Wednesday 30 September 2009

Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg

For some time the Carmichael Watson team have been intrigued by a mysterious 152-page manuscript bundle of Gaelic poetry whose author is only described in the catalogue as ‘a North Uist bard’. Julie Fowlis, one of the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig students who visited the project a few weeks ago, herself from North Uist, has kindly informed us that the author is in fact Ruairidh MacAoidh, mac an t-Saighdeir Ruaidh, or Roderick Mackay (1872–1949). In North Uist tradition MacAoidh is better known as Bàrd Iollairigh after the district where he lived, in the north of the island of Baile Sear/Baleshare on the west coast of North Uist. The bard’s work as clerk to the factor of the North Uist estate meant that he was a well-known – and apparently very popular! – figure in the island as he travelled from township to township collecting rent. This reminds us of the tax-gathering duties Alexander Carmichael had to carry out as part of his excise work. However unwelcome his arrival might be to locals, the occupation gave Carmichael an unrivalled opportunity to get to know the people of Uist and Barra, and for them to get to know him.

The bundle in the collection is the bard’s own poetry manuscript, published in Glasgow in 1938 as Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg [‘Breezes from the Land of Youth’] under the auspices of the Uist and Barra Association. The bard’s original versions were lightly edited for spelling and grammar before publication by Hector MacDougall (1880–1954), the prolific Gaelic author from the Island of Coll. The manuscript came into the possession of Carmichael’s grandson James Carmichael Watson (1910–42), from whom it ended up in the Carmichael Watson Collection where it is catalogued as CW MS 211.

Although the manuscript may not add anything new to what we know of MacAoidh’s work, it draws our attention to a very skilful, vivid, and humane poet gifted with a remarkable command of language and a keen eye for the quirks of his fellow islanders and of island life.

CW MS 211
Ruairidh MacAoidh, Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg (Glasgow: Alexander MacLaren & Sons, 1938)
Ronald Black (ed.), An Tuil: Anthology of 20th Century Gaelic Verse (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1999), 724–5.
Images: Illeray, North Uist; CW MS 211 and the first song from Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg


  1. The bard is my great great uncle. Unfortunatly I am not a able to speak or read Gaelic. Has there been any translation of his work to English?

  2. Unfortunately, Roderick Mackay’s poetry has not been translated into English, but two poems with translation are to be found, together with a very appreciative and complimentary mini-biography of the poet himself, in Ronald Black’s anthology "An Tuil – The Flood: Anthology of 20th-century Scottish Gaelic Verse" (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1999), pp. 52–59, 724–5.

  3. Many thanks for that. Would it be possible to see the manuscript? My grandmother remembers the bard quite well and I am sure she would like to see the manuscript in person and would also be able to give you some insight into it's author. We both live in the lothian region so not a great journey.

  4. You would be very welcome to come in and see the manuscript and an insight into the man himself would be great. We are based in the Centre for Research Collections in Edinburgh University Main Library so if you could email me direct on I can give you further details about where to find us etc.

  5. He is My Great Great Uncle too. Now there's a coincidence.

    My grandfather was Alistair Macdonald from Kirkebost. Roderick MacKay was his Mothers brother.

    He dedicated one of the Poems to Cathy MacAulay who was a cousin of My Grandmothers ( she was from Illeray and also a Macdonald )

    I had tried to find a copy a few years ago but could only trace one which was in Cape Breton University Library

  6. James Bruce Hunter3 February 2010 at 22:10

    Also. I do believe I have a photograph of Roderick MacKay somewhere if that would interest you.

  7. Thanks for that James. My grandmother told me he had 2 sisters. Mary and Marybell. Do you per chance have an electronic copy of the photograph as our only photo appears to have been misplaced.

  8. Hello, I have just recently been made aware of this blog and the information regarding Ruairidh's songs. My grandfather was from Baleshare and sang many of his songs. I am currently studying a masters MPhil at Glasgow University in Gaelic and my thesis is based on collecting the unpublished songs of the Baleshare bards. I would be very interested to hear more about this poem Ruairidh dedicated to Catherine MacAulay if you have any information regarding this as I'm sure it is indeed one of his unpublished poems.
    Regards, Linda.


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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]