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Metadata for text 165
No. words in text105023
Title The Songs of John MacCodrum, Bard to Sir James MacDonald of Sleat
Author MacCodrum, John
Editor Matheson, William
Date Of Edition 1938
Date Of Language 18th c.
Publisher Oliver & Boyd for the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society
Place Published Edinburgh
Volume N/A
Location National, academic, and local libraries
Geographical Origins North Uist
Register Literature, Verse
Alternative Author Name Mac Fhearchair, Iain
Manuscript Or Edition Ed.
Size And Condition 22.5cm x 15.5cm
Short Title Songs of John MacCodrum
Reference Details EUL, Celtic Library: LIG MACC
Number Of Pages lii, 382
Gaelic Text By N/A
Illustrator N/A
Social Context John MacCodrum was born at Cladh Chomhghain, Aird an Runnair, on the west side of North Uist. According to Matheson, ‘If the tradition regarding his age at the time of his death (eighty-six) is trustworthy – and there is no reason to doubt it – the year of his birth was 1693 or a few months earlier’ (p. xvii). MacCodrum’s father was known locally as Fearchar mac Iomhair. MacCodrum had no schooling, but learned his living from his father, and learned his heritage in the taigh cèilidh. His first song, Duan na Bainnse (pp. 1-5), was composed around 1712, when he was still a young man. He had attended a wedding in Paible and, being an uninvited guest, was rebuffed. In the song, he launches a scathing attack on the wedding party, and the song is said to have travelled far and wide, albeit anonymously. Only the author’s parents recognised its composer, and MacCodrum was given a stern lecture by his father on his behaviour.

The next song which we can date seems to have been composed in 1749 (Oran mu ’n Eideadh Ghàidhealach, pp. 6-13), which was probably after his father’s death. Most of MacCodrum’s songs date from after this period, although there are around half a dozen that cannot be accurately dated. There is no evidence to suggest that MacCodrum had strong feelings with regard to either of the Jacobite risings which took place in the first half of the eighteenth century. However, Matheson suggests that ‘the vividness and detail of his descriptions of warfare, … are remarkable if he was not speaking from personal observation’ (p. xxi). MacCodrum eventually married, and moved to Cachaileith na Rèibhill, on the high ground between Hougharry and Tigharry. His poetic talents developed, and his reputation soon spread. Mac Mhaighstir Alastair himself is said to have paid him a visit. Two of MacCodrum’s poems were printed in Alastair’s Ais-eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich, published in 1751, although MacCodrum’s authorship was not mentioned. MacCodrum also spent some time living in Paible. On leaving Paible, MacCodrum lived for a time in Langash, and it was here that he composed most of his songs. He was living there possibly by 1758, and certainly by 1760 when he encountered James MacPherson, who was touring the Highlands in search of Ossianic poetry. MacCodrum, who was known for his sense of humour, made a joke at MacPherson’s expense which so angered the man that he did not ask MacCodrum for help with his research.

In 1763, MacCodrum was appointed bard to Sir James MacDonald of Sleat. His predecessor was Duncan MacRuari, after whom there was a gap of some years before MacCodrum took up the post. Sir James was a traditionalist, and MacCodrum’s appointment was one of his first acts after taking over management of the MacDonald estates. MacDonald wanted to improve his Gaelic and was also extremely interested in ancient Gaelic poetry. He stated in a letter to Dr. Blair that MacCodrum could recite Ossianic poetry for hours, which sounded, to his ear, to be ‘the same with MacPherson’s translation’ (p. xxv). In return for his services as a bard, MacCodrum received a croft, rent-free for life, an allocation of meal and cheese, and the sum of £2. 5s. MacCodrum was by now at least seventy years of age, but was still composing with vigour. He composed a number of praise songs to various MacDonalds and to the clan in general, and there is evidence that he visited Skye at least twice, and Benbecula and South Uist on a number of occasions. Matheson observes that ‘The lands of Clan Ranald seem to have possessed a particular attraction for him’ (p. xxvii). MacCodrum had an exceptionally good knowledge of MacDonald and Clan Ranald genealogy and had an interest, not only in Highland affairs, but in the affairs of the wider world. According to Matheson, ‘His knowledge of such matters was no doubt derived from being present in the houses of local gentlemen when the contents of the newspapers of the day were translated aloud into Gaelic and discussed by the company’ (p. xxviii).

Sir James MacDonald died unexpectedly in 1766. His successor, Sir Alexander MacDonald, to his credit, continued to provide for the bard, although he had a very different outlook from his predecessor. MacCodrum spent his later years in remarkably good health. He married twice more, and spent the last years of his life at Airigh a’ Phuill, in Eaval, a remote township on the east side of North Uist. Only two of MacCodrum’s poems can be dated after 1769, although it is unclear whether this was because the bard was not composing much, or whether his living in such a rural area (rural even for North Uist) prevented the dissemination of songs that would have led to their survival today. MacCodrum died at his home in Eaval on 14th April 1779, after a short illness. Tradition holds that he was then eighty-six years of age. He was buried, at his own request, at the entrance to the cemetery at Kilmuir.
Contents This volume opens with a Preface (pp. vii-viii) by the editor. Matheson records that he has ‘examined all the sources, both manuscript and printed, in which any of [MacCodrum’s] songs has appeared, and have also taken extant traditional versions into account. One or two songs here appear for the first time in print; others are given in a fuller form than heretofore’ (p. vii).

There follows a list of Contents (pp. ix), a list of Abbreviations and Sources (pp. xi-xiii), and Table of Sources (pp. xiv-xv), in which 31 songs are listed chronologically. These are followed by a list of 22 chronologically arranged sources (printed, MS, and oral). The table of sources lets one see at a glance what are the sources for each poem.

The Introduction (pp. xvii-l) examines the life of the bard and includes a section on stories related about the bard and to the MacCodrums as a family. There is also a genealogical account of them. This is followed by an Index of First Lines (pp. li-lii).

Orain Iain Mhic Fhearchair (pp. 1-203) contains 31 of MacCodrum’s songs. English translations are given on facing pages. The songs are arranged chronologically. This is not a complete collection of MacCodrum’s songs; Matheson warns the reader that ‘MacCodrum composed one or two pieces of a Rabelaisian nature which are not given here’ (p. xxxiii). These include Oran na Muice and the port-a-beul Tha Meirg air a’ Ghunna Dhubh. It is possible that these two songs are recorded somewhere other than the present volume, but they have not been traced so far. In an article published in Gairm (1984-85, pp. 76-90), D. E. MacDhòmhnaill excludes the song Banais MhicAsgaill (pp. 176-81 in this volume), claiming that it was included by Matheson air iomrall (MacDhòmhnaill, p. 77). This assertion is not fully explained, but Mac Dhòmhnaill’s opinion carries weight and cautions us that MacCodrum was likely not the composer of that particular song. Professor William Gillies, who is currently revising this edition of MacCodrum’s work, confirms that Matheson accepted that Banais MhisAsgaill was not composed by MacCodrum.

Naidheachdan (pp. 204-17) comprises a series of anecdotes about MacCodrum, in Gaelic and in English. Next comes the section entitled Variant Readings (pp. 218-30). A comparison of the variant readings of Òran na h-Aoise with the version of this song published in Sar-Obair reveals that while Matheson records some of the variant readings that appear in Sar-Obair, he does not print them all. This lets us see what Matheson regarded as significant variants in Sar-Obair, and warns us that a measure of selectivity necessarily applies to the reporting of variants from the other sources for MacCodrum’s poems. Editors should therefore check earlier sources in cases of doubt. This section is followed by a list of Errata (p. 230).

A section of Notes (pp. 231-319) on each of the songs contains information on subject matter, interpretation of the text, variant titles and authorship. This is followed by a section on Airs and Metres (pp. 321-47). Matheson states that only two of the airs could be found in published sources, although most were still known locally. There are also notes on the metres and Matheson frequently gives examples in which he highlights the syllables that determine a poem’s rhyme-scheme. There follows a single page Appendix (p. 348), containing a letter from 1796 which mentions MacCodrum. Matheson explains that he ‘came across it too late to make use of it in the Introduction’ (p. 348). This volume ends with a fairly extensive Glossary (pp. 349-75), followed by two indexes: Index of Persons, Etc. (pp. 377-80) and Index of Places (pp. 381-82).
Sources Matheson utilised the whole range of source materials (printed, MS, and oral) and variant readings are given on pp. 218-30, although these were clearly not intended to be exhaustive (see Contents above). The editor’s policy was to record significant variants.
Language In an article published in Gairm (1984-85, pp. 76-90), MacDhòmhnaill divides MacCodrum’s songs into three categories: Orain Molaidh agus Cumhachan (13 songs), Aoireadh agus Magadh (11 songs), and Orain agus Rannan Eile (6 songs).

The great majority of MacCodrum’s songs were therefore intended to either praise or to deride the subject. Of the praise songs and laments, Smeòrach Chlann Domhnaill (pp. 44-49) is probably his best known work. Matheson suggests that it is quite possible that MacCodrum composed this song before Mac Mhaighstir Alastair composed his Smeorach Chlann Raghnaill. In this song, MacCodrum praises both the land and the people. For the land, he has this to say: ‘An tìr chròiceach eòrnach phailte, \ An tìr bhuadhach chluaineach ghartach, \ An tìr chruachach sguabach dhaiseach, \ Dlùth ri cuan gun fhuachd ri sneachda’ (p. 46). He praises the people as follows: ‘Buidheann mo ghaoil nach caoin caitean, \ Buidheann nach gann greann ’s an aisith, \ Bhuidheann shanntach ’n am bhith aca, \ Rùsgadh lann fo shranntraich bhratach’ (p. 46). MacCodrum also composed Moladh Chlann Domhnaill (pp. 124-31), in which he once again praises his patron’s clansmen.

MacCodrum composed two songs to his patron, Oran do Shir Seumas MacDhomhnaill (pp. 102-15) and Marbhrann do Shir Seumas Mac Dhòmhnaill (pp. 150-59). In the first of these, the following verse is typical: ‘Gur h-innealt an consmunn \ Ceann-cinnidh Chlann Domhnaill, \ Fear iriseal stòlda \ Gun tòir air an àrdan, \ Eireachdail coimhlionta, \ Soilleir an eòlas, \ Goirear dheth ’n trògbhail \ Bòcan, mo làmh-sa; \ Cùirteir na sìobhaltachd, \ Urla na h-aoighealachd, \ Tlusail ri dìlleachdain, \ ’S cuimhneach air àiridh; \ Aigeannach innsgineach, \ Beachdail air rìoghalachd, \ Gaisgeach roimh mhìltean, \ Nan sìneadh e ’n gàirdean’ (p. 106). MacCodrum’s praise poems display the full range of traditional panegyric vocabulary and images. In the case of Sir James, who was more bookish than warlike, the poet makes some concessions to reality, as in the above verse.

MacCodrum composed a number of songs in praise of other people, including Marbhrann do Alasdair Mac Dhomhnaill (pp. 84-89), Oran do Mhac ’Ic Ailein (pp. 164-71), and Beannachadh-tighe Fir Bhaghasdail (pp. 182-85). In Oran do Chaiptean Ailean Chinnseborgh (pp. 142-49), the poet praises both Captain Ailein and his wife. He praises Captain Ailein’s fighting prowess: ‘’S mairg luchd ainmeinn chosadh air \ Gun fhosadh air a làimh, \ No thigeadh ceàrr no toisgeal air \ Gus brosnachadh thoirt dhà; \ Lann sgaiteach de smear cruadhach air \ ’S an truaill bu dreachmhoir’ dualannan— \ Cha stad e ’m feoil am buailear e \ Gun ruig e smuais nan cnàmh’ (p. 144). In Marbhrann do Shir Seumas MacDhomhnaill (pp. 150- 59), we find some references to Biblical and mythological characters, e.g. Dh’fhalbh ar n-Absaloim àlainn (p. 154), Sinn mar Thròïdh gun Heactor (p. 156), and Mar an Fhéinn agus Fionn air am fàgail (p. 158). Although MacCodrum was ‘uneducated’ in the modern sense, he would have been educated in religion and in mythology in church and in the taigh-cèilidh.

Of the satires and mocking songs, Duan na Bainnse (pp. 2-5), as mentioned above, appears to have been MacCodrum’s earliest composition. An Aghaidh Failte na Morthir (pp. 50-51) was composed by MacCodrum in response to Mac Mhaighstir Alastair’s Failte na Morthir, and is in standard 3-line strophic metre. Matheson explains that part of it may have been composed by An t-Aireach Muileach. Other satires include Aoir Dhomhnaill Friseil (pp. 52-55), about a local tacksman who had recently settled in Uist; Diomoladh Pioba Dhomhnaill Bhain (pp. 62-73), which attacks the poet who praised the piper as much as it attacks the piper himself; Gearan air a Mhnaoi (pp. 90-95), which MacCodrum composed about his third wife; and Aoir nan Tàilleirean (pp. 96-101). MacCodrum’s language can be extremely scathing at times, e.g. in Diomoladh Pioba Dhomhnaill Bhain: ‘Bidh an ionnsramaid ghlagach \ Air a lùbadh an craiceann, \ Chan fhuirich i ’n altaibh \ Gun chearcaill g’a tàth; \ ’S seirbhe na gafann \ Ri tafann a crùnluath, \ Trombaid a dhùisgeadh \ Gach Iùdas fhuair bàs; \ Mar chom geàrraich \ ’G a chràdh \ Shéideadh làn gaoithe; \ Turraraich nach urra mi \ Tionnail a dh’innse, \ Ach radain a’ sianail \ No sgiamhail laoigh àig’ (p. 70). In contrast, Oran nam Bantraichean (pp. 74-75) is a fairly humorous, light-hearted look at the local ladies, which MacCodrum composed after the death of his second wife.

The remainder of MacCodrum’s songs deal with a variety of subjects, such as the miseries of old age and illness, e.g.: Oran na h-Aoise (pp. 14-21), Oran na h-Oige (pp. 22-27), and Oran don Teasaich (pp. 160-63), the last of which MacDhomhnaill classifies under the heading Aoireadh agus Magadh. In the second of these, MacCodrum compares a man’s lifespan to the passing of the year: ‘Màrt tioram ri todhar nan crann, \ A’ sùghadh gach allt is gach eas; \ Gach luibh bhios an gàradh no ’n coill \ Gun snodhach gun duilleach gun mheas. \ Bidh turadh fuar fionnar gun bhlàths \ Ag crùbadh gach àl a thig ris; \ Bidh gach creutair ’n robh acaid ’s a’ Mhàrt \ Tighinn air éiginn o ’n bhàs no dol leis’ (p. 22). The poem ends, however, with a stark discussion about death: ‘Ciamar dh’éireas do ’n cholainn ’n robh ’m bòsd \ ’N uair a théid i ’s a’ bhòrdchiste dhlùth?’ (p. 24). Other subjects covered include whisky, in Caraid agus Namhaid an Uisge-Bheatha (pp. 28-43); the Highland dress, in Oran mu ’n eideadh Ghaidhealach (pp. 6-13); and emigration, in Oran do na Fogarraich (pp. 196-203).

In Oran mu ’n eideadh Ghaidhealach (pp. 6-13) and Oran do na Fogarraich (pp. 196-203), MacCodrum comments on the current state of Highland affairs. In Oran mu ’n eideadh Ghaidhealach (pp. 6-13), for example, he complains, ‘Nach doimheach dhuinn ar n-aodach \ Bhith air chaochladh cumadh, \ Chluinn sinn bhith ’g a dhìoladh \ Math dh’fhaoidt’ an Lunnuinn, \ Leis na fleasgaich bhòidheach \ Chluicheas mar na leómhainn, \ Chuireas geilt air Deòrsa \ ’S nach faod e fuireach. \ Théid Rìgh Deòrsa dhachaidh \ ’S am prionns’ òg a ghlacadh, \ Bidh Teàrlach ’n a rìgh, \ ’S gur feàirrde prìs a’ bhreacain’ (pp. 10-12). In Oran do na Fogarraich (pp. 196-203), MacCodrum comments on the emigrations which took place in Uist in the 1770s: ‘O’n as fheudar dhuibh seòladh, \ Is nach ann do ur deoin e, \ Do rìoghachd nach eòl duibh, \ Mar a thòisich ur càirdean; \ O nach fuiling iad beò sibh \ Ann an crìochaibh ur n-eòlais, \ ’S feàrr dhuibh falbh do ur deoin \ Na bhith fòdha mar thràillean’ (p. 196).

It is noticeable that none of MacCodrum’s extant songs are love songs, despite the fact that the bard was married three times. Neither are there any nature songs, with the exception of a few stanzas of Smeorach Chlann Dòmhnaill and perhaps a few stanzas of Oran na h-Oige (pp. 22-27). MacCodrum uses a wide range of metres, including strophic measures. See MacDhòmhnaill’s article in Gairm for further discussion on the merits of MacCodrum’s poetry.
Orthography MacCodrum’s medium is literary Gaelic. His lexicon is extensive and includes such interesting categories as piping terms and the vocabulary of praise and dispraise. Interesting terms include the loanwords pòghad ‘poet’ (p. 124) and bagaist or bagaids ‘baggage’ (p. 351), and the disguised compound craosgail, for craobh-sgaoil (p. 356).
The orthography of this volume is that of the mid-twentieth century, but the variant readings naturally preserve the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century spellings of their originals.
Edition First edition. The songs in this volume were reprinted in 1939, in an edition for university students entitled Orain Iain Mhic Fhearchair, which contained the 31 songs plus the Naigheachdan (with no translations), along with a Roimh-radh in Gaelic. The Sanas at the beginning of the book reads as follows: ‘Tha an leabhran so air a chur a mach le cead Comunn Litreachais na h-Alba araon a chum feum fhoghlumaichean òg anns na h-oilthighean agus do luchd-leughaidh air a’ Ghàidhealtachd leis am biodh The Songs of John MacCodrum tuilleadh is daor’. See Matheson’s Table of Sources (pp. xiv-xv) for details of the earliest published sources for each of the songs.
Other Sources
Further Reading MacDhòmhnaill, Dòmhnall Eàirdsidh, ‘Ath-sgrùdadh (8): Iain MacCodrum’, Gairm 129, 1984-85, pp. 76-90.
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