LAST week I said I would be writing about the early years of the Union after 1707 and telling the untold story – never mentioned by the Unionists – of how that Union nearly collapsed and was quickly recognised as a disastrous deal for Scotland, even by those who had helped to bring it about.

I crave your indulgence and I will definitely return to the subject next week, but when you receive a cry for help from one of Scotland’s greatest modern-day cultural figures, I have to respond, so please consider this an emergency column to right a perceived wrong.

For tomorrow is the bicentenary of the birth of Màiri Mhòr nan Òran, Great (or big) Mary of the Songs, a truly influential songstress and a towering presence in Gaelic culture. Màiri Mhòr was so-called because she was literally big being 5’ 9” tall and latterly quite rotund.

Gerda Stevenson, the award-winning actress, director and poet wrote to tell me: “Amazingly, and shockingly, I can’t see any events online to mark the bicentenary of the great Màiri Mhòr nan Òran. She is one of the women I celebrate in my book Quines: Poems in Tribute to Women of Scotland.”

I yield to no one in my admiration for Quines, a volume which I think should put da Stevenson first in line to be our next Makar. That Màiri Mhòr, as I shall call her, is among those honoured to be included in the selection by Stevenson tells me a great deal about her. That her bicentenary is passing with little acknowledgement is surely an injustice, and I am genuinely mystified that such an important cultural figure in Scottish history is not being more celebrated – but then Gaelic poets and songwriters are not big on the horizon of Scotland’s literati, never mind the general public. I am therefore happy to play my small part in ensuring that tomorrow’s 200th anniversary of her birth is being marked in Scotland’s National newspaper.

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Alan Riach paid his own tribute to Màiri Mhòr nan Òran in yesterday’s National, and as always with writers I leave the literary criticism to people more qualified to do that, but today I want to tell you about the bare facts of her life which began on March 10, 1821, when she was born to a crofter John Macdonald and his wife Flora née MacInnes. Like so many girls in the Highlands and Islands in those times, Màiri Mhòr had to move away from home to find a husband, which she did when she went to Inverness at 26 and met and married a shoemaker, Isaac MacPherson.

In all they would have five children, four of whom survived childhood.

Màiri Mhòr’s life needs to be put into the context of the considerable upheavals in Scottish society as a whole throughout the 19th century. She would know all about the Highland Clearances and the enforced removal of large swathes of the population to Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.

Increasing industrialisation in the Central Belt saw many more people from the Highlands and Islands voluntarily move south than were ever cleared abroad. As we shall see, Màiri Mhòr was one of those people.

Her life seems to have been uneventful until Isaac died when Màiri Mhòr was 50. To make ends meet she took a post as a domestic servant in the house of an army officer. After his wife died, probably of typhus, Màiri Mhòr was accused of stealing some of the dead woman’s clothes.

Despite her vigorous defence, aided by the journalist John Murdoch and the lawyer and politician Charles Fraser-Mackintosh, Màiri Mhòr was convicted on what was an obvious miscarriage of justice, and was sent to prison for 40 days.

The experience of jail transformed Màiri Mhòr into a campaigning poet and songwriter, first protesting her innocence and venting her anger in passionate and compelling Gaelic verse. Màiri Mhòr would later write that the humiliation of being jailed lasted all her life, and at the time she wrote a polemic Tha mi sgìth de luchd na Beurla (I’m tired of the English speakers).

Dr Thomas McKean, lecturer at Aberdeen University, wrote in the Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature: “Màiri Mhòr first began to compose in response to an unjust accusation of theft: ’S e na dh’fhulaing mi de thamailt a thug mo bhàrdachd beò (‘It’s the injustice I suffered that brought my poetry to life’).”

Her feelings as recorded much later were:

Ach nam bithinn na mo dhùthaich,

Far na dh’àraicheadh air tùs mi,

Cha robh Sasannach fon Chrùn,

A dh’fhaodadh sùil thoirt orm le eucoir.

But if I was in my own land,

Where I was first raised,

There was not any English-speaker in the service of the Crown

Who would look on me unjustly.

After her brush with the law, Màiri Mhòr moved south to Glasgow and learned to read and write in English, then studied to become a nurse and a midwife. By all accounts she was very good at her job, and much in demand with Gaelic-speaking mothers. As word spread about her songs and poems she was soon asked to perform at the many gatherings of the Gaelic communities who preserved as much as they could of their old way of life despite living in modern cities and towns such as Glasgow and Greenock – she moved to the latter in 1876, but often went back to Glasgow for ceilidhs and, increasingly, to speak at political meetings.

For not only had Màiri Mhòr been inspired to write poetry by her jail time, she had also become politicised, and she was soon recognised as a powerful campaigner.

Though there is no evidence of her becoming officially a member of organisations like the Highland Land League, there is no doubt she played her part in influencing people to take up the cause of land reform. She produced many poems and songs in connection with events such as the Battle O’ the Braes, the famous or infamous encounter between police officers and crofters on her native Isle of Skye.

Màiri Mhòr could hardly ignore the Battle – it happened in 1892, the year she retired and returned to live in Skye.

Men, women and children, armed mostly with sticks and stones, defended their homes against an armed force of police and soldiers who had been sent from Glasgow to evict them.

Dòmhnall Eachann Meek’s translation of her poem about the Battle is as follows:

S na diùlnaich a b’ uaisle,

‘S nach robh riamh ann an tuasaid,

Chaidh na ruighich a shuaineadh

Gu cruaidh air an dùirn.[…]’S na mnathan bu shuairce

‘S bu mhodhaile gluasad,

Chaidh an claiginn a spuaiceadh

Ann am bruachan Beinn Lì.

And the heroes most noble, that were never before in a fight, The handcuffs were twisted, hard on their fists.

And the kindliest women, of conduct most mannerly, their skulls were broken, On the braes of Beinn Lì.

For those men sent to jail she had kind words:

’S math an colaisd am prìosan —

’S fhad a dh’ aithnich mi fhìn sin —

Ach thig buaidh leis an fhìrinn,

Dh’aindeoin innleachd nan daoi.

Prison is a good college,

I myself recognised that long since,

But the truth will triumph,

Despite the ingenuity of the wicked.

IT was not until 1891 that Màiri Mhòr’s work was published. The saddest thing about her was also one of her greatest strengths – she never wrote anything down in Gaelic as she was only literate in English.

All her songs and poems were committed to memory, and it was said she could instantly quote lines from a poem or song that she had composed many years before. In order to learn about her works you had to go and hear them first hand from the songstress herself. Fortunately there were people on hand to write down her literary output and some 9000 lines of her songs and poems were preserved.

They include her wors on her return to Skye:

’S a cheàrn ‘s na dh’àithneadh dhuinn le Dia,

Chan fhaod sinn triall air sliabh no gaineimh,

A h-uile nì ‘n robh smear no luach,

Gun spùinn iad uainn le lagh an fhearainn.

In the area commanded to us by God,

We are not allowed to journey on hillside or shore,

Every single thing that was of value,

They plundered it from us by the law of the land.

Writing in the Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, McKean states: “For popularity and influence, however, the composer of the nineteenth century who undoubtedly stands out is Mary MacPherson, or Màiri Mhòr nan Òran (Big Mary of the Songs), as she is known throughout the Gaelic world.

About nine thousand lines of her poetry (including stinging anti-landlord criticism, belying the common criticism that she was too deferential to the gentry) were noted down from her recitation by John Whyte and published in 1891. It was Màiri Mhòr, along with Livingston and others, who brought a keen edge of protest to antilandlord songs and celebrations of crofters’ resistance (for example, her Oran Beinn Lì (Song of Ben Lee), celebrating the ‘Battle of the Braes’ in which women and children of the Braes, in Skye, deforced the sheriff officers, preventing them from issuing summonses to local crofters).

Her significance, crucially, is not in innovative use of form, indeed her versification is quite traditional in structure, but rather her expression of a characteristic vivacity in a then-moribund song culture.”

Màiri Mhòr nan Oran died at the age of 77 in 1898. She is buried on Skye and there is a memorial plaque to her in Portree.

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It is entirely appropriate that conclude this tribute to a remarkable woman with the poem composed in her honour by an equally remarkable woman, Gerda Stevenson, to whom I am grateful for permission to quote from Quines: Poems in Tribute to Women of Scotland (Luath Press, 1st edition 2018, 2nd edition 2020). This is Oran/Song.

I lay inside her,

a buried spring

rising, drop by drop,

the colour of her days

in every hidden trace –

the moorland’s green and gold

waving summer innocence

in the careless barefoot time,

before the long trail of exile

gathered like ash, and only

the bone-white bleat of sheep

fretted the air; I lay there,

silent but rising, for fifty years,

darkening at the black fear

preached from the pulpit,

churning at the lies spread

about her stealing a slice of silk

from her dead mistress –

the shame of it, as if their ilk

hadn’t thieved her people’s land,

those masters of the sleek tongue

she wearied of, that tried

to silence her own; buried still,

I was, but rising higher, till

the iron bars of the prison cell

closed on her; and she stood alone,

listening, as though the metal clang

rang through her flesh and bone,

summoning me, and I broke

from her throat in anger’s flood –

a well of song that flowed

and never faltered

in its fearless cry for justice,

carried down the years.