Tìr Shealgairean, Bhàrd agus na Caillich (Land of Hunters, Poets and the Cailleach)
Seall sa Ghàidhlig
Not one, but two, great Gaelic poets lie in the magnificently sited cemetery that surrounds the 15th century Catholic church of Cille Choirill in Bràigh Loch Abar ‘the upper part of Lochaber’. The church, once roofless, was restored with the support of descendants of Lochaber folk in Nova Scotia, where Gaelic traditions, and the language, remain alive to this day. Here in Glen Spean, close to the famous ‘parallel roads’ of Glen Roy, are the Scottish Highlands par excellence, with small parcels of hard-wrought cultivation set among wild mountains that exhibit Gaelic toponymy at its finest.
The first poet is the Keppoch Bard, Iain Lom (probably meaning ‘hairless John’), a bard to the MacDonalds of Keppoch who praised the clan in his bàrdachd. His grave is unmarked, but a memorial stone was erected there, facing south to the Coire Odhar ‘the dun corrie’ that lies amidst the hills. The anglicised form of this name is well-known among those who love remote railway journeys; Corrour Station, many miles from any road but only one stop down the line from Tulloch Station in Glen Spean, is among the remotest in Scotland. This is country redolent of the Fianna, mythical warriors whose legends have been told since time immemorial. A short walk from Corrour Station is Loch Oisein (Loch Ossian), named for the son of Fionn mac Cumhail, leader of the Fianna. It is also the country of the Cailleach of Beinn a’ Bhric – a female spirit who guarded the mountains and milked the wild hinds.
The second poet, Dòmhnall mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dàn (Donald son of Finlay, of the songs’), is reputed to have known the Cailleach personally and to have negotiated rights to hunt her deer. An accomplished hunter-poet, he left us the 16th century composition Òran na Comhachaig ‘the song of the owl’ in which he converses with the bird and names local places. At his life’s end, Donald is said to have killed a final stag with his bow and arrow, and then asked to be buried at Cille Choirill wrapped inside the animal’s hide, facing south to his beloved mountains.