frontline volume 2, issue 7 June 2008

Big Mary of the Songs

Soraidh Leis An Ait
Writer: Mairi Mhor (1821-1898)

Soraidh leis an ait’ an d’fhuair mi m’arach og
Eilean nam beann àrda far an tàmh an ceò
Air a moch a dh’èireas grian nan speur fo ros
A fuadach a neul na h-oidhche
Soillseachadh an Storr
Cur m’aghaidh ri Glaschu b’airtneulach mo cheum
Cur mo chùl ri càirdean nochd am bàidh cho treun
Ghluais ar buadhan nàdair ann an gràdh dha cheil’
Shruth mo dheoir a mhàin is dh’fhàilnich guth mo bheul
Sealaidhean bu bhrèagha riamh chan fhaca sùil
Sprèidh a mach gam feurach madainn ghrianach chiùin
‘N uiseag air a sgiath seinn gun fhiamh a ciùil
S an ceò mu cheann Beinn Tianabhaig
Is an sliabh fo dhriuchd.
Seinnibh gach fear -ciuil
Le muirn a dhachaidh fhèin
S cumaibh suas a cliù
Ma bhios ur cùrsa rèidh
Ach cha ghabh sinn muiseag
Os ur cionn gu leir
Nach eil spot as cubhr’
Air an laigh driuchd o nèamh

Sympathetic English Translation:

Farewell to the place where I spent my youth
Island of the high mountains where the mist rests
On which rises early the rose coloured sun in the sky
Chasing away the clouds of night
Illuminating the Storr

Turning face towards Glasgow sorrowful are my footsteps
Turning my back on my friends, tonight their love is so powerful
Our natural talents surge in love together
My tears fall down and my voice fails me

Sights more beautiful the eye could never see
Cattle out grazing on a peaceful sunny morning
The lark on the wing singing confidently her music
And the mist surrounding Beinn Tianabhaig
And the mountain under dew

Let all music makers sing with joy of their homeland,
Boast of its fame it's honour and dignity,
We don't mind, we know that over all of you,
No place the dew falls on us, can be more beautiful.

Bill Scott continues his series on radical song with a look at a Scots gaelic song about repression and resistance.

It shouldn’t be thought that the people of the Highlands meekly accepted being cleared from their homes in the 19th Century. Resistance took place in shieling after shieling but it was brutally crushed by the landowners’ factors, Sheriff’s Officers and the police. The problem was that the early resistance was unorganised relying on individual courage rather than collective action.

However by the mid 1870’s many crofters had had enough and began looking to the Irish as an example of how to fight back against absentee landlords. This inspired the setting up of the Highland Land League and a newspaper called “The Highlander” to put the crofters’ case. It was during this time that Mary MacDonald, Mairi Mhor Nan Oran - Big Mary of the Songs – began her song writing career.

Màiri Mhòr, did not begin writing songs until she was a widow of 50, living in Glasgow long exiled from her native Skye. The incident which sparked her song-writing was her imprisonment on a malicious accusation of petty theft. For the next 26 years, Màiri Mhòr wrote songs praising the beauty of Skye, songs recalling the joys of childhood, songs of hope for the future of the Gael, and most importantly, her songs recording the brutality of the Clearances.

The heart-breaking lament “Soraidh Leis An Ait” spoke to people thoughout Scotland even across the language barrier between Gael and Lowlander. It swiftly became an anthem for the dispossessed crofters.

The Land League began to resist eviction orders and soon there were near riots in several areas. On Skye at Lord MacDonald’s estate of Braes near Portree, crofters demanded that grazings on Ben Lee, which had been taken over by the landlord’s sheep, should be handed back. They refused to pay any rent until their demands were met. A Sheriff’s Officer sent out with a summonses of ejection on 7th April 1882 was met by a band of crofters who forced him to burn his papers. The situation was so alarming that Sheriff Ivory of Inverness asked for Government help in restoring order. Fifty Glasgow policemen were sent to Skye to crush the uprising.

Before dawn on 19th April the police with Sheriff Ivory in the rear, set off from Portree to Braes. Soon about 100 men, women & children, carrying sticks or stones, barred their path. When the police tried to arrest the “ringleaders” the crowd charged into them. In the resulting fight some crofters were taken prisoner but the police were forced into making a humiliating retreat.

The press gave sympathetic coverage to the crofters and the encounter quickly became known as the “Battle of the Braes”.

Such was the public sympathy that when the crofters appeared for trial in Inverness they could only be convicted of minor offences. But it was now clear that the landlords’ law could not be enforced without military assistance. So the Government sent a gunboat, the “Jackal”, to help quell the rebellion. Then another uprising took place at Glendale, 30 miles from Portree. After defying an interdict, three ‘ringleaders’, were arrested, but only with the assistance of marines. After trial in faraway Edinburgh the crofters were imprisoned for two months.

But growing public support for the crofters forced the Government to set up a Royal Commission to investigate their complaints. The Land League collected evidence and witnesses. The result was a devastating indictment of the Highland land-owning class. Though the Commission’s findings were very critical of the landowners it reported against the crofters’ demands for fixed tenure and a revision of rents but the crofters were not prepared to accept its weak proposals.

It was at this time that Màiri Mhòr was invited to return home to Skye as Bard of the Land League. Her songs and singing drew huge crowds to rally the crofters’ resistance. Her inspiration was soon needed. In 1884 Glendale was again the scene of unrest when the Government sent gunboats to Skye. A hundred marines marched across the island in an attempt to intimidate the crofters. But this backfired as it brought the crofters cause to further public attention.

In 1885 the Land League nominated six candidates to stand independently of the landowners’ two parties – the Liberals and Tories - in the general election. In the face of massive landlord spending on a hostile campaign against them four of the Crofters’ candidates were elected. They immediately demanded a Crofting Bill. Their electoral success scared the Liberals into concessions and finally, in 1886, the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act was passed which established the Crofters Commission, gave crofters security of tenure and allowed the croft to be passed on in the family. Rents were reduced and arrears cancelled.

But the ‘Crofters War’ did not end. Soon crofters took possession of underused land by force. These “land raids” continued until 1897, when the Unionist Government was forced to again improve conditions for crofters. The Highland Land League had shown that determined resistance could win reform. Mhairi Mhor had inspired them and she is not forgotten. There is a monument to her in Inverness and “Soraidh” has become Skye’s anthem.