MacMHANNAIN, CALUM BÀN (Malcolm Bàn Buchanan), bard and settler; b. 1758 at Sarsdal, in Flodigarry on the Isle of Skye, Scotland; m. Flora MacLeod, and they had four sons and two daughters; fl. 1803.
Like his fellow passengers on the Polly, Malcolm Bàn Buchanan probably made a conscious decision to emigrate in response to the recruiting campaign conducted by Lord Selkirk [Douglas] in the Hebrides during the autumn and winter of 1802–3. By that time emigration to the New World had become an attractive alternative to the despotism of fact which Scottish Gaels had encountered for over half a century. The final dissolution of the clan system after the Jacobite rising of 1745–46, the evictions and exploitation incident to a widespread increase in sheep farming and commercial enterprises in the Hebrides, and a rapid rise in population induced hundreds to heed the blandishments, benign and otherwise, of ambitious noblemen such as Selkirk and to leave their homeland for greener pastures abroad.
Selkirk’s original scheme to locate Highland colonists in Upper Canada had foundered on opposition from the British government, and at the last minute the Oughton, the Dykes, and the Polly, with some 800 emigrants, were re-routed to Prince Edward Island. There the emigrants took up lands in the Belfast area and there they perpetuated their traditions and their rich heritage of song and story in their everyday language, Gaelic, for generations.
Malcolm Bàn was one of an innumerable company of bards who composed and transmitted Gaelic songs of emigration, which were seldom if ever committed to writing during their own lifetime. Seldom, too, did the formidable challenge of pioneer life daunt their spirits or outweigh their optimism and verve in the face of it.
The misfortunes attending Selkirk’s subsequent colonizing ventures frustrated and even infuriated hundreds of Highlanders who had cast their lot with him. Not so Malcolm Bàn, it would seem, for the fragmentary data pertaining to him reflect none of the disenchantment and chagrin of his compatriots. By his own testimony, as recorded in his song Imrich nan Eileanaich (Emigration of the Islanders), he had become convinced that emigration was the obvious route from tyranny and poverty to peace and prosperity.
Thàining maighstir as ùr
Nis a stigh air a’ ghrunnd,
Sin an naigheachd tha tùrsach, brònach.
Tha na daoine as a’ falbh,
’S ann tha ’m maoin an déigh searg’; . . .
Ciod a bhuinnig dhomh fh
Bhi a’ fuireach ’s an t
O nach coisinn mi n
i air brògan.
A new master has come
now into the land,
a sad, woeful matter.
The people are leaving;
Their possessions have dwindled. . . .
What would it profit me
to remain in this land,
where I can earn nothing by shoemaking.
Later in the song, he describes Prince Edward Island as Eilean an àigh, the isle of contentment, blessed with an abundance of fruit, grain, sugar, and even red rum.
Buchanan was a percipient Gaelic bard whose sense of adventure was kindled by the challenges of the voyage. His song delineates in fascinating detail the voyage of the Polly and the circumstances of the Skye emigrants. When an outbreak of typhus claimed the lives of at least two victims, he composed a lament to the two beautiful young girls of which only a couplet remains.
Chuir mi iad an cill na Frangach
’S cha chuir fuachd a gheamhraidh as iad
I buried them in the Frenchmen’s grave
and the cold of winter will not remove them from it.
Malcolm Bàn settled at Point Prim near Belfast. It may be assumed tentatively that he was the Malcolm Buchanan whose name appears on a testimonial dated 5 Nov. 1811 to Selkirk’s principal agent, the Reverend Angus McAulay*, for his clerical instruction in the Gaelic tongue. Similarly, he was probably the Malcolm Buchanan who, in 1818, obtained from Selkirk a one-year lease on 96 acres in lots 57 and 58. According to Alexander Maclean Sinclair*, who lived in Belfast and compiled several books of Gaelic verse, Buchanan died in Point Prim about 1828, but no documentary evidence has been found so far to support the assertion.
Long after Malcolm Bàn’s death his song continued to be transmitted orally, possibly by his kinsmen, until on 29 March 1883 it was transcribed by Eoghan MacLaomuinn from an octogenarian who had learned it from the bard himself. Reflections of bards such as Malcolm Bàn are an illuminating supplement to the customary documentation used in reconstructing historic events. In its own right Imrich nan Eileanaich has an enduring quality, the quality that enabled Gaelic bards to chronicle in an intimate and colourful way the fate and fortune of fellow Gaels who have figured prominently in the foundation of this nation.
[The text of Malcolm Bàn Buchanan’s Imrich nan Eileanaich is taken from Mac-Talla (Sydney, N.S.), 3 (1894–95), no.41: 9. It has been republished with an accompanying English translation by Margaret MacDonell, as Emigration of the Islanders, in “Bards on the ‘Polly,’” Island Magazine, no.5 (fall–winter 1978): 34–39, and in The emigrant experience: songs of Highland emigrants in North America, ed. and trans. Margaret MacDonell (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1982), 105–13. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Professor J. M. Bumsted in the preparation of this biography. m.macd.]
PAC, MG 19, E1, ser.1, 39: 14862 (transcript). PAPEI, RG 16, Land registry records, Conveyance reg., liber 25: ff.204–5. Douglas, Lord Selkirk’s diary (White), 4–5, 11–12, 17. Gaelic bards from 1765 to 1825, ed. A. M. Sinclair (Sydney, 1896), 80–81. Mac-Talla, 3 (1894–95), no.41: 1; 11 (1902–3): 79, 112. Prince Edward Island Gazette (Charlottetown), 18 March 1820. J. M. Bumsted, The Scots in Canada (Ottawa, 1982). M. A. Macqueen, Hebridean pioneers (Winnipeg, 1957), 73–74, 76; Skye pioneers and “the Island” ([Winnipeg, 1929]), 13, 30–32. J. M. Bumsted, “Lord Selkirk of Prince Edward Island,” Island Magazine, no.5 (fall–winter 1978): 3–8; “Settlement by chance: Lord Selkirk and Prince Edward Island,” CHR, 59 (1978): 170–88.