Isle of Lewis, Gaelic speaking

Western Isles

28 June 2021

A song by William MacKenzie (1857-1907) Researched and sung by Alice MacMillan
To the tune of Hòro Nighean, Hòro Nighean


Isle of Lewis, Isle of Lewis,
Isle of Lewis, Gaelic speaking,
On the east side there’s Rubh’ ’n t-Siumpain,
Where, my love, I was brought up.

Island of the kindly people
Who speak to each other in Gaelic,
They would not sell it for gold
They always use it in battles.

I’ve seen it in written history
That our ancestor, Adam, spoke it,
And when the seas were parted
That Moses spoke it in the desert.

Send them to war or to peace,
Leave them on land or send them to sea,
There is no other known nation
Who will overcome the Gaelic speakers.

Great was the recognition the king gave us
Of the peace that exists with the Gaels;
When he got the country’s crown
He made a tour of the Highlands.

He praised the island for its nobility
And he praised the people for their language
And he praised them for their temperance
And he praised the virtues of Gaelic.

I was born among them
I was brought up in Lewis
Where I learned to compose songs
Among the maidens at the sheiling.

Why I chose this song

I chose two songs (Isle of Lewis, Gaelic speaking and My native Land is on My Mind) composed by William MacKenzie, the Cnoc Chùsbaig Bard as we call him. I wanted to research songs that had a connection with my own family. There are a good number of writers in the family but I selected William because he used to live just down the road from where I stay. I also wanted to choose songs that hardly anyone sings today. It was important to me to choose two songs that are rarely heard so that the poet’s words could be passed on.

The author

William, son of Donald, son of Kenneth, was born in Shader, Point, in Lewis in 1857. His father’s people came to Point from near Loch Seilg in Lochs and William’s mother, a daughter of Murdo MacLeay, came from Sheshader. Her father obtained a piece of land in Shader when the tack was taken from Gillanders, the owner, and broken into crofts in the middle of the nineteenth century. There were seven in his father’s family, six sons and one daughter, and three of the sons composed poetry.

William was the youngest of the family. While he was still quite young his father and two of his brothers were drowned while they were fishing with long lines. William and two brothers, John and Murdo (The Pilot) lived on the same piece of land “between the Buail’-fheòir and Cnoc Chùsbaig” in Shader. Between the three of them they had “eleven handsome sons” as he tells us in the song My native land is on my mind. William’s wife, Mary, daughter of Alasdair MacKay, was from Garrabost, the next village. William and Mary had four children; Donald, Iain and Alasdair who died young, and one daughter, Effie.

William and Mary had been married for twenty years before death parted them. The family emigrated to Canada and William followed his sons to Fort William, Ontario. He died there in 1907 and he is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in the town.

William’s home was at the foot of Cnoc Chùsbaig and that’s why he is called the Cnoc Chùsbaig Bard. He composed many songs after his wife died - for example Mary, daughter of Alasdair. He was a well-known poet who was always proud of his island and his native language.

The song

This song was composed after King Edward (1841-1910) and his royal wife Alexandra came to Lewis in 1902. They came to Stornoway on the Royal yacht Victoria and Albert. They visited Lewis Castle and planted two birch trees in the gardens.
The song is in praise of the Gaelic language. Verse 3 says:
I’ve seen it in written history
That our ancestor, Adam, spoke it
And when the seas were parted


I would like to thank my grandmother, Etta MacMillan, for all the information she gave me about William and my grandfather, Seonaidh ‘Beag’ MacMillan, for teaching me the songs.

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