Duncan Ban Macintyre (Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir), a contemporary of Robert Burns, was a leading Gaelic poet famed in his lifetime as Donnchadh Bàn nan Òrain or ‘Fair Duncan of the Songs’, whose granite monument dominates Glen Orchy and Loch Awe.
MacIntyre published three editions of his poems as Orain Ghaidhealach (Gaelic Songs) in 1768, 1790 and 1804, assisted by his friend the Rev. John Stewart, ministers being at the time often the only people fully literate in Gaelic. Each edition was funded by subscription, and MacIntyre travelled across Scotland to persuade, with some success, potential readers to sign up. Additional poems were added to second and third editions. ‘Oran Dhùn Eideann’ (Song to Edinburgh) first appeared in the third edition, and sings the praises of the poet’s adopted city.
MacIntyre was born and raised in Glen Orchy, near Ben Dorain. He had no formal education, and he could neither read nor write. From 1746 to 1766 he was a gamekeeper for the Earl of Breadalbane and then the Duke of Argyll, working among the hills and woods of the area. By 1768 he and his family had moved to Edinburgh; he joined the City Guard (the police), like many Highlanders. Robert Fergusson (1750-74), who was there at the same time, called them “the black banditti”.
In 1786, as Robert Burns’s poems were being published in the Kilmarnock edition, Duncan Ban and his wife were back in the Highlands and islands. As Burns was being lionised in Edinburgh, Duncan Ban was being warmly welcomed in the north-west. He returned to Edinburgh, left the City Guard in 1793, and was a soldier with the Breadalbane Fencibles, though now in his seventies. He retired in 1806, died in 1812, and he and his family are buried in Old Greyfriars churchyard. In 1859, a monument designed by John Thomas Rochead (1814-78), who also designed the Wallace monument at Stirling, was erected in the hills near Dalmally, overlooking Loch Awe.
Duncan Ban was in Edinburgh precisely when James Macpherson, Henry Mackenzie and Adam Smith were flourishing, Enlightenment and proto-Romantic writers. There is almost no recognition of Duncan Ban’s work or indeed of contemporary Gaelic literature in their writing. To English-language readers, the Highlands were becoming recognised – or branded – through the work of Macpherson and later, Walter Scott.
This division of perception is one reason, perhaps, why Ben Dorain and The Birlinn have been neglected. Yet there is another division implicit in Ben Dorain itself, between the vision of the mountain and its plenitude of riches and the traditional Gaelic praise-poem for clan and clan chief. As the clans themselves had been violently put down after Culloden, so the ascendancy of English-language writing, and the gulfs between English, Scots and Gaelic worlds were opening up. These gulfs were not unbridgeable – Duncan Ban’s contemporary, Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair was familiar not only with Burns’s work but also that of James Thomson, whose The Seasons (1730) was the most famous Scottish poem of its time and effectively triggered the tradition of English-language pastoral poetry. However, Praise of Ben Dorain is very different.
From his birthplace, Druimliart in Glen Orchy, Duncan Bàn could see the subject of his most famous song Praise of Ben Dorain, Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain, grooved with its many dobharan or streams, the origin of the mountain’s name.
It is a song of high praise to a special place and the life it embraced, the author writes, giving an ‘extraordinary fertility of description’ of a deer hunt, 550 lines long organised in eight movements inspired by classical pipe music or ceòl mòr – great music.
Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain was composed in the mid 18th century. When Duncan Ban returned to the scene at the beginning of the 19th century, he found the place changed indeed, and was moved to compose his Cead Deireannach nam Beann – Final Farewell to the Bens. His earthly paradise and its abundant natural life had vanished. All he had known had been replaced by sheep; literally in Gaelic, under sheep.
Tradition tells that Duncan Ban composed his Last Farewell while sitting on a stone opposite the ruined chapel and graveyard at Annat. He was so agitated that the song had to be completed by his brother Malcolm.
Cead Deireannach nam Beann represents a turning point in Gaelic poetry and song. Poets in the 19th century ceased to be interested in the great landscapes of the 18th century. Narrower, personal and emotional sketches came into fashion owing to the social upheavals caused by the clearances. The notion of homesickness or cianalas developed by Macintyre in his farewell becomes widespread in Gaelic poetry.