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Celebrating Rob Donn Mackay

Last weekend saw the culmination of the Mackay Country Trust and Strathnaver Museum’s most ambitious project to date with a two day extravaganza of cultural activities related to the much acclaimed 18th Century Gaelic bard, Rob Donn Mackay. These kicked off on Friday night with a ceilidh in Strathy Hall where Mackay Country Trust organiser, Ronnie Lansley of Durness, outlined the story of Rob Donn’s remarkable accomplishment including his composition of well over two hundred poems and songs, in many cases including original tunes, despite being illiterate and consequently relying entirely on his prodigious memory to produce, amend, remember and perform that enormous repertoire. Then it was over to local musician and piper, Carol-Anne Farquhar of Strathy who, as performer and Master of Ceremonies, guided a multi-national audience through an evening of music, dance and song, largely from the original product of the bard himself.

Individual performers included Ellen Beard, a former US Government lawyer who, on discovering that she was descended from Rob Donn, gave up her job, studied Gaelic, completed a PhD in Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University and, following years of work there and at Sabhal mor Ostaig, has produced a Rob Donn Songbook in honour of her ancestor. Her brother in law made his own contribution with a Texan honky-tonk song – possibly the only non-Gaelic event of the night! Catriona Macleod, Strathnaver, Celia MacDougal, Reay, and Erin Cook of Bettyhill all contributed from Rob Donn’s amazing playlist before a host of musicians, young and old, combined to form an ‘all welcome’ dance band. This was comprised of Rosalie Jack (7) on the fiddle with her Dad, Trevor Jack on guitar, Camilla Elder (10) on the fiddle with her Mum, also Camilla, on piano, Anna Magee (15) on accordion, piano and pipes, and Lauren Mowat (16) on guitar and whistle as well as David Macleod of Melness on the mandolin, all supported by Beth Cormack and Emily Morrison from the North Coast Fiddlers in Wick.

Though Saturday dawned with the most vicious of showers the North Coast can throw at you it quickly transformed in to the most perfect late summer days imaginable with those driving west to Durness for the next stage in the proceedings passing through all that natural magnificence under brilliant illumination. At Balnakiel, in the shadow of the great house where Rob Donn entertained the Lords of Reay, Jim Johnston of Bettyhill gave a brief reflection on the relative importance of poetry in the 21st Century as opposed to the Bard’s time before inviting Mary Mackay, Chair of the Mackay Country Trust, to cut the ribbon on the first plaque in the Rob Donn Trail, a series of interpretative panels located from Scourie round to Melvich each covering different aspect’s of his poetry and time. Then the ubiquitous Carol-Anne led the crowd in to the adjacent cemetery to the strains of ‘The Mackay March’ believed to have been one of Donn’s compositions, where Dr. Ellen Beard performed an appropriate song at her ancestor’s graveside.

Then, to the Mackay Country anthem of Gleannan Gollaidh, the audience moved on to Durness Public Hall where, in addition to a wide selection of delicious refreshments, there was an impressive display of work produced over the eighteen months of the project in commemoration of the bard.  These included artefacts produced by nine commissioned artists, wall panels stitched by numerous local volunteer crafters and ceramic tiles created by pupils from the area’s six primary and two secondary schools, together with some adults, under the guidance of world renowned ceramicist, Lotte Glob.

And finally, in the midst of all these amazing pieces, Ellen Beard launched her Rob Donn Song Book, a 210 page A4 size production in a highly accessible format which divides 100 of Rob Donn’s poems and songs in to five categories, each with a lucid introduction setting the historical context, and makes them available for the first time together with their original music. Each song has a full English translation, many from Ellen herself but with credit to earlier renderings particularly by the late Ian Grimble, the only other academic to have given Rob Donn his full attention. Each song has a brief footnote setting out the context in which it was created and the whole adds up to a wonderful resource for anyone wishing to perform the bard’s works or to gain an insight in to the complexities of 18th Century life through the eyes of a poetic genius. At £20.00 it’s a bargain in anyone’s language!

Photographs by Jim Johnston