Cnan nan Gidheal

This poem is by the late Murdo MacFarlane (Murchadh MacPharlain, Brd Mealbhoist, 1901-1982) and I think it was written some time between 1970 and 1975. A version appeared in the magazine Gairm in 1975. So far as I can make out it hasn't been published anywhere else - it isn't in Eilean Fraoich, An Toinneamh Diomhair, or Orain Mhurchaidh. Like most Gaelic poetry, it was meant to be sung, and there are records of parts of it by various singers and groups (including Na h-Oganaich, who did a lot to popularize Murdo's work beyond his home island, Lewis). This version is based on material provided by An Comunn, who inherited Murdo's papers (and appear to be doing very little with them).

Some notes on the text and an English translation are provided below.

The Gaelic text here is reproduced with the permission of An Comunn Gaidhealach (meur Sternabhagh), and is copyright material.

1. Cha b' e sneachda 's an rethadh bho thuath,
Cha b' e 'n crannadh geur fuar bho 'n ear,
Cha b' e 'n t-uisge 's an gaillionn bho 'n iar,
Ach an galair a bhlean bho 'n deas
Blth duilleach is stoc agus freumh
Cnan mo threubh 's mo shluaidh.

7. Thig thugainn, thig c-rium gu siar
Gus an cluinn sinn ann cnan nam Finn,
Thig thugainn, thig c-rium gu siar
Gus an cluinn sinn ann cnan nan Gidheal.

11. Far a nuas dhuinn na coinnleirean ir
'S annt' caraibh coinnlean geal cir
Lasaibh suas iad an semair bhrin
Tgh-'aire seann chnan a' Ghel
'S sud o chionn fhad' thuirt a nmh
Ach fhathast tha be cnan a' Ghel.

17. S iomadh gille thug greis air a' chuibhl'
'S an du-oidhch' thog fonn Gidhlig a chridh
'S iomadh gaisgeach a bhrosnaich 'sa bhlir
Gu euchd nuair bu tetha bha 'n str
O Ghidheil, o c'ite 'n deach t' uaill
'Nad fhine 's 'nad chnan 's do thr?

23. Uair chte fear-filidh 'sa ghleann
Bu chinnteach gur gidhlig a chainnt
Ach spion iad a fhreumh as an fhonn
'N ite gidhlig tha cnan a Ghoill
'S a Ghidhealtachd creadhal-nan-sonn
'S tir-mhajors is cholonels 'n diugh th' innt'.

29. O chnan ta leath ri mo chridh
M' aran m' amhlan is m' anal 's mo smior
'S tu cho aosd ri fraoch-dosradh nam frith
Shloinneadh og leat beinn, leitear is sgrr
Ghidheil, 'gad easbhuidh, 's 'gad dhith
'S clrsach aon-theud, is cuislean gun fhuil.

35. Ged theich i le beath' as na glinn
Ged 's gann an diugh chluinntear i ni's m
O Dhthaich MhicAoidh fada tuath
Gu ruig thu Druim-Uachdar nam b
Gigheal, dhi 'na h-Eileanan Siar
Bi na claimheamh 's na sgiath'n ud dhirn.

41. Ged nach chluinntear ni's m i 'san dn
No 'n talla-nan-cliar is nan cirn
Ged tha meir chloinn'icCreumein gun lths
O 'n tric feasgair ciin dhirteadh cel
Gigheadh, anns na h-Eileanan-siar
'S i fhathast ann ciad chainnt an t-sligh.

47. Tha na suinn le 'm bu bhinne bha t' fhuaim
'Nad linn thr nam fuarbheannaibh rd
Aig an druim anns na h-uaidhean nan suain;
Suas air irigh mo thruaigh tha nan it
Eadhon siar ann an dthaich-MhicLeid
Linn g oirt a ghidhlig rinn tir.


line 2: geur is present in this line in every sung version I've heard, but not in the typed version given me by An Comunn.

line 4: bhlean: what I've heard sung is bhlian, which means blanched (taken the colour out of). bhlean could be a Lewis spelling or a typo in the version I got.

line 14: Tgh-'aire is for tgh-faire: a house in which a wake is held (not a watch-house, which it could be in other contexts). (tgh is a very common spelling of taigh).

lines 18 and 25: fonn (tune, song, air) and fonn (land, ground) are two quite different words that just happen to be spelt and pronounced the same.

line 25: a fhreumh not a freumh: so it's the kilted man who has been uprooted, not the language. A reference to the depopulation that killed the language in most of the highlands.

lines 25-26: the version Na h-Oganaich sang went:-
Ach chaochail i 'n dthaich nam beann
'N ite ghidhlig cluinn cnan a ghoill
(but it has died it the land of bens, in the place of Gaelic hear the language of the foreigner)
but the words above are in Murdo's papers left to An Comunn.

line 29: leath ri: Lewis for leth ri. If you go a couple of Islands south you can find spellings as weird as leigh ri, and sometimes the word order is inverted (ri leigh). Although ta and t are rare these days (unless you're Irish: the usual form in Scottish Gaelic is tha) it is perfectly reasonable to drop lenition of t after the n of chnan.

line 31: amhlan is Lewis dialect for annlan.

line 37: dthaich MhicAoidh: McKay's country. There are very few McKays left in Sutherland, the McKays and Munroes were probably the worst sufferers of the 19th centuy phase of the clearances as the Dukes of Sutherland carried on the policies of genocide by fire and sword well into the second half of the century while elsewhere in the Gidhealtachd these policies had been replaced by less effective (or at least less directly murderous) ones by about 1785. Anyone familiar with Scottish history will see this reference to the McKay's land in the far north (ie where practically none of them are left) as a pretty pointed reference to the Sutherland clearances. Strathnaver was one of the main MacKay areas.

Line 39: Gigheal: I don't know whether this is a typo (for gigheadh) or deliberate: dh sometimes takes on an l-like sound when followed by a pause, so this may represent that.

line 40: claimheamh: the first syllable can be nasal in Lewis, so this is a better spelling for those Lewis dialects than the standard claidheamh.

line 42: cirn. Lewis spelling of cirn. talla nan cirn = hall of the horns; the horns are drinking horns, not musical instruments or wall decorations.

line 43: the MacCrimmon's were traditionally the best pipers (and fiddlers) - music was the clan's trade.

line 48: 'Nad linn: the version from An Comunn has "Nadfhlinnn"; obviously wrong, but I worry about dropping the "fh" in trying to correct it; there are many words that begin with an optional f (rather, they have or haven't an f according to dialect) but in all the ones I know the f is followed immediately by a vowel.

line 52: oirt: my best guess is that this is a funny spelling of ort.


1. It was not the snow and frost from the north, nor the acute cold withering from the east, it wasn't the rain or the storms from the west, but the sickness from the south that has faded the bloom, foliage, stock and root of the language of my race and my people.

7. Come, come on, come with me westwards until we hear the language of the Fein; Come, come on, come with me westwards until we hear the language of the Gaels.

11. Pass over to us the golden candlesticks and put in them white waxen candles. Light them up in a grief-filled room in the wake-house of the Gael's old language. That's what its enemy has long been saying but the language of the Gael is alive yet.

17. Many a lad who has taken at turn at the [ship's] wheel has had his heart uplifted in the dark night by a Gaelic song, and many a hero has been spurred on on the battle field to valour where the fight was hottest; O Gael, where has your pride in your race and your language and your country gone?

23. Once, if a kilted man were seen in the valley it would be certain that Gaelic was his language; but they have torn his roots from the ground, in the place of Gaelic is the foreigner's language, and the Gaeltachd, cradle of heroes, today it is a land of majors and colonels.

29. O language that's close to my heart, my sustenance, my spice, my breath, and my strength, you are as old as the abundant heather on the hills; the hills, slopes, and peaks were named by you when they were young. Gael, you're needing and you're wanting, like a stringless harp or a vein without blood.

35. Although it has fled, along with life, from the valleys, although it's rare today that it's heard any more from Strathnaver in the far north right down to Drumochter where the cattle are, nevertheless, for it in its Western Isles the swords and shields there are taken in hand.

41. Although it is heard no more in the city or in the festive hall of the laureates, although the strength has gone from the MacCrimmons' fingers from which often music would be poured out in the evening, nevertheless, in the Western Isles, there it is still the first language of the people.

47. The heroes to whom your sound was sweetest in your time in the land of the cool high bens are on their backs at rest in graves; and risen up, Oh woe, in their place, even in McLeod's country, is a new generation who despise you, O Gaelic.
[to me, MacLeod's Country is Skye around GlenDale and Vaternish; but the author almost certainly meant Lewis, which seems to contradict the optimism at the end of the previous verse.]

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