Verses by the Old Woman of Smoo
28 June 2021
A song by Donald MacKay (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) Researched and sung by Callum Ross
I have been in Smoo since the time of the Fianna
These heroes who wouldn’t retreat without drawing blood;
I don’t remember a battle I ever saw
With no person there who would stand up to tongs or oarblades.
When the Sutherlanders arrived, their steps were steady
Intending to rob us of Crasg
With no man in their force who would strike a blow or a cut
On the women of Ceannabin, a hearty victory to them.
The heroes early saw the drawn weapons
Tongs, sickles, the rafter and the flail
They took fright, and some of them said
“This is worse for the Sutherlanders than the battle of Druim na Cùb!”
While they were in Dùrin the situation was grim
Though they made it to the Inn they didn’t stay long there;
Without the sustenance of food or drink, or a dram
Dòmh’ll-ic-Cullaich’s pipes made them all dance.
In the blink of an eye at Tobar-a-Chrib
There was the ‘Countari-dance’, unusual and new,
And although MacCullach earned his reputation with his piping
These young men could barely keep step to his music.
Their retreat was hurried and red-hot
Sheriff and Fiscal, Police and Bailiffs ran;
Some were saying “We’ll pay dearly for this
Unless we manage to hide on the other side of the kyle.”
Without blood being drawn from any of them, they fled away,
Some took to the hills, some went among the crops,
The butcher of Dornoch having given no meat to the army
Till Sunday morning, and the barley half-dead.
Why I chose this song
The effect of the Clearances or the “Dispersions” in MacKay country (North-west Sutherland) cannot be ignored, along with the destruction of the land of the country folk and the life of Gaels across Scotland. As you will know not all Gaels submitted to being evicted and many people in MacKay country fought against government or the new landowners who were trying to clear them from their hereditary lands. This was called “The Durness Riots”. I found this song while I was reading “Unpublished Literary Remains of the Reay County,” in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, XXIV, (1891). My spirits were uplifted by the song, by the story and its effect and I had to learn it. This is one of the songs about many rebellions across the Highlands where the Gaels defended their rights and their heritage and I wanted to praise them and draw your attention to their efforts and their struggle. We can learn much about this song even today.
The song was written by a Donald MacKay. Little is written about him or where he was from but it is likely that that he belonged to the MacKay country, that he was alive and present at the time of the clearances or that he knew what was happening in that area at that time. The song was recorded when MacKay was over eighty years old. He would have been well acquainted with eveictions and clearances at that time, possibly with knowledge of earlier times.
In the song MacKay gives an account of “The Durness Riots,” where the tacksman tried to evict the people in order to replace them with sheep. A Sheriff came from Dornoch to deliver summonses, but the women of the district burned them. He returned with the Fiscal, a group of policemen and bailiffs but they had to stay at the Inn at Craisg. With no warning the people of the district attacked them and overcame them so that they had to flee. Some fled during the night through the fields till they reached Sutherland.
Among the places named in the song are “Dùirin” [Dubh-rinn] (Durine), “Ceannabin” [Ceann na beinne] (“Ceannabeinne”) agus “Inn Crasg”, an inn in the very centre of Sutherland, villages that separate MacKay Country from South Sutherland according to local tradition.
James Anderson was the tacksman of Rispond. He was responsible for the clearance of 26 families between 1838 and 1841. Their former lands were put under sheep and the people were cleared to Saingea Beag, Leirinn and North America. There were further clearances in 1841 – 13 families this time. “Finlay” is the only name we have for the Sheriff from Dornoch who came north to evict the country people in 1841. Fearing for his life and somewhat injured, he appealed to the people saying he was neither capable nor well enough to go back to East Sutherland at night. He was granted his wish.