These are verses from a longer poem in Scots Gaelic, written by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna (Donald Macdonald) (1887-1967) during the Battle of the Somme. It is addressed to the sweetheart he had left at home, Magaidh NicLeòid (Maggie MacLeod), the ‘white swan’ of the title. The poem has none of the righteous anger of Owen and Sassoon, just resignation and the ache of longing for a life left behind, sentiments that must have been much more typical of the common soldier in the trenches.
It has been set to music and was sung, very beautifully, by Julie Fowlis, at the Thiepval Memorial Service on July 1st, 2016: you can hear this on YouTube, as you can another haunting version by Karen Matheson. We owe so much to singers like this who are doing their best to keep alive the Gaelic language with all its rich heritage of song and poetry.
The translation that follows is my own.
An Eala Bhàn
Gur duilich leam mar tha mi
‘S mo chridhe ‘n sàs aig bròn
Bhon an uair a dh’fhàg mi
Beanntan àrd a’cheò
Nan loch, nam bàgh, ‘s nan stròm
‘S an eala bhàn ‘tha tamh ann
Gach là air ‘m bheil mi’n tòir
A Mhagaidh na bi tùrsach
A rùin, ged gheibhinn bàs
Cò am fear am measg an t-sluaigh
A mhaireas buan gu bràth?
Chan eil sinn uileadh ach air chuairt
Mar dhìthein buaile fàs
Bheir siantannan na bhliadhna sìos
‘S nach tog a’ghrian an àird.
Oidhche mhath leat fhéin, a rùin
Nad leabaidh chùbhraidh bhlàth
Cadal sàmhach air a chùl
Do dhùsgadh sunndach slàn
Tha mise ‘seo ‘san truinnsidh fhuair
Nam chluaisean fuaim a bhàis
Gun dùil ri faighinn às le buaidh
Tha’n cuan cho buan ri shnàmh
Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna
The White Swan
There is a sadness in my state
My heart cannot resist,
Not since the very hour I left
The high peaks in the mist,
Not since I left the little glens,
The lochs and bays behind,
And you, the white swan living there,
Who’s never from my mind.
O Maggie, don’t be sorrowful
If I should not survive.
We journey on: what man can stay
Like flowers in a deserted fold
We flourish, till the rain
Beats down our little span of life.
We do not bloom again.
And now goodnight to you, my love,
In your warm scented bed.
May you sleep peacefully and wake
In health and clear of head,
While I am here in this cold trench,
No quiet rest for me,
Nor hope of home, for who can swim
Across so wide a sea.