A landscape of the imagination: Kildonan and the classical world

When Donald broke free from his classroom, he did not see the smoking thatched longhouses, the goats tied to their stakes, the bustle of women churning, washing and shouting after children. What he saw were the glories of the ancient world.

Alexander Sage had sent his boys to the parish school, but was unimpressed with the education on offer.[1] The minister set aside his library, equipping it with his study chair and a large table close to the window. There he guided Donald and Aeneas through English reading, grammar and arithmetic. Donald was delighted when his father announced he was to begin Latin. Alexander ‘pulled out the table drawer and showed me a new copy of Ruddiman’s Rudiments which he had purchased the week before at Brora’.[2] ‘With my father I read Cordery’s Colloquies, Cornelius Nepos, Caesar, Sallust, Ovid, Virgil, Livy, and Horace, and along with these I was so carefully instructed in the rules of Watt’s Latin Grammar that I shall not forget them as long as I live.’ From that study window the boys could see the hills, woods and dips of the Strath of Kildonan. It was this landscape which brought into three dimensions the events of Greek and Roman history and legend.

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There are remnants of longhouses around the millpond. The manse is to the right. The round hill on the far right is the most obvious contender for being Torr-buidh, being so distinctive, though it bears no name on current OS maps. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

‘I attached a locality to all the various incidents recorded by the classic writers of Greece and Rome, placing them in the midst of the scenes around me. The place or township of Kildonan, with the tenants’ houses grouped around, resembled a village. The round knoll, Torr-buidh, rose in the centre; on the east was the schoolhouse, with a green plat in the front of it. When therefore I first became acquainted with Greek and Roman story, local associations began immediately in my mind to stand connected with persons and events … The esplanade before the old schoolhouse was the Forum; there the popular assemblies met, there the Tribunes vetoed, there the infamous Appius Claudius seized Virginia’

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Just to the east of the knoll which I have proposed as Torr-buidh, there is another high point upon which I discovered the stone founds of a small rectangular building (just visible in the foreground). Down slope is indeed a green area, perhaps Donald’s Forum. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The Roman poets, too, had their peculiar localities. Ovid’s “Daphne in laurum” his “Io in vaccam,” and many more of his fantastic scenes, I laid among the steeps of Craig-an-fhithiche, or the hazel groves of Coille-Chil-Mer.

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About a mile further up the Strath is Coille Cill a’Mhuire which still boasts native species. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The scenes of Virgil’s Eclogues – Tityrus cottage and flocks, and his entertainment, for his expatriated guest and countrymen Meliboeus – my fancy laid at the foot of Tigh-an-Abb’; Damoetas and Menalcas’ singing match I placed on the summit of Craig-an-Fhithiche, whilst the heifers, calves, goats and kids, contended for as the prize, browsed on the neighbouring steep of the Coire-mor.

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Tigh an Ab, and the fields where Donald imagined Tityrus’ flocks grazing. Presumably in the 1790s it would have been under oats and barley. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

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The steep of the Coire Mor, now bracken covered rather than populated by livestock. A hillside marked Cnoc a’ Choire Mhòir is easily found on the map, although the name seems to have slipped from the summit (presumably spot height 394). However that there is no neighbouring Craig an Fhithiche suggests either that names have dropped off the map (or have never been included), or that places bore more than one name, not all of which have survived. Surrounding hills go by Beinn Dubhain; Tom na h-Iolaire; Creag Druim nan Rath; Cnoc Salislade. I suspect spot height 326, above Creag Dhearg is the most likely contender. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

I began the Georgics, with their antique lessons on husbandry, at the very time that my father’s man, Muckle Donald, made his first bold attempt to plough the Dalmore, which for fifteen years had not been under cultivation. With a plough and harness scarcely less primitive than that with which Virgil himself might be familiar in his boyish days at Cremona, Muckle Donald turned up the green sward of the Dalmore, sowed it with black Highland oats, and finished it off with a scrambling sort of harrowing. This was in the month of May, and whenever I was done with my Virgil lesson, I became a constant attendant of Muckle Donald at his toil in the field. His team, three Highland horses and a cow, [which] groaned most piteously while the ploughshare, pressed down by the hands of two attendants … opened up the furrows.

There, as he watched the ‘tilling, sowing, harrowing, and ultimate growth, ripening, and reaping of the Dalmore crop of oats’ he gained his first understanding of agriculture and fixed on that grassy flatness by the river the lines of Virgil he found so beautiful.[3]

It takes a stretch of the imagination today to re-place in this near-deserted spot, the people of the 1790s as they sowed, harvested, built, wove, distilled, played, fought, cooked, sang and joked. But in the 1790s, in the midst of it all, one boy transformed that lived-in landscape into quite another: a landscape of his classical imagination.

 

[1] The teacher, Donald MacLeod, was from Tain and had originally been a pedlar. He had ‘a very grim visage and a long beard, and, with a leathern strap in his hand, he predominated in stern rule over a noisy assemblage of tatterdemalion, cat-o’-mountain-looking boys and girls.’

[2] All from Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica: or parish life in the north of Scotland (Edinburgh: Albyn Press, 1975).

[3] Georgics I, 43-46.

2 thoughts on “A landscape of the imagination: Kildonan and the classical world

  1. This marks the beginning of the cultural / mental displacement of Gaels from their own landscape, which was populated by literary and mythical traditions no less heroic or worthy than the ‘Classics’. I’ve written about this extensively in my own publications; Donald Meek has written about heroic Fenian literature rooted in the Sutherland landscape; you can also refer to Iain Murray’s recent books on the Highland Landscape; and John Purser’s forthcoming lecture looks like it will address it was well. https://tracscotland.org/event/?eventid=16731

    This is essentially a colonising project / process, and should be seen as one — the downgrading of local, Gaelic tradition and the elevation of essentially imperial viewpoints and values, using Greeks and Romans as imaginary proxies.

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