Crest of Clansfolk of Clan MacKay
Rob Donn Mackay (Poet)
-- Alasdair G. McKay
Rob Donn Mackay was born in 1715 to a sub-tenant on the Mackay estate of
Strathmore below Ben Hope. He came into the world, as did another
Scottish poet two generations later, in a "blast o' Januar wind". As Rob
Donn put this:
I was born in the winter
The Scotland into which Rob Donn came was one that was trying to settle
itself down after a century or so of turmoil which had its origins in two
16th century cataclysms, the first being the Reformation and the second
being the dynastic crisis precipitated by the birth of a "lass" Mary to
Among the lowering mountains,
And my first sight of the world
Snow and wind about my ears.
Many of the Scots of the 1690's and early 1700's must have felt about the
haranguing clergymen and the swashbuckling champions of the Stuart cause
much as did a Lady Elphinstoun, whose ready wit, at the age of upwards of
100 years gave a succinct judgement on the turbulent times through which
her long life had taken her.
According to Sir Walter Scott, this lady, a staunch Whig, was unwilling to
receive John Grahame of Claverhouse, one of the Stuart swashbucklers, but
had at length consented. Grahame observed to the lady that, having lived
so much beyond the usual term of humanity, she must, in her time have seen
many strange changes. "Hout na, sir," said Lady Elphinstoun, "the world
is just to end with me as it began. When I was entering life, there was
one Knox deaving us a' wi' his clavers and now as I am ganging out, there
is one Claver'se deaving us a' wi' his knocks." ("Clavers being then
common usage with the meaning of profitless chatter.)
This remarkable double pun of the old lady not only introduces us to the
state of the world into which Rob Donn was born, but also emphasises the
grave difficulty faced by one such as myself, who has no real knowledge of
Gaelic, in attempting any assessment of the worth of a poet who spoke no
other tongue and who was denied the gift of reading or writing even that
language. Could the most erudite scholar translate Lady Elphinstoun's
remark into Gaelic? How then are all of us who are not in a position to
read a poet in the original language to appreciate his art? I fear that
the answer must be: with great difficulty, if at all, given even the best
of translations. The pun, the double entendre can require lengthy
explanation to convey even the meaning so that the music of the poem is
quite lost in the process. To begin to understand Rob Donn's stanza:
The King of Britain has no chamber
One must first know that there are two Gaelic words of similar
pronunciation: cairn and cern. These have very different meanings. Cairn
refers to the airy summit of a mountain or crag, whereas cern is the
crowded stuffy communal servant's room of the tacksman's longhouse. While
the cern might offer a lass the opportunity of catching the eye of her
young man, she would wish to be in the spacious seclusion of the cairn
before responding favourably to any of his advances. How can one feel the
beauty of a poem if it is incomprehensible without such a long-winded, and
still inadequate, commentary?
More delightful than the Cairn is to me
For it is private for young girls
And there are sounds there when you desire them;
Grass and trees, blossom and leaf,
And many hues upon them,
And birds and echo like harp strings
Playing the loveliest airs.
We must leave those Gaels who still have their ancestral tongue to revel
in the poetry of Rob Donn as they do in the Fingalian lays of the ancient
bards, and be content with understanding the meaning of the words he
spoke. In stressing the importance of this aspect of Rob Donn's legacy,
Ian Grimble, author of "The World of Rob Donn", goes as far as to state
that "the most complete picture we have of the traditional Gaelic society
of the Scottish Highlands before it underwent such a brutal transformation
is preserved in the poetry of the Mackay country bard, Rob Donn.
Rob Donn lived at the lower end of the social scale in that half- feudal,
half-avuncular society which we call a clan. As a sub-tenant of Iain
MacEachainn, who was a third cousin of Lord Reay, Rob Donn and his brother
Donald Dubh were not really supposed to be out shooting in the Reay forest
for their own cooking pot (which might better perhaps have contained
haggis). His verse on this topic echoes "the Lincolnshire Poacher":
There was blood on the front of your shirt
Rob Donn is noted for his forthright comments on both the mighty and the
meek. Once, after failing to elicit a response from the chief's son for
better social services, he rebuked the man, on next seeing him in a new
coat, with the remark: "there isn't a button or a button-hole in it that
hasn't taken money off a poor man".
And it wasn't the book of the haunch of a goat
But the blood of a stag at rutting time.
And he was no robber was Donald Dubh.
For all that, the Mackay chiefs and their kinsmen had done a reasonably
good job of steering their clan through the turbulent 17th Century,
particularly in that they had formed close ties with William of Orange and
so ended up on the "right" side after the 1688 revolution. General Hugh
Mackay of Scourie had been William's commander-in- chief in Scotland and
had extinguished the military forces of Grahame of Claverhouse (the bonnie
Viscount Dundee of Jabobite song) by the early 1690's. Endeavours of this
kind involved considerable military recruitment within the clan, a
practice which enabled the Mackays to export their unemployment problems
and continued into Hanoverian times with contingents of soldiers heading
to Europe, Ireland and America.
A byproduct of this activity could be a dearth of swains in the Mackay
country. Of his brother, Donald Dubh, Rob Donn wrote, after the departure
of a unit for Ireland had depleted the number of eligible bachelors:
When we heard the rumour
Rob Donn himself served in the army, but not as a young soldier. His
period of military service came in his late forties, when he appears to
have held a position as a regimental bard. Perhaps he had realized the
truth of the remarks of his contemporary, Dr.Johnson about the making of
prose and poetry to the effect that none but a fool would take trouble
over the composition of words but for payment. The three or four years he
spent in this career allowed him travel and sojourn in the northern
Scottish towns in a more leisurely way than his more youthful journeys to
the south as a cattle drover.
That the young men went away from here,
Two of them (i.e. girls) came from Cape Wrath
On the tracks of Donald Dubh.
At about the time of Rob Donn's birth the war of the Spanish succession
drew to a close. This was a conflict into which Mackay soldiers were
drawn through the close association with the Netherlands. As one of the
provisions in the peace treaty, mainland Nova Scotia (of which Lord Reay
was a hereditary baronet) had reverted from French rule to British.
(Curiously and inexplicably, the administration of justice in that
Province then followed English law instead of reverting to the quite
distinct Scot's law, a fact commemorated at Fort Anne in Annapolis by a
plaque which endures as a bronze barb in the flesh of every Nova Scotian
of Scots origin.)
It is unlikely that any of these shenanigans in Nova Scotia ever came to
the attention of the Mackay chief, let alone his sub-tenants, for the
American involvement of Mackays in the early eighteenth century was with
warmer climes of the Caribbean and Georgia. Into the mouth of a young man
departing to seek his fortune in Jamaica, but looking forward to
returning, Rob Donn puts these words:
My journey lies to Jamaica
Shorter sea voyages than that to America were commonly undertaken from one
small harbour to another along the north coast of Scotland. Travellers in
the Mackay country particularly disliked taking the land route between the
Kyle of Tongue and Loch Eriboll over the peat bog called the Moine. (Even
as late as the early 1950's, I can recall my family turning back at the
Moine because of the road conditions, even although we were in a landrover.)
Many miles from this land,
And my thoughts are returning
To the shores of the Kyle.
I look forward to steering
Towards the goal of my travels
Beyond the Far Aird
Between the heathery islands.
Such coastal trips could go wrong, for example, the one made by an
unfortunate and seemingly unpopular man by the name of David, who was
swept away to Orkney while trying to round Cape Wrath. Of this
misadventure, Rob Donn commented, in terms of reminiscent of the sea
shanty "hullaballoo balay"
How distressing and miserable the crossing
Some journeys had to be made by land - particularly the droving of cattle
to the fairs in the Scottish Lowlands at Crieff and Falkirk over 200 miles
from the Mackay country. Although worked hard, the cattle drovers did
have the opportunity of travelling to far-off parts. Rob Donn recounted
the feelings of his master, a drover grown too old for that occupation:
That David made to Orkney -
There went the cheese, the kelp and himself.
Your neighbours were on the lookout,
Seeking news in every bay,
And such was their anxiety that they couldn't shed a tear."
But when they heard of your return
From the seas without mishap
Then people shed tears in plenty.
My spirits are as heavy as lead
Rob Donn seems to have enjoyed good rapport with his master Iain MacEachainn. When Iain cheated a Lowland cattle dealer, Rob retaliated
with a scathing poem, one of the penalties Iain payed for becoming,
through Rob's poetry, one of the best-recorded tacksman of his time.
Because I am in the north while you are in the south.
The old man sits at home, alone with his memories.
In making the acquaintance of all the drovers
I wore out many a boot and spur.
I gained great fame with cattle
For many a day before I ceased.
Rob Donn himself seemed to have grown too old to leave us comment on the
beginnings of the events leading up to the highland clearances. His
talents, he confessed, were leaving him towards the end of his life in
This first edition of his poetry was not published until 1829, fifty years
after his death, in a partly-Bowdlerised version by the Rev. Dr.
Mackintosh Mackay. The survival of the verse in the oral tradition for
half a century testifies to its powers of endurance.
Copyright (C) 1988; Alasdair G. McKay, Ph.D.
Published "The Clansman," October 1988
Published "The MacKay Times of New Scotland," Spring 1994
Author of above, Alasdair McKay, is widely known for his vocal renderings
of Scottish song and poetry. Alasdair and his wife, Pat McKay, have made
McKay's Nova Scotia Haggis
since Dominion Day (now Canada Day) 1977.
[Copyright (C) 1996]