In reissuing the songs of the
late Dr. MacLachlan, the Association is actuated by a desire to give their
countrymen, in a handy form a measure of the pure mother tongue, which is at
once healthy, elevating, and inviting; and they hope that while this may be
of more peculiar interest in their own native districts, it will prove
acceptable to the Gaelic-speaking people at large.
To a people essentially poetic, but whose force of spirit is now because of
oppression sadly abated, it is hoped that these songs though their bulk be
not large, nor their literary merit very high, contain so much of the true,
healthy Gaelic life and language as will make them very welcome. The morbid
hopelessness which stamps the face of every poor remnant of a departed
greatness really calls for what of healthy breathing can be communicated to
them by their fellows who, enjoying greater freedom, and to whom life being
real, have grown up in sympathy with the expressed inspiration of their best
life, beautifully and healthily breathed by their bards.
Many seek life and get unhealthy excitement, in low works of fiction, and
the effect is certainly not good. The healthy Highlander has no pleasure in
such literature; he does not require, and does not appreciate excitement of
this kind, but he has a pleasure and a delight in the beautiful, the pure,
and the good, as these are so well set forth in his Gaelic lyric poetry.
There are exceptions we know “arisingon the side of beauty and taste from
vulgarity; on the side of morals and feeling from coarseness; on the side of
mind and spirit from unintelligence,” for which maladies we cannot possibly
prescribe any remedy of a better kind than this savoury morsel of song from
John MacLachlan was born at the farm-house of Ralioy, in the year 1804, in
the centre of a district whose ancient history, rich traditional lore, and
gorgeous scenery all combined to make it peculiarly a home of inspiration.
Morvern and Morn and Spring and Solitude!
In front, is not the scene magnificent.
And bathing its winding shores on the north “A Highland Loch—Loch Sunart“
All shadowed there as in a spiritual world “Where time's mutations shall
come never more".
The beauty seems
“All of one element; nor wonder finds“ An end of wondering, nor Love of love
“Gazing together down the abyss divine".
Further to the west it is washed by the mighty flood of the-Sound of Mull
Dark Mull thy mighty Sound
Where thwarting tides in mingled roar
Part thy swarth hills from Morvern’s shore
Of which Sir Walter Scott further says “In fine weather a grander or more
impressive scene both from its natural beauties, and associations with
ancient history and tradition can hardly be imagined.” To the testimony of
Professor Wilson, and Sir Walter Scott, it is not necessary that we should
add, that of the many other writers who declare this region “the most
delightful in the British Islands.” It was here then that —
Roaming o’er the wilderness, the bard
Whose genius gave unto his native glens
A beauty and a glory not their own,
Peopling the mists with phantoms—the wild bard
Whom Morven in her sacred memories,
Dreaming of Ossian, aye will link with pride
To that great son of song—
Of sunshine, calms, and storms of thunder-gloom,
Did celebrate the virtues, and the forms
In which they were entwined.
In Gaelic lyrics untranslateable.
His father was of the family of Dunadd, which estate, famous in history as
the capital of the ancient kingdom of the Dalriads, his ancestors long
possessed. After studying Medicine in the University of Glasgow, he
practised his art in his native district, and so successful was he,
especially in some branches of his profession, that his fame was in all the
land. In Mull, Morven, Ardnamurchan, and Sunart, his services were greatly
prized. He was much beloved by the poor, and commanded their confidence,
affection, and respect throughout his lifetime in a peculiar degree. His
professional labours though extensive were not of the most remunerative
kind, so that often towards the close of his life he was in straitened
circumstances. He owned a small property at Dumbarton, but it is known, and
here mentioned to the honour of his memory, that whatever his difficulties,
however much his need, he never appropriated one penny of the income from
this source but uniformly gave it towards the comfortable support of his two
sisters, one of whom is yet alive.
According to a peculiar trait of their character, the people entwined his
life with many wonderful, and marvellous incidents. His student days are
especially enriched by unspeakable resurrectionist adventures. We with
abated breath, have often heard it told by the Oracle of the “Ceilidh” with
a creeping pathos that made the very oidest juvenile hair stand on end, how
in one of these adventures the integrity of a sack, in which he carried off
a “subject” giving way, led to consequences which to the lay mind were
altogether unearthly. .
He had rehearsed with such familiar power,
With such an active countenance, an eye
So busy, that the things of which he spake
In affairs of the heart his accidents are no less wonderful and accredited.
It is told how on an errand of this nature in which it was necessary for him
to cross a considerable arm of the sea, he availed himself of the
accommodation of a Highland bull that happened to be grazing in the
neighbourhood in order to get across more conveniently. Getting the-bull
afloat, and “holding on” he, it is said, managed to effect a fairly
expeditious transit in this unfamiliar way. He was seen in the course of his
progress by some natives, who, not being in the way of seeing Highland bulls
made available in this manner, were not slow in ascribing his transport to
another uncouth agent, who was generally accredited with a readiness to give
a mysterious assistance to certain persons and on this occasion the matter
was beyond all doubt or hesitation, “for” said they “we saw his horns.”
Nothing short of a special providence can have delivered him from the many
straits, into which he often led himself in affairs of this kind, but it is
remarkable that he always made a creditable escape; never once even did he
fail. Perhaps this explains the extent to which these stories contain any
So much of his life as we have in his songs, is essentially pure and
healthy. It is true he had our common weaknesses in full measure, and
sensitiveness of spirit in much greater measure than goes to constitute that
more cautious, but less noble, uncharitable spirit of the “sons of
arithmetic and of prudence,” that would frown on a life with which it was
impossible for their coarser clay to be in sympathy.
His certainly were natural talents of a very high order, which well directed
should have carried him far into the front—his a poetic gift, of which we
have but the few appended glimmerings, doubtless of the finest quality, and
which cultivated might have borne great fruit. The life of a Physician,
however, and his training are of such a kind, showing human life and human
affairs in a light too often of a nature not at all calculated to inspire
the spirit of poetry, as may in some part account for the limited exercise
of his powers in this direction.
It is almost incongruous to meet with such exquisite tenderness in one
having nothing of the typical man of feeling about him, but rather in an
eminent degree the stature and bearing of the warrior with an expression of
face royal in the highest sense. In person he was tall and powerfully built,
erect and free—almost musical—in his motion; and a large affable dignity of
presence, and a thoughtful yet cheerful countenance gave a splendid
character to an uncommonly well proportioned frame. Even in his latter years
when pity, hitherto locked within, asserted itself on his features, and
possibly also a discernible shade of remorse, when paralysis marred motion
and expression, and when his circumstances and conditions of life had much
changed, and doubtless much affected him, even then the nobility of
character remained, inseparable to the last. He could not be small. We
regret very much that no better portrait of him can he got than the poor
amateur effort from which our lithograph is taken. It cannot serve much
purpose to such as never saw him. To those who were acquainted with him in
life, it may serve a blank outline into which they perhaps more easily can
recall the living expression.
Though his songs may not claim equal importance or value with the great
hoary epic of Ossian, with the vigour of Mac Mhaighstir Alastair, with the
passion of William Ross, or the healthy rill of Donnacha Ban, yet they
possess several of the best qualities of poetry in such degree as makes them
well worthy of preservation.
Dr. Clerk, Kilmaillie says “as to his poetical powers and his exquisite ear
for rhythm, there need be no reticence: he was a poet and a very sweet
singer.” Of this quality noted by Dr. Clerk, we may instance
’S iad a chuireadh an iomainn’s a leanadh i teann Cho luath ri buic earba
feadh gharbhlach nam beann,
Than this last line we know nothing more exquisite, and this beauty of
melodious rhythm is not attained at the sacrifice of idea, for in this same
line we have a complete picture which to any one in sympathy with it is
His word paintings are always well toned, never heavy, often charming.
Tha guth na cuthaig air do stuclid,
An smudan air do glidig,
Os ceann do Ion tha ’n uiseag ghrinn Ri ceileir binn’s an speur.
Tha suaimkneas air gach luib fo bhlhth Baigh air gach creig ’us cluain
’Toirt a’m chuimhne mar a bha ’S na laithean thKrladli uainn.
No one can read these scenes but would wish he had his lot in some such. One
feels the crust of his spirit, the rigidity of life softened and warmed by
the imagination even of so great a suaimhneas and such overflowing baigh.
His use of words is also remarkably choice. Some of his passages can compare
favourably even with the recognised beauties of Donnacha Ban.
Cluinnidh mi ’ n fhairge ri borbhan ’Co-fhreagairt ri torman nan dos;
Cluinnidh mi braoilick nan aimhnean ’Co-fhreagairt ri raoicick nan eas.
This is a pretty piece of a word-weaving that is quite common with him;
there is no artificial stiffness about it; it is just as if the sea and the
torrents had themselves spoken, and each in its own great and peculiar
Akin to this quality is the peculiar suitableness of the airs to the words
of the songs. If one could conceive the songs planted in a genial soil,
these pretty airs would be their natural flowers in bloom. They can not, in
many cases, be separated but at the complete sacrifice of meaning and
effect. One has no conception of the beauty of some simple expressions till
they are sung.
We find this beautiful simplicity, and sympathy with the tenderness of
beauty, combined with large humane affections which get adequate hearty
expression; and departing further we find him at times throwing himself into
the great harmony of the troubled elements, and putting their great
commotion into human speech—into Gaelic, than which, for such expression it
has been long admitted, none other speech is better or perhaps equally
Feuch a nis beithir na beucaich A’ srachdadh nan speuran le fuaim;
’S ann sbaoil learn, ’n uair chuala mi ’n riasladh,
Gu-n tuiteadh an iarmailt a nuas.
With this we leave them to the reader, and heartily recommend them to his
study; they will amply requite the trouble.
To the present edition there are added a few pretty pieces which did not
appear in the first edition published by Mr. Sinclair, though they all are
given in his lately-published splendid collection, the Oranaiche. "Ho ro
gu’m mi ga d’ chaoidh,” is here given. We have every reason to believe it is
in its proper place from personal testimony as well as from the evidences in
the song itself. Other pieces are given about which never was any doubt.
We regret that we cannot give the airs with the songs. Should it be found
desirable we shall endeavour to give the music in a convenient form as soon
We also give a “Marbhrann” to Dr. MacLachlan, by Mr. Duncan MacPherson,
which requires no apology—a creditable production, well expressing the
affection and respect in which the subject of it was held by the people
among whom he lived and died.
The Gaelic Songs of the Late Dr.
MacLachlan, Rahoy (1880) (pdf)