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Rob Donn Mackay was born in 1715 on the Mackay estate of Strathmore below Ben Hope. Alltnacaillich "The stream of the Old Woman".   He came into the world, in a "blast o' January wind".

As Rob Donn put this:

I was born in the winter
Among the lowering mountains,
And my first sight of the world
Snow and wind about my ears.

In 2012-13 Ian Copeland and George Gunn were involved in Moving Times, a Mackay Country project. They collaborated in a piece A walk in Strathnaver in memorandum of Rob Donn Mackay.

Rob Donn Mackay (1714 - 1778)


Sheet 10 Tongue Publication date 1930

Born Robert Mackay, Rob Donn might arguably be as important to poetry in the Gaelic language as Robert Burns is to poetry in Scots. Unable to read or write, and dictating his poetry from memory only towards the end of his life, his work represents an important document of a world both expanding and contracting as the British state made its presence felt in the day-to-day life in the far north-west of the Scottish Highlands.

Speaking in a dialect that was often the subject of erroneous 'correction' in early printed editions of his poetry, it has been in the latter part of the 20th century that his contributions to the Gaelic poetic tradition have come to be truly appreciated.

Rob Donn's life coincided with the two major Jacobite campaigns, in 1715 (when he was only one) and in 1745. Rob's poems are written in the Sutherland dialect, and from their terseness, as well as the use of peculiar words, are difficult to translate. Rob Donn Mackay is deemed, by the natives of Sutherland, to be the best poet of the western highlands. They have been classed as humorous, satirical, solemn, and descriptive. His chief works are elegies and satires.

Rob Donn can be seen as a singer-songwriter who, had he lived today, might well have sung of contemporary issues and personalities, like Sorley Maclean or Angus MacNicol.  His verse had a quality which conveys meaning and shades of emotion even to those who do not understand Gaelic. His use of word, music and alliteration of sounds, held together by a strong use of rhythm, whether sung or spoken, make compelling performance material.

A precocious child he began composing verses when he was only 3 or 4 years old. Like Mozart, he had the ability to produce intricately composed work seemingly out of nowhere and his incisive wit gave his poems a cliff-hanging fascination between satire and praise. So spontaneous was his work, yet so well constructed, if he was stopped in the middle of composing, the poem ends but is still perfect.

He expressed himself with a management of language that sometimes amounted to shorthand yet embodied concepts of grand complexity and double meanings that frequently depend on alternative definitions of Gaelic words. Rob Donn's enchantment lay in the living people about him and to understand the significance is to penetrate literary circumstances very different from todays. Poetry played a pivotal role in people's lives and circulated rapidly by oral transmission. He was able and in a position to interpret and enlighten the entrenched clan and cleric influences on the way of life of Gaelic Mackay Country. His verse gives a social commentary of the time, giving a picture of Sutherland life and the Mackay clan in the period around the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.


Rob Donn died in 1778, at the age of sixty-four. A monument of polished granite was, by subscription, erected to his memory in 1829, in the churchyard of Durness, his native parish. There are 4 inscriptions in 4 languages, one on each face of the monument translated read


Latin ”Siste Viator"
Halt your journey, traveller, here lies
beneath this turf Donn, 
Who sang in the countryside of girls outstanding in beauty;
Someone who celebrated new marriages with joyful song;
Someone who wept for those who had served well with mournful voice;
And bitterly in various rhymes devoured his own mis-deeds.

A poet is born, not made He died in 1777 At 64 years of age.

Greek: from Sophocles Oedipus Rex /Tyrannos, lines 1476-7 Tis right. I prepared this for you knowing the delight you feel here, the same now as long ago"

Gaelic We were a rough crowd, without. judgement, at the hour you left, it was like a pruning for us.

A monument far more in keeping with the originality and simplicity of his character was placed upon his grave by his surviving friends soon after his demise—a rude, unpolished slab, containing no other inscription than the two emphatic words "Robert Donn."

In September 2012 people from all around Mackay Country gathered at Balnakeil cemetery to celebrate renovations carried out to the monument.

The name of the bard has long been a topic of difference. The right of the bard to the surname of Mackay has been called in question, and it is alleged that his true surname was Calder. In literature Rob Donn's name was well known as Mackay prior to 1829. In the first Statistical Account of Scotland, page 531, vol. xx. : “The celebrated Highland bard, Robert Donn alias Mackay, was a native of Strathnaver not far distant from Thurso.”

It will thus appear that documentary evidence is as conclusive for the Mackay surname of the bard as traditional belief has all along been. By forgetting the prevalence of bye-names in the Reay Country and descriptive names or nick names are very common in this area, generations of families have been known by their “descriptive” name a practice which is still common today.

An article written around 1900 THE BARD'S SURNAME. BY REV. ADAM GUNN, M.A. discusses this topic in some detail and concludes “the surname of Rob DONN beyond the region of dispute.”

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