Iain S. MacPherson

‘Imrich nan Eileanach’ 1803–1902: Prince Edward Island Scottish Gaelic song-poems of ‘errance’ and ‘enracinement’ poised on the margins between orality and artifice

Buttressing itself with Édouard Glissant’s notions of ‘errance’ and ‘enracinement’ from his work Le discours antillais (1997), this talk takes as its hermeneutic starting point the post-1803 Scottish Gaelic song-poem “Imrich nan Eileanach” (‘The Emigration of the Islanders’) by the Isle of Skye-born poet Calum Bàn Buchanan, composed some time after he had settled in the British North American colony of Prince Edward Island. This song-poem is one rich in narrative enactments of leaving and arriving played out over three distinct temporal fields: the almost prelapsarian world of Highland pastoral elegy evoking life ‘re-membered’ on the Isle of Skye before the post-Culloden disruption; life on Skye after the abrupt change with the coming of the ‘maighstir ùr’ (the ‘new master’) ushering in an era of economic hardship and ensuing scarcity; and finally the world recreated on Prince Edward Island, referred to provocatively here as “Eilean an Àigh” (‘The Island of Contentment/Prosperity/Joy/Plenty’) conjuring up intra-Gàidhealach memories of ‘Linn an Àigh’ (the pre-1493 era of remembered Gaelic ‘plenty’ or marginal hegemony in terms of the Lordship of the Isles or ‘Rìoghachd nan Eilean’).

The years 1803 (the date of the arrival of the first wave of Selkirk Settlers on PEI) and 1902 have been chosen to allow for this brief though critical look at PEI Gaelic song-poems of emigration and immigration to bring into discussion “Chì mi uam, uam, uam” by Donald A. Stewart (Dòmhnall Aonghas Stiùbhart). The text of this song-poem used here will be that found in a letter sent by the poet from his home in North Dakota, USA, to his sister (Mary Gillies, née Stewart) back in Prince Edward Island, Canada. This letter (shared with the author by the grand-niece of the poet) is dated March 1902. In Stewart’s song-poem there is an artful re-enactment of the tripartite migration events which constitute his personal biography: born on the Isle of Skye and emigrating as a child to Prince Edward Island with his family; an internal move from High Bank, PEI, to West Caledonia, PEI; and a final move as a mature man with a wife and children to the Dakota Territory in the opening years of the 1880s. The tripartite movements (‘errance’) are here played out across three distinct theatres of action: the Isle of Skye; PEI; and the unnamed (in his song-poem) American ‘North-West’. With the speaker’s mind’s eye yearningly focussed on the two Islands left behind and across continents and seas (Skye and PEI), the buried loved ones are invoked and evoked by his speaker as moving examples of a yearning for the very ‘enracinement’ which poetically eludes him in his North Dakota home.

So, at a remove of almost one hundred years, both the Calum Bàn Buchanan and the Donald A. Stewart song-poems will be offered up to a close bilingual reading looking at the movements both spatial and temporal at play in these affecting products of Scottish Gaelic écriture migrante: migrant writing from the margins.

Iain S. MacPherson, University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland