Angus Robertson: An t-Ogha Mór: No, Am Fear-Sgeòil air Uilinn (The Ogha Mor)
This is the first novel on my website translated from the Scots Gaelic and the first novel ever translated from Gaelic into English. It was not the first novel written in Gaelic (that was John MacCormick’s Dùn-Àluinn, never translated into English) but the second. It is long since out of print in English, though still available in Gaelic. Though I have novels translated from Breton, Irish and Welsh under review, there are far more of these novels than of those written in Scots Gaelic, both then and now, not least because there are fewer Gaelic speakers than Breton, Irish and Welsh speakers. In the last census 57,375 people (1.1% of the Scottish population) claimed that they were able to speak Gaelic and only about half were literate in the language.
This novel is not one of the greats of European literature. The style of the English translation is stilted and deliberately archaic, making it awkward to read for modern readers. Nevertheless it is an interesting read as a historical novel with clan rivalry, tales of love (and love thwarted), treachery and other dirty deeds. It is set sometime after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 and continues up to the 1745 Rebellion.
We start with Iarlom Mackenzie, a young clan leader who is in love with Una Tolmie and she is in love with him. He is on the way to the Broadford Fair, where he hopes to meet her but is aware of many enemies. Indeed, when he is attacked, we get a rare appearance from the eponymous Ogha Mor (it means Big Grandson though we learn much later that his name is Nicolson and he is Laird of Ardnish), who defends him. However, Una’s father is dead and she is beholden to her brother, Ridire Tolmie (ridire means something like noble man). He wants the islands of Scalpay and Pabbay, which are owned by Godfrey Rankin. Rankin wants to marry Una, so a deal is made. Una is not averse to Rankin – she knows him well – but he is much older than her. However, she follows her brother’s orders and marries Rankin.
However, the Mackenzie clan does not take this well and, eventually, they attack Rankin’s castle. Una has just given birth to a baby when the attack takes place. Rankin instructs Ealasaid, Una’s maid, to take the baby and make sure that he is saved. Una dies, possibly from some post-partum complications, and the castle is attacked and, we assume, Rankin is killed. We later learn that he escaped and essentially lived alone in the forest for twenty years, unaware of the fate of his wife and child. By a strange coincidence Lady Mackenzie is also about to give birth and her maid is Ealasaid’s sister. The two sisters swap the babies and kill Lady Mackenzie. Ealasaid arranges for Lady Mackenzie’s daughter to be adopted by a friend of her brother-in-law-law (her husband is dead), Dr Kennedy, a renowned doctor. The girl grows up to be Margaret Kennedy. Dr. Kennedy is so renowned that he is summoned to London where he attends King George II and Queen Caroline.
Margaret grows up to be a beautiful woman, so beautiful in fact, that the Prince of Wales is taken with her. However, Dr Kennedy, now a widower, is having success treating the Queen, making the other doctors jealous. Lord Godo, the Prince’s confidant, hatches a plot to make it look as though Kennedy poisoned the Queen. The Prince, who is in dispute with both of his parents, primarily over money, is happy for her to be murdered.
It is at this point that we meet a man who will be key to the rest of the book: John Tolmie aka Alexander Macdonald aka Iain Ruairi (these may be two different people – the narrator is not sure). Iain Ruairi is the name primary used in this book so I shall use that. He gets wind of the plot hatched by the Prince and Godo and hastens to the Kennedy house, where he finds Margaret Kennedy, apparently on her own. She is not on her own, as the Prince and Godo are hiding and listening to his conversation. When they become aware that Iain Ruairi is aware of the plot, they threaten him but he is quite capable of defending himself. However, he is attacked on his away home and is only rescued by another appearance from our eponymous Ogha Mor. Iain Ruairi is so annoyed by events that he decides to return to Scotland.
The novel moves forward to 1745, the year of the Uprising and the return to Scotland of Charles Edward Stuart aka The Young Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie, who is seeking to claim the British throne which he feels, with considerable justification, that he is entitled to. While we never meet Bonnie Prince Charlie, we follow the story of those in favour of the Stuart restoration and those against, with clan rivalry, treachery and so on. Iain Ruairi and Margaret Kennedy figure strongly, while others, such as Rankin and Ogha Mor, all play a role. Obviously, for those favouring the Stuart cause, things do not turn out well.
Frankly, this is not a very good book, though certainly an interesting read. Plot lines are started and then are abandoned. The eponymous Ogha Mor plays a relatively minor role, though the narrator claims he is getting his information from two main sources, an oral account by someone called Iain Piobaire and the written record of Ogha Mor. Most of the characters are noble, fearless and brave (pro-Stuart) or base, treacherous and evil (anti-Stuart, particularly the English). There is no in-between. We follow a very small part of the 1745 Rebellion, the book finishing before the Battle of Culloden, the conclusive part of the Rebellion. Presumably this is because Culloden is too painful for most pro-Stuart Scots, even now.
Despite these criticisms, it is an interesting read, if only for its historical interest and to get a glimpse of the Scots Gaelic view of the world and, in particular, of the dastardly English, though, historically, it is probably no more accurate than Braveheart.
First published 1913 by MacDhonnachaidh, Weir & Co
First English translation by Gowans and Gray in 1924