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Metadata for text 187
No. words in text32943
Title Gaelic Songs of Mary MacLeod, edited with Introduction, Translation, Notes, etc.
Author MacLeod, Mary
Editor Watson, J. Carmichael
Date Of Edition 1934
Date Of Language 17th c.
Publisher Blackie & Son
Place Published London and Glasgow
Volume N/A
Location National, academic, and local libraries
Link Digital version created by National Library of Scotland
Download File PDF / plain text 
Geographical Origins Harris
Register Literature, Verse
Alternative Author Name Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh
Manuscript Or Edition Ed.
Size And Condition 18cm x 12.5cm
Short Title Gaelic Songs of Mary MacLeod
Reference Details Faclair Library
Number Of Pages xxxiv, 158
Gaelic Text By N/A
Illustrator N/A
Social Context Little concrete evidence exists about Mary MacLeod’s life. It seems that she was born in Rodel in Harris, and was the daughter of Alexander MacLeod, the son of Alasdair Ruadh, who was a descendant of the MacLeod chief. At some point, she became employed at Dunvegan as a nurse. Watson notes that ‘With that house she was ever more closely and more honourably associated throughout the chiefship of Iain Mór (Sir Roderick Mór’s son and successor), Roderick (Iain’s son), Iain Breac (Roderick’s brother), Roderick (Iain Breac’s son), and Norman (Roderick’s brother); more even than to any of these she was passionately devoted to Sir Norman MacLeod of Bernera in Harris, the third son of Roderick Mór’ (p. xiv). Her exact position in the household is unknown, but it might be assumed to have been somewhat privileged, partly because of her noble ancestry, and also because of her poetic skill.

At some point, Mary MacLeod was exiled for a period of time, and it is possible that this occurred with the succession of Roderick to the headship of the clan in 1693, as the seventeenth chief. He died in 1699, and she may have been recalled to Dunvegan at that point. In exile, it seems likely that MacLeod travelled somewhat, spending time in Scarba, Pabbay, and latterly Mull. Tradition holds that she lived to an old age, although the date of her death is unknown, and it was said that by then she was very fond of whisky and snuff. MacLeod could neither read nor write, but she is one of the first untrained poets that we know to have composed eulogy and elegy in vernacular Gaelic, and to have used the so-called strophic metres.

Authorship of the Waulking Songs
The majority of the songs attributed to MacLeod are elegies or eulogies. However, this volume also contains four waulking songs: Posadh Mhic Leoid (pp. 2-11), Mairearad nan Cuireid (pp. 12-15), Tuireadh (pp. 32-35), and An t-Eudach (pp. 50-53). The versions of these songs that are published in this edition were taken from D. C. MacPherson’s 1868 publication, An Dunaire (Text 104), and they do not appear in any of Watson’s other sources. With regard to the type of composition, Campbell notes that ‘It is easy to accept the possibility, even the probability, that Mary MacLeod composed songs of the waulking song type’ (Campbell, p. 171). However, although each of these songs has been attributed to MacLeod, there is no concrete evidence to support this.

Posadh Mhic Leoid
In the Notes to this volume, Watson explains that much of the song Posadh Mhic Leoid was probably not composed by MacLeod. Campbell goes further, explaining that a recently discovered notebook of MacPherson’s shows that he compiled the song for publication from the recitation of three different songs (Campbell, p. 174). He also states that the only evidence for it having been composed by MacLeod, is MacPherson’s assertion to that effect in his Duanaire. Campbell suggests that part of the song published by MacPherson as Posadh Mhic Leoid is a version of Tolmie’s Òran Arabhaig, and that MacPherson combined it with two other songs that he had collected in Lochaber. For some reason, he attributed this new version to MacLeod. In Campbell’s opinion, this song should not be included in any further editions of MacLeod’s poetry.

Mairearad nan Cuireid, Tuireadh, and An t-Eudach
The three other waulking songs all appear in later editions, including K. C. Craig’s Orain Luaidh Màiri nighean Alasdair (1949). The authoritative versions of each of these songs has not yet been determined. Campbell notes, however, that ‘there is no good reason for giving D. C. MacPherson’s versions permanent authoratitive status’ (p. 191), and that ‘better versions’ (p. 189), or at least longer versions, of two of the waulking songs can be found in Craig’s edition. Indeed, Campbell states that all four of the waulking songs published in this volume, which were taken from An Duanaire, were ‘touched up for publication’ by MacPherson (pp. 189-91). Campbell suggests that these three waulking songs be placed in an Appendix in any further edition of MacLeod’s poetry, as their ‘original form and content and their authorship are so uncertain’ (Campbell, p. 191). He further notes that there are additional songs, overlooked by Watson, that have been ascribed to MacLeod, such as Siuthadaibh, siuthadaibh, a mhnathan and A liubhan, a leòbhan, which could at least be included in an Appendix.
Contents This volume begins with a Preface by the editor (pp. vii-viii) and a table of Contents (pp. ix-x). The Introduction (pp. xi-xxiv) discusses what we know of Mary’s life, and introduces her poetry. With regard to source material, we find sections entitled Notes on the Sources (p. xxx), a Table of Sources of the Text (p. xxxi), Notes on the MacLagan MSS. (pp. xxii-xxxiii), and Notes on the Nat. Lib. MS (p. xxxiv).

The 16 songs attributed to MacLeod are presented on pp. 2-99 with Gaelic and English on facing pages. Pp. 100-101 contain the lament for Iain Garbh of Raasay, beginning Och nan och ’s mi fo léireadh, which is ascribed to Mary MacLeod in the book Còisir a’ Mhòid. Watson does not think it was her composition, however, and Raasay tradition attributes the song to Iain Garbh’s sister. Pp. 102-07 contain an anonymous elegy on Sir Norman MacLeod, written in Classical Gaelic, Marbhrainn sior Tormóid Mic Leoid. The editor explains that it is included ‘as a specimen of classic poetry for comparison with the style of Mary MacLeod’s composition on the same theme’ (pp 102-03). There follows a section containing Notes on subject matter and the interpretation of the text (pp. 109-42), and a section of Notes on the Metres (pp. 142-44). We are then given a list of Relevant Dates (pp. 145-46), and a Vocabulary (pp. 147-55) which gives the English meaning of each word, and the number of the line in which it appears in the text. The volume ends with an Index of Persons and Places in the Text (pp. 157-58).
Sources See Notes on the Sources (p. xxx), Table of Sources of the Text (p. xxxi), Notes on the MacLagan MSS. (pp. xxii-xxxiii), and Notes on the Nat. Lib. MS (p. xxxiv). The earliest sources for MacLeod’s poetry are named as the Eigg Collection (1776, text170), the McLagan MSS, the MacNicol MS, A. and D. Stewart’s Collection (1804), Turner’s Collection (1813, Text 141), and An Duanaire (1868, Text 104). Versions of a number of these songs appear in later editions. The authoritative versions of each of these songs has not yet been determined. See Authorship of the Waulking Songs above.
Language Most, if not all of the songs in this volume contain some element of praise. Watson judges in the Introduction that ‘Of her sixteen surviving pieces four are slight; the remaining twelve are without exception laments for or panegyrics upon distinguished members of great houses’ (p. xx). The elegies include Marbhrann do Fhear na Comraich (pp. 14-20), Marbhrann do Iain Garbh (pp. 26-31), Marbhrann do Shir Tormod (pp. 88-95), and Cumha do Shir Tormod (pp. 96-99). A variation of this last song is given on pp. 141-42, as collected by Frances Tolmie. The panegyrics include Luinneag Mhic Leoid (pp. 36-43), Do Mhac Dhomhnaill (pp. 76-81), and Oran do Iain Mac Shir Tormoid (pp. 82-87).

Watson claims, in the Introduction, that the ‘spirit and atmosphere of Mary MacLeod’s panegyric is on the whole that of the classic poetry’ (p. xxi), and her elegies and eulogies certainly make use of a number of panegyric motifs. An Talla am bu Ghnàth le Mac Leoid (pp. 20-25) is one of Mary MacLeod’s best known songs. It is an elegy on Sir Norman MacLeod, and tradition holds that it was composed not after his death, but while he had an illness from which he recovered. In this song, the poetess praises MacLeod’s hospitality and generosity, e.g. ‘Tigh mór macnasach meadhrach \ Nam macaomh ’s nam maighdean, \ Far am bu tartarach gleadhraich nan còrn’ (p. 20); his manner, e.g. ‘Fhuair thu teist is deagh urram \ Ann am freasdal gach duine, \ Air dheiseachd ’s air uirghioll beoil’ (p. 22); and his hunting skills, e.g. ‘Is i do làmh nach robh tuisleach \ Dhol a chaitheamh a’ chuspair \ Le do bhogha cruaidh ruiteach deagh-neoil’ (p. 22).

In a number of songs, MacLeod catalogues her subject’s allies amongst other clans, e.g. ‘Aig lìonmhorachd do chàirdeis riu \ Cha sgrìobhar iad air phaipearan; \ Bidh Frisealaich, bidh Granndaich leat, \ Bidh Rothaich a thaobh nàduir leat \ Nan cumadh iad an àbhaist riut \ ’Gad chur ’san àite an còir dhuit’ (p. 80). The subject’s ancestry is also frequently praised, e.g. ‘Bha leth do shloinnidh \ Ri sìol Cholla \ Nan cìos troma \ Is nam pìos soilleir, \ Bho chóigeamh Chonnacht: \ Bu lìonmhor do loingeas bréidgheal’ (p. 94), and the ancestral figure Olghar is mentioned on a number of occasions, e.g. Sir Tormod mo rùin, \ Olgharach thù, \ Foirmeil o thùs t’àbhaist (p. 44) and De shliochd Olghair nan lann (p. 66).

Cumha do Mhac Leoid (pp. 52-59) is an elegy composed after the death of Roderick (son of Iain Breac), the seventeenth chief, and his brother Norman, who was also presumed to have died at that time. MacLeod expressed her joy on hearing that Norman was still alive in An Crònan (pp. 60-71). In these two songs, MacLeod praises Norman, and praises both Norman’s and Roderick’s ancestry, but of Roderick himself they say very little, thereby hinting at her feelings in regard to both his own character and his abandonment of some of the traditional roles of the chief. We hear, for example, ‘Is e m’aiteas gu dearbh \ Gun glacar grad shealbh \ An grunnd farsaing nan sealg \ Is an caisteal nan arm \ Leis a’ mhacaomh d’an ainm Tormod’ (p. 62).

In addition to the panegyric motifs, however, there is a distinctly personal element in MacLeod’s poetry, which was much less pronounced in the poetry of the classical bards. For example, in Marbhrann do Shir Tormod (pp. 88-95), we find ‘Is trom an cudthrom so dhrùidh, \ Dh’fhàg mo chuislein gun lùth, \ Is tric snighe mo shùl \ A’ tuiteam gu dlùth, \ Chaill mi iuchair mo chùil: \ An cuideachd luchd-ciuil cha téid mi’ (p. 88). Tuireadh (pp. 32-35) and Crònan an Taibh (pp. 44-49) were composed while MacLeod was in exile. In the first song in particular she shows her longing to return to Skye, and expresses her sadness at being exiled: ‘Is muladach mì \ O cheann seachdain, \ Is mi an eilean gun \ Fhiar gun fhasgadh. \ Ma dh’fhaodas mi \ Théid mi dhachaidh; \ Nì mi an t-iomramh \ Mar as fhasa’ (p. 32)

The four songs that are not elegies or eulogies are Posadh Mhic Leoid (pp. 2-11), Mairearad nan Cuireid (pp. 12-15), the aforementioned Tuireadh (pp. 32-35), and An t-Eudach (pp. 50-53). The first two songs belong to the flyting element which surfaces in the waulking-song tradition. In the second, MacLeod addresses Mairearad nan Cuireid stating ‘Gum faighte an tigh m’athar-s’ \ Sitheann ’s cnàimhean an fhéidh: \ Is gheibhte an tigh t’athar-s’ \ Sùgh is cnàimhean an éisg’ (p. 12).
Orthography The orthography has been modernised for this edition, and conforms to mid-twentieth-century standards. Watson states in the Preface that ‘the spelling conforms to correct modern standards, and … the apostrophe has been kept strictly in control’ (p. vii). Footnotes throughout the text give variant readings from other sources.
Edition First edition. Editors should use the earliest sources of each of the poems, where possible. See Table of Sources of the Text (p. xxxi) and Sources above.
Other Sources
Further Reading Campbell, J. L., ‘Notes on the Poems ascribed to Mary MacLeod in D. C. MacPherson’s Duanaire’, SGS, 11 (1968), 171-91.
MacInnes, John, ‘Gaelic Songs of Mary MacLeod’, SGS, 11 (1966), 2-25.
Matheson, W., ‘Notes on Mary MacLeod’, TGSI, 41 (1951-52), 11-25.
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