Fras Publications, 2007 - £5.00
The prose introduction to this pamphlet is important. It tells a story, and that story brings the rest of the pages alive. Rob Dunn has no photograph: his memorial is his poems. He lived and worked in 18th century Caithness, working with John Mackay of Scalpay (known as Iain MacEachainn) to manage cattle and deer for the local clan chief. MacEachainn numbered poetry among his talents and interests—so did young Rob Dunn. Eventually, he was to become “one of Gaelic Scotland’s most popular, not to say most beloved poets”. He discoursed, of course, in the Gaelic language, and although he himself neither read nor wrote, it was in that language that his poems were dictated to Anne Thomson, the daughter of the local minister. And thus began the chain that has led to this pamphlet.
Donald Campbell has made Scots versions of the Gaelic poems, in a colloquial mode appropriate to the way in which they would have been originally delivered. The title poem of the collection, however, translates a poem from Iain MacEachainn—a homage to young Rob. Campbell suggests that the poem “coincidentally describes my feelings regarding Rob Dunn precisely”:
My own verse may be rejected,
tunelessly lacking renown,
but wherever our art is respected
they’ll pay homage to you, Rob Donn.
This is surely enough to get anybody interested.
But Dunn’s poems themselves are fascinating too, and very accessibly rendered. There are notes at the back which help to remind us how firmly all of this is rooted in a reality that is past, but thanks to publications such as this, not entirely lost. This is real life, full of ups and downs, and much laughter. ‘MacRory’s Breeks’, for example, reminds is of the “little known fact that, for many years after the proscription of Highland dress, it was the custom of Highland men, when dancing, to remove their trousers”. A risky business, needless to say—and this poem serves to record that risk in uproarious fashion. Here’s the refrain:
Oh, did ye guess or gather or hear
What came til the breeks MacRory wore?
The breeks were on him the nicht afore:
The morning after, they’d disappeared!
Thank goodness for people like Donald Campbell, whose acute empathy for a long dead poet serves as an inspiration. This is a splendid homage, not only to Donn as an individual, but to the whole process of keeping literature alive.