The scarcity of published
Gaelic literature, which is one of the chief factors adversely affecting the
spoken language, is strikingly illustrated by the fact that the present book
is not only the first edition but even the first complete collection of the
surviving songs of the poetess of Harris and Skye. She is probably the best
of our minor Gaelic bards, and she has been dead for two centuries and a
quarter; yet her songs have remained scattered in various scarce books, and
only four of them have hitherto been edited. How much of her works is lost
to us we can only guess; this book contains all that is known to survive.
Circumstances have constrained me to try to meet three needs, the needs of
the Gaelic reader, of the English reader, and of the schools. In special
regard to the first and last, it may be said that the text has been formed
on principles stated elsewhere, that the spelling conforms to correct modern
standards, and that the apostrophe has been kept strictly in control. A
vocabulary is given, and the few points of language that seemed to need
discussion have received it. The Introduction contains what I have been able
to gather about the life of the poetess, along with some literary matter
which is meant to amplify what is said about Mary MacLeod in the
introduction to Bardachd Ghaidhlig.
As regards the translation, the text is perhaps hard enough to justify a
literal rendering, and such a rendering is necessarily in prose; but in any
case I am convinced that, to convey what is communicable of the spirit of
the original, prose is preferable to verse, and that the best English is the
simplest. I hope that the English reader will at least gather what Mary is
singing about, and that, if he abandons any previous misconceptions about
Celtic gloom and mysticism, he will perceive that the original is simple and
direct, though he cannot hear its melody or appreciate its sincere emotion.
My grateful thanks are due to all who have helped me in this little work; to
Miss Heloi'se Russell-Fergusson, at whose suggestion it was undertaken; to
the Librarian of the National Library of Scotland, and to the Librarian of
Glasgow University for access to manuscripts in their charge; to Mr.
Alexander Nicolson, Glasgow, who generously lent me, before its publication,
his paper on Mary MacLeod read before the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, so that
I could compare my results with his, and who was ever ready to aid me in
other ways; to Mr. Roderick Martin of Obbe, Harris, and to Mr. Iain MacLeod
of Bernera, Harris, who gave me their local tradition; to the Rev. A. E.
Robertson (a descendant of Sir Norman MacLeod of Bernera), for the
photograph which forms the frontispiece; and to Mr. Angus Matheson, who in
reading the entire proof made many valuable suggestions. Above all, I am
indebted to my father, Professor Watson, for the wisest of counsel and the
best of help. I need not say that none of these shares my responsibility for
the book’s defects.
Is e m’aon mhiann gum bi an leabhran so mar chloich air charn ban-bhaird nan
eilean, agus a chum maith Gaidhlig na h-Albann.
J. C. W.