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New Highland Trail to celebrate Gaelic bard Rob Donn

Mackay Country Community Trust Ltd are pleased to announce that a project team has been appointed for the Rob Donn Trail project, Trailing Donn.

Trailing Donn is part of an 18 month celebration of the life and work of Gaelic bard Rob Donn (pronounced down) called Donn Country. Led by the Mackay Country Community Trust and Strathnaver Museum the project has received support from the seven community councils across the area and has secured £36,200 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), £7,720 from Caithness and North Sutherland Fund and £7,720 from SSE Strathy North Community Fund. The charities are grateful to the National Lottery players’ contribution to the project through HLF funding.

Rob Donn is an extremely important figure in the history of Gaelic literature and might arguably be as important to Gaelic poetry as his contemporary Robert Burns is to poetry in Scots. Born at Alltnacaillich, Strathmore in 1714 Donn lived through a chaotic period in Highland history as the Jacobite Risings resulted in lasting changes throughout the Highlands.

Trailing Donn will establish a themed trail linking related places and people from across Mackay Country which appear in the stories, poems and songs of Rob Donn. He made his living as a cattle drover and travelled widely around Mackay Country. A series of workshops will be held across the area from Scourie to Melvich enabling local people to discover and explore Rob Donn’s work as well as providing training opportunities such as the chance to take part in historical research and analysis.

During Rob Donn’s lifetime poetry played a pivotal role in people’s lives and circulated rapidly by oral transmission. Unable to read or write, and dictating his poetry from memory only towards the end of his life, his work represents an important document of a world both expanding and contracting as the British state made its presence felt in the day-to-day life inhabited by Donn and his contemporaries. As such the project team will be scheduling a series of workshops and ceilidhs for performing and recording Donn’s music, songs and poems.

Led by volunteers from the local community, the project focuses on the impact Rob Donn has had on the identity of North West Sutherland. The new members joining the team are Fiona Mackenzie as project manager and Dr Ellen Beard as project lead researcher.

Fiona has extensive experience within the community and voluntary sector with a particular focus on heritage projects. As well as an MA (Hons) in History Fiona has a post-graduate MSc in Sustainable Rural Development which gave her an interdisciplinary perspective in a range of rural issues. Since 2011 she has been involved in a wide variety of community projects in Sutherland which have contributed to social, economic and environmental benefits in the county.

Ellen Beard is a descendant of Rob Donn. During her second career as a PhD student in Celtic, she became more knowledgeable than any other living person regarding the life, poetry and music of Rob Donn MacKay, translating dozens of his poems into English for the first time and producing over a hundred song settings of his words and music in computerized music notation. She studied Gaelic full-time for two years at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, read widely in Scottish history (particularly the 18th-century Highlands), and learned and performed Gaelic songs (solo and choral) at Mòds and concerts in the US and Scotland.

Rob Donn died in 1778 and a plain stone slab with his name and the date marks his grave in Balnakeil Churchyard. In 1829 a monument to him was erected with inscriptions in Greek, Latin, Gaelic and English.

Ronnie Lansley, of the Mackay Country Community Trust explained “The Mackay Country Trust brings together 11 communities focusing on activities which complement and augment local work. We seek to increase the profile and identity of our area for tourism using sensitive historical research and cultural development to create new skills in the area. We value and respect our past as much as we strive to make our present and future secure and vibrant”.

Lucy Casot, Head of HLF Scotland, said: “Rob Donn Trail is a great project as it shows clearly how local heritage can be a catalyst for lots of different activities and bring people together behind a common purpose. HLF is pleased to support Mackay Country Community Trust Ltd in its plans to recruit volunteers of all ages, offer skills training and, thanks to National Lottery players, enable people to enjoy the history on their own doorstep.”

As part of the Trailing Donn project the team will also produce a website with the trail map and a bilingual printed publication. For more about the Donn Country project people are encouraged to visit https://mackaycountry.wixsite.com/donncountry or contact Fiona Mackenzie at fiona@strathnavermuseum.org.uk.