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Dr John MacLachlan


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 Dr. MacLachlan.

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
Seemed present

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 truth.

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 quite delightful.

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 dialect.

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 adapted.

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 as possible.

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)


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