I’M heading off this weekend in search of Duncan Ban MacIntyre, fair-haired Duncan of the songs.
MacIntyre, or Donnchadh Ban nan Oran, was born near Bridge of Orchy in 1724 and became one of Gaeldom’s greatest bards. He had a mixed career, as a gamekeeper and forester working for the Earl of Breadalbane, before becoming a soldier in the Argyll Regiment of Militia.
Duncan moved to Edinburgh in 1767 and spent the rest of his life there serving with the Breadalbane Fencibles and the City Guard before retiring in 1806. During his time in Edinburgh he composed several prize winning poems, mostly about his native Argyll.
An extraordinary granite monument – some 44 feet high on the Old Military Road from Inveraray to Dalmally, was raised by public subscription in 1859 and dominates Glen Orchy and Loch Awe and its islands.
Probably MacIntyre’s best known work was his Moladh Beinn Dorain – in Praise of Beinn Dorain, the mountain that dominated the view from his early home at Druim Liaghart on the southern shore of Loch Tulla. This is a significant poem in the canon of early Gaelic poetry because of the author’s awareness of the aesthetic values of the hill, a rare acknowledgement in those days.
“O gladly in times of old I trod that glorious ground,
And the white dawn melted in the sun, and the red deer cried around.”
I wonder how many folk, particularly hillwalkers and Munro-baggers, have since trod that “glorious ground”, initially inspired perhaps by the near perfect conical symmetry of Beinn Dorain, its image filling the pass ahead as they drove over the A82 from Tyndrum.
It’s a significant hill, sitting on the ancient Druim Alban, the watershed of Scotland, the line of which lies surprisingly closer to Scotland’s west coast than the east. While the waters of the River Orchy and River Etive are fast and furious in their short descents to western seas the River Lyon, which rises to the east of Beinn Dorain, takes a much more relaxed and stately pace as it flows eastwards. The hill’s position, along with its neighbours Beinn an Dothaidh, Beinn Achaladair and Beinn a’Chreachain also form the formidable barrier of mountains once known as the Wall of Rannoch, the ancient boundary between the old Pictish Kingdom of Alba to the east and the Dalriadic Kingdom of the Scots in the west. There’s certainly more to Beinn Dorain than it’s Munro status!
Most of Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s poetry is descriptive and despite the Jacobite upheavals that wracked the highlands during his lifetime it was his experience as a gamekeeper in Argyll and Perthshire in the employ of the Earl of Breadalbane, and later the Duke of Argyll which had greatest impact upon his poetry. Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain stems from this period. The significance of Duncan Ban’s nature themed poetry is that it has been described by Gaelic scholars as “the zenith of Gaelic nature poetry”.
What is surprising is that MacIntyre remained illiterate throughout his life. His native region had no school and he kept his work by memory. He had to receive help from the minister of Lismore, Donald MacNicol, with transcriptions. The poetry of Duncan Ban would later be translated into English by such notable figures asHugh McDiarmid and Iain Crichton Smith.
He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, where he died in 1812, and a memorial to him stands there, having been erected by friends and well-wishers. Hopefully this weekend I’ll tread the slopes he trod and visit the remains of the house at Ais-an- Sidhean in the Auch Gleann, below the flanks of Beinn Dorain where MacIntyre once lived when he worked as a keeper.
It’s cruelly ironic that the ruins now shelter sheep, the beasts that MacIntyre loathed, blaming them as the cause of so many people being evicted from their homes. His disgust is explained in one of his poems, Oran Nam Balgairean.
My blessing be upon the foxes, because that they hunt the sheep,
The sheep with the brockit faces that have made confusion in all the world.”