It’s marked “Meml” on the map and I expect a war memorial. Instead I find a cairn in memory of two Gaelic poets, Donald MacIntyre (1889 – 1964) and his nephew, Donald John MacDonald (1919 – 1986). I’m walking on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides and I sit down by this modest roadside monument to eat my lunch.
Nearby an orderly flotilla of greylag geese swims across a loch which is a deep steel blue from the cloudless sky (in contrast with most of Britain the Western Isles have had very little rain since mid April). Beyond the loch there is open moorland ending in the low-lying machair and beyond it the sea, a blue line on the horizon – the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean.
The two poets were born within a mile of each other – Donald MacIntyre at Sniseabhal and Donald John MacDonald at Peighinn nan Aoireann (latest OS map Gaelic spelling). A plaque states that they were “steeped in Gaelic oral tradition” and they “revelled in the musical sound of the language. Their work was characterised by a richness of vocabulary and idiom.” They were both crowned bards at the national Mod in Glasgow (in 1938 and 1948 respectively) – a great accolade for a Gaelic poet. There’s an extract in Gaelic from the work of each poet and a helpful translation.
The most moving aspect of the cairn is that it is built using stones from the now derelict houses in which the two men were born. On impulse I decide to go looking for their birth places. I set off along a tentative grassy track. There are golden flowers of bog asphodel, patches of purple heather, cotton grass fluffed up by the wind. A solitary white butterfly orchid grows in the middle of the track.
The moor is dotted with roofless ruins but the one I think was Donald MacIntyre’s is a low building not far from the path. A crofter’s put a narrow gate in the fence so I go and investigate. It’s slightly sheltered by the slope of the hill and there’s a lochan nearby. Perhaps one of Donald’s childhood chores was fetching water for the house. But it’s poor land with only a thin skimming of acid soil. Like so many islanders Donald MacIntyre left the Outer Hebrides for the mainland. He became known as “The Paisley Bard” and is buried in a Paisley cemetery.
The track gradually pulls itself together and passes a modern bungalow (one of today’s croft houses). A causeway crosses a beautiful tracery of lochans and then I’m on the fertile land of the machair where Donald John MacDonald was born. Is that his birthplace – a jumble of stones right next to a suburban-looking house? He was a soldier and prisoner-of-war but returned to live on the island after the Second World War and is buried in Ardmichael graveyard overlooking the sea, only a couple of miles from where he was born.
I pass a man clipping sheep. No hurdles, no sheep pens, no portable shearing rig. Just the steady click of the hand shears and a relentlessly vigilant dog keeping the small flock in the corner of the field. Let’s not be sentimental – sheep equalled clearances in the 19th century. Donald MacIntyre’s family probably lived in a poor moorland cottage because the good land was reserved for sheep. But I’ve seen a task that would have been a common sight for the two poets and I’ve walked a route they would have taken many times.