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Environmental and ecological readings

Philippe Laplace

Part I. Nature and the Environment: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The Politics of Nature in ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’

Alan Riach

Texte intégral

1Duncan Bàn MacIntyre (1724-1812), along with Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald) (c.1698-1770), are well-known in the literature of Gaelic Scotland as the two major poets of their time, but they remain almost unknown beyond Scotland. In the summer of 2012, I made an English-language version of Duncan Bàn’s greatest poem, ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’, working from earlier English translations and with the help of Gaelic-speaking friends who took me through parts of the original text. This essay is an attempt to introduce the poem and my reading of it and to describe what I hoped to achieve, in five approaches.

2First, locations: I would like to introduce the poem in its place and time, in the intersection of its geographical, historical and biographical locations. Secondly, perspectives of approach: I would like to approach the poem from a number of possible perspectives through considerations of ecology, landscape poetry, Romanticism and Realism, music and narrative, connecting the poem ‘in itself’, so to speak, to various other forms, in different poems and in the major non-traditional musical setting of the poem itself by the composer Ronald Stevenson. Third, English-language translations: I would like to review briefly how different translators have attempted to make the poem available in English since the nineteenth century. Fourth, structure: I would like to look at the balance between the way the eight parts of the poem create a cyclical structure of regeneration while at the same time relate a linear narrative to its violent ending. Fifth, the culmination: I would like to consider the meaning of its conclusion, the sense of ending it delivers.

I. Locations

3The historical location of the poem’s composition is one place to begin, yet it is hardly definite. ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ was made in the years between 1751 and 1766, thus in the immediate aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745 and its culmination at Culloden in 1746. The other great Gaelic poet of the period, Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair, fought with the Jacobites. Duncan Bàn MacIntyre fought on the Hanoverian side but reluctantly, as he was employed by the Hanoverian Campbells. At the battle of Falkirk, Duncan Bàn had had enough, and famously discarded his sword, which had been lent to him by his chief. He would fight no more.

4Not only the historical but also the geographical location of the poem’s scene and composition is specific, and much more than simply a place on a map. Michael Newton describes it like this:

  • 1 Michael Newton, Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 20 (...)

The entire landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms in Gaelic. Many words for topographical features are actually the same as those for human body parts: ceann ‘head, end’, aodann ‘face, surface’, gualann ‘shoulder, mountain ridge’, braigh ‘upper chest, uplands’, cìoch ‘breast, pointed hills’, druim ‘back, mountain ridge’, tòn ‘buttocks, eminence’, bod ‘penis, stone pillar’, feith ‘vein, bog-channel’, and others. This practice reinforces the sense of the landscape as a living entity.1

5Newton continues: ‘Indigenous cultures realise that there is no easy division between the human actors, animal inhabitants, and the natural landscape which forms the backdrop of heroic endeavours. The health of the human community and nature are intimately connected.’ He goes on:

  • 2 Michael Newton, Warriors of the Word, p. 295.

Implicit in the imagery of this poem is the idea that the corry fulfils a similar role to that of a chieftain: it is worthy of bardic praise, endowed with the qualities that ennoble a human subject; it is a patron, being a host to many guests, both human and animal; it is intrinsically part of the larger ecosystem relevant to the resources and operations of the human community. The poetry of ecosystems was arguably taken to its artistic apogee in Gaelic by Donnchadh Bàn Macintyre in his famous poem in praise of the mountain Beinn Dobhrain, composed between 1751 and 1766 using the metrical structure and music of ceòl mór.2

6Newton quotes William Gillies:

  • 3 Michael Newton, Warriors of the Word, p. 296.

Duncan Bàn transfers images from the eulogy of chiefs and allies them figuratively to the mountain [...] As one becomes familiar with Moladh Beinn Dobhrain one soon realises that the poem is not concerned simply with a mountain in the geological or geographical sense, but is even more a celebration of the life and way of life it supports; the flora and fauna, and especially the deer and the men who hunt the deer are all part of a continuum – an ecological system if I may use the term – sustained by and on the mountain [...] it is the hunt that enshrines the organising principle of the system.3

7Newton concludes that the poem echoes ‘the description of a chieftain’s hall, bright, resplendent, and well-stocked with food for inhabitants and guests’. So in a sense, this literal, descriptive work also resonates as a metaphor: the land itself is the rich store, just as a clan chief’s castle might be. But there is no clan chief in the poem, and almost no mention of its historical and political moment. This is perhaps understandable in terms of Duncan Bàn’s biography.

8He was born and grew up in Glen Orchy, near Ben Dorain. He had no formal education and did not read or write. He was employed by the big family of the area, the Campbells, and consequently on the Hanoverian (London government) side through the Jacobite rising, and one of the Argyll Militia. From 1746 to 1766 he was a gamekeeper for the Earl of Breadalbane and then the Duke of Argyll, working among the hills and woods of the area. Verses composed at this time include what we would call ‘nature’ poems and formal poems in praise of Campbell clan leaders. But by 1768 he and his family had moved to Edinburgh. His former captain in the Argylls helped him join the City Guard (the city police), which included many Highlanders. The Scots language poet Robert Fergusson (1750-74), who was in Edinburgh at the same time, called them ‘the black banditti’ and Duncan Bàn wrote songs praising his musket, as well as whisky and brandy. Here in Edinburgh, his poems were written down, published and sold well. In 1786, as Robert Burns’s poems were being published in the Kilmarnock edition, Duncan Bàn and his wife were touring the Highlands and islands. As Burns was being lionised in Edinburgh, Duncan Bàn was being warmly welcomed in the north-west. He returned to Edinburgh, left the City Guard in 1793, and was a soldier with the Breadalbane Fencibles, though now in his seventies. He retired in 1806, died in 1812, and he and his family are buried in Old Greyfriars’ churchyard. In 1859, a monument designed by John Thomas Rochead (1814-78), who also designed the Wallace monument at Stirling, was erected in the hills near Dalmally, overlooking Loch Awe.

9Duncan Bàn was in Edinburgh precisely when James Macpherson, Henry Mackenzie and Adam Smith were flourishing. Enlightenment and proto-Romantic writers were familiar in the city but there is almost no recognition of Duncan Bàn’s work or indeed of contemporary Gaelic literature in their writing. The Highlands were becoming recognised – or branded – through the work of Macpherson and Walter Scott.

10This division in cultural self-apprehension is matched by the dislocation between the vision of ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ and the praise-poem for clan and clan chief it resembles. As the clans themselves had been violently put down in and after Culloden in 1746, so the ascendancy of English-language writing, the gulfs betweeen English, Scots and Gaelic worlds were opening up. These gulfs were not unbridgeable – Duncan Bàn’s contemporary Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald) was in fact familiar not only with Burns’s work but also that of James Thomson, whose The Seasons (1730) was the most famous Scottish poem of its time and effectively triggered the tradition of English-language pastoral poetry. Yet the ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ is a very different work. Roderick Watson describes it like this:

  • 4 Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 213.

In over 500 lines Duncan Bàn is attentive to the minutiae of grasses and streams on Ben Dorain’s slopes; but the poem is particularly dedicated to the herds of deer that he had watched and hunted there for years. He is no sentimentalist, for, if he admires their delicate movements, he also takes delight in describing the intricacy of the flint-lock on the gun that will kill them. The poem ends, moreover, with dogs pulling the deer down to die in moorland pools, and these last scenes are described by means of unstressed extra syllables in imitation of crunluath, the most complex movement in pibroch which marks the climax to the tune.4

11In other words, the musical structure of the poem, as much as its subject, arises from, embodies and commemorates aspects of a culture and a kind of cultural understanding, a vision of how the world is, which the modernising economy of the United Kingdom had oppressed and was opposing.

II. Perspectives

  • 5 Fiona Stafford, Local Attachments: The Province of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), (...)

12Fiona Stafford, in her book Local Attachments: The Province of Poetry (2010), says this: ‘The vital significance of local attachment for art arises from truth’s need for strong foundations.’ Talking of Robert Burns, especially with reference to the Kilmarnock edition of his poems, she elaborates: ‘It was as if the poet found himself through his perception of others, while his sense of the ground he occupied was almost always shared ground.’5

13In the twentieth century, Hugh MacDiarmid heralded his commitment to ‘local attachment’ – but in terms of his political commitment to national political independence for Scotland, he was not a ‘local’ poet, even though the Borders, and later, Shetland, were geographical localities which were deeply informing for his writing. It was that generation of poets who were writing after the Second World War, who could be described more correctly as poets of ‘local attachment’ – George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith, Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig, Robert Garioch, Edwin Morgan and others – and in the generation that has followed them, the most conspicuous reconfiguration has been in terms of gendered identity, the poetic articulation of the experiences, perspectives and understanding of women. Still, the general significance of Fiona Stafford’s perception applies to all three generations, and ‘local attachments’ can be read into the work of each of them and its truth resides in its endorsement of a more general observation about cultural identity, its need for specific reference. The best explanation of this idea is given by the American poet Edward Dorn in an interview from the early 1990s. Asked whether he would consider himself a ‘landscape poet’, Dorn replies:

  • 6 Ed Dorn Live. Lectures, Interviews, and Outtakes, ed. by Joseph Richey. Introduction by Peter Miche (...)

Nobody could be a landscape poet in the same way that painters are landscape painters. So I’m not, and I don’t know anybody who is. The fact that you create a setting for the commentary as a poem doesn’t make it a landscape poem. You could say, ‘Out there is an apple tree.’ Then start talking about the death of Socrates. That doesn’t make it a landscape poem.6

14He elaborates on this:

Landscape is not a poetic device. It is a material thing. You can say, ‘Over hill and dale...’ Or, ‘The rain came down in sheets. Every once in a while it cleared and one could see the black soot of a lonely locomotive traveling toward Aberystwyth.’ That’s still not landscape. That’s just a bunch of words going on about what’s out there. If you are on earth, you are on a landscape, and there’s nothing much you can do about that.

15When pressed further about the idea of ‘landscape as a character’, he replies:

  • 7 Ed Dorn Live, ed. by Joseph Richey, p. 99.

You’re talking more about ‘haunt’ actually. That gets to involve the ‘human in place.’ That’s what Lawrence was talking about in ‘Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine.’ Consequently, that’s what [Charles] Olson was largely talking about. Those things are simple enough. But that’s not landscape.7

16Pressed again on the significance, if not of landscape, then of ‘the local’, ‘its particular activity and complication today’, Dorn says more:

  • 8 Ed Dorn Live, ed. by Joseph Richey, p. 100.

Both Lawrence and Pound took their intellectual cues from Thomas Hardy, who was the literary giant of their youth. If you follow Lawrence, to have a true local, you have to have gods of the local. You can’t have monotheism. It does not tolerate the local. Monotheism is centrality of power and total control.8

17For Dorn, the idea of monotheism is essentially to do with a lust for ‘control and dominance and bullying’. In religious terms, it would be ‘a bullying theology. Definitely. I mean its whole strength is intolerance’.

18This is significant for ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ because of the way the poem or song creates an ethos of human beings in the natural world, in relation to nature, dominating nature in some respects, at its mercy in others. There are what might be called ‘gods of the local’ – specific absolute authorities pertaining to time, place, living beings and their relations – and there is the imposing dominant authority of mortality. Therefore, at the forefront of our experience in the poem are what we might call ecological relations, the relations between matters of violence and the equilibrium between things that is reinforced through experiences of violence. We are made forcefully aware of the boundaries and borders that distinguish things, and the acts of violence that break those boundaries and cross those borders irreparably. Such acts bring about permanent alteration in some respects – literally, deer are killed – but such alterations may be seasonal in other respects – a new generation of deer will come. What is not countenanced in the poem is permanent alteration on a greater scale – for example, the loss of all the deer, or the entire clearance of people from this location. The poem or song is based upon the premise of accepted limits. It is therefore profoundly anti-Romantic, and absolutely not transgressive. In this work, the aesthetics of nature are the politics of nature, a ‘poetics’ of the environment. Through the living creatures in the poem and the movement of the poem itself – both as narrative progressing towards a ‘culmination’ and as song based on pibroch structure enacting a cycle that observes a beginning and ending but is organised as a recurring series of movements – the work moves not ‘towards’ but ‘within’ a poetics of the environment.

19This is what Hugh MacDiarmid understood and expresses in his poem ‘In Talk with Duncan Bàn MacIntyre’, written after he had made his translation of the poem, with the help of Sorley MacLean. He praises Duncan Bàn by saying that only in his poetry can we feel we stand in the woods by a river as three hinds and a stag approach, rise on their hind legs and browse on the twigs above us, close enough to touch as their breath comes into our faces. Then he continues:

  • 9 Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘In talk with Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t’Saoir’, The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid(...)

We have the feeling of having reached that state
All watchers of animals desire
Of having dispensed with our physical presence.
Or is that it? Is not really the bottom of our desire
Not to be ignored but to be accepted?9

  • 10 Hugh MacDiarmid, The Islands of Scotland (London: Batsford, 1939), p. xviii.
  • 11 Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), (...)

20MacDiarmid’s entire understanding of identity had been fashioned anew from his experience in the 1930s of the archipelagos of Shetland, then Orkney and the Western Isles, and then as this applied to Scotland as a whole, and beyond that to all the world, through all time. This development in his work is significant in our understanding of his engagement as an ecologist. As he writes in The Islands of Scotland: ‘It is high time we realised (and the Islands and West Highlands and North of Scotland are today a tragic object-lesson in this connection) that there is a discipline in nature that none can escape, the discipline of natural resources and their conservation for posterity.’10 This aspect of MacDiarmid’s work has been discussed by Louisa Gairn: ‘MacDiarmid anticipates the idea of “ecopoetics” developed by Jonathan Bate, who suggests that poiesis “is language’s most direct path or return to the oikos, the place of dwelling.”’11 This idea is crucial to our understanding of ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ for it is a de-romanticisation of landscape, and is fundamentally anti-essentialist. In this understanding, there is no ‘perfect’ language. We need translations. Acceptance of the mysterious, inexplicable component parts of the world may suggest an acknowledgement of what we call magic (magic is that which cannot be explained), or the sublime (that which etherealises itself into the heavens, like Ben Dorain ‘over all... beneath the radiant beams of the sun – | In all the magnificent range of the mountains around’) but it also emphasises the practical, the facts of working as a gamekeeper or stalker, where daily contact not only with other people but with with other species of living creatures teaches respect, both for their place in the world and our own.

21The poem is, I believe, a manifestation of a sensibility and a vision that is related to, connected with, but different from, its neighbours and contemporaries in work by Burns, Thomson, Wordsworth. There are nature poems, landscape poems, poems of hunting, love poems, in English and Scots and in Gaelic, all of which interweave in various ways, and some of which had an influence on each other that has frequently been overlooked, but this one has its own distinction. I would describe that distinction like this.

22There is, in the Romantic poets of England, especially Wordsworth and Shelley, a particular sense of the sublime. Their mountains soar into sky, ethereal, transcendant. The soul is transported. And there is, in the Scots poems of Burns, that earthed quality of a real man walking in a real place. The wonderful song ‘Now westlin winds’ rebukes the murdering ploys of small-game hunters and seduces its listeners and the woman of the young poet’s desire – ‘Peggy, dear’ – with its evocation of natural inevitability: as vernal showers to budding flowers, as autumn harvest to the farmer, just so and more so is the fondness Burns expresses for his ‘charmer’. Yet what Duncan Bàn MacIntyre gives us in this poem is elation, charm, sublime vision that is never turned purely to ether but brings itself back to the human and animal, to floral and geological realities, to the interconnectedness of beauty, grace, mortality and food, it offers both vision and physicality. I wanted to convey what I thought the poem was conveying, not to give a literal word-by-word translation of the meaning of each sentence.

23In my own version, I allowed myself one word out of time, in the thirdto-last line. Kaleidoscopes were invented after the poem had been written. Yet the ending of the poem in Gaelic, I think, suggests the frustration and impossibility of trying to describe something so multiple and various and moving, and the meaning of the poem is, I think, about the rightness of things, physicality and spirit, matter and ether and movement, and the word as metaphor for mind seemed to me, momentarily, appropriate. The pattern changes but recurs.

24This visualisation is different from that familiar from the conventional tradition of landscape paintings. When looking at a landscape by, say, Horatio McCulloch, one might be prompted to ask, where is your perspective coming from? Where do you stand? What position do you look out from? A similar position in the tradition of Romantic poetry might be seen in Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’: the poet stands looking over a scene proprietorially, though in this poem, Wordsworth is hypersensitive to the fact that, knowing no Gaelic, the language in which the woman reaping the harvest is singing is incomprehensible to him. ‘Will no-one tell me what she sings?’ is the crucial question Wordsworth asks. What tone is it asked in? There is perhaps a sad sense of human alienation, as if the poem should have been entitled, ‘The Solitary Poet’, but there is also perhaps an undertow of feeling that she ought to have been singing in a comprehensible language: one strand in the tone of the question is surely that of frustration. One reading of the poem might yield a picture of the poet leaving behind a community of language and culture, becoming the isolated Romantic outcast. As a convention of Romanticism, this point of view runs all the way through to Rilke, in the eighth of the Duino Elegies, where he asks:

  • 12 Rainer Maria Rilke, Possibility of Being. A Selection of Poems (1957; New York: New Directions Publ (...)

Who’s turned us round like this, so that we always,
Do what we may, retain the attitude
Of someone who’s departing? Just as he,
On the last hill, that shows him all his valley
For the last time, will turn and stop and linger,
We live our lives, for ever taking leave.12

  • 13 The term, ‘Atlantic Archipelago’ was first proposed by J.G.A. Pocock in the essay, ‘British History (...)

25If the prototype of the great Romantic sinners, from Byron’s Don Juan to Melville’s Ahab, is Milton’s Satan, perhaps the prototype for this retrospective glance is that of Adam and Eve, at the end of Paradise Lost, looking back at what they must depart from. As Jonathan Bate puts it, ‘the point about Eden is that those who write about it have been expelled from it.’ And the artistic product of this perspective in a great body of writing or painting is the sad but agreeable picture. In their poems, however, MacDiarmid and Duncan Bàn are not making ‘agreeable pictures’. ‘In Talk with Duncan Bàn MacIntyre’ and ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ are not about alienation and an agreeable view of a landscape. Rather, they are restoring a vision of archipelagic identities.13

26A different way of comprehending the poem is in its twenty-first century musical version. ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ is a major choral and orchestral composition by Ronald Stevenson, first performed 19 January 2008, in Glasgow, by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Double Chorus, conducted by James Grossmith. There, two choirs were singing in Gaelic and English, and a chorus of children and one of adults complemented each other in carefully deliberated arrangement. The composition could not be described as being in the tradition – it is clearly not like anything Duncan Bàn MacIntyre himself could have imagined – but it is unmistakably of the tradition, drawing on and employing choral, communal, linguistically complementary Gaelic and English-language texts, translated into a harmonic equilibrium in which discords are accommodated.

27Having considered some very different perspectives from which the poem might be comprehended, this brings us more closely to some of the translations into the English language which have been attempted since the nineteenth century.

III. Translations

  • 14 The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S. Graham, ed. by Margaret Snow and Michael Snow, (Manche (...)

28In a letter dated 23 November 1949, the poet W.S. Graham wrote to Edwin Morgan that he had been reading The Book of the Dean of Lismore, but that even without Gaelic he could see that the translation was bad. ‘And yet I get the feeling that it is wonderful poetry underneath in the original. If I could get in touch with a Gaelic scholar capable of and excited about making the early Gaelic poetry into “good English poetry” (like some of Pound’s Chinese poems) I would like to work at them at least into good English verse with no poetic diction.’14

29Graham’s desire to create ‘good English’ versions in the modern idiom of ancient Gaelic poetry signals the need to read poems translated not only across languages but across time. Without losing the meaning and context of the original, it should be possible to recreate a poem in such a way that its character, quality, quiddity and intensity – its excitement – can be conveyed immediately and accurately. For other poets, approaching the terrain or object of a great poem of the past might prompt oblique or self-consciously different perspectives. This was certainly true of Norman MacCaig, whose poem ‘One of the many days’ (1968) is an account of a visit to Ben Dorain which is not memorable for its epic scale, nor for the liveliness of the deer, which elude him:

A parcel of hinds
gave the V-sign with their ears, then
ran off and off till they were
cantering crumbs.

30Rather, MacCaig, writes, this day stays in his memory because of the sheer number of tiny, brilliantly-coloured frogs he saw in the grass there:

  • 15 Norman MacCaig, ‘One of the many days’, Collected Poems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988), p. 204.

amiably ambling or
jumping into the air – like
coloured ideas
tinily considering
the huge concept of Ben Dorain.15

31If Graham reminds us that translation is a necessary renewal, MacCaig reminds us how to see the small in the context of the great. Here I would like to consider briefly a sample of translations from the nineteenth through to the twenty-first centuries. This study might be profitably extended in close analysis, but in this context I would like to quote only the opening lines of ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ in seven different versions, to demonstrate how the diversity of individual approaches might help us consider the variousness of what we are attempting to comprehend.

32(a) This is From The Gaelic Bards and Original Poems (Glasgow: Archibald Sinclair, 1890) by Thomas Pattison (1828-65):

The honour o’er each hill
    Hath Ben Dorain;
Scene, to me, the sweetest still
    That day dawns upon:
Its long moor’s level way,
    And its nooks whence wild deer stray,
To the lustre on the brae
    Oft I’ve lauded them.

Dear to me its dusky boughs,
In the wood where green grass grows,
And the stately herd repose,
    Or there wander slow;
But the troops with bellies white,
    When the chase comes into sight,
Then I love to watch their flight,
    Going nosily.

33(b) This is from The Language and Literature of the Scottish Highlands (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1876) by John Stuart Blackie, 1876:

Honour be to Ben Dorain
    Above all Bens that be!
Beneath the sun mine eyes beheld
    No lovelier Ben than he;
With his long smooth stretch of moor,
And his nooks remote and sure
    For the deer,
When he smiles in face of day,
And the breeze sweeps o’er the brae
    Keen and clear;
With his greenly-waving woods,
And his grassy solitudes,
And the stately herds that fare
    Feeding there;
And the troop with white behind,
When they scent the common foe,
Then wheel to sudden flight
    In a row,
Proudly snuffing at the wind
    As they go.

34(c) This is from The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1940) by Hugh MacDiarmid (written between 1934 and 1939):

Over mountains, pride
Of place to Ben Dorain!
I’ve nowhere espied
A finer to reign.
In her moorbacks wide
Hosts of shy deer bide;
While light comes pouring
Diamond-wise from her side.
Grassy glades are there
With boughs light-springing,
Where the wild herds fare
(Of these my singing!),
Like lightning flinging
Their heels on the air
Should the wind be bringing
Any hint to beware.

35(d) This is from the Gaelic Text Society, by Angus Macleod (1952):

Precedence over every ben
has Ben Dorain;
of all I have seen beneath the sun,
I deemed her loveliest:
    a long, unbroken moor,
    covert where deer are found;
    the brightness of the slope
    I noted specially;
    coppices of boughs,
    woodland where grass grows –
    goodly is the stock
    that is a-dwelling there;
    gay band of the white rump,
    hunt pursuing them –
    charming to me is the troop
    that was keen-scented.

36(e) Iain Crichton Smith (1969):

Honour past all bens
to Ben Dorain.
Of all beneath the sun
I adore her.
Mountain ranges clear,
Storehouse of the deer,
the radiance of the moor
I’ve observed there.
Leafy branchy groves,
woods where the grass grows,
inquisitive the does
that are roaming there.
Herds with white rumps race –
hunters in the chase.
O I love the grace
of these noble ones.

37(f) This is from Gaelic Poetry in the Eighteenth Century: A Bilingual Anthology, edited by Derick S. Thomson (Aberdeen: Association for Scottish literary Studies, 1993):

Respect beyond each ben
for Ben Dorain;
of all beneath the sun
the most glorious:
long, unbroken moor,
sanctuary of deer,
upland that is clearly
worth talking of;
coppices of boughs,
woodland where grass grows,
elegant are those
whose abode it is:
white-rumped happy band
who’re in great demand,
much I love the herd
of keen noses’ scent.

38(g) This is from An Lasair: Anthology of 18th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse, edited and translated by Ronald Black (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001):

The prize above each ben
    Is Ben Dorain’s,
Of all I’ve ever seen
    To me she was loveliest:
Moorland long and smooth,
Store where deer were found,
The brightness of the slope
    Is what I pointed to;
Groves of branching trees,
Woods containing grass:
Well-favoured is the stock
    That makes its dwelling there,
A white-buttocked band
With hunt pursuing them –
Lovely to me is the herd
    That were snuffle-nosed.

39My own version begins with one line which brings together the first two lines of the previous translations. I decided to do this to give the visual and aural effect of an opening consonant ‘P’ then a series of translucent, air- and sunlight-filled vowels (‘ai’, ‘o’, ‘e’, ‘o’, ‘a’, ‘o’) in the flow of movement before the next powerful consonants, the ‘B’ and then the ‘D’ of ‘Ben Dorain’ itself. It would have been totally wrong to have had, ‘Praise above all to Ben Dorain’ because that would have given another peaked sound, the hard consonant ‘b’ in ‘above’ in the middle of the line. I wanted to suggest the meaning of the next two lines in the way the first line worked – that ‘Praise’ was due to this mountain, rising in sunshine in the company of all the surrounding mountains. These intricate, intimate details have some consequence for a close reader, alert and sensitive as a deer’s scent or a hunter’s eye to what a poem is doing. And they may be heard, when uttered aloud in nuanced reading. Close as that attentiveness might be, it could not be sustained at that level in every line. The poem has to move, and in some places, move fast. I was warned that attempting to do what I was up to would be condemned by anyone who knew Gaelic. Yet it was more than gratifying to read the poet Aonghas MacNeacail’s commendation, that it made Duncan Bàn great for the twenty-first century reader. In other words, effectively, this was a translation through time, as well as across languages. All translations are that, of course, but the emphasis is important here.

Praise over all to Ben Dorain –
She rises beneath the radiant beams of the sun –
In all the magnificent range of the mountains around,
So shapely, so sheer are her slopes, there are none
To compare; she is fair, in the light, like the flight
Of the deer, in the hunt, across moors, on the run,
Or under the green leafy branches of trees, in the groves
Of the woods, where the thick grass grows,
And the curious deer, watchful and tentative,
Hesitant, sensitive: I have had all these clear, in my sight.
A herd of the deer: each startles at once,
And they leap, as if one, and it starts!
The bounding of bodies, the weight in their forms,
In movement away, their white rumps up, bobbing,
Away in a spray, an array:
They are grace, in their movement, yet skittish.
Prompted by fear, carried by muscle, charged by instinctual sense;
Equally so, the shy, sombre stag,
In his warm brown coat,
The russet of fur, his antlers raised high,
Stately and slow, he walks by.

IV. Structure

  • 16 Kirsty Gunn, The Big Music (London: Faber and Faber, 2012).

40One way of describing how my version of the poem arises from, or derives from, or represents, the original, is in terms of the poem’s structural organisation. Consider this passage from Kirsty Gunn’s novel The Big Music.16 The novel is heavily freighted with details about pibroch, or in the Gaelic spelling, piobaireachd. Here Gunn is talking about how pipers might have learned tunes through ‘translating’ them from music to be sung by the human voice (canntaireachd) into music played on the pipes. Thus the accuracy of replicated annotation is of secondary importance to the primacy of conveying meaning through music, whether in bodily human voice or fashioned material instrument. This also relates to a teaching or transmission of tune without written manuscript – just as Duncan Bàn’s poem was composed as a song in his mind before it was ever written down on a page. The ‘original’ is not the written version, nor the printed version, nor any of the English-language translations, but something Duncan Bàn made in is own head, that he would have made into sound through his own voice. There is no way to get back to that, and no way to replicate it. But that’s what I was trying to represent.

  • 17 Kirsty Gunn, The Big Music, pp. 309-10.

It has been said that the best way to think about playing a tune – and therefore about the qualities of the instrument upon which the musician will be playing – is to imagine all at first as something that will be sung. To tune the voice, the mind to the music in hand – this was the way piobaireachd was taught in the beginning, when there were no written manuscripts, when the notes for the tunes had no representation uopn the stave. Such is the power of music, of poetry, that it can be learned in this other, mysterious way – not so much read and understood as listened to and apprehended. It could well be that the traditional manner of learning piobaireachd by canntaireachd, by way of a range of sounds that were sung through, teacher to pupil, may contain instruction for our understanding of all of art’s mysteries. Certainly there need be no direct correlation between correct understanding and the power of effect for high art to make its charge upon us.
Indeed, the writer Seamus MacNeill has observed, because of this very fact – of the primacy of the human voice as being our way in to piobaireachd – that it could well be ‘that the more incorrectly a piobaireachd is written, the better it is to be played – because the learner is forced to seek assistance from a piper who knows more than he does and who has been taught himself in the traditional manner.’17

41Or as Gunn puts it in the following paragraph, ‘the idea of a music that sits behind the words, of entire lines and phrases that sound rather than represent, is at the very heart of the project here in hand’. This is pertinent not only to my own sense of how the poem creates its meaning but also, perhaps more objectively, to its structure. It is a formal arrangement of intricate internal rhyme and musical patterning.

42In Gaelic as in English, the verse patterns are repetitive and yet full of lively variation. As a coherent and complete work, it represents key images and themes: the mountain, the deer, the hunter and dogs, the changes of seasons, the hunt and the kill. It was intended to be memorised and performed as a song, vocally, rather than written or published and read. As such, it was composed as a social event, rather than a polished, published object. So another crucial location of the poem is therefore in performance, in company. This crosses historical periods and geographical locations and implies a significance in translation as a transposition, not only from one language to another but from one time period to another, literally from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. The structural coherence of the poem helps in this transmission. It was composed to the musical structure of a pibroch, the classical music of the Highland bagpipe. It is also known as ‘ceol mor’ or ‘big music’ or ‘great music’, distinct from ‘ceol bheag’, meaning ‘light’ or ‘small’ music such as dances, strathspeys, jigs and reels. What might be called the poem’s location in terms of this structure is important.

43The structure of the poem is essential to its meaning. In print, it is a work of 554 lines, in eight parts: (1) The opening gives the main theme or ‘urlar’, which is to say, the vision of the mountain, the deer, and the first-person singular narrator of the poem, who is the hunter of the deer and praise-singer of both mountain and deer; (2) the first journey, or more normally, the first ‘variation’ upon the main theme, which takes each of the preceding three main component parts and extends, expands, or elaborates some aspects of them; (3) then there is a return to main theme, the relations between mountain, deer and hunter; (4) then the second journey, or variation; (5) then the main theme once again; (6) then the third journey, or variation; (7) then the main theme is returned to for the last time; and finally (8) there is the culmination of the entire poem, its crowning or bringing together of all the elements in the onslaught of the hunting dogs and the killing of the deer, and finally a coda confirms that the poem as given is not enough, and never could be, to encompass everything it sets out to describe. Seen in this way, there is a cyclical, or seasonal, sense of repetition – the main theme is given four times, each time followed by a transitional ‘variation’ or journey between them, and at last the ‘culmination’ brings things to a conclusion, but with the promise of further repetition or regeneration – although, obviously enough, not for the particular individual deer killed in the last section. Yet at the same time, this structure, once experienced, may be read or listened to again and again with an increased awareness of tension. Even on a first reading there are clues that the end will be bloody and climactic. This balance or combining of a regenerating, cyclical structure and a linear, increasingly suspenseful, narrative, is stunningly achieved, and appreciated more deeply after several readings.

V. The Culmination

44Meg Bateman, in her essay ‘The Environmentalism of Donnchadh Bàn: Pragmatic or Mythic?’, says this:

  • 18 Meg Bateman, ‘The Environmentalism of Donnchadh Bàn: Pragmatic or Mythic?’, Crossing the Highland L (...)

Man’s stewardship of nature is natural because man is part of nature. It is what man does, and is no less natural than birds’ songs and beavers’ dams. In reading ‘Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain’ we are led to accept the goring of the deer by the hounds as part of a whole. We don’t cringe at the demise of the animals that have just been lovingly described because the instinct of the hounds and the skill of the hunter with his ingeniously designed gun are all equally part of nature. Man and the land belong together. He speaks of Gleann Urchaidh as the place where he belongs and should be buried. In ‘Òran nam Balgairean’ he sees it as ‘minàdarrach’ (unnatural) that the glens have become depopulated, and wrong that a man has to leave the place inhabited by his forebears. Throughout the poems Donnchadh Bàn exhibits a passionate love of nature, a love that is not contradicted when part of nature is destroyed by another part so long as the balance is maintained.18

45This is a comprehensive summary of the poem’s environmental character and Bateman elaborates from it. She continues, quoting William Gillies: ‘Gillies suggests that Donnchadh Bàn, in speaking of the deer’s rights to the bounds of Beinn Dòbhrain, is making a veiled claim to the people’s rights to the land and protection of the chief. Gillies makes the connection between this poem and the “ancient concept of the prince as husband of the land he ruled, which burgeoned and flourished insofar as the king was the rightful king, ruling justly”.’ Bateman comments: ‘Myth need not be taken literally but as a form of knowledge, as an anthropological construct for a people to understand their position in the world.’ She goes on:

As part of the personification, productive nature is seen as being hospitable. Nature is ‘aoigheil’ under the rightful ruler for it becomes home to an abundance of life. There is a clear equation in Donnchadh Bàn’s thinking between naturalness and hospitality: nature is generous to life, and life, in its turn, is generous/productive. To him, the Highlands after the Clearances are in an unnatural state, because a monoculture of sheep is inhospitable to other species, including man.

46And goes further:

  • 19 Meg Bateman, ‘The Environmentalism of Donnchadh Bàn: Pragmatic or Mythic?’, p. 131.

It may be coincidental that these attitudes resonate with certain features of Romanticism that grew up from a quite different basis in reaction to the dominance of nature assumed to be the way to power by early modern philosophy and science.
Some of Donnchadh Bàn’s attitudes described above are recognisable as trends in Romanticism: the personification of nature, the attribution of emotions to nature; the poet’s passionate involvement with his environment; man’s state reflecting that of nature and vice versa; anthropomorphism. I have suggested they are all ultimately connected to the presence of the goddess. Though their origin is independent of Romanticism, the end result can be remarkably similar: an inability to distinguish man from his natural setting, nature ‘sending messages’, the pathetic fallacy.19

47In ‘Last Farewell to the Bens’, composed when he was 78 years old, Donnchadh Bàn returns to find the mountain populated by sheep and all his former friends, experience and knowledge of the deer and their terrain are now moribund, outdated and useless. In Geordie MacIntyre’s adaptation, the last verses of the song are:

Yestreen I wandered in the glen
What thoughts were in my head
Where were the friends of yesterdays
Where have those dear ones fled

I looked and looked where’er I looked
There was nought but flocks o’ sheep
A woeful change was in the hill
World thy deceit is deep

  • 20 Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre, White Wings (CD), Greentrax Recordings, CDTRAX306 (2007).

Farewell ye mighty solitudes
Where once I loved to dwell
Scenes of my springtime and its joys
Forever fare ye well –20

48The question Meg Bateman prompts us to ask is whether the emotion in the line, ‘World thy deceit is deep’ (which in Gaelic gives the sense of the poet himself having been deceived or cheated), is not so much resignation or nostalgia but rather anger at the wrongful and unjust, because unnatural, condition the mountain has been brought to – not through evolution but through human intervention. Bateman concludes by confirming that ‘such features as nostalgia, a passionate involvement with nature, nature reflecting the state of man, do have a place in the native Gaelic tradition just as they do in Romantic literature.’ However, ‘Pre-Christian mythology about man’s place in the world chimes with modern man’s sense about what is lost when the world is seen as a machine or as a resource for exploitation.’ This gives added poignancy and power to the last lines, the coda, as it were, of ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’. In Hugh MacDiarmid’s version:

Though I’ve told a little of Ben Dorain here
Before I could tell all it deserves I would be
In a delirium with the strange prolixity
Of the talking called for, I fear.

49And in my own:

What little I’ve sung
Is never enough
To give the full sense
Of all the fine, rough, fair, facts
Of the mountain and deer.
Only words and a music of fabulous kind
And complex ability,
Kaleidoscope mind,
Could show presence and movement, all their agility,
Multiple, mortal, and truly aligned.

50The question remains, whether ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ may be read in the twenty-first century as a poem not only of praise, but also of sorrow, resistance and anger, a permanent injunction to be critical and sharp to the devastation people bring upon others. Not only the deer, but the trees and forests of Ben Dorain have gone. It is a bare mountain. In this, perhaps, it is comparable to that other great poem of sorrow, the persistence of memory and the demand for justice and redress, Sorley MacLean’s ‘Hallaig’. And perhaps there is an implicit political significance here too. ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ is a poem of loss, written in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and its catastrophic climax at Culloden in 1746. It is not a praise poem for a chief, hero, leader or clan, but a praise poem for a non-human source of economic health and human well-being, a mountain that is not simply the ‘earth-mother’ myth idealised but rather one in which distinct identities are functional, and moving in relation to each other.


1 Michael Newton, Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009), p. 294.

2 Michael Newton, Warriors of the Word, p. 295.

3 Michael Newton, Warriors of the Word, p. 296.

4 Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 213.

5 Fiona Stafford, Local Attachments: The Province of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 21.

6 Ed Dorn Live. Lectures, Interviews, and Outtakes, ed. by Joseph Richey. Introduction by Peter Michelson (University of Michigan, 2007), p. 98.

7 Ed Dorn Live, ed. by Joseph Richey, p. 99.

8 Ed Dorn Live, ed. by Joseph Richey, p. 100.

9 Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘In talk with Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t’Saoir’, The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. by M. Grieve and W. R. Aitken, vol. 2, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 1102.

10 Hugh MacDiarmid, The Islands of Scotland (London: Batsford, 1939), p. xviii.

11 Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), p. 130. See Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000), p. 76.

12 Rainer Maria Rilke, Possibility of Being. A Selection of Poems (1957; New York: New Directions Publishing, 1977), p. 88.

13 The term, ‘Atlantic Archipelago’ was first proposed by J.G.A. Pocock in the essay, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History, 4, 47 (December 1975), 601- 21, (p. 609).

14 The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S. Graham, ed. by Margaret Snow and Michael Snow, (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), p. 104.

15 Norman MacCaig, ‘One of the many days’, Collected Poems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988), p. 204.

16 Kirsty Gunn, The Big Music (London: Faber and Faber, 2012).

17 Kirsty Gunn, The Big Music, pp. 309-10.

18 Meg Bateman, ‘The Environmentalism of Donnchadh Bàn: Pragmatic or Mythic?’, Crossing the Highland Line: Cross-Currents in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Writing, edited by Christopher McLachlan (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2009), pp.123-36 (p. 124).

19 Meg Bateman, ‘The Environmentalism of Donnchadh Bàn: Pragmatic or Mythic?’, p. 131.

20 Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre, White Wings (CD), Greentrax Recordings, CDTRAX306 (2007).


Is the Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University and past-President of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2006-10. He is the general editor of the Collected Works of Hugh MacDiarmid, the author of Representing Scotland in Literature, Popular Culture and Iconography and co-author with Alexander Moffat of both Arts of Resistance: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland, described by the Times Literary Supplement as ‘a landmark book’ and Arts of Independence: The Cultural Argument and Why It Matters Most (2014). His fifth book of poems, Homecoming (2009), follows Clearances (2001), First & Last Songs (1995), An Open Return (1991) and This Folding Map (1990).

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