My Native Land is on My Mind
28 June 2021
A song by William MacKenzie (1857-1907) Researched and sung by Alice MacMillan
My native land is on my mind
My native land, especially my home,
Beside Cnoc Chùsbaig in the Long Island
With the north sea encircling its land.
I am full of melancholy and no wonder,
Leaving Shader and travelling from my home
Where I was happy with plenty food
Leaving it behind, sailing in Spring.
That’s where I was as a child,
That’s where I grew to be a young man;
I was there with Mary and our weak children,
How sad to be leaving aged fifty.
O, I remember times past
My beloved children beside me at the fireside
On their mother’s knee, being lovingly nursed,
Before death came to visit and scatter us.
It’s painful to be separated by the sea
Who will care for me when I become weak?
Who will give me water or bread
Since I lost Mary and her place is empty?
I won’t let them go from me but I will follow them
I will go to the far side of the ocean;
We’ll find a place where we can live
Although this place will be left unoccupied.
Since death reached out to me and left me empty
The sea will divide me from my flesh and blood
My home will be desolate, with no smoke from the fire
Myself and my children on the far side of the ocean.
The time approaches and there’s no avoiding it
When I must sail in less than a week
Leaving the land where I’d rather be sleeping
On the steamship, with no expectation of returning home.
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 to 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.
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.
William composed this nostalgic song while he was preparing to leave his home at the foot of Cnoc Chùsbaig to emigrate to Canada following the death of his wife.
The song describes his life and his young days. His memories of growing up in Cnoc Chùsbaig fill him with sadness as he’s leaving. He had lost his wife, Màiri, and also a young son, which made his life very difficult. He followed his remaining children to Canada because he didn’t want to be left on his own.
Throughout the song he describes some of the daily tasks they had – the young men mending nets and preparing to go out to sea, the women at their spinning-wheels.
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.