Reference Number187
TitleGaelic Songs of Mary MacLeod
AuthorMacLeod, Mary
EditorWatson, J[ames] Carmichael
Date Of Edition1934
Date Of Languagelate 17c – early 18c
Date Of Language Ed17th c.
DateMacro17th c.
Date Of Language Notes
PublisherBlackie & Son
Place PublishedLondon and Glasgow
LocationNational, academic, and local libraries
Geographical OriginsHarris, Berneray, Skye
Geographical Origins EdVarious
Geographical Origins Notes
RegisterLiterature, Verse
Register EdLiterature, Verse
NB See Edition (below) for Colm Ó Baoill’s new edition (2014) of Mary MacLeod’s songs, which supersedes Watson’s edition for scholarly purposes.
Contains 16 songs by Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh.
Most of the songs are elegies or eulogies.
The authorship of several of the songs in this edition has been disproved or is in doubt. (See 2014 edition for details in each case.)
The orthography has been modernised to a mid-20c standard. Some variant readings are given in the form of footnotes to the Gaelic texts.
Alternative Author NameMàiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh
Manuscript Or EditionEd.
Size And Condition18cm x 12.5cm
Short TitleGaelic Songs of Mary MacLeod
Reference DetailsFaclair Library
Number Of Pagesxxxiv, 158
Gaelic Text ByN/A
Social ContextWe have very little concrete evidence for Mary MacLeod’s life. It seems that she was born in Rodel in Harris, and was the daughter of one Alexander MacLeod, known as Alasdair Ruadh, who was a descendant of the MacLeod chief. At some point, she gained a position at Dunvegan, perhaps as a nurse to the chiefly family. According to Watson, ‘With that house she was ever more closely and more honourably associated throughout the chiefship of Iain Mór (Sir Roderick Mór’s son and successor), Roderick (Iain’s son), Iain Breac (Roderick’s brother), Roderick (Iain Breac’s son), and Norman (Roderick’s brother); more even than to any of these she was passionately devoted to Sir Norman MacLeod of Bernera in Harris, the third son of Roderick Mór’ (p. xiv). Her exact position in the household is unknown, but it may have been privileged, partly because of her genealogical connection with the MacLeod chiefs, and also because of her gift of poetry.

At some point, Mary MacLeod was exiled for a period of time, and it is possible that this occurred when Roderick became the seventeenth chief of the clan in 1693. He died in 1699, and she may have been able to return to Dunvegan at that point. In exile, it is possible that she lived in different places, spending time in Scarba, Pabbay, and latterly Mull. Tradition holds that she lived to an old age, although the date of her death is unknown. It has been said that by then she was very fond of whisky and snuff. She could neither read nor write. Watson saw her as one of the first untrained poets that we know to have composed eulogy and elegy in vernacular Gaelic, and to have used the so-called strophic metres.

Subsequent scholarship has questioned the inclusion of four songs in this volume: Posadh Mhic Leòid (pp. 2-11), Mairearad nan Cuireid (pp. 12-15), Tuireadh (pp. 32-35) and An t-Eudach (pp. 50-53). These songs are first associated with Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh in D. C. MacPherson’s mainly Lochaber-based anthology An Duanaire (1868). The first of them has been shown by John Lorne Campbell (1968) to be a composite created by MacPherson himself from three different earlier songs. The three others recur fairly widely as òrain luaidh, without any concrete evidence that they were composed by Màiri. In structural and thematic terms all four songs fit comfortably within the waulking song tradition and by the same criteria they stand apart from the songs that are securely identified as Màiri’s compositions. For discussion of these and related matters see Matheson (1951-52), MacInnes (1966) and especially Ó Baoill (2014).

From a lexicographical standpoint, these texts are comparable with other waulking-song texts which may have attained their present form in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries before being transmitted orally till the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (cf. Text 49).
ContentsThis volume contains an Editor’s Preface (pp. vii-viii), a Table of Contents (pp. ix-x), an Introduction (pp. xi-xxiv) reviewing Mary’s life and poetry. This is followed by sections entitled Notes on the Sources (p. xxx), Table of Sources of the Text (p. xxxi), Notes on the MacLagan MSS (pp. xxii-xxxiii) and Notes on the Nat. Lib. MS (p. xxxiv).

The 16 songs attributed to Mary MacLeod are presented on pp. 2-99 with Gaelic and English on facing pages. The lament for Iain Garbh of Raasay, Och nan och ’s mi fo léireadh, is printed on pp. 100-01, though Raasay tradition attributed the song to Iain Garbh’s sister and Watson did not believe it was Mary’s composition. This is followed (pp. 102-07) by the Classical Gaelic elegy on Sir Norman MacLeod, Rug an fheibhe a teirm as-teach, which was included ‘as a specimen of classic poetry for comparison with the style of Mary MacLeod’s composition on the same theme’ (pp 102-03). The volume is completed by Notes (pp. 109-42), Notes on the Metres (pp. 142-44), Relevant Dates (pp. 145-46), a Vocabulary (pp. 147-55) and an Index of Persons and Places in the Text (pp. 157-58).

See Ó Baoill (2014) for a full discussion of the songs printed in this volume which are probably not by Mary MacLeod, and of further texts that have been attributed to her – some more plausibly than others.
SourcesThe earliest sources for Mary MacLeod’s poetry are the McLagan and MacNicol MSS, the Eigg Collection (1776, Text 170), A. and D. Stewart’s Collection (1804) and Patrick Turner’s Collection (1813, Text 141); see the notes and table on pp. xxx-xxxiv. A number of songs attributed to Mary appear in later sources; these include the four songs mentioned above which appear for the first time in D. C. MacPherson’s Duanaire (1868), as well as additional versions of the songs reliably associated with Mary. These are mainly derivative texts, though they occasionally contain independent readings; editors should check with Ó Baoill (2014) for the presence and status of such readings.
LanguageMost, if not all of the songs in this volume contain some element of praise. According to Watson, ‘Of her sixteen surviving pieces four are slight; the remaining twelve are without exception laments for or panegyrics upon distinguished members of great houses’ (p. xx). The elegies include Marbhrann do Fhear na Comraich (pp. 14-20), Marbhrann do Iain Garbh (pp. 26-31), Marbhrann do Shir Tormod (pp. 88-95), and Cumha do Shir Tormod (pp. 96-99). A variant of this last song is given on pp. 141-42, as collected by Frances Tolmie. The panegyrics include Luinneag Mhic Leoid (pp. 36-43), Do Mhac Dhomhnaill (pp. 76-81), and Oran do Iain Mac Shir Tormoid (pp. 82-87).

In Watson’s view, ‘The spirit and atmosphere of Mary MacLeod’s panegyric is on the whole that of the classic poetry’ (p. xxi), and her elegies and eulogies certainly make use of a number of panegyric motifs which are found in Classical Gaelic verse. One of Mary MacLeod’s best known songs, An Talla am bu Ghnàth le Mac Leoid (pp. 20-25), is an excellent example of the panegyric mode. It is an elegy on Sir Norman MacLeod, and tradition holds that it was composed not after his death, but while he was suffering from an illness from which he later recovered. In this song, the poetess praises MacLeod’s hospitality and generosity: ‘Tigh mór macnasach meadhrach \ Nam macaomh ’s nam maighdean, \ Far am bu tartarach gleadhraich nan còrn’ (p. 20); his chiefly manner: ‘Fhuair thu teist is deagh urram \ Ann am freasdal gach duine, \ Air dheiseachd ’s air uirghioll beoil’ (p. 22); and his hunting skills: ‘Is i do làmh nach robh tuisleach \ Dhol a chaitheamh a’ chuspair \ Le do bhogha cruaidh ruiteach deagh-neoil’ (p. 22).

In a number of her songs Mary praises her subject by referring to the number of allies he can call on amongst other clans, e.g.: ‘Aig lìonmhorachd do chàirdeis riu \ Cha sgrìobhar iad air phaipearan; \ Bidh Frisealaich, bidh Granndaich leat, \ Bidh Rothaich a thaobh nàduir leat \ Nan cumadh iad an àbhaist riut \ ’Gad chur ’san àite an còir dhuit’ (p. 80). The subject’s ancestry is also a frequent focus of praise, e.g.: ‘Bha leth do shloinnidh \ Ri sìol Cholla \ Nan cìos troma \ Is nam pìos soilleir, \ Bho chóigeamh Chonnacht: \ Bu lìonmhor do loingeas bréidgheal’ (p. 94). The name of Olghar, a Norse progenitor of the MacLeods, is mentioned on a number of occasions, e.g.: Sir Tormod mo rùin, \ Olgharach thù, \ Foirmeil o thùs t’àbhaist (p. 44); De shliochd Olghair nan lann (p. 66).

Cumha do Mhac Leoid (pp. 52-59) is an elegy for Roderick (son of Iain Breac), the seventeenth chief, and his brother Norman, who was also presumed to have died at that time. MacLeod expressed her joy on hearing that Norman was still alive in An Crònan (pp. 60-71). In these two songs, MacLeod praises Norman, and praises both Norman’s and Roderick’s ancestry, but of Roderick himself they say very little, which may reveal her feelings in regard to both his own character and his abandonment of some of the traditional roles of the chief. In regard to Norman, however, there is no such reserve: ‘Is e m’aiteas gu dearbh \ Gun glacar grad shealbh \ An grunnd farsaing nan sealg \ Is an caisteal nan arm \ Leis a’ mhacaomh d’an ainm Tormod’ (p. 62).

In addition to the conventional tropes of panegyric, however, there is a distinctly personal note in MacLeod’s poetry, which is often lacking in the classical poetry. For example, in Marbhrann do Shir Tormod (pp. 88-95), the personal element is evident: ‘Is trom an cudthrom so dhrùidh, \ Dh’fhàg mo chuislein gun lùth, \ Is tric snighe mo shùl \ A’ tuiteam gu dlùth, \ Chaill mi iuchair mo chùil: \ An cuideachd luchd-ciuil cha téid mi’ (p. 88). Tuireadh (pp. 32-35) and Crònan an Taibh (pp. 44-49) were composed while MacLeod was in exile. In the former in particular she shows her longing to return to Skye, and expresses her sadness at being exiled: ‘Is muladach mì \ O cheann seachdain, \\ Is mi an eilean gun \ Fhiar gun fhasgadh. \\ Ma dh’fhaodas mi \ Théid mi dhachaidh; \\ Nì mi an t-iomramh \ Mar as fhasa’ (p. 32).

The four songs that are probably or certainly not by Mary MacLeod, namely  Posadh Mhic Leoid (pp. 2-11), Mairearad nan Cuireid (pp. 12-15), the aforementioned Tuireadh (pp. 32-35), and An t-Eudach (pp. 50-53), share some eulogistic features with her authentic compositions. The waulking song tradition has its own ways of invoking the panegyric code. These include the competitive vaunting seen in such flyting songs as Mairearad nan Cuireid, e.g.: ‘Gum faighte an tigh m’athar-s’ \ Sitheann ’s cnàimhean an fhéidh: \ Is gheibhte an tigh t’athar-s’ \ Sùgh is cnàimhean an éisg’ (p. 12).
OrthographyThe orthography of this edition is characteristic of the mid-twentieth century. In Watson’s own words, ‘The spelling conforms to correct modern standards, and … the apostrophe has been kept strictly in control’ (p. vii). The variant readings given in footnotes (see below, Edition) reproduce their sources without alteration.
EditionFirst edition; a reprinted edition was issued in 1965 under the imprint of the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society. A new edition, edited by Professor Colm Ó Baoill, was published in 2014, again under the auspices of the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, and is now the standard source of information on Mary MacLeod’s life and works. Editors should cite from the most authoritative original source (often the earliest) wherever possible. Note that some readings from original sources, including variants from other MS and printed sources, are given as an apparatus in the present edition. Professor Ó Baoill’s edition has a special section (pp. 235-60) containing full transcriptions of the MS sources he has followed for his edited texts, but he does not reproduce printed sources where the edited texts are based on these. Both editors make reference to variant readings when discussing texts in their Notes. Tables of sources are given on p. xxxi of the present edition and on p. [23] of Professor Ó Baoill’s edition.
Other Sources
Further ReadingCampbell, J. L., ‘Notes on the Poems ascribed to Mary MacLeod in D. C. MacPherson’s Duanaire’, SGS, 11 (1968), 171-91.
MacInnes, John, ‘Gaelic Songs of Mary MacLeod’, SGS, 11 (1966), 2-25.
Matheson, W., ‘Notes on Mary MacLeod’, TGSI, 41 (1951-52), 11-25.
Ó Baoill, Colm J., Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh. Song-maker of Skye and Berneray (Edinburgh, 2014: Scottish Gaelic Texts Society).
Link LabelDigital version created by National Library of Scotland
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