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Metadata for text 83
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Title Dain agus Orain Ghaidhlig le Mairi Nic-A-Phearsoin (Mairi, Nighean Iain Bhain), agus Cunntas Ghoirid air a’ Beatha le Alastair Mac-Bheathain, M.A.
Author Nic a’ Phearsain, Màiri
Editor Whyte, John
Date Of Edition 1891
Date Of Language 1850-1899
Publisher A. agus U. Mac-Coinnich
Place Published Inverness
Volume N/A
Location National, academic, and local (Highland) libraries
Link Digital version created by National Library of Scotland
Download File PDF / plain text 
Geographical Origins Skye
Register Literature, Prose and Verse
Alternative Author Name Màiri Mhòr nan Òran
Manuscript Or Edition Ed.
Size And Condition 18.7cm x 12.5cm
Short Title Màiri Mhòr nan Òran
Reference Details NLS: Blair.85; NLS: NE.731.c.33 (also available electronically).
Number Of Pages xiv, 320
Gaelic Text By N/A
Illustrator N/A
Social Context Mary MacPherson’s verse and song is of great importance for our understanding of the Gaelic world in the nineteenth century. Mary MacDonald was born in Skye (perhaps in Uig) around 1821, and experienced at first hand the social instability, especially population displacement and emigration, of the period before 1850. Her parents refused to move to Canada and instead spent the first twelve years of their married life in Glasgow. All their children were born there except for Mary and one brother, who were born after the family returned to Skye. Mary herself moved to Inverness about 1844, where she married Isaac MacPherson in 1847. Isaac was a journeyman shoemaker and chimney-sweep and he and Mary had 5 children who survived to adulthood.

Following Isaac’s sudden death in 1871, Mary found employment as a maid in a big house, apparently in Ness Bank. While employed there, she was accused of stealing her mistress’s clothes on the day of her funeral. She was subsequently tried and imprisoned, though she was apparently released early after the intervention of influential friends. Deeply shocked, she began to proclaim her innocence, doing so in song and verse.

Around 1872, Mary moved to Glasgow, where she trained as a nurse. She identified closely with the leaders of the developing Land Agitation, encouraging them in her songs and developing her radical political interests. She became a kenspeckle figure, on Lowland and Highland platforms, singing of her own experiences, the beauty of Skye, and the iniquity of Highland land laws. She was a regular visitor to Skye and retired there in 1882, when she was given a cottage rent-free by Lachlan MacDonald of Skeabost, the pro-crofter landlord of the estate. She died in 1898.

Mary MacPherson became popularly known as Màiri Mhòr nan Oran (Big Mary of the Songs). Her songs catered for different audiences, and were variously received by the more critical among them. She earned the displeasure of some, who claimed that the ‘mundane’ and ‘practical’ should not be elevated to the level of verse. By the early twentieth century, her popularity was decreasing. Even Alexander Nicolson, also from Skye, complained of her ‘glorified tourist guides’ to the island. However, Nicolson’s nephew, Sorley MacLean firmly redressed the balance in his papers ‘The Poetry of the Clearances’ and ‘Mairi Mhòr nan Òran’ (See Gillies (ed.), Ris a’ Bhruthaich, pp. 48-74 and 250-57.). Recognising Mary’s weaknesses, MacLean also identified her strengths as a ‘poet of the people’. The re-evaluation of MacPherson’s work reflected the rejection by educated Gaels of romanticism and ‘soft’ romantic poets (such as Neil MacLeod) after 1914-18, and particularly after 1930. MacPherson has now become something of an icon of Gaelic/Highland resurgence and recovery.
Contents This volume begins with An Clar-Innsidh, which lists the title and first line of each of the 90 songs included in this edition (pp. v-ix). There follows a short introduction in English, by Alexander MacBain, entitled Life of Mrs Mary MacPherson, The Skye Poetess (pp xi-xiv).

Dain agus Orain (pp. 1-320) comprises 90 of MacPherson’s poems and songs, on a wide variety of subjects. Some of these are preceded by short introductions in Gaelic (e.g. pp. 62, 65). Some of Mary’s best known songs appear early in the collection, but there is no systematic arrangement, either chronological or thematic. The prose passages are in the form of letters, purporting to have been written by Mary, which accompany certain of her compositions, e.g. her trip home on the Clansman (p. 191) and preparations for a New Year’s Day shinty match in Glasgow (p. 183). The latter tells how the ladies engaged in baking etc. for the occasion. Mary’s authorship of these pieces is in some doubt since she was not highly literate; but they may have been taken down by someone at the time.
Sources Mary’s compositions were written down by John Whyte in the twelve months before their publication, probably from Mary’s own recitation or dictation. Some of her songs had appeared previously in newspapers, on broadsheets, and in small pamphlets, but there is no convincing evidence that Whyte used these. Mary’s songs passed into oral tradition through her own singing, and oral variants of certain texts developed alongside the printed texts. Her songs were frequently set to older tunes, and her knowledge of the Gaelic song tradition was clearly immense.
Language The language of Mary’s songs and poems is basically contemporary Skye Gaelic, enriched by her deep familiarity with the language of the older Gaelic song tradition. She has a remarkable capacity for colourful and concise idioms and turns of phrase, and does not shrink from employing colloquial forms when required, especially in humorous or satirical songs. For that reason, her published verse sometimes preserves the first appearance in print of Skye colloquialisms. This irritated earlier critics, who conceived of poetic language as something elevated, removed from ordinary discourse.
Orthography This edition conforms to the Gaelic orthographic conventions of the late nineteenth century, and contains few errors.
Edition This collection does not include all of Mary MacPherson’s songs. One notable omission, amongst poems composed before 1891, is included in Meek 1998: see Further Editions below. Mary also composed some verse between 1891 and her death in 1898, and at least two such compositions were published in the Scottish Highlander. This volume contains virtually no editorial explanation of context or other annotation. The recovery of context was the rationale behind Meek’s editions of 1977 and 1998.

Further Editions

A selection from the 1891 edition, with three further songs, can be found in Dòmhnall Eachann Meek (ed.) Màiri Mhòr nan Oran: Taghadh de a h-Orain (Edinburgh 1998: Scottish Gaelic Texts Society). The three additional songs are numbers 34, 38 and 39 in this edition, in which Meek evaluates the various printed sources earlier than 1891, and their significance in charting Mary’s career.

Meek (1998) classifies MacPherson’s songs under 8 broad thematic headings as follows:

1. Her personal humiliation.
2. Gaelic and Highland politics in the mainland towns between 1874 and 1875.
3. Skye, and her own longing for the island.
4. The society and social activities of Gaels in the cities.
5. Friends and acquaintances, personal and political, in Skye and the mainland cities – eulogies, elegies and official commemorations/celebrations of different kinds.
6. Steamships and other modes of conveyance.
7. The Highland Land Agitation between 1878 and 1887 – perhaps the most important theme in her verse.
8. The changed and changing community of Gaels in Skye – attenuated by (e)migration etc.

In this edition Mary’s songs are grouped under thematic headings. Biographical information is provided, together with critical assessment. The thematic headings are introduced and discussed, and matters of interest in individual poems are dealt with in notes. This edition is a revised and extended version of Meek 1977.
Other Sources
Further Reading MacLean, S., Ris a’ Bhruthaich: The Criticism and Prose Writings of Sorley MacLean, ed. by William Gillies (Stornoway, 1985: Acair).
Meek, D.E., ed., Màiri Mhòr nan Oran: Taghadh de a h-Orain (Edinburgh, 1998: Scottish Gaelic Texts Society). (First edition: Glasgow, 1977: Gairm.)
Meek, D.E., ed., Tuath is Tighearna (Edinburgh, 1995: Scottish Gaelic Texts Society).
Meek, D.E., ed., Caran an t-Saoghail (Edinburgh, 2003: Birlinn).
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