The Gaelic way of living in the world
Have you ever cleaned out an old trunk and found something that had been considered precious enough to be preserved? Donna (Macdonald) Campbell of Baddeck has kindly shared her find with me: six weathered, old sheets of paper; five handwritten Gaelic songs. As Donna tells it, “When cleaning out the old homestead (on Rocky Side, South Haven) after my Uncle Malcolm sold it, we came upon these treasures….”
Two songs are very familiar, the local beloved "’S e Ceap Breatainn tìr mo ghràidh", (‘C.B. is the land that I love’), by Dan Alex Macdonald, Framboise; and "Fear a’ bhàta", (‘The Boatman’), written late in the 18th century by Jean Finlayson of Tong, Lewis, for her sweetheart, Donald Macrae, a young fisherman from Uig who, despite the advice of the other boatmen in the song, she did marry. The date indicates when this song was copied: November 10th, 1937.
A third MS contains a lesser known song, “Am fear a chaill a leannan” (‘The one who lost his sweetheart’), written in 8-line stanzas by the ‘Skye Bard’, Neil Macleod; see his book, ‘‘Clàrsach an Doire’’ (1833). It can be heard sung on the ‘‘Tobar an Dualchais’’archive by Roderick Campbell. The bard complains that his sweetheart’s promise to him hasn’t lasted long; even as the wedding guests are arriving, she takes off with the red-haired lad! Incensed, the bard swears to give him a pounding when he catches up with him!
But these three songs are just the prelude to the final two, tantalizing ones. One of these, written cursively in ink with water splotches, is the only other song with a date, this time Feb. 1(?), 1937. Titled “O, seinnidh mi duan (do’n ghruagaich mhaisich)” (‘O, I will sing a song to the bonny lass’), it is to be sung to the tune of “Muile nam Mórbheann”. It is a love song in which the bard, while he extols his Lewis sweetheart, laments her leaving him for a “young lad”. The writer is clearly wellversed in Gaelic poetic structure; here he uses the familiar 4-line stanza with end rhyme in the first three lines, and all final lines rhyming with each other. But who made the song?
The last unknown piece is religious in theme. Being hand-printed, it is impossible to tell whether the same individual authored this and the previous song. It has a chorus and twelve numbered verses; the number XIII at the end suggests a thirteenth verse yet to be written. No tune is suggested. The author implores his “foolish friends/relations” to flee from Sodom and come to Christ, not to disdain “the best invitation they have received, offering eternal life and peace in Paradise”. The verses have a similar rhyming pattern to that of the previous song. But who made them?
What clues do we have? The Lewis reference in the unknown song, and the probability that Donna’s great-grandfather’s roots were in Leurbost, district of Lochs, Lewis, are highly suggestive. This relative, Donald Smith (18361922) of Rocky Side, is said to have built the homestead; his son, ‘Red’ Dan (1892-1975), probably inherited it as the only other son died young. We do know Red Dan left the homestead before his marriage in 1945, allowing his widowed mother, her daughter Mary Catherine and husband, Murdoch Angus Macdonald, to move there.
What was that date on the songs again? Ah, yes—1937. Could it be that our author is *Red Dan? He was well-known in the community, and the likelihood of his occupying the homestead in 1937 points to him as a plausible candidate. The fact remains, however, that we do not know. But I wonder...
*See Ron Caplan’s account of meeting him in 1972. (CB Magazine, Issue 71, 1996)