Mackay, Robert (1714-1778) (DNB00)

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MACKAY, ROBERT, commonly called Rob Donn (the Brown) (1714–1778), Gaelic poet, was born at Allt-na-Caillich, Strathnaver, Sutherlandshire. His father, Donald, also called Donn, was a crofter in the district called Duthaich Mhic Aoidh, or Lord Reay's Country, after the chief of the clan, who was still its proprietor. Roderik Morrison, who knew the poet, described him as 'brown-haired, brown-eyed, rather pale-complexioned, clear-skinned, and, I would say, good-looking. When he entered a room his eye caught the whole at a glance, and his countenance indicated animation and energy.' The brown colour, whence his by-name, marked the family as belonging to the branch of Celts common in the west, which was distinct from the red-haired and bigger-built highlander of the east. His mother sang fragments of the old Ossianic poems, but neither his father nor any of his three brothers had the poetic gift. He first showed his talents in infancy, and is said, on apparently good authority, to have replied, when only three years old, in a Gaelic rhyme, still preserved, to his mother's reproaches for being out without his frock. Mackay seems never to have gone to school, and never learnt to read or write. When only seven he became a herd on the farm of Musal, held by John Mackay of Skerray. He was a kind master, but Rob never hesitated to try his wit on friends or superiors. As a herd he occasionally drove cattle to the tryst at Falkirk, and even to the fair at Kendal. On one of these journeys, when at Crieff, he wrote a poem on his first love, Annie Morrison, two verses of which Lockhart quoted in Dr. Mackintosh Mackay's translation in an article in the 'Quarterly' of 1831, and they first made Rob Donn known beyond his native glens.

Annie Morrison preferred a carpenter to the herd, and he sought relief in pathetic lines, which will be found in the same article. He married a few years later Janet Mackay, daughter of a tenant in Durness, and secured from Mackay of Skerray a small croft at Balnaheglish. There he lived till the death of his master,on whom he composed one of his best elegies. His talents had attracted the liberal-hearted Donald, fourth lord Reay, who now gave him a better holding on the east shore of Loch Eribol, one of the wildest parts of Sutherland, where he discharged the double duty of herd and gamekeeper, for Rob was an ardent sportsman. He lost the latter part of his office when the ground was turned into a deer forest, with regular keepers, but retained his liking for a shot, and was occasionally charged with poaching. When on his way to the sheriff to answer such a charge he shot two deer, and told his wife to send for them, as he would be back to share them, and if not she would have more need of them. Nothing came of the prosecution, and, whether as a proof of generosity or to remove him from temptation, Lord Reay promoted him to be boman, or principal herd, at his own residence, Bal-na-Ceile, near Durness. This was an office several degrees above a common herd, for the boman had charge of a considerable stock, with servants under him, and the responsibility of accounting for the produce. Perhaps Rob Donn found the cares of office irksome, for he enlisted in the Sutherland highlanders, or Reay fencibles, when first raised, in 1759. Army discipline did not suit him more than the excise rules did Burns. When challenged for absence from drill, and asked to which company he belonged, he replied, with the pride of a highlander and a poet: 'Rob Donn belongs to every company.' He remained in this corps till it was reduced, in 1767, when he returned home.

Owing either to his refusal to thresh with a flail, or to the preparation of a satire on a favourite servant-maid of Lady Reay, he lost his place as boman, and he retired for a time to Ashmore, near Cape Wrath, but after a little was allowed to return to Bal-na-Ceile, where he remained till Lord Reay's death. He then obtained employment from Colonel Hugh Mackay of Skerray, a son of his earliest master, and continued in his service till shortly before his death. He died in 1778. A plain flat slab, with his name, Robert Mackay, Rob Donn, and the dates of his birth and death, was laid over his grave in the kirkyard of Bal-na-Ceile, and in 1829 a quadrangular monument of granite was erected there, 'by a few of his countrymen, admirers of native talent and extraordinary genius.' His wife died in the same year as himself. By her he had thirteen children. A son died in August 1778. Two of his daughters, but none of his sons, are said to have inherited some of his poetic talents.

Rob's poems are written in the Sutherland dialect, and from their terseness, as well as the use of peculiar words, are difficult to translate. By the natives of Sutherland he is deemed the best poet of the western highlands, but others reckon him inferior to Duncan Ban MacIntyre [q. v.] and Dugald Buchanan [q. v.] Only a few have been translated. They have been classed as humorous, satirical, solemn, and descriptive, but the last class is not largely represented. His chief works are elegies and satires. Among those translated are: Two love-songs to Annie Morrison; elegies on Mr. Pelham, the English statesman, Hugh Mackay, son of the laird of Bighouse, and Mr. Murdoch Macdonald, minister of Durness; 'The Highlander's Return,' 'The Song of Winter,' 'A Poem on Death,' and a 'Satire on Avarice! or the Rispond Brothers.'

He resembled Burns in two of his highest qualities — the love of nature and the naturalness of his verse. But his place among poets cannot be fairly appreciated till more of his poems have been translated.

[Memoir by Dr. Mackintosh Mackay prefixed to Orain le Rob Donn, Inbhernis, 1829; article in Quarterly Review, July 1831, by Lockhart.]

Æ. M.