HE WAS a bawdy bard called Rob who lived in Scotland in the 18th century – but there the similarities end.
While lowlander Robert Burns went on to international fame for his poems and songs, Highlander Rob Donn – brown-haired Rob – faded into obscurity.
Now moves are being made to give the poet the recognition his supporters claim he deserves.
A refurbished memorial to the native Gaelic speaker is to be unveiled next month and a parliamentary motion has been laid down at Holyrood urging MSPs to recognise his “unsung genius”.
Some of his works may also be about to be published again. While Burns’ work has been translated into 40 languages, there are currently no books in print of Donn’s prolific compilations.
SNP MSP Rob Gibson, who is behind the motion, said: “He is not just a contemporary of Burns, he is Scotland’s other Rob. An unsung genius in many ways and for too many Scotland’s undiscovered bard.
Rob Donn – his real surname is believed to have been MacKay but he was known as Rob Donn – is considered by many scholars to be the Gaelic equivalent to Burns. Despite being unable to read and write and never speaking English, Donn is credited with creating some of the nation’s best verse, reciting his stories from memory. It was not until 50 years after his death that he was first published.
Born in Strathmore, Sutherland, his poetical abilities were picked up early on by Iain MacEachainn, a tacksman, or local landholding tenant of middle-ranking status.
In return, Donn praised MacEachainn and his family in his poetry, in a way normally reserved for nobility.
Donn’s life coincided with the two major Jacobite campaigns, in 1715 – a year after his birth – and in 1745. The local landowner, Lord Reay, supported the government and raised a militia. Donn, however, sympathised with the Jacobites and composed poems in their support, such as Na casagan dubha, which criticised the abolition of Highland dress in 1747. His elegies on the deaths of MacEachainn (1757) and Lord Reay (1761) are regarded as being among his greatest works.
The oppression which his countrymen had to endure is expressed in his song The Black Cassocks. For his opinions, which he confirmed in this song, he had to appear before the authorities at Tongue. The song was read out to him and his seditious opinions pointed out. On being asked as to what defence he had to offer, Donn declared that what was recited was only part of the song. Without hesitation, he added a further two verses praising the House of Hanover, upon which he was released.
Donn composed Gaelic songs and poems of such quality that his work was adopted by the Gaelic department of Glasgow University as one of its textbooks.
Two manuscript collections of his songs were made during his lifetime and to his own dictation.
Some contained bawdy images which were doctored by later collectors, especially as Protestant clergymen were often major figures in controlling written Scottish Gaelic.
Donn died aged 64, a year after his wife Janet. A memorial was built in the Sutherland village of Durness, where he is buried, almost 200 years ago with tributes in several languages – Greek, Latin, English and Gaelic – reflecting his wide appeal.
But it fell into a state of disrepair with even the lettering illegible, including the inscription: “This tomb was erected at the expense of a few of his countrymen. Ardent admirers of his native talent and extraordinary genius. 1827.”
The monument has now been refurbished at the cost of several thousand pounds through the efforts of Durness-born businessman David Morrison – a noted Gaelic singer – and Highland Council, and an opening ceremony is being held on 1 October.
The celebration will include Morrison singing some of the bard’s songs.
Kevin Crowe, chairman of Durness Community Council, said: “Rob Donn is one of Scotland’s great poets, on a par with the likes of Blind Harry, Robert Burns and Sorley Maclean. Yet there has not been an edition of his poetry in print for many years.
“His poetry could be ribald, controversial and on occasions courageous. Nowhere was his courage and sense of humour more apparent than in his response to Culloden.
“His inspiration came from the world around him: from the mountains, moors, and water; the fauna and flora; the weather, the changing seasons and their different work patterns and the lives of the people he knew.”
A funder has now been identified who is willing to finance a collection of his works, Crowe added. “A definitive edition of his poetry in Gaelic, with English translations, is long overdue. It is to Scotland’s shame that no publisher has commissioned such a work, despite the number of excellent contemporary poets who write in both Gaelic and English who could edit and translate his work.”