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Clan Donald Magazine No 9 (1981) Online

Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair - Alexander Macdonald, The Jacobite Bard of Clanranald by Norman H. MacDonald FSA Scot. 

Alexander MacDonald, better known to Highlanders by his Gaelic appellation, Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair,  i.e. Alexander son of Master Alexander, the term master being at that time commonly used to denote a clergyman, died about the year 1770 and was buried in the graveyard of Cille Maolruadh in Arisaig, West Inverness-shire. Set in one of the most romantic situations in the West Highlands, the Chapel of Cille Maolruadh dates as far back as 1575 and its recent restoration under the Job Creation Scheme has contributed to the attractions of this popular area. Extensive work has been carried out in the graveyard including the cleaning of the wall plaque erected in 1927 in memory of the Bard "by a few Jacobite admirers in New Zealand and some fellow clansmen at home, in recognition of his greatness as a Gaelic poet".

He was the second son of the Rev. Alexander MacDonald, Minister of Island Finnan, who was the fourth son of Angus Og MacDonald, 1st of Milton, fourth son by his fifth marriage to Margaret, daughter of Angus MacDonald of Dunnyvaig and the Glens, of Ranald MacDonald, 1st of Benbecula. Alexander, the father, i.e. Maighstir Alasdair was a younger brother of Ranald MacDonald, 2nd of Benbecula, the father of Flora MacDonald, so that Alexander, the son, was a full cousin of the Clan heroine. Maighstir Alasdair lived at Dalilea in Moidart where his son the Bard was most probably born about the year 1700. Since there were no schools in the area, Alasdair probably received his early education from his father who, having graduated as an M.A. at Glasgow in 1674, was no mean scholar. The Bard is said to have had a good classical education and this is borne out by his poems. According to tradition, while still a child, Alasdair lisped in numbers and began to rhyme early, symptoms of a born poet. Like his father he attended the University of Glasgow, which he is said to have left prematurely and to have married young.

In 1729, Alasdair emerges from obscurity when he is appointed teacher of a school at Island Finnan by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and catechist of the same parish, under the Royal Bounty Committee of the Church of Scotland. The nature of his appointment made it necessary for him to teach at different places. In 1738 he was at Kilchoan and the following year at Corryvullin, where he composed one of his best known poems: Allt an t-Siucar - The Sugar Brook. In 1741 he published his GaelicEnglish Vocabularly, a volume of 200 pages, and the first Scottish Gaelic vocabularly ever to be published. In 1744 he was unaccountably absent from home, his son Ranald acting as his substitute at the school. Early in 1745 he was summoned to appear before the Royal Bounty Committee in Edinburgh and the committee being dissatisfied with his response made further investigations regarding his past conduct and in July of the same year decided to dismiss him. Alasdair, however, had by that time found new interests. He could hardly have been unaware or the probable landing of Prince Charles Edward, generally expected after the defeat of the British under the Duke of Cumberland by the French at the Battle of Fontenoy on 11th May 1745, and when the ship that brought the Prince from Eriskay arrived at Loch nan Uamh, Alasdair hastened to welcome his royal kinsman. When they met Alasdair did not recognise the Prince on account of his disguise and proceeded to make free with him until the warning glance of a fellow clansman made him realise the prominence of the person to whom he spoke.

Alasdair's songs: Oran Nuadh - A New Song, Oran nan Fineachan Gaidhealach - The Song of the Highland Clans and Oran do'n Phrionnsa - A Song to the Prince, the last of which, is included after this article, show clearly the enthusiasm with which Prince's arrival was awaited by the Highland Jacobites and in particular the Bard himself. According to John MacKenzie (Eachdraidh a' Phrionnsa, p.254n), these poems were sent to Aeneas MacDonald, the Banker, Kinloch Moidart's brother, in Paris, who read them in English to the Prince, thus encouraging to come to Scotland. Alasdair, therefore, may well have indirectly contributed a great deal to starting the Forty-Five. He was one of the first to arrive at Glenfinnan for the historic raising of the Standard on 19th August 1745 which signalled the commencement of the Prince's campaign, and at which he is said to have sung his song of welcome: Tearlach Mac Sheumais, though this is open to question. He thereafter, "became the Tyrtaeus [1] of the Highland Army" and "the most persuasive of recruiting sergeants".

He received the first commission in the Prince's Army, that of a captaincy in the Clanranald Regiment, being in command of 50 "cliver fellows" raised by him in Ardnamurchan and was appointed to teach the Prince Gaelic due to his "skill in the Highland language". He served throughout the campaign until the defeat at Culloden, after which he and his eldest brother Angus, 2nd of Dalilea, found shelter for a short time among the woods and acres of their own country. Eventually, the search for the Prince became so intense that it became necessary for him to take his wife and family to the hills, his house and effects being plundered by the Hanoverian redcoats, even his cat being killed lest it might provide sustenance for his wife and children. After wandering from place to place during which time his wife gave birth to a daughter, they found shelter among his wife's relatives in the fastnessesbf Glencoc, where they remained until the Indemnity Act was passed in 1747.

In the summer of 1749 he, curiously enough, became Bailie of Canna, where he. and his wife and family took up residence and remained until 1751, in April of which year he visited Edinburgh for the purpose of having published his volume of poems entitled: Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chnoin Albannaich - The Resurrection of the Ancient Scots Language. "It is", as he says, "very characteristic of his reckless courage that he published these poems, breathing rebellion in every line, and pouring the vials of his wrath upon the whole race of the Georges, five years after the battle at Culloden." The publication so enraged the authorities that the unsold copies in the hands of the publisher were seized and burnt at the Cross in Edinburgh by the common hangman. Alasdair expected prosecution and settled first at Bignaig in Glenuig but soon falling foul of the estate management removed to Inverie in Knoydart. He did not remain there long either but removed to Morar and finally to Arisaig; first at Camus-na-talmhuinn and afterwards at Sandaig.

He frequently visited South Uist and was a great friend of John MacCodrum, the celebrated Bard to Sir James MacDonald of Sleat, for whom he had a great admiration. Alasdair is described as having been a good singer, tall, broad-chested, fair and handsome, sincere, honest, true to his friends and to his convictions. He "owed little or nothing either to his predecessors or his contemporaries" in the poetic field and ranks first among all the bards of Gaeldom with perhaps the exception of Sorley MacLean of our own generation but it is the present writer's opinion that the two are incomparable as they belong to different worlds.

Father Charles MacDonald in his, Moidart; or Among the Clanranalds records Alasdair's last moments from the tradition of district: 

In his last illness he was carefully nursed by his Arisaig friends, two of whom on the night of his decease, finding the hours rather monotonous, and thinking that he was asleep, began to recite in an undertone some verses of their own composition. To their astonishment, however, the bard raised himself up, and, smiling at their inexperienced efforts, pointed out how the ideas might be improved and the verses made to run in another and smoother form, at the same time giving an illustration in a few original measures of his own. He then sank back on the pillow and immediately expired. It was proposed at first to carry his remains to Eilean Fhionnain - Island Finnan, but the project, owing to a severe gale then raging along the coast, had to be abandoned. The Arisaig people thereupon got their own way, and Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair was buried in the cemetery of Kilmorie, close to the present Catholic church of Arisaig.

Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair left only one son, Ranald known as Raonull Dubh, who in 1776 published a Collection of Gaelic Poetry in Edinburgh containing several of his father's poems. He died in 1780 leaving a son Allan, who succeeded him. He was widely known for his great feats of strength and died in 1833 leaving a son Angus who shortly after his father's death, emigrated to the USA. When the Civil War broke out he received a commission in the 11th Wisconsin Regiment and distinguished himself by his gallantry during the operations of the Federal Army in Alabama and Mississippi, being severely wounded. He later received an appointment in the Civil Service and died, unmarried, at Milwaukee, in 1881, the last representative of the line of Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair.

The eldest son of Maighstir Alasdair the Minister of Island Finnan, Angus, known as Aonghas Beag 2nd of Dalilea, had a grandson, Lieutenant Angus MacDonald of Kenchreggan who had two sons, Colin and Allan. The elder son, Colin, had a son Allan who became an officer in the US Army and married Miss Eleanor Wiseman. They had a son, J. Wiseman MacDonald, Attorney and Counsellor-at-Law, Los Angeles, who matriculated arms in the Court of the Lord Lyon, Edinburgh, in 1914, as MacDonald of Dalilea. J. Wiseman MacDonald of Dalilea, purchased Castle Tioram, the ancient stronghold of the Clan Ranald, on Loch Moidart and was responsible for having much work of restoration carried out on that famous ruin between the First and Second World Wars.

Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair Alexander Macdonald
Oran Do'n Phrionnsa A Song to the Prince

Luinneag:

O, h-r-r, tha e tighinn,
O, h-r-r, 'n Rgh tha uainn,
Gheibheamaid ar n-airm 's ar n-ideadh,
'S breacan-an-fhilidh an cuaich.

'S ibhinn liom fhn, tha e tighinn,
Mac an Rgh dhlighich tha uainn,
Slios mr roghail d'an tig armachd,
Claidheamh us targaid nan dual.

'S ann a' tighinn thar an t-sile
Tha 'm fear rd as ille snuadh,
Marcaich' sunndach nan steud-each
Rachadh gu h-eutrom 'san ruaig.

Samhuil an Fhaoillich a choltas,
Fuaradh froise 's fadadh-cruaidh;
Lann thana 'na limh gu cosgairt
Sgoltadh chorp mar choirc' air cluain.

Torman do phoba 's do bhrataich
Chuireadh spiorad bras 'san t-sluagh,
Dh'ireadh ar n-ardan 's ar n-aigne,
'S chuirte air a' phrasgan ruaig.

Tairneanach a' bhomb 's a' chanain
Sgoilteadh e 'n talamh le 'chruas,
Fhreagradh dh gach beinn 's gach bealach,
'S bhodhradh a mhac-tall' ar cluas!

Gur mairg d'an ideadh 'san l sin
Cta grnnd' de 'n mhdur ruadh,
Ad bhileach dhubh us cocrd innt'
Sgoiltear i mar chl mu'n cluais!

Refrain:

O, hi ri ri, he is coming.  
O, hi ri ri, our exiled King, 
Let us take our arms and clothing.
And the flowing tartan plaid.

Joyful I am, he is coming  
Son of our rightful exiled King, 
A mighty form which becomes armour,  
The broadsword and the bossy shield. 

He is coming o'er the Ocean  
Of
stature tall, and fairest face, 
A happy rider of the war-horse,  
Moving lightly in the charge. 

Like the gales of March his visage  
Or dog-tooth in the wind storm Seen;
A slim sword in his hand for battle  
To cut down foes like standing grain. 

The music of thy pipes and banner,  
Would fill thy folk with reckless fire, 
Our proud spirits would awaken,  
And we'd put the mob to rout. 

The thundering of bombs and cannon  
With
its force will rend the earth, 
Hill and dale will answer to it,  
And the echo leave us deaf! 

Pity him who on that day then  
Wears the ugly coat of red, 
His black hat, bordered and cockaded,  
Split like a cabbage round his ears!  

Photograph: The graveyard at Cille Maolruadh, Arisaig. Photo courtesy The Oban Times.

Editor's Footnote:

[1]  An ancient Greek lyric poet of the 7th century BC whose war-songs inspired the Spartans in their struggle with the Messenians. -N.H.M. (Return to text).

Footnote to the Online Edition:

For more, see the page on Niall MacEwan's Cape Breton Web Site dedicated to Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's work. -R.K.W.M. 

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