Rob Donn was born of humble parents in Strathmore, parish of Durness, about 1714. At a very early age he entered the service of John Mackay of Mussel, a large cattle-dealer, and, for a time, factor for the third Lord Reay; in whose employment the young poet travelled about a good deal and gained a considerable experience of the world. Of books he knew nothing; he never learned to read. After a time he became under-forester, a position which afforded him congenial occupation roaming the mountains of the homeland, and holding close converse with the wild animals of the chase. Eventually he settled at Balnakeil House as bo-man or cattle-man to the fourth Lord Reay, an office which did not prevent him from joining in the periodic hunting expeditions organised by the gentlemen of the neighbourhood, who found the company of the bard a sine qua non.
In 1759 he joined the regiment raised by the Earl of Sutherland, more as a regimental bard than as a fighting unit, and continued wearing the red coat until that body was disbanded in 1763. Thereafter he returned once more to Balnakeil House, and got employment from Colonel Hugh Mackay, son of John of Mussel, his former patron and master. The poet died in 1778, and was buried at Durness.
From this brief account of his eventful life it will be seen that, though he never went to school in the ordinary sense of the term, he had varied opportunities of studying men and manners in the school of life and living, which is a higher education to a man of genius like Rob Donn. His genial, and brilliant biographer, Dr. Macintosh Mackay, tells us that "he lisped in numbers" almost from the cradle, and gives specimens of his infant compositions treasured in later years by an adoring public. As he grew in years and experience, he gave unto his Gaelic countrymen of the north songs sad, and gay, and dreamy, that went humming from lip to lip without the aid of printer or press. When a good man passed away, the poet felicitously voiced the sorrow of the community in an elegy, but when anything meriting public censure happened, or that tended to weaken the moral sense of the people, Rob Donn in language that flayed to the bone scourged the delinquent, whatever the rank of the person concerned. It was such things that made him so beloved of the people.
There are pieces of Rob Donn's that put him in the front rank of eighteenth century poets, be they English or Gaelic. Take, for instance, his ode to the aged Ian MacEachun, now no longer able to go south to the markets as of yore. It is a splendid piece of imagery, the work of a master-hand. The ideas fly like sparks of fire from an anvil, and the touch is as airy as a feather. Or for humour take Macrory's Breeks, or for razor-like sarcasm Rob Gray - the lashing of the latter is Byronic. Of course, it has to be remembered that the Strathnaver dialect, in which the poet composed, renders him less acceptable to the Gaelic speaking people of the south and west, but those who speak as he spoke know how to appreciate their peasant poet.
The songs of Rob Donn were first published in 1829 under the editorship of the Rev. Dr. Macintosh Mackay, editor-in-chief of the London Society Gaelic Dictionary, and afterwards Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, a man of high learning and character. The volume is entitled "Songs and Poems in the Gaelic language by Robert Mackay". That same year a handsome monument inscribed "In memory of Rob Donn, otherwise Robert Mackay", was raised by public subscription within the church-yard of Durness, where his body lies. A second edition of his poems appeared in 1871.
But, like Homer, Rob Donn was too great a man not to be claimed by other people. In 1899 a third edition of his works appeared, edited by Mr. Hew Morrison, in which we are gravely told that the poet was not a Mackay at all, that the first editor from clannish sentiment stamped a lie on the face of his book, and that the admiring subscribers to the monument did likewise. These grave charges, flung forth with much reckless assurance, call for substantial proof. Where is it ?
Mr Morrison permits himself to write; - "The name Mackay was first applied to Rob Donn on the title-page of his poems in 1829". That is emphatic enough, but it is emphatically the reverse of correct. Let us see. In 1816 there was issued a work on Ossian by the brothers Maccallum, in which they refer to our poet as "Robert Mackay, commonly called Rob Don;" and ten years earlier still, Dr. MacArthur writing on the Ossianic question also calls him a Mackay. About 1792 Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, writing on the parish of Thurso in the First Statistical Account, says "the celebrated Highland bard, Robert Donn alias Mackay". As one grand-aunt of Sir John's was the wife of the third Lord Reay, and another the wife of John Mackay of Strathy, we may take it for granted that the learned baronet knew what he was talking about.
General Stewart of Garth quotes as follows from Munro's account of the casualties at the battle of Arnee, fought in 1782: - "I take this opportunity of commemorating the fall of John Donne Mackay, a corporal in Macleod's Highlanders, son to Robert Donne the bard, whose singular talent for the beautiful and extemporaneous composition of Gaelic poetry was held in such esteem." That is to say, four years after the poet's death his son is designated Mackay. True, sometimes soldiers enlist under fictitious names to conceal identity, but in this case the soldier gloried in being his father's son, and the fact was patent to the whole regiment.
Again, in Sage's Memorabilia Domestica the following pregnant sentence occurs: - "The most distinguished of the Mackays of that age was Rob Doun the poet". He tells us that his own father, when a schoolmaster at Tongue, met the poet; and we know that the father, afterwards minister of Kildonan, was one of the first to commit some of Rob Donn's songs to MS. Sage, the author, became himself minister in Strathnaver about 1815, and being a genealogist to the tips of his fingers, was not likely to make a mistake in this matter. During his ministry at Achness he must have met scores of people, some of them intelligent tacksmen, who knew Rob Donn intimately. Is it probable, rather is it possible, that a man of Sage's well known genealogical tastes, and with such excellent opportunities, would make so stupid a blunder in the case of Rob Donn's surname ? The unbiassed reader can supply the answer.
We shall now consider more closely the two arguments - they are practically one, for the one grew out of the other - by which Mr. Morrison maintains his thesis that Rob Donn was not a Mackay.
The first is a letter, dated - mark you - 1882, from the Rev. Eric Findlater of Lochearnhead, who was born in the Manse of Durness, stating that he heard old people say that the poet was a Calder, and that his own father held that opinion too.
As we see nothing formidable in that argument, we toss it aside meantime.
The next argument, and the only one, is Mr. Morrison's interpretation of certain entries in the parish records of Durness, in which alias abound.
Here are some specimens: -
"Isobel Donn, alias Mackay, alias Calder, alias Ekel"
"Colin Calder, alias Donn, alias Ekel and Mackay"
"Isobel Donn, alias nin Rob Dhuinn, alias Calder, alias Ekel"
Of the Ekel, Mr. Morrison can make nothing, but he is convinced that the alias Calder in the above (he concludes that they are all the poet's children) makes Rob Donn's proper surname Calder. We interpret otherwise. On Strathmore, the poet's native place, there was a hamlet called Calder, close to Mussel, and somewhere in the neighbourhood there was another place called Ukal; the former is mentioned in the Judicial Rental of 1789, and the latter in transactions between Lord Reay and Donald Mackay of Eriboll and Farr, son of the Hon. Charles of Sandwood, 1719. In these days it was quite common to alias members of a family by the colour of their hair, by their employment, or by the township in which they lived. A black Robert would be Rob Du, a brown Rob Donn, a shoemaker might be Rob Greasich, a cooper Rob Cupar, etc. So too with places. William Mackay of Achool, e.g., was simply William Achool; and in the Sutherland Lists of men capable of bearing arms in the '45 we meet with such names as William Sidera, John Sidera, Alexander Dunin, etc., which are to be simply understood as William and John of Sidera or Cyderhall, and Alexander of Dunan.
In this connection it is pertinent to observe that the descendants, in the fourth generation, of people removed from the heights of Strathnaver 85 years ago, and now (1905) residing in Farr, are to this day called after the hamlet whence their evicted ancestors came. In the conversation of the people, the members of one Mackay family never get anything but Kedsary, of another Dalvina, and of another Skail. Now these colloquial surnames of well-known Mackays living to-day are on a par with the bewildering Ekel-Calder-Donn-Mackay aliases of the Durness register. Besides, such a simple and natural way of reading these aliases enables us to understand how Munro in 1782, Sir John Sinclair about 1792, General Stewart, the Messrs Maccallum, and Dr. MacArthur early in 1800, and the Rev. Sage a little later have no hesitation one and all in calling the poet a Mackay. Mr., now Dr., Morrison may cherish the idea that he has made a discovery in the Findlater letter of 1882: we think he has discovered a mare's nest.
[Footnote: Probably Ukal, Ekel, Oikel, and the Norse Ekkial are various forms of the same word. The Norse ekki means sobbing, and ekkill a widower, so that the place-name may mean “a bare slope” or “the place of tears.”] That part of the Durness register of baptisms, in which these aliases strangely abound, was the work of the Rev. Mr. Thomson, who seems to have had a consuming mania for inserting such variations. In the registers of sasines, deeds, and testaments bearing upon the same part of the country, as well as in the Reay Papers and Rent Rolls, the record is practically normal, and nothing approaching in any way Mr. Thomson's method is there shown. Nay more, in our examination of the Presbytery Records and Reay Papers the surname Calder but seldom occurs, and it never appears at all until after the middle of the 18th century, when one or two of that name immigrated into Strathnaver. But that it was a bye-name at an earlier date is very probable.
In this connection we should remark that a fourth edition of the poet's work appeared in 1899, and that it contains an able and judicious chapter on the bard's surname by the Rev. Adam Gunn, U.F. minister of Durness, one of the joint-editors, utterly repudiating Mr. Morrison's novel contention.