Cumha Ni Mhic Raonuill (Murt Na Ceapaich)

Ni Mhic Raonuill’s lament (the Keppoch murder), composed ca. 1663

The murders which gave rise to this lament took place on September 25, 1663, against Alexander, Chieftain of the Keppoch MacDonalds, and his brother Ranald, both sons of Dòmhnall Glas of Keppoch who fought with Montrose and died sometime before 1651, when his brother Alasdair Buidhe, present at Scone in that year at the coronation of Charles II, is listed as ‘tutor of Keppoch’, i.e. guardian during their minority of his brothers’ children (OIL, p. 269). Although contemporary accounts of their murderers’ pursuit are held amongst the records of the Privy Council, the reasons for the Chieftain’s death are not stated (id., pp. 270‒1); it is probable that tension between the MacDonalds of Inverlair and their Keppoch kin, and attempts to reform the conduct of the latter by their Chieftain himself, were responsible. The song describes, in graphic detail, the discovery of the deaths of her brothers by its author, her grief-stricken reaction and her cries for revenge, although there is little clue to the perpetrators’ identity. Two other laments for the brothers were composed by their kinsman Iain Lom (‘Cumha do mhac Mhic Raghnaill na Ceapaich agus a bhrathair’ and ‘Murt na Ceapaich’, for which see OIL pp. 82‒93 & 108‒13), who was horrified by the general apathy of the Keppoch men’s response to their Chieftain’s death and sought redress for the crime elsewhere, in the persons of MacDonald of Glengarry and James MacDonald of Sleat (either of whom may be the ‘MacDonald’ also appealed to by the present author). Iain Lom not only named the men he held responsible – the sons of Alasdair Buide (i.e. the victims’ cousins) and seven of the MacDonalds of Inverlair – but also claims in ‘Murt na Ceapaich’ to have adopted the behaviour more usually associated with the posture of a grieving woman over their bodies (OIL, p. 82; cf. Mathis 2008, 49), referred to here by the present author in the lines: Dh' fhosgail mi dorus ur seòmair / Thàinig ur fuil thar mo bhrògan! / 'S teann nach d' òl mi-fhìn mo leòr dh'i. The consumption of blood by their mourner from the corpse of one who has died in violent circumstances has a long history within Gaelic literary tradition, and is supported by several contemporary accounts (cf. id., pp. 43‒4 & Mathis 2013). 

The kinsmen to whom the song’s author calls out did not, in fact, respond, with the exception of James MacDonald, 9th of Sleat, whose natural son ‘An Ciaran Mabach’, i.e. Archibald ‘the stammering’ MacDonald, lead the expedition against the murderers in 1665 (the commission had been granted by the Privy Council against Alasdair Buidhe’s sons, Donald and Allan, MacDonald of Inverlair, his brother and three local accomplices, confirming, at least in part, the accusation made by Iain Lom [as above, cf. OIL, p. 272]. The poet is supposed to have acted as guide to the expedition, and certainly composed a song in praise of Archibald MacDonald for his zeal in its pursuit [cf. id., pp. 128‒31 & p. 286 – this is the song which follows the present lament in GB1, pp. 65ff.]. Although the song itself does not take credit for the act with which Iain Lom is attributed locally, i.e. washing the severed heads in the spring now known as Tobar nan Ceann at the southern end of Loch Oich and continuing to Invergarry Castle with each one strung upon a rope [id., p. 273], its graphic description of the murderers’ fate is strongly suggestive of first-hand knowledge (e.g. 'N deidh am plaosgach fhuair bhur ploicne, / Claigne 'gam faoisgneadh a copar, / Mar chinn laugh an déidh am plotadh: ‘your skulls had the flesh boiled off them in copper pots, like calves’ heads after they have been steeped in hot water’ [id., pp. 130 & 131, translated Annie Mackenzie]. Some of the heads were taken eventually to Edinburgh and displayed upon the Gallows Hill on Leith Walk). 

The present song’s attribution to 'Ni Mhic Raghnaill', the sister of the murdered men, is not unlikely; nothing else is known of the author, other than that she may have been wife to a Laird of Tulloch (cf. GB1, p. 65, contra Clan Donald vol. III, p. 420, which claims that she died unmarried), but certain aspects of her later life have been confused with the biography of her kinswoman and contemporary Sìleas na Ceapaich (d. ca. 1729), notably Keith MacDonald’s statement that: “it is known that she was living in 1721, the year in which Alasdair Dubh of Glengarry died, and [is] said to have been a long time in a trance” (1900, p. 19), actually a reference to Sìleas’s illness following her husband's death in 1720 and, by implication, to the lament she composed upon the death of Alasdair of Glengarry (Ó Baoill, pp. 70‒5). Another poet referred to by the same epithet, ‘Ni Mhic Raghnaill’, is attributed as the author of an elegy for Dòmhnall Gorm Óg of Glengarry who fell at Killiecrankie in 1689, but this may be an inaccurate designation and it is unlikely that both songs were composed by the same woman.


Cumha Ni Mhic Raonuill (Murt Na Ceapaich)[i] 

Dh'éirich mise moch Di-dòmhnaich,
Hì rìthill ùthaill ò!
'S shuidh mi air an tulaich bhòidhich —
Fàth mo liunn-duibh o-hao-o!  

'S daingeann a bhuail iad ás gach taobh sibh, 
'Bhràithrean nan gaol, ó chòin! 

Shuidh mi air an tulaich bhòidhich.
'S leig mi air an tuireadh bhrònach.
Chunna mi taigh m' athar gun Chòmhla.
Gun smùid, gun deathaich, gun cheò dheth,
Dh' fhosgail mi dorus ur seòmair.
Thàinig ur fuil thar mo bhrògan!
'S teann nach d' òl mi-fhìn mo leòr dh'i. 

'S i fuil Alastair a leòn mi, 
'Is fuil Raonuill duinn a b' òige,
Dìol na muice duibhe, dòighte
Air gach aon a bha mu'n fheòlach.
Thoir fios uam-sa gu Mac-Dhòmhnuill.
Gu Mac Mhic Alastair Chnòideart.
'S gu Mac Mhic Ailein o'n mhòrchuan.
Tha mi 'n earbsa 'n Rìgh na glòire.
Gu-n toir sibh dhachaigh an tòrachd.
'S càirdean duibh-fhèin—bràithrean dòmh-s' iad.
Hì rìthill, iùthaill ò!

[i] Title from DU, p. 22; cf. GB1, p. 62, CUMHA Do dh-Alastair 's do Raonill mic Dhomhnaill Ghlais na Cepich, a chaidh a mhort 'sa bhliadhna 1663. LE AM PIUTHIR. Text from OIL, p. 281 (same as DU, pp. 22‒5, without repetition of interspersed vocables). Sinclair’s text in GB1, pp. 62‒5 is slightly longer but inferior to DU, as the addition of certain lines suggests it has become confused, during transmission, with other laments conveying the occurrence of violent death and the desire for revenge against those held responsible: e.g. ‘Dìol na muice duibhe dòithte / 'S na circe fo làimh a' chòcair' / Air gach aon a dh' iadh mu 'n fheòlach’ – the addition of ‘the treatment the cook gives the chicken’ is identical to the punishment desired by Fionnghal Chaimbeul for the individual blamed for her brother’s demise.  

Ni Mhic Raonuill’s lament (the Keppoch murder) 

I rose early on a Sunday morning
Hì rìthill ùthaill ò!
And I sat upon the lovely hill –
Cause of my dejection, o hao o! 

They struck you fiercely from every side,
O brothers whom I loved, ochoin! 

I sat upon the lovely hill
And gave in to the plaintive lament.
I saw my father’s house without a door,                       
No fume, smoke or haze pouring out,
Your chamber’s door I opened –
Your blood spilled over my shoes!
I barely refrained from drinking my fill.  

It's Alasdair's blood which has wounded me,
And the blood of brown-haired Raghnall, the youngest.
May the seared black pig’s reward
Descend upon each one concerned in the slaughter!
Take word (of this) from me to MacDonald,
To Mac Mhic Alastair of Knoydart,
And to Mac Mhic Ailein from the wide sea.
I have faith in the king of glory
That you’ll bring home their persecution (?)
They were your own kin, and brothers to me.
Hì rìthill, iùthaill ò!

Clan Donald: MACDONALD, Revs. A. & A. (1904). The Clan Donald, vol. III. Inverness.
DU: MACPHERSON, Donald C. (1868). An Duanaire: A new collection of Gaelic songs and poems. Edinburgh.
GB1: SINCLAIR, Alexander Maclean. (1890). The Gaelic bards from 1411 to 1715. Charlottetown, PEI. 
OIL: MACKENZIE, A. (1964). Orain Iain Luim: Songs of John MacDonald. Edinburgh.
MACDONALD, Keith N. (1900). Macdonald bards from mediaeval times. Edinburgh.
MATHIS, Kate L. (2008). ‘An Ulster tale in Breadalbane? Personae & literary allusion in the poetry of Mòr Chaimbeul’, Aiste 2; pp. 43‒69.
MATHIS, Kate L. (2013). ‘Mourning the maic Uislenn: Blood, death & grief in Longes mac n-Uislenn & ‘Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach’, Scottish Gaelic Studies 29; pp. 1‒21.
Ó BAOILL, Colm. (1972). Bàrdachd Shìlis na Ceapaich: Poems and songs by Sìleas MacDonald, c. 1660-c. 1729. Edinburgh: Scottish Gaelic Texts Society.