Reference Number171
TitleAis-eiridh na sean chánoin Albannaich; no, An nuadh oranaiche Gaidhealach. Le Alastair Mac-Dhonuill, Bailli Chana. Ris am bheil coimh-cheangailte, Eider-theangair am mineachadh ann am Beurla gach cruaigh fhacall a tharlas anns an leabhar so.
AuthorMacDonald, Alexander
Date Of Edition1751
Date Of Languagemid 18c
Date Of Language Ed18th c.
DateMacroMid 18th c.
Date Of Language Notes
Place PublishedEdinburgh (Duneidiunn)
LocationNational and academic libraries
Geographical OriginsMoidart
Geographical Origins EdMoidart
GeoMacroW Inverness-shire
Geographical Origins Notes
RegisterLiterature, Verse
Register EdLiterature, Verse
Contains 29 poems by Mac Mhaighstir Alastair, including three translations. Mac Mhaighstir Alastair is arguably the most important Gaelic poet of the 18th century.
Many of these songs are Jacobite in sentiment. They praise Prince Charles and his followers, decry the Hanoverians and their supporters, and encourage the Gaels to support the Jacobite cause.
There are also a number of love songs, praise songs, poems of a satirical nature, and bawdy songs (many of which are explicitly sexual in nature).
Alternative Author NameAlastair Mac Mhaighstir Alastair
Manuscript Or EditionEd.
Size And Condition15.5cm x 10.5cm
Short TitleAis-Eiridh
Reference DetailsNLS: Hall.149.k (1751, missing pp. 153-58) and NLS: Cam.1.g.30
Number Of Pagesxii, 212
Gaelic Text ByN/A
Social ContextLittle is known of the early life of Alexander MacDonald (better known as Alastair Mac Mhaighstir Alastair), and we do not know exactly when or where he was born. Derick Thomson suggested a possible date of the early-to-mid 1690s (1996, p. 2) and he appears to have been born in Moidart, either at Islandfinnan, or more likely at Dalilea, where his father (Maighstir Alastair) was an Episcopalian minister. As a minister, his father held the farm of Dalilea rent-free. Throughout his lifetime, MacDonald seems to have been just as much at home in the Clanranald lands of South Uist and Benbecula, as he was in in Moidart, Knoydart, Morar, and Arisaig, where he spent the greater part of his life. MacDonald may have taken part in the Jacobite rising of 1715, if this can be inferred from references in his poem Diomoladh Chabair Fèidh (first published in the 1834 edition of his works).

After 1715, it is possible that MacDonald was employed in the service of one of Clanranald’s officials, until the early-to-mid 1720s when, tradition holds, he took up the position as ground officer in Canna. Thomson maintains that ‘this period is likely to contain whatever training he did for legal or quasi-legal duties’, suggesting that this may have taken place in Edinburgh (1996, p. 6). Ronald Black has proposed that ‘he spent the years around 1720 in the service of Lady Penelope MacDonald … travelling between Uist, Moidart, Edinburgh and (probably) London in an effort to reverse the forfeiture of [the Clanranald] estate’ (2001, p. 426). MacDonald certainly visited Edinburgh a number of times in his life, and it was in Edinburgh that his first book was published. Additionally, Thomson points to a number of possible influences on MacDonald’s work by the Edinburgh literati of the time (1996, pp. 6-7).

It is likely that MacDonald was a student at Glasgow University at some point during this period, though he did not graduate. His studies appear to have been cut short – possibly by his marriage to Jane MacDonald of Dalness, c. 1727. MacDonald certainly learnt to read and write in Gaelic and English, and was also a competent writer of the Gaelic manuscript hand. His poetry shows evidence of a classical education and of familiarity with contemporary developments in Lowland Scottish literature. His wife seems to have come from a poetic family. Her brother is said to have been the original author of Cuachag nan Craobh, and her mother was of the MacLachlans of Coire Uanan in Lochaber, from whom Ewen MacLachlan was descended. Their first child, Ronald, the editor of Text 170, was born c. 1728.

Most of what we know about MacDonald’s life comes from the period 1729-1745, during which time he worked as a teacher and catechist for the SSPCK. As Black puts it: ‘This means that Alasdair had to pretend loyalty to the King whose money he was accepting, and to profess sympathy, at least, with the Presbyterian form of church government; indeed tradition tells us quite firmly that he became a Presbyterian and an elder’ (1986, p. 16). Having begun his work in Islandfinnan, he moved in 1732 to Kilmory, on the northern coast of Ardnamurchan, where a new school had been built. He moved back to Islandfinnan in 1736, and to Kilchoan, on the south coast of Ardnamurchan, in 1738. In 1739, the school was moved to Corryvullin, where MacDonald stayed until he left the profession in 1745. Black (1986) contains a good deal more information about this period in MacDonald’s life. During his time as a schoolmaster, MacDonald produced the first published Gaelic-English Vocabulary, Leabhar a Theagasc Ainminnin or A Galick and English Vocabulary, which was published in 1741, under the auspices of the SSPCK.

At some point before 1745, MacDonald converted to Catholicism. This conversion may have owed something to his Jacobite sympathies, and perhaps also to the influence of his brother Angus and the latter’s Catholic wife. In 1745, under pressure from the Royal Bounty Committee, MacDonald resigned from his position as schoolmaster. There had been a number of complaints about his general conduct, including one from the Presbytery of Mull which alleged that he had been wandering the country ‘composing Galick songs, stuffed with obscene Language’ (quoted in Thomson 1996, p. 9). Having given up his duties as a schoolmaster, MacDonald was now free to give himself fully to the Jacobite cause and to openly embrace Catholicism. He became deeply engaged in the Jacobite campaign, and was probably involved, in some capacity, in the battle of Culloden. MacDonald’s movements after the battle are unclear, although he visited Edinburgh a number of times, and in 1751 he published his Ais-eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich, the first volume of secular Gaelic poetry to be published. At the time of publication MacDonald styled himself ‘Bailli Chana’; it appears likely that he assumed this position in 1749. After 1751, MacDonald spent some time in Eigneig, whence he was forced to move to Inverie in Knoydart. He later lived for a while in Morar and in Arisaig, where he died c. 1770.

MacDonald is generally regarded as the foremost Gaelic poet of the eighteenth century, largely on account of his vivid and fertile poetic imagination and his wide-ranging and unrestrained subject matter (see Language below). In Black’s judgement, ‘his greatness lies in his originality’ (2001, p. 425). For more information on MacDonald’s poetry, see Thomson 1996, pp. 156-712.
ContentsThe 1751 edition contains 26 original poems by Alastair, and translations by him of three poems composed in the mid-seventeenth century by the Marquis of Montrose. It also includes, without acknowledgement of authorship, two poems by John MacCodrum: Òran air Sean Aois and Caraid agus Nàmhaid an Uisge-bheatha (see on Text 165).
This edition begins with a dedication: Do an Uasal Onorrach, Bhaltair Mac-Pharlain, Triath Chlann-Pharlain, and a Preface (pp. v-x) in which the author explains his purpose in publishing his works in written form, argues for the worthiness of Gaelic literature to be recorded thus, and provides brief rules for the pronunciation of Gaelic. Following the Preface there appears a short poem in Latin containing an appreciation of Alastair’s genius, with the initials ‘D. M.’ appended; Ronald Black (1986, 39) identifies the poet as Alastair’s contemporary and friend, Donald Roy MacDonald, who was a brother of MacDonald of Baleshare and, like Alastair, a captain in the Clanranald regiment.
This is followed by An Clar-Inniseach (pp. xi-xii), which lists the contents by title in the order in which they appear in the book. Professor Thomson terms this order ‘sporadically’ chronological (1996, p. 12).
The poems themselves are printed on pp. 1-202. They are followed (pp. 203-11) by a Glossary ‘explaining, in English, all the words that seemed difficult in the preceeding [sic] work’. Finally there appears a page entitled Mearachd a’ Chlò-bhualaidh (p. [212]), containing a number of corrections, and a paragraph explaining that errors were inevitable because the author was not present at the type-setting stage to correct proofs, and the printers knew no Gaelic.
SourcesAlastair’s manuscript versions of the poems printed here have not survived. On the other hand, fifteen of his poems, similar in content to those published in 1751 but not included in that collection, have been preserved in Gaelic MS 63. Moreover, a few additional poems of his have been identified in other manuscript sources compiled during his lifetime, including the MacNicol and the MacLagan MSS. Seven more were included in Alastair’s son Ronald’s anthology, the so-called ‘Eigg Collection’, published in 1776; another seven in nineteenth-century editions of Alastair’s poems down to the 1874 edition, and a couple more in other printed collections. See further Maclean 1915, 189-92; Black 1986, 36-39; Thomson 1996, 34-36.
Versions of most of the poems and songs in the present text are also found in these other sources for Alastair’s works. In many cases the other sources contain additional lines and verses, as well as other sorts of variation. The textual tradition of Mac Mhaighstir Alastair’s poetry is thus fraught with difficulties. Additionally, the language of the poetry itself is sometimes challenging. For these reasons Alastair’s works so far lack an authoritative scholarly edition. Materials for such an edition were gathered by Angus MacLeod, who had edited the songs of Duncan Bàn Macintyre for the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society (see Text 168). John Lorne Campbell, who had published a number of Alastair’s poems in Highland Songs of the ’Forty-five (1933), also worked on an edition of Alastair’s works. MacLeod’s and Campbell’s materials, together with some others, are in the possession of Edinburgh University’s Celtic and Scottish Studies Department. It is hoped that the substantial scholarly labours of these scholars will be incorporated into a critical edition of the whole of Alastair’s work in the next few years, and editors will need to be aware of possible developments in this area. For further details see Edition below.
LanguageThe majority of MacDonald’s surviving songs are Jacobite in sentiment. Some of them date from before, and some from after 1745. Many of these are eulogistic in tone. Themes prominent in the Jacobite songs include Prince Charles himself, e.g.: Oran luaigh no fùcaidh (p. 98), Oran a rinneadh [s]a bhliaghna 1746 (p. 116), Oran árrait (p. 134), and Oran úr (p. 144); the Disclothing Act, e.g.: Oran do’n gairir Am Breacan Uallach (p. 139); and songs to the clans, e.g.: Oran na Fineacha Gaidhealach (p. 51) and Oran nuagh (p. 59). In these poems, MacDonald praises Prince Charles and the Highland clans who he hopes will support him or who have supported him.

Many of these poems are works of brosnachadh, i.e. encouraging the Gaels to support the Jacobite cause. Oran nuagh talks of a new ‘gospel’ spreading through the Highlands, and includes the following lines: ‘Thig thar ler le gaoi anoir oir’n, \ Toradh deal ar dóchuis, \ Le mhílte fear, ’s le annamh geal, \ P———— ullamh, mear, ’s é dóchaisgt: \ Mac R——— S———, T———— S————; \ Oidhre a c——— th’ air fógra; \ Go’n dean gach Brittinnich lán ubhlachd, \ Air an glún’ d’a mhórachd’ (p. 59). Conversely, the Jacobite songs contain strong condemnation of those clans which supported the Hanoverian dynasty.

Other praise songs include Oran Mhorbhair Mhic-Shiomoin (p. 103) and Oran do Ranull óg Mac-Mhic-Ailen (p. 109), both of which contain incidental pro-Jacobite references; and  Moladh air Piob-Mhóir Mhic Cruimein (p. 65), in which the eulogy is addressed to the great bagpipe, a symbol of the martial Gael. MacDonald’s power as a praise poet is also visible in his seasonal and nature poems, i.e. Oran an t-Samhraidh, Oran a’ Gheamhraidh, Allt an t-Siùcair, and Fàilte na Mòrthir. These are extravagantly descriptive, as can be seen from this excerpt from Oran an t-Samhraidh: ‘Bi’dh bradan sen-gmhear na fior-uisg’, \ Go brisg, slinnleimneach, luath; \ Na bhúidhnne tarraighealach, lannach, \ Go h iteach, dearg-bhallach, earrach, \ Le shoislein airgid d’a earradh, \ ’S mionbhreac lainnireach tuar; \ ’S e fein go cromghobach ullamh, \ Ceappadh chuileog’ le cluain’ (p. 40). As Thomson puts it: ‘Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s stance as an innovator, and his profound influence on succeeding poets, and on his contemporaries, can been seen vividly in his descriptive verse, in topographical or “Nature” poetry’ (1993, 160). His poems on Summer and Winter seem to have been the first of their kind to appear in Gaelic and his style and subject matter influenced many later poets.

MacDonald composed several poems in praise of women, including  Oran a rinn duin’-uasal d’a chéile (p. 94) and Moladh Moraig. MacDonald’s descriptive style of writing can also be seen in these poems. The conventions of praise-poetry are readily adapted to female subjects, e.g.: ‘Bean ghlan, bhas-bhán, chaoin, sheamh, chaschruinn, \ Na’n calg-rasg donn gáireachdach’ (p. 94).

MacDonald composed a number of satires and poems of a satirical nature. Examples include Moladh a’ Chaimbeulaich Dhuibh (p. 186), which takes the form of a defence of ‘the Black Campbell’ and an attack on his detractor. Also of note is the poem An Oran do’n gairir an Airce (p. 170), which takes the form of ‘a vision, in which it was announced that the Campbell country was to be visited by a destructive flood, but that the worthy and the penitent might be received into an ark’ (A. MacDonald and A. MacDonald 1924, p. xviii). It includes the following lines: ‘Tha diudhultas le guth árd, \ Mar bha fuil Abel ’s an spéir, \ Ag uirni, ’s ag iolach gu h árd, \ Gort is pláigh theachd air gach cré’ (p. 172).

MacDonald composed a number of scatological and bawdy songs, many of which were explicitly sexual in nature, and which were deemed by many editors to be unfit for republication. These include Mio-mholadh Moraig (p. 26); Oran nam Bodach (p. 123); Oran do’n gairir Tinneas na h-Urchaid (p. 159); the descriptive Moladh air deagh Bhod ([p. 158]); and Marbhrann na h Aigionnaich (p. 153).

Also of interest are the two poems which appear at the beginning of the collection: Moladh an ughdair do’n tsean chanóin Ghailic (p. 1), in praise of the Gaelic language, and MacDonald’s song to the Muses, Guidhe, na urnaidh an ughdair, do’n Cheolrai (p. 7). The three translations are entitled Marbhrainn Ri Tearlach I le Montrose (p. 166), Le Montrose an uair bha e fein fa bheinne báis (p. 167) and Le Montrose do’n pharlamaid (p. 169). All three translations are short; each consists of a single stanza.
OrthographyIn the Introduction to his edition of a selection of MacDonald’s poems, Professor Thomson has provided a useful section entitled ‘The Language of the Poetry’ (1996, 20-23). Amongst other things he lists a number of English loanwords used by MacDonald. Some of these appear in Gaelicised form or spelling, while others are unassimilated; examples include: ranc, suibseict, bhalet, beatadh, ratreut, bhomit, and register. Thomson also notes a few possible coinages, including dastram and beusadh, and discusses MacDonald’s readiness to adapt the forms and stretch the meanings of existing Gaelic words. This propensity is particularly evident in his descriptive poems. In addition, Thomson draws attention to MacDonald’s use of Early Modern Gaelic forms and spellings, e.g. Naoi for Noah, sgol for sgoil, and the literary spellings seen in fathrom (apparently a cross between Modern Scottish Gaelic faram and Early Modern Gaelic fothram) and dh’aimhdheòin. MacDonald also uses such plural forms as smuainti and prionnsaidh, and the ‘old type of genitive singular of the verbal noun e.g. sàraichthe’ (1996, p. 22). Regarding the verbal system, Thomson singles out níor, the older and more literary negative used with the past tense, and older verbal forms such as ghlacas, fuair, togbhar, cuirfeamaid, and do bhà. He further identifies ‘some instances of preferences which may be orthographical or may reflect dialectal usage’ (ibid.). The examples he gives include go ’m rather than d’am, do rather than de, and chugam rather than thugam.

Regarding dialect, Thomson makes the following claim: ‘There is a good deal of dialectal evidence in the texts, but it is sometimes difficult to be sure whether this reflects the poet’s preferences or those of editors or the writers of MS versions. The poet’s own usage seems to have fluctuated, perhaps reflecting different degrees of Mainland and Island usage at different points in his career’ (1996, p. 22). The examples Thomson gives of these include gaigheadh (Gaidheidh in 1751; for gidheadh), iunaidh (presumably iùnaidh, for iongnaidh) and ghlachdas (for ghlacas). Editors are referred to this section in Thomson (1996) for further exemplification of the language of MacDonald’s poems.

The orthography of the 1751 edition is, as is remarked below (under Edition), of its time. It uses only the acute accent, and that sparingly. In his Preface MacDonald made the following statement of intent and self-excusal: ‘No pains have been spared to render the language as plain and intelligible as reasonably can be expected. And in order to make the force and sound of the syllables approach as near as possible to that of the English, and to the more usual pronunciation of the generality of the highlanders, some quiescent letters formerly used in the Galic are thrown out; letters are frequently transposed; and some are changed, especially in words whose terminations are bh, instead of which, n and on are commonly used. As these invocations are intended for obtaining the ends above mentioned, it is hoped none will take them to be any trespass upon grammatical rules’ (p. x). See Campbell (1933, pp. 42-47) for further discussion of MacDonald's orthography and that of subsequent editors of his poetry.
EditionThe problematic nature of Alastair’s textual tradition derives partly from the usual causes of uncertainty: textual variation in MS and printed sources including later editions of his works. Additionally, Alastair chose to give his poems written form at the pioneering stage of Modern Scottish Gaelic orthography. But over and above these considerations, Alastair’s poetry has been subjected to a remarkable degree of textual interference and bowdlerization by editors, the two principal motives being political correctness and prudery. These matters have been dealt with by Campbell (especially 1935 and 1971), who shows how even Professor Mackinnon (1907-9) had made wholesale changes to the primary texts he claimed to be reproducing from Gaelic MS 63. More outrageous by far were the excisions, alterations and additions, misinterpretations and deceptions perpetrated by the authors of the 1924 edition of Mac Mhaighstir Alastair’s poems, which has nevertheless been used as though authoritative by many subsequent writers.
For those poems printed in the present text, it is the primary source. However, protocols may need to be developed to determine when and how standardized versions of lemmata from the present text should be supplied, since its crabbed spelling will often prove less than helpful to users of Faclair na Gàidhlig. As a rule, J. L. Campbell’s texts, in Highland Songs of the ’Forty-five, in Scottish Gaelic Studies and in Hebridean Folksongs III, provide an adequate reflection, in modernised spelling, of the poet’s text; and the same is true of poems printed by W. J. Watson in Bardachd Ghàidhlig, by Derick Thomson (e.g. 1996) and by Ronald Black (e.g. 2001).
Because the present text contains less than half of the poems credibly attributed to Alastair, and in view of the lexical richness and importance of his poetry, it will frequently be necessary to consult and cite from poems of his that are not contained in the present text. For such poems, editors should in general cite from the earliest source available for a given poem. However, they will often need to utilise (with due caution) subsequent versions or scholarly work on that poem to help with the elucidation of the text.
Until a full edition of Alastair’s poems is available, editors should use the ‘Key to the Poems’ published by Black (1986, 37-39) to locate the sources for each poem and determine the source(s) to be used for citation purposes. Note that Black’s concordance of poems does not include references to John Mackenzie’s Sàr Obair nam Bard Gaëlach, which contains versions of 23 poems of Alastair’s (pp. 105-42). On the other hand it does include Rev. Angus and Rev. Archibald MacDonald’s The Poems of Alexander MacDonald (1924). Although the latter is not the earliest source for any single poem, its collection of 48 of Alastair’s poems in the same volume makes it a useful consultative tool. Nevertheless, nothing should be cited from it which does not carry the authority of an earlier source.
Following the numeration in Black (1986), the earliest occurrences of Alastair’s poems are as follows:
1751 edition: Black, no. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 11, 13, 16, 17, 18, 20, 22, 24, 32, 33, 37, 38, 39, 40, 43, 46, 48, 49, 56, 57, 58, 59.
NLS 72.2.13 (‘Gaelic MS 63’): Black, no. 21, 23, 26, 27, 28, 29, 31, 41, 44, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 61.
NLS 71.1.39: Black, no. 62
[NLS MacNicol MS 19 (lost): Black, no. 5]
Eigg Collection (1776): Black, no. 10, 12, 14, 15, 34, 36, 45.
D. MacLeod’s Collection (1811): Black, no. 42.
D. MacCallum’s Collection (1821): Black, no. 60.
1834 edition: Black, no. 25, 30, 35, 47.
1839 edition: Black, no. 50.
1874 edition: Black, no. 9, 19.
Note that the version of Black, no. 27, in Gaelic MS 63 is severely truncated. The full version was published from Alexander Carmichael’s papers by J. L. Campbell and Francis Collinson (1981, 132-9, 267-71). Black, no. 55, has been published by Black himself, in modern orthography, under the title Acarsaid nan Con ’s nan Gillean (2001, pp. 190-93).
From all of the above it emerges that there is a corpus of 61 surviving poems by Alastair Mac Mhaighstir Alastair, of which the present text contains 29 (including the three translations), together with the two poems composed by John MacCodrum and the dedicatory ode by Donald Roy MacDonald.
Other Sources
Further ReadingBlack, Ronald, Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, the Ardnamurchan Years ([Isle of Coll], 1986: Society of West Highland & Island Historical Research).
Black, Ronald, An Lasair (Edinburgh, 2001: Birlinn).
Campbell, John Lorne, Highland Songs of the Forty-Five (Edinburgh, 1933: John Grant).
Campbell, John Lorne, ‘Some Notes on the Poems of Alexander MacDonald’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 4 (1935), 18-23.
Campbell, John Lorne, ‘Gaelic MS. 63 of the National Library’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 4 (1935), 70-84, 153-204.
Campbell, John Lorne, ‘The Second Edition of Alexander MacDonald’s Poems’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 6 (1949), 43-44.
Campbell, John Lorne, ‘The Expurgating of Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 12 (1971), 59-76.
Campbell, John Lorne, and Francis Collinson, Hebridean Folksongs III (Oxford, 1981: Clarendon Press).
MacDonald, Charles, Moidart: Among the Clanranalds (Edinburgh, 1997: Birlinn).
MacKinnon, Professor, ‘Unpublished Poems by Alexander MacDonald (Mac Mhaighstir Alastair)’, The Celtic Review, 4 (1907-08), 289-305.
MacKinnon, Professor ‘Unpublished Poems by Alexander MacDonald (Mac Mhaighstir Alastair)’, The Celtic Review, 5 (1908-09), 20-30, 116-28, 225-35, 294-303.
Thomson, Derick, ed., Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, Selected Poems (Edinburgh, 1996: Scottish Gaelic Text Society).
Thomson, Derick, An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry (Edinburgh, 1993: Edinburgh University Press).
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