Am Bratach No. 324
Fresh look at the legacy of Rob Donn
A weekend of events celebrating the work of the eighteenth-century bard Rob Donn will be held on October 5-6, marking the end of a two-year project led by Strathnaver Museum and the Mackay Country Trust. According to trust chairman Ronnie Lansley, the aim of the project has been to widen awareness of the bard’s life through a series of creative strands, involving artists, musicians, schoolchildren, historians and Gaelic scholars.
Key to the project has been the participation of Ellen L Beard, an American descendent of the poet who completed a PhD on his work at the University of Edinburgh in 2016. An article by Dr Beard published in the academic journal Northern Scotland (2017) pointed out that although the bard left over 220 published poems, more than any other eighteenth-century Gaelic poet, this extensive corpus has remained underused, with much of it still to be translated, published with music, or correlated with contemporary records. Dr Beard’s own research has helped to reverse this lack.
On Friday, October 5, there will be a ceilidh at Strathy Hall featuring Rob Donn’s songs, with the launch of a heritage trail identifying sites associated with the bard to follow at Balnakeil the next day. The trail stretches from Scourie to Melvich, with a deviation into Strathmore (Rob’s birthplace), and will be marked by an interpretation panel at each location. Artwork for the panels has been prepared by graphic designer Eilidh Price from Lairg. An exhibition showcasing artistic works inspired by the life and work of the bard will be open at the Durness village hall until 5pm following the unveiling. A further highlight of the day will be the launch of a new edition of Rob Donn’s poetry, edited by Ellen L Beard, with music, Gaelic texts and English translations.
Mackay Country trust chairman Ronnie Lansley believes that the poet’s contribution to the musical heritage of north-west Sutherland deserves to be explored more deeply, although the more familiar songs are already well-known. “At any musical ceilidh throughout Sutherland, the music of Rob Donn always features,” he said. “One of the most popular is the tune of Glengolly, which is a beautiful tune to beautiful words, reputed to have been written when he was banished to Freisgill for poaching. He was reminiscing of his times in the valley of Glengolly, with the trees and the people that he spent time with. That tune has been played at every ceilidh I can think of.” During the past summer, Gaelic singers Rona and Duncan MacLeod from Migdale, Bonar Bridge, were filmed performing the bard’s most famous song on location in Glengolly. The film is available to view on the project’s website, along with other clips featuring stories about the bard narrated by Jim Johnston, Bettyhill.
The social commentary present in Rob Donn’s songs makes his work an important historical source in its own right. “There’s been a bit of research, mostly academic, into the works of Rob Donn,” Mr Lansley said. “He’s well known in Gaelic circles, and has had comparisons with Robert Burns.” But it is the stories and tales of people and places in the songs which bring the eighteenth century world Rob Donn lived in fully alive. “His work certainly leaves a social commentary on eighteenth- century Mackay country,” Mr Lansley agreed. “It’s largely about the people — down to earth, everyday stories.”
The context in which Rob Donn composed his poems and songs was one element the project organisers wished to explore further. Earlier this year, a series of workshops were held, bringing together historians Malcolm Bangor Jones and Elizabeth Ritchie along with Jim Johnston and Ellen Beard to discuss themes such as Rob Donn’s neighbours and editors, religion and education during the eighteenth century, drove roads and the cattle trade and settlement history in “Mackay Country”. Each interpretation point on the new trail is intended to stand alone, although visitors may follow the whole trail from start to finish if they wish. Mr Lansley added that the concept of “Mackay Country” was not intended to imply a territory with fixed boundaries. “It’s really just a way of identifying the area,” he explained. “It’s had boundaries, but they’ve moved very fluidly over the years and we’ve tried to identify what’s been happening in Mackay country to make that fluidity interesting.”
More information on the Donn Country project can be found online at mackaycountry.wixsite.com/donn-country.