Murdo MacDonald


Murdo MacDonald is Emeritus Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee. His research interests include the art of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd and I met him when I was artist in residence at Sabhal Mor Ostaig. Murdo now lives in Stornoway. He writes about his sea-faring ancestors from Lewis:

Lewis has been the home of many of my family over the generations, but it was by coincidence that I found myself living in Stornoway. A friend needed to sell a house. I needed a house. And thus my ancestors pulled me back. 

This is a song by Iain Dòmhnullach a’ Chaolais,my great-great-grandfather.


Màiri Dhonn, bhòidheach dhonn,
Màiri Dhonn’s mòr mo thlachd dhiot,
Màiri Dhonn, bhòidheach dhonn.

Cha robh duin’ agam air bòrd,
Cha robh seòladair agam,
Ach mi fhin ’s mo Màiri Dhonn
Sgoltadh thonn, siubhal dhachaidh. 
Dol a mach aig Bogh nan Gamhn’
Chaidh na cinn oirnn ro fhada,
Thainig fras o’n àirde Tuath
’S thug i fuaim air a darach.

Thuirt MacAmhlaidh, “Ni i feum,
Ma tha i gleust gheibh i astar;
Fhad’s a dh’fhuilgeas i an còrs
Ni i “Mooraist” dheth mun stad i.”

’Nuair a ràining sinn tìr
Bha sinn sgìth dhe’n a’ “phassage”,
Chaidh an botul air a’ bhord,
’S gloine mhòr a chur faisg air.

Thuirt Catrìona gun ghruaim,
“Teannaibh nuas ’illean faguis,
Iain, ’s mise bhiodh gu truagh
Thu bhi bhuam, ged chas thu.”

Iain Dòmhnullach a’ Chaolais

The words are reproduced from Thomson, J. and Macdonald, D., 1938, EileanFraoich: Lewis Gaelic Songs and Melodies, Stornoway: ComunnGaidhealachLeódhas. My thanks to Norma MacLeod (who also descends from Iain Dòmhnullach a’ Chaolais) for singing it for me at a moment’s notice. 

Here is a very free translation: 

Beautiful brown-haired Mary, great is my pleasure in you, Mairi Dhonn. I had nobody on board, I had no sailor but myself and you, Mairi Dhonn. Going out by Bogh nan Gamhn we gave her too much sail; a shower came from the north and beat the timber. Great is my pleasure in you, Mairi Dhonn. Macaulay (who built her) said she’ll always fare well, and she will pick up speed because she’s a good boat;as long as she stays on course she will come to her mooring. Great is my pleasure in you, Mairi Dhonn. When we at last we reached the land, we were tired out by this passage. The bottle went on the table and a large glass beside it.Beautiful brown-haired Mary, great is my pleasure in you, Mairi Dhonn. Catriona said happily, come on over men – Iain I would be very poorly off without you, even though you are bad tempered. Beautiful brown-haired Mary, great is my pleasure in you, beautiful brown-haired Mary, Mairi Dhonn.

 Catriona was Iain’s wife, my great-grandfather’s mother. My great-grandfather’s name was Murdo Stewart MacDonald. He was fine seaman who left his native Bernera to captain one of the great sailing ships of the day, the clipper Sir Lancelot. By then Sir Lancelot had been cut down to a barque rig, but under Murdo’s command she still broke records and left other ships standing. When Sir Lancelot was sold to a new owner, Murdo settled in Mauritius. He was offered other ships,but he never took one for, as his obituary notes, he was ‘not a steamer man’, and cared not to command a lesser sailing ship than Sir Lancelot. 


                                                                                    Murdo Macdonald