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Metadata for text 154
No. words in text26114
Title Òrain Ghàëlach
Author Rŏs, Uilleam
Editor Mac-Coinnich, Iain
Date Of Edition 1834
Date Of Language 18th c.
Publisher John Reid & Co. (Glasgow), Oliver & Boyd (Edinburgh), Whittaker, Arnott & Co. (London)
Place Published Glasgow, Edinburgh and London
Volume N/A
Location National and academic libraries
Link Digital version created by National Library of Scotland
Download File PDF / plain text 
Geographical Origins Various
Register Literature, Verse
Alternative Author Name William Ross
Manuscript Or Edition Ed.
Size And Condition 19.2cm x 12cm
Short Title Orain Ghàëlach
Reference Details NLS: H.M.52
Number Of Pages xii + 199
Gaelic Text By N/A
Illustrator N/A
Social Context According to John Mackenzie, who is the source of almost all that has been written about the poet, William Ross was born in Broadford, in Skye, in 1762. His father was from Skye, and his mother was from Gairloch, the daughter of John Mackay (Am Pìobaire Dall). As a boy, William’s parents were keen to give him the best education possible, and so they moved to Forres, where William attended the Grammar School. William was found to be an excellent student, and he excelled particularly in Latin and Greek. After some years, William’s parents moved to Gairloch, and his father became a pedlar. He travelled throughout the Western Isles, and William is said to have accompanied him with the purpose of learning more about the Gaelic language and its dialects. According to his editor, John Mackenzie (p. vi), he frequently commented afterwards that ‘he found the most pure and genuine dialect of the language among the inhabitants of the west side of the Island of Lewis’. He later travelled through Perthshire, Breadalbane, Argyll, and the Lowlands. He composed a number of songs during this time, some of which are now lost.

On his return to Gairloch, at the age of 24, Ross was appointed schoolmaster of the parish school, and he was soon found to be as good a teacher as he was a student. According to Mackenzie (p. viii), Ross was an extremely personable young man, and that he was well liked, not only for his songs, but for his ‘general intelligence and happy turn of humour’. He had a good voice, and was fond of other poets’ songs, and he was also skilled on a number of different instruments, including the violin and the flute. While schoolmaster, he was also the precentor in the parish church. Mackenzie further claims that ‘in the course of his travels, and while schoolmaster of Gairloch, he contracted an intimacy with several respectable families, many of whom afforded him testimonies of friendship and esteem’ (ibid.). According to George Calder (1937, p. xxvi), there was a tradition that while in Gairloch, Ross often visited Loch Broom, and ‘celebrated in song some fair one of his acquaintance there’. In regard to his personal appearance, ‘Ross was tall and handsome, being nearly six feet high. His hair was of a dark brown colour, and his face had the peculiarly open and regular features which mark the sons of the mountains; and, unlike the general tribe of poets, he was exceedingly finical and particular in his dress’ (Mackenzie, p. ix).

On a visit to Stornoway, Ross made the acquaintance of Miss Marion Ross, and fell in love. She rejected his advances however, and ‘the disappointment consequent on this unfortunate love affair, was thought to have preyed so much on his mind, as to have impaired his health and constitution during the subsequent period of his life’ (Mackenzie, p. x). Marion Ross later married a ship’s captain named Samuel Clough, and eventually moved with him to Liverpool. In Calder’s romanticised account of their relationship, it is suggested that Marion did love Ross, but that, in the end, she chose life in a city over the rural life. Calder adds: ‘It is generally believed that when her husband was away on a long voyage she wrote to Gairloch suggesting that Ross should meet her; and, preposterous as the suggestion was, he fell in with it, and undertook the long and toilsome journey, till he reached Stirling’. At this point, Ross came to his senses and returned home, broken-hearted once more. Calder further claims that Ross destroyed some of his poetry at this time, and that this resulted in the loss of some of his greatest works (Calder 1937, pp. xxvi-xxvii).

Ross did not enjoy the best of health during his lifetime, and his health declined while he was schoolmaster in Gairloch. He died in 1790, at the age of only 28, having reputedly suffered from asthma and consumption. His funeral was extremely well attended and he was buried in Gairloch. A memorial was later erected in the churchyard in Gairloch, with English and Gaelic inscriptions.

The editor of this volume John Mackenzie, was the editor of Sar-Obair nam Bard Gaelach (1841, Text 125) and the author of Eachdraidh a’ Phrionnsa (Text 121).
Contents This volume opens with the editor’s Preface (pp. iii-iv), in which it is claimed that before the first edition, Ross’s songs survived only in the oral tradition. His intention when publishing the first edition (in 1830) had been to preserve these songs and save them from oblivion. Since the first edition had sold out within a year, he had been encouraged to bring out a second edition. To this he had added two additional poems by Ross, and three songs by Ross’s maternal grandfather, John Mackay. In fact, despite Mackenzie’s claims, a number of Ross’s songs had appeared in print in A. and D. Stewart’s Comhchruinneacha Taoghta (1804), as had two of John Mackay’s songs (see Edition below).

There follows A Short Memoir of the Life of William Ross also by John Mackenzie (pp. v-x). Much the same material re-appears as the introduction to William Ross’s poems in Sar-Obair (pp. 276-79). The introductory section of this volume is concluded by An Clar-Innseadh (pp. xi-xii).

Òrain Ghaëlach (pp. 13-178) comprises 33 poems by Ross. This is followed by a section entitled Ath-Leasachadh (pp. 179-99), anns am beil trì dain le Iain Mac-Aoidh, am Pìobaire Dall, Seanair an Ùdair. These were also published in Sar-Obair, preceded by a short introduction to John Mackay’s life and work as a poet.
Language The songs in this volume deal with love, nature, praise, humorous and light-hearted verse, and social commentary on conditions in the Highlands in the 1780s. Ross’s poetry is literary, but not in the way that Mac Mhaighstir Alastair’s and Donnchadh Bàn’s is. Derick Thomson, in his assessment of Feasgar Luain (i.e. Òran Gaoil in the present volume, pp. 62-67), writes that it is ‘carefully ordered, rather formal in its images and its progression, and [it] has time and inclination to nod courteously in the direction of … formal literary traditions, both Classical and native’ (1993, p. 213). The following verse may serve as an example of Ross’s literary style: ‘’S tearc an sgeula sunnailt t-èugaisg \ Bhi ri fheatainn san Roinn-Eōrp, \ Tha mais’, a’s feile, tlachd, a’s cèutaidh, \ Nach facas leam fein fa m’ chòir, \ Gach cliù a’ fàs riut a’ muirn, ’s an aillteachd, \ An sugradh, ’s am manran beoil, \ ’S gach buaidh a b’ailli, bh’ air Diana, \ Gu leir mar fhagail, tha aig Mòir’ (p. 64). Tokens of Ross’s Classical education can be seen in a number of his songs, e.g. in his reference to Phoebus in Oran an t-Samhraidh (pp. 28-33). It is recognised that some of the songs attributed to Ross, such as Brughaichean Ghlinne-Braon, Oran Cumhaidh, and Cuachag nan Craobh, may have been reworkings of existing songs (see Thomson 1993, p. 213; 1996, p. 252).

William Ross is best known for his love songs. Of these, tradition maintained that three were addressed to Marion Ross: Oran Gaoil (pp. 62-67); Oran Cumhaidh (pp. 162-70), written when Marion married; and Oran Eile, air an Aobhar Cheudna (pp. 171-74). His other love songs include Moladh na h-Oighe Gàëlich (pp. 92-96), Cuachag nan Craobh (pp. 112-16), and Cumhadh a’ Bhaird air son a Leannain (pp. 106-11). Some of Ross’s love songs are completely from the heart and are filled with emotion. This is perhaps clearest in Oran Eile, air an Aobhar Cheudna (pp. 171-74), which begins: ‘Tha mise fo’ mhulad sa’n àm \ Cha’n òlair leam dram le sunnd, \ Tha dŭrrag air ghûr ann mo chàil \ A dh’fhiosraich do chāch mo rùin; \ Cha ’n fhaic mi ’dol seachad air sràid \ An cailin bu tlàithe sùil; \ ’Se sin a leag m’aigne gu làr \ Mar dhuilleach o bharr na’n craobh’ (p. 171).

Some other love songs seem less emotionally engaged; in these the subjective element tends to be transmuted into lavish description of the girl. In Moladh na h-Oighe Gàëlich (pp. 92-96), for example, she is described as follows: ‘Gur foinnidh, mileanta, \ Direach, dreachmhor, i, \ Cha lùb am feornain \ Fo broìg ’nuair shaltras i; \ Tha deirge a’s gile \ Co-mhire gleachdanaich, \ Na gnùis ghil, èibhinn, \ Rinn cèudan airtneulach’ (p. 94). In Cumhadh a’ Bhaird air son a Leannain (pp. 106-11), Ross declares: ‘Gu’m bheil maise na h-eudann, \ Nach feudainn-s’ a luaidh, \ Tha i pailt ann an ceutaidh \ ’S an ceill a thoirt buaidh, \ Gun a coimeas ri fheatuinn \ Ann an speis, san taobh tuath, \ M’ òg mhìn-mhala bhaindidh, \ Thogadh m’ inntinn o ghruaim’ (p. 109). Some songs combine the subjective and objective voices. For example, in Oran Cumhaidh (pp. 162-70), Ross begins by invoking the Classical deity Apollo and the Muses, and continues by narrating the Gaelic literary precedent of the thwarted love of Cormac and Finne, but is then overwhelmed by the hopelessness of his own predicament: ‘Is Ciomach ann do ghaol mi \ Ri smaointinn bean t’ailteachd, \ Cha chadal anns an òidhch’ dhomh, \ ’S cha ’n fhois anns ’an là dhomh, \ Cha n’ fhacas ri mo rè, \ Cha n’ fhaigh mi sgeul gu bràth air \ Ni b’annsa’ na bhi reidh ’s tu, \ A gheug na’m bâs bàna!’ (p. 167).

Ross also composed a number of other songs about love in general, in which he himself was at least partly, if not wholly, free from emotional involvement. These include Oran air Gaol na h-Oighe do Chailean, written for another couple (pp. 34-43); Miann an Oganaich Gàëlich (pp. 50-53); Miann na h-Oighe Gàëlich (pp. 54-57); and the macaronic Comhairle Bhàird do Mhaighdeanan Òga (pp. 144-46). In Oran eadar am Bard, agus Cailleach-mhilleadh-nan-dan (pp. 117-21), another well known song of Ross’s, the bard professes his love for a certain girl, and the Cailleach castigates him for his lack of worldly wisdom: ‘Tosd a shladi’, ’s dean firinn, \ ’S na bi g-innsea’ na’m brèug, \ Cha chreid mi bh’uat fathasd, \ Nach ’eil da’ich do sgeul, \ Ma tha i cho maiseach, \ ’S cho pailt ann an ceill, \ ’S nach urra’ mi t’aicheamh, \ Bheir mi barr dh’i thar chèud’ (p. 118).

We only have one song by Ross that can be described as a nature poem – the seasonal poem Oran an t-Samhraidh (pp. 28-33) – although celebration of nature figures in a number of Ross’s other songs, e.g. in Oran a rinn am Bard ann an Dun-Eideann (p. 74) and in Moladh a Bhaird air a Thir Fein (pp. 68-63). The second stanza of Oran an t-Samhraidh runs as follows: ‘Nach cluinn thu bith-fhuaim suthain, seamh, \ ’S a bhruthainn sgeamhail bhlà-dhealtrach, \ ’S beannachdan a nuas o neamh \ A dortadh fial gu làr aca: \ Tha nadur ag caoch’ladh tuar \ Le caomh-chruth, cuannda, pairt-dhathach, \ ’S an cruinne iomlan, mu’n iadh griàn, \ Ag tarruing fiamhan gràsail air!’ (pp. 28-29).

Ross composed two songs in praise of people: Oran do Shir Eachunn Ghearr-loch (pp. 17-22) and Oran do Mharcus nan Greumach; agus do’n Eideadh-Ghaidhealach (pp. 23-27), and he praises them in the traditional manner: ‘Shir Eachuinn Ruaidh nan curaidhean, \ Bu fhraochail guineach colg, \ Nam pìob, nam pìc, ’s nam brataichean, \ ’S nan dù’-lann, sgaiteach, gorm; \ Dha’n dualchas mor èuchd ghaisgeantachd, \ Le tapadh air chul-airm; \ ’S ni’m b’ ioghna’ leinn an dùchas sin \ Bhi leantainn dlù an ainm’ (pp. 18-19).

Ross composed a number of humorous or more light-hearted songs. These include two songs to whisky, Moladh an Uisge-Bheatha (pp. 80-86) and Mac-na-Bracha (pp. 87-91); Oran air Cupid (pp. 102-05); and Achasan an Deideidh, a Deudach Dhomhnuill Fhriseal (pp. 175-78). Three of the more humorous songs, Oran do Chailin Àraidh (pp. 122-15), Oran do Fhear Tŭruis (pp. 147-50), and Oran mar gun Deanadh Seoladair Deasach e (pp. 151-55), were omitted by George Calder from his 1937 edition. These are more bawdy in nature than the other light-hearted songs. Black includes the last of these as an Appendix to his article on ‘An Emigrant’s Letter in Arran Gaelic, 1834’, suggesting that it contains examples of Arran dialect. He speculates that ‘on a public level it may be a satire on some of the Clyde fishermen who had begun to pursue the herring into the northern Minch in the 1780s, but on a private level its target is undoubtedly Samuel Clough’ (p. 76). For a different interpretation of the specific circumstances which gave rise to this poem, and of the nature and purpose of the linguistic word-play, see Gillies 2008.

In Oran do Chailin Àraidh, Ross describes going to visit a young woman one night: ‘’Nuair chuala mi h-aidmhail, \ Phaisg mi ’n taod ma claigeann \ Sud Roger a chadal, \ Cha d’ thuird bradai dùrd. \ B’ eigin tille dhachaidh, \ Mar dhuine gun tapadh, \ Aig nach biodh do dh’acfuinn’, \ Na readh ceart air mnaoi’. \ ’Nuair a theid mi laidhe \ Cha’n fhaigh mi laic chadail, \ Le mo bhall-da-rathrie \ ’G-eiridh ri mo thaobh!’ (p. 125). Oran do Fhear Tŭruis was written to a man who travelled with Ross for a while, and who was known for his womanising: ‘’S duilich leam a Chaluman, \ Nach fan thu as an èu-coir, \ ’S nach sguir thu dheth an t-sriopachas, \ Gu’n caill thu bhrigh sa bheusaich, \ Mar b’e gu’n cuirinn mi ghean [sic, for mì-ghean] ort, \ Gu’n innsinn dha na Chleir e \ Nach ’eil bean òg no cailleach, \ Air nach farraich thu do pheiris!’ (p. 149).

A number of Ross’s songs include an element of social commentary on events within or affecting the Highlands in the 1780s. Examples include Coradh eadar am Bard agus Blath-Bheinn (pp. 13-16), Marbh-rann do Phriunnsa Tearlach (pp. 44-49), Oran air Aiseag an Fhearainn do na Cinn-fheadhna sa’ Bhliadhna 1782 (pp. 58-61), Oran do Shir Eachunn Ghearr-loch (pp. 17-22), and Iorram (pp. 135-38). In the first of these, the mountain Blaven addresses the poet: ‘B’eòl domh t’aitim ’s b’áit am beùs, \ Bhi siubhal sleibhe gun sgios, \ Ach ré-seal bha mise g-iondran, \ Torghain do bhuidhne na m’ frìdh. \ Chaill na h-ionadan am blàth, \ A’s thriall gach Armunn àigh g’a uaigh, \ Threig a chruit a h-inneal dàna, \ ’S leag a chlàrsach bàs a fuaim!’ (p. 15).

The three songs by Am Pìobair Dall comprise two praise songs, Beannachadh Bàird do Shir Alasdair Mac-Choinnich, Triath Ghearr-loch (pp. 182-84) and Dàn do Shir Alasdair Mac-Dhomhnuill Shleibhte, Ceann-Cinnidh Chlann-Domhnuill na’n Eilean (pp. 185-91), and one nature song, Cumha Choire-’n-easain (pp. 192-99). The first two of these appear in A. and D. Stewart’s Collection (1804). The third poem, which is a nostalgic evocation of happier times in the Corrie, contains richly descriptive verses, e.g.: ‘Seamragach, sealbhagach, duilleach, \ Mìn leacach gorm-shlèiteach, gleannach, \ Biadhchar, riabhach, riasgach, luideach, \ Le ’n dìolta cuideachd gun cheannach’ (p. 197).
Edition Second edition. The first edition was published in 1830. The second edition contains two additional songs – one of which is probably not by Ross, though it was widely attributed to him in Wester Ross. It also adds the three songs by Am Pìobaire Dall. A number of later editions were published. Calder’s 1937 edition omits three songs presumably deemed risqué by their editor.

The Stewarts’ Cochruinneacha Taoghta, published in 1804, contains fifteen of Ross’s 33 songs, and is the earliest witness to these. A preliminary investigation of the relationship between the earliest printings of Ross’s songs is contained in Gillies 2007, pp. 128-41. In sum, the poems scrutinised show some significant close correspondences between the Stewarts and Mackenzie versions, and give a general impression of textual closeness. There are, however, sufficient divergences to make it unlikely that Mackenzie simply copied from the Stewarts. Editors should be prepared to use the 1804 texts where these exist.

Editors should pay particular attention to the discussion in Gillies 2007 of John Mackenzie’s editorial methods, as evidenced by his 1830, 1834 and 1841 (Sar-Obair) editions of Ross’s songs. They should be prepared to take account of the 1830 and 1841 versions where these exist. Calder’s 1937 edition should only be used with great caution.
Other Sources
Further Reading Black, Ronald I. M., ‘An Emigrant’s Letter in Arran Gaelic, 1834’, Scottish Studies, 31 (1992-93), 63-87.
Calder, George, Gaelic Songs by William Ross (Edinburgh, 1937: Oliver and Boyd).
Gillies, William ‘“Merely a bard”? William Ross and Gaelic poetry’, Aiste, 1 (2007), 123-69.
Gillies, William, ‘“No bonnier life than the Sailor’s”: A Gaelic poet comments on the fishing industry in Wester Ross’, Studies in Scottish Literature, 35-36 (2008), 62-75.
MacKenzie, John, ed., Sar-Obair nam Bard Gaelach (Glasgow, 1841: MacGregor, Polson, &Co.).
Thomson, Derick, An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry (Edinburgh, 1993: Edinburgh University Press).
Stewart, Alexander and Donald, Cochruinneacha Taoghta de Shaothair nam Bard Gaëleach (Edinburgh, 1804: T. Stiuart).
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