Nothing in the remarkable life of Mary MacPherson of Skeabost, also known as Màiri Mhòr nan Òran, is more striking than the story of how she became the great poet, song-maker, and leader of her community whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this month.
Màiri was born, on 10 March 1821, into a crofting family in Skye; and for the first 50 years of her life, she followed a fairly conventional path, moving to Inverness for work, marrying a shoemaker called Isaac MacPherson, and giving birth to five children, four of whom survived into adulthood. When her husband died in 1871, though, Màiri’s life took a dramatic turn, as she went to work as a domestic servant in an army officer’s family, and found herself accused of stealing some silk from the possessions of her mistress.
Despite support from some eminent local figures, Màiri was found guilty of the theft, and imprisoned for 40 days; and according to her own account, it was the extreme injustice of this experience that “brought her muse to life,” and compelled her to start creating and singing the songs that were to make her famous, many of then written in protest against the unjust treatment of crofting communities, and against the arrogance of the English speakers who claimed authority over a Gaelic speaking people.
After her release from prison, Màiri Mhor moved to Glasgow, where she trained as a nurse and midwife, and then to Greenock, becoming a well known figure in the Gaelic community in both places, and performing her songs at ceilidhs and political gatherings. In the 1880s, she retired back to Skye, and became involved in the Crofters’ Wars of that decade; by that time, she was widely known as Màiri Mhor Nan Oran, Great Mary Of The Songs, and recognised, well before her death in 1898, as one of the leaders of the Gaelic-speaking people in their struggle for land rights and cultural survival.
In this special Scotsman Session to mark the bicentenary of Màiri Mhor’s birth, the actress, writer, poet and director Gerda Stevenson reads her own poem Oran/Song, about the great turning-point in Màiri Mhor’s life when she began to find her voice. She also sings one of Màiri’s best-loved songs, a gentle lyric called Nuair Bha Mi Og, When I Was Young. Stevenson has been a leading figure in Scottish theatre, song and broadcasting since the 1980s, appearing at the Lyceum in roles that ranged from an unforgettable Gerda in the premier production of Stuart Paterson’s Snow Queen, to a magnificent Phaedra in Edwin Morgan’s version of the Racine tragedy, and working on many productions with Gerry Mulgrew’s Communicado Theatre.
She is also a fine radio producer and director, a superb singer, and an acclaimed poet; her tribute to Màiri Mhor first appeared in her collection QUINES: Poems In Tribute To Women Of Scotland, published in 2018. Through her marriage to the Gaelic poet Aonghas MacNeacaill, she has been able to explore her strong interest in Gaelic, alongside all the languages of Scotland; and although she does not claim to be a Gaelic speaker, her performances of Gaelic songs have an intensity that reveals a deep connection with, and feeling for, Gaelic language and culture.
Given the pressures of lockdown, there have been no major commemorative events to mark Màiri Mhor’s 200th anniversary, with celebrations confined, so far, to online acknowledgements of the date. Stevenson’s poem, though, represents a uniquely powerful memorial to this mighty campaigner and song-maker; and here it is, performed by the poet herself, as a 200th birthday gift to one of the greatest Scotswomen of all.
QUINES: Poems In Tribute To Women Of Scotland is published by Luath Press, price £9.99.
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