Thinking Like a Beinn

Thinking Like a Beinn
It is a common convention of traditional, vernacular Scottish Gaelic poets to begin by describing their own physical and emotional situation. It is as though there is an unspoken expectation that we need to know where the poet is coming from – literally and figuratively – in order to understand what s/he has to say and why s/he is saying it.

It is not just a cliché but a truism that the first question that a Canadian Maritimer is likely to ask another native of the region is, ‘Whos your father?’ Although the other long-term ethnic groups of the area particularly the Mi’kmaq and Acadian French — have similar habits of mind, there can be little doubt that the Scottish Gaelic need to place people within the matrix of ancestry and birthplace has left its mark on the region’s culture. While such questions and expectations can feel discomfiting if not mortifying to those not born in such communities, we desperately need to come to grips with issues of belonging and inter-relationship if humanity is not to pull all living organisms into the abyss of eco-suicide in the near future.

Most of us are more conscious of the contradictions and paradoxes presented to us by the competing narratives and counter-narratives, and the conflicting forces and outcomes, of modernity than those who first felt the unsettling effects of the age of industrialisation and empire. Poets, priests, and polymaths are struggling to find effective ways to challenge the behaviours and beliefs that make us complicit in our own eco-suicide, including the ways in which we conceptualise ‘nature’ and our role in it. But long before the American ecologist Aldo Leopold exhorted his readers in a seminal 1949 essay to ‘think like a mountain’, Gaelic poets were doing just that. 

Arguably the most revered and celebrated nature poem in Scottish Gaelic is ‘Moladh Beinn Dobhrain by Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (aka, Duncan Ban Macintyre). It is an extensive and elaborate meditation on the life of the mountain, especially in its relationship to the deer. It is only since the 1970s that the ecological significance of the text has been explored and fully appreciated; previous generations of literary critics tended to rebuke Donnchadh Bàn for a lack of expository sophistication and analogical philosophising, given that he did not take the opportunity to use his natural subjects as vehicles for other purposes that are presumed to be more elevated and abstract. But this is to miss the flaws in modernity itself which are the root of our lack of ecological crisis, namely, the need for nature to signify something other than itself, to be a tool in human ambition and domination, mental or material.

Leopolds essay which inspired such prominent eco-poets as Gary Snyder uses a rhetorical style that, I believe, would have been a familiar to Donnchadh Bàn himself: it centres on the voice of the wolves of the wilderness and explores their relationship with the mountains and the rest of their ecosystem. Leopold begins:

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

I was fortunate enough to grow up as the son of a hunter who brought me with him into the wildernesses of North America and I recognise the mentality: to be a successful hunter, you need to understand your prey, and to sustain this heroic endeavour, you have to sustain the ecosystem that enables it to exist. My father derives joy from watching animals and exploring their territory and habits, regardless of whether or not he ‘bags’ anything. And if he does, he does not waste. Nature may be prolific but it still demands restraint.

The idea of traditional hunting etiquette brings to my mind a narrative related by John MacInnes about the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure (‘the Appin Murder’). In the tale, a deer is shot from such a long distance (on a hunt in Argyllshire) that it could have only been the gun, it is surmised, that killed Colin. The realisation is such a shock to the hunters companion that the deer is left to rot a heinous offense against nature that echoes the tragic murder of the human subject. ‘One does not kill wantonly,’ as John remarked.

Donnchadh Bàn’s compositions were highly popular and influential, but he was not the first or last Gaelic poet to focus on features of the landscape as his topic of versification or subject of address. It was recorded from a nineteenth-century tradition-bearer that his song-poem ‘Òran Coire a’ Cheathaich’, which extols this beloved hunting spot in Argyllshire, was modelled on a song composed in the eighteenth century by Eóghann Domhnallach (Ewan MacDonald) in praise of Coire Iar Àiridh in Glenmoriston. The latter’s composition of 72 lines depicts the fecundity of the corrie and the activity of its denizens. The role he attributes to the fox in maintaining the natural order – one likely shared by the wolf in the poet’s recent past – is insightful (although it is likely also an implicit metaphor for, and condemnation of, the introduction of Lowland shepherds into the Highland landscape and the early stages of Clearances):

Tha madadh ruadh ann is e mar bhuachaill
Air caoraich shuas ud, air fuarain ghorm’;
Aig meud a shuairceas, cha dèan e am fuadach,
Ged bheir thu duais dha, cha luaidh e feòil;
Gum pàigh e cinnteach na théid a dhìth dhiubh
Mur dèan e ’m pilltinn a-rithist beò,
’S ged is iomadh linn a tha dhe shinnsearachd,
Cha d’ rinn iad cìobair a dh’fhear de sheòrs’.

The fox is there, like a cowherd over the sheep up yonder on the green springs; because of his good nature, he will not clear them out or mention their flesh, even if you give him a reward; he will surely pay for those who go missing if he does not return them back alive; and even though he comes from a long lineage, no one of his kind has ever been made a shepherd.

Eóghann concludes with his sadness of being parted from Coire Iar Àirigh and his hope that its hereditary guardians will prosper after the death of their father:

… Ged tha mo chomhnaidh fo sgàil na Sròine,
’Se chleachd o m’ òige bhith ’m chomhnaidh thall
’S a’ choire bhòidheach, le luibhean sòghmhor,
’S e a leòn mi nach eil mi ann;
Mo chridh’ tha brònach, gun dad a sheòl air
’S a liuthad sòlais a fhuair mi ann;
’S bho’n dhiult Iain Òg dhomh Ruigh Uiseig bhòidheach
Gur fheudar seòladh a chòir nan Gall.

Ged fhaighinn rìoghachd, a nì ’s a daoine,
Cha tréig an gaol mi a tha ’nam chom;
A thug mi dh’aon th’ air a chur le saoir
An ciste chaoil a dh’fhàg m’ inntinn trom;
Nam biodh tu làthair gum faighinn làrach
Gun dol gu bràch ás, gun mhàl, gun bhonn –
A Rìgh as airde, cuir buaidh is gràs air
An linn a dh’fhàg thu aig Hannah dhonn.
Although I am resident in the shadow of Sron, it was my custom since youth to be resident over yonder in the beautiful corrie with its luscious herbs, it pains me that I am not there; my heart is sad, with no recourse to the many joys that I had there; since John the younger has refused me bonnie Ruigh Uiseig, it will be handed over to non-Gaels.

Even if I gained a kingdom, with its wealth and population, the love that is in my breast that I gave to that one who has been placed by a joiner in a narrow coffin shall never forsake me; it has left my mind heavy; if you were only present, I would always have an irrevocable location free of rent – o God most high, grant grace and prosperity to the progeny you have bequeathed brown-haired Hannah.

People and place are inextricably woven together in Gaelic oral tradition, usually, but not always, in a eulogistic tone. This particular song not only provided a framework for Donnchadh Bàn’s complimentary ‘Òran Choire a’ Cheathaich’ but also for the song commonly called ‘A’ Choille Ghruamach’ (‘The Gloomy Forest’) by Iain MacGilleain (John MacLean, ‘the Bard MacLean’). His song of exile in Nova Scotia from the early nineteenth century – still highly regarded and popular on both sides of the Atlantic – does not praise the bounty of nature and freedom afforded by it, but rather paints it in harsh and overwhelming terms. That forest setting was, for him (at least at that moment in his life), an alien place not only in terms of biological species but also in regards to the human community. It is significant that, in contrast to many Gaelic song-poems delighting in life in the Scottish Highlands, MacGilleain’s text contains very few place names in its 144 lines: a total of just three, only one of which relates to his contemporary situation (rather than his homeland). 

It is difficult to explain the delight with place and place names expressed by Gaels in their poetry and oral lore. It involved both the sound and sense of these names, their associations and their implications. One of the most succinct descriptions of the meaning of place and sense of belonging in Gaeldom comes from that doyen of Gaelic tradition, John MacInnes:

The native Gael who is instructed in this poetry carries in his imagination not so much a landscape, not a sense of geography alone, nor of history alone, but a formal order of experience in which these are all merged. The native sensibility responds not to ‘landscape’ but to dùthchas. And just as ‘landscape’, with its romantic aura, cannot be translated directly into Gaelic, so dùthchas and, indeed, dùthaich cannot be translated into English without robbing the terms of their emotional energy. The complexity involved can be appreciated by reflecting on the range of meaning: dùthchas is ancestral or family land; it is also family tradition; and, equally, it is the hereditary qualities of an individual.

Place names recall these associations, and the things we take for granted often become more  beloved to us in their absence. I have explored elsewhere how traditional narratives imply that the intimate knowledge of highly localised place names could serve as a kind of oral passport for Gaels who met far away from their home turf, wishing to verify their identities. One such anecdote describes an encounter between two soldiers from Highland Perthshire in North America during the Seven Years’ War. Whether or not the event actually happened literally as illustrated is not as relevant as its revelations about how Gaelic culture cherishes and nurtures this attachment to specific places.

Soon after I returned to North America after my training in Scotland, I visited the late Kenneth McKenna of Glengarry, Ontario, at his home. He gifted a collection of local Gaelic newspaper clippings to me from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (much of which I used in the recent volume Seanchadh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest). Among these clippings was a place name rhyme that enumerates the townships of Glengarry, Scotland, and their associations – a poignant reminder of the homeland after which the new settlement in Canada was named and a poetic anchor to their ancestral identity:

Gleann Laoidh,
’s am bi ’n t-saothair a-mach;
Buail’ Fhinn
’s am bi ’n t-ìm geal;
Ladaidh riabhach nam ban bòidheach;
s Ardachadh dubh far ’m bu chòir dha.
Achadh Uainidh odhar,
Baile Ruairidh reamhar,
Ballachan, is Garaidh Ghualach,
s Bad an t-Seobhaig an eòin uasail.
Ardachadh odhar na luatha;
Daingeann nam preas, is Achadh luachrach,
s Muin Eireaghaidh aphrasgain uallaich;
Lunndaidh a’ Chreagain,
Faicheum a’ bhradain,
Cruinne-bharran, Barra-bharran
Bad na slignich, ’s lonbhar Ìogair bheag nan cnò;
Droighneachan na mine mìne,
s lonbhar Gharaidh ’s am bi toradh an éisg ghil.

Poll an Onchain,
Where there is knowledge of horses;
Gleann Laoidh,
Labouring industriously;
Buail’ Fhinn
Where their is fair-coloured butter;
Brindled Ladaidh of the beautiful women;
And black Ardachadh where it should be.
Sallow Achadh Uainidh,
Fat Baile Ruairidh,
Ballachan, and Garaidh Ghualach,
And Bad an t-Seobhaig of the noble bird.
Sallow Ardachadh of the ash;
Daingeann of the thickets, and Achadh Luachrach,
And Muin Eireaghaidh of the giddy flock;
Lunndaidh of the craig,
Faicheum of the salmon,
Cruinne-bharran, Barra-bharran
Bad na slignich, ’s little lonbhar Ìogair of the nuts;
Droighneachan of the fine meal,
And lonbhar Gharaidh (Invergarry) in which there is the profit of the fair fish.

It is noteworthy that this verse is full of colours and striking visual images – perhaps a clue to the workings of Gaelic mnemonics. 

While it would be hyperbole to suggest that Highland life and Gaelic culture was transplanted wholesale to immigrant communities, some of the continuities are striking. In reality, the heritage of place names in Highland immigrant communities presents a complex picture. Some older names from ancestral homes were indeed relocated, but in other cases new names were coined or place names borrowed from other areas reveal ambitions to acquire the material success of urban settlements in Lowland Scotland or England. Murchadh Domhnallach was born on the island of Lewis but emigrated with his family at an early age to Quebec. He worked for most of his life as a seasonal farm-hand, travelling between provinces. Gaelic place names were some of the few stable and comforting elements in his life. He proclaimed his affection for them in a song:

Is toigh leam faicinn luchd na Gàidhlig
Anns gach ceàrnaidh de’n t-saoghal
Cumail ainm nam bailtean gràdhach
Far na dh’fhàg iad luchd an gaoil. …

Thog iad bailtean is thug iad ainm orr’
Fad air falbh an dùthaich chéin:
“Steòrnabhagh” is “Baile Bharabhais” –
Bailtean ás an dh’fhalbh iad fhéin.

I enjoy seeing Gaelic speakers in every corner of the world keeping alive the names of their beloved towns where they left their loved ones behind. …

They built towns and named them, far away in a foreign land: ‘Stornoway’ and ‘Barvas’ – towns from which they themselves had emigrated.

I’d like to conclude these scattered musings with an extract from a Gaelic text (which has not, to my knowledge, been previously edited, translated or published) in the Alexander Fraser papers in the Ontario Archives. This song-poem was composed by a native of Glengarry, Scotland, who migrated to Glengarry, Ontario, and later to Ottawa, a man who clearly had great affection for his birthplace but was also aware of its inferiorisation:

O mo dhùthaich ’s tu th’ air maire:
Gleann as cubhraidh
ùr nan gallan;
Ged a chaidh sinn far a’
Gum b’ e mo luaidh bhith ’n Gleann Garaidh.

An gleann as àillidh tha ri fhaotainn,
Chan eil achadh air an t-saoghal
Le coill’ is fàs, is barr an fhraoich
A dh’fhagadh mi gu h-aotrom fallain.

Ged as ainmeil iad air Galltachd,
Le’n cuid machraichean is saoibhreas,
Chan eil nì aca ach samhlachd
Do na th’
ann an Gleann Garaidh. …

O, my homeland, you are on my mind: most fragrant, flourishing glen of the saplings; although we have crossed the ocean, it is my desire to be in Glengarry [Scotland].

The most lovely glen to be had, it has no equal in the world, with woods, wilderness and heather that made me healthy and light-stepping.

Even though the Lowlands, with their smooth plains and material wealth, are famous, they hardly resemble what is in Glengarry.

He continues this praise by describing the deer, salmon, and grouse and their interactions on his native soil. Anyone familiar with Gaelic song tradition will immediately recognise that this text shares the same melody and metrical structure as a Uist song (commonly referred to as ‘O Mo Dhùthaich’) that was composed in praise of the island and in protest to land agents recruiting emigrants to relocate to Manitoba in the 1880s.

Whether the Glengarrian was directly inspired by the Uist song or whether both song-texts were modelled on an even earlier prototype is not clear. What is clear is that these texts are the ‘art of a nation’ (as John MacInnes observed), the manifold manifestations of the strong Gaelic sense of place and belonging, one that was at home with a diverse variety of flora and fauna, and one for which Gaelic literature tradition provides a coherent and sophisticated rhetorical system. Gaelic tradition provides the precedents, paradigms and potentialities to allow us to experience the landscape which nurtured it through lenses very different from those of anglophone ‘modernity’ if we but listen. The beinn is not just a mountain by another name.

By Michael Newton

Michael Newton's book Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders, is published by Birlinn.


Bateman, Meg. ‘The environmentalism of Donnchadh Bàn: pragmatic or mythic?’ In Crossing the Highland Line: Cross-Currents in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Writing, ed. Christopher MacLachlan (Glasgow, 2009).
MacInnes, John. Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes (Edinburgh, 2006).
MacKay, William. Urquhart and Glenmoriston: Olden Times in a Highland Parish (Inverness, 1893).
MacPherson, Donald. An Duanaire (Edinburgh, 1868).
Meek, Donald. Caran an t-Saoghail / The Wiles of the World: Anthology of 19th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse (Edinburgh, 2003).
Newton, Michael. A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World (Dublin, 2000).
Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders (Edinburgh, 2009).
Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada (Sydney, Cape Breton, 2015).


Glengarry, Ontario: Michael Newton
Glenmoriston: Mhairi Law, 2017
Michael Newton and John MacInnes, at the Glen Finglas Woodland Trust, 1998
Glenmoriston: Mhairi Law, 2017
Glenmoriston: Mhairi Law, 2017
Jimmie (Michael's father) and Michael Newtown, in the Canadian Rocky Mountains near Banff

Gathering was commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, for the Fife Arms Hotel, Braemar; the project was launched in 2015 and will conclude in 2018.

The artist residency at University of Aberdeen is funded by The Leverhulme Trust; the project was launched in July 2016 and will conclude May 2017.