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The Library



Meg Bateman

An Anglophone Version


Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain (Praise of Ben Dorain) by the eighteenth-century poet, Duncan Bàn MacIntyre, is one of the greatest marvels of Gaelic poetry – indeed it is one of the greatest marvels of the whole of Gaelic culture. It is hard to comprehend how without recourse to writing Donnchadh Bàn composed and remembered a poem of some 550 lines in a complex metre alternating, like a pibroch, between ground, variation and crùnludh. His minute observation of the deer and their habitat alone is marvel enough.

It is a mysterious poem with multiple ramifications. Donnchadh Bàn seems to have had an early understanding of the interrelatedness of different life forms long before the word “ecology” was coined. Thus, he is able to view the killing by the hunt of the deer that he has just so lovingly described without horror or sentimentality, because man and deer share the same environment and man eats the deer to survive. There are plenty other deer in the herd and the balance between life and death has been maintained. Man is part of nature, and as Iain Crichton Smith has pointed out, his gun and ingenuity at manufacturing and using it are praised by the poet as much as the agility of the deer. In understanding different species’ adaptation to the environment, Donnchadh Bàn appears an early Darwinian too.

Ben Dorain’s sustenance of various life forms – man, deer, birds, fish and vegetation – makes the hill a distinctly female presence in the poem. She is like a mother, dressed in the land’s richly varied vegetation in the model of Gaelic mythology. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that James Lovelock used the image of a woman again in his Gaia Hypothesis to communicate a sense of the Earth as an integrated living whole.

The richness of Donnchadh Bàn’s language becomes a metaphor for the richness of nature, both seeming capable of endless variation and renewal. The poem is a song and the music itself becomes a metaphor for the co-existence of different forms of life. If there is some repetition in the poem describing the movement of the deer between their favourite pastures and their calling to one another as they ascend and descend the peaks, that is because there is repetition in nature. 

Donnchadh Bàn says, Tha an eilid anns an fhrìth/ mar bu chòir dhi bhith (The hind is in the forest / as she ought to be). He alludes often to the right of animals and humans to Ben Dorain, drawing again on Gaelic mythology in which land and man form a union, each prospering the other. Human culture is part of nature and their communal and balanced existence creates harmonies of rich complexities. It is how the world is meant to be.

In a later poem, Òran nam Balgairean (The Song of the Foxes), he goads the foxes to destroy the sheep that have replaced the people. He complains that the absence of people resulting from the Clearances is an unnatural state for the Highlands. He received a terrible shock towards the end of his life when he returned to Ben Dorain after working for many years in the city guard in Edinburgh and found that the mountain that he had taken as a symbol of immutability had indeed changed. In his song Cumha a’ Choire Cheathaich (Lament for the Misty Corrie) he notes how with bad management, the corrie’s forests and waterways have become clogged and the deer population – those avatars of the land – have fled.

How the corrie has gone to ruin,
since now it has no deer,
nor any man who loves them
and is efficient on their trail.

Donnchadh Bàn’s view of intermeshing life forms and man’s stewardship of nature –  which have enormous implications for our present ecological crisis – seem to have been overlooked by earlier commentators. Kurt Wittig, writing of eighteenth-century Gaelic nature poetry, said, “Nature is valued solely because of the aesthetic delight which it affords; there is no philosophical reflection on it, no pantheism” (The Scottish Tradition in Literature, 1958, 194). Moreover, Donnchadh Bàn’s editor, Angus Macleod, viewed him as naïve, albeit with a virtuosity for versification, stating, “If in poetry we require sublimity of thought, a philosophy of life or compelling emotion, we shall find Duncan Macintrye wanting” (Orain Dhonnchaidh Bhain, 1978, xl). 

Garry MacKenzie however is acutely aware of the implications of the poem for our times. He is also aware of the impossibility of a writer today not working intertextually. MacKenzie is analytical and furthers his knowledge of the natural history of deer through study. If Donnchadh Bàn’s stance is subsumed in the words, structure and music of the poem, MacKenzie’s meaning literally appears intertextually, between his translation of Donnchadh Bàn and his own and others’ writing. He has conversed with many aspects of the poem and has created another poem, I feel, of equal mystery and potency. Donnchadh’s grounds have become MacKenzie’s variations. 

There are comparisons and contrasts to be made between MacIntyre and MacKenzie. While  MacIntyre, following Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald), chose the form of the pibroch to mirror the variations and circularity of nature, MacKenzie has invented a new form: a conversation read from top to bottom of the page, but where left and right correspond to Donnchadh Bàn’s translated lines and MacKenzie’s reflections on them.  We recognize the rhythms of the Gaelic in the translation but sometimes the columns blend as concrete poetry and the words scatter on the page like hinds and fawns on a hillside or like a burn tumbling down between a variety of mosses.

MacKenzie runs with the musical metaphor. The land plays the drones and the deer play the reed in a tune that is both ancient (because the deer have been on Ben Dorain since the end of the Ice Age) and new (because animal culture does not age like human civilisations). For MacIntyre and MacKenzie, the sounds made by the deer, birds, wind and burns, and even the hounds and the gun, sound together in harmony, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Like Donnchadh Bàn, MacKenzie expresses the overwhelming fecundity of nature, the same force that Dylan Thomas sees in “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. If Donnchadh Bàn expresses this through a wealth of plant and verse forms, MacKenzie expresses it in the vigour and sensuousness of the rutting of the deer. The stag ejaculating on the grass reminded me of the oak trees raining down acorns of which only one or two might become a tree in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.

In addition to MacKenzie’s learned interjections (about deer eating bones when short of calcium, about Gaelic literature and details of Donnchadh Bàn’s biography), there is another important subject raised in his poem. That is a longing for pure existence, for a perception of reality, not as a series of discrete objects perceived by the intellect but as experience perceived through the senses. The stag’s perceptions are as far from the poet’s as Jupiter in its ability to see things as they are: The world / is its own / true self in him. This philosophical strand sounds throughout the poem and we are wakened to it by quotations from Spinoza, Thomas A. Clark and Heraclitus. They recognise the interconnectedness of all things, the goal of many a school of mysticism including Neoplatonism, and part of Gaelic thinking too.  It isn’t only the deer who are one and the same with what they perceive. MacKenzie quotes at length from Amairgin, the mythic poet of the Milesians who came with the first Gaels to Ireland according to Lebor Gabála. Amairgin, in making peace with the sovereignty goddesses of Ireland, achieves an identity with the land, beasts, wind and waves.

In both MacKenzie’s and MacIntyre’s poems, music represents the union of nature. It is also suggested by MacKenzie’s use of synesthesia, by which, for example, he “sees” the call of the hind like lace in the wind. Donnchadh Bàn speaks directly to the deer and to the mountain, for – like Amairgin and the Masai hunters of today – he would have to sense being a deer himself to be able to track them. By contrast, MacKenzie mostly addresses a reader: look with me /… listen!

It is interesting that another early Gaelic text, Suibne Geilt or The Madness of Sweeney, led another poet, Rody Gorman, to create a new form of translation, Sweeney: an Intertonguing (a Subversion from the Irish). Clearly, the formulation of the Gaels regarding their relationship with nature makes sense to us today, in the midst of an ecological crisis. Gorman speaks on behalf of a king who preferred the company of trees, deer and a river to the bustle of the court. We see too that nature, viewed by Augustine as a distraction from the spiritual, was considered an incitement to piety among early Gaelic Christians. Both MacKenzie and Gorman work intertextually with a mixture of translation and creative response. Rather than attempting to reproduce the thinking of our ancestors, is it not more honest to come to their texts with our contemporary intellectual armour and concerns? Both poets have found a place

where words and landscape fuse
in an ecology of myth.

MacKenzie wants to see reality. The deer and Ben Dorain belong in reality to each other. Ben Dorain is only owned temporarily by a landlord and that only in the imagination of society. On the cover of the book there is a photo of Ben Dorain, “the equal of any mountain under the sun”, its tranquil shape recalling Fuji Yama. But today its covering is scree and lichen rather that the luxuriant growth described by Donnchadh Bàn. MacKenzie’s poem comes to an end with fleeting images of various creatures rather than with the majestic crùnluth of the older poem. Ben Dorain is still beautiful but its ecosystems of vegetation, deer and human society are not sounding together as they used to. 

August 2020, Isle of Skye, Scotland

This is the Introduction to Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain, by Garry MacKenzie, published by The Irish Pages Press/Cló An Mhíl Bhuí in January 2021.

Meg Bateman was born in Edinburgh in 1959 and learned Gaelic at the University of Aberdeen and in South Uist. She completed a PhD in Classical Gaelic religious poetry and taught at Aberdeen University between 1991 and 1998. Then she moved to Skye with her young son to teach at the Gaelic college, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, now part of the University of Highlands and Islands.

Her first collection of poems, Òrain Ghaoil/Amhráin Grádha, (Love Songs) was published by Coiscéim in 1990 with Irish translations by Alec Osborne. Her next three collections, Aotromachd agus Dàin Eile/Lightness and Other Poems (1997), Soirbheas/Fair Wind (2007) and Transparencies (2013) were all published by Polygon, the last including both Scottish Gaelic and English poems. She has co-edited and translated five anthologies of historical Gaelic verse and with John Purser, she has just completed the e-book, Window to the West: Culture and Environment in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd (2020). She is the Scottish Gaelic Editor of Irish Pages.

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