Rob Donn was born in the valley of Strathmore beneath Ben Hope in 1714.
To this day descendants of Rob Donn keep Durness connections. In February 1983 Jemima Eunson, great, great great granddaughter of Rob Donn, born on the Cape Side, and whose father was for a long time manager of Keoldale Farm, died in Bath but requested her ashes be scattered in Balnakeil Cemetery where her fore fathers are buried.
A crude flagstone ROBERT DONN 1777 in the cemetery at Balnakeil marks Rob Donn’s grave, the Rabbie Burns of Galedom. The stone is becoming difficult to distinguish. He died in 1778.There is a monument to the memory of Rob Donn Calder or Mackay erected in 1827 inscribed with tributes in Greek, Latin, English and Gaelic. A testimony to the high regard in which his work was held.
”This tomb was erected at the expense of a few of his countrymen. Ardent admirers of his native talent and extraordinary genius. 1827′‘
He entered the service of Iain Mac Eachainn ‘ic Iain (John MacKay), tacksman of the MacKay chief Lord Reay, on his farm at Muisel. Sometime between 1757 and 1759 Robb Donn made a stand against the law of removing deer from Reay Forrest and was removed from his home to Freisgill on the Moine. He was resident at Badnahaclais and summoned before the Sheriff-Substitute for hunting deer. This caused his removal to Alltcoirefhreasguil, a small township on the west side of the Kyle of Durness. Here he continued for some years until about 1759 when he joined the First Regiment of the Sutherland Highlanders. When he returned home, he was employed at Balnakeil in the duty of Lord Reay. His wife Janet acted as dairywoman and her services as a nurse was in frequent demand. He formed a friendship with the Rev. Murdoch Macdonald and along with John Mackay of Borralie was appointed assessor to the Session. For some time after leaving Lord Reay’s service, he resided at Achumore. From here the poet and his family removed to Sango where he remained until the end of 1769. It was here his youngest son George was baptised. His family is stated to ” have consisted of thirteen, who were mostly all spared to rise around him”. Of these eight, five sons and three daughters were known to have attained adult age and their genealogy is detailed in the Parish register. On the appointment of Colonel Hugh Mackay as factor to Lord Reay, he was again taken in to employment at Balnakeil in 1770. When his wife’s health became poor, he moved to the township of Nuybig. Janet died soon after the move and in less than twelve months after her death Rob Donn passed away in his sixty forth year.
Rob Donn’s sense of humour was reputed to border on the outrageous. 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. Robb 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 Durness, Strathnaver and Sutherland. The poems ultimately lose much in their interpretation into English. His verse gives a social commentary of the time. He composed poems and songs from an early age, giving a picture of Sutherland life and the MacKay clan in the period around the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion,
Rob Donn lived at the lower end of the social scale in that half- feudal, half-avuncular society which we call a clan. As a sub-tenant of Iain MacEachainn, who was a third cousin of Lord Reay. Lord Reay supported the government and raised a militia. Rob 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 Iain Mac Eachainn (1757) and Lord Reay (1761) are regarded as being among his greatest works.
It is ascertained that some of his daughters possessed the “airy gift” and one of his sons a soldier. From Munros narrative of the casualties at the battle of Arnee on the 2nd. June 1782; “I take this opportunity of communicating the fall of John Donne Mackay, a corporal in Macleod’s Highlanders, son to Robert Don, the bard, whose singular talent for the beautiful and extemporaneous composition of Gaelic poetry was held in such esteem. This son of the bard has frequently revived the spirits of his countrymen, when drooping in a long march, by singing the humorous and lively productions of his father. He was killed by a cannon shot and buried with military honours by his comrades the same evening.”
Two manuscript collections of his songs were made during his lifetime and to his own dictation. One of these manuscripts was written by the Rev. Aeneas Macleod, minister of Rogart from 1774 to 1794. The Reverend John Thomson despite his defective for Gaelic, encouraged his daughter to write the text of the poems from Robb Donn’s dictation in 1763. This collection has the advantage of being written with the poet himself at hand to consult but on the other hand it was revised by the Rev. William Findlater, son in law of Mr. John Thomson and inducted to Durness in 1812. In 1792 Rev. William Findlater had expressed concern regarding the writing of Robb Donn when he wrote in the Old Statistical Account
“The celebrated bard, Robert Donn, was of this parish. His songs are well known, and discover uncommon force of genius. It is a pity they have not been printed, to secure them from mutilation, corruption and oblivion.”
The Reverend William Findlater came to Durness parish in 1808 and carefully preserved literary pieces and encouraged a cultivation of muses. The Macleod manuscript was that used for the most part by Dr. Mackintosh Mackay in preparing the first edition of the poems published in 1829. Prior to that, Stewart’s collection of Gaelic songs appeared in 1803 and featured some of Rob Donn’s poems and songs. A similar inclusion was made in Macallum’s collection printed in Montrose in 1816. The third edition and the most comprehensive included several of the bard’s poems published for the first time and eliminated errors in the two previous editions. The work was entrusted to Hew Morrison, a Reay countryman and an accomplished Gaelic scholar and resulted in a publication in 1899. This contained eighteen elegies and over two hundred poems and songs.
Rob Donn himself seemed to have grown too old to leave us comment on the beginnings of the events leading up to the highland clearances. His talents, he confessed, were leaving him towards the end of his life in 1778. Innumerable snatches of song floated about in the Reay Country, which were originated by Rob Donn. There is good reason to believe that he was in the habit of making up impromptu verses on almost all occasions, it caused him little trouble and gave much amusement. He took the side of the Stewarts during the Jacobite rebellions even after misfortune overtook them. The oppression, which his countrymen had to endure, is expressed in his song “The Black Cossocks”. 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 the seditious opinions emphasised by him were pointed out. On being asked as to what defence he had to offer, Rob declared that what was recited was only part of the song and then without hesitation added a further two verses praising the House of Hanover upon which he was released. Rob Donn is noted for his forthright comments on both the mighty and the meek. He was a guest at all the local weddings and celebrations not because he was particularly popular but because if he were not invited then some scurrilous verse about the occasion would be rumored very soon afterward. His wit could be savage but his song like poems were heart rendering.
A story is told about another local poet of lesser standing who fancied that he would inherit Donn’s talent if he possessed one of the bard’s teeth. One night he dug up the grave opened the coffin and extracted a molar. Unfortunately, instead of being blessed with poetic skill, he was cursed with the most excruciating toothache that did not relent until the tooth was returned!
Last Monday people from all around Mackay Country gathered at Balnakeil cemetery to celebrate the renovations carried out to the monument in the memory of Rob Donn Alder or Mackay erected in 1827 at the expense of a few of his countrymen. It is thanks to the efforts of those who saw the importance and quality of his poetry that it has survived. “Ardent admirers of his native talent and extraordinary genius” the monument is inscribed with this tribute in Greek, Latin, English and Gaelic. Rob Donn was a simple inhabitant in one of the most rustic and culturally solitary corners of Britain. He was a cowherd, drover and a notable poacher, gamekeeper and later as a superintendent of Balnakeil Farm.
After local piper James Mather led the assembled group of people to the memorial Kevin Crowe, chair of Durness Community, opened proceedings by saying “The greatest poets are often rebels, who question society’s norms and assumptions, forcing us to think about things, sometimes seen as outsiders, sometimes seen as mad or immoral. Poets are often the consciences of society. One of the first acts of many dictators is to imprison poets and writers.”
Rob Donn’s wit could be savage but his song like poems were heart rendering. His sense of humour was reputed to border on the outrageous. 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. Rob Donn composed Gaelic songs and poems of such purity the illiterate unlettered genius's work was adopted by the Gaelic Department of Glasgow University as one of their textbooks. A volume of Rob Donn's lyrics, poems and songs was published in 1829. There is good reason to believe that he was in the habit of making up impromptu verses on almost all occasions, it caused him little trouble and gave much amusement. He composed with equal ability pastoral poetry, elegies, satires, poetry about loss and poems describing the lives of people at the time. He was also capable of writing the most exquisitely beautiful and tender love lyrics.
The occasion continued with David Morrison placing a wreath on Rob Donn’s grave situated about 10 meters from the Monument and singing one of Rob Donn’s compositions. A crude flagstone inscribed ROBERT DONN 1777 marks where he was buried. Rob Donn passed away in his sixty forth year.
David, who paid for the renovation work is a local Durness man and with his brother Willie are the last of the native Durness Gaelic speakers. The children of Durness Primary sang “Gleann Gallaidh” and MSP Rob Gibson said a few words about having the Gaelic works of Donn translated into English which he has raised in the Scottish Parliament.
Rob Donn is often referred to as the Robert Burns of Gaeldom and Kevin said “He spoke of things as he saw them, often in contradiction to prevailing views and in particular in contradiction to the diktats of Church and State. Where he saw injustice, he spoke out against it. Where he saw hypocrisy, he lampooned it. Where he saw evil, he attacked it – all without fear or favour. But where he saw beauty and honesty and compassion, he praised it. He wrote elegies after the deaths those he admired, but he was equally willing to write satires after the deaths of those he thought hypocritical or wrong-headed he supported the rights of ordinary working people and was prepared to stand up against those in authority.”
Ellen Beard a descendant of Rob Donn currently studying for a Phd in the poems and music of Rob Donn sang and recited with Kevin reading the English translation. James piped as the crowd left the cemetery to ceilidh at the Loch Croispol bookshop.