MacDHÒMHNAILL ’IC IAIN, IAIN (John MacDonald), also known as Iain Sealgair, Gaelic poet; b. 1795 in Lochaber, Scotland, eldest son of Donald MacDonald and Mary MacDonald; m. Mary Forbes; they had no children; d. 1853 in South West Mabou, N.S.
Before John MacDonald left Scotland he was employed as a civil engineer and deerstalker on the estate of an English landlord and acted as a guide or gillie to parties of hunters. According to family tradition he was presented with two valuable shotguns by his appreciative patrons shortly before he departed for Cape Breton in 1834. Here too he developed a reputation for expert marksmanship, and was alleged to be able to snuff out a candle with one shot. It was also said of him that he would never shoot at a stationary quarry but would startle it into action before felling it. His prowess with the gun earned him the designation Iain Sealgair (John the Hunter). It is believed that Hunter’s Road near Mabou, which he may have surveyed, is named after him.
A well-educated man, John MacDonald seems to have begun composing Gaelic poetry when he was quite young. He belonged to the Bohuntin branch of the MacDonalds, a sept especially gifted in the composition of Gaelic poetry. The song “Oran a’ Chnatain” (Song to the Head Cold) was written in Scotland when the poet was about 20 years old. He was seriously ill at the time and believed himself to be in danger of death. The song later became well known in Cape Breton.
When MacDonald, with his wife, brother Angus, and sister Christie, immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1834, he came on the ship Seonaid and landed at Ship Harbour (Port Hawkesbury), Cape Breton. These details along with a brief description of the ocean voyage are found in “Dh’fhàg sinn Albainn na stuc,” a poem composed while he was crossing the Atlantic. He lived in Mabou Ridge before settling in South West Mabou.
John MacDonald was keenly disappointed with his new home. His first winter in Mabou, long remembered as “the winter of the big snow,” was so difficult that he wanted to return to Scotland. Shortly after his arrival, he expressed his negative reaction in what was to become his most popular song “Oran do dh’America” (Song to America), a poem contrasting his comparatively easy life in the old country with the harsh circumstances confronting him in Nova Scotia. It was sung to the air “As mo chadal cha bheag m’ airtneal.” One verse runs, in translation:
Alas, Lord, that I turned my back
on my country of my own free will,
thinking that in the new world
not a penny would I need;
rather a right to property, gold, and riches
would be the lot of everyone there.
The true state of affairs was hidden from me,
and my presumption deceived me.
There is no indication that the poet ever suffered actual poverty. In fact, local tradition has it that he was quite wealthy and that two wooden buckets would not hold his money on his arrival in North America. John’s cousin Allan MacDonald (Ridge) was upset by this poem and he hastened to compose another in reply, sharply reminding John that life in Scotland was far from pleasant and that he had done well to emigrate.
Unlike many of his fellow countrymen who were more inured to hardship, John MacDonald was unprepared for pioneer life, and time does not seem to have softened his attitude towards his adopted home. Another poem, composed about six years after his emigration, is permeated with feelings of self-reproach and nostalgia. Only a few of John the Hunter’s songs have been preserved, but these are sufficient to procure for him a place in the Gaelic literary tradition of Nova Scotia.
The Gaelic poetry of Iain MacDhòmhnaill ’Ic Iain is available in a number of anthologies, two of which remain in manuscript: the Ridge mss, compiled by members of the MacDonald (Ridge) family, are held by the Special Coll. Dept. of St Francis Xavier Univ. Library (Antigonish, N.S.); the department also possesses a copy of the Beaton
John MacDonald’s poetry has also appeared in several other publications devoted to Gaelic literature, including the Casket (Antigonish), 12 Aug. 1852; 12 Sept. 1929; 13 March, 3 April, 21 Aug. 1930; 7 April 1932; Mac-Talla (Sydney), 11 (1902–3): 192; and Guth na Bliadhna; the Voice of the Year (Aberdeen, Scot.), 1 (1904): 250–54.
Margaret MacDonell’s translation of “Oran do dh’America” may be found alongside the original Gaelic on pages 80–87 of her collection The emigrant experience: songs of Highland emigrants in North America (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1982); it is fittingly followed on pages 88–93 by Allan MacDonald’s reply, “Chuir thu bòilich s
ios ’us bòsd” (You have been loud and boastful). Place-names of N.S. J. L. MacDougall, History of Inverness County, Nova Scotia ([Truro, N.S., 1922]). Casket, 27 March 1930: 8; 8 May 1930: 8.