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Lament For Mary MacLeod

The Lament For Mary MacLeod was composed by Padruig Og MacCrimmon to honour the Gaelic poetess Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, circa 1610 - 1703. Mary was the daughter of Alasdair Ruaidh of Harris and St. Kilda, whose progenitor was a younger son of William, 5th Chieftain of Harris and Dunvegan. Mary began her career in the halls of Dunvegan at a time when the Gaelic culture reigned supreme.


By her middle years, the English influence had taken hold. About that time, she composed a poem to honour the Chieftain's uncle, Sir Norman of Bernera, but in doing so she neglected the mandatory praise of the Chieftain, Roderick MacLeod of Harris and Dunvegan, a grandson of Sir Ruaridh Mor. This oversight was deemed to be a monstrous insult in the culture of the time. She was banished for years to Scarba, a small island off Mull.


After several years in exile, she composed a poem praising the Chieftain, even though she despised his anglicizing ways. She was allowed to return to Skye but she always regretted her poem of praise for the Chieftain. When she died she asked to be buried face down by way of atoning for her error. She is buried in St. Clement's Church at Rodel where the restorer himself, Alasdair Crotach, VIIIth Chieftain, is also buried.


However, nothing is simple and clear in Gaelic lore. Another MacLeod story has it that she was banished because of her strong support for the Royalist cause during the English Civil War and that she continued to be outspoken in those views even when Cromwell's Commonwealth ruled with an iron fist. She was seen as a threat to the survival of a timorous Chieftain anxious to avoid Cromwell's fiery wrath. Banishment followed.


It is possible that both issues were in the Chieftain's mind when he banished her.


Mary was unschooled and her poetry was oral. She spoke mostly in praise of Chieftains. Her poems were passed from generation to generation until captured in print in the 19th century. Some of her words are cited here to give a flavor of her style and subject matter. She sang of Dunvegan thus:


“the tall battlement tower that was the resting place of bards and makers of songs” “the dwelling that is not niggardly, wherein is the roar of pipes, and anon the sound of harps” “where silver cups gleamed making the wine flow freely”


In a poem which she composed when still a young girl in the household of Ruaridh Mor she said:


With Roderick Mor, MacLeod of Banners.
In his house I have been joyful,
Dancing merry on a wide floor.
The fiddle-playing to put me to sleep,
The pipe-playing to wake me in the morning.
Bear my greeting to Dunvegan.


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