Reference Number185
TitleThe Blind Harper. The Songs of Roderick Morison and his Music / An Clàrsair Dall. Orain Ruaidhri Mhic Mhuirich agus a chuid Ciùil
AuthorMorison, Roderick
EditorMatheson, William
Date Of Edition1970
Date Of Languagelate 17c – early 18c
Date Of Language Ed17th c.
DateMacro17th c.
Date Of Language Notes
PublisherScottish Gaelic Texts Society
Place PublishedEdinburgh
LocationNational, academic, and local libraries
Geographical OriginsLewis
Geographical Origins EdLewis
Geographical Origins Notes
RegisterLiterature, Verse
Register EdLiterature, Verse
This volume contains seven songs attributed to Roderick Morison, The Blind Harper, on a variety of subjects, including elegy and eulogy.
The volume also contains the surviving verses of Roderick’s father, John Morison.
The orthography of this volume has been modified to a mid-to-late 20th-century standard. A selection of readings from the sources is given in the section entitled ‘Variant Readings’.
Alternative Author NameRuaidhri Mac Mhuirich
Manuscript Or EditionEd.
Size And Condition22cm x 14cm
Short TitleAn Clàrsair Dall
Reference DetailsEUL, Celtic Library: LI G MOR
Number Of Pageslxxxvi, 265
Gaelic Text ByN/A
Social ContextIt seems that Roderick Morison (or Morrison) was the eldest son of John Morison, who was tacksman of Bragar in Lewis during the late seventeenth century. The family was descended from the hereditary family of judges (britheamhan or ‘brieves’) in Lewis. John Morison himself was a well-educated man, who played the violin and composed a number of verses. John Morison had six children – five sons (two of whom became clergymen) and a daughter.

Roderick Morison was probably born around 1656. He, along with one or two of his brothers, went to school in Inverness, possibly to train for the clergy. While there, it appears that Morison caught smallpox, and although he survived the illness, it cost him his sight. From this point on, Morison appears to have taken up music in earnest, and he may have spent some time in Ireland learning his trade. It is possible that Morison later spent some time travelling with a group of musicians, before he became acquainted with Iain Breac, chief of the MacLeods of Dunvegan, in Edinburgh. By 1683, Morison was firmly established at Dunvegan, where he held a tack of land from MacLeod. It is unclear whether Morison was employed as a professional poet and/or musician, or whether he simply enjoyed MacLeod’s patronage as a fellow-gentleman. The latter is possibly more likely.

After a while, this relationship broke down and Morison was sent from Dunvegan to Glenelg, where he was given the tenancy of Totamor, possibly rent-free. Morison was not particularly happy there, feeling somewhat neglected and estranged from Dunvegan and from MacLeod. It is possible that Morison’s Jacobite sympathies contributed to his exile in Glenelg, as MacLeod himself was very careful not to outwardly align himself with either side. Morison’s name last appears in the Dunvegan records in 1688, the year of James VII’s exile. It is also possible that by this time Morison had already fallen out with MacLeod’s son Roderick, to whom Morison composed a distinctly non-complimentary song, Oran do Mhac Leòid Dhùn Bheagain (pp. 58-73). Iain Breac died in 1693, and it was Roderick who succeeded him.

During his time in Glenelg, Morison became friendly with John MacLeod of Talisker, who seems to have been involved in the management of the MacLeod estates from the time of Iain Breac until his own death around 1700. After his death, it appears that Morison had to leave Glenelg, although the reasons for this are unclear. According to some sources, Morison went to reside in Lochaber with his father-in-law, although he appears to have made a number of tours around the noble families of the Highlands and Islands. Whether these sojourns were by invitation or otherwise is also unclear. At some point, Morison had married Catherine Stewart from Lochaber, and it is known that they had at least one son, James. It is unclear where Morison spent his last years. Tradition holds that on his death he was buried at Dunvegan, and it does appear that there was renewed contact between Morison and Dunvegan in his old age. The year of his death has been estimated to have been either 1713 or 1714. Only seven songs survive that can be confidently attributed to Morison.
ContentsThis volume begins with the editor’s Preface (pp. vii-ix) followed by a table of Contents (p. xi), a bibliography of Works Referred to and Abbreviations (pp. xiii-xxv) and a section entitled Sources of the Text (pp. xxvii-xxviii), which comprises a list of sources with abbreviations. The sources range from the Fernaig MS of the late seventeenth century to Watson’s Bardachd Ghàidhlig, which was first published in 1918. Table of Sources (p. xxix) gives the MS and printed sources available for each of the seven songs edited here.

Introduction to the volume (pp. xxi-lxxvi) establishes what can be known about Morison’s life and music, and touches on the themes and characteristics of his poetry. The Edition is preceded (p. [1]) by an Index of Songs. It contains the Text and Translation of Morison’s seven songs, with Gaelic and English printed on facing pages (pp. [3]-79). The songs are as follows: Oran do Iain Breac Mac Leòid (pp. 4-11), Féill nan Crann (pp. 12-19), Oran mu Oifigich Araid (pp. 20-31), A’ Cheud Di-luain de’n Ràithe (pp. 32-45), Creach na Ciadaoin (pp. 46-57), Oran do Mhac Leòid Dhùn Bheagain (pp. 58-73), Cumha do Fhear Thalasgair (pp. 74-79).

This edition also contains a section entitled Variant Readings (pp. 80-94); a section containing extensive Notes (pp. 95-148) on the background and subject matter of the poems and on the meaning of specific words and phrases; a section entitled Airs and Metres (pp. 149-63), which includes a general introduction to the Scottish Gaelic metres of the time, and includes musical notation for many of the poems; and a section entitled Instrumental Music (pp. 164-74), which contains an introduction to the subject, and includes the musical notation for four instrumental pieces, taken from Dow’s Collection of Ancient Scots Music.

Of the seven Appendices (pp. 175-254), Appendix B is entitled Traditions about the Blind Harper (pp. 183-85) and Appendix C is entitled The Blind Harper’s Family and Kindred (pp. 186-203). Appendix E and Appendix F contain information relating to Morison’s father, John Morison of Bragar. The volume also contains an Index of Persons (pp. 255-56), an Index of Places (p. 257) and a Glossarial Index (pp. 258-65).
SourcesAccording to the Table of Sources (p. xxix), the earliest locations for Morison’s poems are as follows: the Fernaig MS (Oran mu Oifigich Araid); the Turner MS (Oran do Mhac Leòid); the McLagan MSS (Féill nan Crann and Creach na Ciadaoin); the MacNicol MSS (A’ Cheud Di-luain); the Eigg Collection (Cumha do Fhear Thalasgair), and John MacLean’s MS Collection (Oran do Iain Breac). It should be noted that longer versions of some of these songs (e.g. Oran do Mhac Leòid Dhùn Bheagain) appear in certain later sources.
LanguageTwo of Morison’s songs were addressed to Iain Breac, the chief of the MacLeods. One is a eulogy, Oran do Iain Breac Mac Leòid (pp. 4-11), which dates from between 1681 and 1689. The other is an elegy, Creach na Ciadaoin (pp. 46-57), written on the death of Iain Breac in 1693. In the first of these, Iain Breac is praised in the traditional style, e.g. ‘Beul macanta ciùin ràbhartach \ ’n uair tharladh tu ’s taigh-òsd, \ a dh’fhàs gu seirceil suairce, \ gaol nam ban ’s nan gruagach òg; \ ’s iomadh maighdeann cheutach \ a bha déidheil air do phòig \ le’m b’ait bhith cunntadh spréidhe dhuit, \ ’s a deaslàmh féin le deòin’ (p. 6). In the second, Morison tells of his own sorrow at Iain Breac’s passing: ‘Is tearc a chaoidh mo ghàir’ éibhinn— \ cha bheus dhomh bhith subhach, \ ghabh mi tlachd am bith tùrsach, \ chuir mi ùidh am bith dubhach, \ mu’n tì-s’ tha mi ’g iomradh \ chuir an cuimhne mo phudhar; \ nois on fhuair an uaigh esan \ chaidh e ’n caisead mo bhruthach’ (p. 48). Morison also addresses Iain Breac’s son, Roderick, in this song, urging him to uphold the values of his ancestors: ‘Cha chùis dìon do Mhac Leòid \ a bhith dòlum ’s rud aige; \ lean an dùthchas bu chòir dhuit, \ is biodh mórchuis ’nad aignibh: \ ach ma leigeas tu dhìot e, \ bidh na ciadan ’gad agairt, \ ’g ràdh gur crannshlatag chrìon thu \ an àit a’ ghnìomharraich bheachdail’ (p. 56). In Oran do Mhac Leòid Dhùn Bheagain (pp. 58-73) Morison complains about Roderick’s non-traditional ways, and repeatedly contrasts these – using Mac-alla (‘Echo’) as his mouthpiece – with his father’s example, which Roderick was sadly unwilling to follow, e.g.: ‘Thig e mach as a’ bhùth, \ leis an fhasan as ùr bho’n Fhraing, \ ’s an t-aodach gasda bha ’n dé \ m’a phearsa le spéis nach gann \ théid a shadadh an cùil— \ “Is dona ’m fasan, chan fhiù e plang. \ Air màl baile no dhà \ glac am peana ’s cuir làmh ri bann”’ (p. 68). Morison composed at least one other elegy, Cumha do Fhear Thalasgair (pp. 74-79), a lament for John MacLeod of Talisker.

Féill nan Crann (pp. 12-19) is a humorous song, about the loss of the poet’s crann – ostensibly his ‘harp-key’, though the word is open to a more earthy interpretation in what follows, and the search for a replacement in Barra. The second stanza reads, ‘Chan fhasa leam na ’m bàs \ a bhith fo thàir nam ban; \ chan fhaod mi dhol ’nan dàil \ on dh’fhàilnich air mo ghean; \ ’s e their iad, “Ciod am feum \ a dh’fheudas a bhith ann? \ Chaidh ionnstramaid o ghleus \ on chaill e fhéin a chrann.”’ (p. 12).

A’ Cheud Di-luain de’n Ràithe (pp. 32-45) was composed while Morison was living at Totamor. The editor suggests that ‘one of his objects in composing the song was to save his herds from the attentions of the Lochaber cattle-reivers by judiciously combining flattery with pathetic references to his own poverty and blindness’ (p. 115). Morison associates the traditional heroic virtues with each clan before proclaiming that such heroes would not stoop to plunder a poor blind poet: ‘Is iad Clann Mhic Mhaol-onfhaidh \ as oirdheirce gnìomh, \ luchd shiubhal a’ gharbhlaich \ ’s a mharbhadh nam fiadh; \ cha d’fhuair iad adhbhar oilbheim \ mur folbhadh iad sliabh— \ cha dèan iad a bheag ormsa \ ’s nach lorgair mi ’s fiach; \ mo chreach mu’n coinnimh, ’s mi fo’n comairc, \ b’e ’n comunn mo mhiann, \ buachaillean mo threud \ ’n uair nach léir dhaibh a’ ghrian’ (pp. 37-38).

Oran mu Oifigich Araid (pp. 20-31) was composed ‘on the account of some officers who, for fear, quitted their commissions in King William’s service’ (p. 103). It is unclear whether it was composed by Morison ‘as if by Gillimichell McDonald’, or whether it was addressed to Gillimichell McDonald. According to the editor, the former is more likely. The song was composed in 1689, which explains why the poet puts the following question to officers holding commissions in King William’s army: ‘Ach ’n uair thig Rìgh Seumas \ ’s a dh’éighear e ’na chòir, \ càit am bi na h-eucoraich \ a thréig e d’an ceart deòin, \ ’s a bha gu saidhbhir feudalach \ ag éirigh air an stòr, \ ’n uair thàr iad sàst is éiginn \ air iad fhéin thobhairt a leòn?’ (p. 24). The song elicited a reply from Duncan MacRae of Inverinate (Donnchadh nam Pìos) who seems to have assumed that the song was addressed to Gillimicheil (see Appendix A).
OrthographyThe orthography is that of the mid-to-late twentieth century. Of Morison’s dialect, Matheson states in his Introduction that ‘there are a few lines that perhaps carry faint intimations of his native Lewis dialect, but only a few and we cannot be sure’ (p. lxxv). Most of Morison’s songs were written down long after he had died, and it is therefore difficult to determine what his own usages would have been and what adaptations were adopted by later reciters. The examples Matheson cites include sionfhacal (p. 24), fa dheireadh (p. 54), chionalta (p. 60), làsdail (p. 66), ’s fheudar faighinn sin dà (p. 70), and lanntair (p. 74).
EditionFirst edition. Editors should use the earliest text of each poem for citation purposes, though the present edition is invaluable for interpreting Morison’s poems. See Sources above.
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