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Threading Donn: Mackay Country community to create unique wall-hanging

As part of a two-year programme to celebrate the life and times of renowned Gaelic bard Rob Donn, Strathnaver Museum has been awarded £5,400 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones programme, to create a community created wall hanging.

Working in association with the Mackay Country Community Trust the project team will work with local craft groups and individuals to create a wall hanging depicting scenes from Rob Donn’s work and life.

Born at Alltnacaillich, Strathmore in 1714 Donn lived through a chaotic period in Highland history as the Jacobite Risings led to lasting changes throughout the Highlands. Donn’s work is celebrated by Gaelic scholars and he is arguably as important to Gaelic poetry as Robert Burns is to poetry in Scots.

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.

Poetry played a pivotal role in people’s lives and circulated rapidly by oral transmission. Donn’s use of language sometimes amounted to shorthand yet embodied complex concepts and double meanings that often depend on alternative definitions of Gaelic words.

Rob Donn was particularly interested in the living people about him which has given us a unique insight into the entrenched clan and cleric influences on the way of life of Gaelic Mackay Country. Rob Donn remains the last and greatest of those who were in a position to interpret and enlighten us about the traditional, tribal way of life of Scotland before it was destroyed.

Rob Donn’s work leaves a legacy by depicting the activities of his time providing a valuable social commentary which describes people from all social spheres. The landscape and wider environment feature prominently in his work which offers an image of a long-lost way of life. His use of word, music and alliteration, held together by a strong use of rhythm, whether sung or spoken, make compelling performance material.

A monument of polished granite was erected to his memory in 1829 in the churchyard of his native parish of Durness. Inscribed with tributes in Greek, Latin, English and Gaelic it shows the high regard in which his work was held. This regard is still evident today as in 2014 local people had the memorial renovated.

Rob Donn’s work has been put to tune and is played and sung at nearly every Strathnaver ceilidh, recognised locally as a valuable social commentary of its time. Sutherland musicians have paid their own tribute producing a CD of the songs of Rob Donn. Drine and guest singers, all from Sutherland, first performed the material at the Celtic Connections Festival.

Ronnie Lansley, Mackay Country Community Trust said “In 2014 Drine brought the work of the Mackay Country (Dùthaich ‘ic Aoidh) bard to a wider audience. We want to build on this by using the growing popularity of traditional handicraft to interpret Rob Donn’s life. We will be working with local people to form a distinctive wall hanging telling the story of Robb Donn’s life and times.”

The finished work will form part of a permanent exhibition in Strathnaver Museum after touring several venues in Mackay Country. This is one of 3 projects being pursued by Strathnaver Museum and Mackay Country Community Trust to commemorate and highlight the heritage of Rob Donn and Mackay Country. Anyone with an interest to take part will be warmly welcomed and should contact the project manager Fiona Mackenzie (fiona@strathnavermuseum.org.uk).

An open day is being held on 24th June in Durness Village Hall when all participants will be invited to attend to learn more about the project. Fiona Mackenzie will be coordinating the project and anyone interested in participating should contact Fiona and or attend the open day.