Musical tribute to the Lochcarron Bard

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A new album of music by Lewis piper James Duncan Mackenzie pays tribute the historical significance of his great-, great-grandfather – Iain MacRatha, Bard Loch Carrainn, or John Macrae, the Lochcarron Bard.

John Macrae was born in ‘Jeantown’, Lochcarron, in 1834, son of crofters Murdo and Flora Macrae.

John married Margaret Kennedy in 1881 and went on to have nine children, all of whom survived into adulthood. Significantly, eight of the children emigrated to America and New Zealand with only one returning to live in Lochcarron.

The village in Macrae’s early days was not the picturesque place it is today. Several reports referred to the poverty, ‘the houses of the people are generally poor huts … land uncultivated … people starving … horrible oppression’.

Macrae’s upbringing in such poverty had a huge bearing on his life.
In 1854, the Mackenzies of Applecross sold their 144,000 acres to the Duke of Leeds for £135,000. The Duke had the wonderful name of Francis, George, Godolphin, D’arcy, D’arcy-Osborne, MP. He accelerated the trend towards the creation of deer forests and large sheep farms with the resultant upheavals to the crofters.

The Duke died in 1859 when the estate passed to his nephew Lord Conyers. Two years later, Conyers broke up the estate and sold it in lots.

Sir John Stuart MP bought the Lochcarron estate. In 1876, he died and the estate was taken on by his son, Dugald Stuart. He continued the trend of putting his personal finances before the wellbeing of his tenants.

Thus it is easy to understand why Macrae became a radical and an event in 1882 – days before the Battle of the Braes – only sealed his political views.

Two Lochcarron crofters, George Mackenzie and Donald Maclean, had become embroiled in a dispute with Lochcarron estate. The case went to court and, surprisingly for that time, the two crofters won and were  awarded financial damages.

By way of revenge, Dugald Stuart issued eviction orders on both crofters’ families. This was despite the presence of sick and aged parents and neither family being in rent arrears.

Stuart called in the sheriff officers and his henchmen from Dingwall, who proceeded to evict the families and removed all their furniture.

John Macrae was by this time one of the organisers of the Highland Land Law Reform Association, Lochcarron branch. Crofters from as far away as Applecross, Kintail and Lochalsh converged on Lochcarron, overpowered the sheriff and replaced all the furniture back into the house. The authorities withdrew.

Macrae was not only a leader in the crofters’ fight in the Lochcarron area, he was also a bard. He would have occupied an important position as mouthpiece of the community as he came from a line of bards.

Macrae was a man of intellect who saw the importance of poetry in the struggle. Song was the primary vehicle of popular journalism among many Gaelic speakers as most newspapers of the day were in English.

Macrae was involved in another ‘riot’ the following year, on Sunday June 3, 1883, when about 200 crofters and fishermen blockaded Stromeferry, the port where the mail steamers left for Skye and Stornoway, to prevent three steamers from discharging their cargo of herring on the Sabbath. They held out all day and only at midnight did they allow the transfer to begin.

John Macrae felt this protest was one with the crofters’ struggle which was on going at the time.

Macrae lived to see the First World War and lost a son in France. Lance Corporal Murdo Macrae of the Gordon Highlanders was killed but two other sons also fought in the Great War.

Donald was wounded in the Dardanelles but recovered and returned to New Zealand.

John Macrae, the Lochcarron bard, died on January 31, 1929, at the age of 95.
It is fitting that his great-, great-grandson should preserve his name and carry on his memory in music, a medium he himself enjoyed.