Translating Gaelic: Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s ‘Praise of Ben Doran’ and Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s ‘Birlinn of Clanranald’

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This week (13/02/2018), the Centre had the pleasure of welcoming our very own Professor Alan Riach. Alan is a professor here at the University of Glasgow within the Scottish Literature department, and the author of a vast number of works, the most recent of which is The Winter Book (Luath Press: Edinburgh, 2017). However, Professor Riach’s talk on Tuesday focussed on the particular issues which he encountered when he set about producing the modern editions of two famous Gaelic poems; Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’, and Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s ‘The Birlinn of Clanranald’. Both of these great late-eighteenth century Gaelic poems were composed in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden (16th April 1746), and both praise aspects of Gaelic culture which came increasingly under attack in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The peak of Ben Dorain (Walk Highlands website)

MacIntyre’s ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ is just that. A praise poem where, instead of the focus being an individual or clan, it is the mighty Ben Dorain, and the ecosystem it supported. Having fought on the Hanoverian side during the ’45, MacIntyre later became a gamekeeper (and poacher). His first-hand experiences of walking through the wilderness, stalking deer, and climbing Ben Dorain, flow from his words. It is therefore surprising to find that Macintyre was in fact illiterate, and that ‘Ben Dorain’ was originally an oral composition which was transferred to the page by his son.

Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s ‘The Birlinn of Clanranald’ has a very different focus, but a very similar background. Alasdair was a teacher and Jacobite soldier, at one point becoming Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Gaelic tutor. ‘The Birlinn’ begins with a detailed account of the crew and their roles on-board the vessel (which is totally unique within Gaelic verse), before recounting the voyage of the Birlinn from South Uist in the Hebrides to Carrickfergus in Ireland via a terrible storm. Like ‘Ben Dorain’ it can be interpreted as a lament for the Gaelic way of life post-’45, or as a retelling of the glory days of Clanranald when the birlinn was a symbol of their supremacy.

Illustration of the Clanranald Birlinn from Sandy Moffat

When Riach began preparing these pieces for their twenty-first century revival, he encountered a number of obstacles. First and foremost was language. Riach could not speak or read Gaelic, and so would have to rely on friends and colleges to translate and capture the poems from the originals. A second problem arose from his interpretation of the poems – what way was best to translate these works into a foreign tongue whilst retaining the original emphasis as much as possible? The third and final problem came from artist licence – was it the translators duty to stay as close to the original as possible, or to recraft the poems for a modern, predominantly English-speaking audience? All three of these trials could scupper the entire project, and Professor Riach recalled how many of his friends warned him to leave the poems alone, joking that the Gaels would kill him for it!

The issues Professor Riach encountered are similar to the problems which all translators and editors face, and thus the discussion which followed was particularly interesting as an academic exercise. In the end, Professor Riach has successfully revitalised these poems by capturing the original as much as possible, whilst also providing a doorway through which modern readers can engage with these works. Examples of both of these aspects can be found in his rendition of ‘The Birlinn’. The oar-rests of the birlinn are referenced in the poem, however, a straight translation from the Gaelic original to English would give us the result of something like ‘oar-port’. The issue here is that oar-port refers to the slit through which the oar is pushed and then rested upon, whereas a birlinn did not have that design. After talking with a number of experts who build reconstructions of these vessels, Riach discovered that the oar-rest on a birlinn had a completely unique design called a kabe. Thus, in the poem, Riach has used kabe instead of oar-port. Conversely, the original ‘Birlinn’ begins with a blessing to the Holy Trinity, a statement of Alasdair’s Catholicism. Riach, in an effort to open up the poem to a modern, largely secular audience, has replaced this section with a Humanistic blessing to nature.

Historians within the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats when Riach told us of such changes, largely because as historians they are concerned with the original source material. However, that’s not what Riach set out to do. His goal from the very beginning was to open these poems up to a new audience whilst keeping the essence of the original as much as possible, and he’s been absolutely successful in that pursuit.


Alan’s versions of both poems are available in pamphlets form from the Kettillonia publishing company.

Next Tuesday (20th February 2018) will see the next instalment of the Historical Conversation seminar series, with this week’s panel focusing on Gender History. Chaired by Catriona MacDonald, the Kelvin Hall will welcome Lynn Abrams, Eleanor Gordon and Jane Rendall.

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