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Sorley MacLean, Derick Thomson, and the Women Most Dangerous to Men

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The poem is extremely difficult, and in this we are not helped by the poet, who was habitually economical with punctuation and whose translations were notoriously over-literal. As an experiment, I will present five stanzas of the poem, all except the fifth in three different forms: first the original, with my own punctuation added; then MacLean's translation; then my own translation, done in my usual style, which I would describe as offering a modicum of rhythm and explanation. I have chosen these stanzas because they contain almost the only hard evidence for the subject-matter in the form of two references to the blind catechist Donald Munro (1773–1830), a one-time fiddler who not only gave up playing the instrument after his conversion but is said to have gone around making bonfires of bagpipes and fiddles wherever he found them. I begin in the middle of the first section, in which the poet expresses wonder that anyone should wish to leave such a paradise as the old Land of MacLeod, but admits that the motive is greed for the gold rumoured to be in the cave:

Có eile dh'fhàgadh Dùis MhicLeòid
's gun e ri cosnadh an dìol-déirce,
's gun e ga bhioradh leis an àrdan —
ach rathail làidir sona òg,
gun fhaileadh le uisge na tàmailt
's gun bhadhbh an aithreachais air a thòir?

Who else would leave the Land of MacLeod
if free from the poor wretch's labour,
not pierced by a wounded pride,
strong, fortunate, happy, young,
not flayed with the water of humiliation
and not pursued by the Fury of remorse?

Who else would leave the Land of MacLeod
if not reduced to beggar's employment
and if not pierced by some wounded pride,
but lucky, stalwart, happy and young,
not flayed alive by the rain of insult
and not haunted by the hag of repentance?

I have kept the poet's 'wounded pride' because I believe that in this case he is telling us something useful. Uisge is both water and rain. MacLean's 'water of humiliation' could refer to a process of steeping that removes hair from skin, but only if the skin is already separate from the body. I cannot make sense of it other than by understanding uisge as rain. In Skye, rain is frequently cold and uncomfortable to the skin, hence the imagery of flaying. Badhbh is one of the evil hags of folklore, by no means an abstraction. MacLean goes on:

Cha robh a Dhall-san air an spiris
eadar a chridhe 's eanchainn
a' maistreadh Nàdair le loinid,
a' cur a' bhainne 'na fhuil
agus na blàthaich 'na h-eabar
air bruaich shleamhainn an t-sluic.

His Blind was not on the perch
between his heart and his brain,
pounding Nature with a churn-staff,
turning the milk to blood
and the buttermilk to a slush
on the slippery edge of the pit.

His Blind Munro was not on the hen-roost
in between his heart and his brain,
whisking Nature with his churn-stick,
converting pure milk into blood
and turning buttermilk into mud
on the slippery slope of hell.

Dall in Gaelic is 'a blind man' as well as the adjective 'blind', but MacLean's use of 'Blind' is not transparent in modern English. A loinid is a whisk used for making milkshakes and the like. In his translation, MacLean seems deliberately to be toning down the strength of this verse. To the bulk of the Free Presbyterian community in which he grew up, Donald Munro was a hero, and questioning his destruction of musical instruments was almost heretical. Yet in Gaelic tradition am fear a th' air an spiris, 'the man on the hen-roost', is the devil and the sloc (genitive sluic) or 'pit' is certainly hell. The reason why the first piper's Blind Munro is none of these things is that he predated him. So while this stanza invites us to see Donald Munro as the devil, it does so negatively, and of course the name 'Munro' (Rothach) is unstated for the very good reason that the first piper's sightless friend (I do not know whom MacLean had in mind) was presumably not a Munro at all.

I will not quote from the second section. It clearly refers to Dòmhnall Bàn, who went to fight in an unpopular war under an unpopular chief and never returned, or by extension to the poet himself, who went to war in a similar mood and did not expect to return. It is explicitly stated that the Land of MacLeod is in cultural decline and that the piper's motive this time is not greed but the desire to be remembered as a hero. The cave, then, has come to symbolise a journey to war, while the Land of MacLeod stands for something larger — Skye and Raasay, the Highlands, Scotland, or the whole of western civilisation. There are other symbols dependent on these, notably the pipes: when the allegory is interpreted autobiographically, they presumably stand for MacLean's poetry.

The third section speaks much of two men being in the Cave of Gold, which therefore brings us down, it seems, to a straight comparison between the old days and the new, between MacCrimmon and MacLean, between music and poetry. This section is just as difficult as the first two, however. Towards the end we have:

Thill cù eile 's e air fhaileadh,
thill e còmh' ris an spiorad,
an ceòl a thàinig 's nach d' fhalbh
fhad 's a bha Leòdaich san Dùn,
mun do shìolaidh asta 'n gnàths
a bha 'n cuislean triatha 's Dùis
mun robh an fhraineach air fàs.

Another dog came back without a hair,
it came back with the spirit,
the music that came and did not go
while there were MacLeods in the Dun,
before there seeped out of them the nature
that was in the veins of lord and land
before the bracken had grown.

Another dog returned singed and hairless,
it came back home along with the spirit —
the music that came and went not away
as long as MacLeods were in Dunvegan,
until there drained from the laird and the land
the habits that used to run through their veins
until the bracken started to grow.

Gnàths is a key word here: MacLean says 'nature', I say 'habits'. 'Convention' or 'tradition' would be equally good, as would 'culture' if it were not such a cliché. There is surely an echo here of the famous song that contains the words an talla am bu ghnàth le MacLeòid. These are regularly translated 'MacLeod's wonted hall', but there is much more to it than that: it is the hall in which the MacLeod chief kept up the fame passed on to him by his forefathers — for hospitality, for even-handed judgement of disputes, for the care of the poor, for patronage of all the arts, for the pursuit of learning. In the fourth line, the 'Dun' is certainly Dunvegan Castle, and it may be objected that despite what the poet says, there are still MacLeods in Dunvegan, or argued against this that as descent was ultimately through a female, these so-called MacLeods are in fact Wolrige-Gordons. But in any case I think the line is not so much genealogical as proverbial, meaning 'for a very long time'. The last three lines express the very old idea that all good things (in this case music) result from a symbiosis between the ruler and the land. The poet goes on:

Mun d' fhàs i tiugh os cionn an fheòir
's a cop uaine mun bheul
tron tàinig anail nan ceòl
a' còmhstri ri bràdair an Doill
anns na loisgeadh miann is dùil
a dh'agair nach b'e 'm bàs 's an fhoill
a bha sa chonnsachadh chiùin
a mhathaich tairbhe bhith san fheòil.

Before it had grown thick above the grass
with its green froth about the mouth
through which came the breath of the musics
striving with the great fire of the Blind
in which were burned desire and expectation,
that argued that it was not death and deceit
that was in the mild contention
that there was profit in the flesh.

Before it grew thickly above the grass
with its pale green foam around the mouth
which breathed the breath into all the musics
that strove with the bonfire of Blind Munro,
the fire that consumed all desire and hope —
musics which claimed that the calm contention
that fertilised increase to be in the flesh
was more than simply death and deceit.

The 'it' of the first two lines is the bracken, rendered in Gaelic by feminine pronouns. Cattle do not allow bracken to grow, but sheep do. This then is a reference to the nineteenth-century clearances that made way for sheep. The 'mouth' is surely that of the people, threatened simultaneously by the 'green foam' of clearance and the 'bonfire' of evangelicalism. What comes out of the mouth is plural — bagpipe music, song and poetry. Lines 7–8 of MacLean's original and translation appear in lines 6–7 of my translation as 'the calm contention / that fertilised increase to be in the flesh'. The reader may laugh, but I cannot think what MacLean could mean by this except sex. His translation is deliberately unhelpful, even coy: he omits to translate mhathaich, which means 'manured, cultivated, fertilised'. Until modern times it was conventional to clothe sex in the vocabulary of violence, and the oxymoron connsachadh ciùin, 'calm (or mild) contention', is an example of this. So MacLean speaks of the evangelicals' equation of fornication with 'death and deceit' and the message of art that there is a good deal more to it than that. Which brings him on to his conclusion:

Dithis ann an Uamha 'n Òir
a' dol an coinneamh a' bhàis:
fear nach cuala mun chù,
a neart aineolas nan òg;
an dàrna fear le barrachd lùiths
agus an laige thar gach laige
's fhios aige gu robh an cù
de choin uamhalta 'bhàis
's gu robh a fiaclan cheart cho fada.

Two men in the Cave of Gold
going to meet death:
one who had not heard of the dog,
his strength the ignorance of the young;
the second with greater strength
and with the weakness above all weakness,
knowing that the dog was
of the eerie dogs of death
and that her fangs were quite as long.

That is MacLean's translation, and I cannot better it. Although the path to this conclusion has been tortuous, uncertain and littered with ambiguities, it seems clear enough in itself. The Cave of Gold is now a woman's body, or rather the bodies of two women. The two men are the poet when young and when a little older. In terms of the original legend, the dog is not the piper's innocent companion but his diabolical foe. The 'weakness above all weakness' is the desire to succumb to the charms of a known temptress. The last line is unfinished: the poet means that the fangs of the second dog are as long as those of the first. An 'the dog' is masculine, but is referred to in the last line as feminine, both in the original and in the translation. These are the personal concerns of the poet in the 1930s, but the poem was not published until the 1970s. In fact, there are two more sections, both short and both described as fragmentary. Obviously 'Uamha 'n Òir' was never really finished. […]


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