Gentle reader, please bear with me.. I ve always avoided introductions, preferring to let people introduce themselves as they see fit, but I feel I might be doing a bit of trespassing here which will leave some big footprints across parts of the kaleyard.
So I would like to tell you about my acquaintance with the shade of a dead poet, before you read the fruit of that haunting.
(And I am afraid there are also some footnotes..)
Donnchadh Ban Mac an t-Saoir..aka Duncan Ban McIntyre was an 18th Gaelic poet who spent his early life as a ghillie(stalker), and crofter in the area where the Dochart, Awe and Lyon converge – where we now meet the wild bare hills of the Highlands for the first time on the long road to the Deep North.
His life and art have as their background of the massive transformation of Gaelic society – from a feudal landscape via the unsuccessful Jacobite rebellions (Donnchadh fought at the Battle of Falkirk – although like many other Highlanders he was part of the Hanoverian force) , to the major transformations in land use and tenure brought about by the subsequent Highland clearances .
His writing moves from the traditional praise of the martial qualities of the clan leaders, through a playful focus on everyday life to ambitious literary pieces, such as the Moladh Beinn Dobhrain, in which using the format of a traditional bagpipe piece he praises (nostalgically) the qualities of the mountain, deer and hunt he had once taken part in .
Donnachd spent the latter part of his life in Edinburgh , where he was part of the City Guard. Apparently unable to read or write and with only basic English he still appeared to have followed the trends in contemporary poetry, but writing in a language which was regarded by contempt in Scottish society, he did not receive much recognition, until around fifty years after his death where memorials were raised to him in Greyfriars Churchyard in Edinburgh near where he lived and died, and then, later, when a national campaign deposited a blocky neo-classical receptacle on a hill above Dalmally .
He seems to have been following me around for a while now – via citation by James Hunter as an interpreter of specifically Celtic attitudes to nature, around Glen Lyon where he ghillied and I wandered last summer , on a rainy day run when I found his Dalmally monument , via the discovery of his memorial at Greyfriars when I was looking for James Hutton, and then to a book launch of Literature of the Gaelic Landscape by James Murray, who I discovered had been crisscrossing the same umbilical landscape which interested me in the summer. His mapping of the places and routes found in Donnchadh’s poems, as what he describes as ‘songlines’, gave me an idea to apply the mythogeography techniques described in my other favourite book of the summer, Desire Lines by Roy Bayfield(1) .And now see where that got me.
So, all praise to you, Donnchadh Ban – I have felt you as a useful peripheral presence through my wanderings , and so I wonder what help you could offer me if I try to give you proper attention?
Ive decided to walk towards you with an intention to follow the deer who travel through Moladh Ben Dhobrain , in their traverse through the corries and slopes to drink in the Allt na h-Annaid , and at the same time honour the echo I have in my mind of Time ,the deer, in the wood of Hallaig, which haunts me as you may have haunted Sorley.
I cant go to Beinn Dorain yet. I am also in exile, but I will start at your memorial in the town where we both ended up and do my dance , the drift around places.. maybe one day I ll get back there , but as we both know, I ll find it changed.
At your memorial I decided I would follow the deer. Undecided if I was looking for some shamanistic transformation , or the narrator’s view of the fabled band journeying round the summer high pastures around Ais an t-Sidhean, where you lived. In my own tradition I drifted out and in.
I was also briefly with the deer. I was not a stalker. I took a shovel ( dug ditches) , was a beater ( I made it easy for the gentry to shoot birds) and was rewarded with an extra month’s wage as a pony loon ( horse drawer). The keepers did the stalking (also for the gentry) . It was a life of few words , most of them verbs and nouns. The words were sometimes Doric (often imperatives) and sometimes placenames eroded out of your Gaelic ( Fafernie, Monawee, Benty Roads, Potty Leadnar )
The head keeper said he had left the Glen twice – once to fight the War, and once to visit Brechin which he didnt like much. This was the only thing we had in common.
It was of course a Tale , but a useful one. It said They lived in the best possible worlds. They were thrawn , insular people , deeply dependent on patronage and tradition ,and hideously underpaid.
Mostly they killed vermin enthusiastically and reflexively(2). Vermin are actually much harder to shoot than fat semi-tame grouse and deer, as they have learnt to run away fast.
Stalking, though, brings in the Nobs to experience the post-orgasmic glow of killing something bigger than them. After a success ( a kill) the deer is gralloched by the ghillie (which you can now learn how to do on Youtube)- its guts cut out where it falls and feed to the waiting terriers. Any newbie is then ‘blooded’ – their face smeared with the entrails .. an interesting odour of blood, fermented grass clippings and methane. As temporary pony loon I was included alongside a delirious merchant banker whose day on the hill did not involve a ten mile return walk leading a frightened horse carrying a bleeding , dead deer on its back. I was told that tradition did not allow me to wash the gunk off until the Nob had returned to the lodge.
I became a vegetarian soon afterwards – which is both true, and a Tale.
So Donchadh we know that there are good Tales around the hunt , and I m sure those who wanted to remember them were willing to reward a man with a good turn of phrase who could commemorate their successes.
‘ Shot a deer, shot a deer, He’s the chief of Clan Breadalbane and he’s gone and shot a deer!'(3)
(not one of yours, that)
Your monument is a -crumbling Donnchadh, the acid attack of the city, the noble stag dissolving from Monarch of the Glen into Rudolph, the sporting bag into a half-remembered label on a tin of Baxters Soup ( ooh, Royal Game, by appointment). I doubt you d care much – by all accounts you never wanted to be here anyway.
Deer traverse around contours and like the wind on their face to tell them whats to come. They move to the rhythm of feeding, shelter and security.
It was clear to join them I must climb away from the disclaiming voices of memorialists to mythical wizards onto the back wall of the Greyfriars corrie, and keep watch from there, seeking morcels amongst the graves.
We are overshadowed by great cliffs and there is some sweet grass to be found. In the highest corrie (Coire Raineach) there is some respite from the din – stimuli are more discrete and manageable.. the cries of the tours guides battling each other blend into the cries of ravens echoing back off the cliffs.
Here is the Covenanter’s Prison, atrocity site and sometime Goth Central, now fortified against trespass.
Religious wars are part of your world and mine – you were a reluctant combatant in one, and I pay my taxes (equally reluctantly) so others can fight them. Yours left you in a world in which you were no longer at home, except as a fabulist of what had been lost. What you witnessed grew up the imperialist mission to harmonise the world, which now keeps those righteous fires burning.
You moved out of the Highlands an economic migrant and ended up here in the old Reek where, now, I am, back with the deer, crossing the Bealach (pass), swept with gales of tourists streaming over the ridge -to pay homage at the statue of a dog.
The deer make a long traverse down George Fourth Bridge – the Prince Regent to you …later to open one of the first tartan giftshops on the Royal Mile, and to begin the rehabilitation of the domesticated highlander ( a little late for you though).
We look for forage – at first this is petrified or insubstantial,
but later we find delicacies like rashes among the heather along the smooth corrie (Coire Reidh).
In the Moladh you notice the deer’s particular appetites with a detail that tests your translators vocabulary, and their dedication to botanical exactness (not great so far).
Which would all have been relevant knowledge for the stalkers of Breadalbane -which pasture will draw the herd on particular patterns of water,wind and light. These vital patterns once had more differentiation – my stalkers were frustrated by the lack of some subtle terms , and by our inexact translation of more. Your poem, then, is also a historic guide to the hill and its patterns. It would have begun as a song of sharing these , as local direction as much as celebration , and was still being passed from hand to hand back there when the Scottish Studies guys came crashing in through the jungle with their recording devices.
It reached your New World here as a gift to a group of second class exiles whose native tongue was becoming increasingly a party piece , and reaches me now as an echo of a sense of place and connection – in a world which is belatedly trying to find those again
In this new world were poets – collected and feted. Not so dissimilar from you – Thomson, Clare, Burns- faux naif figures who could sing for their supper, telling nostalgic tales of kith and kin. You recognised that tune well enough. No need for the writing to do that.
The piles of manuscripts copied from you and your kind lie in two huge piled libraries towering over the deer as they take the ridge. I have chucked an occasional fanzine article onto the pile.
When you were here you joined the City Guard, the ‘black banditti’, mocked by Fergusson – who has a psychiatric unit named after him now, where I chased escaping lunatics through the corridors for a while, trying to return them to the straight and narrow. I read the City Guard by your time was mostly Highland exiles – a relatively rapid rehabilitation of a more martial and doff capping group than the ingenious urban poor, and another chip off the imperialist production line(7). You were proud of your gun(8), and I imagine you got a uniform and enough to eat, and somewhere where clumsy English was ‘no problem’. The security industry , we call it now. You may have stood by as anti-Catholic mobs burned down the Gaelic Kirk – not a cultural misunderstanding it would have been wise to correct at the time.
We descend to where the Dog meadow (Connlonn), which is predictably convenient as a toilet for urban pets, who now outweigh our native fauna, and whose expenditure outstrips the GDP of many small countries. At home I have gerbils. They would look much like vermin to you, and would become so should they make it out of their prison. But we miss that connection to the living world outside. You had that fascination of an animal watcher , but no need to distinguish it from the vital processes of living and dying.
I am looking for The Source, my free translation of the Burn of the Mother Church(Allt na h-Annaid) where the herd’s journey ends with a drink. It is below Meall Teanail (the gathering hill)- where I see some saplings on the horizon (Creag Sheillach – willow rock). We are in Hunter Square aptly enough.
The deer stoop to drink in a large stone basin , finding instead a beer can and an empty packet of Swedish meatballs. The benches around are full of sad exiles , and their obverses topped with knobbly statues of redcurrant bushes. More petrified fruit , murmur the deer.
It feels the right place . And I notice I have now collected some urban mud on my soles to scatter on the floor of Pret a Manger (the pretentious sandwich) in a small ritual.
Time the deer, fleeting.
Donnchadh, glimpsed, detoured, retaggled, mythologised ur Bard,
Jacobitten; underclass, illiterated erse-in-gobragh migrant ,
fighting gun for hire.
Sometime sychophant and player of loyalties,
Sharp literary stalker of fashion and craft.
Further, formalist experimenter,
memorialiser and mnemonicist.
Buried beneath ground he didnt take to –
resurrected in blocky redemptor form
in alien granite
hanging in the clouds above Dalmally ,
where he is known at the Post Office(4).
What is it that I want from you? During my journey I found a quote
Line is not really important because it records what you have seen but because of what it will lead you to see (5)
And I saw…
What we are really exiled from is our past. The hills , the deer, the energy, the possibilities. The loss. The compromises.
The sheep with their phones
Have no eyes for the horizons
The herd moving up and across
The slope to the far side
The moment infilled around us as spectacle
You can never go back. Its not just the landscape that’s changed.
Now, around your corpse are resting the disposessed and the lost. Harried by foreign wars, unhomed by the factor, betrayed by benefactor and fortune. They make precarious friendships in one tongue or another – and warily note my strange purpose among the flocks.
Donchadh weaves patterns for the knowing to nod along to, and those achingly fade, the names rewritten, misspelt and ultimately deprived of meaning. The sense of particularity atomised -dispelled to the general twinkly Celtic nature of Bardism.
We should know your places again like I know this Cowgate – where the racists murdered the Somali exile, where exploring we sank down to on occasion – out too late and seeking a deeper level of indulgence. Greyfriars, where I d eat my sandwich and stare into warmly lit windows. The Courts where Stevie got sent to jail..The Deacon where, unco fu, I watched the tanks roll onto the Royal Mile and thought ‘Here They Come for Us’. Cockburn St , where we waited for trains and felt things, and finally to the Tron(6) on Hunter Square, and the Bells where the mass , the moment, you and me, were one and the same, in the immersing throng, tangled, swirling in Celtic knots, in what was past and what was yet to come.
But I bet you hated Auld Lang Syne and that opportunist Sassenach Burns.. I imagine you thinking’ Could have been a Contender’ – if not for that awkward immigrant thing..
(1) Desire Paths applies various techniques of mythogeography to Roy’s journeys. One of which is described as ‘Finding'(Ch 6.) and involves transposing a preplanned route onto another landscape – in this case the route identified as a songline by John Murray following the deer in the Siubhal section of the Moladh, rescaled from the 1:25,000 OS Map 377 – Loch Etive and Glenorchy, and superimposed on the streets of Central Edinburgh, leading away from Donnachdh’s memorial in Greyfriars churchyard and using bearings , topography, behavioural ecology and JM’s translations of Gaelic placenames as a guide.
(2)Their successors still do . The area I worked in leads the national league table for disappearances of raptors. The estate I worked for recently cut down a tree containing one of the first (protected) sea eagle nests in Eastern Scotland. They claimed not to have noticed the eight foot diameter structure, but there have been boasts about it in the local bars.
(3) to the tune of ‘Wem-bill-ee, wem-bill-ee, We’re the Famous [Insert team name here if it scans] and we’re going to Wem-bill-ee’. It’s a football chant. I dont actually know what the tune was before that.
(4) Ashamed, I rocked up in Dalmally without direction , and fairly unexpectantly asked for the memorial to a poet at the post office. ‘Ah, Donnchadh Ban? He’s down the road past the station and then up the hill for about another mile. You can’t miss it’ Which was true. Its not a subtle monument.
(5) which is from John Berger, quoted in the catalogue of A Fine Line which was showing at the City Art Centre just off the deer’s grazing route through town on the day I visited. I found the detail from Lizzie Farey’s willow piece there too.
(6) The Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile was where Edinburgh met at midnight on Hogmanay, before the current festivities began . People got drunk, rolled around a bit , and then went home again. Those were the days.
(7) The info on Donnchadh’s presumed life in Edinburgh is distilled from ‘Urban Highlanders’ by Charles Withers
(8) One of Donnchadh’s early hits was The Song to My Gun (NicCoiseam). Yes, his gun had a name. The past truly is another country..