INFORMATION SHEET No. 22


Bards and Seneachies


Songs and stories were circulated throughout the clan and beyond by the household gatherings or ceilidhs held in castle and cottage. Among the best known Gaelic roets or bards were those who served the needs of the ruling families of the Highlands and Islands, an important part of whose professional stock-in-trade would be the arts of eulogy and elegy (E S Thomson in Gaelic Companion, p 292). There is no Munro bard or seneachie associated with the clan country, but two fragments which have survived in Mackenzie tradition are worth recalling.

The Rev John MacRae, who died minister of Dingwall in 1704. tells how a wandering harper of his own name happened to be passing an evening at Foulis about the year 1500, and found Sir William Munro of Foulis in a disconsolate mood. Earlier in the same day he had been defeated in a skirmish with the Mackenzies at Knockfarrel, when Hector Roy of Gairloch - then in possession of the chief's estates including Kinellan near Strathpeffer - with a such smaller body of supporters had taken the Munros by surprise and routed them. The bard advised Sir William to be more cheerful and to submit patiently to the fortune of war, since his defeat had been due to the timorousness of his followers and not to any failure of courage on his own part. Sir William reminded the minstrel that his own name MacRath literally meant 'son of fortune', and in accepting the other's advice replied 'I'm sure that you have been more fortunate then I have today'. The Harper, it is said, quickly made en impromptu answer in Gaelic verse about the laird, of Gairloch's bravery, who

  'Did eight hundred men defeat and many kill  
    With his seven score on the face of Pharrel hill'.  

('Ardintoul MS', Edinburgh Public Library transcript p 41; Alex Mackenzie, History of the Mackenzies (1879), 89-90, 2nd edn (1894) 118; History of Munros (1898), p 32).

The other fragment surviving is from a lament composed nearly 100 years later by a women of the clan for her three brothers, killed in another ignominious episode in which 50 Munros are said to have been cut off after a disturbance at the Logiebride market near Conon bridge in February 1597. The Mackenzies were again on the opposite side, and the fragment comes from another Mackenzie source; the story of the incident resembles that given in the Applecross MS (Highland Papers, ed J R N Macphail for S H S, ii 1-68), but without the sister's lament, which however appears in the version supplied by the Rev Dr Archibald MacDonald in the Gaelic Society of Inverness Transactions, xxxvi l95, with a copy in 'Standard Gaelic' in note 9 on p 2ll (Mackenzies, 1st edn, 140, 2nd edn 181, Munros 71, 379).

Though few of them are known to be directly connected with the Munro homeland in Ross-shire, the clan has produced several Gaelic poets of note. The earliest was Alexander Munro, minister of Durness (1634) who came of the Milntown of Katewell branch, had a reputation for versifying Scripture passages - the phrase 'Sandy Munro's verses' is still current, and two of them have survived in the Fernaig MS. James Munro (1794-1870), also a Gaelic scholar, a native of Port William and later schoolmaster at Carradale in Kintyre and at Blarour in Kilmonivaig parish, published a Gaelic primer in 1828 and a Gaelic grammar in 1835, was one of the chief contributors to Dr Norman MacLeod's 'Gaelic Messenger', and of his own An T'Aillegan (1830) and Am Filidh (1840) the former has been celled 'the prettiest song book ever printed ... contains the very cream of Gaelic song'. A minor Sutherland poet, John Munro (1791-1837), born near Boner Bridge, an accountant in Glasgow, was secretary of the society for the support of Gaelic schools and author of several religious pamphlets and poems including Dane Spioradail (anon. 1819); his life of Dr John Love (1830) adopted a novel system of Gaelic orthography which he regarded as consonant with the pronunciation of the language. John Munro or Iain Rothach (1889-1918) has been hailed by Professor Derick Thomson as 'the first strong voice of the new Gaelic verse of the 20th century', especially his war-poem 'An Tir's an Gaisgich a thuit sna Blair' (0ur Land, our Heroes who fell in Battle) - enlisting in the 4th Seaforth Highlanders, he himself won the Military Cross and was killed in action in Belgium. David Munro, Gaelic schoolmaster at Stoer in Sutherland, published several volumes of sermons 1841-52, and Donald Munro, of the Argyll island of Luing (later emigrated to New Zealand), produced a volume of songs (1848) which includes laments for two officers of the Stuckghoy family (Colonel William and Captain James in Inveraray). John Munro (1847-1915), garage proprietor and yacht builder/repairer in Oban and member of the local Town Council, was one of the founder of An Comunn Gaidhealach, and the Rev Malcolm Nicolson Munro (1869-1934) was for ten years convener of its Mod and Music Committee.

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