Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Nineteenth-century studies: Gaelic hymns and cultural perspectives of Duncan MacDougall of Tiree (founder of Tiree Baptist Church)


Donald E. Meek

Duncan MacDougall was the founder and first pastor of Tiree Baptist Church, which was formally constituted around 1838. He was also the brother of Mary MacDougall, better known as Mary MacDonald, the composer of the original Gaelic version of the well-known Christmas carol, 'Child in the manger, infant of Mary'.  Both Mary and Duncan were gifted as poets.  Although Duncan's Gaelic poetry did not achieve the recognition bestowed on Mary's hymn (or at least on Lachlan McBean's English translation of it), his Gaelic hymns were well known in their own time.  Most of his hymns are contained in an unassuming but significant little book entitled Laoidhean Spioradail a chum cuideachadh le cràbhadh nan Gael ('Spiritual Hymns to assist the devotion of Highlanders'), published in Glasgow by John Niven & Son, 55, Glassford Street, in 1841.  This book is now very rare, and is a Gaelic 'collector's item'.  Three of his hymns were printed separately, as a pamphlet, testifying to the extent of their popularity during the poet's lifetime.  One of these hymns, called 'An t-Allaban' ('The Wandering') was still sung in Tiree in the early 20th century.  It appears to have remained popular, not because of its theology, but because of its skilful use of a theme which was well known in island life, namely seafaring.  MacDougall employs the dangerous ocean as an image of the perilous circumstances of those who do not trust in Christ.  He urges them to make use of the Bible as their compass, and to steer a course which will bring them home to the Saviour of their souls:

Fhir a tha fhathast air allaban buairidh,
Ceap an seòl-mara 's thig dhachaigh san uair seo;
Fhad ’s a tha fasgadh ri fhaighinn on bhuireadh,
Càraich an t-acair sa charraig nach gluaisear.
A mhuinntir th' air allaban, 's fhada bho thìr sibh.
'N àill leibh tighinn dachaigh gu caladh na sìochaint'?
Leughaibh gu beachdail a' chairt th' anns a' Bhìoball,
Is seòlaidh i 'n rathad dhuibh dhachaigh gu Crìosda.

(You you are still wandering at the mercy of tempest,
take advantage of the tide and come home directly;
while there is still shelter to be had from the storm,
cast your anchor on the rock that is immovable.

Those of you who are wandering, you are far from the land.
Do you not wish to return to the haven of peace?
Read sensibly the compass that you find in the Bible,
and it will show you the course home to Christ.)

MacDougall drew directly on his own experience when he composed that hymn.  Travelling between the islands in an open boat, at the mercy of winds and tides, was part of the normal life of itinerant preachers in the West Highlands in the first half of the nineteenth century. Duncan MacDougall often sailed to Mull, Islay and Colonsay in the course of his work.  Sea-going of that kind was also normal for crofters and cottars in the islands, and in this way MacDougall's experience chimed with that of his contemporaries.  When MacDougall wrote the preface to his volume of hymns, he expressed his aims in terms of an extended metaphor which similarly represented an important dimension of island life - its dependence on fishing.  I offer now a summary translation of what he says:

Those who are called to fulfil their calling as teachers in the kingdom of Christ are likened to fishermen.  Concerning them, it is very well known that despite all the changes of  bait on their hooks, despite all their diligence to put their tackle and their meshes in good order, despite all their efforts, all the cold and soaking, the tribulation of night and day, the weariness, hunger, danger and peril that they have to endure, there are certain types of fish which they can never catch either with hooks or meshes.  Nevertheless, there are certain fish that cannot be caught with hooks that can be caught easily with meshes.  This is an appropriate image with regard to the labour of the teachers of the gospel and with regard to the saving of sinners.  Despite every labour of love...and proclamation of the truth publicly from house to house, there are certain sinners who cannot be caught in the net of the gospel and upon whom their work will be wasted.  Nevertheless there are some whose pride will not allow them to listen to the truth when it is preached, who can be converted sometimes by reading and listening to good books of sermons or spiritual hymns.  In the certainty that the gospel, when clad in music, will be welcomed into the home by many who would not open the door to it in any other way, the author desired to cast out this booklet, with its spiritual poems, like a net, at the request of his Master from the right side of the boat over the great ocean of humanity in the hope that he might succeed in landing a great shoal of lost sinners on the shore of mercy...

This metaphor is rich in local and biblical references, setting the fishermen of Galilee neatly in a Hebridean context which would would strike a meaningful chord in the minds of island people.

My general argument in this paper is that there was a very close degree of identification between Duncan MacDougall and the society and social conventions of the people among whom his ministry was exercised.  I believe that this helped him to become a more effective evangelist, and it is on this theme of identification with the local culture, particularly its songs and its music, that I wish to place my main emphasis when I come to discuss his hymns.

It will be appropriate at this stage to say something about Duncan MacDougall himself, and to provide a summary of his career.  Much of what is known about him has already been documented in my booklet, Island Harvest: A History of Tiree Baptist Church 1838-1988.  Duncan was a native of Mull, where he was born, at the end of the eighteenth century.  He is buried in the graveyard in Soroby, Tiree, close to the Baptist church building at Balemartin which was the centre of his labours.  In the early 1970s the gravestone was still legible; it records that Duncan died in '1850 aged 52 years', and he therefore appears to have been born around 1798.  From parish records, we know that he was the son of Duncan MacDougall, a farmer, and Anne Morrison, and it seems that the family was connected originally with Brolas, which lies immediately to the east of the Ross of Mull.  Duncan was evidently a kelp worker in the first phase of his working life, gathering the sea-wrack which was to be found in some profusion on the island shorelines. Kelping of this kind became an important part of the West Highland economy in the early nineteenth century.  His activities took him to the island of Oronsay, close to Colonsay, where he was able to see the medieval monument called the Oronsay Cross.  According to the traditional record, the cross played a major part in his conversion.  One day he began to mock the central panel of the cross, depicting a crucifix, but, after he had made fun of the person on the Cross, he was filled with remorse, and repentance and faith in Christ followed.  It is fascinating to note, in passing, that a pre-Reformation icon should thus have contributed to the spiritual awakening of a man who later became an evangelical preacher.

We know little about MacDougall's work and training immediately after his conversion.  By 1824, however, he had arrived in Tiree, where he was posted as a Gaelic teacher by the Edinburgh Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools, an organisation which had strong Baptist connections, notably through the foundational role of the Rev. Christopher Anderson.  In that year he married 'Catherine MacDonald in Balinoe' and the marriage record states that they were 'both of them Baptists by profession'.  We do not know how either Duncan or his wife came to be Baptists; we could presume that Duncan was influenced by the presence of Baptists in Mull in this period, but his wife was probably a native of Tiree and may have been influenced by Duncan himself, since it is unlikely that he appeared in the island 'out of the blue' in 1824.  Tiree and the Ross of Mull were in close contact in the nineteenth century.   The fact that Duncan was posted to Tiree as a Gaelic School teacher suggests that he was a highly literate individual by the early 1820s, and this is, of course, borne out fully by his subsequent career in Tiree, but we have no way of knowing how he became literate.  As a Gaelic School teacher, he would have been concerned primarily to make people sufficiently literate to read the Gaelic Bible.

Gaelic School teachers were not supposed to preach in the localities to which they were sent, since this would be seen as presenting opposition to the local parish minister.  However, some teachers, aware of the spiritual destitution of their localities, took to preaching.  Duncan was apparently one of those who transgressed in this way, somewhat to the annoyance of the local parish minister, the easy-going Moderate, Neil McLean.  By 1836 MacDougall had nailed his evangelistic colours to the mast, and had been enrolled as one of the agents of the Baptist Home Missionary Society for Scotland, based in Tiree.  By 1836 he had already gathered the core of what was to become Tiree Baptist Church, and this suggests that he had been performing the role of an effective evangelist since his arrival in Tiree.  From 1838 until his death in 1850, apparently caused by typhoid fever, he worked tirelessly as the pastor of the church, participating in revival movements and sparing no effort to extend the kingdom of Christ in the Inner Hebrides.  He saw the membership grow vigorously, but he also saw it diminish rapidly, especially in the years after the Potato Famine of 1846, when two-thirds of the members emigrated, chiefly to Bruce and Grey Counties in Upper Canada.

MacDougall's methods as an evangelist included preaching and teaching; he held meetings in cottages and in church buildings, and, as we have already noted, he was generally concerned to contextualise his approach in a manner appropriate to island life.  This is evident in his ready identity with the tradition of poetry within the community.  The essentially Gaelic culture in which he operated in the islands set high store by verse, and especially song, as a means of communication.  Verse was fundamentally important to Gaelic society; it was not only a way of making views known, and of giving emotional release at many levels - it was also a means of expressing the values held by the communities.

MacDougall appreciated the role of poetry at first hand. It ran in the family, so to speak, as the contribution of his sister, Mary, makes clear.  Mary composed both sacred and secular verse.   We know from traditional accounts that Duncan MacDougall himself, while less than enthusiastic about other aspects of 'profane' culture, had an immensely high regard for the secular compositions of the Tiree poets.  He acted as a kind of human tape-recorder, memorising the compositions of local poets, and, if it should happen that a poet forgot his lines, he would consult the Baptist minister to obtain a verbal transcript.  In addition to memorising their compositions, MacDougall helped individual Tiree poets towards literacy; he taught one of the finest of the local poets, the so-called Balemartin Bard, John MacLean, to read and write.

Because he was a highly literate man, he performed a valuable service as a scribe, writing letters for those who were unable to write. One such letter survives, which indicates Duncan's links with the wider emigrant world of the time.  He wrote it for Donald MacLean, known as 'The Cooper', in Balephuil, on 28th March 1838.  The letter was sent to MacLean's brother, John, who had emigrated to Barney's River, Nova Scotia, and who was himself a talented poet, and the author of a volume of hymns which he had sent to his brother back home in Tiree.  The letter, written partly in English and partly in Gaelic, showing the scribe's proficiency in both languages, concludes with the following P.S.:
Cuir dà rann am ionnsaigh anns an litir a bheir mi mar phàigheadh don sgrìobhadair mar a chì thu fèin freagarrach, oir tuigidh e bàrdachd spioradail gu math.
(Send two verses to me in the letter that I will give as payment to the scribe as you see fit, for he understands spiritual poetry well.)

Anticipating John MacLean's response, the scribe then added six fairly perfunctory signed couplets of his own composition, indicating his high regard for the verse of the older poet.  The couplets allude to several of the titles of hymns in MacLean's collection, as well as to his famous poem, 'A' Choille Ghruamach' ('The Gloomy Wood'), describing the awesome forest in which he had first settled.  MacDougall writes:

Mar aon do smeòraichibh coille, 's binn leam do ghuth as an doire;
Dhùisg siud fonn an taobh a-staigh dhiom, fuaim do chiùil air cliù nan sgriobtar;
Buaidh is soirbheachadh dod bhardachd chuir thu nall thugainn an Gàidhlig;
Guma fada maireann slàn thu, cogadh fo bhrataich an t-Slànaighir;

Ged nach eil ceòl eòin a' chladaich chòir cho binn ri eòin a' bhadain,
Is amhail sin mo chlàrsach mheirgeach-s' an coimeas ri ceòl do sheirm-sa.

(Like one of the thrushes of the wood, your voice from the grove is sweet to me;
the sound of your music praising the Scriptures inspired a tune within me.

May prosperity attend the poetry that you sent across to us in Gaelic;
may you live long, hale and hearty, to fight beneath the Saviour's banner.
Although the music of the bird of the shore is not at all as sweet as that of the bird of the thicket,
that is how my rusty harp stands in comparison with the music of your sound.)

Poetic dispatches of this kind between active bards were common in Gaelic secular tradition, and it is interesting to see them here in an evangelical context.

Duncan MacDougall's lively and warm-hearted interaction with the world of song and poetry is very evident in these verses.  So too is his love of the natural world, and especially of birdsong - a marked feature of the extensive machair-lands and shorelines of Tiree.  The themes of birdsong and the harp are evident in another poem which we shall examine later in this paper.

MacDougall's awareness of the world around him, both natural and spiritual, sacred and secular, is worth noting, since this harmony does not fit easily with the picture that we are so often given of the culture-killing evangelical ministers and missionaries of the Highlands and Islands. Although such a picture may be a fair reflection of the attitudes of some ministers in certain parts of the Highlands, it is not applicable to all of them, at all times and in all places.  The response of evangelical ministers to Gaelic culture was complex, but it was by no means one of total, implacable opposition to that culture in all of its many manifestations.  Even when ministers opposed certain aspects of the culture, and strove to eradicate them, they were influenced by other aspects of that very same culture.  Gaelic culture shaped evangelical witness, and evangelical witness shaped Gaelic culture, at different levels.  Preaching, teaching, praying, and singing bore the distinctive marks of Gaelic culture, and were indebted to secular forms of expression.  Nowhere is this intrinsic ambivalence more clearly evident than in the life and compositions of Duncan MacDougall.

Duncan MacDougall's approach to Gaelic tradition could be described as both appreciative and supportive, but it was also discriminating, and hostile to those matters which did not accord with the tenets of the Christian life. He waged war against moral and social degradation, and against anything that would lead to the destruction of the image of God in humanity or facilitate the devil's work in Tiree.  Yet he also saw that there were dimensions to secular Gaelic tradition which were worth preserving.  Where secular poetry was concerned, he nurtured and transformed appropriate parts of it, and tried to ensure that it remained alive within the community. He passed the gift of versification to his sons, John, Donald and Duncan, who all composed Gaelic songs and verses which have been remembered in Tiree tradition down to the present day.

In practice, MacDougall relegated secular culture to a secondary position.  For him, Christ as Lord was supreme over creation, but, as the world was in a fallen state, the gospel condemned 'raw' secular culture. Yet that self-same gospel had the power to reclaim culture from the devil's clutches. MacDougall thus believed that certain aspects of the secular world could be harnessed for sacred purposes. Appropriate parts could even be transformed, and used to further the cause of Christ. In his introduction to his book of hymns of 1841, we saw how he set out his rationale for using poetry as a vehicle for the Christian message.  His poems were to be lures in the great business of being 'fishers of men'.  He goes on to comment further on his use of tunes, and this shows the kind of dialectic within which he operated:

There are some who may find fault with the author for the tunes to which some of these spiritual poems are set; but he hopes that when they understand the purpose that he had in choosing these tunes, they will turn their frown into a genial smile. Since 'the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil', the author chose to be 'a fellow-worker with Christ' in destroying that part of Satan's works which consisted of unholy songs under these tunes and to put in their place spiritual poems which display the glory of God.

The argument here is not one of outright rejection or destruction of the whole song tradition; rather, it amounts to a recognition that secular song, while being part of 'the works of the devil', can be cleaned and purified, so that an alternative evangelical culture may be created, to display, as he says, the glory of God.  Here is an attempt to redeem a particular dimension of the culture, rather than to destroy it in its totality.

It is not therefore surprising to find that what MacDougall does is to take existing popular songs, both Gaelic and non-Gaelic, and to compose hymns to their tunes.  Thus, he has a Gaelic hymn which is set to the tune of a non-Gaelic song, namely 'Auld Lang Syne'. The hymn is, in fact, about the speed with which time passes, and the need for timely repentance and proper use of time:
Oir ceart cho luath ri gille-ruith,
'S ri iolair dol san iarmailt,
'S mar luing a sheòlas air a' chuan,
Ar làithibh uainn tha trialladh.

 Dh'fhalbh ar làithean uainn mar sgàil,
Gun chuimhn' air bàs no sìorraidheachd,
'S ged bhiodh ar n-ùmhlachd nis na b' fheàrr,
Cha dèan e 'n àithne riarach.

(As swift as any courier
and an eagle flying skywards,
and like a ship that sails the sea,
our days are speeding from us.

Our days have passed like a shadow
with no thought of death or eternity,
and though our obedience should now improve,
it will not satisfy the commandment.)

Throughout MacDougall's hymns, there is a strongly didactic element, as one would expect from one who was primarily a teacher.  The themes, language and imagery of the hymns are drawn principally from the Scriptures.  Sometimes, however, one senses an underlying tension in the style, between the demands of metre and rhyme and the language of theology.  One of the problems with the use of verse for religious purposes was that the art of poetry was frequently subordinated to the demands of dogma.  Gaelic preachers with little poetic spark in their souls were inclined to cram their verses with theology, and to express themselves in ready-made idioms and images which were derived directly from the Bible.  These idioms and images were fostered by nineteenth-century evangelicalism as a distinctive religious argot. The result may have been verse, but it was seldom poetry, and certainly not poetry of a high order. To put matters bluntly, some of it was appallingly bad, and it has to be said that MacDougall produced his share of dogmatic doggerel of this kind.  Occasionally, too, the attempt to make his verse relevant to a particular context led to little more than banality.

These points are well illustrated by a couple of verses from 'An t-Allaban', the song with the attractive seafaring image with which we began this paper. MacDougall draws a clear distinction between identifying with denominations and identifying with Christ. He expresses himself thus:

'S ballaibh na creidmhich da fheòil is da chnàmhan,
Ach tha cuid dhiubh tha lag, agus cuid a tha làidir;
Cuid a' beathachadh air bainne agus mana aig pàirt diubh,
''S nì E fèin giùlan sèimh leis a' mheud sa bheil àl diubh.'..
Tha roinnean san àl seo mar bha anns an t-seòrs' ud;
Tha eaglais na h-Alb' ann is eaglais na Ròimhe,
Baistich is Burgers, Independents 's Methodists,
Ach 's e their an Fhìrinn nach eil ann ach dà sheòrsa.

(The believers are members of his flesh and his bones,
but there are some who are weak, and some who are strong;
some feed on milk, while others take mana,
'And He himself will carry gently those that are with young'.

There are divisions in this brood as there was in that sort;
the church of Scotland exists, and the church of Rome,
Baptists and Burghers, Independents and Methodists,
but what the Truth states is that there are only two kinds.)

The warning against being sidetracked by denominational partisanship may have made bad poetry, but it made good spiritual sense. It was also particularly relevant to contemporary affairs in Tiree.  In the letter (written by MacDougall) which Donald MacLean, 'The Cooper', sent to his brother, John, in 1838, he provides a fascinating picture of local religious provision:

Tha seana Mhaighstir Niall agus e nis a' searmonachadh h-uile dara Sàbaid ann an Scairinis 's an ath Shàbaid ann an taigh sgoil mar a tha ann an Cornaig Mhòir. Agus a bhàrr air sin tha e a' toirt dhuinn trì no ceithir do shearmoin sa bhliadhna ann an àm an t-samhraidh ann am Baile Phuill. Agus tha trì ministearan eile again do na daoine ris an abairear ann am Beurla 'Dissenters'. Tha fear Mr Farquharson, Independent, againn o Shiorramachd Pheairt agus taigh-adhraidh aige air an Druim Bhuidhe. 'S bidh e mar as trice an dara Sàbaid sa Chaolas agus tha tuaiream fichead ball Eaglais aige don t-seòrsa aidmheil sin.  Tha fear eile againn do na Baistich, Dùghalach do mhuinntir Mhuile, agus taigh-adhraidh aige ann Baile Mhàrtainn agus tuaiream fichead ball Eaglais aige don t-seòrsa sin.  Agus fear eile do na Seceders a mhuinntir na dùthcha so fèin, mac do Phàdruig [mac] na Ceàrda a bh' ann am Manal. Chan eil gin don aidmheil sin againn fhathast ach e fèin.  Tha 'n triùir air an cumail a suas le comainn eadar-dhealaicht' a th' ann an Dun Eideann aig a bheil rùn maith a dhèanamh don Ghaidhealtachd. Tha mòran luchd èisdeachd aca uile...

(Old Master Neil now preaches every second Sabbath in Scarinish and the next Sabbath in a large school-house in Cornaigmore.  And in addition to that he gives us three or four sermons in time of summer in Bailephuil.  And there are three other minsters too of the people who are called in English 'Dissenters'.  We have Mr Farquharson, an Independent, from Perthshire, and he has a house of worship on the Druim Buidhe, and he is usually in Caolas on alternate Sabbaths, and he has about twenty Church members of that kind of profession.  We have another man, of the Baptists, a MacDougall from Mull, and he has a house of worship in Balemartin, and he has around twenty Church members of that kind.  And [we have] another man of the Seceders, belonging to this place itself, a son of Peter Sinclair who was in Mannal.  He has no followers of that profession yet, except himself.  The three of them are maintained by different societies in Edinburgh who are desirous of doing good for the Highlands.  They all have many hearers.)

In Tiree, as in other parts of the British Isles in the first half of the nineteenth century, the strong emphasis on missionary endeavour led to the proliferation of different groups, each striving for members.  Baptists thus found themselves quite literally sharing common ground with several other local bodies, but differing from all of them in their understanding of baptism.  This created tensions, particularly with the Independents, whose form of church government was very similar to that of the Baptists.  Some of those converted through the later labours of the Independent minister, Archibald Farquharson, became Baptists. Although this enhanced the Baptist cause in the island, it gave the Independent minister a deep dislike of what he regarded as little more than sectarianism. It was easier to address the dangers of denominationalism through the medium of verse than to eradicate them in practice.

If MacDougall's desire to be true to Scripture and to address contemporary ecclesiastical affairs contributed both reality and, sadly, banality to some of his songs, it is also quite evident that he was capable of higher poetic achievements. He was prepared to go much further than merely employing secular tunes and subjecting existing metres to severe theological servitude.  MacDougall's distinctive gift, which we have already observed in his picture of the 'gospel fisherman', lay in his ability to pursue extended images, commonly metaphors for the Christian life and discipleship.  A good example of this is found in his song, 'An Fhìonain Fhìor' ('The True Vine'):

Tha treabhaich' àraidh sa ghàrradh fhìona
Thoirt gheugan nàdarr' gu fàs san fhìonain;
Tha E gan aonadh le ceangal cinnteach,
Is a' toirt fàs dhaibh an gràdh na fìrinn.
On 's geugan ùr' iad tha toradh nuadh orr'
Fuidh mheas a' lùbadh le cùram gluasaid,
'S tha feartan ùr-bhreith 'nan uile bhuadhan,
'S tha boltrach cùbhraidh on tùis thèid suas ac'.

(There is a special gardener in the vineyard, who causes natural branches to grow in the vine; he unites them with a sure bond, and gives them growth in the love for the truth.
Since they are new branches, they bear fresh produce, as they bend under fruit, taking care as they move; the powers of new birth fill all their qualities, and they offer up a sweet fragrance from their very beginnings.)

It was, however, when MacDougall returned to the fountain-heads of indigenous Gaelic poetry that he produced his best verse. Thoroughly familiar with the conventions of the secular Gaelic poets, he was ready to re-employ some of their standard figures of speech in a refreshingly poetic manner.  Released to a very large degree from the shackles of scriptural expression, he was able to pursue extended metaphors, and to employ a range of imagery drawn from the natural world, in a manner reminiscent of the eighteenth-century Gaelic poet, Dugald Buchanan. Indeed, the verse which he creates in this mould has a distinctively older and richer texture, and seems to conform to a more reflective style than his urgently evangelistic exhortations. His capabilites in this genre are illustrated by two poems.

The first of these is entitled 'A' Chlàrsach Mheirgeach' ('The Rusty Harp').  The theme of the poem is straightforward.  The poet hears the birdsong of early summer, and it reminds him that he himself should tune his strings to praise his Creator as the birds do.  He is encouraged to use his harp again; it has been hanging unused, he tells us, for some considerable time, and lumps of rust have grown on its strings.  He takes it down, and begins the process of tuning it anew.  As he tries to play it, he realises that it will be quite some time before he will get it to produce fine music, but, as he listens to the birds, he hears some that are prepared to 'croak' if they can do nothing else.  He therefore proceeds with his music.  He extends the metaphor to include others who could play their own harp of praise to the Lord for all his goodness to them, but are too comfortable in their nests.  They need to be stirred up like the birds.  Here are the opening verses of the poem:

Nis on thàinig na h-eòin as an seòmraichean balbh,
'S a dheasaich iad an òrgain gu ceòl air gach calbh, 
Tha siud a' teagasg dhòmhsa mo chòisridh a ghairm
'S bhith teannachadh mo chòrdan gu ceòlmhor gu seirm.

'S fhad' o chrochadh leam mo chlàrsach air sàmhchair ud thall,
'S tha siud ionnan 's bàs thoirt air pàilleann nam pong;
Nuair a chàraich mi mo làmh oirr' bha 'n àsag cho trom
'S nach togadh i mar b' àbhaist di 'n àirde am fonn.

Chuir siud le nàire gnùis mi gu sgùradh nan teud,
'S a' mheirg orra 'na stùcan, cruit-chiùil chaidh o fheum;
An latha b' fheàrr 's a b' ùir' i, bu diù i measg cheud,
'S cha dèan i nis mar 's dùth dhi ach dùrdail dhomh fèin.

(Now that the birds have come from the chambers of silence
and have prepared their organs to make music on every bush,
that teaches me to summon my choir
and to tighten my chords to produce tuneful sound.

It is long since I hung my harp yonder in silence,
and that is like destroying that dwelling of notes;
when I put my hand upon her, the instrument was so heavy
that she would not give her customary rendering of the tune.

That caused me, shame-faced, to polish the strings,
with the rust stacked upon them, on that harp set aside;
when she was best and newest, she surpassed a hundred,
but she now fails to produce anything but a crooning for me.)

The poem shows MacDougall's delightful responsiveness to the natural world, represented by the birds, and also by the harp.  The harp functions as a symbol at various levels in the poem.  It is redolent of associations with traditional Gaelic culture, in which it was once the chief musical instrument.  In MacDougall's case, it may well also represent the musical talents which he may have been inclined to neglect, following his conversion; he now takes up the harp, and uses it in praise of God.  Was Duncan given cause to regret, in later days, that he had treated secular culture, and especially his own musical gifts, too harshly when he was filled with the first flush of spiritual enthusiasm?   The poem expresses much of the poet's desire to achieve a harmony between faith and culture, especially in its musical dimension, and it is quite evident that he is trying to move other Christian believers into a similar frame of mind.

The second poem which I would like to mention briefly as a fine example of the blending of sacred and secular themes  is called 'An Ceud Adhamh' ('The First Adam').  This is a portrait of Adam, who is presented as if he were an old-style Gaelic chieftain.  In describing Adam's special place as the representative head of creation, MacDougall uses images drawn from the Bible, but he is also heavily indebted to the metaphors which were used to delineate the status of the Gaelic chieftain.  The traditional stock-in-trade of Gaelic panegyric verse of this kind includes comparisons of the chief with the sun, with precious metals and with trees of various kinds.  I will quote (in translation) only two verses in which we can these metaphors being applied to Adam.

He was pure white in his light,
like the most radiant luminary, the sun,
and like the most refined gold,
without blemish or fault or flaw;
he was like a crown in creation,
beautifying the elements with order,
and he resembled the head of the household,
with everything attuned as he wished.

He was a water-spring that spread widely,
from which the powerful torrents poured forth;
he was also like a tree of meeting
from which sprang evey kindred and tribe;
he was the famous cedar
which extended its branches and twigs every way,
and filled the face of the earth,
and much of the ocean besides.

The fall of Adam is compared to that of a house, in which he acted both as the foundation and the coping-stone:

He was like a shapely foundation,
strong enough to bear the whole weight,
and as long as the base remained strong,
the house would not fear any harm;
but the cause of our lament
is that both foundation and top-stone gave way,
every stone and beam of it collapsed;
that is the fall that has crushed us to death.

This last verse is a graphic illustration of MacDougall's remarkable ability to use extended metaphors.  In this case, the audience would have appreciated the way in which Adam's fall mirrored the collapse of traditional Gaelic 'high society' in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Much more could be said, but this is sufficient to demonstrate how a Gaelic-speaking Baptist minister of the first half of the nineteenth century positioned himself relative to traditional Gaelic secular culture when using song and verse to communicate the Gospel.  MacDougall was not, of course, alone among preachers in resorting to Gaelic song for sacred purposes; Peter Grant, the foundational pastor of the Baptist church at Grantown on Spey, did likewise with pre-eminent success. But Duncan is perhaps unique in providing us with important insights into his rationale for employing this dimension of Gaelic culture.
When Duncan MacDougall died of fever in 1850, it was a sad blow for the church which he had nurtured over the previous twenty years or so.  His passing was also keenly felt in his native island of Mull, and it is indicative of the esteem in which he was held, and of the breadth of the tradition of Gaelic verse which he cultivated, that he was commemorated in an elegy composed by Duncan MacIntyre, one of the pastors of the Baptist church at Ardalanish in the Ross of Mull.  I conclude with with some verses from that elegy:

Gu bheil mi brònach mun sgeul th' air aithris dhomh
Mun t-seanair ghràdhach tha thàmh sna machraichean;
Gun d'rinn am bàs tighinn 'na dhàil gun acarachd,
'S gun tug e uainn e, 's bu luath a thachair sin.

Am measg nam bràithrean bha e càirdeil cathrannach,
Is bha e sònraichte measg nan seanairean;
Bha gliocas on àirde air a thabhairt dha,
'S rinn e siud òirdheirc 's na bha e 'g aideachadh.

Cha b'e òirdheirceas cainnt bha cleachdte leis,
Ach soisgeul glòrmhor an Dè ro-bheannaichte,
Gun leud na ròineig chur ris na thabhairt uaith',
Ach simplidh, saor, mar o bheul nan Abstolan.

Chan eil adhbhar dhomh bhith labhairt air
Na buaidhean òirdheirc a bh' air an t-seanair ud,
Oir nì na sgrìobhaidhean dh'fhàg e againne
An nì nas cinntich' na ghabhas aithris leam.

(I am sad about the news delivered to me
about the beloved elder who resided in the machair-lands;
that death came upon him without any mercy
and snatched him from us - it happened so suddenly.

Among the brothers he was kind and charitable,
and he was special among the eldership;
wisdom from on high was bestowed upon him,
and he adorned it in what he professed.

He did not promote magnificence of language,
but the glorious gospel of the blessed God,
without adding or subtracting a hair's breadth,
offering it simply and freely, as from the Apostles' mouths.

I have no need to make any more mention
of the fine qualities that that elder had,
since the writings which he has bequeathed to us
will confirm the point more surely than I can relate.)

Duncan MacDougall would not have sought commemoration of this kind, but he would, at least, have been pleased with the form of the elegy, since it is modelled on a secular Gaelic song, 'Och-òin a Rìgh, 's gura mi tha muladach'. It was thus an appropriate musical note on which to celebrate, and mark the conclusion of, his devoted, productive and fulfilled life.       

No comments:

Post a Comment