Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Donald Maciver and the Scottish Clearances

The poet, Donald Maciver, was born in 1857 in Lewis which is in the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) of Scotland. He was the son of a tenant farmer. In 1896 he became the headmaster of Bayble School and encouraged his pupils to be bilingual in English and Gaelic. He won many prizes for his poetry and many of his poems were turned into song and set to music. The following atmospheric poem tells of the Scottish Clearances, a period when tenant farmers and their families were simply thrown off their land to become exiles in misery in order that the gentry might exercise its power and desire and have some blood sport to boot.

The Sea's Lofty Roar

Endless surge of the sea,
Hear the sound of the sea's lofty roar,
The thundering swell
That I heard as a child long ago -
Without change or compassion
Dragging the sand of the shore:
Endless surge of the sea,
Hear the sound of the sea's lofty roar.

All the waves crashing down
Are trembling, loud-sounding and white,
So hurried and cruel,
Grim and spuming without taking fright;
But their speed falls away
At the same destination each time
As the people have perished
Who once dwelt in this village of mine.

In the forests of the west
I've never requested to stay,
My mind and ambition
Set firm in the hollow of the bay;
But those who were generous
In effort, in friendship and fame
Are scattered defenceless
Like birds in their enemy's way.

Rushes and willow,
And thistle, and marram and grass
Have choked up the springs
Where I'd find many thirst-quenching draughts;
The ruins are so cold
With ragwort and dockens growing high
While the red nettle swarms
Where warm is the ghost of the hearth.

But I've seen an age
When the place was both snug and alive,
With youngsters unbowed
Whose manner was proud but polite,
Their mothers serene
Well pleased with their partners in life
With sheep and with cows
Setting out at the morning's first light.

But looking around
My spirits are bound to be low:
I don't see the tenants
Whose warm generosity flowed -
As exiles in misery
They've been driven away from our shores
And they'll never now hear
The great sound of the sea's lofty roar.

Those who've wielded the lash
Won't outlast the folk they have cleared -
Lusting for glory
They drove us out for no reason
But power and desire;
The prize they've won for their deed
Is disgust and ill fame,
The grave with the curse of the seed.

But I must go away,
I can't stay with you any more:
My age and appearance
Reveal that I've not far to go;
When I'm finally seized
By the sleep of perpetual cold,
In my bed lay me down
To the sound of the sea's lofty roar.

Donald Maciver (1857 - 1935)


  1. thanks for this Gwilym (the clearances were at their most fierce in the area I was born - Sutherlandshire)

  2. Grim days.
    Maciver must have been a top poet in his day.


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