AS I stated last week, I am taking three lessons from Scottish history in relation to Celtic Connections, Europe’s largest folk, roots and world music festival which gets under way on Thursday.

Having profiled the Voyage of the Hector last week, this week I am writing in connection with a special event at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 23 at 8pm.

There are tickets available for Aiseirigh, The Songs of Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, which promises to be a revelatory concert about the work of the great Gaelic bard. Aiseirigh means resurrection, and hopefully this event will see a further restoration of the poet’s reputation.

Jointly produced by An Lochran, Celtic Connections and Bord na Gaidhlig, Aiseirigh marks the 250th anniversary of the bard’s death, highlighting his continued influence as both a revivalist and innovator, celebrated with special guests including Fiona J Mackenzie, Rachel Walker, Ailean Domhnallach, Mairead Stiubhart, Rory MacDiarmid, Jamie MacDonald, Martainn Skene and Seonaidh MacIntyre.

Celebrating Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair is something we should do more of in Scotland. Disgracefully, I have no Gaelic, except a few words for the ordering of whisky and beer, but I have been aware of Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair for many years, though it took Alan Riach’s brilliant essay on the man and his work in The National in February, 2016, to re-awaken my interest in this compelling figure that I place alongside the very great Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain) in the ranks of Gaelic poets – I have no higher praise than that.

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I would not even dare to compete with Professor Riach in telling the tale of Alasdair, as I will refer to him for brevity’s sake. Instead I want to highlight some details of his extraordinary life and why I believe Alasdair is a poet whose personal journey is an example to all of us who have joined the cause of independence and all those who are still to be converted.

For Alasdair was a linguistic innovator who was a scholar of the Classics but became the champion of Gaelic and the culture of the Gael, a Protestant teacher who converted to Catholicism, and a man of peace who fought for Prince Charles Edward Stuart in the 1745 Jacobite Rising. In other words, someone who found his true beliefs and fought for them with words as his chief weapons – shouldn’t that be all of us Scots?

We do not know the exact date of Alasdair’s birth, but it must have been in the very last years of the 17th century or the first years of the 18th, judging by known dates in his life.

A native of Moidart, he was educated at home by his father, the Rev. Alexander MacDonald – Alasdair’s own name was often given as Alexander MacDonald and indeed his entry in the Encyclopaedia of Scotland is under that name.

The National: Castle Tioram, a ruined castle on the tidal island of Eilean Tioram in Loch Moidart, LochaberCastle Tioram, a ruined castle on the tidal island of Eilean Tioram in Loch Moidart, Lochaber

Growing up tall and handsome, as well as an excellent singer, Alasdair studied Classics at Glasgow University, his father’s alma mater, so he knew Latin and Greek as well as Scots, English and Gaelic, which even then was a language in deep trouble as very few people could write it. Alasdair could, however, and did so exceptionally well.

As Celtic Connections state: “He sought to rebuild connections between Gaelic and mainland European cultures, deploying a range of voice and style from classically-influenced formality to uniquely Gaelic ribaldry and invective.”

Alasdair became a schoolteacher in Moidart in 1729, employed by the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. An interesting choice as the Society was not keen on Gaelic, which they saw as the language of Catholicism.

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As well as his teaching, Alasdair kept a farm, and all the while he was composing Gaelic poetry in secret and sometimes open defiance of his employers, while compiling a Gaelic-English dictionary that was published by the Society in 1741 – its aim was to get Gaels to learn English, but Alasdair knew that it could have the opposite effect, for no such dictionary had ever been published before.

One of the many contradictions about Alasdair was that he was a fine writer about love, but also wrote some very bawdy work – he wrote ‘Praise of Morag’ about his wife which is full of sensual double entendres but also wrote ‘Dispraise of Morag’ which is out-and-out obscene.

Yet some of his work had a sublime beauty. I am indebted to the Scottish poetry Library for this translation of Guidhe no Ùrnaigh an Ùghdair don Cheòlraidh (The Author’s Petition or Prayer to the Muses):

“The skies of my ability are narrow enough,

though my desire is wide, to build a wall on such a big foundation.

I need a chiselled stone,

I need a polished stone,

though my will is torn,

I am bereft of skill, unschooled art is a thing without substance,

on a subject like honey.”

HIS poetry, as Alan Riach stated, became more and more “increasingly sharp” in its anti-establishment invective and Alasdair was under severe pressure from his employers and the Kirk when Prince Charles Edward Stuart arrived at Glenfinnan and raised his standard on August 19, 1745. Alasdair was already with him, having met the Prince when he landed on the mainland.

The National: 'Bonnie' Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who Alasdair fought for in the Jacobite uprising'Bonnie' Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who Alasdair fought for in the Jacobite uprising (Image: NQ)

In no time at all, Alasdair was appointed an officer in charge of 50 men from his area attached to Clan Macdonald of Clanranald. He also became the Gaelic tutor of the Prince and fought with him all the way to Culloden and beyond – he may have been one of the few people who accompanied the Prince on his flight across the Highlands. He certainly left an account in English of the campaign which some scholars have identified as the “Journal and memoires ... of a Highland Officer” now contained in the Lockhart Papers.

After the failure of the Rising, Alasdair and his brother and fellow Jacobite officer Aeneas both saw their homes virtually destroyed by Redcoats. Amazingly, while they became refugees in their own country, Alasdair’s wife managed to give birth to a daughter, and later the Chief of Clanranald found him a home on the Glenuig estate.

At some time in the previous years, Alasdair had converted to Roman Catholicism, and he was the subject of some derision for doing so.

He also began what became his most famous work, Aiseirigh na Seann Chànain Albannach, or The Resurrection of the Old Scottish Language.

Alasdair went to Edinburgh to have his only collection of poems printed and it became the world’s first printed collection of Gaelic poetry.

That alone should make him worth revering, not least because its visceral criticism of the Hanoverian dynasty and the satire he employed to berate them are works of genius. The poems were also hugely controversial, and the authorities cracked down – all extant copies of the book were ordered to be burned in the capital in 1752.

The historian John Lorne Campbell stated: “The invective he heaped on the reigning House and its supporters gained him the enthusiastic approval of friends and the severe displeasure of the government.”

Only 12 copies of this hugely important book still survive.

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Not surprisingly, Alasdair went back north and eventually settled in Arisaig where he continued to compose poetry until his death in 1770.

I am indebted to the Clan Donald Society for this account of his death as recorded by Father Charles MacDonald in his book Moidart, or Among the Clanranalds which records Alasdair’s last moments.

“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 Fhianain – 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.”

The National: As Rabbie Burns was to Scots, Alasdair was to GaelicAs Rabbie Burns was to Scots, Alasdair was to Gaelic

IT is a national disgrace that there is no national monument to Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair. It was only in 1927 that a plaque to his memory was installed in Kilmorie cemetery by fans from New Zealand and some members of Clan Donald.

I have no hesitation in saying that Alasdair is a seminal figure in the history of this country, for just as Robert Burns helped preserve the Scots language, so did Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair perform the same duty for Gaelic.

The best thing to do to end this brief account of his life is to end with his tremendous long poem, The Birlinn of Clanranald, superbly translated by Alan Riach.

From “The Blessing”:

“May the great lord god of movement carry us safe,

on all the choral waters of this world,

the seas and oceans, currents and streams,

enable us, take this craft upon them,

across them, and cradle us.

We are launched on Day One this craft of my clan,

Each one of the crew being tough, strong and true.

Each man hears this call – Bless them all

From “The Storm”:

“Hoist sail at dawn on the day of Saint Bride,

bearing out from the mouth of Loch Eynort, South Uist.

Furnace-gold, hot-yellow, yolk-yellow, brass-brazen sun,

burning through fish-nets of clouds,

trellises meshed, burning them open,

emerges, and the clouds burn back, close in once again,

cover all things, changing, sky becomes ash, blackening, and a blue splash there,

and then thickening, bulging, effulging,

turning sick, pale, brown, beige, tawny,

impending, bellying down,

and the fretwork rematches itself, closes in,

hue thick as tartan, dark weaves, anger flashes,

and there high in the west, a broken shaft,

a dog-tooth of rainbow, colour stripes swelling,

a fang of sharp colour, clouds moving faster to cover it over,

and the winds pick up speed, toss the clouds as if showers of boulders,

grey fragments of stone, chips of earth, avalanching in sky.

They lift up the sail, they spring up to stretch the stiff-solid ropes to their places,

secure now, tough and unbreakable,

there from the deck to the high, hard, tapering, resin-red point of the mast,

secure all the knots, faultless all joints,

rope connections between all bolt-rings and hooks, made impeccable, run up and tied down,

tense and unflexing as iron, assured, reassured, now firmly, secured...

sea all lifts up, like a great black coat, rising to cover the sky,

like a shroud, thrown out, soaring up,

like a blanket, coarse stuff, shaggy its surface,

a big horse’s pelt in black winter, a cataract rising,

a waterfall soaring, returning itself to its source,

unnatural, screaming and screeching and howling and yowling, and ocean becomes:

mountains and bens and valleys and glens, all rough with the forest and bushes and grass.

Sea opens its mouth, is all mouth, all agape, widening, opening,

sharpened the teeth, all crocodile-strong, hippopotamus tusks,

and gripping and turning, as if wrestling was fun, forcing over each one.

Sky shrinks and clenches long ribs on its brow – It has turned to ferocity now – The fight to the death has begun.”

“The Birlinn of Clanranald” by Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, the original Gaelic poem and the English translation by Alan Riach, is published by Kettillonia: