A Sense of Place in the Poetry of Màiri Mhòr nan Òran
If you happen to be visiting Portree, the main settlement on the Isle of Skye, the chances are that you will take a wander down to the bay where in the flurry of tourists and opportunistic seagulls, it is easy to miss a plaque on a white-washed wall with the Gaelic words: 'Moch 's mi 'g èirigh, / air bheagan èislein, /air madainn Chèitein / 's mi ann an Òs' (As I rose early, / with few cares, /on a May morning / in Ose). The plaque marks the house in which the Skye poet, Mary MacPherson, more familiarly known in Gaelic as Màiri Mhòr nan Òran (Big Mary of the Songs), died in 1898 at the age of seventy-seven. The crofting township of Ose mentioned in the lines quoted, is on the west side of the island, on the shores of Loch Bracadale. The topography of this girth of land between Portree and Ose, marked by the prominent rock pinnacle of An Stòr on the east side and the two distinctive flat-topped MacLeod's Tables in the west, is referenced in many of Màiri Mhòr's songs through resonant associations that nourished her sense of place.
Although Màiri Mhòr lived for a large part of her adult life away from Skye, her 'glorious pride'1 in her native island permeates her poetry in no small measure. In Gaelic poetic tradition it is not unusual to signify place by means of historical or mythological association, but in Màiri Mhòr's understanding the most deeply felt place connections were those recalled from her lived experience. Her cartography of place is a peopled landscape: its topographical features and vegetation symbolic of the community and culture that she knew in her youth, and these personal and communal associations have a fervent emphasis in her songs. In his well-known essay entitled 'The Sense of Place', Seamus Heaney discusses a close connection to place as an influence that 'steadies' and informs a 'point of view'.2 These terms seem particularly apposite in reflecting on Màiri Mhòr's relationship with Skye as both bedrock and touchstone, and in understanding the central place the island has in her poetry. It is that two-fold dimension that I would like to hold on to here in exploring the sense of place in the poetry of Màiri Mhòr nan Òran.
If a sense of place nourished by the memory of her early years in Skye provided a steadying lyrical seam in her songs, it was from her personal experience of humiliation and injustice that other vital strengths emerged. In the spring of 1872, in her early fifties and recently widowed, Màiri Mhòr was accused of stealing a shawl from a house in Inverness where she was employed and as a result received a prison sentence in court, although there is nothing to suggest that this was anything other than a miscarriage of justice.3 In her anguish and distress at this time, when she might otherwise have collapsed mentally and physically, the sudden awakening of her poetic voice, shaped in the rich Gaelic song-making tradition of her young days in Skye, became the means of her salvation and empowerment.
The shame of her situation, and her resilience in surviving it and in turning her life around, are echoed in the ringing notes of anger and defiant confidence that sound in her songs as both a counterpoint and an intensifier to the lyrical voice. Indeed Màiri Mhòr refers to this directly in one of her songs, describing the 'faobhar' or 'sharp edge' that honed her mind and disposition as a result of her ordeal: ''S e na dh'fhuiling mi de thàire […] 'Chuir am faobhar air mo nàdar' (It was the shame I suffered, / that put the edge on my nature).4
In the emotional turbulence of this experience, it would be a natural reaction to desperately seek inner strength and 'steadying' in recollecting the people and the place that nurtured her. This is suggested in a song in which she presents her own account of her accusation and trial, where she refers to the fact that had she been in Skye no-one would have dared to lay a hand on her:
In the same song, she expresses her bewilderment that anyone could think that she would shame her people on account of a rag of old clothing: 'Dhol a nàrachadh mo dhaoine […] Air son clùdan a sheann aodach'.6 Her own reputation and the reputation of her people were one and the same, and 'mo dhaoine' encompasses both a specific (her people in Skye) and a generic (Gaelic-speaking) understanding.
The development of Màiri Mhòr's poetic voice from 1872 onwards coincided with the early beginnings and growth of the Highland Land League and its challenge to the power of the Highland landowners. The defiant confidence she took from her own experience of standing firm in the face of powerful opposition, together with her intrinsic understanding of place as both land and community, brought a vital energy to her songs in support of the land reform movement:
Màiri Mhòr returned to Skye to live in 1882 and, not surprisingly, it is in responding to the land protests that were unfolding in her own island that she is at her most confident and passionate, speaking out for her own place and defending her own people. She identifies noble Gaelic heroes not in the distant past but in the men and women of Braes confronting a group of around fifty policemen who were sent to quell their protests against having their grazing rights removed:
From her personal experience of court and prison, and her intense sensitivity to the injustice she suffered, Màiri Mhòr was able to comment with true conviction on the imprisonment of some of those involved in the land protests:
It is, however, in her songs of place reflecting on her early life in Skye that Màiri Mhòr's lyrical voice is most attuned to her subject. In the best of these songs she is bearing eloquent witness to the place and the community from which she grew and which sustained her through the storms of life. Her songs of this genre are often elegiac in tone at the start, but this is seldom maintained as she draws new energy and hope from the intense feelings aroused by familiar and significant places. […]
1 Somhairle Mac Gill-eain, 'The Poetry of the Clearances', in Ris a' Bhruthaich, ed. William Gillies (Stornoway: Acair, 1985), pp.48–74 (p. 71).