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Issue 101 - Bard of the Clan

Scotland Magazine Issue 101
November 2018

 

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Bard of the Clan

Investigating the legend of Iain Lom

Today we romanticise the world of the clans. But to be part of it can have been little fun. The Highlands were the poorest region of Great Britain and were characterised by the consequent hunger that could easily tip over into starvation in years of bad harvest.

The culture glorified the breathtaking brutality of the clashes between clans. Their heroes were the chiefs and their warriors and tales of their exploits in love and war were recited in countless ceilidhs that filled the long winter darkness in the little townships of every glen.

There was no point in being a hero who slashed his way through enemies like a sickle through barley, or who sank 20 birlinns, if there was nobody to tell the world about it. You needed a bard. The great men had their own.

The MacMhuirichs, for example, were hereditary bards to the Lords of the Isles and later the Macdonalds of Clanranald. As repositories of the culture of Gaeldom in an illiterate society, such men were treated with great respect.

Iain Lom - John Macdonald - was born in the 1620s. His family were descendants of Iain Alainn, chief of the Macdonalds of Keppoch, who was killed by a Cameron around 1499. As a result, they had a tack on a farm near the south end of Loch Laggan. His nickname ‘Lom’ means bald, which may have referred to a lack of hair or else the baldness (lack of restraint) of his speech and verse. He was savagely witty, always with a quick and biting riposte, and great men tiptoed round him for fear of provoking his ire. Like all his clan he was a Roman Catholic and a royalist, and many of his works had a political point. In his youth, he had been part of a retaliatory raid by his clan on the Campbells of Breadalbane. They were spotted at the end of Loch Tay while driving their herd of stolen cattle homeward. The Macdonalds were victors in the bloody little skirmish that followed, but both the Keppoch chief and Ian Lom's father were killed. He composed a lament, not for his father but his chief, as was his job.

Come 1645, Montrose and his ferocious lieutenant Alasdair McColla were camped at the south end of Loch Ness in deep winter. They had burned their way through Campbell country after smashing successive Covenanting armies at the battles of Tippermuir and Aberdeen. They were aware that an army under the Earl of Seaforth awaited them outside Inverness.

Iain Lom, known to Alasdair McColla, came to them with the information that the Marquess of Argyll had gathered his forces to the south at Inverlochy and would march against them, pinching the royalists between two armies. Iain supposedly guided them in deep snow, behind Ben Nevis on ‘one of the greatest flanking marches in British history, across some of the toughest and wildest terrain in the British Isles’. They fell upon the Campbells at dawn on 2 February, routing them with great slaughter. Ian Lom refused McColla's offer of a sword saying ‘You fight and I'll narrate’. His subsequent poem, ‘Là Inbhir Lochaidh’ (The Day of Inverlochy) is considered to be one of the greatest treasures of the Gaelic language.

When the Keppoch chief, Donald, was proscribed by the authorities for supporting Montrose and went into exile, his younger brother, Alasdair Buidhe, stepped up. Donald's two young sons were sent to Rome for their education. On their return in 1663, they took over the leadership of the clan from their cousins, tried to reimpose their authority and control the cattle theft and lawlessness that developed under the rule of their uncle and his family. The latter resented this, as did most of the clan, and thought that Alasdair’s eldest son Allan should be chief under the old laws of tanistry. So they murdered the two brothers.

This was a shocking event but nobody seemed inclined to do very much about it - except for Iain Lom. His rightful chief had been murdered. He nagged at MacDonnell of Glengarry to bring justice but achieved nothing. He then appealed to Sir James Macdonald of Sleat who obtained a commission of fire and sword from the Privy Council in 1665 and sent a posse, guided by Iain Lom, against the killers. After a four-day march, they caught and killed the seven men listed in the commission, including Allan and his brother, and Iain Lom used his own dirk to cut off their heads, which he washed in a well by Loch Oich before taking them to show Glengarry and then carrying them to Inverness to display to a magistrate. The well, now called the Well of the Seven Heads, has a monument raised above it to commemorate the event.

Alasdair Buidhe was elected chief of Clanranald after his nephews’ death, forcing Iain Lom to seek shelter in Kintail under the protection of the Mackenzies, but he continued to produce powerful political poetry. Charles II made him his Gaelic poet laureate. He was a strong opponent of the Union and a translation of a verse from his poem on the subject shows why so many feared his pen: ‘Lord Dupplin, without delay the vent to your throat opened, a turbulence rose in your heart when you heard the gold coming; you swallowed the hiccoughs of avarice, your lungs inflated and swelled, control over your gullet was relaxed, and the traces of your arse were unloosed’. He likely lived well into his 90s.

One commentator wrote: ‘He was capable of powerful emotion, yet his poetry is not the poetry either of feeling or pathos. But for command of language, vivid, graphic description, power of satire or praise as suited his purpose, few of our Highland poets have equalled him’. Unless you understand Gaelic, it is impossible to appreciate Iain Lom's poetry and it is our loss as he was one of the nation’s greatest.

 

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