THE GREAT LADY FROM SKYE:
THIRD THOUGHTS ON THE LIFE AND WORK OF MARY MACPHERSON
Donald E. Meek
It gives me great pleasure to participate in this special series of events, commemorating the life and work of Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, with whom I have shared a good part of my life. That may seem strange, given that our dates of birth are separated by more than a century, but it is not unusual for those of us who inhabit the so-called ‘ivory towers’ to feel that we are closer to figures from history than we are to our own colleagues. We suffer from various endearing ‘madnesses’, and that is one of them. In the case of Màiri Mhòr, I could even claim that I had known her since childhood – my childhood, that is – as she was often mentioned by my relatives in both Tiree and Skye as I was growing up. On the Tiree side, I had a great-uncle, Charles MacDonald, who was a shipwright to trade, and who had served his time at Harland and Wolff, in Govan, Glasgow, in the late nineteenth century. When I was a youngster, Charles was my playmate, although he was into his seventies by the time I was under way. I used to spend weekends with him in his cottage, which he shared with his sister, Annabel, and I served my apprenticeship as a riveter with him. I was the equivalent of what the Glasgow folk used to call the ‘hauder up’ when the rivets were to be clenched in the wooden boats which Charlie loved to build. He was full of stories – a very bright man who never aged, and who was always cheerful. Quite often, when in a relaxed mood and having a cup of tea, Charlie would tell me about his Glasgow days, and, from time to time, he would mention Màiri Mhòr nan Oran. By the time he got to know her, Màiri had become a matriarchal figure among Glasgow Gaels, and would appear at concerts and ceilidhs, or at picnics. He was struck by her personality and dynamic interaction with the Gaels at every level, and of every level. He was familiar with her songs, and could quote them, though he did not sing them.
In the 1970s, when I was back in Tiree during a summer vacation, I was given further insights into Màiri Mhòr’s interaction with Glasgow Gaels through a very lively lady who had connections with both Tiree and Skye. She was the daughter of the Rev. Allan MacDougall, a native of Tiree who had been Baptist minister in Strath in Skye. Allan had brought up his children in Skye, but they were well aware of their Tiree connections, and some of them, notably his son Johnnie, came to live in Caolas, Tiree, my native village. To cut a long story short, Allan’s daughter, by then an older lady, visited us in Tiree to renew acquaintance, and soon she was regaling me with family memories of Màiri Mhòr on the concert platforms in Glasgow. Clad from head to foot in tartan, she would march up the central aisle of the concert hall, while distributing clumps of heather to members of the audience. She would then proceed to the platform, whether bidden or not, and begin to sing her songs. A particular favourite was her song, ‘Soraidh leis an àit’’, which became her ‘signature tune’ in those days. Perhaps we can set the mood this evening by asking Fiona MacKenzie to sing it for us.
[Soraidh leis an àit’]
In learning about Màiri Mhòr, I was particularly fortunate to have input from both Tiree and Skye contacts. On my father’s side, my people belonged to Tiree, but, on my mother’s side, I had close connections with both Sleat and Uig, in Skye. My maternal grandfather, whose roots were in Sleat, used to sing Màiri Mhòr’s songs, with tears in his eyes. He had spent much of his life as a fireman in Maryhill, in Glasgow, and Màiri’s songs had a special relevance to him as an ‘exile’ from Skye. My maternal grandmother, however, belonged to Uig, and my relatives there still remembered Màiri Mhòr. They, however, had a very different set of memories from those of my Tiree friends. To my Skye relatives, Màiri was best known for her circuits of the houses – as we would say in Gaelic, a’ dol air na taighean. She was often the worse for wear, as she liked her drammie, and her blouse carried a tell-tale trail of snuff down the front! By the time these memories were formed, Màiri was an old woman, who was something of a nuisance to folk. In her retirement, she lived at ‘Bothan Ceann na Coille’ (Woodend Cottage) between Portree and Skeabost, but she was frequently ‘doing the rounds’ in Uig, to which her mother, Flora, belonged. It was said by some who knew the area that Màiri was, in fact, born in Uig, and not Skeabost, as is the usual story.
Màiri’s house in Skeabost was a well-known port of call for visitors of all kinds, and even for some who sought her support. I remember well having a talk in the mid-1970s with a well-known Skyeman, Colonel Jock MacDonald, who spoke Eton English and Skye Gaelic. Colonel Jock was one of the MacDonalds of Viewfield, Portree, and thus of a rather more aristocratic lineage than Màiri Mhòr. However, Màiri always maintained a friendship with certain of the uaislean, of course. Anyway, Colonel Jock loved to tell the story of how, as boy, he had misbehaved rather badly, and had run away from home. He sought refuge with Màiri in Skeabost, and that tells you quite a lot about the esteem he had for Màiri. In due course, his father came looking for the naughty Jock, and, as Màiri Mhòr saw him coming, she took a hold of Jock and stuck him in under her skirts – which, as Jock used to say, were pretty voluminous! When Jock’s father asked if she had seen any sign of the boy, she denied it point blank, and the angry father went on his way. Jock was saved by Màiri, though, as he used to say with a twinkle, ‘It was rather hot in there.’
That, in some ways, takes us to one of the hallmarks of Màiri – not just the voluminous skirts, but her role as the protector of those who were in difficulty. That sense of matriarchal protection grew from her own experience. Born about 1820, she led a tempestuous life, having had scrapes with the law when she was in service in Inverness, and having to spend time in prison for an alleged theft – which I am sure was a ‘frame up’, and entirely unjust, to judge by the various gentlemen who came to her assistance. She also endured the loss of her husband, Isaac, at an early age. As a result of these trials, she left Inverness for Glasgow, where she trained as a nurse in the 1870s, and then retired to Skeabost in 1882. She was always ‘on the gallavant’, travelling from Skye to Glasgow to the concerts that I have just mentioned, or supporting the Skye home side, wherever and whatever it was, whether it was the shinty team or a crofters’ delegation. Màiri was larger than life, and she made an unforgettable impression on the Gaels of her own time, as she sang her way through hardship, and championed the cause of many who needed support at that time, including, as we know, the crofters of Skye and other parts of the Highlands and Islands during the period of the Land Wars.
We can now listen to a song in which Màiri expresses how painful it was to endure the humiliation that came her way in Inverness, and the injustice that she suffered:
[Ochòn a Rìgh]
Perhaps the most remarkable result of Màiri’s humiliation was that it drove her to compose verse, and particularly those songs that we know so well today. Another fine informant of mine in the 1970s, the Rev. Norman MacDonald of Staffin, Skye, used to say that Màiri was already something of a songster and poet before she was humiliated in 1872. However, it was that bitter experience that compelled her to compose ‘serious’ verse, first of all about her own suffering, and then about the suffering of others.
Editing the songs
It is now thirty years exactly since I published the first edition of my selection of the Gaelic songs of Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, as very young and foolish academic, in 1977. It was the first attempt at editing a body of Màiri’s verse since her own book had been published in Inverness in 1891, and it was undertaken largely because my former teacher, Professor Derick Thomson of the Chair of Celtic at Glasgow University, believed that she deserved to be remembered in a selective anthology, edited in Gaelic. I stress the latter point because it was not fashionable then to edit books in Gaelic, and indeed it was not fashionable to champion Màiri Mhòr either. She had been lost to view, and the fact that she was retained at all in the canon of Gaelic literature was due not only to Derick Thomson, but also to Murdo Murray, who wrote a fine paper (in Gaelic) on her verse, and especially Dr Sorley MacLean, from Raasay, and a great admirer of the strengths in Màiri Mhòr’s verse.
Dr MacLean recognised, as Professor Thomson did also, that the quality of Màiri’s output was rather variable – she was capable of great heights of passion and descriptive power, but she was also capable of becoming very garrulous and repetitious, with little more than metre and tune holding her words together. I remember well not only Professor Thomson’s fine teaching, but also the impact of Sorley MacLean’s paper on ‘The Poetry of the Clearances’ – the most powerful piece of socio-political and literary criticism I have ever read. I can still remember where I was when I first read that paper, and I can even remember the time of day, the weather and the year! It was like walking into a new world of critical appreciation and forthright communication, and at the heart of the matter was the Gaelic verse of Màiri Mhòr. As Sorley MacLean made clear, Màiri was the poet of the people, with all the strengths and weaknesses that attached to such a position.
As a young man who considered himself a bit of a ‘radical’ in those far-off days, I was attracted by Màiri’s forthright challenge to the establishment (with which I too have always lived uncomfortably, I have to say). I was also fascinated by the way in which she espoused what was to a large extent a man’s world – the world of protest and resistance to authority – in her own time. Màiri was, of course, a sign of things to come, as women began to gain prominence through the extension of the franchise and other civilised developments. But she was at the very front of campaigning for the extension of the vote to crofters long before the Suffragettes came on the scene. Some may think, of course, that my fascination for Màiri’s life and work reflected current literary and other trends, but I would deny that. Back in the 1970s, ‘women’s literature’ and ‘feminism’ were but young – ‘women’s lib’ had emerged in the late 1960s, but I was pretty innocent, and had no reason to espouse these causes. However, I had heard of Màiri Mhòr, and I was attracted by her personality, by the power of her verse and by her struggle in society, at a time of immense change in the Highlands and Islands.
My 1977 anthology of Màiri Mhòr’s verse was my first foray into editorial scholarship, and I made many mistakes. Happily, however, the book sold very well, and I was able to correct my various juvenile blunders in a new edition, published in 1998, to commemorate the centenary of Màiri’s death. I restructured my earlier book, and added a few more songs to the text. I also dealt with what the ‘critics’ had to say about Màiri’s verse in the past and also in the present. So, to explain the title of my lecture, I regard the first edition of my book as my ‘first thoughts’ on Màiri Mhòr; the second edition contains my ‘second thoughts’ – and this evening you are receiving my ‘third thoughts’, for what they are worth!
Looking back over these thirty years since my book was published, what I note particularly is how Màiri Mhòr’s standing has changed. She has been given two edited anthologies in addition to her own 1891 volume – and that alone sets her apart from all other nineteenth-century poets. A film has been made of her life (based, I may say, on my 1977 edition), and this evening we will unveil a portrait of Màiri Mhòr – making her by far the most celebrated and commemorated of the nineteenth-century poets. What a change!
This is something that happened in the last quarter of the twentieth century, of course, though there were signs that the mood was changing by the late 1930s. As a poet as well as a person, Màiri was under something of a cloud in the early part of the twentieth century, and it was not until Sorley MacLean and Murdo Murray began to ‘rehabilitate’ her that she was given a better deal. Although she was extremely popular in Gaelic circles, and especially among Lowland Gaels, towards the end of the nineteenth century, she had her detractors, who did not like her songs and verse, any more than they liked her snuff and her drams. The trend-setters of Gaelic verse in the late nineteenth century were poets like Neil MacLeod from Skye, and Henry Whyte from Easdale. The latter wrote scathingly of Màiri Mhòr’s verse, partly because of her tendency to garrulousness, but more probably, I think, because she tackled subjects which were unromantic, and did not take people’s minds into the ‘never-never lands’ of the past. Màiri was certainly not an escapist. She reminded people constantly of the reality of Highland life, the good sides and the bad. Although she had her own way of being ‘sentimental’, she managed to hold the balance between romanticism and reality, but she tipped the balance towards reality most of the time. That, in my view, is one reason that her songs are so appealing to many people today; they strike a balance between ‘emotion’ and ‘evidence’ in a way that few other songsters have been able to achieve, and, in so doing, Màiri offers us insights from a very varied and challenging life that has been lived in the real world – what we would call ‘experience’. These perspectives are well encapsulated in ‘Eilean a’ Cheò’, and we will listen to it now.
[Eilean a’ Cheò]
Màiri’s enduring qualities
Let me, then, reflect for the remainder of this talk on the three ‘Es’ – ‘Emotion’, ‘Evidence’ and ‘Experience’ – that, for me at any rate, characterise Màiri Mhòr’s verse. In the thirty years since my book was published, I have studied numerous other nineteenth-century Gaelic poets, and it is in that light that I offer my suggestions – my ‘third thoughts’ as I have called them. Like Màiri herself when she produced the final version of ‘Eilean a’ Cheò’, I have the grey hairs that show my age, and I am soon to say ‘Farewell’ to my ‘fifties’! My qualifications for a retrospect are impeccable!
Let us begin with ‘experience’. In the course of many writings on the nineteenth-century Highlands, I have often asked myself an important question, namely, ‘How did it feel to be alive in those days?’ That question can resolve itself into a number of other questions, depending on context: How did it feel to be part of the old, pre-clearance society? How did it feel to see emigration taking place before your very eyes? How did it feel to sail on the old steamships that were so well known in the late nineteenth-century Highlands? How did it feel to have a scrape with the law, and to end up in a prison? How would a Gael of that time have felt about Britain and the British Empire, and the various military adventures of Queen Victoria’s reign? How did crofters and their leaders feel about the Napier Commission of 1883 and its Report of 1884? How did Skye people feel about Sheriff William Ivory?
‘Eilean a’ Cheò’ alone, if you look at it carefully and dwell on its words, will answer quite a few of these questions for you. It will tell you about pre-clearance society and the self-sufficiency of the people of Skye – the use of home-grown meat and potatoes, the weaving of cloth (something that Màiri Mhòr loved to engage in), the military contribution of Skye and the pride that Skye folk had in that, but, in a surprisingly forthright way, Màiri gives vent to the need to turn the tables and fight the good fight against injustice at home. In a sense, that song is a great summary of Màiri’s experience, and it is pulled together in a series of metaphors which are unforced in any way – so unforced that the song does not always hang together well, and may merit just criticism from the literary ‘set’. But that is what gives it power – it is spontaneous, effortless and non-deliberate, an expression to be uttered time and again, rephrased and refocused across the years. Màiri herself understood its weaknesses, and called it a ‘rope’. In a way, life is exactly that – a rope of many cords, all woven round one another. Perhaps we could say that the cords are ‘tangled’ rather than ‘woven’, as that may imply too much. Life does not hang together well for many, many people, and Màiri was one of them. There are, nevertheless, unities of approach and understanding, within the individual persona. In her own unpremeditated way, and through her own personality, Màiri tried to capture, and ‘unify’, the untidiness of life’s experience.
She was aware of connections and disconnections as part of that untidy picture. Recently I had cause to reflect particularly closely on the way in which steamships had interacted with Highland life and society in the nineteenth century, and my first port of call, so to speak, was the Gaelic verse of Màiri Mhòr nan Oran. What was it like to see the islands from the deck of a steamship? What were the thoughts of an islander who left the island, or returned to it, by means of such transport? How did one’s view of a familiar landscape change when one was approaching it gradually from a distance on a steamship? Màiri’s songs answered all of these questions, and the answers popped up in some surprising places, mainly because Màiri was so concerned to chronicle ‘experience’ as it bore in upon her immediately. Some of her ‘steamship songs’ – about the Claymore and the Clydesdale, for instance – kept very much to their subject, but there were other songs in which the steamships appeared ‘unexpectedly’, in order to make a deep and meaningful experiential point.
For example, if we look at ‘Nuair bha mi òg’ – a truly splendid song in my view – we have a blend which is reminiscent of ‘Eilean a’ Cheò’, but the images, the pictures, the scenes, are somehow even more sharply focused, as if Màiri were using a camera with a close-up facility. We touch on how Màiri experienced childhood, and how she lost her sense of childhood innocence. Part of the feeling of loss was occasioned by her boarding the ‘smoky steamship that has no sail’, and moving gradually away from the island as the paddles churned and the ship made a noisy departure. Let us hear ‘Nuair bha mi òg’ now.
[Nuair bha mi òg]
What then of ‘evidence’? Màiri Mhòr’s verse is important as a source of ‘evidence’ as well as ‘experience’, though it is sometimes hard to disentangle the two ‘cords’ in this particular ‘rope’. Her songs offer us an opportunity to ‘see’, as well as to ‘feel’. It is particularly noticeable that Màiri was a highly convivial person, and she is often at her best when describing gatherings of people, large or small, and the emotions they generate. In this way, she provides evidence of significant happenings, and their significance to her own world and that of the nineteenth century. We can take several songs in succession to demonstrate the validity of this point.
First of all, we can look at an event in Glasgow which Màiri commemorates for us – a shinty match. In those days – the end of the nineteenth century – cameras were cumbersome machines, and tape recorders were not invented. As we see in the case of ‘Nuair bha mi òg’, sight and sound are often very prominent in Màiri’s verse. If we ask ourselves how a shinty match looked and sounded in those days, and what emotions it generated, we will find the answer in such songs as ‘Camanachd Ghlaschu’. We can hear the crack and whack of shinty-sticks, and we can see the players in full flight across the pitch. The song is filled with good humour.
Energy and muscular power are everywhere apparent in Màiri’s songs, whether she is chronicling a shinty match or viewing the fishing-boats setting sail from Portree. One of the songs which reflects a process, rather more than an event, and constitutes evidence for major change in the nineteenth-century Highlands – change for the better, that is – is ‘Nuair chaidh na ceithir ùr oirre’. This commemorates a crossing from Strome Ferry in a small boat, which Màiri undertook with several politicians who were canvassing for the General Election of 1885. One of the most important points here is the evidence that the song provides for the importance of Màiri Mhòr herself in the time of the crofters’ land agitation. She was obviously an ‘asset’ to the politicians, because she could communicate with the people, and transmit the message of land reform by means of her songs. She appeared on political platforms throughout the Highlands. Other Gaelic poets were utilised by the pro-crofter lobby in a similar way, but Màiri Mhòr was probably by far the best known. The evidence here is, once again, highly visual, as big men try to get into a small boat, and the seventeen-stone Màiri Mhòr attempts to join them. It is a song which not only releases a sense of purpose, but also of incongruities, as Màiri delightfully exploits the ‘weight problem’ to lighten the load.
[Nuair chaidh na ceithir ùr’ oirre]
Màiri Mhòr was the poetess of ‘change’ in many different ways, and at many different levels. She had a great eye for what was happening around her, whether on the shinty pitch or at the political meeting, or in the community. As she was resident in Inverness and Glasgow for a considerable part of her life, she was able to observe, on her frequent returns, how communities in Skye were changing, often through loss of people in processes of migration and emigration; she felt the change in ways that were more than merely demographic, and that is particularly evident in her song, ‘Soraidh leis an Nollaig Uir’, in which she puts starkly before us how ‘cold’ communities have become as a result of population displacement and change. She is now a stranger in her own township, and even the dogs bark coldly as they offer her a welcome.
[Soraidh leis an Nollaig Uir]
Let us round off with the third dimension of Mairi’s verse which makes her work distinctive – ‘emotion’. An emotional charge is more than evident in ‘Soraidh leis an Nollaig Uir’, and a powerful emotional charge appears in many other songs. Màiri had a remarkable ability to convey emotions in her verse, by means of individual words which resonate deeply in a human context – even the mist itself takes on human characteristics, implicit in such words as ‘tàmh’. Visual and tactile sensations intermingle, so that our senses are gripped. In ‘Eilean a’ Cheò’, for example, there is a mixture of several emotions, while other songs convey a happy, celebratory mood, or an elegiac farewell or leave-taking or a profound sense of loss, as in ‘Soraidh leis an Nollaig Uir’.
One of Màiri’s indisputably happy songs is ‘Oran Beinn Lì’ which commemorates the lowering of rents as a result of the Crofters Commission and its enquiry in 1887. Màiri looks back joyfully, and celebrates what has been achieved by those who took a stand at the Battle of the Braes in 1882.
[Oran Beinn Lì]
There was an optimism at the heart of Màiri’s songs. Indeed, one of the dimensions of her verse that I find appealing is its ability to look through the mist (a common image in her songs) to sunrises, bright mornings, and better futures. This is evident in the ‘bardic blessing’ which she sent to Gaels at New Year time, and in which she uses the imagery of a shinty match to convey her message about the ‘goals’ of the future.
[Beannachd Bliadhn’ Uire]
It is often said that Gaelic songs tend to be sad in general, and that happiness is hard to find in the nineteenth century. Màiri Mhòr knew all about sadness, and her songs reflect that, but she also tried to convey her joy and optimism, and her sense of achievement, as well as of loss. That points to the ‘balance’ that is, I believe, characteristic of the Great Lady from Skye. Life, if we follow her line of thinking, has to be seen as the strands of the rope, interweaving sadness and happiness, weakness and strength, hope and despair, and that is what continues to make Màiri’s songs attractive and relevant today.
Looking back across the years that I have known Màiri Mhòr’s songs and reflected on their significance, I find that they impress me with the range of perspectives which they offer. As I have tried to show, they contain evidence, emotion and experience. They are about life itself, and one of the ideas that I would like to explore more fully, if I have time and energy in the days ahead, is the possibility that Màiri Mhòr’s verse, in its entirety, is a form of autobiography, chronicling incidents, events, processes, friends, enemies, good days and bad days, hope and despair, darkness and light. We reflected at an earlier stage of this talk on how untidy life is, and how it is beset by challenges of all kinds. Màiri Mhòr knew that, and she tried to make sense of her own life, by pouring her thoughts into song and verse. The product, so to speak, was uneven, with many peaks and troughs, but the intellect was sound, the heart was strong and the intention sincere. The verse form helped to provide a ‘mould’ for Màiri’s mind, and overall it brought order into a disordered life. Perhaps her song does that for some of us still, and it may well be that we bring ourselves to some sort of order by identifying with the experience of the Great Lady from Skye.