SEUMUS Mac an t-Saoir,

or James Macintyre,

(1727-99), was chief of his name and the tacksman or landholder of Glen Noe, a small, lonely glen to the north of Ben Cruachan, opening on to Loch Etive, where his people worked as foresters for the Stewarts of Lorne and the Campbells of Glenorchy and Breadalbane.

He was a scholar and champion of the Gaelic language. Ronald Black, in An Lasair: Anthology of 18th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001), suggests that as a lexicographer he must have delighted in Samuel Johnson’s English Dictionary (1755) and been happy to hear that Johnson was to visit Scotland in 1773.

But when he read Johnson’s account of his trip, all respect was shattered. Johnson poured scorn upon James Macpherson’s Ossian, the Gaelic language itself and many of the people and places he visited.

Macintyre’s response was published anonymously in 1776, and is printed in An Lasair. I read Black’s translation in that book and studied the Gaelic text before perpetrating the following version, which follows the original stanza by stanza, but has its own variations and curlicues, I hope in the spirit of the original.

That doctor came up here from England with a notion to be supercilious

He gave birth later on to a body of writing utterly vile and reptilious.

He found generosity everywhere, fair civil folk and most generous

As he travelled the Highlands and Islands and met with the women and men of us.

Then he went back down south to his badger-sett comfiness

And wrote up a slander of scorn and harrumphiness.

Satan himself must have prompted your guile, though he had a genius you don’t.

His dignified bearing when cast into Hell was all lost on you, you fat runt.

Wild dogs and wolves sometimes howl at the moon,

But you howl yourself hoarse at the Gael, you buffoon!

But you failed to perceive in your southron superiorism

The deepest resources of Gaelic anteriorism.

I won’t bother to take a gold eagle’s good feather

To draw a straight line through your insidious, hideous blether,

For a goose quill so slender and pretty

Will be more than enough to cut off your petty

Tongue wagging waggishness spewed out like slime vomit feasts

From molluscs and fish and other slip-sloppy subaqueous beasts.

A Johnson, you say? No true son of John. A stranger your father,

Only natural laws permitted your birth, in a broad smear or slather

Of gracelessness, grossness, pontification, with pints of pure malice

Gathered in, greedily-grasped, your big fists envelop the proverbial poisonous chalice,

Held close to your chest and resting upon that heap of fat creesh that’s a bench

Called your belly, smelly, flesh that’s gone rancid, emitting the ugliest stench.

You’re a reject, your race would disown you, a rascal, a living example

Of what nature is not: all things are impure, let me give you some sample:

All wood will wither, kites fly among falcons, a field of gold wheat

Will grow thistles and weeds, not be single and neat,

As you’d like: what is grizzled and mixed is blessed with diversity.

This is what you abjure: your corruption exemplifies your own sheer perversity.

You’re dragging your slime-yellow belly, slowly, you big ugsome toad,

Sluggishly, heavingly, crawling, and oozing along the low road –

A soft slug sleazily slipping, clutching a venomous load as you must,

A slithering lizard, down in the grass, a slow-worm there on the path, in the dust –

A bluebottle greedily gripping its rancid pittance of grub, farcical,

A rabid dog with its eyes on the bone, a badger, its nose turned round up its arsicle –

A mangy old ravenous cur, the waste from the crop, the chaff, the sheer trash,

What’s tossed away when the seed is well-chosen, the pale smoked-out ash

Or the cowardice restraining poor soldiers from taking up their position

And facing the foe square-on, reluctant and twitching from weakening, faltered ignition,

The littlest kestrel scattering the birds in their peaceful and frolicsome flocks

The verbal blah of bad verse, a poet whom mockery mocks, a flabby old stooge in the stocks.

When we’ve cut the best cloth from the loom, your raggedy thrums of thread-ends remain

Like the shell of a nut with no kernel in it, a hard carapace, a tatter of pain,

A wolf that’s gone rabid, slavering, envenomed, bristly with anger and mean,

The worm-eaten fruit on the grass in the garden, the husk of what once has been,

Your habits recur and recur and recur, and are all of them those of a brute,

Like the thick scabby skin that has grown on the over-tramped sole of a foot.

Growing up in a pig sty was your early life in the south. It must

Have been where you felt most comfy, a place of such utter disgust.

You are neither holly nor thorn, no blossom or leaf would grow true

And nothing good, supple or strong, as the tough, long-enduring old yew.

You have no trace of the strength of the handsome and big forest oak

Nor on the fields the grace of the willow, in its shimmering, lovely red cloak

No: you are the aspen, spiteful and mean, as your lean hands crook over, hold tight,

Made to grasp, with thin fingers of alder and sharp whitethorn nails, made to bite.

But what’s in your head is all elm, all poisonous wood, all thick-plank and dumb,

Not least the things that inhabit your mouth: the tongue and the slobbery gum.

But your venom-filled head becomes vacuous, lacks

All but bad air and vacuity, and its hold of clear thinking slacks

Like a tiny wee whelk on the shore of the sea, swept away,

Or a carcase all bloated but missing a brain to keep and make stay

All things worthwhile. Your body holds nothing of liver or heart

But enough of a parcel of gall to allow you to squirt out your fart.

Of all the sea-creatures, the dogfish is you, blind and unable to sense.

Or the catfish, that big whiskered monster, who looks so unchangingly dense.

As a chicken flaps up from a midden, unlifting itself from the stink,

Can’t fly and flops down, wobbling its weight on the brink

Of its imminent total immersion. As burrowed in flesh, is the sheep-tick.

All creatures this world has to show to resemble you, all of them, born out of sick.

If I didn’t detest the idea that I might be described as a satirist,

I’d start to make fun of you seriously. You fat miry apogee piss artist.

I would stuff your mouth full with a gag – big enough for its copious cave –

It would stay there as long as you live – till the day you will rot in your grave –

Or have you hard-tied to a post

for the whiplash to flay off your skin.

You would wish you had never been born to the world we all must live in

Reduced as you’ll be to a poor cow’s small helpless bloody abortion.

So be seen as you are: humanity’s still-born, most worthless portion.