Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair

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Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (lit. Alexander, Son of the Reverend Alexander) (c. 1698–1770) was a Scottish poet, lexicographer, political writer and memoirist, respected as perhaps the finest Gaelic language poet of the 18th century. He served as a Jacobite military officer and Gaelic tutor to Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

He is also known in English as Alexander MacDonald and as "The Clanranald Bard" or "The Great Bard" ("Am Bàrd Ainmeil").


Early life

Castle Tioram is the traditional seat of the Clan MacDonald of Clanranald.

Born to a notable Highland family, through his great-grandmother Màiri, daughter of Angus MacDonald of Islay, he claimed descent from Robert II of Scotland. He was also the first cousin of the famous Flora MacDonald.[1]

The poet's father was Maighstir Alasdair (Rev. Alexander MacDonald) who was the Episcopalian Church of Scotland minister (this was prior to the Scottish Episcopal Church splitting from The Kirk) for Eilean Fhìonain/Fhianain (Finnan Island), who lived at Dalilea in Moidart, where the Bard was likely born. His mother was from Glencripesdale.

There were no schools in the area and so it is thought that the younger Alasdair was educated by his father, who was a graduate (MA) of the University of Glasgow, throughout his early years. The Bard is said to have enjoyed a fine grounding in the ancient corra litir script of the Clanranald bards, and in the classics (this is borne out by the references in his poetry to Ancient Greek and Roman literature). Alasdair followed in the footsteps of his father and attended the University of Glasgow, and the University of Edinburgh, at a time when Scottish songs were gaining huge popularity. He is said to have left prematurely, however, having married Jane MacDonald of Dalness.[1]

Protestant Missioner

File:Cladh Cille Chòmhain 1084658.jpg
Celtic Cross in the Old Cemetery at Kilchoan, Knoydart.

In 1729 Alasdair was appointed to a school at Finnan Island[clarification needed] as a teacher by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and was the catechist of the same parish under the Royal Bounty Committee of the Church of Scotland. His position required him to teach at various locations throughout Moidart.

In 1738 he worked at Kilchoan and next year he found himself at Coire a' Mhuilinn, Ardnamurchan, where he composed one of his most famous poems: Allt an t-Siucar (The Sugar Brook). In 1741 he published a Gaelic/English Vocabulary, a volume of 200 pages, which was the first Scottish Gaelic vocabulary ever to be published. According to John Lorne Campbell,

"His Galick and English Vocabulary was commissioned by the S.P.C.K. for use in their schools in furthering their policy of replacing Gaelic by English as the vernacular of the Highlands and Islands... No doubt the reading MacDonald did in preparing this translation, for which he was ultimately paid the princely sum of £10, helped to develop his powerful command of the resources of the Gaelic language."[2]

Campbell also states,

"Considering what the (still unpublished) early minutes of the S.P.C.K. in Scotland reveal of the Anti-Catholic, Anti-Jacobite, and Anti-Gaelic policy and activities of that body, Alexander MacDonald's employment in its service as a schoolmaster from 1729 to 1745 must be considered as totally inconsistent with his natural loyalties as a member of the Clanranald branch of the MacDonalds; and one can only feel that in his young days something must have gone wrong with his career to account for this."[3]

His whereabouts during the year of 1744 are unknown – though he is thought to have "deserted his post to help rally the Jacobite clans"[1] – and saw his son Ranald acting as a substitute in his teaching duties. Early in 1745 he was summoned by the Royal Bounty Committee in Edinburgh who had heard that he was composing immodest poems in Gaelic. According to Campbell,

"MacDonald did not altogether satisfy the Society, who resolved on his dismissal in a minute dated 14 July 1745, he having in fact abandoned his school since the preceding Whitsuntide, never to return to it again."[4]


Jacobite Standard of the 1745 Uprising.

At that time, however, Alasdair had come to find new interests. Aware of the probable landing of Prince Charles Edward Stuart — "Bonnie Prince Charlie" — Alasdair hastened to join the prince upon his arrival at Loch nan Uamh from Eriskay. According to legend, when they first met Alasdair did not recognise the prince, who had arrived in disguise, and made free with him until a warning glance of a fellow MacDonald clansman revealed to him the prominence of the person in his company.

Jacobite songs penned by Alasdair such as: Òran Nuadh — "A New Song", Òran nam Fineachan Gaidhealach — "The Song of the Highland Clans" and Òran do'n Phrionnsa — "A Song to the Prince," serve as testament to the enthusiasm shown by his supporters towards the possible arrival of the prince as well as the Bard's own passion for the Jacobite cause. These poems were sent to Aeneas MacDonald, the brother of Kinloch Moidart, in Paris and were read to the Prince in English translation to encourage him to come to Scotland. He was among the first to arrive at Glenfinnan witness the raising of the Standard on 19 August 1745 which signalled the beginning of the campaign. He is also said to have sung his song of welcome: Tearlach Mac Sheumais. Afterwards he "Became the Tyrtaeus of the Highland Army" and "The most persuasive of recruiting sergeants". Many of his surviving poems and songs openly glorify the Jacobite cause and satirise those, like Clan Campbell, who sided with the House of Hanover.

David Morier's depiction of the 1745 Battle of Culloden.

His first commission was a captaincy in the Clan Ranald Regiment where he was placed in command of 50 "cliver fellows" whom he personally recruited in Ardnamurchan. Amongst his other responsibilities, the poet was selected to teach Scottish Gaelic to the prince due to his "skill in the Highland Language". It is also known that he converted to Roman Catholicism during this period. Alasdair served for the duration of the campaign which ended with the crushing defeat at the Battle of Culloden.

After Culloden

After Culloden: Rebel Hunting by John Seymour Lucas depicts the rigorous search for Jacobites in the days following Culloden.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, both he and his elder brother Angus sheltered for a time amongst the woods and lands of their own country. As the search for the prince intensified it became a necessity for him to take his family into the hills as his house was plundered by redcoats. Even the family cat was killed lest it might provide food for his wife and children.

According to Bishop Robert Forbes, who interviewed the Bard for a collection of Jacobite memoirs,

"Captain MacDonald and his wife and children wandered through hills and mountains until the act of indemnity appeared, and in the time of their skulking from place to place his poor wife fell ill with child, which happened to be a daughter, and is still alive."[5]

Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich

After the '45 Alasdair became the bailie of Canna during the summer of 1749 and remained there with his family until 1751, when he travelled to Edinburgh with the purpose of publishing his volume of poems entitled: Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich — "The Resurrection of the Ancient Scottish Language." It has been written that, "It is very characteristic of his reckless courage that he published these poems, breathing rebellion in every line, and pouring the vials of his wrath upon the whole race of the Georges, five years after the battle at Culloden."

For this volume, he composed the poem, An Airce "The Ark," a biting satire aimed at the Whigs of Clan Campbell. Beginning with the conventions of Aisling poetry, the poet describes a meeting with the ghost of a beheaded Campbell Jacobite who then tells him that the Clan will soon be punished for committing high treason against their lawful King, first being visited by the Ten Plagues of Egypt and then by another Great Flood upon their lands.

The poet is instructed to emulate Noah by building another Ark for carefully selected Campbell Jacobites. The moderates will be welcomed aboard the Ark's decks after being purged of their Whiggery by swallowing a dose of seawater. Campbell redcoats are to be tied with millstones and thrown overboard. A female poet of the clan who had mocked Prince Charles and accused him of illegitimacy was to be treated to a fitting punishment before being delivered right into the poet's mercy.

Ma Thig a bhan-bhárd na d'lionamh
Ostag mhío-narach an an Obain,
Ceanagail achdair r'i do bhrandi,
Go bi toirt dram do'n a rónamh:
Ach ma chinnis i na Jonah
'S a sluggadh beo le muic-mhara:
Go meal i a cairstealan fheólain;
Ach a sgeith air córsa Chana.
"If the poetess comes into your nets,
The shameless little female pubkeeper from Oban,
Tie an anchor of brandy to her
To give a dram to the seals.
"But if she becomes a Jonah,
And is swallowed alive by a whale,
May she enjoy her fleshy quarters
Provided she be spewed up on the coast of Canna."[6]

It is said that the publication caused such outrage amongst the authorities that the unsold copies held by the publisher were seized and burned at the Cross in Edinburgh by the common hangman. Only twelve original copies are now known to exist. The work, in various expurgated editions, appeared again several times in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Later life

Alasdair expected to be prosecuted and attempted to settle at Eignaig in Glen Uig but soon ran afoul of the estate management and moved again to Inverie in Knoydart. Again he did not remain there long and again moved to Morar and finally to Arisaig; Initially at Camus-na-talmhuinn and then at Sandaig.

He frequently travelled to South Uist, where he had a close friend in Iain Mac Fhearchair (John MacCodrum), the famed bard to Sir James MacDonald of Sleat, whom he admired greatly. Alasdair was described as a fine singer, of tall height and broad chest, handsome in feature and fair in hair. Among his attributes were sincerity, honesty, loyalty to his friends and to his own convictions.

Bishop Forbes described him as follows,

"He is a very smart, acute man, remarkably well skilled in the Erse, for he can both read and write the Irish language in its original character, a piece of knowledge almost quite lost in the Highlands of Scotland, there being exceedingly few that have any skills at all that way. For the Captain told me that he did not know any other person (old Clanranald excepted) that knew anything of the first tongue in its original character.... Several of the Captain's acquaintances have told me that he is by far the best Erse poet in Scotland, and that he has written many songs in the pure Irish."[7]


File:Cemetery and Ruined Chapel - - 39539.jpg
Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair rests in an unknown plot in the old Roman Catholic cemetery at Arisaig.

Father Charles MacDonald in his "Moidart; or Among the Clanranalds" records Alasdair's last moments from the tradition of district:

"In his last illness he was carefully nursed by his Arisaig friends, two of whom on the night of his decease, finding the hours rather monotonous, and thinking that he was asleep, began to recite in an undertone some verses of their own composition. To their astonishment, however, the bard raised himself up, and, smiling at their inexperienced efforts, pointed out how the ideas might be improved and the verses made to run in another and smoother form, at the same time giving an illustration in a few original measures of his own. He then sank back on the pillow and immediately expired. It was proposed at first to carry his remains to Eilean Fhionnain – Island Finnan, but the project, owing to a severe gale then raging along the coast, had to be abandoned. The Arisaig people thereupon got their own way, and Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair was buried in the cemetery of Kilmorie, close to the present Catholic church of Arisaig."


Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair "owed little or nothing either to his predecessors or his contemporaries" in the field of poetry and many of his poems are available in anthologies of Scottish poetry. His song Oran Eile do Phrionnsa[8] was performed by Calum Johnston at the 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh. A CD recording was released, as part of the Alan Lomax Collection, by Rounder Records in 2006.

According to Campbell,

"It is hardly too much to say that no satisfactory text of MacDonald's poems has yet been produced. Apart from the peculiarities of his own spelling – which represents nearly the first attempt to adapt the orthography of the old literary language common to Scotland and Ireland to the vernacular of the Highlands – he uses forms which are not now employed in modern speech, and which have been consequently removed by all his editors from MacPherson onwards, presumably as a concession to readers unwilling to acquaint themselves with obsolete forms of the language."[9]

He may be said to rank first among all bards of the Scottish Gaels, perhaps with only Sorley MacLean, of more recent fame, as an exception.

Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair's last direct descendant emigrated to the United States and served with distinction in the 11th Wisconsin Regiment during the American Civil War.


"Alexander MacDonald was for a time living in Canna. He was bailie for one of the Clanranalds when they had Canna. One fine day he was going over to Uist in a rowing boat, and some old men of the island were down at the place called Gob a' Rubha, the point past the pier. When Alexander was going past, one of the old men who was fishing for cuddies said to him: 'Won't you give your opinion of us now, Alasdair?' 'I will do that,' he said; and he said to them:

Thug sibh ur cùl ris na creagan
Buidheann fhiata nan glùn giobach;
'S olc an dream sibh, ge nach trod sibh,
Na fir mhóra, ròmach, giobach!
'You with your backs to the cliffs
A wild crowd with hairy knees;
You're a bad tribe, even if you're not quarrelling,
Big shaggy hairy fellows!' [10]


  • The poet's Gaelic name means "Alasdair, son of the Reverend Alasdair". His father, also named Alasdair, was known as Maighstir Alasdair ("Master Alexander") which was then the way of referring to a clergyman in Scottish Gaelic. In English, Maighstir Alasdair was known as the "Reverend Alexander MacDonald".


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Thomson, Derick S. The Companion to Gaelic Scotland, (Blackwell Reference 1987), ISBN 0-631-15578-3
  2. John Lorne Campbell, "Highland Songs of the Forty-Five," 322.
  3. "Highland Songs of the Forty Five," pages 322–323.
  4. John Lorne Campbell, "Highland Songs of the Forty-Five," page 35.
  5. John Lorne Campbell, "Highland Songs of the Forty-Five," page 37.
  6. John Lorne Campbell, "Canna; Story of a Hebridean Island," page 104.
  7. John Lorne Campbell, "Highland Songs of the Forty-Five," pages 37–38.
  9. John Lorne Campbell, "Highland Songs of the Forty-Five," page 42.
  10. John Lorne Campbell, "Canna; The Story of a Hebridean Island," Oxford University Press, 1984, pages 104–105. This story was collected from "Aonghus Eachainn" MacDonald by Dr. Calum MacLean of the Irish Folklore Commission. The translation is Campbell's own.

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