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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter XXII.—John Mackenzie of the "Beauties."


JOHN MACKENZIE, piper, poet, and author, is best remembered as having been the collector and editor of the work entitled the "Beauties of the Gaelic Language." He was born 17th July 1806, at Mellon Charles. He was the eldest son of "Alastair Og," who, like his father before him, was tacksman of all the lands on the north side of Loch Ewe belonging to the lairds of Gairloch. John Mackenzie's mother was Margaret, daughter of Mr Mackenzie of Badachro. On the father's side he was fifth in direct male descent from Alastair Cam, youngest son of Alastair Breac, fifth laird of Gairloch. He •was educated primarily at home, afterwards at a small school on Isle Ewe, and finally at the parish school of Gairloch. From childhood he evinced a peculiar delight in reading, and especially devoted himself to the study of the songs and music of his native district. While -a mere child he made a fiddle for himself, and later on a set of bagpipes, using no other instrument or tool than his pocket-knife. He became an excellent piper, and could also play the piano, fiddle, flute, and several other instruments. His parents, seeing his skill •with his knife, apprenticed him to a travelling joiner named William Ross. During his travels with his master, John Mackenzie found congenial employment in noting down the Gaelic songs and tales floating among his countrymen. While executing some work at the manse of Oairloch he received a severe blow on the head, which for a time incapacitated him. On partially recovering he went to a carpenter at Conan Bridge to complete his apprenticeship, but he soon found that the injury to his head was of such a permanent character as to unfit him to pursue his trade further. Nor was he sorry to give up what was by no means congenial to his taste. He returned to Gairloch, and employed himself in collecting the poems of William Ross, most of which he obtained from Alexander Campbell. He spent twenty-one nights taking down Ross's poems from the lips of Alastair Buidhe. He seems from this time to have given himself up to literary work, and strenuously he laboured at it, spending some twelve years in travelling through the Highlands collecting materials for his great work the u Beauties of Gaelic Poetry." While thus travelling he procured a large list of subscribers for this work and other publications. In 1833 he left his native parish, and in the same year appeared "The Poems of William Ross, the Gairloch bard," with "The History of Mac Cruislig; a Highland Tale," in one volume; and several other works of minor importance. Within the year a second edition of Ross's poems was called for. In 1836 he obtained a situation as bookkeeper in the Glasgow University Print-ingoffice. The "Beauties" appeared in 1841. He disposed of the copyright for a mere trifle to a publishing firm in Glasgow, he himself engaging to superintend the work while passing through the press, a labour which undermined his never very robust constitution. His next work of importance was the "History of Prince Charles," in Gaelic, which was published by an Edinburgh firm. This was a translation, but poor John Mackenzie received very small remuneration for his skill and labour. The publication of these works brought him considerable fame in literary circles, and he soon after obtained an engagement with Messrs Maclachlan & Stewart, Edinburgh, at one pound per week. He produced for them translations into Gaelic of Baxter's "Call to the Unconverted;" Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," "Come and Welcome," "World to Come," "Grace Abounding," "Water of Life," and "Sighs from Hell;" as also, Dyer's "Christ's Famous Titles," and Guthrie's "Christian's Great Interest." John Mackenzie was also the author of the English-Gaelic part of the dictionary known as Mac Alpine's. He produced an enlarged edition of the poems of Duncan Ban Macintyre, and various other works. In all he composed, edited, or translated above thirty publications. His last completed work was "MacAlpine's Dictionary." In 1847 he issued a prospectus for an enlarged edition of the "Beauties." He was also the sub-editor of the Cuairtearnan Gleann; and he wrote some original Gaelic sermons, for Highland ministers who were too ignorant of the language to compose their own sermons in it. At the time of his death he was preparing a new edition of the Gaelic Bible, which he left in an incomplete state. Being in very weak health he returned in May 1848, after an absence of fourteen years, to his father's house at Kirkton, or Inverewe, where, after a lingering illness, he died on 19th August 1848, aged forty-two years. He was buried in the old chapel in the churchyard at Gairloch. Almost the whole population of the district attended the funeral.

John Mackenzie was slenderly built, fair-haired, and sharp-featured. He was from his youth upwards considered quite a character in his native district. He composed several pieces of his own, but not of the highest order. He made a song in 1830 to Mary Sudge (with whom he had fallen in love), and published it in his "Crultear; or Gaelic Melodist." He also composed an excellent song to a weaver's loom. He became well known as a good piper; he and John Macrae of Raasay used to be judges of pipe music at the Edinburgh competitions.

Several anecdotes are related exhibiting his originality and humour. One is worth recording here. He was travelling through Skye and the Islands gathering materials for his own works, and collecting accounts for the Inverness Courier. He had collected a considerable sum and paid it into a bank at Portree, where he was invited by the banker to spend the night. Next morning he strolled down to the pier, and there saw a ship with the form of a woman as figurehead. At this he stared so intently and earnestly, assuming at the same time his usual comic attitudes, that the captain's son noticing him asked, "Is she not really a very beautiful woman?" "Oh,. yes," answered John, "I wish you would sell her to me." "You had better buy the ship," said he. "Oh, I cannot; it's not every man. who could buy the ship, and it's her figurehead I want." The captain's son, still chaffing one whom he took to be a mere simpleton,. and referring to John's long overcoat, answered, "I have seen many a man with a shorter coat than yours who could buy her." "Well,. if she is cheap, I would like to buy her for the figurehead. Have you any cargo in her?" "Yes; I have five hundred bolls of meal in her; and you shall have the whole for three hundred pounds." John jumped on board, handed a five-pound note to the captain's; son, who was part owner and was working the vessel, and said, "The ship is mine as she stands, cargo and all; come to the bank at twelve to-morrow, and you shall have the money." John went to the banker,, related what had passed, informed the banker he had no money to-pay for the ship, but that she was a good bargain, and that they must watch lest the captain's son should get away with her and the five pounds. Inquiries were made, and the banker agreed to pay for the ship, which was really worth more than three hundred pounds. They went at once to the captain's son, and offered him the money. He was in great distress, and begged to be relieved of the foolish. bargain, finally offering John sixty pounds for himself if he would, give up his right to the ship. This sum he magnanimously declined,. and gave up the ship, strongly advising the captain's son to be more careful in future; not to chaff any one who had no intention of interfering with him or his; and, particularly, never to judge a man by his appearance, or by the length of his coat.

On 26th July 1878 a monument to the memory of John Mackenzie, which had been erected on a projecting rock outside the Gairloch churchyard, near the high road, was uncovered by- Sir Kenneth Mackenzie of Gairloch, in presence of a large number-of spectators. The monument, which is a granite column thirteen feet six inches high, was raised by a public subscription, originated and carried through by Mr Alexander Mackenzie of the Celtic Magazine. There are suitable inscriptions in Gaelic and English, that in English being as follows:—"In memory of John Mackenzie (of the-family of Alastair Cam of Gairloch), who compiled and edited the 'Beauties of Gaelic Poetry;' and also compiled, wrote, translated, or edited, under surpassing difficulties, about thirty other works. Born at Mellon Charles, 1806; Died at Inverewe, 1848. In grateful; recognition of his valuable services to Celtic literature, this monu: ment is erected by a number of his fellow-countrymen, 1878."


 


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