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The Scottish Nation

MACVUIRICH, the surname of a family which for several generations held the office of bard and genealogist to the Macdonalds of Clanranald. Niel MacVuirich, the last of the bardic race, lived to a great age in South Uist, and died in 1726. He wrote in the Gaelic language the history of the Clanranald, as well as collected some ancient poetry, and the annals of past times. All his own compositions have been lost, excepting three pieces which are given in Mackenzie’s ‘Beauties of Gaelic Poetry,’ pp. 65-67.
The following curious and interesting declaration of Lachlan MacVuirich, son of Niel, taken by desire of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland, appointed to inquire into the nature and authenticity of the poems of Ossian, will throw much light on the bardic office, as well as furnish some information regarding the celebrated Red Book of Clanranald. It is a translation of the original written in Gaelic, and addressed to Henry Mackenzie, Esq., at the time he was writing the Society’s report of Ossian. “In the house of Patrick Nicolson, at Torlum, near Castle Burgh, in the shire of Inverness, on the ninth day of August, compeared, in the fifty-ninth year of his age, Lachlan, son of Niel, son of Lachlan, son of Niel, son of Donald, son of Lachlan, son of Niel Mòr, son of Lachlan, son of Donald, of the surname of MacVuirich, before Roderick M’Niel, Esq. of Barra, and declared, that, according to the best of his knowledge, he is the eighteenth in descent from Muireach, whose posterity had officiated as bards to the family of Clanranald; and that they had from that time, as the salary of their office, the farm of Staoiligary, and four pennies of Drimisdale, during fifteen generations; that the sixteenth descendant lost the four pennies of Drimisdale, but that the seventeenth descendant retained the farm of Staoiligary for nineteen years of his life. That there was a right given them over these lands, as long as there should be any of the posterity of Muireach to preserve and continue the genealogy and history of the Macdonalds, on condition that the bard, failing of male issue, was to educate his brother’s son, or representative, in order to preserve their title to the lands; and that it was in pursuance of this custom that his own father, Niel, had been taught to read and write history and poetry by Donald, son of Niel, son of Donald, his father’s brother.

“He remembers well that works of Ossian written on parchment, were in the custody of his father, as received from his predecessors; that some of the parchments were made up in the form of books, and that others were loose and separate, which contained the works of other bards besides those of Ossian.
“He remembers that his father had a book, which was called the Red Book, made of paper, which he had from his predecessors, and which, as his father informed him, contained a good deal of the history of the Highland clans, together with part of the works of Ossian. That none of those books are to be found at this day, because when they (his family) were deprived of their lands, they lost their alacrity and zeal. That he is not certain what became of the parchments, but thinks that some of them were carried away by Alexander, son of the Rev. Alexander Macdonald, and others by Ronald his son; and he saw two or three of them cut down by tailors for measures. That he remembers well that Clanranald made his father give up the Red Book to James Macpherson from Badenoch; that it was near as thick as a Bible, but that it was longer and broader, though not so thick in the cover. That the parchments and the Red Book were written in the hand in which the Gaelic used to be so written of old both in Scotland and Ireland, before people began to use the English hand in writing Gaelic; and that his father knew well how to read the old hand. That he himself had some of the parchments after his father’s death, but that because he had not been taught to read them, and had no reason to set any value on them, they were lost. He says that none of his forefathers had the name of Paul, but there were two of them who were called Cathal. He says that the Red Book was not written by one man, but that it was written, from age to age, by the family of Clan Mhuirich, who were preserving and continuing the history of the Macdonalds, and of other heads of Highland clans.

“After the above declaration was taken down, it was read to him, and he acknowledged it was right, in presence of Donald M’Donald of Balronald, James M’Donald of Garyhelich, Ewan M’Donald of Griminish, Alexander M’Lean of Hoster, Mr. Alexander Nicolson, minister of Benbecula, and Mr. Allan M’Queen, minister of North Uist, who wrote this declaration.” The last Lachlan above mentioned as father of Niel Mòr and son of Donald, was called for distinction’s sake, Lachunn Mòr Mac Mhuirich Albannaich, or Lachlan Mòr MacVuirich of Scotland. He lived in the 15th century, and was the author of a remarkable war-song, composed wholly of epithets arranged in alphabetical order, to rouse the clan Donald previous to the battle of Harlaw (See Mackenzie’s Beauties of Gaelic Poetry, p. 62, Note.)

Every great Highland family had their bard, whose business it was to recite at entertainments the immense stores of poetry which he had hoarded up in his memory, and to preserve the genealogy and commemorate the military actions of the heroes or chief. When Niel MacVuirich, the last of the bards, died in 1726, the bardic order became extinct in Scotland.

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