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Title Orain le Rob Donn, Bard Ainmeil Dhuthaich Mhic-Aoidh. A nis air an cur a mach air iarrtus luchd-graidh agus molaidh na bardachd sonruichte so, o chruinneachadh sgriobhta a rinneadh dhith, o bheul a’ bhaird fein
Author Mackay, Robert
Editor Mackay, Mackintosh
Date Of Edition 1829
Date Of Language 18th c.
Publisher Kenneth Douglas
Place Published Inverness
Volume N/A
Location National and academic libraries.
Link Digital version created by National Library of Scotland
Download File PDF / plain text 
Geographical Origins Sutherland
Register Literature, Verse
Alternative Author Name Rob Donn
Manuscript Or Edition Ed.
Size And Condition 23cm x 15cm
Short Title Orain le Rob Donn
Reference Details EUL, Celtic Library: LIG MACK
Number Of Pages lxxi, [1], 360
Gaelic Text By N/A
Illustrator N/A
Social Context Rob Donn’s work is important for its portrayal of a fairly peaceful, pre-clearance, Sutherland community in the second half of the 18th century.

Robert Mackay was born in 1714 at the farm of Allt-na-Caillich in Strathmore, in the parish of Durness in Sutherland. His father, Donald Mackay (Dòmhnall Donn) is said to have been ‘a man of great piety, of quiet and retiring disposition, but not distinguished by any special talent’ (p. 82). His mother, Janet Mackay, seems to have been a clever woman, who had a certain amount of poetic skill. She could recite the poems of Ossian and the other ancient bards at length, and her skills in this area seem to have been more than ordinary. Rob is supposed to have composed his first verse at the age of only three – a single quatrain about the tailor who made him an outfit that he could not button unaided. When Rob was about seven, he went into the service of John Mackay (Iain MacEachainn), a local tacksman who saw talent in the young boy. Mackay was a grazier and cattle-dealer and Rob was first employed herding calves. When he was older, he helped drive the cattle to the various markets in the South of Scotland and in Northern England.

Rob had no formal education, and therefore never learned to read or write. He was well treated in Iain MacEachainn’s family, and stayed with them until he married. Rob’s first love was Ann Morrison, for whom he composed Oran Gaoil (pp. 210-11). Around 1740, however, he married Janet Mackay, the daughter of a small farmer in the area. They had thirteen children. Janet was said to have had a beautiful voice, and the family frequently spent their evenings singing. The couple lived for a while at Bad na h-Achlais, at the southern end of Loch Hope, but Rob soon became engaged as Bo-man (in charge of cattle) for Lord Reay at Balnakiel, and his wife took charge of the dairy. Rob spent his time droving and hunting, and his poetic talent gained a wide reputation. The couple remained in this service, except for a few absences, until they retired.

One of these absences began in 1759, when Rob joined the first regiment of the Sutherland Fencibles as a private soldier, having been encouraged by a number of gentlemen to accompany them. He did not perform regular duties as a soldier, but seems to have been left largely to his own devices. Whilst in the army, Rob encountered a Major Ross. The two got off to a bad start and never became friendly, and the Major features in a number of Rob’s songs. When the regiment was disbanded in 1763, Rob returned to Balnakiel. Lord Reay had died during Rob’s time in the army, and Rob’s elegy to the chief showed the great love and respect he had for him. Colonel Hugh Mackay, one of Iain MacEachainn’s sons, came to Balnakiel to look after the estate. Rob stayed in his employment, and composed a number of songs in praise of him, although he did not get on so well with Mackay’s wife.

When Rob’s wife was no longer able to manage the dairy, the couple retired to a small farm in the vicinity, called Nuybig. Janet died soon afterwards, and Rob himself survived her by only a few months. He died on 5th August, 1778, and was buried beside her at Durness. In 1829, a monument to him was erected in the churchyard there. As well as being an exceptional poet, Rob Donn was also something of a musician, and he composed a number of tunes for his own songs. The Memoir at the beginning of this edition states that Rob was fairly religious and of high moral principles, and that he was ‘chosen a ruling elder, or member of the Kirk Session of the parish of Durness’ (p. xxxv). It also records that he was fond of a drink.

During the nineteenth century there was some debate about Rob Donn’s surname. In his 1871 edition of Rob Donn’s poems, Huw Morrison suggested that his surname might not have been Mackay, but Calder. Although there was no certainty as to the bard’s surname, he was still generally regarded as a Mackay; inasmuch as he indubitably belonged to the Mackay country, many regarded the question of his surname as a red herring.

The details contained in this section are derived from John Mackay’s article in TGSI 5, unless otherwise stated.
Contents This volume begins with a dedication by the publisher to Elizabeth, Marchioness of Stafford and Countess of Sutherland. There follows a Memoir of Rob Donn (pp. ix-lxii), to which is added a note of thanks by the editor to the publisher for permitting so substantial a Memoir to accompany the poems (p. lxiii). The Clar Innsidh comes next (pp. lxv-lxxi), listing the poems in alphabetical order by first line. There is no list of contents by title, although the songs are given Gaelic titles in the text. The introductory matter is concluded by a single page of Errata (p. lxxii).

Orain le Rob Donn (pp. 1-348) comprises over 200 songs by Rob Donn and ends with two songs to him, one by Iain Mac-Uilleam, and the other an elegy by Deorsa Morastan (pp. 344-48). Many of the songs are preceded by short introductions in Gaelic.

At the end of this volume there is a Glossary (pp. 349-60), Anns am faighear focail neo-àbhaiseach a’ bhàird nach tuigear gu math, ach le a luchd-dùthcha fein, explained in both Gaelic and English.
Sources In the Preface to his 1899 edition (see Edition below), Hew Morrison maintains that two manuscript collections were made of Rob Donn’s poetry. One was made by Rev. Aeneas MacLeod, who was the minister of Rogart from 1774 to 1794, and the other was made in 1763 by the daughter of Rev. John Thomson, minister of Durness at the time. This collection was made from the recitation of Rob Donn himself; it was later revised by Rev. William Findlater, the son-in-law of John Thomson, who came to Durness in 1808.

It is stated on the title-page of the present volume that the songs contained in it were taken o chruinneachadh sgriobht a rinneadh dhith, o bheul a’ bhaird fein, which suggests that the editor used the collection made by Rev. Thomson’s daughter, rather than that made by Rev. Aeneas MacLeod. However, Morrison also claims (ibid.) that Mackay primarily used MacLeod’s collection when compiling the present volume. There is therefore some ambiguity as to the source of Mackay’s edition, since we cannot be certain that MacLeod’s collection was not also made o bheul a’ bhaird fhein. The whereabouts of both these manuscripts is currently unknown.
Language The vast majority of Rob Donn’s songs commemorated local people and events. The community in which Rob Donn lived was fairly settled during his life-time, and it is this that differentiates Rob’s work from that of many of the other eighteenth century poets, whose works record more turbulent times. As Ian Grimble put it (in Thomson 1994, p. 250), Rob Donn’s work ‘provides a portrait of traditional Gaelic society on the eve of its dissolution that is unique in its range’. Pertinent examples include Oran Dhomhnuill nan Cluas (pp. 18-21), Oran nan Greisichean Beaga (pp. 25-28), Oran do dh’ Uilleam Mac Mhic Alais ’Ic Uilleam (pp. 40-41), a number of songs to Iain Thapaidh (e.g. pp. 65-70), Moladh agus Di-moladh Churstaidh Nic-Leoid (pp. 80-83), and Oran air Fear a bha Dol Imrich (pp. 83-85). The verse entitled simply ‘Rann’, which was addressed to Donald MacLeod, agus e air faotainn droch thuiteam a bhàrr làire, a ghlac e, agus e ’n a phunndair feoir, comprises a single stanza which reads ‘Thuit Dòmhnull MacLeòid, \ ’S chuir sud bròn air a chàirdean; \ Tha e sìnte ’n a luidhe, \ Gun aighear gun àrdan; \ ’S e thuirt an làir bhuidhe, \ ’S i ruith do na bàrdach’, \ Luidhe gun éiridh air, \ No éiridh bà sgàrdaich’ (p. 254). These poems in particular, and Rob Donn’s work in general, have an engaging, conversational tone. They reach out to the idiom, vocabulary and rhythms of the everyday speech of the community.

Rob composed a number of love songs, including Oran Gaoil (pp. 210-11), which he addressed to his first love. Most of these were not personal expressions of love, however, but songs about love and lovers, or put into the mouths of others, e.g. Oran mur gu ’m b’ ann le Drobhair Araid d’ a Leannan (pp. 32-34), Oran do Mhaighdin Oig (pp. 34-36), Oran nan Suiridheach (pp. 44-46), Oran le Fear d’ a Leannan (pp. 100-102), and Oran do Dhithis bha dol a phosadh (pp. 112-14). In Oran Gaoil (pp. 141-43), the tone of the following lines is typical: ‘’S galar dùthchasach do dhuin’ òg, \ Saighead Chupid a bhi ’g a leòn, \ Ma thu do shùil-sa ri maighdean chliùiteach, \ Faigh air do thaobh is bidh tu beò’ (p. 141).

Rob composed many light-hearted songs involving local people, many of which deal with amatory situations and relationships. Examples include Oran air sean fhleasgach agus seanna mhaighdean (pp. 9-11), Oran do Dhaibhidh (pp. 114-15), Oran air Cuairt Shuiridhe (pp. 133-34), Oran Leannanachd, eadar Gille is Nighean Og (pp. 147-48), and Oran (pp. 169-70). Rob composed little purely descriptive poetry other than Oran a’ Gheamhraidh (pp. 108-11) which contains the conventional strings of adjectives (p. 110).

Many of Rob Donn’s songs contain elements of social commentary, mostly embedded in poems addressed to individuals. In only a few of Rob Donn’s songs, do we find reference to national politics. The short introduction to Oran do dh’Uachdarain na Duthcha (pp. 30-32) reads ‘’N uair a bha iad a cur ROB DHUINN as an fhearann, air son bhi marbhadh nam fiadh, agus cuid de na h-uaislean bhi air a thaobh, agus cuid eile dhiu ’n a aghaidh’ (pp. 30-32). In this song, Rob addresses Iain ’Ic Naoghais ’Ic Uilleim as follows: ‘Ach ma ’s obair mi-dhiadhaidh \ Bhi marbhadh fhiadh anns na gleannaibh, \ ’S iomadh laoch dhe do theaghlach \ A thuit gu trom anns a’ mhealladh; \ Bu daoine fuilteach o ’n d’ fhàs thu, \ ’S cha b’ fheàrr càirdean do leannain; \ ’S ma ’s peacadh sud tha gun mhaitheanas, \ Bithidh tus a’s Mothanaich damainte’ (p. 30). Rob also composed Oran do Phrionnsa Tearlach (pp. 57-59), which ends as follows: ‘A nis, a Theàrlaich Stiùbhairt, \ Na ’m biodh ’n crùn a th’ air Righ Seòras ort, \ Bu lìonmhor againn cùirtearan, \ Bhiodh tionndadh ghùn is chleòcaichean: \ Tha m’ athchuing ris an Ti sin, \ Aig a’ bheil gach ni ri òrduchadh, \ Gu ’n teàrnadh e o ’n cheilg ac’ thu, \ ’S gu ’n cuir e ’n seilbh do chòrach thu’ (p. 59). This song has a hint of Jacobite mystique which is not paralleled in the rest of his work. Another political poem of note is Oran nan Casaga Dubh (pp. 287-91), written ’n uair chuala e gu ’n do bhacadh an t-éideadh Gaidhealach le lagh rioghachd (p. 287).

Rob Donn also composed a number of satirical songs, including that headed Do bhantrach duin’ uasail araidh, aig an robh am bàrd car geamhraidh ’n a ghille-muinntir (pp. 143-45), Oran do dh’ Iain Mac-Ailein (pp. 151-53), and the song addressed Do dhuine suarach, salach, gun mheas, a abha falbh air feadh na dùthcha le boirionnach dall, ag iarruidh an codach (pp. 164-65), which ends ‘Ni mi innseadh ann am focal, \ Gur duine mi-thlachdmhor thu; \ Maragach, luideagach, crupach, \ Gun slàinte, gun chuid, gun chliù’ (p. 165).

Some of the best specimens of Rob Donn’s poetry are his elegies and laments. Examples include Marbhrann Huistein Mhic Aoidh (pp. 1-3), Marbhrann air Maidsear Mac Illean (pp. 4-6), Marbhrann Dhoctair Gordain (pp. 47-49), who died ann an eilein Sheimeuca (p. 47), Marbhrann Fir Alldanaidh (pp. 103-06), Marbhrann do Iain Mac-Eachainn (pp. 318-21), and Marbhrann Eoghainn (pp. 331-33). Marbhrann do Dhomhnull, am Morair Mac-Aoidh (pp. 297-301) begins ‘’S i so nollaig a ’s cianail’ \ A chunncas riamh le mo shùil; \ ’S soilleir easbhuidh ar Triath oirnn, \ An àm do ’n bhliadhna tigh’nn ùr; \ Clann na cuideachd ’s na tàbhuirnn, \ Luchd na dàn, is a’ chiùil, \ ’N a luidhe ’n eaglas Cheann-tàile, \ ’S an rùm a ’s fhaine fuidh ’n ùir’ (p. 297).

Rob Donn’s poems contain a number of English or Scots loanwords, such as mar luchd préisgidh (p. 6), Na uiread chràbhaidh ’s a phasas (p. 6), Dheanadh drobhair no factoir (p. 6), Air son glìob agus stìpein (p. 7), Anns an t-sauce-pan (p. 11), cocàd (p. 156), paoineir (p. 156), Am manntal (p. 169), Do chon-tract (p. 175), do Char’lina (p. 180), strap-guaill’ (p. 237), strainnsearan (p. 268), leasanan (p. 283), difir (p. 302), and bribe (p. 302). These are always italicised in the text. Also of interest is the spelling Naoghas (e.g. p. 29).
Orthography Donn’s texts as presented here are more obviously dialectal than those of most major eighteenth-century Gaelic poets – the dialect in question being that of north-west Sutherland. Nevertheless, it appears that they were originally composed in a still more distinctive form of Sutherland Gaelic, which was then diluted somewhat by their editor (see Edition below). The Glossary includes, amongst other items, some dialectal words and forms which have been allowed to stand in the text, e.g.: Bàghan glossed as cladh and translated as ‘Burying-ground’; Crùsach glossed as Sgaoth and translated as ‘Small fry’; and Teine-fionn glossed as Tine-sionnchain and translated as ‘Spray’. The text frequently uses the form fuidh of the preposition fo (e.g. p. 164, p. 297), although this may be an editorial choice, rather than a dialectal, usage. There are a small number of footnotes scattered throughout the text, which explain the meanings of words or give further information on a particular subject. For example, we are told that ainigidh is equivalent to Aingidh (p. 137), that Gu robh esan fuidh staint signifies E bhi cheana pòsd’ (p. 225), and that coineadh is pronounced Còine (p. 332). The orthography appears to be unexceptional for the first half of the nineteenth century.
Edition First edition. Three further editions were published. The first of these was published in Edinburgh in 1871. This edition contains a shorter version of the Memoir than the 1829 edition, but otherwise seems to contain the same material. The songs are listed by Gaelic title in the table of contents.

Two editions were published in 1899. One of these was published in Edinburgh by John Grant, and was edited by Hew Morrison. Morrison explains that this edition contains ‘several pieces not included in either of the former editions, and some of them were never previously published’ (Editor’s Preface). The notes to the songs are given in English in this edition and the song titles are given in English, although there is also an index of Gaelic first lines. The editor thanks ‘the late Rev. Eric Findlater of Lochearnhead’ for suggesting many ‘alterations which render what was previously obscure intelligible.’ This implies that Morrison had access to the collection made by Rev. Thomson’s daughter, which we believe to have been altered by Rev. Findlater. There is no further mention of editorial principles.

The other 1899 edition was published in Glasgow by Iain Mac-Aoidh, and was edited by Rev. Adam Gunn and Calum MacFarlane, who was president of Comunn Gàidhlig Ghlascho at the time. This edition contained around half the number of songs that the previous edition contained, but included musical notation to accompany around fifty of the songs. This edition also contains chapters entitled Rob Donn and his Times, The Dialect of the Reay Country Bard, and The Bard’s Surname. In justification of their omission of so many poems the editors argue in the Preface that the previous editions of Rob Donn’s works ‘include such of the bard’s compositions as are worthy of preservation, much that is not, and probably some pieces which were not his work at all’. They continue, ‘The first and third editions have each glossaries, which are by no means complete. Generally speaking, the later editions adhere to the text and orthography of the first, which, having been rendered according to the literary usage of the time, gives an impression of defective rhyme and rhythm’. By contrast, they boast of their own edition that: ‘The text has been revised and made to conform, as nearly as can be advantageously done, to the bard’s own native dialect.’ Moreover, their edition contains a ‘full and carefully compiled glossary of all the local words, and dialectic forms of words used by the bard, as well as many which do not occur in his works, with their meanings in the English language, and their etymologies’. Some examples of the types of changes that have been made for this edition are given at the beginning of the chapter The Dialect of the Reay Country Bard. Editors will have to check the forms and meanings of words in this edition against the corresponding readings in the 1829 edition. It should, of course, be remembered that these changes were being made by editors some considerable time after the death of the bard. While there may be sufficient grounds to let us decide between some alternative readings, there is often doubt as to which (if either) the poet himself would have used.

Prior to 1829, a number of Rob Donn’s songs had appeared in the Eigg Collection (1776), in A. and D. Stewart’s Collection (1803), and in Turner’s Collection (1813). Editors should take account of the earliest edition of each of the songs wherever possible.
Other Sources
Further Reading Black, Ronald, An Lasair (Edinburgh, 2001: Birlinn).
Grimble, Ian, The World of Rob Donn (Edinburgh, 1979: Edina Press).
Mackay, John, ‘Rob Donn’, TGSI, 5 (1875-6), 81-97.
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