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Clan Donald Magazine No 6 (1975) Online

The MacMhuirrich Bards to Clan Donald by Lt. Col. William Currie of Balilone FSA Scot.

Muireach, the founder of Clan Mhuirrich (MacVurich now known as Clan Currie, the name Currie being the present day version of the Gaelic patronymic Mhuirrich) was the friend and Bard of Donald, the founder of Clan Donald. From then on throughout the centuries the connection between the two families was very close. The MacMhuirrichs were the Chief Bards to the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles. They took active part in the rise of the Lordship of the Isles and held office within it for the entire period of its existence as an independent Kingdom.

The MacMhuirrichs were the outstanding example in Scotland of a family whose successive generations held literary office on a hereditary basis. The length of their service amounted to well over five hundred years, during which their influence impinged on a large part of the Gaelic area. Without doubt they were the most notable Bardic dynasty in Scotland.

The position of Bard was held in the highest esteem and took precedence in the Chief's household. The Bard took rank next to the members of the Chief's own family. An old account emphasises this when it quotes:

To distinguish the honour of each by his raiment, from the highest to the lowest, this was the distinction made between them:

Seven colours in the clothes of a King and Queen
Six colours in the clothes of an Ollamh (Bard)
Five colours in the clothes of Lords
Four colours in the clothes of Hospitallers
Three colours in the clothes of Sons of Lords of Territories
Two colours in the clothes of Soldiers
One colour in the clothes of Commoners 

In peacetime the Bard was Poet, Genealogist, Herald-of-Arms and Historian. In war he was Aide-dc-Camp to the Chief. It was the Bard who, prior to the general adoption of the Fiery-Cross, summoned the Clan to arms and it was his war-songs that inspired the clan to deeds of valour. In the Bard, as a matter of fact was embodied the whole ''esprit de corps" of the Clan. Therefore in Celtic Society the Bards wielded considerable power and influence over all strata of that Society. Their status is shown by the large amount of land and farms they held in virtue of their office. John MacMhuirrich, the Bard to the last Lord of the Isles, had five farms and eight merklands of the best land in Kintyre, ''whereas one merkland in Islay maintained one Gentleman in 'meat and cloth' who did no ordinary manual labour, but had to be in constant readiness as one of the Chief's Household, ready with service and advice".

This can be compared with the English "Knights-Fee" holding, so called because it was designed to support the armed service of a Knight. This comparison clearly indicates the social  importance of the MacMhuirrich family, in that they held eight times that "Fee" of the best land.

It was in the year 1213 AD Donald, King of Innse Gall and founder of Clan Donald welcomed to his Court the great and famed Poet, Muiredach O'Daly, who had been principal poet at the Court of Cathal Crodhearg, King of Connaught towards the end of the 12th Century.

Muiredach was descended of the Royal Race of Ireland and a member of the most famous Bardic Family in the Celtic World - the O'Daly's. To have such an illustrious Poet as an Officer of his Household could only add lustre and prestige to Donald's own Court. So it was with joy and pleasure that Donald learned that Muiredach's stay in Scotland was likely to be protracted.

Muiredach, it transpired, had escaped from Ireland to Scotland after splitting the head of O'Donnell's steward with an axe when the latter had the temerity to demand rent from the Poet. Muiredach dismisses the affair in a poem:

Trifling our quarrel with the man
A clown to be abusing me,
Me to kill the churl
Dear God is this a cause for enmity?       
 

It would be easier, says Muiredach, to bear O'Donnell's anger if he had killed a Prince or a Chief's son. However, Muiredach considered it wise to efface himself for a spell after this incident and therefore crossed over the narrow sea to the Island of Islay, the stronghold of Donald, grandson of Somerled, Regulus of Argyll and the Isles.

Donald was a considerable potentate in the Western seaboard of Scotland - the Isles and western mainland being under his sway. By protecting Muiredach who was used to drinking wine at the hands of Kings, Knights, Bishops and Abbots, Donald saw this as a further opportunity of increasing his own standing and status. Donald the proud and haughty Magnate and Muiredach the high-born and fiery tempered Poet complemented each other and a friendship that lasted all their lifetime was formed.

After his escape to Scotland, Muiredach heard of his wife's death and wrote a lament for her:

Tonight, O God, I am alone,
Thou lookest on a crooked and evil world.
Twenty years we were together, sweeter with every year was our converse,
One of my limbs she was, one of my sides, She was of countenance like the white-thorn…

And so on for many more lines of pathetic regret. He was a highly religious man and one of his poems shows his great depth of feeling:

The Sinner.

I praise thee Christ that on Thy breast
A guilty one like me may rest
And that Thy favour I can share
And on my lips Thy cross may bear. 

O Jesus sanctify my heart
My hands and feet and every part
Me sanctify in Thy Good grace
Blood, flesh and bones and all my ways. 

I never cease committing sin
For still its love resides within
May God His holy fragrance shed
Upon my heart and on my head. 

Great glorious One vouchsafe relief
For all the ills that bring me grief
Ere I am laid beneath the sod
Before me smooth my way to God.

In later life he accompanied Donald of the Isles on a Pilgrimage to Rome and possibly the Holy Land. Several poems commemorate this expedition. In one he refers to himself as a Palmer; another concerns his tonsuring in preparation of the 5th Crusade which began in 1217.

The Song of Murdoch the Monk.

Murdoch, whet thy knife, that we may shave our crowns to the Great King,
Let us sweetly give our vow, and the hair on both our heads to the Trinity,
I wilt shave mine to Mary; this is the doing of a true heart;
To Mary shave thou these locks, well formed, soft eyed man,
Seldom hast thou had, handsome, a knife on thy hair to shave it;
Oftener has a sweet, soft queen combed her hair beside thee.
Whenever it was that we did bathe, with Brian of the well-curled locks,
And once on a time that I did bathe at the well of the fair-haired Boroimne,
I strove in swimming with Ua Chais, on the cold waters of the Fergus,
When he came ashore from the stream, Ua Chais and I strove in a race;
These two knives one to each, were given us by Duncan Cairbreach;
No knives were better; shave gently then Murdoch,
Whet your sword, Cathal, which wins the fertile Banva.
Ne'er was they wrath heard without fighting, brave red-handed Cathal,
Preserve our shaved heads from cold and from heat, gentle daughter of Iodehim,
Preserve us in the land of heat, softest branch of Mary.

This is a curious dialogue between Muiredach and Cathal Crodhearg, King of Connaught, when both of them were then entering on a monastic life. The poem clearly indicates Muiredach's high birth.

On his return to Scotland from Rome he composed a poem at the head of Loch Long where the weary pilgrim sat down to rest himself.

Mi m'shuidh air cnocan nan deur
Gun chraicionn air meur no air bonn
A Righ 's a pheadair's a Phoit
'S fada 'n Roimh O Loch Long.       
 

As I sit on the hillock of the tears
Without skin on finger or sole of a foot
O King and O Patrick and great Refreshment
'Tis a long time since I have been here, O Loch Long.

(Translation by John A. Macdonald, Senior Lecturer of the Gaelic Department, Jordanhill College of Education).

His life shows a great mobility of movement but there is no record of his ever returning to Ireland. His fame and stature as a poet was without parallel in Gaelic Scotland where till his last days he held an honoured and revered position. The native Scottish Gael claimed Muiredach as their own. This is shown in the proud title they bestowed on him - Muiredach Albannach - Murdoch of Albyn or Scotland. To the Gael the Kingdom of Scotland at large was known only by the name Albin and its inhabitants by the name of Albanich. By using the appendage "Albannach" they inferred that Muiredach was one of own. This distinguishing appellation of Albannach was used by the family thenceforth. Three hundred years after Muiredach's death the last bard to the last Lord of the Isles is described as "Jonn MacMuirrich Albany".

Even among that long line and distinguished family of Poets - The O'Daly's - Muiredach stood out as a Prince of Poets. In tribute therefore to his father's fame, Muiredach's eldest son Niall took the surname, not of O'Daly but MacMhuirrich, this being the Scottish Gaelic form for Son of Muiredach. So was founded a new family name of Poets in Scotland. A family that was to keep the literary torch burning brightly for generations in the Western Isles.

Just as Muiredach's son took his surname from his father's Christian name, so also did the son of Donald of the Isles, the friend and patron of Muiredach. Both men founded families that proudly took their names - The MacDonald's and the MacMhuirrichs and the deeds and fortunes of both families were interwoven with each other throughout the centuries to come. The MacDonald's went forward in power till they built up their dominion - the famous Lordship of the Isles. For nearly 300 years the Isles, under the over-lordship of the Macdonald's, almost constituted a separate kingdom, concluding its own treaties from time to time with England, Scotland, Ireland and even France. It was a happy and peaceful period for the islanders.

The Lordship as the constituted authority was powerful enough to maintain order and to administer justice. His court was far from the state of barbarism which ill-informed writers would lead us to believe. The facts testify to the length historians have gone astray in their assessment of the character of the Gael and how helpful a knowledge of the Gaelic background would have been towards giving the correct view-point.

The Lord of the Isles had all the appurtenance of the complete monarch. The personal state and dignity kept by the Island Lords was essentially regal. They were crowned at their accession, like sovereigns, and at death they were entombed in Iona, where the dust of monarchs reposed.

It is historical fact that as the Clan Donald grew in power so also, within that structure did the MacMhuirrich family grow in importance as the most learned family in Gaeldom. However with the fall of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493 the connection with the literary schools of Ireland, maintained by the MacMuirrichs, ceased, and the patronage of learning in the Isles passed away.

At this time the Head of the Family/Clan of the MacMhuirrich was John who held lands in Kintyre in virtue of his office of Bard to the last Lord of the Isles. His eldest son and heir was Donald who chose war as his profession, being involved throughout his lifetime in the various attempts to resuscitate the Lordship of the Isles. He acquired the lands of Balilone in Bute, the senior family continuing thereafter to take this as their territorial designation up to the present day.

A junior cadet branch was destined however to preserve the literary tradition of the family. This Branch of Clan MacMhuirrich stemmed from Niall, born about 1471, the youngest brother of John MacMhuirrich who was the bard to the Last Lord of the Isles. Niall, aware of the changing fortunes in the Lordship of the Isles and having some training in the Bardic Art of his family, decided to offer his services to the MacDonalds of Clan Ranald in South Uist. It was a fortuitous arrival in 1491 for Niall because the Chief of Clan Ranald welcomed the idea of having a Bard, especially one from the great MacMhuirrich family who already had served Clan Donald for 300 years.

When in 1493 AD the MacDonald Lordship was forfeited, this branch of the MacMhuirrich family continued as bards and historians to the MacDonalds of Clan Ranald, keeping, therefore, an unbroken connection between the MacMhuirrichs and the Macdonalds. Neill's descendants held this hereditary Bardic Office until the fall of the Gaelic way of life in 1746 AD.

All MacDonalds can therefore take pride in the fact that the MacMhuirrich Family/Clan who kept the literary torch burning brightly in the Western Highlands for over 500 successive years were the hereditary Bards of Clan Donald.

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