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Rob Donn and Balnakeil

The interpretive panel will be sighted outside the cemetery adjacent to the carpark on land owned by Andrew Elliot.


Balnakeil (Baile-na-Cille, the church settlement) was the heart of Durness Parish in Rob Donn’s lifetime. Here stood the church where Rev. Murdo MacDonald preached, the cemetery where Rob Donn is buried, and Balnakeil House, the home of Donald, fourth Lord Reay. Nearby were the manse, home of the musically gifted Joseph and Patrick MacDonald, and Keoldale, home of factor Kenneth Sutherland. Rob Donn composed elegies for several of these men and lighter verse about other neighbours; his elegy for Murdo MacDonald declares his own poetic creed:

Fìor mhasgall chionn pàidhidh,                     

No stad gealtach le gàbhadh,                         

Bhrìgh mo bheachd-s’ ann an dànaibh,         

’S mi nach dèanadh, ’s nach d’ rinn:             

Ach na ’m biodh comain no stà dhuit,           

Ann a t’ alladh chur os àird dhuit,                 

Co na mis’ do ’m bu  chàra,  

’S cò a b’ fheàrr na thu thoill?

Outright flattery for payment

Or caution through fear of danger

Never was or will be

The basis for the opinions in my poetry.

But if it could be a tribute or service to you

To raise your fame on high for you,

Who should do it more than I,           

And who could deserve it more than you?

Like Tongue House it remains exactly as Rob Donn saw it, though it has also lost all its eighteenth century furnishings." According to Dr Grimble, Balnakeil was built by the second Lord Reay who was educated in Denmark while his father was fighting with his clan regiment in the Thirty Years' War, "and it may not be fanciful to see in its architecture the influence of the Danish manor-farm". Another story related by Ian Grimble tells how the wife of a Mackay chief, a Sutherland by birth, helped save Kenneth Sutherland, an army deserter who had fled to Durness during or shortly after the 1745 rebellion. A detachment of troops caught up with him at Balnakeil. "Whether by accident or design, Kenneth Sutherland did not choose one of the doors leading to the ground-floor premises when he bolted through the garden and across the court. He chose the entrance which took him to these narrow stairs. At the head of them can still be seen the little closet beside the panelled reception room into which Lady Reay pushed her clansman in his extremity. She then welcomed his pursuers as they tumbled up the stairs, ushering them into the great room beyond Kenneth's hiding place. She ordered drink for them; she summoned the women who were working about the premises and improvised a dance."

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