Dugald Buchanan: The Bard of Rannoch, The Complete Works. Adrian Murdoch, editor.
Rott Publishing, 2012, for Kindle. Illustrated. £2.05.
Dugald Buchanan (1716-68) of Perthshire published eight notable poems – laoidhibh spioradail or spiritual hymns – in Scottish Gaelic, the Celtic bardic language of the Highland clans, when it was barely a literary medium.
The first printed book in Scottish Gaelic had been the Church of Scotland’s Book of Common Order in 1567, translated by Séon Carsuel (John Carswell), Bishop of the Isles. (The Episcopacy was not abolished in the Church of Scotland until 1689. Gaelic, of course, is not Scots, the English dialect of the Lowlands in which Burns wrote.)
Buchanan was the son of a farmer. His pious mother died when he was six. He attended a local school established by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, the Anglican mission founded in 1698 whose Scottish wing – the SSPCK (Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge) – had been formed by royal charter straight after the Union and charged with founding schools “where religion and virtue might be taught to young and old” in the uncivilised Highlands.
The SSPCK worked with the Church of Scotland, not against it, especially in areas where there was a growing Jacobitism and where Catholic missionaries might have achieved a landslide to Rome. But Buchanan’s friends and relations took up arms for Prince Charlie.
Buchanan had been distracted in his young manhood, he tells us, by frivolities. From 1741 to 1750 he kept a diary in English which records the struggle which led to his religious awakening. His autobiography, based on the diaries, was published in Edinburgh in 1836 (edited by whom?). Part of his spiritual journey in the 1740s was towards forgiveness of the English.
He preached, and was deeply impressed by the Methodist George Whitefield, who visited Scotland for the second time in the summer of 1742. In 1749, he married.
Adrian Murdoch and Rott Publishing have published the only Kindle edition of Buchanan: Lachlan MacBean’s translations of the poems and his text of the Confessions. They are preceded by Adrian’s Introduction and a short anthology of writings about Buchanan. It’s an entertaining and interesting book. Skip this post, unless it helps as an orientation, and read it.
In 1753 (DNB chronology), Buchanan was appointed by the SPCK as a teacher (subsequently catechist) at a school at Kinloch Rannoch in the (forfeited?) estate of Duncan Robertson of Strowan. Rannoch’s clans had fought in both Jacobite uprisings and had suffered the reprisals of the Redcoats. Buchanan, in his teaching and preaching, brought education and religion to the wild men of Rannoch.
The Spiritual Hymns were published in Edinburgh in 1767, two hundred years after the Gaelic Book of Common Order. English prose translations appeared in 1843 and ’75, MacBean’s verse translations in 1884 (his edition of the Confessions came later): The Greatness of God, The Skull, The Sufferings of Christ, The Day of Judgment (“the Dies Irae of the Scottish Gael”), The Dream, The Hero, Winter, A Prayer.
I suppose Buchanan was a kind of antidote to Ossian. John Reid (1808-41 or ’2), Scottish bookman and member of the Secession Church, called him “the Cowper of the Highlands”. Isaac Watts, Edward Young and Robert Blair were influences.
But he was more than a poet. In the same year, 1767, the first Scottish Gaelic New Testament appeared. Buchanan had been recruited by the SSPCK to help the Rev James Stuart of Killin in the translation. Stuart worked from the Greek, Buchanan improved the Gaelic. An Irish Gaelic translation dating from the Elizabethan period (both testaments?) had been in use in Scotland before this. A Scottish Gaelic Old Testament largely by Stuart’s son, John Stuart of Luss, followed in 1801.
We see him trying to improve himself (he met many of Edinburgh’s celebrities, including Hume), but he was apparently not considered educated enough to become a minister in the Church of Scotland.
Buchanan’s costume changed after 1745. MacBean in Sketch of the Author’s Life, in his edition of the Spiritual Songs, Edinburgh, MacLachlan & Stewart, 1884:
“Our Author was a tall, black-haired man, dark-complexioned, and large-eyed. In his younger days he wore the ordinary Highland costume, but after 1745 he had, like the rest of his countrymen, to discard the kilt, and during his residence in Rannoch his usual attire consisted of knee-breeches, a blue coat, and a broad Highland bonnet.”
Rott Publishing is an exercise in Kindle publishing by Adrian and me (my role is still rather theoretical). A while ago, I wrote about our Latin edition of Eugippius’s Life of St Severinus. We announced it as the start of a series, Rott Classics. Pressure of other work has meant that Eugippius, alas, stands on his own. But Dugald Buchanan launches Rott Alba, and that is more likely to be a series, since there is already a second book in it, poems by Alexander Robertson, about which I will write soon.