Island Poetry

‘Once we made songs to be sung – now we write poetry to be read.’

That statement, made in Gaelic by Donald John MacDonald (1919-1986) of South Uist, sums up the essential difference between the oral and literary traditions. Although the latter has been established in Gaelic for virtually fifteen hundred years, oral song-poetry was for the great majority the staple form, and Donald John’s upbringing in Uist gave him ready access to much of the immense resources of that tradition. His father was the famous seanchaidh Duncan MacDonald, some of whose long heroic tales were published by K. C. Craig in 1944.

Duncan’s brother Neil was at least as accomplished a storyteller; and both men carried thousands of lines of poetry in their memory. Their aunt, Mairi Nighean Alasdair, had a great repertoire of waulking songs, most of which were published by K. C. Craig in 1949. The poet’s mother and sisters were well-known singers and his maternal uncle was the renowned bard Donald Macintyre who spent much of his life in Paisley and who won the Bardic Crown at the Mod. (His poetry was published by the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society many years ago.) Donald John himself collected over twenty manuscript volumes of Gaelic poetry, prose and folklore for the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies. His family background, it is clear, could hardly have been more congenial for the nurture of his talents.

His experiences as a soldier in the Second World War, and particularly the privations he endured as a prisoner of war from 1940 to 1945, are described in his book Fo Sgàil a’ Swastika (‘Under the Shadow of the Swastika’). The hardships he suffered in quarry and salt mine, and the constant hunger, probably undermined his health. But, as his editor says, on the credit side he experienced companionship and loyalty – even in the face of death. ‘I learned more in those five years,’ he declared afterwards, ‘than I could have in eighty years of ‘ordinary’ living.’ In another of his books, Uibhist a Deas (‘South Uist’) there are fascinating observations on the history and culture of his native island.

His first book of poems appeared in 1973 – Sguaban Eorna (‘Sheaves of Barley’) but he had already, in 1948, won the Bardic Crown at the National Mod and been awarded the Ailsa Trophy. On these counts alone, Donald John MacDonald is one of the outstanding figures in twentieth century Gaelic life and letters.

Bill Innes, a friend and neighbour, brought up beside the poet, has now produced the collected poems. They are expertly edited and translated line by line into English. An interview recorded by the late Donald A. MacDonald (now available in Scottish Gaelic Studies, vol. 17) is acknowledged as having provided much of the insight into the bard’s creative processes, while Ishabel T. MacDonald, singer and composer, is credited with having fired Donald John’s enthusiasm for hymn composition. Other singers, especially Catriona Garbutt, have popularised the poet’s religious compositions.

Donald John’s poetry covers a good part of the ground that the traditional Gaelic bard has made familiar: love of the poet’s native place; memories of exploitation and deprivation in the crofting townships, and no less in the service of the British Empire; and a keen and strongly expressed patriotism. Donald John MacDonald was an internationalist (see, for example, the poems ‘Flanders’, ‘Poland’ and ‘Cogadh no Sìth‘ – ‘War or Peace’). He was also a convinced Scottish Nationalist.

And there is, of course, the theme of love. The North Uist poet Mary Maclean is the recipient of the most intense love poems in this book. Her own account of their relationship can be read in detail in Timothy Neat’s recent book The Voice of the Bard, which contains interviews with a range of poets, Gaelic and English, along with vivid descriptions of their lives and their art.

To return to Donald John’s ‘Once we made songs to be sung – now we write poetry to be read’. Is there a note of regret in these words? There probably is. Yet the statement applies in certain ways as much to the evolution of his own poetic career as it does to the work of others, and to the history of Gaelic poetry in general during the course of this century.

For his own part, he kept in that development all that was most precious to him in his inheritance as a poet: above all else, perhaps, the surging rhythms and intricate rhyming patterns of song. His lyricism lies more in the craft of his verse than in its content. He was, of course, a superb craftsman though never a mechanical imitator. His poetry is reflective in mood and imbued with a religious sensibility, and his criticism – of his own work as well as that of fellow poets – could be very trenchant and at times dismissive. For instance, in an interview published in Gaelic in The Scotsman some years ago, he described Sorley Maclean’s poetry as ‘sailing in the clouds’. By way of contrast, he probably saw himself as a realist poet of his own traditional community.

Bill Innes’s affectionate tribute to his friend is offered without reservation: ‘His poetry, pulsing with the music and rhythms of the familiar South Uist dialect, brought alive for me the power of Gaelic bardic verse in a way that the dead works I was studying at school had up to then failed to do. He has my eternal gratitude.’

This edition, meticulously edited and sensitively tranlated, is so clearly a labour of love.


ì mi (I See) Domhnall lain MacDhomhnaill. (The Gaelic Poetry of Donald John MacDonald) edited by Bill Innes with introduction, notes and parallel translation. Birlinn. ISBN 1 874744 875 8

The Voice of the Bard: Living Poets and Ancient Tradition in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Timothy Neat with John MacInnes. Canongate. ISBN 0 86241 842 9

Copyright John MacInnes 2005.