Jim Gilchrist: The Blas festival

The Donncadh Ban Boys at the ruins of the poet's birthplace near Bridge of Orchy. Picture: Pete Moore
The Donncadh Ban Boys at the ruins of the poet's birthplace near Bridge of Orchy. Picture: Pete Moore
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At Druim Liaghart, on the south shore of Loch Tulla in Glen Orchy, a rickle of stones and a modest memorial cairn is all that remains of the birthplace of Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir – Duncan Ban MacIntyre, 18th-century author of what is considered one of the greatest nature poems in Gaelic literature, “Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain” – In Praise of Ben Dorain, a paean to the 1,076 metre pyramidal mass that dominates the landscape a few miles to the east.

In Edinburgh, a weathered sandstone obelisk commemorates him in Greyfriars kirkyard, where he’s buried.

Born at Druim Liaghart in 1724 and working in the area as a gamekeeper and forester, not to mention an ignominious period in the Hanoverian army during the ’45 uprising, Duncan Ban spent his later years in Edinburgh, where he died in 1812, as a member of the town’s archaic and deeply unpopular Town Guard (the “black banditti,” as Robert Fergusson described them.

His vision of the hills, lochs and wildlife of Argyll and Perthshire, where he worked on the estates of the Earl of Breadalbane, never left him, however. Not long before he died, he revisited his native turf and wrote a sad farewell to Ben Dorain, “Cead Deireannach nam bean”, becoming so upset that his brother had to help him finish it.

His great praise poem, however, carrying on an ancient and eloquent tradition of nature poetry in Scots and Irish Gaelic, bestowed upon his beloved mountain “honour beyond all bens”. Or, to use Alan Riach’s recent translation... To compare: she is fair, in the light, like the flight/
Of the deer, in the hunt, across moors, on the run ...

Now, “In Praise of Ben Dorain” and some of Macintyre’s other nature poetry and songs have been enshrined in a show commissioned by the Blas festival. It has been devised by the renowned Glenfinnan fiddler Iain MacFarlane – who has worked in the hills all his days – in collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the agency concerned with conserving the natural world which inspired both poet and fiddler, two centuries apart.

Friday’s opening night of this tenth Blas festival will see the premiere of Miorbhail nam Beann – The Wonder of the Mountains, a multimedia sequence of music and song composed and arranged by MacFarlane, exploring the relationship between people, land and culture through Duncan Ban’s work. The concert is in Great Glen House, the Inverness headquarters of SNH, who approached MacFarlane through festival director Donna Macrae, with the initial concept of a show based around the Ben Dorain poem. “But after meeting with SNH and discussing Duncan Ban with them, it seemed there was no way you could put a show together without at least half a dozen of his poems,” says MacFarlane. “Not only is his nature poetry so descriptive, it’s carried by beautiful melodies. They were a dream to arrange musically and set about with the lads.”

“The lads” are the Donnchadh Ban Boys, the group he has assembled for the project, comprising multi-instrumentalist Ewen Henderson, guitarist Ewan Robertson and flautist and pianist Hamish Napier. For MacFarlane, well known for his work with Blazin’ Fiddles and a fruitful musical partnership with piper Iain MacDonald, it was a challenge he relished.

“I’d retired from Blazin’ Fiddles at the beginning of the year,” he says, “so this was a nice project to get my teeth into, but most of all it was because I already knew a bit about Duncan Ban’s poetry and where he was from and that he himself worked as a gamekeeper and forester and I felt I could understand it very well.”

MacFarlane, 44, worked for years as a gamekeeper in his native Glenfinnan and, as we spoke, was busy with a forestry contract, felling windblown trees in the same area. The natural world, he reckons, has always informed his music.

Duncan Ban – who was illiterate and had to have his poems and songs transcribed for him – wrote “In Praise of Ben Dorain” in the manner of a Highland pipe piobaireachd. Reflecting that, MacFarlane’s arrangements see Henderson play the pipes and sing many of the Macintyre songs. “But although Duncan Ban is the backbone of the show, it’s not all him,” says MacFarlane. “We’ve got Ewan Robertson singing a couple of Scots songs in there.”

Interspersed through the music are recorded extracts from the magisterial Ben Dorain poem. MacFarlane was anxious that it should be read by someone with authentic Argyll Gaelic – a dwindling band these days – and ended up recruiting his namesake, Brigadier Iain MacFarlane of Taynuilt, chieftain of Inverness Gaelic Society. “He has that beautiful, old Argyllshire-style Gaelic, so he recorded it for us. It’s 26 minutes long, and I think it may be the 
only recording of the whole thing being recited that exists at the moment.”

The show uses extracts only from the reading, but the entire reading features on an album of the show, which MacFarlane is about to release on his Old Laundry label.

In collaborating with SNH staff, MacFarlane reckons he has learned a lot about contemporary land and wildlife management. “Speaking as someone who worked on estates, it’s easy sometimes to put up barriers against government agencies, but they really are trying their hardest to make it all work, and it’s a big job they have.”

After the Inverness premiere on Friday, the Donnchadh Bàn Boys perform the show in halls at Invergarry, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye, Ullapool and Taynuilt.

This tenth anniversary of Blas sees the second night at Eden Court celebrate highlights of the previous ten years, with guests including the Irish American band Cherish the Ladies and the Scots-Irish piping duo of Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson. Further guests, playing gigs in halls across the Highlands, include groups such as Mànran, Macanta and Salt House, as well as singers like Dougie MacLean and Christine Primrose.

The week ends with a shinty-style wallop at Eden Court on 13 September, when a showcase for the talented youngsters of the successful Fèis movement collides with the exuberance of the Camanachd Cup Final in Inverness.

• For the full Blas programme, see www.blas-festival.com