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.