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Metadata for text 125
No. words in text297154
Title Sar-Obair nam Bard Gaelach: or, the Beauties of Gaelic Poetry, and the Lives of the Highland Bards; with historical and Critical Notes, and a Comprehensive Glossary of Provincial Words
Author N/A (Edited work)
Editor MacKenzie, John
Date Of Edition 1841
Date Of Language Various
Publisher MacGregor, Polson, & Co.
Place Published Glasgow
Volume N/A
Location National, academic, and local (Inverness Reference) libraries.
Link Digital version created by National Library of Scotland
Download File PDF / plain text 
Geographical Origins Various
Register Literature, Verse
Alternative Author Name Iain Mac-Choinnich
Manuscript Or Edition Ed.
Size And Condition 23.2cm x 14.5cm
Short Title Sar-Obair
Reference Details EUL, Celtic Library: LI G MACK
Number Of Pages lxv, 376
Gaelic Text By N/A
Illustrator N/A
Social Context All the information and quotations in this section are from an article published in The Highland Echo on March 31st, 1877.

John MacKenzie was born in the parish of Gairloch on 17th July 1806. His father, Alexander (known locally as Alastair Og), ‘was tacksman of all the lands on the north side of Lochewe belonging to the lairds of Gairloch’. His mother, Margaret MacKenzie, was ‘daughter of the late Mr Mackenzie of Badachro, and grand-daughter of the late Rev. Mr Robertson, Lochbroom; by a daughter of Mackenzie, the proprietor of Letterewe’. Both of John MacKenzie’s parents were therefore of Gairloch stock. MacKenzie had always been interested in Gaelic and in Gaelic poetry, and while he was still young he developed a talent for making musical instruments. He made a fiddle and a set of bagpipes, both of which he played very well. He played a number of other instruments, including the flute, and he also ‘collected and wrote down several popular Highland airs, as yet unpublished, but of which the manuscript is still extant.’

With regard to Sar-Obair nam Bard Gaelach, MacKenzie’s best known work, the Echo reports that ‘It was while collecting the poems of William Ross that the idea first occurred to him of publishing this grand work, which he determined should contain the best specimens of all the best poetry extant in his native language, from Ossian down to his own time, with biographical notices of the Gaelic bards written in English.’ His first edition of William Ross’s poems was published in 1830 and a second edition was published in 1834. Sar-Obair was around twelve years in the making, during which time MacKenzie travelled throughout the Highlands, collecting material for this volume and collecting subscriptions for this and for other publications. MacKenzie had begun working as a book-keeper in the printing office at Glasgow University in 1836, and he found that he was unable, ‘financially and otherwise’, to publish the collection himself. He eventually ‘disposed of the copyright, for a mere trifle, to Macgregor, Polson & Co., at that time publishers in Glasgow; at the same time he engaged to superintend the work while going through the press. This work required such attention and constant application that his constitution, never very robust, was thereby undermined to an extent from which it never recovered’.

In addition to this volume, MacKenzie published Eachdraidh a’ Phrionnsa (Text 121) in 1844. The Echo notes that ‘The publication of “The Beauties” [i.e. Sar-Obair] and of “The History of Prince Charles” [i.e. Eachdraidh a’ Phrionnsa] secured John Mackenzie considerable fame in literary circles; and he soon after obtained an engagement from Messrs Maclachlan & Stewart, Edinburgh, at what would now be considered, even in a Celtic literary engagement, starvation wages, namely, one pound per week. While thus employed he produced work for which the Celtic admirers of John Bunyan, and other eminent English divines, give John Mackenzie but little credit. But this is probably because the mass of his countrymen are quite ignorant of what they owe to him. He translated into Gaelic, Baxter’s “Call to the Unconverted”; Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”; Bunyan’s “Come and Welcome”; his “World to Come”; his “Grace Abounding” … [Mackenzie’s] “Aosdána,” or a selection of the most popular Gaelic Jacobite songs, appeared in 1844. … Another collection of his is the “Cruiteara,” or Gaelic Melodists, being a collection of the most popular Highland love songs. He is also the author of the English-Gaelic part of the dictionary known as “MacAlpine’s.” He produced an en-larged edition of Duncan Ban Macintyre’s poems, and various other works. In all, he composed, edited, or translated above thirty different publications. His last completed work was “MacAlpine’s Dictionary,” but in 1847 he issued a prospectus for a new and greatly enlarged edition of “The Beauties,” which was to have been published by subscription by Maclachlan & Stewart, Edinburgh, and sold to subscribers at 10s. It was “to comprise the work of forty-six provincial bards, with an Appendix, containing a general collection of songs, original and select, composed by private gentlemen, who invoked the muse only on particular occasions, or under the impulse of strong feeling excited by extraordinary events.”’

More information about MacKenzie’s life and work can be found in two articles, published in An Gaidheal, in December 1934 and August 1948. John MacKenzie returned home in 1848, with his health failing. He died in August of that year, and was buried in the old cemetery at Gairloch (An Gaidheal, 1948).
Contents This volume begins with a Preface (pp. iii*-viii*) by John MacKenzie, dated April 1, 1841. Referring to the collection’s English title, MacKenzie informs us that while ‘it is not to be expected that every line, or stanza, or even poem, of the Collection, could be of itself beautiful … in instances where poems may not be so brilliant in poetical genius or grandeur, they will be found to throw a stream of light on many of the manners and customs of our ancestors’ (p. iii*). MacKenzie goes on to tell us about the inspiration behind this collection, and makes a number of points about the orthography used in this volume (see Language below). He informs us of the difficulties he encountered while collecting information on the lives of the bards, noting that the opinions expressed in these sections are his own, and are open to question. He also points out that the poets, and, within each poet’s works, the individual poems, have been arranged chronologically. MacKenzie acknowledges the help of his subscribers and apologises for any errors that remain in the book.

There follows an Introduction (pp. iii-lxi) in English by James Logan, being ‘An Historical Introduction Containing an Account of the Manners, Habits, &c., of the Ancient Caledonians’ (Title Page). This is followed by An Clar-Innsidh (pp. lxiii-lxv).

The body of Sar-Obair nam Bard Gaelach (pp. 1-376) contains poems by 36 named poets and a section entitled Aireamh Taghta de Shar-Obair nam Bard Gaelach, being a collection of twelve poems by un-named poets. Named poets include Donnachadh Ban, Ailean Dall, Rob Donn, Iain Mac Codruim (Iain Mac Fhearchair), Silis Nighean Mhic Raonaill (Sìleas na Ceapaich), Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, Uilleam Ros, and Iain Lom. Some poets have only one poem, e.g. ‘Am Bard Aosda’ with Miann a Bhàird Aosda (pp. 14-16), while others, such as Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, have many. There are over 250 poems in total. The text includes English introductions outlining the lives and work of most of the poets. There are notes and footnotes throughout the text containing information about the subject-matter of the poems and the vocabulary used in them.

This volume ends with a Glossary (pp. 375-76) of what appear on the Title-page as ‘provincial words’.
Language This text contains poetry on a wide variety of topics, including clanship, war, praise, elegy, love, nature, satire, and religion. The first two poems, Mordubh and Collath, are Ossianic. The next to appear is Miann a’ Bhaird Aosda, whose position implies that it too was considered to be an ancient composition. It is followed by a version of Domhnall mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dàn’s Òran na Comhachaig, which has a genuine claim to belong to the sixteenth century. The first poet to whom a number of poems are attributed is Màiri nighean Alastair Ruaidh, whose long life spanned most of the seventeenth century.

The majority of the poems in this volume cover the themes of warfare, kin-based society and political events, mostly dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Examples include Iain Lom’s Mort na Ceapaich (pp. 36-37), Oran air Crunadh Righ Tearlach II (pp. 39-40), Latha Inbhir-Lochaidh (pp. 41-42), and Latha Thom-a-Phubaill (pp. 42-43); Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s Oran nam Fineachan Gaelach (pp. 113-14), and Oran do Phrionnsa Tearlach (pp. 123-24); Rob Donn’s Oran do Phrionnsa Tearlach (p. 189) and Oran nan Casagan Dubha (pp. 189-90); Donnchadh Ban’s Oran do Bhlar na h-Eaglaise Brice (pp. 219-20), Oran Do’n t-Seann Fhreiceadan Ghaelach (pp. 235-36), and Oran na Briogsa (pp. 247-48); Iain Ruadh Stiubhart’s Latha Chuilodair (pp. 265-66); Ailean Dall’s Oran do na Ciobairean (pp. 302-03); Bard Loch-nan-Eala’s Oran do Bhoinipart (pp. 313-14); Alasdair Mac-Ionmhuin’s Oran air Blar na h-Eiphit (pp. 342-44) and Oran air Blar na h-Olaind (pp. 345-46); Am Bard Conanach’s Oran do Bhonipart (pp. 348-50); and Am Bard Sgiathanach’s Oran do Reiseamaid Mhic-Shimidh (pp. 352-53), which begins ‘An am ùracha’ fhacail domh, \ ’S cunntas thoirt seachad, \ Air cliuteachadh fhasain \ Nan gaisgeach tha ’n tràthsa \ Air tiunndaidh a steach oirn, \ Gu lù-chleasach, aigeantach, \ Lùbht’ [sic, for lùbt’] ann am breacain, \ ’S pais[g]te ann an sgàrlaid; \ Is cliùteach a bhratach, \ T[r]o’n cunntar air faiche sibh, \ Thoir leam nach bu chaidribh, \ Ur tachaird le dàmhair; \ Is dlù dha na chasas riubh \ Tiunndadh le masladh, \ Na’n uine bhi paisgte, \ Fo’r casan sa’n aràich’ (p. 352).

A number of the poems are concerned with Highland dress, e.g. Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s Am Breacan Uallach (pp. 129-30), Donnchadh Ban’s Oran Do’n Eideadh Ghaelach (pp. 248-49), and Coinneach Mac-Choinnich’s Am Feile Preasach (pp. 272-73), which begins ‘B’ annsa leam am féile cuaich, \ Na casag de ’n aodach luaight’, \ ’S brigis nan ceannglaichean cruaidh, \ Gur e’n droch-uair a thogainn dh’i’ (p. 272).

There are also a large number of elegies and laments, including Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh’s Cumha do Mhac-Leoid (pp. 24-25) and Marbh-rann do dh-Fhear na Comraich (pp. 26-27); Iain Lom’s Marbhrann do dh’ Alasdair Dubh Ghlinne-garaidh (pp. 49-50); An Ciaran Mabach’s Marbhrann do Shir Seumas MacDhonuill (pp. 54-56); Niall Mac-Mhuirich’s Marbh-rann Mhic-’Ic-Ailein (pp. 66-67); An Clarsair Dall’s Cumha do dh-Fhear Thalasgair (p. 93); Donnchadh Ban’s Cumha’ Chailein (pp. 243-45); Eobhon Mac-Lachuinn’s Marbh-rann do Mr Seumas Beattie (pp. 335-36); and a number of elegies by Rob Donn (e.g. pp. 211-15). There are one or two praise poems, such as An t-Aosdana Mac-Mhathain’s Oran Do’n Iarla Thuathach (pp. 75-76), which begins ‘Deoch slainte ’n Iarla thuathaich, \ A thriall an de thar chuaintean bhuain, \ Le sgioba laidir luasganach, \ Nach pilleadh càs na fuathas iad, \ Muir gàireach air gach guallainn dh’i; \ Air clar do lùinge luaithe, \ G[h]abh mi cead dhiot is fhuair mi ’n t-òr. \\ Gu’n cumadh Dia bho bhaoghal thu, \ Bho charraid cuain ’s bho chaolasan, \ Bho charraig fhuair gun chaomhalachd, \ Seachd beannachd tuath is daonachd dhut, \ Buaidh làrach ri do shaoghail [sic] ort, \ Fhir ghaoil ga t-fhaicinn beò’ (p. 75).

There are a number of poems in praise of place, such as Donnchadh Ban’s Moladh Dhun-eideann (pp. 237-38) and Uilleam Ros’s Moladh a Bhaird air a thir Fein, or Moladh Gheàrrloch (pp. 286-87). There are also a large number of nature poems, e.g. Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s Oran an t-Samhraidh (pp. 110-11), Oran a Gheamhraidh (pp. 111-13), and Allt-an-t-Siucair (pp. 117-20); Eachunn Mac-Leoid’s Moladh do Choileach Smeoraich (pp. 159-60) and Moladh Eas Mor-Thir (p. 160); Rob Donn’s Oran a’ Gheamhraidh (p. 200-01); Donnchadh Ban’s Moladh Beinn-Dorain (pp. 221-25), Coire-Cheathaich (pp. 225-26), and Oran an t-Samhraidh (pp. 245-47); Uilleam Ros’s Oran an t-Samhraidh (pp. 280-81); and Eobhon Mac-Lachuinn’s An Samhradh (pp. 328-29), Am Foghar (pp. 329-31), An Geamhradh (pp. 331-33), and An t-Earrach (pp. 333-35), which begins ‘Thainig Earrach oirn m’ an cuairt, \ Theid am fuachd fo fhuadach cian, \ Theid air imrich thar a chuan \ Geamhradh buaireasach nan sian: \ Ràithe sneachdach, reotach, cruaidh, \ A dh’ atas colg nan luath-ghaoth dian, \ Sligneach, deilgneach, feanntaidh, fuar, \ A lom, ’sa dh’ aognaich snuadh gach ni’ (p. 333).

There are a number of love poems, such as Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s Moladh Moraig (pp. 106-111); Rob Donn’s ’S Trom Leam an Airidh (pp. 201-02); Donnchadh Ban’s Oran Gaoil (pp. 230-31) and Oran d’ a Cheile Nuadh-Posda (p. 232); Coinneach Mac-Choinnich’s Mairearad Mholach Mhin (p. 273) and An Te Dhubh (p. 274); Uilleam Ros’s Feasgar Luain (pp. 285-86) and Oran Cumhaidh (pp. 295-97); and Ailean Dall’s Oran Leannanachd (pp. 303-04).

There are also a few religious poems in this text, such as Dughall Bochannan’s Latha’ Bhreitheanais (pp. 170-75) and An Claigeann (pp. 175-78); Daibhidh Mac-Ealair’s Laoidh Mhic-Ealair (pp. 181-83); Donnchadh Ban’s Marbh-Rann an Ughdair, Dha Fein (p. 259); and Seumas Mac-Ghriogair’s An Soisgeul (pp. 317-18) and An Aiseirigh (pp. 320-21), which begins ‘Thig am bàs oirn mu’n cuairt, \ ’S ceart gu ’n laidhinn ’s an uaigh, \ Ach cha téid mi le gruaim ’na còir: \ Oir bha Iosa mo rùin, \ Greis ’na laidhe ’s an ùir, \ ’S rinn e’n leabaidh ud cùbhraidh dhòmhs’’ (p. 320).

A number of poems are concerned with drink and drinking, e.g. John MacCodrum’s Comhradh Eadar Caraid agus Namhaid an Uisge-bheatha (pp. 146-48); Donnchadh Ban’s Oran a Bhotail (p. 249) and Oran a Bhranndai (p. 250); Uilleam Ros’s Moladh an Uisge-Bheatha (pp. 288-89); and Ailean Dall’s Duanag do ’n Uisge-Bheatha (p. 304) and Oran do ’n Mhisg (p. 305).

There are a number of poems on other subjects, including local happenings. Examples include Lachunn Mac Thearlaich’s Curam nam Bantraichean (p. 84); Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s Moladh air an t-Seana Chanain Ghaelach (pp. 105-06); John MacCodrum’s Oran Do’n Teasaich (pp. 156-57) and Oran na h-Aoise (pp. 157-58); some of Gilleaspuig na Ciotaig’s poems, e.g. Oran Cnaideil (pp. 165-66); Rob Donn’s Turus Dhaibhi’ do dh’ Arcamh (pp. 210-11), and Fear Srath-Mhaisidh’s A Bhanais Bhan (pp. 262-63). Also of interest is Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s Beannacha Luinge, or Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill (pp. 136-42).

There are also a number of satires, most notably Donnchadh Ban’s Aoir an Taileir (pp. 253-54), Aoir Anna (pp. 254-55), Aoir Uisdean Phiobair’ (pp. 255-56) and Aoir Iain Faochaigh [sic, for Faochaig] (pp. 256-57); and Uilleam Ros’s An Ladie Dubh (pp. 291-92).

This volume contains a wide variety of themes, and of linguistic and stylistic types. Many of the poems are richly descriptive (particularly the nature poems), while some record people’s attitudes towards contemporary events and issues. There are footnotes scattered throughout the text which explain obscure words and references. For example, a footnote on p. 48 explains the meaning of do chrois-tàra (p. 48), and on p. 202 we are told that Gu robh é-san fo staint means E bhi cheana pòsd’ (p. 202). The Glossary (pp. 375-76) gives the meaning of a number of words and phrases, such as ‘Baile-na-buirbhe, Bergen, the former capital of Norway’, ‘Caluman-codhail, a God-send, a propitious omen’, ‘Deoch-thunta, decanted drink’, and ‘Tuirneileas, a striking of heads against each other as rams, contact, collision’.
Orthography The orthography is basically that of the mid nineteenth century, but the editor has introduced certain innovations of his own. In the Preface (see especially p. v*), MacKenzie tells us about his systematic changes. He claims to have recognised certain dialectal features, notably the eu/ia split in such words as eun/ian. On the other hand, ‘the difference of termination in the nominative plural of nouns ending in a, and the dative in aibh, has been done away with.’ In Mackenzie’s view, these ‘do not belong to Scottish Gaëlic’. His solution is to make both nominative plurals and dative plurals end in -(e)an, ‘except where, for the sake of harmony, their retention, in the vulgar terminations, has been indispensable.’ He further declares that he has ‘thrown out the Irish words fuidh, luidhe, tigh, and dhoibh, and supplied their place by the correct Gaëlic synonymies fo, laidhe, taigh, and dhaibh’, which he claims are ‘consonant with the orthoepy in every part of the Highlands’. He has also chosen to render the second person singular possessive adjective before a vowel as t’ rather than d’. He concludes this section by claiming, somewhat disingenuously, that ‘With these slight innovations, if such they can be called, the orthography throughout will be found to accord with the recognised standards’.
Edition First edition. Subsequent editions were published in 1863, 1865, 1872, 1877, 1882, 1904, 1907, and 2001. The 1863 edition was published in Canada and contained a few additional poems. The 1865 and subsequent editions, published in Scotland, contained a different set of additional poems. (For details see Maclean, Typographia, pp. 247-49.) Many of the poems in this volume, e.g. those by Rob Donn, Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, Ailean Dall, and Donnchadh Bàn, can be found in earlier MS sources and printed collections. Editors should use the most authoritative version of each poem, generally the earliest, wherever possible.
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