GaelicUSA is pleased to announce the winner of the 2018 MacÌomhair Scottish Gaelic Studies Undergraduate Student Essay Competition: Wilfried Zibell. Wilfried is originally from Noorvik, Alaska, but wrote his essay as a freshman student at Harvard University for the course “CELTIC 188: Songs of the Highlander,” taught by Dr. Natasha Sumner.
Wilfried’s essay is a study of two Gaelic song-poems about the Highland Clearances, composed by natives of the Scottish Highlands as these events were unfolding:
- “Cead Deireannach nam Beann” by Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (“Duncan Ban MacIntyre,” 1724-1812), composed during the last walk he took on Beinn Dòbhrain (“Ben Doran”) in 1802.
- “Còmhradh Eadar Dùn Bhrusgraig Agus Fear-Turais” by Iain Òg MacCòrcadail (“John MacCorkindale, Junior”) of Islay (later immigrated to Ontario), composed in about 1850.
It is fitting that is his essay is published on July 4th, given that this history forms the backdrop of the massive emigration from the Scottish Highlands to North America.
Here is Wilfried’s essay in whole. We hope you enjoy it.
“Cead Deireannach nam Beann” and “Còmhradh Eadar Dùn Bhrusgraig Agus Fear-Turais” both interact very distinctly with the Highland Clearances and more specifically with the class-driven nature of those clearances. Whereas the former is more a resigned reflection on a life coming to a close, integrating imagery about the passage of time and aging into its take on the privatization of a specific place; the latter is a much more impassioned condemnation of the Clearances as a wider-spread phenomenon. Further, whereas “Cead Deireannach nam Beann” intertwines personal reflection and the mourning of the clearance of Beinn Dòbhrain through the perspective of the narrator’s life, the narrator in “Còmhradh Eadar Dùn Bhrusgraig Agus Fear-Turais” serves first and foremost as a vehicle through which the poet’s anger about the injustices of the Clearances are aired.
“Cead Deireannach nam Beann,” rendered in English as “Last Leave-taking of the Bens,” is a reflection by Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir on the fact of the loss of Beinn Dòbhrain, of which he had formerly been forester and gamekeeper and from which he had long been away, to Clearances. Though the poem does not specifically discuss the Highland Clearances as a wider-ranging phenomenon, it is very much a Clearance poem inasmuch as it is bound up entirely in the aftermath of one eviction in particular, and so provides an interesting and individualized look at the process that stands very much in contrast to the perspective of many other Clearance poems, including “Còmhradh Eadar Dùn Bhrusgraig Agus Fear-Turais.” The poem reflects this melancholy primarily through class-based imagery, nostalgic imagery, and nature imagery.
The imagery surrounding class in “Cead Deireannach nam Beann” is unique in that it does not express a class-based anger at the evicting landlords: in fact the landlords are not mentioned at all in the poem, but rather a longing admiration for a lost life among the native denizens of Beinn Dòbhrain. This is expressed primarily through a valorization of the simplicity of life in Beinn Dòbhrain before the clearing and is closely tied to expressions of nostalgia more generally. The primary examples of this come in two sections in the middle of the poem: from lines 49-56 and from lines 56-64, bisected by a stanza break and by themes (Meek, 7). From lines 49-57, the poet focuses on the simplicity of life in his youth and during his time as a soldier, saying that he’d “spend an hour with local folk,/ giving them new songs and balladry;/ I’d spend another while with comrades/ when we’d be in encampments;/ we were happy in that period.” Here we can see the romanticization of that past life, happy and simply lived, standing in implicit contrast to the desolateness of the now-empty Beinn Dòbhrain.
In lines 57-64, the poet takes a different tack, describing unabashedly the fact that he was, through folly and fortune, penniless in his youth, and why he is content in the life he has lived regardless. He says “although I’m short of riches,/ my mind is filled with solace,/ since I now have the prospect/ that George’s daughter made the bread for me.” This reference to his life as a soldier being upstanding and fulfilling serves three purposes: the first, to further valorize the simple working life, as in the rest of this portion of the poem; the second, to justify his absence from Beinn Dòbhrain in the many intervening years between the past idealized by the nostalgia; and finally, in justifying the absence from Beinn Dòbhrain, the poet contends with the undeserved eviction of the local population, which was not brought on by some moral failing. This stands in stark contrast to the lines about the poet’s youthful poverty, which he blames on folly. Here we see a subtle questioning of that disparity, which is made clear in the ending stanzas as the poet melancholically questions more broadly the changes both in his life and in Beinn Dòbhrain.
The natural imagery in this poem goes part and parcel with the nostalgia that dominates the poem, as the poet is as much mourning the nature lost to age as the people lost to eviction. This nature imagery mainly comes in the second and third stanzas, inaugurating the poem with a joyful praise of the land and the poet’s raising in it, and in the last stanza, mourning the loss forever of the nature that was so pivotal in the poet’s upbringing. In lines 6-16, the poet establishes the joyfulness present in the nature of the past, praising the animals’ joyful noisemaking with “How happy was that noble herd/ when they would set off noisily,” and “they made the loveliest music/ when at dawn their tune was audible.” Here we see reference to the well-established trope in Gaelic poetry that the natural music of animals is preferable to musical instruments, employed in this poem to further solidify the nature imagery as idyllic and noble. The poet reemphasizes this in lines 17-24 by referencing his own exploits in nature, and contrasts his having been nurtured in that nature with his present inability to enjoy it due to old age. In the final stanza of the poem, the poet bids farewell to the land he loved, knowing that he can never return to it not only due to his old age but because the place itself has changed, saying “My farewell to those deer forests-/ they are hills that are most wonderful,/ with green watercress and pure water,/ a fine noble drink, so excellent;/ those meadows that are precious,/ those wilds that are abundant,/ since I have now relinquished them,/ for ever my thousand blessings there.”
Here the poet makes one last exultation of Beinn Dòbhrain before admitting his resignation to its loss, and in this regard the last stanza is a microcosm of the poem as a whole, which itself serves as the poet’s last farewell to Beinn Dòbhrain.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, is the nostalgia that runs throughout the poem. In a sense, the entire poem is based on a nostalgia for a place that no longer exists in the way it once did, however, there are portions of the poem which are more explicitly longing for the past than others. The purely nostalgic portions progress from a celebration of joy, to a regret for the poet’s age, to a melancholic finale in which the poet is resigned to the loss of his beloved Beinn Dòbhrain. The poet opens the poem with a stanza recalling his days in Beinn Dòbhrain, saying “I was yesterday in Beinn Dòbhrain-/ of her bounds I was not ignorant/ I observed the valleys/ and the mountains once familiar;/ that was a joyful prospect/ to walk upon the top-slopes/ when the sun was rising/ and when the deer were bellowing.” This stanza begins with a reference to having visited Beinn Dòbhrain recently, but moves quickly to reminiscence on the days when the sun was shining and the mountains were once familiar, recalling and longing for the poet’s past exploits.
Later in the poem, the backwards focus takes a more grim tone, as the poet bemoans the fact that he has lost his ability to engage in his prior exploits with the advent of old age, saying “Now that old age has hit me,/ […] I cannot aspire to exploits/ though I might find that needful.” His acknowledgement of his own aging comes immediately after the poet’s reflections on his having had to leave the idyllic places of his youth, though he acknowledges this was necessary. Where the nostalgic imagery is used most effectively, however, is towards the end of the poem. After the poet justifies his absence from Beinn Dòbhrain in line 64, he goes into the next stanza with a reflection on his false perception of the landscape as unchanging, describing Beinn Dòbhrain as “that mountain which I scarce thought/ would ever change adversely-/ since she now is a sheep-walk,/ the world has tricked me wickedly.” Here is where we most strongly see the poet expressing a feeling of having been wronged rather than the sad resignation which characterizes the rest of the poem. That resignation returns in the next stanza, however, when the poet describes how “an end has come to wood and heather/ and the folk who lived there formerly;” The seemingly self-contradictory nostalgic resignation with which the poet infuses this poem expresses in itself the core problem of the poem: the longing for the place which has been taken, without much reflection on the party having done the taking.
In contrast to this is “Còmhradh Eadar Dùn Bhrusgraig Agus Fear-Turais,” (Meek 41)rendered in English as “Conversation between Dun Nosebridge and a Visitor,” a poem much more explicit about who was doing the taking and much less concerned with the introspective melancholy that characterizes “Cead Deireannach nam Beann.” This poem explicitly complains about evictions and landlords and references the English and Lowlanders as specifically antagonistic groups to the Gaels, and what nature imagery is present primarily centers on descriptions of the Dùn and its surroundings. The sum effect of this is a poem that is much more specifically airing grievances about the injustice suffered by the Gaels during the Clearances, and is significantly more direct in its condemnation of the perpetrators.
This poem, more so than “Cead Deireannach nam Beann,” is explicit about the fact that the Clearances were largely the fault of evicting landlords, and much of the imagery in the poem reflects a righteous anger at those landlords and at the oppression they hand down. Specifically, the poet’s main grievances are the fact that the landlords have, through eviction, made once lively places desolate and that they are oppressing the Gaels. In the third stanza, in which the visitor is addressing the Dùn, he decries the abandonment of the Highlands, saying “I can see the townships/ where there used to be joy and happiness,/ now reduced to extensive ruins-/ with no shelter or protection in them/ […] in the spring I see nothing/ but a shepherd and a dog beside him/ in every strath.” This is clear in its reference to the landlords’ emptying the land to maximize profit, and also hints at the increasing precarity of the evicted Gaels with the reference to the land offering “no shelter or protection.” By referencing the shepherd and the dog in every strath, the poet is driving home that this was an intentional displacement for the purpose of replacing populated communities with more profitable grazing fields, as well as demeaning the shepherds by referring to them as keeping sheep dogs rather than hunting hounds.
The poet goes on to decry the mistreatment of the Gaels as a result of this intentional displacement in lines 72-90. In this section, the poet even goes so far as to decry specific people involved in the administration of cleared lands, saying “Brown and Webster/ are like wolves without mercy,/ swallowing the poor people,/ and depriving them of every farthing/ they can get.” Describing these two, neither of whom are even themselves landlords, as ravenous and insensate wolves in this way reflects the deep anger the poet holds towards those who desolated the Highlands. The tragedy of this desolation the poet relays in the next stanza, saying that he finds it “sad to relate/ that the faithful native people/ are being displaced from the land/ by ill will and oppression;” and thus yet again emphasizing the extent to which the Clearings were maliciously done. The stanza ends with reference to Canada as “that land that is very good,” in a possible allusion to descriptions of the Promised Land in the Old Testament. All in all, the references to the involvement of the landlords serves a very clear purpose in the poem: to establish an antagonist behind the devastation of the Clearances.
Dùn Nosebridge itself is an interesting character in this poem, and the conversation with it serves mainly to provide a defense for the Gaels and to lambast the Lowlanders. Interestingly, before getting into the conversation itself with the Dùn, the poet uses the first two stanzas to praise the Dùn in terms of beauty and venerability, referring to it as “Dùn Nosebridge of the Steep Crags” and saying that “Many a generation passed over you/ and many a wild deed was on you enacted.” These two lines serve to establish a sort of credential for the Dùn as ancient ally and protector of the Gaels, and thus also introducing its purpose for the remainder of the poem.
That purpose is to defend the Gaels rhetorically while attacking Lowlanders for the injustices enacted on the Highlands. This is established from the first line the crag speaks, when from line 37-45 it says “If it is a Lowlander who speaks,/ take my advice speedily,/ and turn your cassock right round,/ and get moving down to the shoreline,/ although you are strong in this land/ and filled with pomposity,/ you will not make a fool of me/ by decrying the Gaels/ who did you no harm.” The Dùn comes out hostilely towards the perceived incursion by a Lowlander, referencing their cassocks and instructing them to flee to the shore. This is explained by the end of the stanza, in which the Dùn says that the Lowlander is apt to decry the Gaels despite the Gaels having done them no harm. Here, we see the idea of the old fort as protector of the Gaels fully emphasized. From lines 54-63, the Dùn recounts the insults it has suffered at the hands of Lowlanders, who it claims engage in “mockery and bombast,” with this stanza serving to reinforce the placement of the blame for the oppression of the Gaels squarely on the shoulders of the Lowlanders. From lines 64-72, the Dùn expounds on the presence of the visitor’s ancestors in the small glen for some time before they fled, saying “your relatives were quietly/ living in this small glen/ but through the tricks of Webster/ they sailed from Port Askaig/ over to the Ross.” This makes the tragedy both deeper, given the length of time the visitor’s relatives – and, by extension, Gaels in general – have been in the glen, and more personal, as it is revealed that the visitor’s family have been forced out of the Highlands with so many others.
In all, the conversation with the Dùn serves primarily to reaffirm and defend the Gaels’ righteousness in the face of adversity, to decry the Lowlanders for causing that undue adversity, and to heighten the tragedy of the situation by highlighting the cost of the Clearances in real terms.
“Cead Deireannach nam Beann” and “Còmhradh Eadar Dùn Bhrusgraig Agus Fear-Turais” approach the topic of the Clearances in very different ways and from very different perspectives. Whereas the first is resigned, melancholic, and individualized, the second is combative, righteously angry, and systemic. Further, whereas the first poem ends in a letting-go acceptance of the way things are, the second poem leaves the question of an improved situation largely unresolved, save in that it says that “it does not seem in the short term/ that there will be a stop to this slaughter.” (Meek 43)Though these two approach the situation from vastly different perspectives, the poems are in agreement in that neither of them sees a hopeful resolution to the state of affairs in the near future.
Donald E. Meek. Caran an T-Saoghail = The Wiles of the World: Anthology of 19th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse. Birlinn, 2003.