Burns night

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AROUND the globe from Scot­land’s cap­i­tal city of Ed­in­burgh to Ed­in­burgh of the Seven Seas on Tris­tan da Cunha, the world’s most re­mote is­land, Scots of de­scent or de­sire cel­e­brate the life and work of their na­tional bard Robert Burns on his birth­day, Jan­uary 25, with Burns Sup­pers.

But Scot­land has more bards than Burns, and no­tably two con­tem­po­rary po­ets from Argyll and Lochaber, who lived and wrote dur­ing a golden age of Gaelic po­etry in the 18th cen­tury.

Af­ter the 1745 Ja­co­bite ris­ing, the mas­sacre at Cul­lo­den in 1746, and the vi­o­lent reprisals against the High­land clans, these two Gaelic po­ets, who fought on op­pos­ing sides, pro­duced two epic poems, In Praise of Ben

Do­rain and The Bir­linn of Clan­ranald, both trans­lated into English by Hugh MacDiarmid, and both among the great works of world lit­er­a­ture.

The Gaelic bards were con­tem­po­raries of Burns (1759-96): Don­n­chadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir or Dun­can Ban MacIn­tyre (1724-1812), who was born in Glen Orchy, and Alas­dair Mac Mhaigh­stir Alas­dair or Alexan­der Mac­Don­ald (c. 1693/98-1770), who lived in the West High­lands and was buried in Ari­saig.

Dun­can Ban, a game­keeper for the Duke of Argyll, is hailed as the Gaelic na­ture bard par ex­cel­lence, giv­ing per­haps Bri­tain’s finest po­etic de­scrip­tion of wildlife in his most fa­mous poem Mo­ladh Beinn Dòbhrain, In Praise of Ben Do­ran. Dun­can Ban was il­lit­er­ate, car­ry­ing his poems by mem­ory, but many were writ­ten down and pre­served by Rev Don­ald MacNi­col, parish min­is­ter of Lis­more.

His po­etry has also been trans­lated into English by Iain Crich­ton Smith, a na­tive of Lewis who lived in Oban and Taynuilt, and taught English in Oban High School.

In Praise of Ben Do­ran de­scribes the moun­tain, the deer and the hunt, nar­rated by the hunter. ‘A young man who will hunt the deer, not for sport but for the nour­ish­ment of him­self and his peo­ple,’ writes Alan Ri­ach, Pro­fes­sor of Scot­tish Lit­er­a­ture at Glas­gow Univer­sity, who has also re­cently trans­lated the Gaelic poem into English.

‘In the 21st cen­tury, most of the deer and the forests, the nat­u­ral plen­i­tude of Ben Do­rain, has gone. It is a beau­ti­ful, but bare moun­tain. In this, per­haps, it is com­pa­ra­ble to that other great poem of sor­row, Sor­ley MacLean’s Hal­laig.’

Don­n­chadh Bàn nan Òrain or ‘Fair Dun­can of the Songs’ lived in Ed­in­burgh dur­ing the flour­ish­ing of the Ed­in­burgh En­light­en­ment, and his poems were sell­ing well as Robert Burns’s Kil­marnock edi­tion of Poems,

Chiefly in the Scot­tish Di­alect, was pub­lished in 1786. Dun­can Ban was buried in Ed­in­burgh’s Greyfri­ars Kirk­yard, and in 1859 an­other mon­u­ment by John Thomas Roc­head, who de­signed Stir­ling’s Wal­lace Mon­u­ment, was erected to hon­our MacIn­tyre in the hills near Dal­mally, over­look­ing Loch Awe.

The ’45 Ja­co­bite re­bel­lion di­vided the coun­try, and the two Gaelic po­ets: while Dun­can Ban fought for Hanove­rian forces, on the other side stood the Moidart school­teacher Alexan­der Mac­Don­ald, Alas­dair MacMhaigh­stir Alas­dair – ‘the Great Bard’, ‘Am Bàrd Ain­meil’.

Mac­Don­ald aban­doned teach­ing at Kil­choan, Ard­na­mur­chan, where he wrote the first Gaelic-English dic­tionary A Gal­ick and English Vo­cab

ulary, as the Ja­co­bite flag was raised at Glen­finnan on Au­gust 19, 1745, af­ter which he be­came cap­tain in the Clan Ranald reg­i­ment, and taught Gaelic to the Young Pre­tender to the Bri­tish throne, Bon­nie Prince Char­lie.

De­feated, he fled to Glen Uig, Knoy­dart, Mo­rar and fi­nally to Sandaig in Ari­saig, where he is buried in an un­known plot in Kil­morie ceme­tery. Pro­fes­sor Ri­ach writes: ‘ The Bir

linn of Clan­ranald is a poem which de­scribes a work­ing ship, a bir­linn or gal­ley, and the 16 crew­men, each with their ap­pointed role and place, and it de­scribes their mu­tual work­ing to­gether, row­ing, and then sail­ing out to sea, from the He­brides, from South Uist to the Sound of Is­lay, then over to Car­rick­fer­gus in Ire­land. The last third of the poem takes us through a ter­ri­ble storm, and we make it – only just – to safe har­bour.

‘ The Bir­linn presents a clan and a crew of men work­ing in ex­treme co-or­di­na­tion, dis­ci­plined and in­tu­itive, but they and their ves­sel are sub­jected to a storm of un­prece­dented vi­o­lence. The courage and skills of the crew and the strength of the ship carry them through, but at a cost.

‘The safe har­bour they come to con­nects the Celtic worlds of Scot­land and Ire­land.’

Prof Ri­ach con­cludes: ‘The jour­neys both poems take us on are, also, sig­nals of an an­cient kin­ship, across dif­fer­ences, of the Celtic peo­ples, of the hu­man needs of all peo­ple, and of the re­la­tions be­tween these and sea, earth and na­ture.’

Per­haps this Burns night we can also re­cite poems by the na­tional bard’s great Gaelic con­tem­po­raries.

All smiles from those en­joy­ing the Re­gent Ho­tel’s Burns sup­per.

The hag­gis is piped in a t Oban’s Re­gent Ho­tel.

The top ta­ble at the Re­gent Ho­tel.

Cel­e­brat­ing the bard at Taynuilt.

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