Angus MacPhail: recalling a fine writer

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John Maclean (1827 – 1895) from Balemartin, Tiree, was a fine writer of political verse and his song Òran Manitoba from which the following verses are taken is one of many of his works relating to the Highland Clearances and the resulting campaigns to give crofters security of tenure on the land they rented.

Tiree suffered less than many areas of the Highlands and in this song the bard makes reference to the further-reaching political situation of the time and to the wider and enduring weaknesses of mankind that lead to injustices like the Highland Clearances.

Gur muladach mise ’s mi seo gun duin’ idir
A thogas, no thuigeas, no sheinneas leam dàn.
Le dùrachd mo chridhe, soraidh slàn leis na gillean

A sheòl thar an linne gu Manitoba.

Chan fhaic mi san àm seo ach caoraich air bheanntan:

Chaneil as a’ ghleann ach fear Gallda no dhà:
Am beagan a dh’fhan dhiubh air rudhaichean-mara

Gan iomain gu cladach ’s gam feannadh le màl.

Tha luchd-fhearainn shaoir as an àm seo ro-ghaolach
Air stòras an t-saoghail a shlaodadh bho chàch;
G’eil innleachdan baoghail sa’ Ghàidhealtachd seo daonnan

Air fògair nan daoine ’s chur chaorach nan àit.

’Se faileas nan daoine; ‘s nach sgarach an saoghal –
’Se ’s fasan dha daonnan bhith caochladh gach là.
Nar coigrich air uachdar, cha mhaireann ’s cha bhuan sinn

Is mìltean de thruaghain gam fuadach far sàil.

Cha labhair mi tuileadh mu euchd nam fear duineil

Ach ruigidh mi Rusia ‘s mullach Alma

Se daoiread an fhearainn chuir na Gàidheil an  tainead

’S gun chuimhne air Sebastopol ’s Balaclava

 

How sad I am here without a single companion

to raise a chorus, or understand or sing a song with me.

From the depths of my heart I send a farewell blessing

to the lads who sailed on the voyage to Manitoba.

 

I can see nothing but sheep on the hillsides:

there is no-one left in the glen but a stranger or two:

the few of them who are left are on headlands by the sea,

driven to the shore and flayed with rents.

 

The land-owning proprietors at this time are all too eager

to grab for themselves the worldly possessions of all the rest;

cunning schemes are always being used here in the land of the Gaels

to drive the people out and make room for sheep.

 

The people are but shadows; how fickle the world is

it is ever its nature to change day by day.

We are strangers upon its face, we are fleeting and impermanent,

with thousands of poor wretches being driven overseas.

 

I shall say nothing more of the deeds of the brave men

But I will mention Russia and the Heights of Alma.

It is the weight of the rent that has left the Gaels few in numbers:

Forgotten are Sebastapol and Balaclava.

 

There were many varying contexts in different places and at different times that led to the massive depopulation of vast geographic areas that became known as the Highland Clearances. Among the complex economic and political climate of the time, there is no doubt that there was systematic brutal injustice wielded on one part of society by another.

We are lucky that by the strength of bardic tradition that existed in the Highlands and Islands, these sad and cruel events were recorded at the time and are sung of frequently to this day. If anyone is in any doubt as to whether the Highland Clearances occurred or not, delve into Gaelic songs written in the 1800s. The evidence is stark and overwhelming.

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