Nova Scotia Archives

Gaelic Resources | Goireasan Gàidhlig

Michael Linkletter, "The Alexander Maclean Sinclair Papers in Nova Scotia Archives ," in Scotia: Interdisciplinary Journal of Scottish Studies, 27 (2003). Reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher.

The Alexander Maclean Sinclair Papers in Nova Scotia Archives 1

The thousands of Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlanders who relocated to Nova Scotia in the early nineteenth century brought a vigorous oral tradition with them. Their transmission of songs, stories and poetry kept alive their unwritten history and set precedents for the exercise of praise and satire in contemporary society. But while the reconstituted Gaelic communities in Nova Scotia enjoyed a burst of creative activity in the new climate of relative freedom and isolation, the nineteenth century posed many novel challenges to their cultural continuity and transition from an oral tradition in a cashless, kin-based society to a literate tradition in a society with an increasingly censorious moral sensibility and growing economic imperatives. The tensions in this transitional period — often glossed over in the few printed materials then produced — are well represented in the private papers of one of the most seminal figures of this era, Alexander Maclean Sinclair.

As this article was created for a conference in honour of Charles Dunn and the fiftieth anniversary of his publication of Highland Settler it is appropriate to open with the description of Alexander Maclean Sinclair provided by Professor Dunn in his book:

Although born in Glenbard, Antigonish County, in 1840, Alexander Sinclair was closely connected with Gaelic Scotland. His mother [Christy] was the daughter of the Bard [John] MacLean and had emigrated with her father from Tiree in 1819 at the age of nine. His father John Sinclair had emigrated from Sutherland in 1832. The child had been named Alexander in memory of the Bard's patron Alexander MacLean, the laird of Coll, and was reared in an atmosphere of Gaelic music and poetry and tradition. Although the Bard's death occurred when Alexander Sinclair was only eight years old, he retained an affectionate memory of his grandfather; in fact according to a tradition held by one branch of the family, he gave himself the middle name Maclean out of respect for the bard and the clan.

Mr. Sinclair became clergyman and held charges first in Pictou County [Nova Scotia] and then in [Belfast] Prince Edward Island. In his profession he met many of the best-informed Gaels in Canada. He also made a tour of Scotland and spent some time in Tiree gathering information about his grandfather. Moreover, he inherited from the Bard two valuable manuscript volumes of Gaelic poetry. [. . .]

Much of the manuscript material had never appeared in print, and it was to the task of preserving this rich body of literature and making accessible to the public that Dr. Sinclair first turned his attention. At the same time he collected songs indefatigably from his Gaelic friends in Canada. He commenced publishing in 1880 and continued until 1904. [Including about fifteen volumes of Gaelic poetry] he busily wrote articles on Highland lore for periodicals. And, being a true Highlander, he was intensely interested in genealogy, especially in the details of the clan to which he was so closely related, the Clan MacLean. He wrote several small booklets on genealogical matters and one large volume, The Clan Gillean, or History of the MacLeans. [. . .]

Dr. Sinclair's labours were remarkably valuable. He brought to light Gaelic songs that were previously available only to those who could inspect rare editions or manuscript collections. In the New World, where there were few Gaelic scholars competent to record the language in which local bards were daily composing, he gathered songs that would otherwise have been lost. He collected information about the settlers and their families which would now be irrecoverable.

The explanatory notes appended to the poetry Dr. Sinclair published, besides being useful to the literary historian, often have more than antiquarian value. His style is terse and concise but at the same time enlivened by a pungent individualism. As we read his comments we can readily picture the writer, tall, straight, and bearded, his exuberant mind charged with Gaelic wit and warmth and sparkle, yet balanced by that quality known as "Presbyterian common-sense."2

Upon his death in 1924, Alexander Maclean Sinclair's papers, including his grandfather's manuscripts and his own substantial collection of Gaelic materials, passed to his sons George and Donald. Donald, who followed in his father's footsteps in becoming a minister, had gone to Edinburgh University in 1925 where he studied Gaelic under Professor William J. Watson. Interestingly, while Donald was in Edinburgh he was assistant to Charles Dunn's father, Rev. Peter Dunn, at Greenside Parish Church.3 With the death of George in 1953 the manuscripts went to the Public Archives of Nova Scotia to form the core of the Gaelic collection of the archives. Donald, and other family members, continued to donate material to the archives — mostly personal papers and letters from correspondents to Alexander Maclean Sinclair — until Donald died in 1988. A substantial part of the family's collection also went to the Angus L. MacDonald Library of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

As the manuscripts have received some attention by Gaelic scholars, most recently by Colm Ó Baoill and Rob Dunbar for example, my interest has been mostly in the correspondence and personal papers of Alexander Maclean Sinclair housed in Nova Scotia Archives. These papers (catalogued as Manuscript Group 1, Volume 2660) comprise the bulk of the material donated to Nova Scotia Archives by the family. The cultural value of Alexander Maclean Sinclair's papers and their historical significance can be seen by looking at who wrote to him and what they were writing to him about; the information in the letters concerning Gaelic poets and their songs is particularly interesting. There are 628 items in the collection in which I found ninety Gaelic songs and poems; some of these are only fragments and not all are necessarily great pieces of poetry. Many of the letters are from people sending songs to Maclean Sinclair, requesting that he "fix" them and submit them to specific newspapers. This he did, publishing many of them in periodicals such as the famous all-Gaelic newspaper from Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia Mac-Talla, The Casket from Antigonish, The Eastern Chronicle from New Glasgow, and the neighbouring Pictou News, for which he was the editor of a dedicated Gaelic column called "Cùil na Gàidhlig" that ran from December 7, 1883 to August 14, 1885.4 Maclean Sinclair also published some of these songs in his volumes of poetry published between 1880 and 1904.

Maclean Sinclair had a reputation for altering texts; the letters and papers in the collection in Nova Scotia Archives , as well as the two manuscripts that his grandfather brought over from Scotland, are the original sources on which he based his publications and are therefore crucial for purposes of comparison. His editorial methods, however, must be placed in the context of his time, as Charles Dunn explains:

Rigorously trained editors of the present age might be a little shocked at the liberties Dr. Sinclair took with the songs he published. Sometimes he rearranged them in a more artistic form than that which he had found them. He disliked grammatical irregularities and always tried to smooth out any in the poetry he published. But his methods are excusable, since he was dealing with orally transmitted poetry at a period when oral tradition, no longer vigorous, was prone to lapses of memory.5

Maclean Sinclair's Scottish contemporary, Alexander Carmichael, became famous for his collection of archaic charms, spells, and lore in the six volumes of Carmina Gadelica — and he too has come under criticism and scrutiny for widespread alteration. John Lorne Campbell also explains this in the contemporary context: "In 'mending' his texts, Carmichael was only following a practice which was normal in his time, followed by editors like D. C. MacPherson in preparing his Duanaire and A. Maclean Sinclair in his books of selections of the works of the Gaelic bards, in their struggles to provide the Scottish Gaelic language with a printed literature."6 Campbell cites Rev. Donald Lamont's memorial tribute to Professor Donald MacKinnon in defence of Carmichael; it is equally applicable to Alexander Maclean Sinclair:

The old race of Highland gentleman, lay and clerical, who kept alive the torch of Gaelic learning deserve better treatment than they sometimes receive from their successors. Their work, no doubt, had the defects of their age, and the application of scientific methods to Gaelic study has resulted in their being superseded as authorities. But at the same time, from the point of view of literary culture and learning in the best sense, these men were far superior to the critics who poke fun or malice at them.7

Maclean Sinclair makes no apologies for his emendations and gives his own justifications for his editorial methods. In his own words:

To prepare a collection of Gaelic poetry for the press is by no means an easy work. The first difficulty is the fact that, with very few exceptions, our Gaelic poets and song-makers were uneducated persons, and consequently frequently violated the rules of grammar and composition, and even the rules of prosody. The second difficulty is that in handing down songs from one person to another, words, lines and even verses become lost. The third difficulty is that in the case of old poems one frequently meets with words which he does not understand, and which he cannot find in any dictionary. [. . .] I would rather burn all the songs in my possession than publish one which would have a tendency to do harm, or contain indelicate expressions.8

The reason for his censure of "indelicate expressions" is no mystery: he was a Presbyterian minister in an age when moral standards were becoming increasingly austere. One wonders how much Gaelic poetry was lost to Maclean Sinclair's hearth. In fact in a letter dated January 30, 1915 (or 1918, the writing is obscure) to Rev. Dr. Hugh P. MacPherson, Rector of St. Francis Xavier University from 1906 to 1936, Maclean Sinclair explains that he is sending along a book of Gaelic poetry for the university library, but not before first removing offensive material:

Aiseirigh na Seann Chànain Albannaich was taken to America by my grandfather, John Maclean the Poet. It is an extremely rare work now. It was the Poet that bound it in its present form. The late Alec the Ridge told me that there was a copy in Mabou. The leaves that I cut out between pages 152 and [1]61 were abominably filthy. The book, as I send it to you, deserves to be carefully preserved.9

It is hardly surprising that he cut out the pages that he did. Rev. Donald MacLean, in his Typographia Scoto-Gadelica, explains that many copies of the first edition of 1751 were burned in Edinburgh and a number of the following editions were expurgated of offensive material, in his words "free pieces."10 There were three editions in print before Maclean Sinclair's grandfather left Scotland in 1819: the first in 1751, the second edition in 1764 (which was expurgated), and the third in 1802 (which was a reprint of the first edition). The text that Maclean Sinclair got from his grandfather was likely, therefore, either the first or third edition containing the "free pieces;" Maclean Sinclair certainly found his edition offensive at any rate. The material he removed himself included the poems "Moladh air Deagh Bhod" ('In Praise of a Good Penis') and "Tinneas na h-Urchaid" ('The Venereal Disease').

A portion of the correspondence that Alexander Maclean Sinclair received over the years was from contemporary Gaelic poets, scholars, publishers, and folksong and folklore collectors, in Scotland as well as North America. These included the poet Neil MacLeod (Clàrsach an Doire, 1883), Prof. John Stewart Blackie (who was instrumental in establishing a chair of Celtic at Edinburgh University in 1882), Prof. Donald MacKinnon (1839-1914, the first holder of the Celtic Chair at Edinburgh University), Dr. Magnus MacLean (1858-1937, the first lecturer in Celtic at the University of Glasgow), Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912, of Carmina Gadelica fame, published in 1900) see MG1 vol. 2660 no. 54, Archibald Sinclair (a Gaelic publisher also well-known for his anthology of Gaelic poetry called An t-Òranaiche published in 1876-9), Donald MacLean (Typographia Scoto-Gadelica, published in 1915), and Rev. John Gregorson Campbell (1836-1891, known for such publications as Clan Traditions and Popular Tales of the West Highlands and Islands in 1895 and posthumously Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands in 1900 and Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands in 1902).

Letters from Gaelic poets, publishers, and scholars from Highland communities in Nova Scotia included Alexander "the Ridge" MacDonald (1823-1904, a valued seanchaidh who belonged to an important family of Gaelic poets stemming from the Bohuntin line), Alexander McDonald "the Keppoch Bard" (1820-1904, who immigrated to Nova Scotia as a boy in 1830; according to Sinclair he was the last of the old Gaelic bards in the New World 11, Jonathan G. MacKinnon (1869-1944, editor of the Gaelic newspaper Mac-Talla), and Father Ronald McGillivray (1835-1892, a collector of Gaelic poetry and local history), known as "Sagart Arisaig" ('the Arisaig priest').

A few examples from the letters will serve to illustrate the wealth of information they contain. Alexander Maclean Sinclair's second book of Gaelic poetry, Clàrsach na Coille, was published in Glasgow by Archibald Sinclair in 1881 (his first book Dàin Spioradail in 1880, was a collection of hymns by his grandfather John Maclean). Archibald Sinclair is famous for his work An t-Òranaiche published from 1876-9 which, according to Donald Meek in his recent anthology of nineteenth-century Gaelic poetry, is the finest collection from the period.12 In May of 1877 Archibald Sinclair wrote a letter in response to Alexander Maclean Sinclair thanking him for his high praise of his work. He also mentions that he would like to get another copy of Maclean Sinclair's grandfather's song "A' Choille Ghruamach." Maclean Sinclair went to Scotland in 1869 and must have visited Archibald Sinclair and given him a copy of the song:

62 Argyle Street,
Glasgow, May 3, 1877
Rev. dear sir,

      Many thanks for your highly complimentary letter regarding my Oranaiche. Coming from one who is so well qualified to give an opinion it is to me more valuable. I have noted all your valuable suggestions and will certainly avail myself of them. Your grandfather's "Coille Ghruamach" which I had when you were in Scotland has gone missing and the copy I now have I am not sure if it is correct and would thank you much to furnish me with a copy which you consider right, as I would not like to see such a fine song appear in the Oranaiche unless it was correct.

I have lately taken into myself a wife which has occasioned my being absent from business for some time and thrown things behind, and I am only slowly recovering my lea way which must be my excuse for not replying to you sooner.

Do you know any respectable bookseller in your place who would interest himself in pushing the "Oranaiche." I think the whole edition would easily sell over there for Highlanders must be numerous.

I will certainly feel obliged by your letting me have a correct copy of the "Coille Ghruamach" and also for any others you would like to appear.

      Hoping you will kindly excuse my long delay in answering yours

           I remain
           Rev. dear sir
           In Christ
           Yours very truly
           A. Sinclair 13

There is an interesting letter in Maclean Sinclair's correspondence from Neil MacLeod, one of the most popular Gaelic poets of the late nineteenth century. Most of his songs are considered by modern Gaelic critics to be light-weight pop-songs made for the consumption of urban exiles: according to Sorley MacLean they were "sentimental, pretty-pretty, weak and thin, only sometimes attaining splendour in [their] occasional realist moods."14 MacLeod, who came from a family of poets, moved from Glendale, Skye to Edinburgh at 22 years of age, where he took up the tea trade. In MacLeod's letter it is clear that Maclean Sinclair must have written to him to compliment him on his collection of poetry, Clàrsach an Doire, which he published in 1883. It is also clear that Sinclair must have disapproved of some of MacLeod's choices of words, particularly in the song "Bàs Leinibh na Bantraich" ('The Death of the Widow's Child'):

Jan. 2nd/97
Dear Sir,

      I received your letter this morning, and I am very pleased indeed to make your acquaintance. I am quite aware of the valuable services you have rendered the language & literature of the Gael. My sincere wish is, that you may be long spared to continue your good work in that direction. [. . .]

      I am very glad to know you are pleased with my humble efforts in the poetic field. I appreciate the compliment very much coming from such a quarter.

      With regard to your objection to a line or two in my verses on Bas leanabh na bantraich, — especially my using the rose and the lamb as meaning the self & same thing. Our language is very rich in endearing pet names for children, such as — mo luaidh, mo laogh, mo luran, mo chagaran, mo mhùirnin, etc, and from my point of view I would think it most natural for the bereaved mother to use more than one of these endearing terms in lamenting the loss of her only child.

      Allow me once more to express my pleasure at making your acquaintance, and at the same time believe me to be faithfully yours

      Neil MacLeod 15

Sinclair is complaining about verses eight and ten in particular where the widow is berating Death for taking away her child:

(Verse 8)
Cha robh 'n am ghàradh ach aon ròs
A bha mi dìon 's a' cumail beò;
Spìon thusa leat e gun mo dheòin,
      Mo leanaban gaoil!

I only had one rose in my garden
That I was sheltering and keeping alive;
You plucked it away without my consent,
      My baby of love!

(Verse 10)
Gu shuidheachadh 'n a fhìon-lios fhéin,
Far nach tig thus' a dheanamh beud,
'N a uan gun ghaoid am measg an treud,
      Mo leanaban gaoil!

Sitting in his own vineyard,
Where you won't come doing harm,
a lamb without defect among the herd,
      My baby of love!16

It is difficult to say exactly what issues Maclean Sinclair had with the song without his original letter to MacLeod. It may be that MacLeod's infamous sentimentality affronted Maclean Sinclair's Presbyterian character, or perhaps it was MacLeod's use of the word "lamb" which Maclean Sinclair may have thought was too close, symbolically, to Christ to be used to represent the widow's child. One surmises that had Maclean Sinclair been the editor of the poem, he would have emended it in some way.

Jonathan G. MacKinnon, a native of Cape Breton and the editor of the newspaper Mac-Talla ('Echo'), was a long-time friend of Maclean Sinclair's. Mac-Talla was famous for its longevity (running from 28 May 1892 to 24 June 1904) and for being entirely in Gaelic, including the advertisements. Mac-Talla printed many unusual poems sent in from readers, but one of the difficulties in researching the Gaelic poetry there is that the contributors, more often than not, give only their initials, a penname, or no name at all. Maclean Sinclair apparently wrote to MacKinnon to request the personal names of some of the regular contributors to Mac-Talla. MacKinnon responded with a very interesting letter that sheds light on a number of pennames of poets that might otherwise go unknown:

Sydney, C.B., October 5th 1903
Dear Sir!

      I was away on a short vacation just after receiving your letter of August 31st, and although I have been back for some time I have not yet complied with your request for the names of those who wrote the letters. You will kindly excuse me for this neglect, as the request you made had partly passed out of my mind.

      "Peigidh Phabach's" real name is Dan MacPherson, a young man who is foreman in my office. He has been writing letters [in?] that name for some time. "Calum Dubh" is John M. Charles [?] in the Dept. of Marine, Ottawa. He is a Cape Breton man I think! "Calum Beag" is a son of Murdoch McDonald's of North Sydney who is a brother of Rev. D. McDonald's of Strathloine. "Calum Beag" does not really write those letters, at least I don't think he does. "Gille Beag" is a Dan McNeil, Giant's Lake, Antigonish County. "Cabar-Feidh" is Ian MacKenzie, of London, England. The author of "tuathanaich math is dona" is D. D. McFarlane of S.W. Margaree. [. . .]

           Yours Truly,
           J. G. MacKinnon 17

In another letter MacKinnon confides in Maclean Sinclair again with a story of his falling out with the well-known poet Alexander "the Ridge" MacDonald, born on the Mabou Ridge, Cape Breton in 1823.18 Alexander the Ridge had a reputation as an important repository of Gaelic tradition in Nova Scotia and indeed Alexander Maclean Sinclair got much of his information for his publications from him as well as Alexander's father, Allan the Ridge. Maclean Sinclair actually gave Alexander a couple of blank notebooks and encouraged him to write down his poetry, which he did. These two manuscripts are now housed in the Special Collections library at St. Francis Xavier University.19 In this particular letter Jonathan MacKinnon tells Maclean Sinclair about the disagreement between himself and Alexander "the Ridge":

Sydney, C.B.
December 12th, 1899.
Dear Sir:-

[. . .] I am rather sorry that Alex Ridge and myself are not as good friends as we used to be. But I don't think I was very much to blame. You will find the whole story of our "falling out" on the enclosed slip. You know his writing, that it requires a good deal of correcting before it is fit for publication. His grievance was that in correcting his MSS., I had altered the sense, while all the alterations of which he complained in his letter were typographical errors. I don't know that my reply should give him offence, but it did, and the next thing I got from him was an "Aoir" [a satire] of which I of course took no notice. That reply in Mac-Talla was all I wrote him. I did not write anything in a private letter or in any other way. [. . .]

     Yours very truly,
           J.G. MacKinnon 20

The "enclosed slip" MacKinnon provided is a clipping from Mac-Talla. Alexander the Ridge objected to the mistakes which were printed in his father's song "Oran a rinn Ailein an Ridse ann an Deireadh a Laithean" ('A Song by Allan the Ridge composed at the End of his Days'), which he had sent to Mac-Talla for publication.21 His letter to the editor (MacKinnon) asked him to correct it and print it again:

      Ag Iomchair a Chlodhadair Fhir-deasachadh Choir, — Tha beagan fhasal de'n òran mu dheireadh a chuir mi thugaibh cearr. Anns an t-seachdamh sreath de'n cheud cheithreamh tha thuirt far am bu choir thuit a bhi. Anns an tritheamh sreath de'n cheathramh mu dheireadh tha mathadh far'm bu choir mùthadh a bhi. Anns an t-seachdamh sreath de'n cheathramh sin cha'n eil an d ris an t-siorruidheachd; agus anns an t-streath mu dheireadh de'n òran tha sochairt far'm bu choir siochaint a bhi. Faodaidh duine bhi na sgoilear 's gun e bhi na bhàrd; agus air an aobhar sin an àite an t-òran a dheanamh na b'fhearr 's ann a rinn a na bu mhios' e — a bhi strì ri a cheartachadh. Ma 's e ur toil e, feuchaibh a rithist e seach e bhi na ablach mar sid.

      Blaming the Printer
Dear Editor, There are a few wrong parts in the last song that I sent you. In the seventh line of the first quatrain "thuirt" ('said') is in the place where "thuit" ('fell') ought to be. In the third line of the last quatrain "mathadh" ('forgiving') is where "mùthadh" ('changing') ought to be. In the seventh line of that quatrain the "d" is missing in "sìorruidheachd" ('eternity'); and in the last line of the song the word "sochairt" is where "sìochaint" ('peace') ought to be. A man may be a scholar without being a poet, [i.e. the scholar doesn't necessarily make the poet]; and because of that, instead of making the song better he made it worse — wrestling with corrections. If you please, try it again rather than leaving it in that decrepit state.22

MacKinnon did reprint the song, with this mocking comment:

Cha d'thugadh ionnsuidh air ceartachadh sam bith a dheanamh air an òran, ach a mhàin air litreachadh nam facal, ni a dh'fheumas sinn a bhi deanamh gu tric, oir tha iomadh aon 'na bhàrd 's 'na sheanachaidh nach eil comasach air facail Ghàilig a litreachadh ceart. Rinneadh na mearachdan air am bheil ar caraid a gearan leis a chlòdhadair. Cha 'n eil sinn a' meas gu bheil iad ag atharrachadh seadh nan sreathan anns am bheil iad gu mor; ach air ghaol a bhi réidh ri Alasdair, (gun fhios c'uin a dh'fhaodas sinn tachairt air a chéile — 's esan cho mor 's sinne cho beag) bheir sinn ionnsuidh eile air an òran mar a tha esan ag àithne dhuinn, agus tha sinn an dòchas nach bi air an ionnsuidh so mearachd sam bith ann. — Am Fear-deasachaidh.

No attempt was given to making any corrections in the song, except in spelling the words, something we have to do often, for many is the bard and story-teller who aren't capable of spelling Gaelic words correctly. The mistakes about which our friend is complaining were made by the printer. We do not think that they change the sense of the lines in which they appear greatly; but to be on good terms with Alexander, (without knowing when we might happen upon one another — he is so big and we are so small) we will give another attempt at the song as he commands us, and we hope there won't be any mistakes in this attempt. — The Editor.23

The "aoir" ('satire') that Jonathan MacKinnon mentions in his letter to Maclean Sinclair can be found in Alexander the Ridge's manuscripts at St. Francis Xavier University. In fact, Alexander composed two songs of complaint against


. In "Aoir Mhic-Talla" ('Satire on Mac-Talla') Alexander wishes Mac-Talla were far away and that no one would pay any attention to it; in the last verse he equates sympathizers of Mac-Talla with maidens who have turned into harlots:

Bu mhath leinn do thuineadh
Bhi thall thar a mhunadh
'S nach cluinneamaid tuilleadh
Do bhurrail no t-fhuaim

We would rather your abode
Be over beyond the mountain
And that we wouldn't hear anymore
Your romp or your noise.

Aon de na h-òighean
A rachadh gu d' chòmhnadh
Gu milleadh nan òran
B'i 'n òiseach gu 'n bhuaidh

Any of the maidens
Who would go to your aid
To the despoiler of songs
She will be the luckless harlot.24

The other satire "Òran Càinidh do Mhac-Talla" ('A Song of Revile to Mac-Talla') is more severe than the previous song: the first verse launches into a typical Gaelic invective and curses Mac-Talla with death. Alexander also alludes to MacKinnon's constant struggle with subscription fees; MacKinnon would publish lists of those who had paid their subscriptions as a way of encouraging those who had not paid to do so. Needless to say, subscriptions were not relevant in a purely oral tradition, and such difficulties are indicative of the uneasy transition from oral transmission to printed media. In the last verse Alexander rebukes MacKinnon for his sarcastic reply in Mac-Talla — public sarcasm available to all readers in permanent print — using rather obscene language:

Galar bàis dhut a Mhic-Talla
Canaidh càch nach bi thu maireann
Oir tha'n deasaiche cuir gràin oirnn
Ag eibheach pàidheadh a Mhic-Talla

The disease of death to you Mac-Talla -
People say that you will not survive -
For the publisher disgusts us
Shouting, "Pay Mac-Talla."

Bhon a thuirt thu leis a chonnspaid
Gu'm bu bheag thu 's gum bu mhòr mi
Cuir a-nis an toll do thòine
Na h-uil òirleach de Mhac-Talla!

Since you said with controversy
That you were small and I was big
Now stick up your arse
Every inch of Mac-Talla!25

Alexander Maclean Sinclair published fifteen volumes of poetry between 1880 and 1904, and lost money on most of them. Perhaps this is why in one of his last books (Dàin agus Òrain le Alasdair Mac-Fhionghain) he seems somewhat exasperated:

I trust that I have done something in the interest of Gaelic poetry. If I have done nothing else, I have at least preserved and made known a large number of poems which were likely to perish. Leaving others to do more work and better work than I have done, I now feel very much like saying, Farewell to Gaelic Poetry!26

One might also read a sense of satisfaction in his tone here; he did his best to preserve the material that was bequeathed to him and now leaves it to others to carry on the work. His frustration did not last, as Professor Dunn tells us:

We must not suppose Dr. Sinclair was mercenary; the fact, even though easily predictable, that it was difficult to convert an oral into a written culture was understandably discouraging to such an enthusiast. The mild bitterness of his remarks soon evaporated; two years later he brought out another volume of Gaelic poetry.27

Maclean Sinclair did emend printed texts extensively, from a myriad of motivations, among them religious piety, denominational loyalty, clan affiliations, and linguistic perfectionism. Yet he did indeed "preserve and make known a large number of poems which were likely to perish." With his valuable manuscripts and papers in the safekeeping of the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, this unique repository of the literary and cultural activity of the Gaelic community is available for future examination, and his influence on the development of Gaelic literature open for further research. In the words of Sister Margaret MacDonell: "to the Revd A. Maclean Sinclair, editor of many valuable collections of poetry and lore, the Gaelic world must be forever indebted."28


1 This research is part of my doctoral dissertation I am currently writing for the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, and as such is a work-in-progress. The letters and papers once belonging to Alexander Maclean Sinclair are now under the custodianship of the Nova Scotia Archives, previously called the Public Archives of Nova Scotia (PANS). I am grateful to them for access to these materials.

2 Charles Dunn, Highland Settler: A Portrait of the Scottish Gael in Cape Breton and Eastern Nova Scotia (Wreck Cove, NS, 1991), 80-83.

3 Donald Maclean Sinclair, "Some Family History," unpublished manuscript, Nova Scotia Archives CS90/S616 (hereafter Nova Scotia Archives ) (1979), 36.

4 Kenneth Nilsen, "Some Notes on pre-Mac-Talla Gaelic Publishing in Nova Scotia (with references to early Gaelic publishing in Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Ontario)," Rannsachadh na Gààidhlig 2000 eds C. ÓÓ Baoill and N. R. McGuire (Obar Dheathain, 2002), 137.

5 Dunn, 81-2.

6 John Lorne Campbell, "Notes on Hamish Robertson's 'Studies in Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica'," Scottish Gaelic Studies 13.1 (1978), 2.

7 Ibid., 13.

8 Alexander Maclean Sinclair, Clààrsach na Coille (1st ed. 1881), ed. & rev. by Hector MacDougall (2nd ed. Glasgow, 1928), vi-vii.

9 St. Francis Xavier University Archives, RG5/9/11,077.

10 Donald MacLean, Typographia Scoto-Gadelica. (Edinburgh, 1915), 189-92.

11 See his obituary by A. Maclean Sinclair in The Casket 52.12 (Antigonish, NS, March 24, 1904), 4.

12 Donald Meek, ed., The Wiles of the World: Caran an t-Saoghail (Edinburgh, 2003), xviii.

13 Maclean Sinclair Fonds, MG1/2660/90, Nova Scotia Archives .

14 Somhairle MacGill-eain, Ris a' Bhruthaich: The Criticism and Prose Writings of Sorley Maclean ed. William Gillies. (Stornoway, 1985), 46.

15 Maclean Sinclair Fonds, MG1/2660/262, Nova Scotia Archives .

16 Neil MacLeod, Clààrsach an Doire (5th ed., Glasgow, 1924), 80 (my translation).

17 Maclean Sinclair Fonds, MG1/2660/17, Nova Scotia Archives .

18 "Alasdair the Ridge," Celtic Heritage 10.2 (April/May 1996), 22.

19 These manuscripts are now available online:
A collection of Gaelic poetry [manuscript]: Electronic Edition Alexander MacDonald, Ridge

20 Maclean Sinclair Fonds, MG1/2660/209, Nova Scotia Archives .

21 See Mac-Talla 7.16 (Nobhember 11, 1898), 127.

22 Mac-Talla 7.18 (Nobhember 25, 1898), 144. My translation.

23 Ibid. My translation

24 Alexander Ridge MacDonald MS, St. Francis Xavier University Special Collections, 218-219. My translation.

25 Ibid. It is inserted in the MS between pages 136 and 137. It is not in the MS''s table of contents as is "Aoir MhicTalla."

26 A. Maclean Sinclair, Dààin agus ÒÒrain le Alasdair Mac-Fhionghain (Charlottetown, PEI, 1902), 48.

27 Dunn, 82.

28 Margaret MacDonell, The Emigrant Experience: Songs of Highland Emigrants in North America (Toronto, 1982), 216.



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