The MacMhuirich Poetic Legacy

Contributed by Michael Newton

There are several notable examples of Scottish Gaelic poets in North America who are direct inheritors of the Gaeldom’s professional medieval literati. Although Iain MacGilleain (am Bard MacGilleain) and Iain MacGilleBhràth (Iain am Pìobaire Mór) are well known exemplars, less celebrated or investigated are the MacMhuirich (“Currie”) family who were apparently raised around Blackett’s Lake of Cape Breton.

The story of the MacMhuirich poetic dynasty is extremely interesting and colorful. The progenitor of the lineage, Muireadhach Albannach, seems to have left Ireland and taken refuge in Scotland after he murdered his patron’s tax collector with an axe in the year 1213. Muireadhach became the professional poet of the Earl of the Lennox (around the Loch Lomond area) and his descendants later became the professional poets of the Lords of the Isles. Sometime around the end of the 15th century, as the power of the Lords of the Isles declined, they sought employment with the most powerful branch of the MacDonalds, the Clanranald. They maintained their literary and scholarly responsibilities for the Clanranald, with a center of learning in South Uist, into the first quarter of the 18th century. This makes for more than five centuries of professional scholarship in Scotland, not even taking into account previous generations in Ireland.

Spurred on by James MacPherson’s Ossianic controversy, a team of investigators went into the Highlands around the year 1800 interviewing knowledgable people about Gaelic literature. One of those whom they interviewed was Lachlann MacMhuirich of South Uist, the son of the last professional poet (Niall) and the first generation of his family for many, many centuries to be illiterate in Gaelic. Most Gaelic scholars have left the history of the MacMhuirich family at this sad cul-de-sac, but their poetic legacy actually continues in North America, albeit as community poets rather than professional literati.

While the general picture of Gaeldom in the late 18th and early 19th century is that of a society under siege and a culture in decline, especially at the upper levels of society, there are some interesting counter-currents to this, and the resilience of MacMhuirich poetry in Cape Breton provides an interesting case study.

From the information I’ve been able to collect, it seems that Donald and Christina Currie – second cousins, both descended from Niall the poet – married and moved to Upper Grand Mira, Cape Breton, in about 1833. They produced six children. This is their family tree, as I’ve been able to construct it.

ClannMhuirichCB

The family was of course very proud of their illustrious literary pedigree, and at least three of them – Lachlann, Iain and Michael – were active poets themselves. At least three brothers – Iain, Michael and Joseph – were literate in Gaelic. I am not sure how they became literate in Gaelic, or if their parents were, but it shows that Gaelic literacy was sometimes regained by immigrants. Joseph was responsible for preserving some of the songs of his brother Lachlann via oral transcription and contributions to newspapers.

Michael was a school-master and wrote many articles and columns about the history of his Highland immigrant community and family.

Lachlann, also known as Am Bard Ruadh (“the Red-haired Poet”), was particularly prolific, with 13 surviving song-poems. He was said to be fond of young ladies, who formed the subject of many of his poems. As far as I have ascertained, he did not marry. The social prestige of the poet in Gaelic communities is reflected in his song “Òran na Méinn-Chopair” (“The Song of the Copper-Mine”), in which he depicts his poetic talent drawing the automatic respect and attention of a young lady:

… Chaidh mi shealltainn air mo charaid
’S gur e Alasdair MacLeòid e
Leis nach b’ fhuathach mi ga ruigheachd
’S ann aige tha nighean bhòidheach;
Nuair a chaidh mi staigh na fàrdaich
Chuir i fàilt’ orm le sòlas;
Bha fios aice gum bu bhard mi
’S rinn i gàirdeachas gu leòr rium. …

… I went to go see my friend,
That is Alasdair MacLeod,
Who was not unpleased for me to reach him,
He has a beautiful daughter;
When I went into her abode
She welcomed me happily;
She knew that I’m a poet,
And she was rejoicing heartily in my company. …

Most of the surviving song-poems composed by the MacMhuirich brothers were humourous in tone and local in scope, but an elegy by Lachlann for Monseigneur Neil V. G. MacLeod (†1891) recalls the style and substance of medieval panegyrics. This is because it is based on the elegy written by Iain Dubh mac Iain for the chieftain of Clanranald who died in 1716. Here is the opening stanza in translation and one of the other 19 stanzas:

It is Wednesday’s news
That has initiated my going grey;
It has left a heavy impression on the territory,
That Father Niall has abandoned us –
It is the most sorrowful trial for many. […]

You were of the aristocratic kin-group
Who won the battles
Under the magical banners;
It is heard in many historical narratives
That they scattered and routed the utter non-Gaels.

NOTE: A full edition of the poem and a couple other MacMhuirich poems can be found in my anthology of Canadian Gaelic literature, Seanchaidh na Coille / The Memory-Keeper of the Forest (Cape Breton University Press, 2015).