A Sense of Place in the Poetry of Màiri Mhòr nan Òran
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A number of these songs describe her occasional visits back to her native island when she was living in Greenock, in the Lowlands. As the steamer nears Skye, Màiri Mhòr recognises and names familiar landmarks as significant markers of proximity to home, an overture on a homeward journey that will be familiar to many. With each named place, she feels an increased rejuvenation and renewal of mind and spirit:
In another song, Màiri Mhòr returns to Skeabost, the district of her upbringing, and in low spirits and heavy-hearted, she struggles with the stark reality of absence and change. This situation is emphasised by a well, 'Tobar-a-Mhàil', where in the past she had often stopped to take a drink, but now she finds it full of sediment and silt:
However, when she reaches her old family well, 'Tobar Iain Bhàin', named for her father, she finds the stones that his familiar hands had placed around it are still there, and comprehends these as a gift left for her return. In drinking a cupped handful of the clear spring-water from the well, she experiences physical and mental renewal: 'Dh'òl mi làn mo bhois den bhùrn, / 'S rinn e m' ùrachadh san uair.'12 (I drank my full hand of the water, / And it restored me instantly). Through this symbolic act reconnecting her with those who have gone before, her natural cheerful disposition is restored, and the realisation that the past is continuing in the present is further emphasised when she is greeted with her Gaelic patronymic of 'Màiri nighean Iain Bhàin' (Mary daughter of fair-haired John):
Relieved of her melancholy, Màiri Mhòr is able to contemplate past and present in a much more sanguine and determined frame of mind, as she continues her pilgrimage to specific places that refresh her memory of the people she knew and the social activities she enjoyed there.
The permeable boundary between the past and the present and an evocative recall of place are strong threads in one of Màiri Mhòr's most accomplished songs, 'Nuair bha mi òg', in which she is again reflecting on a return visit to Skye. She is back in Ose, a place where she had often stayed in the past, on the western boundary of her home area, as mapped at the start of this essay. The song describes her early waking and stepping out into a May morning with all her senses attuned to her surroundings: the sounds of the cattle as they move off; the rising sun in the east lighting up the distant pinnacle of An Stòr and gleaming on the slopes of the mountains; and overhead the sweet song of the skylark. These are sights and sounds that Màiri Mhòr would have seen and heard countless times in her youth and each is a trigger for memories of the past while also significantly marking her encounter with the present moment. This is perhaps the most personal of her songs of place in which she strings together fleeting images of her younger self, revealing how close and intimate her sense of place is:
Màiri Mhòr's personal topography of place as described in this song is of moor and glen, a terrain of mossy hummocks, heather, and still lochans: the habitat of snipe and skylark, and the familiar wild flowers whose names she recites as if to ensure that they have not gone from her memory. This is not a fanciful pastoral (although Màiri Mhòr is not by any means immune to slipping into that tone at times) but rather a narrative of resonant familiarity: a landscape that was walked and known in all its intimate detail, and where in her own memory, there had been a population and a way of life closely connected to the land. In the same breath as she records the pastureland gone to heather and rush, she recalls her younger self making sheaves there at harvest, and in noticing the houses falling into ruin and overgrown with nettles, she can name the people who had lived there. However, in reiterating the standard imagery for a displaced and departed population that occurs in many nineteenth-century Gaelic songs, Màiri Mhòr is reluctant to fully accept the implied prognosis: ''S nam faicinn sluagh agus taighean suas annt', / Gum fàsainn suaimhneach mar bha mi òg'.15 (If I would see people and houses back up there, / I could feel tranquil as I was in my youth).
The theme of recovery and renewal, a note of defiant confidence in Màiri Mhòr's perspective on the Gaelic community in the last two decades of the long nineteenth century, owed much to her distressing experience in Inverness in 1872, a situation where the prospect of a positive outcome could not have seemed less likely. It was, however, the catalyst for a dramatic turnaround in her life, and she draws on the well-rehearsed trope from earlier Gaelic poetry, the wheel of fortune, to make sense of this: ''S e cuibhl' an fhortain a dhol tuathal, / a chur mise anns a' chruaidh-chàs' (It was the wheel of fortune turning backwards / that put me into adversity).16 Just as the wheel swings 'tuathal', attracting misfortune, it can also turn 'deiseal' (sunward) bringing a providential change in fortune, as Màiri Mhòr experienced in her own life. Thus she is able in her song 'Eilean a' Cheò' to confidently assert to those lamenting the loss of their people and their culture, 'Gun tèid an roth mun cuairt duibh'17 (That the wheel will come around for you).
Her close interaction with the land movement must also have encouraged her in this optimistic perspective, particularly as she was often present at Land League rallies where the passionate rhetoric of the speakers would have resonated deeply with her own response to land and place. The Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean in his long epic poem 'An Cuilithionn' written in the bleak years of the 1930s could find no sign that Màiri Mhòr's hopeful outlook for Skye had come to pass: 'Seachnaidh mi clàr treun a h-aodainn, / 's mo sgeul air buaidh ar n-Eilein traoighte', (I will avoid her brave forehead, / as my tale is of the ethos of our island ebbed').18 He would understand more than most how much she had invested in that hope, sharing as he did a vision of redemption for his people. As MacLean has noted, the poetry of Màiri Mhòr is uneven in quality and sometimes inconsistent in perspectives on certain landlords, but he also had great admiration for its passion and 'brave optimism'.19 To admit that there are weaknesses in her songs is not to deny the strengths, and of these a sense of place, rooted in the land and life of her home island, has a vital and powerful resonance.
Priscilla Scott is affiliated to the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, where she completed a PhD in 2013 on Women in the Gaelic Movement, 1886–1914. Her main research interest is concerned with women's participation and perspectives in Gaelic literary and historical contexts of that period.
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10 'Ath-Ùrachadh m' Eòlais', in Nic-a' Phearsain, DO, p. 192.