A Shared Song Lasts Long by Effie Rankin
There is an old Gaelic proverb which states: “A sharing of gold is but brief, but a sharing of song lasts long.” The undoubted poverty of many pioneer Gaels in Nova Scotia certainly precluded much sharing of gold. When describing the plight of some Scottish Highlanders, a generation after Culloden, Dr. Samuel Johnson's assessment was characteristically blunt – “There remain only their language and their poverty.” While it is true that these Scottish emigrants brought little material wealth, a greater asset by far was their Gaelic language, especially when one considers the wealth of literature produced by so many early poets in the New World.
Hardship and adversity were surely the lot of many 19th century bards. When John Maclean settled in Pictou County in 1819, he composed the famous A Choille Ghruamach (The Gloomy Forest); in his anguish, the poet gives a profusion of detail on pioneer sufferings throughout the changing seasons. This song quickly made its way across the Atlantic to the poet's relatives and friends, but, it is interesting that, although they urged him to return home, John Maclean chose instead to remain and eventually prosper in Canada. Another poet who shared similar sentiments was John the Hunter, who, when he arrived in Mabou in 1834, bitterly regretted his decision to emigrate “to a prison of snow and ice” as he declares in his Song to America.
The Hunter was not allowed to sing his complaint unchallenged, however; his own cousin, Allan ‘The Ridge’ MacDonald, took him to task in his Moladh Alba Nuadh (In Praise of Nova Scotia). By way of retort, Allan accused his kinsman of calumny while he in turn glorified Nova Scotia as a land of freedom, of wealth, and of land ownership, unlike the “cold, landlord oppressed” Scotland of his youth. An equally flattering portrait of the New World is found in Michael MacDonald's Baile na Traghad (My Home by the Shore); having left Prince Edward Island for Judique, Cape Breton, in 1775, the poet foresaw only prosperity ahead – fertile land, rivers teeming with glittering fish, and sweet fragrance rising from sugar shacks surrounded by healthy stands of trees.
Nova Scotia continued to produce a remarkable amount of poetry wherever the Gaelic language survived. The sharing of these songs was most often oral, but several collectors and editors ensured their survival in print. Chief among those was the Rev. A. MacLean Sinclair, grandson of the pioneer bard, John MacLean. He compiled clan histories and genealogies and a long succession of poetic anthologies. Vincent MacLellan's Failte Cheap Breatuinn (Cape Breton Salute) of 1891 assembled works by various Inverness County authors, while Johnathan G. MacKinnon of Whycocomagh in 1892 began a 12-year span of difficult and financially insecure publishing of his Gaelic newspaper MacTalla. The selfless efforts of such early scholars ensured the survival of countless previously unpublished verses from all over Nova Scotia – truly a fine sharing of song.
Effie Rankin, originally of North Uist, resides in Mabou. She teaches Gaelic and is the author of As a’Braigh – Beyond the Braes: The Gaelic Songs of Allan the Ridge MacDonald (1794-1868).