This week an extract from a long poem by the Highland poet and forester Duncan Ban MacIntyre, or to give him his Gaelic name Donnchadh bàn Mac an t-Saoir. Duncan (1724-1812) is generally accounted one of the greatest of Gaelic language poets, and in this piece he laments the changes wrought by careless stewardship on a landscape that he has long loved. In many ways it seems ahead of its time, and bears comparison with John Clare’s poignant lament for a countryside changed by the Enclosure Act (see week 52). Of course, there had from early times been a strong tradition of nature verse in Celtic literature that is largely missing from English, at least up until the time of the Romantic revival: we have, for example, lyrics in early Irish celebrating the natural world purely for its own sake, and the poetry of the mediaeval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym is full of cuckoos, spring in the greenwood and the like. Yet perhaps it is only about this time, in the eighteenth century, that we see a nascent spirit of conservation emerging. This may seem odd given that man had been changing and despoiling the natural world from time immemorial, with, for example, huge clearances of woodland, but maybe up till that point it had just never dawned on people that the earth’s resources might not be infinite, or that its beauty could be irreparably defaced.
Speaking of conservation, may I make a plea for my readers to support the Scots Gaelic language, now down to its last hundred thousand or so native speakers, in any way they can. This is not my fight, of course – as far as I can determine my ancestry is irredeemably Saxon with no trace of the Celt – but anyone who loves language and literature must grieve at the idea that the great blaze of Gaelic poetry and song should be allowed to survive only as few stray sparks, or even go out completely. It can’t be denied that Scots Gaelic is a fairly difficult language for an English speaker, largely because of the pronunciation – you have to remember that half the letters are silent and half the ones that aren’t sound nothing like their English counterparts – but there are some great online resources (try the learngaelic.scot site) – and also a wealth of song on YouTube, much of which I find achingly beautiful.
The translation that follows is my own. It’s a bit free in places – close translations from Scots Gaelic don’t work too well – but I hope it captures a little of the spirit of the piece.
corrie: a kind of basin with steep sides and a gently sloping floor formed in mountainous regions by the erosive action of a glacier, also known as a cirque or cwm.
From ‘Cumha Choire a’ Cheathaich’
Tha choille bh’ anns an fhrith ud,
Na cuislean fada, direach,
Air tuiteam is air crionadh
Sios as an rusg;
Na prisein a bha brioghor
‘Nan dosaibh tiugha, lionmhor,
Air seacadh mar gu’n spiont’ iad
A nios as an uir;
Na failleanan bu bhoidhche,
Na slatan is na h-ògain,
‘S an t-ait am biodh an smeorach
Gu mothar a’ seinn ciuil,
Tha iad uil’ air caochladh,
Cha d’ fhuirich fiodh na fraoch ann ;
Tha ‘m mullach bharr gach craoibhe,
‘S am maor ‘ga thoirt diubh.
Tha Uisge Srath na Dìge
Na shruthladh dubh gun sìoladh,
Le barraig uaine lìth-ghlais,
Gu mì-bhlasta grànd’;
Feur-lochain is tàchair
An cinn an duilleag-bhàthte –
Chan eil gnè tuilleadh fàs
Anns an àit’ ud san àm;
Glumagan a’ chàthair
Na ghlugaibh domhainn sàmhach,
Cho tiugh ri sùghan càtha,
Na làthaich ‘s na phlam;
Seann bhùrn salach ruadhain,
Cha ghlaine ‘ghrunnd na uachdar –
Gur coslach ri muir ruaidh e,
Na ruaimle feadh stang.
Duncan Ban MacIntyre
From ‘Lament for the Misty Corrie’
The woods where once the deer roamed,
The long trunks straight and slender,
Are withered even to the bark
And fallen now forever.
The bushes rich in berries,
So plentiful and thick,
Lie rootless on the soil now,
They plucked up every stick.
The shoots that were the fairest,
The thickets of young trees,
The places where the thrush would sing
Its gentle melodies,
Are changed beyond all knowing,
No wood nor heather there,
And since the bailiff took them
No tree but lopped and bare.
The waters of the burn run black
Like rinsings from a drain
And covered with a foul green scum
Will not run clear again.
The tarns are choked with grass now,
Where water-lilies show
Only the stagnance of a place
Where nothing else will grow.
Like bogland pits its potholes
So limpid in their time
Are filled with a thick porridge
Of sediment and slime.
A scurf of dirty water,
Unclean above, below –
So through the muddied river
The rust-red waters flow.
Paid homage at his grave in Greyfriars, some years ago. Good choice.