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The Mystery of the missing trousers

The Mackay Country Trust and Strathnaver Museum are embarking on an exciting art project to raise the profile of renowned Gaelic bard Rob Donn. The project will engage 8 diverse artists working in a range of media to celebrate the life and times of this talented poet.

The artists involved are ceramicist Lotte Glob, artist-blacksmith Sam Barlow, master printmaker Ian Westacott, sculptor and potter Jenny Mackenzie Ross, illustrator Mark Edwards, visual artist Jana Emburey, artist Elliot Rudie and fibre artist Joanne B Kaar.

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.

Donn’s 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.

Unable to read or write, Donn dictated his poetry from memory only towards the end of his life and was particularly notorious for his often-acerbic tongue. It is said that Donn would be invited to every wedding for fear of his poetic response and it is this story which has intrigued fibre artist Joanne B Kaar.

Rob Donn attended the MacRory wedding as an uninvited guest where he recited ‘Briogais MhicRuaridh’. The poem poked fun and made accusations about as many of the guests as possible as he puzzled over the whereabouts of some missing trousers.

One possible reason for stealing the trousers he gave was to make pouches for missing Jacobean gold thrown into Lochan Haken. In March 1746, the French ship Hazard took refuge in the Kyle of Tongue in an effort to evade Royal Navy frigate HMS Sheerness. The crew attempted to take the gold overland but were chased down by the Mackays who were loyal to the government.

In the poem Rob Donn also referred to the Dress Act 1746 which was part of the Act of Proscription which came into force on 1 August 1746. This made the wearing of Highland Dress, such as tartan or the kilt illegal in Scotland. At the time trousers made from local tweed were itchy.

Dr Ian Grimble, one of the founders of the Strathnaver Museum, writes in ‘The World of Rob Donn’, about Donn’s apparent frequent behaviour of removing people’s trousers, both metaphorically and literally.

Nearly 300 years later artist Joanne B Kaar is looking for men to help create an art piece by donating a pair of their old jeans to the Strathnaver Museum which she will distress, age and peat-stain. Joanne has imagined that a stash of trousers has been ‘found’ in an area frequented by 18th century Rob Donn. Joanne will photograph and document the stash as if it were an archaeological find or museum object.

Joanne says “This is ‘art as artefact’, as the trousers although modern, will have once been worn by men who live in the area. I hope the artwork will inspire people to find out more about Rob Donn, other objects in the Strathnaver Museum and the history of the area.”

If you would like to help, by donating a pair of old jeans to be turned into art, please contact Strathnaver Museum at or 01641 521 418. Or drop your jeans in at the Strathnaver Museum by the 22nd May 2017.

The Strathnaver Museum and the Mackay Country Trust are developing an ambitious series of projects to raise the profile of Rob Donn over the next two years. The results of all the projects will be displayed in the Strathnaver Museum before going on tour.