Soraidh Leis An Ait: Farewell to the Place is a beautiful
lament written in the 19th century by Mairi Mhor Nan Oran - Big
Mary of the Songs. A strong, politically-motivated crofting
woman, her influence still resonates today, particularly on
Skye. Over the years, "Soraidh Leis An Ait" has become an anthem
for the island.
Màiri was a prolific
song writer from the age of 50, writing songs of exile, praise
and hope as well as songs of protest about the way the Gaels
were treated by others.
She was born Mary MacDonald in
1821 and left Skye for Inverness in 1847 to marry Isaac
Macpherson. When he died in 1871, she was left with four
children to care for alone. It was during a short imprisonment
in 1872 on a charge of theft that she first turned to poetry,
protesting her innocence and expressing her anger through Gaelic
Shortly after her release, Mary moved to Glasgow where she
trained as a nurse and worked until 1882. While living there,
she regularly attended Highland Society ceilidhs and met leading
advocates of Highland land reform. She became well known in
these circles for her poetry and songs. When she returned to
Skye, she was Bard of the Land League agitation of the 1880s.
Her personal sense of injustice and empathy with the sufferings
of her people gave a unique force to her poetry.
Mary's support for Charles Fraser Mackintosh, candidate in the
Inverness Burgh election of 1874, was declared through her early
songs. Later, she accompanied him during his tour of campaign
for election to parliament. Song was a primary vehicle of
popular journalism among Gaelic speakers at that time, for
newspapers were available only in English.
In 1891 a volume entitled 'Gaelic Songs and Poems', by Mrs. Mary
Macpherson (Màiri nighean Iain Bhàin) was published. These were
transcribed from Mary's recitation. She was invited to become
the official bard of the Clan MacDonald Society.
Mary was a gregarious woman of great physical stature. Among her
friends was the great scholar Professor John Blackie. He always
wore the plaid she made for him, and it was placed upon his
coffin at his funeral. The design was patented as the 'Blackie
Tartan', which Mary sold as rugs or wraps.
After a short illness, Mary died on 8 November 1898 while
visiting Portree. She was buried in Chapel Yard burial ground,
Inverness, where Charles Fraser Mackintosh MP erected a monument
to her. A plaque to her memory was unveiled in 1966 at Skeabost