Am Bratach No. 326
December 2018



by Kevin Crowe

“100 Oran le Rob Donn MacAoidh (100 Songs of Rob Donn Mackay)”, edited by Ellen L Beard. Taigh na Teud, 2018. £20.

A selection of Rob Donn’s poetry has been long overdue: apart from a few poems and songs in anthologies of Gaelic verse, his work has been out of print for far too long, particularly considering he is one the most important eighteenth- century Gaelic bards. The wait is over, thanks to Ellen Beard, a former American lawyer who received a doctorate from Edinburgh University and is herself descended from Sutherland’s greatest poet.

And what an impressive volume she has produced! She has brought together the musical notations and words in both Gaelic and English of one hundred Rob Donn songs, ranging from the wellknown to the more obscure. Not only that, but many of the English translations are her own. Each song is accompanied by notes detailing her sources for the music and words, and with comments that put the poems in their historical and cultural context. She provides a brief biography of Rob Donn, a relevant extract from her PhD and notes on sources and editorial principles.

She tells the reader that Rob Donn himself composed thirty of the seventy- eight different melodies used, and he took others from not just Gaelic sources, but also from Scots, English and Irish songs. Beard has divided the songs into five broad sections: elegies and laments; social and political commentary; love, courtship and weddings; satire and hu-mour; and praise, nature and sea songs.

Through this great poetry the reader gains an insight into what life was like in eighteenth-century Sutherland: what people found important; how they related to the world around and beyond them; the ways they marked and celebrated important points in life such as birth, courtship, marriage and death; what sorts of moral codes they adhered to and what sanctions were used against those who flouted them; and how the political and economic structure of society affected individuals.

We also discover much about Rob Donn himself: he wasn’t afraid to express views that went against the prevailing orthodoxy (as in his poems supporting the Jacobite cause); he both respected and was critical of authority; he had a sense of humour, sometimes expressed through satire, sometimes almost slapstick in nature and sometimes bawdy; he had no time for pretentiousness; he could use his talent to get back at those who belittled and criticised him, and he was clearly something of a rascal. All this he has in common with many poets, including Robert Burns.

In “Elegy for Rev Murdo Macdonald” he wrote: “Outright flattery for payment/ Or caution through fear of danger/ Never was or will be/The basis for the opinions in my poetry”. So when, as in this poem, he praised someone we can be confident he meant what he said. He was quite prepared to criticise the dishonest, even in death, as in “Elegy for John Grey of Rogart” and those who lacked humanity and generosity, as in “Elegy for the Rispond Misers”.

On the other hand, we have the beautiful “Elegy for John Munro and Donald MacKay” which mourned and praised two much admired people, a teacher and a minister, who died within a few weeks of each other. In one stanza he wrote: death “struck us only a partial blow” because “many a wise mouth/Will recite to each generation,/What they spoke and sang and read”. What finer memorial could there possibly be? In “To Lady Reay” he praised her for helping a deserter escape from his regiment by inviting his pursuers to Balnakeil House and getting them drunk.

His support for the Jacobites, and, in particular, his poem “The Black Cassocks”, in which he criticised the punitive laws brought in after Culloden, did get him in trouble. He avoided prosecution for treason and later wrote of his experience in “The Court at Tongue”: “A judge and a clerk were there/Without reason or justice in them”.

He was also often in trouble for poaching deer, something he addressed in “Song to the Local Gentry” with typical lack of deference: “But if it be ungodly work/To kill the deer in the glens,/ Many a worthy member of your family/ Has fallen into grievous error”.
Much of his love poetry emphasised that compatibility and companionship were more important than wealth. For example in “Advice to a Young Bachelor” he wrote: “If you turn away from the one you love,/You will be unhappy even with a pile of goods”. There was also much humour at the expense of others, as in “The Breeks of Rory’s Son” in which a wedding guest got so drunk he lost his trousers.

The collection also includes pibrochs, dialogues, poems written from different points of view, accounts of journeys on land and sea and much more. Not only will poetry lovers enjoy this book, but so will those who enjoy singing Gaelic song. This volume should prove invaluable to Gaelic singers and choirs, and perhaps we can look forward to hearing some of these songs performed at a future Mod.  

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