Big Mary of the Songs
Sara Sheridan’s terrific book Where are the Women reimagines a Scotland in which women are given proper recognition in our monuments, streets and buildings. Her research exposes the bleak reality of our modern built environment – there are, for example, more statues of animals in Edinburgh than women.
This troubling fact reflects an under-appreciation of female contributors to Scottish history, especially those from marginalised social groups. She goes a long way toward uncovering many of our forgotten heroines, and one woman’s story I believe deserves to be more widely celebrated - shining light on an inspiring individual, Mary MacPherson, or Màiri Mhòr nan Òran (Big Mary of the Songs), and her enduring struggle for land rights which is rights still relevant today.
Last year was the bicentenary of Màiri’s Mhòr’s birth, but the occasion was marked with little fanfare outside the Gàidhealtachd. ‘Big’ in talent, heart, and physical stature, Màiri was a woman of humble origins who came to prominence in middle-age as a campaigning poet, singer/songwriter, and fearless people’s champion during the struggles for land tenure in the 1880s.
Born on Skye, she moved to Inverness where she married shoemaker Isaac MacPherson and had five children. After Isaac’s death in 1871, Màiri found work as a servant for the family of an army officer; however, in what seems a clear miscarriage of justice, she was accused of stealing clothes belonging to the officer’s late wife and sentenced to 40 days in prison. Moments of struggle and adversity are often the making of our great historical figures and this would prove to be the major turning point in Màiri’s life.
Driven by the anguish and shame of her conviction, her time in jail sparked a passionate desire for social justice which she gave voice to through poetry and song. As she later wrote, ’Se na dh’fhulaing mi de thamailt a thug mo bhàrdachd beò’(It’s the injustice I suffered that brought my poetry to life). Protesting her innocence in vibrant Gaelic verse, Màiri saw her reputation and that of many others within the Gàidhealtachd - who almost universally took her side - as closely connected.
After her release, Màiri moved to Glasgow, training as a nurse and finding fame at Highland Society ceilidhs held there for her captivating poetry and songs. Politicised by her time in prison and inspired by a deep affinity with the land, culture and language of her roots, the development of her poetic voice paralleled the growth of the movement for Highland land reform.
Returning to Skye in 1882 coincided with the growth of the Highland Land League and its challenge to the power of wealthy landowners, and Màiri’s work became entwined with crofters’ growing resistance to their powerful landlords.
She chronicled events like the Battle of the Braes, the notorious clash between police and crofters, celebrated the heroism of ordinary folk on a rent strike or fighting for their grazing rights: ‘S na diùlnaich a b’ uaisle/S nach robh riamh ann an tuasaid’ (And the heroes most noble/that were never before in a fight). She also, bravely for the time, condemned preachers who ignored the sufferings of the poor on earth while extolling the golden future of the eternal.
Màiri Mhòr died aged 77 in 1898, but the struggles in her songs echo to us today. A small number of people still own a very large proportion of Scotland – recent best estimates are 400-500 private owners possessing 50% of Scotland’s rural land.
While change at times seems excruciatingly slow, some progress has been made in recent years. The Scottish Land Commission was set up in 2016 to create fairer distribution and use of land, with grants of up to £1 million now available for communities to take ownership of land and/or buildings, and a new public register is helping to improve transparency.
The Scottish government wants to hear views on a new Land Reform Bill, which will be introduced by the end of next year. Its proposals would crucially ensure that public interest is considered in any large-scale transfer and would require owners to notify community groups when they want to sell.
There are also historical injustices to address when it comes to the treatment of the Gaelic language and culture. Màiri Mhòr’s life was marked by the oppression of her native tongue - she was only literate in English; her glorious songs and poems were committed to memory and weren’t published until the last few years of her life.
In 1872 the use of Gaelic in schools was banned and pupils were punished for speaking it, a state-sponsored oppression the Gàidhealtachd is still recovering from.
Happily, there is hope for the future. The number of Gaelic speakers under 30 has risen by 10-15 per cent, partly thanks to the opening of Gaelic schools such as Taobh na Pairce in Bonnington in this very constituency and the consultation on the upcoming Scottish Languages Bill, which has lots of interesting ideas for building on support for Gaelic and Scots.
Whether it’s challenging the erasure of women from our history, unequal land ownership, or the persecution of Gaelic, historic folk heroes like Màiri Mhòr teach us much about confronting past injustices and helping to overcome them in the present.
They deserve greater prominence. ■
Mary MacPherson, or Màiri Mhòr nan Òran. Credit: Fred Schley, Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre