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Issue 79 - The Clan Currie

Scotland Magazine Issue 79
February 2015

 

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The Clan Currie

A look at the most celebrated bards in Gaeldom

Descending from Conn of the Hundred Battles, the 110th High King of Ireland, Muireadhach Ó Dálaigh – Murdoch O'Daly – was a prominent member of a bardic family of extraordinarily high repute throughout Gaeldom.

In the first decade of the 13th Century, a servant of the King of Tyrconnell asked him for rent for his land. This was an insult to a bard of his standing, so he bisected his head and was forced to flee Ireland for Scotland. He is said to have settled in Lennox and sired 11 children whose descendants, the MacMhuirichs, became the most celebrated poets and bards in Gaeldom.

As such, they would serve the earls of Lennox and later the Lord of the Isles and their successors for five centuries. However, such a name could not survive the advent of an English speaking bureaucracy in the 19th Century and morphed from MacVurich to Currie. Thus Clan Currie is the heir to one of the most distinguished legacies of any family.

The Lords of the Isles at one time controlled the entire western seaboard of Scotland. With their power projected by their birlinns, they ruled the Hebrides and lands bounded by the sea lochs that penetrate deep into the heart of the country. Unlike their rivals, the Kings of Scotland, they had no army of scribes, writing in Norman French, to record their decrees and land charters. Instead, they relied on the Clan Mhuirich, their hereditary bards, lawyers, musicians and even physicians who attended their court on the island in the loch of Finlaggan on Islay.

The writer Martin Martin toured the Western Isles around 1695 and observed. 'The Orators by the force of their Eloquence had a powerful ascendant over the greatest men in their time; for if any Orator did but ask the Habit, Arms, Horse, or any other thing belonging to the greatest Man in these Islands, it was readily granted them.'

The role of the bard was extraordinarily important in Gaeldom. In the great hall at Finlaggan, the MacMhuirichs would be honoured by being seated at banquets before Maclean, MacLeod, MacNeill, MacKinnon, MacQuarrie and the other Island chiefs. Theirs was an oral society that relied on the bards and seanachaidhs, the storytellers, to preserve and promulgate the renown of the clan.

They also acted as adviser at the Council of the Isles. A bard faced seven years training, much in colleges in Ireland to become what has been described as a 'professor of literature and a man of letters.' He must know the history and pedigree of his patron back into the mists of time; he must record his decrees. And he must broadcast the glory of his deeds, and inspire his warriors.

He did this through the medium of poetry and the poems that survive ensure the reputation of the MacMhuirichs as the leading bardic dynasty of the Gaels. Lachlann Mór MacMhuirich composed the most famous surviving battle incitement poem for Clan Donald, which would have taken several hours to recite, before the Battle of Harlaw in 1411 where the Gaelic army of the Isles came within an ace of defeating the Lowlanders and going on to rule all Scotland.

John MacMhuirich was Dean of Knoydart in the first decade of the 16th Century and contributed to the Dean of Lismore's Book, the most important collection of medieval Gaelic poetry that survives. Three poems within it are by John MacMhuirich, described as the chief poet of the family, and he may have penned two laments to the chiefs of Clan Ranald.

For 18 generations, said Lachlann MacMhuirich in 1805, his family served Clan Donald as bards, first with the Lords of the Isles when they were based on Islay and Kintyre and, on the downfall of the Lordship in 1493, with Clan Ranald in the Uists and their territories on the mainland. Members of the clan filled the posts that required brains and literacy rather than brawn, acting as musicians, parsons and lawyers.

Most of the written records of the Lordship written in Gaelic by the MacMhuirichs on vellum disappeared after its downfall, used to patch clothes or fuel peat fires in the blackhouses. But their names appear as witnesses on charters when it became politic for the island chiefs to register the lands controlled by their swords with the laws of the King. In every battle in which Highlanders fought, the bard would be in the van of the army inspiring the warriors to feats of valour.

The MacMhuirichs were with Clan Donald at Bannockburn, Killiecrankie, Sheriffmuir and even at Culloden. In battle, it was said that the swords of opposing warriors would 'pass over' the bard, such was the veneration with which they were regarded. They were the repositories of the history and the culture of the Gaels. The Red Book of Clanranald that contains the history of Clan Donald as well as poems, was put together by Niall MacMhuirich of Uist in the early 18th Century and acquired by James 'Ossian' Macpherson when he travelled the Highlands in 1760.

By the 17th century, the name was appearing as McCurrie in the Hebrides. It is Currie in Islay by the 18th century, and on Uist by the 19th century. By the 1960s. Gaelic scholars such as Professor Derick Thomson had become fascinated with the MacMhuirichs and reignited interest in the Clan. At the same time, a Clan Currie Society was formed in Glasgow by William McMurdo Currie. Before he died in 1992, the leadership of the Society passed to Robert Currie of the United States. The Society continues to grow from strength to strength.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Clan Currie of today is how it continues to be a standard bearer for Scots and Gaelic culture, just as it was during those centuries when it served Clan Donald. The Society has thousands of members around the world and is a non-profit charity and major arts organisation that funds scholarships, particularly for piping and the study of the clarsach, the Highland harp that would have been played by the MacMhuiridhs at countless events at the court of the Lords of the Isles.

The Clan Currie also organise the annual Tartan Day on Ellis Island that has grown to become the biggest celebration of its kind in America. It showcases Scots and Highland culture and celebrates the vital contribution of immigrants from Scotland to the creation of the American nation.

Each December, audiences queue up for the Pipes of Christmas. Clan Currie's holiday concert in New York City. Ticket sales fund the Clan's scholarship programme.

For more information visit www.clancurrie.com