Friday, 3 March 2017


Donald E. Meek


My aim in this paper is to consider a very small part of a very large theme. The presentation of aspects of the Christian faith in twentieth-century Gaelic prose is a subject worthy of much deeper study and reflection than can be attempted here.  For our purposes it suffices to note that, in the course of the century, Gaelic writers adopted a much more critical attitude towards the Protestant church in the Highlands than had been evident in the nineteenth century.  This was due partly to the loss of the church's authority in key domains.  It had been the primary vehicle of Gaelic publishing in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century, and particularly in the second half of that century, Gaelic publishing was diversified and largely secularised, thus allowing new voices to challenge older ones.   Voices within the church also became more critical of its role, as is evident in the writings of the Rev. Donald Lamont, the editor of the Gaelic Supplement of the Church of Scotland magazine, Life and Work, from 1907 to 1951.  Lamont's 'Cille Sgumain' sketches, which focused on an imaginary parish and its minister, the Rev. Neil MacFarlane, B.D., included letters allegedly sent to him by parishioners.  By using such devices, Lamont was able to create 'critical distance', and to produce mildly satirical accounts of parish events.[1]  Lamont stimulated other, non-clerical, writers, most notably Finlay J. MacDonald, whose hilarious story, 'Am Basàr' ('The Bazaar'), daringly took passing swipes at communions, conventions and other church meetings.  MacDonald's main character - a talkative lady called 'Seonag' - was a development of Lamont's 'Seònaid Eachainn'.[2] 


MacDonald's theme - rather out-of-touch Highland characters trying to come to terms with new trends in church life, such as the holding of a bazaar - is echoed in the concerns of several Gaelic short stories from the 1950s, which appears to have been a decade of particular significance in the development of this genre.  In what follows, I intend to restrict myself to a trinity of modern Scottish Gaelic short stories, and to concentrate on only one of these stories before discussing some wider aspects of the theme as reflected in two recent novels.


Two of the three short stories are by well-known writers. The one is Derick Thomson's 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' ('The Minister's Wife'), first broadcast on radio in 1953, and the other is Finlay J. MacDonald's 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh' ('Before the Public'), first published in the Gaelic periodical Gairm in 1958.   Both short stories deal with aspects of Christianity in the Scottish Highlands, and particularly with the power and influence of the evangelical Protestant church.  Thomson's 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' concerns the most important family in the church's hierarchy, namely that in the manse, and explores the worldviews of the minister and his wife.  The wife is an incomer to the Gaelic community, with a love for, and interest in, the world of Nature, while her husband is the conventional Gaelic minister.  He conforms until he has a serious accident, and falls over a cliff in pursuit of his wife's dog.  During a brief period of recovery and prior to insanity, he temporarily appears to embrace his wife's perspectives.[3]


MacDonald's 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh' likewise focuses on the manse family, but specifically on the minister's daughter, Seonag.  She is very much aware of the pressures exerted by her privileged position.  She is expected to conform to the expectations of the community and of the manse family; but she becomes pregnant, and has to make some difficult decisions relative to these pressures.  Her friend and the father of her child is Pàdraig, a medical student. Pàdraig comes under the influence of her father's new-style American preaching, and, just before Seonag tells him her news, he informs her that he has made a far-reaching decision to abandon medicine and become a minister.[4]  Both stories share some common ground, since they explore the theme of community expectations and the individual's conformity, or non-conformity, while also introducing a very subtle interplay of deep human instincts and primordial pressures.


The provenance of 'Iomhar Mòr'

My main concern, however, is with the oldest of the trinity of tales, namely 'Iomhar Mòr' ('Big Ivor'), a story which first appeared in 1950 in An Cabairneach, the innovative Gaelic magazine of the Portree branch of Comunn na h-Oigridh, the young people's branch of An Comunn Gaidhealach.   Its authorship is unknown, and therefore we do not have the problem of 'privileging' the story with an authorial context.  In the case of the other two tales, we know something about Derick Thomson and Finlay J. MacDonald, and we may find it hard not to search for biographical dimensions and personal agendas in their work.   With regard to 'Iomhar Mòr', we may speculate that so assured a tale did not come from the pen of a secondary school pupil, and we may suppose that it was contributed by a mature writer.   We could suggest possible authors among the 'usual suspects' of that period, but no writer among those who have published a collection of stories has owned up. We may have our suspicions, and these may be enhanced by the present discussion, but we are not at liberty to go beyond the general mask of An Cabairneach.  The magazine was edited by the Gaelic teacher at Portree High School, Iain Steele, and appeared only occasionally - in 1944, 1945, 1950, and 1962.[5]


The publication of 'Iomhar Mòr' in 1950 is interesting in the light of later developments in Gaelic literature.  It pre-dates the founding of Gairm in 1952, and it contains within it some themes which were to appear in subsequent Gaelic writing, most notably Iain Crichton Smith's novella, An t-Aonaran (1976).[6]  I am not suggesting that Smith is the author of this tale; the stylistic evidence, in fact, rules this out.  I am, however, implying that 'Iomhar Mòr' has a very important place in the history of modern Scottish Gaelic literature, and that its significance is worthy of some acknowledgement.


The rediscovery of 'Iomhar Mòr' after some twenty years of neglect is due to Dr Donald John MacLeod, who included it in his very useful anthology of Gaelic short stories, Dorcha Tro Ghlainne (1970).  There 'Iomhar Mòr' was presented sequentially as the ninth out of thirteen stories edited by Dr MacLeod.  MacLeod's selection was organised round the theme of mothachadh an duine a' fàs, air a chumadh, is a' crìonadh ('the awareness of man as he grows, is moulded, and declines').[7]  To some extent, MacLeod's selection was a response to a new surge of interest in the short story among Gaelic writers of the late 1960s, and owed much to John Murray's contributions to the genre.  Murray's 'Feòil a' Gheamhraidh' ('Winter Meat') is the first story in MacLeod's selection.[8] I myself first encountered 'Iomhar Mòr' in MacLeod's anthology, and I never forgot it after my first spine-tingling reading.  It has lived menacingly in my mind since 1970, and recently it sprang to the forefront of my thinking when I was teaching a first-level class on modern Gaelic literature.  Here I wish to suggest alternative interpretations of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  I aim to place it within the context of the two other tales that I have summarised, but I hope also to relate it to some key themes of late twentieth-century Gaelic literature, both prose and verse.  In today's terminology, I want to re-read and re-position 'Iomhar Mòr'.



First, let me offer a very brief summary of 'Iomhar Mòr'.   The tale begins with a flash-back to a funeral in Cill Cheidh, which is that of Iomhar Mòr, recently deceased.  The author tells us of his - and, for the moment, I presume authorial masculinity! - considerable unease when attending the interment of Iomhar in a particularly hallowed part of the graveyard, Reilig nan Naomh, where only the truly great men of the faith have been buried in the past, and where no-one in the recent past has been buried.  He recollects that his grandfather told him of an occasion on which the earth of Reilig nan Naomh spewed up the coffin of a stranger who had been buried there at an earlier period.  By this stage, however, the old traditions about the graveyard had been largely forgotten or were regarded as mere superstitions.  The author, however, feels that he must warn the men of the community not to be so precipitate in placing Iomhar there, but he is over-ruled by Dòmhnall Chaluim, who has a very bad conscience about the way in which the community first treated Iomhar. Dòmhnall Chaluim relates that  Iomhar Mòr is worthy of his place of rest, having repaid the disdain of the community with kindness, and that he himself has been the beneficiary.  The author submits to Dòmhnall's view, albeit reluctantly.  He goes on to tell how Iomhar Mòr came to Geàrraidh.  Nobody knew where he had come from; he just appeared, and took up residence in a black house on Dòmhnall Chaluim's croft.  Iomhar's abrupt assumption of tenancy caused great anger to Dòmhnall, and the matter was the talk of the town.  Indeed, after an unsuccessul attempt to evict Iomhar, Dòmhnall and Iomhar fought it out, and Dòmhnall got the backing of the local youth in a sustained attack on the house.  Matters reached the law-court, but the judge ruled in favour of Iomhar's remaining in the house.  Thereafter the village was filled with fear and tension, and Iomhar and Dòmhnall were at daggers drawn.  However, a complete change in attitude occurred, and Iomhar came to be highly esteemed.  The cause of this remarkable shift was a child who had gone missing - Dòmhnall Chaluim 's child.   Every place was searched, and eventually the author and a companion found their way to Iomhar's house.  Iomhar showed immediate sympathy for the community, and changed his usual frown to a look of pity.  He also made straight for Dòmhnall Chaluim and promised to help him in every possible way to find the child.  The two men were reconciled, and went to search the shore together.  The child was not found - but a left shoe belonging to a child was discovered on the edge of the machair.  Thereafter, matters improved; Iomhar was accepted as a member of the community, and he and Dòmhnall buried the hatchet.  The author got to know Iomhar reasonably well, and went to visit him on his death-bed.  Iomhar asked him to clear the house after his death, and to return the key to Dòmhnall Chaluim.   After the funeral the author began to search the house, and began in the lower part.   As he was at work in a dark corner - not quite as dark as the rest - he found something which, he claimed, explained his feeling of unease at the funeral.  His discovery was no less than a little shoe - the shoe for the right foot of a child.  And there, with the reference to the second shoe, the story ends.


The chilling twist in the tail of this story is memorable, and all the more since it resonates with public concerns in the present time.  Though this story is set somewhere in the Highlands, it is broad in its theme, and timeless in its relevance.  That in itself is no small achievement.



How then should we interpret 'Iomhar Mòr'?   We can understand the tale in different ways, but I would suggest three possible routes to take:


(1) We can see this as no more and no less than 'a good story'.  We are given a lot of emotional ups and downs in the course of the tale; fear and unease (at the very beginning), mystery (with the stranger's arrival), conflict (between the stranger and the village and between him and Dòmhnall Chaluim), sorrow (the missing child), reconciliation (between Iomhar and Dòmhnall Chaluim and the village), and finally that spine-chilling sense of injustice, right at the end, culminating in the cliff-hanger on which the storyteller positions the possible deed of the stranger.  We ask ourselves whether Iomhar found the shoe and kept it, so as not to cause further pain in the community, or whether he is directly involved in the disappearance of the child.  We can 'enjoy' all of the various tensions created throughout the work, and leave the story there. 


(2) We may read 'Iomhar Mòr' without making too much of the identity of the main character, and confine our interpretation to the reactions of the community which is portrayed in the story.  Iomhar need be no more and no less than an incomer who has an abundant measure of the rather arrogant style that Highland people attribute to such new arrivals; his particularly overbearing manner causes tension at communal and individual levels.  This tension is resolved by a crisis; the crisis causes the stranger to pull close to the community, and reconciliation is thereby achieved. The stranger is then given a place of esteem.  Vulnerability is thus a key theme; the community is able to resist the stranger to a certain extent, but capitulates when something goes wrong.  The sympathy of the stranger at a time of crisis is sufficient to reverse previous antipathies, and to gain him lasting respect.  We may read the story as a warning to Gaelic communities not to to accept sweets from strangers.  Like children, Gaelic communities are vulnerable to the blandishments of outsiders.


(3)  Our third interpretation would carry forward the points made in the second interpetation, but it would make much more of the person of Iomhar Mòr.  He is not just an alien person; he is an alien power. That alien power can be interpreted in various ways. Is the new power personal or collective?  If the latter, is the power that of the church?  Or a new power within the church? Or a new power within society, of which the church is a part?  How, then, is that power regarded by the writer? Is it seen as benevolent or intrinsically evil, or both, wearing the mask of benevolence and concern at critical moments in the life of a community, but using the weak moments in community confidence to gain a dangerous foothold in its value-system?


The opening paragraph of the story identifies the source of the author's unease as Iomhar Mòr's funeral, and the decision to give him a resting place in Reilig nan Naomh, which was reserved for the fathers of the faith.  This suggests that we are meant to read the story as a spiritual allegory of some kind.  We may note the words that are actually used to portray Iomhar Mòr and his actions.  Dòmhnall Chaluim talks of him in terms which are reminiscent of the biblical account of Christ, 'despised and rejected of men', but repaying rejection with kindness:


Thainig e nur measg...gun daoine, gun chuideachd, gun chàirdean, agus cha be a' bhàidh a nochd sibh dha; thionndaidh sibh ur cùlaibh ris agus mhag sibh air.  Ach an uair a thainig an dòrainn an rathad a bha mo theaghlach-sa, phàigh Iomhar Mòr ana-ceartas le caomhalachd agus coibhneas, agus bhon latha sin gus an latha 'n diugh bha e na chùl-taic s na chomhartachd dhòmhsa agus dhuibhse.[9]


('He came among you...without relatives, without companions, without friends, and it was not a warm side that you showed him; you turned your backs on him, and you mocked him.  But when distress came the way of my family, Big Ivor paid for injustice with compassion and kindness, and from that day until today he has been a support and a comfort to me and to you.')


One can hear the homiletic cadences in that commendation.


Yet Iomhar is also described as an duine caol àrd dorcha ud ('that tall thin dark man').  He has na sùilean dubha nimheil ud ('those black poisonous eyes') as he skulks down the road.  The only sound that comes out of his house is bragadaich mar gum bitheadh am fear a bha stigh a' briseadh mhaidean ('banging as if the man inside were breaking sticks').  Children are immediately in fear of him:  Cha leigeadh tu leas ach Iomhar Mór ainmeachadh ris an leanabh bu mhiosa sa Gheàrraidh agus bha e cho modhail ris an uan ('You had only to mention the name of Big Ivor to the worst child in the Geàrraidh and he became as well mannered as a lamb').[10]  Unquestionably, Iomhar is seen by the writer as a bogey-man, and an evil power - but whom or what does he represent?


Those of us who know the poetry of Derick Thomson will think fairly readily of another incomer who is very similarly portrayed - fear àrd caol dubh / is aodach dubh air ('a tall, thin black-haired man / wearing black clothes').  This is, of course, Thomson's Bodach-ròcais, the title of a poem first published in An Rathad Cian (1970).  The bodach-ròcais ('scarecrow') comes into the cèilidh house and destroys or represses the natural cultural pursuits of the story-tellers, singers and card-players who are inside.   Like Iomhar Mòr, he is a destructive force, and possesses a supernatural ability to take the goodness from pastimes previously regarded as wholesome - thug e 'n toradh as a' cheòl ('he took the goodness out of the music').  Thomson's scarecrow figure is, of course, the stereotypical, evangelical Calvinist minister of nineteenth-century Lewis.[11]  Iomhar Mòr appears to carry a similar symbolic significance.  Part of his persona is religious, and it also has destructive tendencies.  But he is unlikely to be a symbolic John Calvin. Can we find a more convincing contemporary context?




The contemporary context

We have already noted that the story first appeared in 1950, and that it predates two stories, by Thomson and MacDonald respectively, which have religion and evangelical Christianity as their theme. These were written in 1953 ('Bean a' Mhinisteir') and 1958 ('Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh').[12]   The 1950s, and particularly the period 1950-55, were a time of heightened religious activity in both the Highlands and Islands and the wider Scottish mainland.  In Lewis between 1949 and 1953, the Faith Mission evangelist, Duncan Campbell, was at the centre of a religious awakening which is often regarded as the last significant religious revival in the British Isles, though there smaller awakenings elsewhere in the Hebrides in the later 1950s.[13]  We may note that Duncan Campbell was not a native of Lewis; he hailed from Benderloch in Argyll, and was technically a stranger in Lewis, even though he spoke and preached in Gaelic.[14]


Evangelical campaigning was also found in the Scottish Lowlands.  In 1955, the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow was the focus of the Tell Scotland crusade conducted by the American evangelist, Billy Graham.  The impact of Billy Graham on both ministers and people throughout Scotland was substantial.[15]  This is reflected in the story 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', in which the change of style and emphasis evident in Seonag's father is ascribed to the influence of the American evangelist.  Seonag is portrayed as being dismayed at her father's new style:


S bha gràin a beatha aice air an t-searmonachadh ùr ris an robh a h-athair riamh bho chaidh e gu coinneamhan an Amaireaganaich.  Cha robh guth air na seann searmoin chiùine, chomhartail a b' àbhaist cridheachan a bhlàthachadh; cha robh ann a-nise ach an t-iompachadh, an t-iompachadh.  Agus an èigheach.[16]


('And she truly hated the new preaching which her father had adopted ever since he went to the American's meetings.  There was no mention of the old, gentle, comforting sermons that used to warm hearts; there was nothing now but conversion, conversion.  And the yelling.')


It is of significance that Seonag's father adopts the new preaching mode at a time of family crisis, following his wife's death.  Unable to derive consolation from his 'traditional' faith, he goes to Glasgow, and comes back a changed man, with a new gleam in his eye and a new power in his preaching.[17]   Billy Graham is the 'stranger' who helps him to conquer his crisis, and whose style is absorbed into a Highland community through imitation.  The minister is thus the conduit through which new and disturbing expressions of the Christian faith enter the community, and challenge its earlier values.  The parallel with 'Iomhar Mòr' is striking, and suggests that the two stories may have been composed by the same author.


Gaelic poets as well as prose-writers were aware of new religious influences in the Highlands and Islands.  A change of emphasis in contemporary Lewis preaching in this period is noted also by Donald MacAulay in a poem pointedly entitled 'Soisgeul 1955':


Bha mi a raoir anns a' choinneamh;

bha an taigh làn chun an dorais,

cha robh àite suidhe ann

ach geimhil chumhang air an staighre.


Dh'éisd mi ris an t-sailm: am fonn

a' falbh leinn air seòl mara

cho dìomhair ri Maol Dùn:

dh'éisd mi ris an ùrnaigh

seirm shaorsinneil, shruthach -

iuchair-dàin mo dhaoine.


An uair sin thàinig an searmon

- teintean ifrinn a th' anns an fhasan -

bagairt neimheil, fhuadan

a lìon an taigh le uamhann is coimeasg.


Is thàinig an cadal-deilgeanach na mo chasan... [18]


Here the poet recollects his experience of being at a cottage meeting in which the music and prayer were in tune with the culture, but in which the sermon was hostile and alien.  Although the poet was saved (in another sense) by the pins and needles in his feet, this new, passionate evangelicalism affected many young people at broadly the same stage of life as Seonag and Pàdraig in MacDonald's story.[19]


This brings us back to 'Iomhar Mòr'. In particular, we may note the manner in which the stranger commandeers a cottage, and is potentially implicated (by the author's parting shot) in the fate of a missing child, perhaps implying that the new force has the power to steal children from the community.  If the main thrust of 'Iomhar Mòr' is religious, its primary concern is likely to be not the old-style 'Calvinism' of an earlier day, but the new evangelists and the passionate new evangelicalism, entering the Highlands and Islands forcefully in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  An Geàrraidh, the setting of 'Iomhar Mòr', already has a Christian tradition, symbolised by Reilig nan Naomh, the section of the graveyard reserved for the finest local saints.  The impact of the new evangelicalism and people's reactions to it may be one of the writer's concerns.  Thus, after an initial period of opposition and rejection, Dòmhnall Chaluim is converted (in the religious sense) to Iomhar Mòr as others were to Christ.


But could the thrust of the tale be broader than contemporary evangelicalism? The primary concern of the writer, it seems to me, is to ponder how much is gained - or lost - by both the individual and the community in the process of accommodating the stranger.  As a consequence of the new understanding between Iomhar and Dòmhnall Chaluim, old customs and time-honoured traditions are over-ruled in deference to the former enemy of the community, as the ironic burial of Iomhar Mòr in Reilig nan Naomh indicates.


Here it is relevant to recollect that the late 1940s and the 1950s were a time of reassessment in the Gaelic communities after the Second World War. The war had made these communities vulnerable to intrusion by big powers such as the British army and the Royal Air Force.  By 1950, when 'Iomhar Mòr' was composed, new initiatives were being undertaken in an attempt to preserve some of the riches of Gaelic culture in the Highlands and Islands, as the creation of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh in 1951 indicates.  These new initiatives proceeded alongside further major intrusions in the later 1950s, like the Rocket Range in Benbecula, which was stoutly resisted initially, but came to be a mainstay of the local economy, while also acting as a de-Gaelicising influence. 


We should note, in fact, the quiet symbolic subtlety with which 'Iomhar Mòr' has been written.  We have to read between the lines, and extrapolate these wider concerns from the text in a manner reminiscent of short stories such as John Murray's 'Feòil a' Gheamhraidh'.  In this respect, the story contrasts with 'Bean a' Mhinisteir' and 'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', where the targets are identified clearly.  'Bean a' Mhinisteir' is more restrained and symbolically closer to 'Iomhar Mòr'.  The minister's wife, who is the 'stranger' in terms of the conventions of the village, is the catalyst for her husband's fall - a concept charged with theological and biblical significance.  The outcome of the tragedy makes us think deeply, since it results in the minister's temporary awareness of a wider world before insanity finally takes over.  'Air Beulaibh an t-Sluaigh', which leaves little to symbolism, is probably the frankest story yet written in Gaelic on a religious theme, since it uses 'shock tactics' to galvanise the reader.  It is thus at the other end of the spectrum from 'Iomhar Mòr', though the two stories do have significant points in common.


'Stranger fiction'

The theme of 'Iomhar Mòr', namely the stranger who comes into the community and causes tensions of all sorts, became a very marked feature of Gaelic writing after 1970.  It is particularly evident in Iain Crichton Smith's An t-Aonaran ('The Loner') of 1976.  The frame of Smith's novella is strikingly reminscent of 'Iomhar Mòr'. Indeed, the two are so close as to suggest that 'Iomhar Mòr' may have been something of a catalyst for Smith.  In An t-Aonaran, however, the stranger's presence is used by the author as an opportunity to explore the existential theme of meaninglessness.  The stranger has opted out of normal existence, and his impact on the village is described by a retired schoolmaster called Teàrlach. In reacting with deep mistrust and suspicion to the newcomer in their midst, he shows that such 'loneliness' is an integral part of his own existence, and that it is also a malaise found more generally within the village.  Few are devoid of its symptoms.  Even the minister suffers a loss of verbal articulation, and comes to the schoolmaster for advice because he is unable to declaim the sermon which he has prepared for a particular Sunday service.[20]  In Smith's novella, evangelicalism hovers on the edge of existentialism, and is seen to lose power as a communicative force when the arrival of the aonaran plunges the village into its fatal bout of second-guessing and self-examination.  The church and its members are almost invariably portrayed as somewhat distasteful people who are spiteful and negative in their views of others.  Indeed, one is left to wonder to what extent the author wishes to imply that the church is largely responsible for the alienation of people from one another, in terms of understanding both 'incomers' and those who are natives of Gaelic communities. It is significant that, apart from the schoolmaster himself, it is Cairistìona, boireannach dona Crìosdaidh ('a bad Christian woman') who never misses the communions, who thinks the worst of the stranger. In a manner directly recalling 'Iomhar Mòr', she suggests that he may even be a child-molester.[21]  Eventually, the schoolmaster 'arranges' the departure of the stranger from the village.   The plot of Smith's novella therefore works in the opposite way from that of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  The stranger is ejected in the former, while he is accepted in the latter, but loss and a nasty feeling of injustice accompany both processes.


The 'stranger' motif in modern Gaelic literature, and particularly the presence of the aonaran ('loner'), is thus used very effectively to comment on common modern dilemmas.  As it develops beyond 'Iomhar Mòr', the motif retains a surprisingly close link with religious matters. Religious influence in Gaelic communities is one of the strands in a much more recent story with another aonaran at its heart, namely Alasdair Campbell's short novel, Am Fear Meadhanach ('The Man in the Middle') (1992).[22] This aonaran is not a stranger to the Gaelic world but a native of Lewis, namely Murchadh MacLeòid, who is suffering from cancer and returns to spend his last days in his native community. He is therefore meadhanach ('middling') in terms of his health. The 'returning exile' has been a teacher in Glasgow, and obtains a part-time teaching post in a school not far from his village.  He belongs to a family of four, and is meadhanach ('in between') since he has two brothers, the younger a doctor and the elder a highly regarded minister in the Free Church.  The latter is Dòmhnall M. MacLeòid, regularly referred to in the novel as an t-urramach ('the reverend').   The novel is to some extent a satirical overview of a number of different but interlocking communities, notably the main character's family, his local community and the wider Gaelic world, as well as the ever-present network of the church. The speaker's elder brother, an t-urramach, is a thinly disguised caricature of a well-known Free Church minister of a similar name. Murchadh often contrasts himself with his brothers, but particularly with an t-urramach. Most importantly, Murchadh has no faith in God, in contrast to an t-urramach's dogmatic certainty. The difference between the two brothers is worked out at various practical levels.  An t-urramach is a 'high achiever', as is Uilleam, the doctor, who writes books and belongs to the 'arty' Gaelic set.  Murchadh, on the other hand, has had a humdrum existence as a schoolteacher of the kind in Iain Crichton Smith's An t-Aonaran, and regards himself as a failure.  Murchadh is unable to appreciate either Uilleam's books or an t-urramach's best-selling volume of Gaelic sermons, and all three brothers are shut out from one another's literary worlds:


Nàire air an urramach nach do leugh e a-riamh leabhar a sgrìobh a bhràthair bho cheann gu ceann.  Thuirt mi ris nach b'urrainn dhomhsa treabhadh tromhpa a bharrachd.  Bidh an t-urramach fhèin a' sgrìobhadh.  Bha laoidh a sgrìobh e anns a'  Mhonthly Record.  Agus leabhar beag shearmon, cruaidh trì notaichean, bog not' agus leth-cheud sgillinn.  Searmoin, leis an Urr. Dòmhnall M. MacLeòid, M.A.  Sin an tiotal a tha air.  Chaidh mi 'm bogadh annsan aig Searmon 1, duilleag 1, ach cha d'fhuair mi na b'fhaide na sin fhèin; ach cheannaich gu leòr chrìosdaidhean an leabhar, thathas air ath-chlò-bhualadh ceithir turais, 's tha 'n t-urramach a' dèanamh prothaid bheag às, chan eil fhios a'm an ann dha fhèin no dhan eaglais.  Ach chan e sgrìobhaiche nàdurrach a th' anns an urramach.  Tha e nas ealanta le theanga na tha e le peann.[23]


('Shame upon the reverend that he never read a book that his brother wrote from beginning to end.  I said to him that I could not plough through them either.  The reverend himself writes.   There was a hymn which he wrote in the Monthly Record.  And a little book of sermons, hard-back three pounds, soft-back a pound and fifty pence.  Sermons by the Rev. Donald M. MacLeod, M.A.   That's its title.   I immersed myself in it at Sermon 1, page 1, but I got no further than that; but plenty of Christians bought the book, it has been reprinted four times, and the reverend makes a little profit from it, though I do not know whether it is for himself or for the church.  But the reverend is not a natural writer.  He is more skilful with his tongue than he is with his pen.')


The satire in this passage will not be lost on those familiar with the writings of the real Macleod.  The speaker goes on to state that, in his opinion, the most gifted writer in the family was his sister Margaret, who wrote splendid, but grammarless, letters about her global travels until she married a widowed missionary in Malaya.  Thereafter, her grammar improved markedly, but her topics became much more serious, embracing the corruption of human nature and the plight of the world.[24]


The speaker's view of the destructive effect of religious experience is transparent.  It is particularly interesting that the Lewis Revival of the 1950s, with Duncan Campbell at its centre, is recalled in a section in which Murchadh reflects on why the Headmistress of the school in which he works never married:


Eadar dleasdanas is diadhachd, ciamar a bha dol a shoirbheachadh le fear-suirghe co-dhiù?  Thàinig an cùram oirre, mar a thàinig air iomadach tè dhe seòrs', nuair a bha Donnchadh Caimbeul air chaoch anns na h-Eileanan, aig toiseach nam 50s.  Làithean neònach, daoine mòr a' toirt na leap' orr' aig àird a' mheadhan-latha, daoine eile a' bruidhinn mun deidhinn; oidhcheannan cho murrainneach, sàmhach 's gun cluinneadh tu, air leth-siar a' bhail' againn, fuaim na h-aibhne a' dòrtadh, man morghan, fon an drochaid shìos anns a' ghleann.[25]


('Between duty [to her parents] and devotion to God, how would any suitor have got anywhere anyway?  The cùram (i.e. concern of soul) came upon her, as came upon many a woman of her kind, when Duncan Campbell was going mad in the Islands, at the beginning of the 50s.  Strange days, grown-ups taking to their beds at the height of mid-day, other people talking about them; nights so sultry and quiet that you could hear, on the far side of our township, the sound of the river pouring, like rough sand, under the bridge down in the glen.')


Yet the writer provides a warm-hearted picture of Iseabail, the Headmistress.  Despite her religious commitment, she retains her sharp wit and good humour, and is herself subjected to local criticism for her choice of hat at a Christmas service: 'Abair bonaid air tè-aidich!' ('What a hat for a professing woman!').[26]


This deft portrait and the ongoing discussion of the impact of the 'Campbell revival' on reproductive patterns (an age-old canard) reinforces the argument at the heart of this paper, namely that the religious experiences of the early 1950s stimulated not only the churches, but also a group of modern Gaelic writers who began to adopt a critical, and at times strongly dismissive, stance towards the new crusade- or revival-based brand of evangelicalism.





'Iomhar Mòr' deserves to be taken out of its somewhat obscure place in the history of Gaelic writing in the twentieth century.  The present study suggests that it belongs, at least in part, to a small but formative cycle of tales and poems produced in the 1950s which adopted a critical attitude towards evangelical experience in the Highlands, as themes and styles of preaching changed.  This was the period which helped to determine how the Gaelic poets and prose-writers of the later twentieth century viewed Highland evangelicalism, and it is important to note that they were reacting, not so much against what might be termed 'traditional Highland religion', but against the hybrid species which was being created partly through the influence of American crusade-evangelism.  This too was the period when the Highlands and Islands began to accommodate both alien intrusions for the sake of economic regeneration and  initiatives for the preservation of Gaelic culture.  The uneasy relationship between the old and the new, between the outsider and insider, is the central theme of 'Iomhar Mòr'.  It anticipates - brilliantly - many of the stresses and strains and hard choices that were to afflict the Gaelic communities in the second half of the twentieth century.


'Iomhar Mòr' is also generically important.  Appearing in 1950, it was the first in a series of modern creative interpretations of strangers in the Gaelic communities. The stranger depicted within it offered a powerful symbol which could be deployed at various levels, and was particularly useful in identifying and 'earthing' a complex range of forces which were vexing Gaelic writers and their communities.  In particular, the 'stranger/loner motif' allowed writers sufficient distance and disguise to engage in a critical evaluation of the impact of religion in the Highlands and Islands, as seen from a number of different angles.  The tension which such evaluation could create, even when using masks, is reflected in the fact that 'Iomhar Mòr' was published anonymously and the writer has never owned up.  Subsequent writers felt no such need for anonymity.  Yet, despite the freshness which each writer brought to the picture, their themes and even their images overlap, and some of these can be traced back to 'Iomhar Mòr'.  'Iomhar Mòr' thus appears to have foreshadowed and encouraged a major development in the Gaelic literary output of the second half of the twentieth century.   Pardoxically, therefore, it seems that the stimulus of contemporary evangelicalism and social change, however negative in the eyes of the poets and prose-writers, has greatly aided the growth of modern Gaelic literature.[27]

[1] Thomas M. Murchison (ed.), Prose Writings of Donald Lamont (Edinburgh, 1960).
[2] Iain A. MacDhòmhnaill (ed.), Crìochan Ura (Glasgow, 1958), pp. 28-34.
[3] Dòmhnall Iain MacLeòid (ed.), Dorcha Tro Ghlainne (Glaschu, 1970), pp. 58-65.
[4] Ibid., pp. 46-57.
[5] Ibid., pp. 73-79, 126.
[6] Iain Mac a' Ghobhainn, An t-Aonaran (Glaschu, 1976).
[7] See the fine introduction in MacLeòid, pp. 9-21.
[8] Ibid., pp. 22-25.
[9] Ibid., p. 74.
[10] Ibid., pp. 75-76.
[11] Donald MacAulay (ed.), Nua-Bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig: Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems (Edinburgh, 1976), pp. 164-5, which contains an English translation.
[12] MacLeòid, p. 126.
[13] Nigel M. de S. Cameron et al. (eds), The Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Edinburgh, 1993), p. 715.
[14] Ibid., p. 217.
[15] Ibid., p. 376.
[16] MacLeòid, p. 47.
[17] Ibid.
[18] MacAulay, pp. 192-5.
[19] For a discussion of twentieth-century Gaelic poets and the Christian faith, see Dòmhnall E. Meek, 'An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd?  Bàird na Ficheadamh Linn agus an Creideamh Crìosdail', in Colm Ó Baoill (ed.), Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig: Proceedings of the Scottish Gaelic Studies Conference held at Aberdeen University in August 2000 (forthcoming).
[20] Mac a'  Ghobhainn, pp. 67-71.
[21]  Ibid., pp. 7-9.
[22] Alasdair Caimbeul, Am Fear Meadhanach (Conon Bridge, 1992).
[23] Ibid., pp. 33-34.
[24] Ibid., p. 34.
[25] Ibid., pp. 51-52.
[26] Ibid., p. 53.
[27] I am very grateful to Professor Donald MacAulay for his comments on an early draft of this paper.

Saturday, 25 February 2017


Donald E. Meek


Until recently, Dugald Buchanan has been regarded principally as the premier spiritual poet of the Gaelic-speaking Highlands of Scotland, above and beyond his fellows in his religious perceptions and his poetic gifts.  If he appeared in any other context, it was usually as a schoolteacher in Rannoch, employed by the Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates and supported by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), and as the supervisor of the printing of the Gaelic New Testament, while it was going through the press in Edinburgh in 1765-67.  His role in that landmark translation, as in much else, was subservient to that of ministers, and especially the singularly ‘worthy translator’ of the Gaelic New Testament, the Rev. James Stewart of Killin, to whom the success of the whole venture has been attributed.  According to the standard view, Buchanan was no more than the supervisor of the translation as it went through the press.

Over some forty years and more, I have tried to arrive at a more realistic appreciation of Dugald Buchanan.  This has meant removing several layers of myth by patiently stripping off the paint of traditionally simplistic remakings of the man which accord with prevailing stereotypes.  It has also meant studying his literary legacy in detail and examining the official record of his life as seen in the minutes and notices of the bodies which employed him.  The principal conclusions of my research to date have been presented in my recent edition of his hymns, Laoidhean Spioradail Dhùghaill Bhochanain (LSDB).

In summary, these conclusions are that Buchanan was far from being a gifted ‘child of nature’.  A native of Ardoch, Strathyre, he had attended Divinity College in Glasgow about 1740, gaining considerable esteem as a student of Biblical languages, before embarking a decade later on a career as a schoolmaster with the Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates on the estate of Strowan in Perthshire.  He was highly articulate in both Gaelic and English, and his hymns, published in Edinburgh in 1767, far from being wholly original, show a noticeable debt to the work of earlier English poets.  Buchanan translated Puritan texts into Gaelic for the SSPCK, notably The Mother’s Catechism in 1757, and he was also the first known translator of any portion of the Scottish Gaelic New Testament, having translated the Second Epistle of Peter into Gaelic in 1758 as part of an attempt to assist the Rev. Alexander MacFarlane of Arrochar, who was the first choice of the SSPCK as the translator of the New Testament, but who had been unable to make any significant progress with the assignment.  It was after MacFarlane had failed to make any further progress by 1760 that the translation was reassigned to the Rev. James Stewart.

In this contribution, I wish to consider the various contexts or ‘circles’ in which Buchanan operated, with some emphasis on his connections with what I have provisionally called the ‘Killin circle’, named from the Old Manse of Killin, home of the Rev. James Stewart, and inclusive of the Rev. James McLagan, who was married to Stewart’s younger daughter.  This will be followed by an investigation of the manuscript versions of Buchanan’s hymns and related material found in the McLagan Manuscripts in Glasgow University Library, and also in the McNicol Manuscripts in the National Library of Scotland.

Wider interactions

The broader circles within which Buchanan operated can be set out fairly easily.  All are attested by correspondence and writings of various kinds, and sometimes interlinked by references within these items.  The surviving literary record for Buchanan, in terms of manuscripts of his poems and other non-printed writings, is sufficient to make him a major figure in the literary configuration of that period, even without the publication of his important volume of hymns in 1767.  His ability to operate comfortably in English- and Gaelic-language contexts makes his literary profile all the more fascinating. 

The first circle is represented by his employment as a schoolmaster with the Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates, supported (grudgingly) by the SSPCK.  His petitions to the Commissioners survive, as does a letter written to his patron and benefactor, William Ramsay, factor on the Strowan Estate in Rannoch until 1753, in which he complains about Ramsay’s successor, Ensign James Small.  Ramsay had brought Buchanan to Rannoch as a schoolmaster by 1751, but he may have known Buchanan some three or so years earlier.  Ramsay’s pledge of support (for ten years, or possibly seven) ceased about 1758, leading to financial difficulties for Buchanan.  Buchanan was then more obviously dependent on the Commissioners and also on the SSPCK, which was none too willing to fund schoolmasters employed on the Forfeited Estates.  Again, Buchanan was reliant  to some extent on patronage, or at least on a friendly advocate to plead his cause before the SSPCK.  This advocate was apparently Archibald Wallace, a member of the SSPCK board, who appears to have been sufficiently close to Buchanan for the latter to write a letter of condolence on the death of Wallace’s daughter.

The second circle is centred on Edinburgh and on Buchanan’s links with the scholars and patrons of the Enlightenment.  It is not clear when Buchanan began to interact with these literati, but there is evidence that it may have been before 1765, and possibly even in the context of the flurry of excitement and literary activity stimulated by James Macpherson’s ‘Ossianic’ translations published in 1763 and 1764.  In 1767, while in the city to supervise the printing of the Gaelic New Testament, Buchanan wrote a remarkable letter to Sir James Clerk of Penicuik, soliciting his support for a possible Gaelic dictionary and an anthology of Gaelic poetry, and demonstrating his scholarly familiarity with the work of previous men of letters, some of whom were his older contemporaries, including Jerome Stone, schoolmaster of Little Dunkeld, the Rev. David Malcolm of Duddingston, Thomas Innes of Aboyne, and Principal William Robertson of Edinburgh University.

The third circle is that of English literature, which provided the inspiration for several of Buchanan’s poems.  As has been demonstrated in LSDB, Buchanan was deeply familiar with the work of Isaac Watts, Edward Young, Robert Blair and James Thomson, which he paraphrased or echoed or selectively translated, freely, creatively or literally, and incorporated into his Gaelic verse.  Buchanan was obviously attracted to the hymns of Isaac Watts, with their chiselled, economical style, and to the compositions of the so-called ‘Graveyard School’, which were often (in marked contrast to Watts’ hymns) diffuse in style, but which he refashioned into his own clean-cut Gaelic version of ‘Wattsian’ verse.  Buchanan was also well read in Puritan prose literature, modelling his own spiritual autobiography on John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. 


Buchanan and the ‘Killin Circle’

As has been noted at the outset, Buchanan had a close connection with the Rev. James Stewart through his part in supervising the printing of the Gaelic New Testament by Balfour, Auld and Smellie, printers to the University of Edinburgh, in 1765-67.  However, beyond this supervisory role, Buchanan’s possible contribution to the translating of the Gaelic New Testament has not been explored in any detail, nor has the validity of regarding the Rev. James Stewart alone as the ‘worthy translator’.  The ‘monumentalising’ tendency within older Gaelic clerical scholarship, with its eulogistic concern to place individuals on misleading and inappropriate plinths, single-handedly doing great literary deeds for the good of their people and culture, has done little to shed any light on the strategy which was used in translating the New Testament.  ‘Monumentalising’ has also obscured the nature of Buchanan’s verse. 

A small body of evidence exists to suggest that Buchanan may well have been more active in Gaelic Bible translation than has been allowed hitherto.  He had already translated, on his own intitiative, the Second Epistle of Peter by 1758, in an attempt to assist the Rev. Alexander MacFarlane of Arrochar, who, as the SSPCK’s first choice, was unable to proceed with the venture.  We may wonder what became of Buchanan’s version of Second Peter.  It is, of course, highly probable that it was incorporated in the 1767 edition of the New Testament.

We may wonder too how much else of the New Testament Buchanan may have translated, without any acknowledgement.  A suggestion that he may have been subcontracted as a translator is provided by a letter from the 1760s about ‘Ossian’ in the Sinclair of Ulbster papers (NLS Adv. 73.2.12 fo.22, kindly provided by Dr Dòmhnall Uilleam Stewart, without whose support I could not have written this or LSDB).  The writer was in pursuit of Ossianic material, and ‘An old [schoolmas]ter in Ranoch’, at that time in Edinburgh, provided a translation of ‘Malvina’s Dream’:

Mr Menzies of Culdares was desird to find out [        ] enough to translate the Gospells into Erse [.] An old [schoolmas]ter in Ranoch got that Employment whose year [sti]pend was but 5£.

This tantalising reference is a straw in the wind.  The SSPCK Minutes make no mention of such undertakings by Buchanan, but he may have been paid indirectly by James Stewart. The SSPCK Minutes do, however, refer in 1764 to the payment of Buchanan as scribe to help in making copies of the Gaelic New Testament, and the society also paid for a replacement teacher at Kinlochrannoch when Buchanan was in Edinburgh in 1765-67.  It is certainly clear that Stewart was using the services of scribes in the revising and correcting of the text, which had been completed by the end of 1763.  For that purpose,

Mr Archibald McArthur Missionary at Lismore [was] to attend Mr Stewart for Twenty days or a month in winter, in order to finish the revisal of the work (GD95/2/8 pp. 219-20 (8/11/1763)).

In spite of the curious reticence of the SSPCK Minutes, it is highly likely that Buchanan contributed significantly to the making of the Gaelic New Testament.  His knowledge of Biblical languages is well attested in the surviving account of his time at Divinity College in Glasgow, and it would be strange indeed if his competence had not been known to, and utilised by, James Stewart.  He also had a very commendable record of earlier translation, which he carried out efficiently and promptly.  His probable involvement in the project may go far to explain why it was completed so quickly – within a mere three years – when it was reassigned from the Rev. Alexander MacFarlane to the Rev. James Stewart.

Buchanan’s interaction with the Stewarts is further attested by a signature at the back of the copy of his printed hymns now in Edinburgh University Library – that of Miss Eliza Stewart, elder daughter of the Rev. James Stewart. This copy was probably in the library of the Old Manse of Killin.  It contains caret marks which, when checked against manuscript versions of Buchanan’s hymns, suggest that its early owners compared the printed texts with the manuscript texts, and noted points at which the printed versions omitted verses which were in the manuscripts.

One of the two main eighteenth-century collections which contain manuscript versions of Buchanan’s poems was made by the Rev. James McLagan.  McLagan was married to the Rev. James Stewart’s younger daughter, Catherine, and it may have been through the ‘Killin Circle’ that these manuscripts came into McLagan’s possession.  By marriage, he too was part of that circle.

Buchanan’s hymns in the McLagan MSS

We are fortunate to possess manuscript drafts of five of Buchanan’s eight published hymns.  These appear in both the McLagan MSS and the McNicol MSS.  As has been demonstrated in LSDB, there are significant differences, as well as minor divergences, between the texts of the hymns as published in 1767 and the manuscript versions.  In LSDB, reasons were given for believing that the MS versions are, in fact, earlier than those in the printed book, and that this provides us with a remarkable opportunity to observe Buchanan at work as a poet, operating on paper and consciously editing and reworking his texts prior to 1767.  His published edition of 1767 represents what the poet himself was pleased to put into print – what he may have regarded as the final ‘polished versions’, in effect.

The three hymns by Buchanan which do not appear in any so-far known MSS are ‘Fulangas Chrìosd’, ‘Là a’ Bhreitheanais’ and ‘Ùrnaigh’.  The same selection of hymns is also contained in the McNicol MSS.  It is interesting that both MSS omit the same three hymns.  The most likely explanation of this omission is that these hymns were composed late in Buchanan’s career, perhaps not too long before he prepared his selection for publication, and that they had not been provided with manuscript drafts of any significance beyond the author’s final copies which may have gone directly to the press.  ‘Là a’ Bhreitheanais’ contains a verse towards the end which addresses the ‘leughadair’ (‘reader’) directly, and Buchanan almost certainly had his forthcoming printed edition in mind.   The ‘Ossianic’ tone of some of its verses suggests that it may have been composed when James Macpherson’s work had become widely known, i.e. after 1764 approximately, and had cast something of a spell on Buchanan, as on many others.  It is also noteworthy that ‘Là a’ Bhreitheanais’ and ‘Fulangas Chrìosd’ became popular in oral transmission and singing, the former being sung in Mull until the mid-twentieth century, and the latter continuing to the present as a familiar item in the Gaelic spiritual repertoire.   ‘Ùrnaigh’, a contemplative penitent’s prayer, has not entered oral transmission, although a single verse from it is carved on Buchanan’s 1925 memorial in Little Leny.

Two of Buchanan’s poems, ‘An Claigeann’ (‘Dan mu thiomchiol Cloigionn Dunne mharbh’ in the MS) and ‘An Geamhradh’ (‘An Geamhradh is an Tsean Aois air an Samhlachadh re Cheile air Fonn, Se do La ’ sa Rhaon Ruari &c’ in the MS) are in McLagan MS General 1042 / 20 (a) and (b).  Three further hymns, namely ‘Bruadar’ (‘Bruadar mu Shonnas’ in the MS), ‘Mòrachd Dhè’ (‘An Cruthadair & Na Creatuiribh’ in the MS) and ‘An Gaisgeach’ (‘Am Fior Ghaisgeach’ in the MS), are contained on extremely fragile pages in MS General 1042 / 4. Their fragility prevented their extensive use in LSDB.

Who penned the versions of Buchanan’s hymns in the McLagan MSS?  Close inspection, aided greatly by fresh digital images of MS General 1042 / 4, now reveals that all five are in the same hand. There is a strong probability that this hand can be identified.  We are fortunate to possess a significant amount of autographed writing from Buchanan in the form of petitions and letters.  The hand in the McLagan items bears an extremely close resemblance, particularly in matters of detail such as the formation of capital H, to that in Buchanan’s petition of about 1756 to the Forfeited Estates requesting their support for the enlarging of the schoolhouse of Bunrannoch to accommodate worshippers and those whom he catechised in ‘Bunrannoch and for two Miles up the Sides of  Loch Rannoch’ who were in the habit of meeting in the fields (NAS.E 783/55/2(1).6.20). It seems highly likely that Buchanan wrote the drafts of all five of his hymns now in the McLagan MSS.

The handwriting of the eighteenth century had what we may call a ‘period style’, which makes identification of individual hands difficult, and even dangerous.  Matters are further complicated by the consideration that a scribe’s hand could change depending on nib, paper, speed of writing, the purpose of the document (formal, informal, ‘doodle’ etc.), and even the passage of time.  This latter point is raised by another hymn in the McLagan MSS which is almost certainly by Dugald Buchanan, but which was not included in his printed book.  This is ‘Ma thiomchail Morthachd Dhe’ (McLagan MS General 1042 / 21).  The reasons for regarding this as one of Buchanan’s compositions are set out in LSDB (Agusan C) and in the edition below (Appendix B).  The hand appears to be a smaller, more compact version of the one that wrote the drafts discussed above.  The writing is more consciously ‘correct’ in terms of Gaelic orthography, with regular use of the grave accent on long vowels.  The composer also appears to adopt a more obviously Classical form of Gaelic, with more evident use of eclipsis than in the other Buchanan hymns, and a slightly higher register.  In the title, when writing ‘Dhe’, this hand uses a rather more ‘artistic’ style of ‘D’, with a distinct ‘twirl’ on the ‘tail’, which is brought forward with a flourish.  This form of ‘D’ (‘twirly D’) is also a regular feature of other poems in the McLagan MSS which we may suspect were composed by Dugald Buchanan.

McLagan and McNicol MSS

The versions of Buchanan’s hymns in the McNicol MSS are very close indeed to those in McLagan in terms of their texts, with only minor differences, and there can be little doubt that they derive from the same scribal source.  The similarity in their source is reinforced by their complete agreement at points where the printed book provides different line readings, or omits or includes particular verses.  Their orthographic conventions are also in broad agreement.  However, the versions of ‘Bruadar’ (‘Bruadar mu Shonnas’, MS), ‘Mòrachd Dhè’ (‘An Cruthadair & Na Creatuiribh’, MS) and ‘An Gaisgeach’ (‘Am Fior Ghaisgeach’, MS) in the McLagan MSS all provide a verse of scripture below each title, which is not attested in the texts in the McNicol MSS.  There would therefore appear to have been a difference in the presentation of the texts available to the scribe when he wrote the different ‘batches’ now found respectively in the McLagan and McNicol MSS.  Assuming that the McNicol scribe did not merely omit the scripture verses, this may suggest that Buchanan’s hymns existed in several different versions in manuscript prior to their editing for the printed book.  The differences were, however, relatively slight, and restricted, on the whole, to matters of rubric and presentation, although it is very evident that some significant alterations were made to certain texts before they went into print.  See Appendix C for transcriptions of ‘An Gaisgeach’ from both the McLagan and the McNicol MSS.

The hand in the McNicol MSS versions cannot yet be identified with certainty.  It is different from that in McLagan, while sharing some common features of ‘period style’. It is also more evidently the hand of a scribe making a fair copy, with more ornate writing and a very straight base for each line, as if the page had been ruled, as in a special notebook.  Yet we do well to consider that ‘a different hand’ does not necessarily always equate with ‘a different scribe’.  However improbably, it could reflect the same scribe with different writing tools, different motivation, and different paper, or on a different day or year or at another stage of life.    Further study of autographed letters by Buchanan and others, like the Rev. Donald McNicol himself, is needed to augment the ‘fixed and certain’ comparative evidence, before we can consider any other identities.  McNicol is undoubtedly the strongest candidate for the ‘hand’ responsible for the drafts of Buchanan’s verse in the McNicol MSS.

Translations of Watts’ poems in the McLagan MSS

As has been demonstrated in LSDB, Dugald Buchanan was deeply indebted to Isaac Watts, to the extent of translating some of Watts’ verses directly into Gaelic. Indeed, the first poem in LSDB, ‘Mòrachd Dhè’, is particularly significant in this respect, as it is composite translation, based mainly on verses from two hymns in Watts’ collection, Horae Lyricae, with some verses by Buchanan himself in ‘Wattsian’ style.  It is particularly interesting that McLagan MS General 1042 /19 contains translations, close or free, of no less than four of Watts’ poems, one of which has already been correctly identified, another misidentified, and the remainder unidentified.  These are, in order, ‘Itheam-Olam-Cacam-Caidl(a)im’, a close but not by any means literal translation of Watts’ ‘The Sluggard’; ‘An Seangan’, again a fairly close translation of Watts’ ‘The Ant, or Emmet’; and ‘Lamh slaodadh reum’ (glossed by the scribe as ‘Stealing’), a freer translation of Watts’ ‘The Thief’, which omits one verse in Watts and substitutes another by the translator.  All three of these Watts’ poems were published in Book 4 of his Horae Lyricae under the heading ‘Moral Songs’.   

The MS continues with two further poems, one of which is a translation of a poem in the preceding part of Book 4, namely the ‘Divine Songs’.  This is ‘Riaghailt Ora an t Slanai-fhir’, Matthew 7.12’(with ‘Ora’ glossed as ‘Golden’ by the scribe), a very loose translation of Watts’ ‘Our Saviour’s Golden Rule, Matthew vii.12) which appears to draw on the next poem in Horae Lyricae, namely ‘Duty to God and our Neighbour’.  The final poem in the set, ‘Cliu-radh, Iud: 24.25’ (with ‘Cliu-radh’ glossed as ‘Doxology’ by the scribe), is a paraphrase of the New Testament passage to which the title refers, possibly with some influence from Watts’ ‘Glory to the Father and the Son &c’, which concludes the ‘Divine Songs’ section.   See Appendix A.

It would be a truly remarkable coincidence if there were another Gaelic poet who was translating Watts’ poems at the same time as Buchanan, and using the Horae Lyricae as his source.  In the context of the McLagan MSS, and a particular section of the MSS which provides authenticated versions of Buchanan’s hymns, we may conclude with reasonable certainty that these translations are also the work of Buchanan. ‘Lamh Slaodadh Reum’, with its ‘new’ Gaelic quatrain and more creative approach, is very much in Buchanan’s style as attested in ‘Mòrachd Dhè’.   

It should be noted that none of Buchanan’s known hymns in the McLagan or McNicol MSS are ascribed to him as the poet; nor do these translations have any ascriptions.  Identification of the probable author rests on the detailed study provided by LSDB, which sets out the characteristics of Buchanan’s modes of translation.

Genres and hands and questions

If these translations are indeed by Dugald Buchanan, as the evidence suggests very strongly, we need to note that they are not as carefully penned in the McLagan MSS as the texts of his hymns. They are also much closer to vernacular Gaelic, with fewer Classical features. With the exception of ‘Lamh slaodadh reum’ and ‘Riaghailt Ora’, they lack verse numbers, show less literary polish, exhibit some ‘rugged’ lines, and have more deletions (though not many).  This might indicate that most are first or working drafts, fairly speedily written, possibly for private use, and without any intention to circulate them.   Composed by Watts primarily for the instruction of children, the clearly didactic intent of these poems may have attracted Buchanan, as he could have used them for teaching in his school.  Were the translations also intended for use in his school in Rannoch?  They would certainly have fitted the curriculum.

It is worth noting too that there is a high degree of correspondence between the hand that wrote all of these additional translations and the one that appears to have penned the Buchanan hymns in McLagan. So are we, in fact, dealing with a very substantial amount of material which derives directly from the pen, as well as the mind, of Dugald Buchanan? 

Interim conclusion

In the context of the hymns ascribed to Dugald Buchanan in his printed edition of 1767, the materials in the McLagan MSS and McNicol MSS are of the greatest possible significance to our understanding of the poet and his ways of working, as has been demonstrated in LSDB.  They permit us to see a fastidious translator and composer and literary ‘operator’, altering his words and lines, and quite possibly making adjustments to his ‘best pieces’ for publication.  That is certainly one way of interpreting the differences between the printed texts and those in the manuscripts.

However, the McLagan corpus is of particular value in allowing us to consider a still wider picture of Buchanan, offering additional translations for us to assess, and throwing in some new puzzles. Here we may well be ‘catching the man at work’, translating from Isaac Watts in a much more obvious manner than even the evidence of the hymns might indicate, but functioning, nevertheless, in a way that is entirely consistent with the ‘new’ intepretation of Dugald Buchanan offered in LSDB and his poetic modus operandi.  The MS evidence presents different ‘qualities’ and kinds of translation, relative to the Watts corpus, namely (1) fairly direct translations of Watts, with a very clever and mature approach to recontextualising the original poems, (2) very free translations of Watts, in which the latter’s verse is a creative prompt rather than a source, and (3) translations which are a mixture of direct translation, free translation and original composition.  We can also detect at least three levels of language: (1) the ‘higher’ and more Classical style of ‘Ma thiomchail Morthachd Dhe’, (2) the less Classical style of the eight printed hymns and their MS predecessors, and (3) the plainly vernacular style of the translations of Watts in Appendix A.

We are left with questions, as always with Buchanan.  In this context, we have to ask whether the McLagan collection has, in fact, preserved ‘Buchanan papers’ which were kept within the family, and then passed on to the Rev. James McLagan, thanks to the ‘Killin circle’ and McLagan’s connection with the Rev. James Stewart?

We can but speculate at this stage, but even without clinching the identity of the ‘hand(s)’, the cumulative evidence of translations and subject-matter and poetic technique, typical of what we already know of Buchanan, leads at least this editor to the provisional conclusion that we are indeed looking at some of the papers which once rested on the desk of the brilliant and highly literate schoolmaster of Rannoch, whose literary circles went far beyond that of Killin.




                        APPENDIX A              


McLagan MS General 1042 /19


1. (a) Translation of Isaac Watts, ‘The Sluggard’




So Géaran an Lùndair’s ro-mhaith ’s aithne dhomh Chaoidh;

Och mhosgladh ro-mhoch mi; leig airìs mi a luidh’(.)

Is mar Dhoras air Lùdlan, ( ) Mac Leisg air a sheid,

’S e o Shlinnin gu Slinnin, cur Char dhè le Cnead.


O Thàimhlin gu Pràmhan, is o Phràmh gu Trom Shuain,

Struidh Leisgin air Uiridh moran tuill’ is leath Uair(;)

Air èirigh dha suidhidh ’s paisgidh Làmha ’na Chrios,

No siùbhlaidh e gu soisneach, no seasmhaidh car greis.


Ghabh mi seach a Gharadh, is feach Fiàdh-throma Dreas,

Sgitheach, Draighneach, is Finan, s iom-sgaoille na Pris;

S ro-lom Trusgan an Lùndair’, lan Bharlag us Tholl,

Chreach Sìor-struidh a Sporan[,] gheibh e ghort-bhas mar thoill(;)


An sin chaidh mi d’a amharc ’n dùil gu faict’ air a Mheanm,

Gu do chuir e tuill’ Uidh’ ann an sgiamhachadh An’m;

Bhodhair e mi le Bruadar mu Ith’ is mu Ol:

Ach air Urnaidh, Cread, Aithne, no Cheist chad chuir Eol.


Ars mise re m’ Anam bith air t Fhaicil roimh Leisg;

Na faicear a h Aogasg, na a Dreach ort am feasd;

Thoir bhuidhe so do Chàirdibh ghabh Cùram dot Aoilin

’S a theagaisg ot Oig dhuit Ladh Dhe is Deagh-ealain.




       (b) Watts’ original

The Sluggard

’Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
‘You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again.’
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

‘A little more sleep, and a little more slumber;’
Thus he wastes half his days, and his hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.

I pass’d by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher;
The clothes that hang on him are turning to rags;
And his money still wastes till he starves or he begs.

I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind:
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking;
But scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.

Said I then to my heart, ‘Here's a lesson for me,’
This man’s but a picture of what I might be:
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding,
Who taught me betimes to love working and reading.



                        COMMENTARY AND NOTES


Title:  The Gaelic title is apparently a proverbial saying which encapsulates the only activities of a sluggard – ‘I eat, I drink, I shite, I sleep’.  It has a touch of ‘shock phrasing’ as ‘cacaim’ might not be expected in this context.  The innocuous title of the English orginal does not suit this translator, who prefers to place his translation securely and very directly within Gaelic tradition.  In so doing, he covers his tracks as a translator, to the extent that Derick Thomson regarded the Gaelic poem as ‘anonymous’.


Technique: The translation is close to the original, but not by any means tight in its equivalence.  It flows smoothly, with little to show that it is indebted to an earlier English model.  The last lines of verses 3 and 4 are particularly clever in their contextualising of the sluggard’s sloth in a Highland religious setting.


There are some fine examples of colourful Gaelic language, as in the use of ‘sgiamhachadh An’m’ (‘beautifying his soul’) for ‘improving his mind’ in q. 4 b.


The transcription supplies spaces between quatrains.



2.      (a) Translation of Isaac Watts, ‘The Ant, or Emmet’



                             An Seangan


Cia Sùarach na seangain nar Suilibh ’s nar Meas!

Leinn salltrar air Làr, is theid sgaoigh dhiubh gu Bas,

’S oirnn Tiom-chroidh ’no Smùarin cha chuir(;)

’S ge glic sinn nar Bar’mhail, na’n rachmaid dan Sgoil,

’S iomadh ’Umaidh, is Lundair, a gheibheadh uath’ Eol(;)

Air Teagar ion-mholta ’s air Tùr.


Le Macnas no Codal cha struidh iad an Uair,

Ach cnuasaichidh ann a La grian-lasta Gran,

Is taisgidh Lòn Geamhraidh nan Tor:

Ni iadsan sar-obair gu riaghailteach grìnn,

Mar Dhuile reamhleirsinneach an Geamhradh nan Sian,

Is lionadh le Teagar Tigh Stoir.


Ach ’s aineolaich mise na Seangan nan Lean,

Mur Teagair ’s mur cnuasaich mi Gaireas dhamh fein,

’S mur gabh mi roimh Chuntarta Trath.

Tra spoinnicheas Seanaois is Bas reum le Cheil’,

Nach truadh dhamh ma gluais mi mar Umaidh gun Cheill

O m’ Bhreathla gu ’m Chrich re Mionstàdh?


Nois, feadh ’ta mo Neart agus m’ oige fa Bhlath,

Sior shaothraicheam Tearmann do’m Anam o Chradh

Na Doghrainn a thoill mo mhi-ghniomh;

Sir-dhealradh a’ m’ Ghiulan Gradh Dhe is a Shluaigh,

’S trath thuiteas an Corp-sa ’na Smur anns an (Uiagh)

Do m’ Bheo-anam (’S) buan-chomhnuidh Neamh.





   (b) Watts’ original

    The Ant or Emmet


These emmets, how little they are in our eyes!

We tread them to dust, and a troop of them dies, 

Without our regard or concern:

Yet, wise as we are, if we went to their school,

There’s many a sluggard, and many a fool, 

Some lessons of wisdom might learn. 


They don’t wear their time out in sleeping or play,

But gather up corn in a sunshiny day, 

And for winter they lay up their stores:

They manage their work in such regular forms,

One would think they foresaw all the frosts and the storms, 

And so brought their food within doors. 


But I have less sense than a poor creeping ant

If I take not due care for the things I shall want, 

Nor provide against dangers in time:

When death or old age shall stare in my face,

What a wretch I shall be in the end of my days, 

If I trifle away all their prime? 


Now, now, while my strength and my youth are in bloom,

Let me think what will serve me when sickness shall come, 

And pray that my sins be forgiven:

Let me read in good books, and believe and obey,

That when death turns me out of this cottage of clay, 

I may dwell in a palace in heaven.



                      COMMENTARY AND NOTES


Technique: This is a fluent translation, which is somewhat closer to its original than the translation of ‘The Sluggard’ (Item 1).  Perhaps because of this, it is not as impressive as the translation of ‘The Sluggard’ in terms of metre and rhyme.  It retains the metrical form of the original, but its end rhymes are not always perfect.


The industrious character of the ant, along with that of the bee, is given as an example of provident preparation for the afterlife in Dugald Buchanan’s poem ‘An Geamhradh’. In fact, Watts has another poem exhorting its readers to emulate the good example of the bee.  Strangely, the present Gaelic poem has been misidentified in the Glasgow University Catalogue of the McLagan MSS as a version of Watts’ poem on the bee, beginning ‘How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour…’


3.      (a) Translation of Isaac Watts, ‘The Thief’



Lamh slaodadh reum

               +                                 +Stealing


Dh’a Ain-deoin Duine, no gun fhios da,

  ’N tog mi Chreach, no’n goid mi Chuid,

’N Lamh fhuair mi gu h-obair Chneasda,

   ’N sin mi ’mach gu Creich no Braid[?]



’S mealtach faoin an Ni do’n Ghaisgidh

    Duil bhi aig ri Buidhinn Chreach:

’S crioch gu tric do Theagar Sladaidh,

    Gad m’a Mhuineal ris a Chroich.



Co-dhiu ’s Crioch dh’a Croich, no Tinneas,

    Bas le h Arm no Anrath Cuain;

Tilgear Anam dh’Ionsaidh ’n Donais

   (Is) leis mar Choir Luchd-braid is Cluain.



Nach tric chonnairc sinn Og-ghadaich

  ’S Tionsgnadh Beatha dh’a Mion-bhraid;

Ach (air fas) dh’a ’na Phriomh-Shladaidh

  ’S Crioch d’a Bheatha Bas a’ Ghaid?



’N saoil shibh gu feid Mearle fantainn

   Folaicht’ choich o Bheachd gach Sul:

Air goid dhuinn’ an ni nach buin duinn

   Chi an Ti Da’n leir gach Duil?



Gleidh mo Chroidh, a Righ as Athair

   O Shant Maoine nach buin damh;

O Ghoid Fheadail ann do Lathair

   M’ anam gleidh mar mo Lamh.                            C



          (b) Watts’ original


                  The Thief


Why should I deprive my neighbour

    Of his goods against his will?

Hands were made for honest labour,

    Not to plunder or to steal.


’Tis a foolish self-deceiving

    By such tricks to hope for gain:

All that’s ever got by thieving

    Turns to sorrow, shame, and pain.


Have not Eve and Adam taught us

    Their sad profit to compute?

To what dismal state they brought us,

    When they stole forbidden fruit?


Oft we see a young beginner

    Practise little pilfering ways,

Till grown up a harden’d sinner,

    Then the gallows ends his days.


Theft will not be always hidden,

    Though we fancy none can spy:

When we take a thing forbidden,

    God beholds it with his eye.


Guard my heart, O God of Heaven!

    Lest I covet what’s not mine;

Lest I steal what is not given,

    Guard my heart and hands from sin.



                   COMMENTARY AND NOTES


Title: As with Item 1, the translator replaces the straightforward title of the original with a Gaelic idiom meaning literally ‘Hand hanging from me’, but which he glosses as ‘Stealing’.  Presumably the idiom works along lines similar to the notion of being ‘tarry-fingered’ in English.  Again, this helps to disguise the origin of the work.


Technique: The translation is fluent, natural and neatly creative.  The translator extends his remit in a direction not attested in Items 1 and 2 by omitting verse 3 in the original Watts version, and creating a replacement verse. This verse stresses the serious nature of the judgment which will befall a robber, when his soul is thrown to the Devil, regardless of how he dies. 


If this is indeed a translation by Dugald Buchanan, it would surely be of particular relevance in Rannoch, where the rooting out of lawlessness and thieving was a priority in the eyes of the Forfeited Estates and their schoolmaster.




4.      (a) Translation of Isaac Watts’ ‘Our Saviour’s Golden Rule’


Riaghailt Ora an t Slanai-fhir, Matth. 7.12

                  +                                                            + Golden


Coi-dhileas cho-thromach bith thu

    Do Theaghlach Aird-righ Néamh

’S a bion dut ann s (iarhaidh) orr-asan

    Bith dhut ann Smuain ’s ann Gniomh.



Na dealbh na bagair is na dean

   A’ Mì-ghniomh sin gu brath,

B’ ion dut a mheas mar (Ea-coir) chlaoin,

   Nan deant’ ort e le Cach.





        (b) Watts’ originals


     (i.)  Our Saviour’s Golden Rule


Be you to others kind and true,
      As you'd have others be to you;
And neither do nor say to men
      Whate’er you would not take again.



   (ii.) Duty to God and Our Neighbour


Love God with all your soul and strength.

     With all your heart and mind;

And love your neighbour as yourself:

      Be faithful, just, and kind.


Deal with another as you'd have

      Another deal with you:

What you're unwilling to receive,

      Be sure you never do.





Technique: The original poem by Watts consists of only one verse.  The translation seems to find a second verse by taking some thoughts, or at least a prompt, from the second verse of the poem which follows it in Watts’ book, namely ‘Duty to God and Our Neighbour’.





5.      (a)  Cliu-radh Iud: 24.25

                        +                                                      + Doxology

’Nois dar Fear-saoraidh cumhachdach,

        Le Threan-laimh chongbhas Sluagh,

O thuiteam ann an Doimhne Ciont’

         ’S a shaoras a gach Truaigh.



Dh’fheadas ar Taisbineadh do Dhia,

      Sar-choi-liont neamh-choireach,

Am Fianais Gloir a Ghnuis gun Ghruaim,

      Le h-Aoibhneas maireannach.



Do Dhia ar Tearmainn, glic amhain,

      Gu siorraidh canar leinn’

Gloir, Neart is Buaidh is Mor-dhalachd

      ’Nois is gu brath, Amen.



           Iah, aon ann Tri, co-mholaibh-se,

       Le Naomh-Shluagh tairis Neamh:

An t-Athair, Mac, is Naoimh Spiorad

       Gu siorraidh canar leibh.




                (b) The Epistle of Jude, vv. 24-25 (Authorised Version)


Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,

To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever.  Amen


 (c) Watts’ doxological verse





Long metre


To God the Father, God the Son,

And God the Spirit, three in One;

Be honour, praise, and glory given,

By all on earth and all in Heaven.


Common metre


Now let the Father, and the Son,

    And Spirit be ador’d,

Where there are works to make him known,

    Or saints to love the Lord.


Short metre


Give to the Father praise,

    Give glory to the Son;

And to the Spirit of his grace;

    Be equal honour done.





Technique: The first three verses of the translation are generally close to its source, namely the Epistle of Jude, verses 24-25, but its fourth verse looks like a reworking of Watts’ doxology ‘Glory to the Father and the Son &c.’, which Watts provides in three different metres, with different wording accordingly, at the very end the section of ‘Divine Songs’ in his Horae Lyricae.  Watts had a considerable interest in composing verses and hymns of ‘glory’ to God.


Iah, the first word of verse 4, is one of the Hebrew words for God, as in ‘Jahew’, commonly ‘Jehovah’ in English.  It is, in fact, one of the most honoured names of God in Hebrew worship.  It is not used in Watts’ verses, and reflects the translator’s mind.




                      APPENDIX B

              McLagan MS General 1042 / 21


Ma thiomchail Morthachd Dhe


1.      Creud è ar Ndia? S ro chruaidh a Cheist.

Cia chuireas freagradh dhi angcèil?

Gach Crètuir dhfàg ì balbh am feusd

S le Aineolas do glash i mbèul.


2.      Cia è an Taingeal tuigseach trèun

Lan bhuaidhibh Dhe ni aireamh Shios?

S e mhàin do thuigeas iad gu lèir

Mhòr Ghliocas fèin ata gan Chrìoch.


3.      Mìltibh gan àireamh nun on Ghrèin,

Ta ionnad Comhnuidh Glormhor Dhia;

Na chòir Cho Streup mo Smuaintibh fèin

S ni ruig air Ainglibh treun le Sgiadh.


4.      Ta ballàcha a bhaille mhoir,

Togtadh le Seòid S le Clachaibh buadh

S a <thr>àidibh uile leagt le hòir

Seadh les an or is deirge Snuadh.


5.      Cia nseraph ga bhuil Spionnadh Sùil

Do thairngeas dlu don Dealradh mhò[i]r

Ta lassadh tiomchail Dhia nan ndùl

An Gcuirtibh Greadhnachuis a Ghloir?


6.      Ntra ghlaodhas Se gur Naomha Dia

S gur Glic a riaghladh an sgach Cùis

Roimh mheud do Ghloire gabhidh fiamh

S le sgiathibh folighidh se a Ghnùis.


7.      Ntra labhras Sè am feirg a Ghuth

Cia Nech nach Guidheadh bhi gan Chluas?

Nam reubfeadh leis na Neullaith tiugh

Aig Sgolt na ngcreugan aig a Chruas.


8.      Ta postadh Sìorruidh flaitheas fèin

Ar crith aig Geilfichdin don fhuaim;

S na Slèibhte leagha as mar Chèir

Sa mhuir le beacich ta na Suain.


9.      Ntra Chualadh Noidhche Shìorruidh nguth

Do labhair Dia an tus a ghniomh;

Gu grad do theich an Dorcha tiugh;

Aig gabhail roim an tsolas fiamh.


10.   Air tus do labhair se “Bi[o]dh ann”

Sar ball do tho[i]irreacha neamhni lèis;

Gan saothair do rugadh gho mar Chlànn,

Deich mìle Saoghal a niomlan mais.


11.   S tu Niotag bheò do chuir na Ghluais

Gach Saoghal Sluaghmhor ata Snàmh,

An Doimhne tail Sìor Dhol ma nguairt

Ar aisheal Cruaidh nach caidh gu brath.


12.   Làn laisde theilg thu as do <Dhorn>

Na Reultaibh uill’ mar Dhorlach Siol;

Fad machraichibh an Doirche mhoir

Le Dealrad Glòir gan Chean gan Chrich. 


/ 2


13.   Do rinn thu Caiptan ard don Ghrèin,

Mar Àitheuch treun air chian do Shluìdh,

Shoilseach na mplanaid fad na Speur

S ga ngaradh ris gu leir ma nguairt.


14.  Ta Narmailt Lonrach ud gu lèir,

Re freacadan gach oiche is là

Tiomchail do Chathair rioghail fèin

Gan amhludh <Ceim> na measg gu brath.


15.   Do mheas thu ’n gcuan a ngclar do bhois;

Is Chuartich steach a ghaod nad dhòrn;

Do thomhais thu flaitheas le do reis,

San mheidh do Chuir na Sleibhte mòr.


16.   Ca ris do Shamhluicheas me Dia?

Oir therig briathra dham gu lèir

Na coimeas red ghloir gur Dubh a Ghrian

Is meud do Chial Cha nochd na Speur.


                      An Chrioch







This magnificent Gaelic hymn can be ascribed to no composer other than Dugald Buchanan, as it exemplifies his sources and techniques very clearly.  It is based loosely on the first six verses of Psalm 19, with their picture of the ‘speaking universe’, but it draws indirectly on poems by Isaac Watts, namely ‘The Creator and the Creatures’, ‘God Supreme and Self-sufficient’, and ‘The Infinite’, which were published in Horae Lyricae, and used by Buchanan in the composition of ‘Mòrachd Dhè’, the opening poem in his printed book, as has been demonstrated in LSDB.  The title of ‘Mòrachd Dhè’ is remarkably close to that of the present poem, but in the MSS it is entitled ‘An Cruthadair agus na Creutairibh’, representing the title of one of the Wattsian sources.  The similarity of titles, which suggests an editorial alteration made before the printed hymn went through the press, is, on its own, sufficent to suggest that Buchanan is the author of the present composition also.  The theme of God’s majesty and ‘apartness’, inaccessible by reason alone, was evidently close to his heart, as well as to that of Watts.  It is also evident that, in composing this poem Buchanan, drew on other hymns by Watts, likewise in Horae Lyricae, most obviously ‘God’s Dominion and Decrees’.  See the note on vv. 9-10 below.


This hymn, however, shows Buchanan as an imitator rather than a translator of Watts.  He keeps sufficiently far away from Watts to give himself creative space, and in the process produces what is undoubtedly his finest hymn on this theme, if not his finest known poem.  It is studded with powerful images, such as that of God as ‘Niotag bheo’ (‘the living particle’, 11a) from which the creation was made.  In such a metaphor, even though Buchanan subscribes to an ex nihilo creation, and the hymn is in large measure a celebration of the Newtonian theory of the ‘steady state’ cosmos, one catches a momentary glimpse of what we now know as the ‘Big Bang’ theory.  The resulting universe is seen as being, in effect, a globe which revolves on ‘Aisheal Cruaidh’ (‘a solid axle’) which will never wear away.  Again, the image of God throwing the ‘fully ignited’ stars into space ‘mar Dhorlach Siol’ (‘like a handful of grain’, 12ab) is both powerfully supernatural and also remarkably down-to-earth, reminding us of Buchanan’s own origin as the son of the miller in Ardoch, Strathyre.  The superbly sustained metaphor of God as the commander of his own celestial army, which guards him without putting a step wrong, is a very fine poetic achievement (vv. 13-14).  Having described the brightness and brilliance which God achieves in launching the planets and stars into space, the poem concludes, as it began, by posing the initial and ultimate question, with the paradox that the sun itself, the body that heats and lights the entire cosmos in q. 13, is black compared with the incomprehensible glory of God, which the poem has attempted to capture.


Although the poem owes its starting-point to Psalm 19, the type of speech which is presented in it is both similar to, and different from, that in the Psalm.  In the Psalm, ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’, and that is implicitly so in this poem, as the celestial bodies bear constant witness to the Creator.  However, in the Gaelic poem, a seraph proclaims the holiness of God, which induces terror, and God also speaks, arousing fear of his anger.  Thus, although his creation proclaims his presence as creator, God is portrayed as unapproachable and also inaccessible by means of human reason.  He is the Sublime Being, inspiring awe and wonder, but also fear.


The poem is reminiscent of a hymn by another author of the same period as Isaac Watts, namely Joseph Addison (1672-1719), the poet, moralist and journalist, and writer in The Spectator.  His well-known and celebrated hymn, ‘The Spacious Firmament on High’, portrays a Newtonian universe which ‘speaks’ its testimony to the existence of the God who created it (LSDB, p. 308), as in Psalm 19.


In terms of its style and language, this is also Buchanan’s most ambitious poem.  It displays a greater awareness of Classical Gaelic morphology than his eight published poems, particularly in its use and marking of eclipsis, sometimes showing ‘double marking’ reflecting Classical Gaelic and vernacular Scottish Gaelic conventions (Dhia nan ndùl, 5c).  Long vowels are marked, though not always consistently, with grave accents.  The vocabulary used also belongs to a ‘higher’ level than that of the eight published poems, with the use of nouns like ‘athach’ and ‘tail’, and it makes more demands of the reader’s understanding.  The poem carries a ‘bardic’ nuance too, with the repetition of the opening question, rephrased in the last verse, as if in an echo of the dùnadh in Classical Gaelic verse.


This poem, in short, takes us to a much more refined understanding of the range of Buchanan’s techniques than we have had hitherto.  This is ‘bardic Buchanan’, with a ‘top drawer’ composition.  The careful penmanship, executed with great care and few errors, suggests that it was highly regarded by the scribe, who is doubtless also the poet, as the correspondence of the hand with that of Buchanan’s known autographed material is high.  Its survival is remarkable, but it also leaves us with many (as yet) unanswered questions, particularly in the context of the printed book.


Why was it not published in the 1767 volume? Was it composed too late to be included?  Was Buchanan restricted in terms of the amount of space available to him, as it would have been more costly to include the poem? Was Buchanan aware that this was indeed a ‘top drawer’ composition, too exalted for ‘mass circulation’, or too complicated?  In his 1767 book, was he aiming at a ‘middle range’ selection, which would be relatively easily comprehensible to his readers?  It is noticeable that he excluded what we may regard as his Gaelic versions of Watts’ didactic verse for children (Appendix A).  It is now more than evident, if we understand the suriviving McLagan MS material correctly, that Buchanan could operate at (at least) three levels of literary ‘density’ and potential application.


In addition to highlighting some scribal detail, the following notes offer a few alternative readings for those already given in the provisional modernised text in LSDB (Agusan C).



2d  For ‘Mòr-ghliocas’ in LSDB, now read ‘Mhòr-ghliocas’.


9-10 These verses appear to be an expansion of the third verse in Watts’ poem, ‘God’s Dominion and Decrees’ (HL, p. 33):


The Almighty voice bid ancient night

Her endless realm resign,

And lo! Ten thousand globes of light

In fields of azure shine.


11d Caidh seems a better reading than laidh (followed in LSDB): thus, ‘which will never wear out’.


12a <Dhorn> It looks as if the scribe originally wrote ‘lamh’, and then wrote ‘Dhorn’ on top of this apparent error.


12c For ‘machraichibh’ in the MS, I restored ‘mhachraichibh’ in LSDB.  Letters such as ‘h’ are occasionally lost by this scribe, but usually in final position, as in ‘Dealrad’ in 12d.


13b Àitheuch:  In LSDB I understood this as ‘athach’, ‘giant’, but it might also represent ‘àigeach’, ‘young horse, steed’.  The latter is unlikely, as a the sun is referred to as a ‘champion’ in Psalm 19.


14a Narmailt: In LSDB I understood this as ‘[a]n iarmailt’, ‘the firmament’, with the ‘i’ obscured by the tail of the downstroke of the N.  While this is a defensible interpretation, it is much more likely to represent ‘[a]n armailt’, ‘the army’, with reference to the planets as part of the divine panoply.


14d In LSDB I understood this as ‘Gun amhlaidh lèim no measg gu bràth’, ‘With no likeness of jumping [out of line] or commixture for ever’.  It seems more likely to me now that we should read Cèim instead of lèim, and restore the line as ‘Gun am[a]ladh ceum nam measg gu bràth’,‘With no wrong taking of a step among them for ever’.   The idea is of an army which keeps perfect step. 


15b dhòrn: The scribe originally wrote Ghòrn, and then cancelled the ‘G’, writing ‘d’ in superscript.





‘An Gaisgeach’


The two available manuscript texts of the hymn printed by Buchanan in 1767 under the title of ‘An Gaisgeach’ are transcribed below in parallel columns, the one from the McLagan MSS and the other from McNicol, for comparative purposes.


(1)     McLagan MS 1042 / 4
                          Am fior Ghaisgeach
Is fear Gliocas na Airm Chogaidh Agus is fear an ti a riaghlus a Spiorad na an ti ghlacas Baille   Eccl 9.18. Seanrait 16.32
1.        Cha budh Ghaisgeach Alastuir mor
Na Sesar thug an Roimh gu Geil
Oir ge do thug iad Buaidh air Cach
D’fhan iad nan trail da miannaibh fein.
2.        Cha ghaisg an ni bhi liodairt Dhaoin
’S cha chliu bhi an an Caonaig tric
Cha an Uaisle Intinn Ardan borb
’S cha Treubhantas bhi garg gan Iochd.
3.        Ach ’s Gaisgeach eisin do bheir Buaidh
Air Eagal Beatha ’s Uamhunn Baish
’S a Chomhlaicheas le misneach Croidh
Na hullle ni ata dho nDan.
4.        Le Gealtachd Cionnt Cha teich air Cul
San am an Duisg a Choguish fein
A Tagradh eisdir leis gu Ciuin
S an Ceartas dunidh Se a Bheul.
5.        S e n Gaisgeach eisin bheir fa Chios
A Thoill Chun striochd da Reusan Ce[   ]
’S a Smuainte Ceannairceach gu leir
<Bhi> n <ordugh> Geilleachd  [             ]
6.        A mhianna bruideil Saltruidh Shios    /2
’S mar bhuil a Chuirp faoi Chios ataid
’S Cha nirislich e fein dan Riar
Bho nach Gu rialadh rugadh iad.
7.        San Oidhche nar Luidheas e Chum Suain
Bidh Subhailce mu’n Cuairt do fein
Mar Armailt Threun an tiomcheil Riogh
Ga dhidein bho gach Namhad Treun.
8.        Sa ’n Mhadain nuair a Dhuisgeas Suas
Bidh Cruinneachadh Smuainte as gach ait,
’S e fein nan Ceann mar Chaibtin Seolt
Ga ’n Suidheach an an Ordudh Blair.
9.        Ta Intinn daingean mar a Chreig
Cha Charuigh Eagal e no fiamh
Ta Shuilin furachar is Geur
Is leir dho n Dubhan troi an Bhiadh.
(2)     McNicol MSS 14851
                            A fior Ghaisgeach
Cha bu Ghaisgeach Alastuir Mor
No Caesar thug an Roimh gu Geil
Oir ga do thug iad Buaidh ar Cach
D’fhan iad na ’n Trail da Miannaibh fein.
Cha Ghaisg an ni bhi liodairt Dhaoin,
’S cha Chliu bhi an an Comh<r>ag tric,
Cha ’n Uaisle Intin Ardan borb,
’S cha Treubhantas bhi garg gun Iochd.
Ach ’s Gaisgeach eisin do bheir Buaidh
Air Eagal Beatha ’s Uamhain Baish
’S a Chomhlaicheas le Misnich Criodh
Na huille Ni ata dho ’n dan.
Le Gealteachd Ciont cha teich air Cul,
San Am an duisg a Choguish fein
A Tagradh eisdir leis gu ciun
San Cearteas dunidh se Bheil.
Se ’n Gaisgeach eisin bheir fo Chiosh
A Thoil chum strioch da Reusan ceart
Sa Smuainteadh Ceannairceach gu leir
Bhi ’n Ordudh geileachdainn da Smachd.
A Mhiana bruideoil saltruidh shios               /2
’S mar Bhuil a Chuirp faoi Chios ataid
’S cha nirislich e fein dan Riar
Bho nach gu Rialadh rugadh iad.
San Oiche Nar luidheas e chum Suain
Bidh Subhailce mu ’n Cuairt do fein
Mar Armailt Threun an tiomcheil Riogh
Ga dhidein bho gach Namhaid treun.
San Mhadain nuair a dhuisgeas Suas
Bidh Cruinneachadh Smuainte as gach Ait,
’Se fein nan Ceann mar Chaptain seolt
Gan Suigheach an an Ordudh Blair.
Ta Intin daingean mar a Chreig
Cha charuich Eagal e na Fiamh,
Ta Shuilin furachair is geur
Is leir dho ’n Dubhan troi an Bhiadh.
10.     Gu diomhain nochdfaidh n Saoghal a Ghloir
Gach or is Inbhe ata ann
Ta Saibhreas ag co pailt na Chroidh
’S gur truadh leis Riogh is Crun mu Cheann.
11.      Is ge do Sgaoil an Striopach Lion
[   lac] le hinnleachdaibh a Maish
[        ]igh air Deallanach a Sul
[        ] eagh i Run le Miannadh Laiss’d.
12.      Ta Ghliocas fein mar Chaisteal da      /3
Is gras a Chreidimh ag mar Sgiath
’S e n Scribtuir Naomh a Chloimh Geur
’S a Mhisneach ta gu leir an Dia.
13.     Ta Siochaimh aig na Intinn fein
’S a Choguish re ris ans gach ni
Ta Saibhreas aig nach leir do Dhaoin
Is air nach Cuir an Saghals’ Crioch.
14.     Re Miodal tla Cha neisd a Chluas
Is Sgainneal ghrand Cha Bhuair a Shith
Cha ghabh e Eagal roimh a Droch Sgeul
Is Tuaileas breig Cha lot a Chroidh.
15.      O manam Duisg is deasuigh tairm
’S gabh formad ris a ghaisgeach threun
Is t Anamianna Cuir faoi Chiosh
Chum Riogh’chd a Chonguish an nad fein.
Gu diomhain nochdfaidh ’n Saogh’l a Ghloir
Gach Or is Innidh ata ann
Ta Saibhreas ag co pailt na Chroidh
’S gur truagh leis Riogh is Crun ma Cheann.
Is ge do sgaoil an Striopach Lion                 /3
Da ghlac le Hintleachdaibh a Maish
Cha druigh air Deallanach a Sul
’S cha leagh i Run le Mianadh Laiss’d.
Ta Ghliocas fein mar Chaisteal da
Is Gras a Chreidimh ag mar Sgiadh,
Se ’n Scriptuir naomh a Chloimh geur
’S a Mhisneach ta gu leir an Dia.
Ta Siochaimh ag na Intin fein
’S a Choguis re rish an sgach Ni
Ta Saibhreas aig nach leir do Dhaoin
Is air nach cuir an Saogh’ls crioch.
Re Mioddal tla cha ’neisd a Chluas
Is Sgainneal ghrand cha bhuair a Shith
Cha ghamh e Eagal a droch Sgeul
Is Tuaileas Breig cha lot a Chriodh.
O Manam duisg is deasaich Tairm
Sgabh Formad ris a Ghaisgeach threun
Is t Anamiana cuir faoi Chroish
Chum Riogh’chd chongruis annad fein.




The two versions differ in their openings, with a rubric in the McLagan text which is clearly derived from Robert Kirk’s Gaelic Bible of 1690.  This is not attested in the McNicol version. They have slightly different readings at qq. 2 b. The McNicol version concludes with ‘Finid’, which is not found in McLagan.

In their orthographies, the two versions correspond closely, showing only minor variations. Their occcasionally egregious spellings, common to both texts, demonstrate clearly that they derive from essentially the same scribal ‘stream’; thus ‘Laiss’d’ in q. 11 d. 

In their wording, they agree at points where the printed text offers a different reading, as in the form of the title, and in q. 7 cd and q. 15 cd, although the readings in the latter couplet differ between the two manuscripts (for which, see the note below).  Most obviously, both lack the three quatrains with which the text in the printed book concludes.  This is discussed fully in LSDB, where it is shown that Buchanan derived these additional verses from the Watts exemplar which formed his creative source.  The two manuscript versions thus derive from a version earlier than that in the printed book.


1 b Sesar in McLagan reflects the pronunciation of original C- as S-, as in English, whereas McNicol follows the Latin form Caesar, though possibly pronounced by the scribe in the same way as in McLagan.

2 b For Caonaig in McLagan, McNicol appears to read Comhrag.

15 cd  McLagan reads Ciosh at the end of c, while McNicol reads Croish.  McLagan’s verb Conguis is otherwise unknown, but it would seem that the McNicol scribe or his examplar understood it to be Congruis, possibly to be associated with the English verb form ‘conquers’.




HL:  Horae Lyricae, in Isaac Watts, The Poetical Works of Isaac Watts (London, 1812).

LSDB: Laoidhean Spioradail Dhughaill Bhochanain, deas. Dòmhnall Eachann Meek, SGTS (Glaschu, 2015).

Thomson 1994: Derick S. Thomson, ‘The McLagan MSS in Glasgow University Library: A Survey’, TGSI, LVIII (1992-4), pp. 406-24.



From the moment I wrote an essay for Dr Donald John MacLeod, my teacher at Glasgow University, who set my mind to work on the ‘Buchanan conundrum’ in the autumn of 1970, I have incurred numerous debts.  None could be greater than the debt to my informal research assistant, Dr Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart, who, some fifteen years ago, spontaneously made, and sent me, copies of much of the present McLagan material on the chance that ‘these poems too may be by Dùghall’.  The accuracy of Dr Stiùbhart’s hunch is demonstrated here, I trust.  That, at least, is my hunch too. ’S ann dhutsa, agus mar urram ort, a tha am pàipear seo, a charaid.  

Another significant debt was incurred in the course of writing this paper, and it is to Samantha Gilchrist, Special Collections Librarian at Glasgow University Library, who, within the space of a working day, took action to conserve the fragile papers in McLagan MSS General 1042/4, and provided excellent digital images so that I could study their scribal hand on my own computer screen.  My earlier physical interaction with these papers, in the course of editing LSDB, was severely restricted, because I was greatly afraid, even terrified, of damaging them further. Here, with the benefit of LSDB, I complete the job, identify the hand, and resolve at least another part of what remains of the ‘Buchanan conundrum’.  My thanks to Samantha and Dòmhnall Uilleam are boundless.