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Protest song

Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. Psalm 137.9


Yesterday in Columbe 1400, where Cultar Beò ann am Flòdaigearraidh is based, Anne Martin spoke about the way in which traditional Gaelic poetry, sung rather than spoken, was used to spread awareness and raise resistance during the land struggles of the mid 19th century in the highlands and islands. Long before television and social media, poets were the influencers of the day, doughty women like Mary MacDonald from Mull and Mary MacPherson from Skye. Mairi Mhòr nan Òran as the latter is called tells how her poetic gift was awakened in the prison where she was unjustly incarcerated and how she used that gift to rally her fellow islanders against the injustices of clearance and forced migration.


In so doing she and her contemporaries stand in a proud tradition which goes back to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and beyond. In the song we have come to cherish as the Magnificat, Mary rejoices in how God will restore things to the way they should be through her son, Jesus. Hundreds of years earlier, her ancestors bewailed how cruel and unfair that world order could get, through the song-poems we know as the Psalms, whose frankness can shock as easily as their lyricism can delight. Poetry and music reach our emotions in a way that other forms of literature and communication cannot, so what more effective way of stirring those emotions than through songs - of protest and praise?


In the afternoon we visited the well frequented by Mairi Mhòr's father on the croft where she grew up: Tobar Iain Bhàin. Nothing remains of a once-thriving community, Nearby the ruins of the mediaeval cathedral of the Isles lie hidden in the undergrowth on Eilean Chaluim Cille, which nestles near the mouth of the Skeabost River. On the other side a modest cairn marks the last stand of a MacLeod raiding party after their battle with the MacDonalds on what is now the local hotel golf course. Our guide was Cailean MacLean, lauded in his own right and whose uncle Sòmhairle is famous for continuing - even enhancing - the proud legacy of the Gaelic bards and their biblical predecessors, who told it like it was and dreamed of a better future.

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