This fortnight’s Somme poem, selected and provided by the Scottish Poetry Library, is “Air an Somme” by Donald MacDonald, or Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna, perhaps the best-known of the Gaelic poets of the First World War.
Below is the original Gaelic version as well as an English translation.
Air an Somme
An oidhche mus deach sinn a-null,
Bha i drùidhteach a’ sileadh;
Bha mi fhèin nam laighe ’n cùil,
’S thug mi sùil feadh nan gillean.
Ochan ì, ochan ì,
Tha sinn sgìth anns an ionad;
Ochan ì, ochan ì.
Cuid nan suidhe ’s cuid nan suain,
Cuid a’ bruadar ’s a’ bruidhinn,
Gu robh mhadainn gu bhith cruaidh –
‘Saoil am buannaich sinn tilleadh?’
‘Cha dean biùgailear le bheul
Ar pareudadh-ne tuilleadh;
Thèid ar dealachadh bho chèil’,’
Thuirt mi fhèin far mo bhilean.
Agus mar a thubhairt, b’ fhìor:
Chaidh na ceudan a mhilleadh,
Chaidh an talamh às a rian
’S chaidh an iarmailt gu mireag.
Dhubh an àird an ear ’s an iar,
Is an sliabh gu robh crith ann,
Is chan fhaighinn m’ anail sìos –
Àileadh cianail an tine.
Is cha chluinninn guth san àm
Aig comanndair gar leigeil;
Bha na balaich ’s iad cho trang
Cumail thall na bha tighinn.
Bha gach fear a’ caogadh sùl,
’S e air cùlaibh a chruinneig,
A’ cur peilear glas a‑null
Le uile dhùrachd a chridhe.
Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna
Reproduced by kind permission of Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist a Tuath / North Uist Historical Society.
On the Somme
The night before we went over
The soaking rain poured down;
I lay in a corner
And looked around the lads.
Ochan ee, ochan ee,
We are tired in this place;
Ochan ee, ochan ee,
Some sitting, some slumbering,
Some dreaming and talking,
Saying the morning would be hard –
‘Do you think we can make it back?’
‘Never again shall a bugler
Call us on parade;
We shall be separated one from another,’
I murmured to myself.
What I’d said proved true:
Hundreds were undone;
The earth erupted
And the skies went crazy.
The east and the west grew black
And the hillside shook,
And I couldn’t draw breath –
The dreadful smell of the fire.
At the time I could hear
No commander urging us on;
The boys were fully occupied
Repelling the attacks upon us.
Each man was cocking an eye
Behind his sweetheart,*
Sending over a grey bullet
With his utmost will.
*i.e., his gun
Translated by Ian MacDonald
About Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna
It was his ‘love for the musket’ and the hunting on his native North Uist that prompted the seventeen year old Donald MacDonald to join the militia, and led to his early entry to the First World War. Many soldiers were not raw recruits, but men who had been in the special reserves, the militia, before the war. Donald enlisted in the 7th Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders, which saw action at the Somme in the summer of 1916. He was wounded in the autumn, and returned to England for convalescence. For the rest of the war, no longer fit for infantry duties, he served in the West Riding Field Regiment.
Donald MacDonald, or Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna, was perhaps the best-known of the Gaelic poets of the First World War. He chronicles with dismay the awful difference between stalking a stag with his gun and his dog, and warfare in the trenches, and how little he would have guessed that he would be wedded to his rifle until they fell together. Although the reality of war was very different from what his youthful enthusiasm, and experience in the militia prepared him for, his poetry retained dignity and pride, and sympathetic understanding for his comrades. The Gaels, by dint of their language as well as the closeness of their home community, shared a strong fellowship in battle, and Dòmhnall Ruadh’s poetry reflects this. In ‘Air an Somme’, his fear is that he and his comrades will be scattered, and other poems are full of grief for his fellows:
Tha mi duilich, cianail, duilich…
I am sad, lamenting, full of sorrow,
full of sorrow and lamenting …
The boys of Gaelic Scotland,
many dead and blown to pieces …
Throughout his time in the West Riding Field Regiment, despite regulations, Dòmhnall Ruadh proudly kept the Cameron badge on his cap.
For more about this poet, see here.