Continued from CDM No 5.

The next poem which I shall mention is one from a manuscript in the National Library, addressed to Angus son of James of Dun Naomhaig (Dunnyveg) in Islay. The remains of this famous castle are still extant, but they are rather eclipsed by the distillery opposite them with its sign of the White Horse. This poem, like the one lust mentioned, is of historical interest and importance. It bears to be by a bard attached to the house of Angus, and is in the form of a remonstrance or even defiance. It begins:

An aith do rogha a rig Fionnghall,
No an fraoch cogaidh, a chul slim?

A righ, in gach taobh toibges comtha,

Eoimdes araon orta inn.

Is peace thy choice, thou king of Fionnghaill,
Or is it wrath of warfare, thou of smooth locks?

Thou king, on whichever side thou dost exact conditions,
We are equally ready to face thee”.

 He proceeds for 24 quatrains in a mixture of defiance and flattery, and at the end he says:

Since on my side will be the chief of the dames of Mull,
Good is that aid to me in Warfare;

Not weak but right mighty is Eachann’s daughter,
That fair dame with fingers like flowers”.

The lady was sister of MacLean and wife of Angus, who flourished in the latter part of the 16th century and died in 1614. The quatrains of historical importance areas follow:

From the sea of Lewis to Loch Erris, (in the west of Connacht?)
Men dread thee, thou of the blue eyes:
And fear of thee is on all men around Boyne of green waters:

No fear of thee, Angus, have I.

At the beginning of thy great deeds thou didst harry Innis Owen,
Thou of the fair hair;

Though it is under tribute to thee from thy first levy,

Yet I shall not forego my quarrel.

Though that spoiling of Carrick Fergus,
Whereby danger touched thy smooth cheek,

Causes ever dread of thee to Saxons,

Yet I feel no dread of thy freckled cheek.

Thou didst seize the Route (northeast of Antrim)
From the blood of Macuibhilin,
Though it was the blood of kings; but that is no offset 
Thou of curling locks,
Against thy wresting from me my patrimony.

 Tiree despite the men of Mull,
Thou didst waste from side to side;

Thou slim-palmed scion of the Collas,

To protect it thou wouldst have been the better of thy poet’s presence.

A reproach to thee in thy wrath’s tempest are the men of Mull,
Though great their spite;

Thou wouldst have been the better of me to restrain thee in Morvern,

Thou with eye like bright steel blade.

The Ards of Ulster from Oilean Leamhna to Loch Cuan (Strangford Lough)
Though thou didst harry,
Thou wouldst not carry off

One cow of mine in my despite.

You will observe in these extracts the skilful mixture of flattery with defiance, more or lass pretended by serving to maintain the poet’s attitude of independence. The deeds to which he refers may be exaggerated, but they must have had some foundation in fact, lust as Fionnlagh Ruadh’s invective against Allan of Clan Ranald must have had some basis. Light is thrown on the general situation both in Scotland and in Ireland by the History of Clan Donald; further investigation among the various records might perhaps yield some information about the alleged doings of Angus in Ireland.

From the latter part of the 16th Century till the earlier part of the 18th, the principal poets of the MacMhuirrich family were Niall Mor, Cathal, Niall, and Donald.

Niall Mor was a contemporary of Sir Roderick MacLeod of Dunvegan, who died in 1626. In a poem of five quatrains he tells of his entertainment for six nights in Dunvegan, where wine was drunk from cups of gold to the music of harps and clink of goblets. In Sir Roderick’s mansion drinking was no dream, for there men might drink their fill twenty times a day. Another poem of Niall’s deals with love. It is strange that so little of his work has comedown to us.

Cathal MacMhuirich was younger than Niall Mor, but contemporary. He is considered, rightly as I think, to have written the first part of the manuscript known as The Red Book of Clan Ranald, which contains four poems by him, while four more are found in the Edinburgh MSS. His beautiful signature is appended to a lament in one of the latter. Cathal was a highly accomplished and learned poet of the old school, thoroughly versed in technique and in all other lore. In one or two of his poems his diction is extremely difficult.

His earliest recorded poem is in honour of Domhnall mac Ailin, the Chief of Clan Ranald who married Mary, daughter of Angus of Dun Naomhaig, and who died in or about 1618. It begins: “Foraois eigeas Insi Gall”, – ‘Innse Gall (the Isles) is a forest of learned men”. Much of this poem of 38 quatrains is very difficult; the translation in Reliquiae Celticae is all wrong in many places. Part of it is a fiery exhortation to Clan Ranald:

Clan Ranald traverse every land,
Winning instruction in the found of every warlike deed;

From their seeking lands afar,

They are in their homeland without a guide’.

Warriors whose peers are the host of Troy are round Domhnall
In the bark wherein he is wont to be;

His gifts from plunder he has

Eclipsed the House of Dathi.

Be not rearing shelters of lime-built houses,
If your houses on the strand are huts of grass;

Let a wattle of spears on the cold field

Be your bedchambers after battle.

Abandon the beds of down for love of venture,
Renouncing peace.

At the end he has four quatrains in honour of Mary, Domhnall’s wife.

Angus’ daughter, with eye like icicle,
With her slim palm has made order in every bay;

She has put warmth in every strand,

Whence poet bands in every court make mention of her name.

“The blood of Conn mantles in her cheek in windless waves like wine.” – And so on. In 1636 there died four MacDonald nobles, Roin mac Ailin, Raghnall mac Ailin, Raghnall mac Dhomhnaill, and Domhnall Gorm mac Aonghuis. Cathal laments them in a fine poem of 40 quatrains, beginning “Cumha ceathrair do mheasg me” – “Lamentation for four men hath confused me”.

A short and spirited poem beginning “Clann Raghnaill fa Eoin san oilean aibhinn-se,” – “Clan Ranald under John in this joyous Island”, namely  Uist, was composed some time after 1618, when John succeeded his father Domhnall.

A fine poem of 35 quatrains beginning “Leasg linn gabhail go Gearrlaoch” – “We are loath to go to Gareloch”, is a lament or elegy on Catherine (Caitirfhiona) daughter of Domhnall Gorm of Sleat and wife of Mackenzie of Gairloch, who died between 1635 and 1640. The last seven quatrains are addressed to the lady’s father and mother, and contain some interesting references to Domhnall Gorm.

On the homecoming of Domhnall Og son of Eoin Muideartach from Ireland about 1650, Cathal has a beautifully wrought poem beginning “Coir failte re fear do sgeil” – “It is right to welcome a man of your tidings”. This Chief of Clan Ranald served in Montrose’s campaigns of 1645 and following years, and thereafter he fought for the Royal cause in Ireland. He died in 1686.

A poem of 13 quatrains, finely wrought, is in honour of Sir James MacDonald of Sleat, son of Sir Donald MacDonald of Sleat. It begins, “Fuaras cara ar sqath ne sgoile” – “I have found a friend to protect the school”, i.e. the school of bards. He praises Sir Donald’s generosity to poets and others:

From the bounds of Ross to the Rhinns of Islay
To shelter them was his ancestral fashion;

From the land of Lewis to the Sea of Man

Was subject to his royal, lively, warlike, right-stern blood.

The last quatrain is addressed to Sir James’s wife, daughter of MacLeod, and as their marriage was in 1681 the date of the poem must be not earlier. Cathal must have been old at the time of composition, but his style shows no signs of age.

One of the finest of Cathal’s poems is on the death of his friend, John MacBrian, an Irish poet who is not otherwise known to me. It has 38 quatrains and is full of feeling. Towards the end Cathal lets it be seen that he fears the ending of the old learned caste in Ireland and the Isles:

The blood of Colla has not been wont
To be without men of learning
Among them till this time,
When their nobility slips astray (i.e. the history of it is in danger of being lost).

Were it to befall Clan Ranald,
A folk who turned not their backs on good learning,
To be in darkness concerning the state of others,
That were a great token of change.

The last five quatrains are pious in tone; the poem ends “death is but a change of residence”.

Cathal was probably aged when the poem was composed. To judge from the data afforded by his works, Cathal would have been born between 1580 and 1590, and he died sometime after 1631.

Niall MacMhuirich, who took up the writing of the so-called Red Book after Cathal, states that his earliest recollections were of the reign of Charles I, and among the nobles whom he recollected was Domhnall Gorm son of Gille-easbuig, who died in 1643. The date of his birth may thus be placed about 1630 or a little later; we know that he was alive in 1715. He is the historian of the Wars of Montrose; but his hero is Alasdair mac Colla.

Six poems by Niall are known to me. The first in date is on the birth of Allan, son of Domhnall Muideartach (Donald of Moidart) in 1673. It begins “Dia bheathaar ar los a leibh” – “welcome on our part, thou child!” The infant is styled:

“ua nan Eoin” – “grandson of the Johns”, namely John of Moidart and John MacLeod of Dunvegan;

“ionnua Aonghuis fhuinn Iligh” – “the great-great-grandson of Angus of slay”, i.e. of Dun Naomhaig (Dunnyveg);

“iarmho Ruairidh ri-inmhigh”, “great-grandson of Roderick of royal status”, i.e. of Sir Roderick MacLeod of Dunvegan.

The poem has ten quatrains, a pretty poem.

Donald of Moidart died in 1686, on which Niall wrote the elegy beginning “Deireadh d’aoibhneas Innse Gall” – “the joy of lnnse Gall is ended”. In this poem of 14 quatrains the dead Chief is styled “king fish of Shiel and eager salmon and last of the kings of Ross”. It ends “My bright sun who spared not wealth”.

Allan of Clan Ranald was abroad in France when his father died. He returned home to Uist in 1696, and on the news of his return Niall composed the poem beginning “Maith an sgeal do sgaoil ‘nar measg” – “good are the tidings that have spread among us”. The 14 quatrains are headed “A n-ainm an Athar agas an Mhic agas ab Sbiorad Naomh, Amen” – “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen”. Probably to the same occasion is due another poem, “Failte d’ar n-Ailin righ nan Raghnallach” – “Hail to our Allan King of Clan Ranald men”, a short but most spirited composition.

Allan’s career was cut short at the battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715. The aged poet laments him in 55 quatrains. The poem is translated in Reliquiae Celticae, but, as too often happens, the translation is bad. Niall composed another poem on the same occasion, this time in vernacular Gaelic, not in the learned Gaelic of the schools – a most unusual thing for a trained poet to do. It begins “Och, a Mhuire, mo dhunaidh” – “Alas, 0 Mary, my disaster”, and is well known.

An unpublished poem by Niall is addressed to a certain Gille-easbuig, a poet of sorts, who did not rank highly in Niall’s estimation. Apart from this the poem is of interest as will be seen:

Take good heed, thou Gille-easbuig;
Guard well thy position;
For to thee belongs the bridal garment
That is uppermost on every new-wed lady.

Be it satin or be it silk,
Thou prudent man, let it not slip;
Good is thy title to the vesture
That is around the bride.

One coin over the score is thy due,
Thou man of song,
And as much again of gifts
That enrich thy treasure chest.

The due of the honour of chief poets
Is to sit at table with an Earl,
And a circuit of every tribe
Four times in the year.

These privileges have been cause of envy
Of the poets since the time of Cormac;
Evil indeed would it be for thee
To sell them for a dollar or a shilling.

Seeing that no hardship follows thee
By way of being skilled in wise sentences,
Nor in teaching the students,
Nor in being prudent and devout.

Nor in unloosing/solving dark questions
In time of distress and difficulty;
Nor in recounting the true line of descent
Straight to the period of the first man.

Why shouldest thou, thou bold man!
Not levy thy tribute seeing
That the modest man gets nought
For love without purchase?

A question that the seventh rank poet will put to thee,
Thou most learned doctor,
Is from what fount of authority didst thou get the style of poet,
Thou swart kite?

In the last verse Niall advises the man not to seek after the office of bard or poet, – but to give his attention to making good shoes. The exact meaning of this is not over clear, i.e. whether the would-be poet was a shoemaker, or whether the reference is to the proverb that the cobbler should stick to his last. The interest of the poem for us is the enumeration of the privileges and duties of the real learned poet, and that interest is all the greater when we remember that Niall himself was almost the last of the class.

A younger contemporary of Niall was Domhnall, but all that I know about him is from some verses ascribed to him in a manuscript (LII 52 a,b) in the National Library, with the docket “wrote by Donald MacVurich son of Lauchlan son of Niall Mor is witness to a letter dated Benbecula 1722” The verses are addressed to a certain William, and begin “William, see that thou lose not thy charter”. The gentleman addressed may have been William, son of Sir Norman MacLeod of Bernera. Sir Norman died in 1705, and a long poem addressed to his son William by an unknown poet styles him “heir of Norman”, and encourages him as such. The poem was published by me from a manuscript in the National Library.

A fine poem without name of author and incomplete at the beginning and the end is preserved in the MS. LII on the death of Angus of Glen Garry; Lord MacDonell and Aros, 1680. As it stands, it consists of twenty quatrains, evidently the composition of a highly trained bard. It is printed in Vol. xxlx of the transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness. It begins:

There grasped not pike, sword, nor gun,
Shield in his time nor thin blade,
The match in hardihood for the prowess of the lad,
Salmon of Shannon, from Bush and Bann.

Another Stanza goes:

Inverness lies under sore sorrow
For love and longing for the scion of Colla;
Such is the sadness of the town
That no gentleman cares for feasting.

The poem as we have it ends:

Among the familiars of King Charles
He has none like Angus,
To guard his back and support him,
To serve his crown and to protect it.

The Clan Donald historians give a full account of Angus and his services in the Royal cause. They state:

“Among the Scottish Cavaliers who had accorded an unwilling submission to the iron rule of the Lord Protector, none was more devoted to, or had fought more strenuously for, the House of Stewart than Angus, the Chief of Glen Garry.”

During his exile Charles granted several warrants under his hand and signet creating him Earl of Ross, and bestowing on him the lands and revenues of the Earldom. Yet when Charles came to his own in 1660, all the recognition conferred on Angus was the title of Lord Macdonell and Aros. His representations made in 1663 requesting that effect should be given to the royal warrants were of no avail.

Now, a word or two in conclusion. The mental and social background of the old poets is very different from that of our time and from that of the untrained poets who began to spring up in the course of the seventeenth century. For the old poets what mattered above all was the honour of the House to which they were attached and the honour of their own order. Caesar says that in Gaul of old there were classes that only really counted, the druids and the knights – the men of learning and nobles. Something similar might be said of the old Gaelic society as viewed by the bards.

Another point is that the language used by the poets was the cultured literary language common to Ireland and to Scotland, and which underwent little change from the twelfth century onwards until it was finally discontinued in the eighteenth century. To understand it now requires special training; a knowledge of the modern Gaelic vernacular is not enough to understand the MacMhuirich poets. It is not unlikely that their works were easy to be understood of the common people in their own time, and that is the probable explanation of the fact that practically none of their poems appear in popular tradition.

In the seventeenth century we have the beginnings of vernacular poetry with Mary MacLeod and the great MacDonald poet John MacDonald or Iain Lom of Brae Lochaber, the older contemporary of another famous composer in the vernacular, the poetess of Keppoch, Silis MacDonald. But though these and others used the vernacular, and therefore appealed to a wider audience, their background continued to be much the same as that of the professional bards. It would be difficult to imagine Mary MacLeod or Iain Lom composing poetry on such subjects as the Seasons, or the beauties of natural scenery.

Modern Gaelic poetry has a wide range of subject. It begins with Alexander MacDonald, who saw clearly that if Gaelic poetry was to survive under the new conditions a different and wider outlook was essential. This he quite consciously set himself to achieve, and he succeeded. His influence in style and choice of subject is evident in all his successors from Duncan Macintyre and John MacCodrum down to Ewen MacLachlan and even later. Not that Alexander MacDonald was deficient in what we may call the Clan feeling; his Moladh, and Leoghuin – Praise of the Lion, is sufficient proof of his pride in the Macdonalds. The same is true of John MacCodrum; his poem on Clan Donald is one of the finest productions we possess, fully equal to Iain Lom’s greatest effort. But the modern Gaelic Bards of Clan Donald would require treatment by themselves.