We look forward to the digitisation of all newspapers in the British Library collection currently being carried out. When – eventually – these are accessible online, it will allow those of us with an interest in Highland history and culture to investigate and assess a still sorely underused level of literature, an ephemeral and lively medium half-way between manuscripts and printed books. We worry, though, that some newspapers may be lost forever: one grievous loss, for example, appears to be the West Coast edition of the Highland News, the main outlet for Gaelic material in that paper. Only the Inverness edition, fascinating though it is, has been archived for posterity.
Here’s one example out of thousands preserved in the cuttings books: a (very lightly edited) Highland Reaper’s Song, transcribed from CW558, p. 34, a cutting from the Northern Chronicle, 4 March 1885:
THE HIGHLAND REAPER’S SONG
SIR, – Reading to-day the last volume issued of the Life of Thomas Carlyle, I was reminded, by a passage quoted (p. 325) from a letter to his wife, of some fragments of a song – of no great merit, certainly – which I used to hear sung more than sixty years ago by Highland shearers on their return from the ‘Loudies’ (Lothians). Their composition was ascribed to the ‘Bard Conanach.’ I am sure there must be a good many more verses than those which I send you, but I can recall no more – and no great matter! – Yours, &c. OCTOGENARIAN.
Tomnafeille, 24th. Feb. 1885
Tha mi ’n diugh ann an Dunèdin,
’S bha mi ’n dé ann an Dunbàr,
’S bi mi ’maireach an Dunchailion,
’S bi mi ’nearar ann am Blàr.
So haorăvi ho-ru-nŏ-ŏ,
So haorăvi ho-ru-naan,
So haorăvi ho-ro-eile,
’S mo rùn fein dhuit gu bhi slàn.
Chaith mi ùin’ aig Port-na-ban-Righ
(’S beag a bh’ agam ’shannt ri tàmh),
Gus an d’ thainig am fear crubach
A chuireadh na siuil ris a bhàt.
’S tha na leabannan cho daor ac’
Gun an t-eudach a bhi slàn;
’S bi na boguis ga mo chaobadh,
Mas ’gabh mi ’s an eudach blàs.
So haorăvi, &c.
Ach cuiridh mise m’ aghaidh dhachaidh,
’S ann gu tìr nan cas-bheann àrd,
Far am biodh na mnathan fialaidh,
Nach do chleachd ’bhi ’g iarraidh pàigheadh.
So haorăvi, &c.
Port na Bànrigh is of course Queensferry, while the hungry boguis are none other than (bed)bugs. The reference to Carlyle’s biography is to rather biased observations about Irish and Highland reapers in James Anthony Froude’s Thomas Carlyle: A History of his Life in London (London, 1884), volume i, p. 325. We don’t (yet) know who the Northern Chronicle’s ‘Octogenarian’ correspondent was. Tomnafeille, however, might be Tomnafeil, now anglicised as Markethill, in Fort Augustus – though there is another possible candidate in Markethill near Dunbeath.
Am Bàrd Conanach was the sawyer Donald MacDonald (1780–1832), whose life is described in John Mackenzie (ed.), Sàr Obair nam Bard Gaelach (Glasgow, 1841), pp. 347–51, and in Keith Norman MacDonald (ed.), MacDonald Bards from Mediæval Times (Edinburgh: Norman MacLeod, 1900), pp. 48–9.
In his paper ‘The Gaelic Incantations and Charms of the Hebrides’, published in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, xviii (1891–2), pp. 157–8 [reprinted in booklet form as Gaelic Incantations: Charms and Blessings of the Hebrides (Inverness: Northern Counties Newspaper and Publishing Company, 1895), pp. 61–2], William Mackenzie prints a blood staunching charm he had learnt from:
Duncan Campbell, an old Strathconan man, now resident in Beauly. He learnt it from a sister of Donald MacDonald, the Bard Conanach. The Bard, it appears, was celebrated for his Charms and Incantations, and taught the present one to his sister.
In an accompanying footnote, Mackenzie prints the following anecdote:
In local tradition he is represented as having been particularly successful both in letting and in staunching blood. On one occasion, while at the harvest in the Lothians, he lodged with a weaver, who was also a noted phlebotomist. A full-blooded damsel of the district called on the weaver in order that he might let her blood. He tried with all his skill, but the blood would not come. Whereupon the Bard took the damsel in hand, and, taking her by the small of the wrist, squeezed an artery, with the result that the blood squirted in the weaver’s face. The weaver desired the Bard to show him his method. The Bard responded in verse:–
Cha tugainn eolas mo lamh fhein
Dh’fhear bhualadh slinn no chuireadh i;
Lot thu gairdean na nighean dhonn
’S cha ’n fhac thu steall de ’n fhuil aice;
’S an uair a theannaich mi caol a dùirn
Mu ’dha shuil bha ’n fhuil aice.
Obviously, for somebody such as the bard who made his living from sharp blades – and, perhaps, from sharpening blades at the reaping – the skill of staunching blood would be very useful, and maybe rather lucrative as well.
Sources: CW558, p. 34 [Northern Chronicle, 4 March 1885].
Froude, James Anthony. Thomas Carlyle: A History of his Life in London (2 vols, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884), i, p. 325.
MacDonald, Keith Norman (ed.). MacDonald Bards from Mediaeval Times (Edinburgh: Norman MacLeod, 1900), pp. 48–9.
Mackenzie, John (ed.). Sàr Obair nam Bard Gaelach (
Mackenzie, William. ‘The Gaelic Incantations and Charms of the
Image: F. H. Mole, Highland Reapers (engraving).