SCOTLAND’S CLIMATE WEEK: ‘Ben Dorain: A Conversation with a Mountain’ by Garry MacKenzie

By Taylor Strickland

Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain, the 18th-century masterpiece by the Gàidhlig poet Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir, recounts a herd of red deer and their everyday dance across the dramatic mountainside of Beinn Dòbhrain in the Scottish Highlands.

Written from his perspective as estate gamekeeper, tension throughout this poem brackets reverence for the herd’s state of nature, with a celebration of the skill required to stalk and kill. The poem’s sonic density is marvellous, yet its outstanding achievement (similar to Dana Levin’s description of Arthur Sze’s poetry) is sheer concentration – Mac an t-Saoir’s deep noticing of place in the fullest sense, from flora and fauna to a unique connection to the land.

All of which is outlined in the forward to Garry MacKenzie’s Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain. I recently returned to this collection, beautifully published by Irish Pages Press and shortlisted for the Highland Book Prize, 2022, in time for this year’s Climate Week in Scotland.

I was intrigued by MacKenzie’s claim that Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain possesses ‘an early kind of environmental awareness’, but I suspect his reading also provides implied criteria for the merit of his own collection. ‘Detailed information about deer diet and behaviour, the seasons’, and of course the mountain itself are all Mac an t-Saoir’s subject. An ‘intense focus’ on place, according to MacKenzie, becomes the Gàidhlig poet’s cardinal achievement, over and above ‘craftsmanship’, and perhaps MacKenzie sees his own book as attempting similar.

Yet it turns out poetic form is still the lynchpin for Ben Dorain. Rather than strictly translate Mac an t-Saoir, MacKenzie facilitates a lyrical conversation, with both poet and mountain, by way of free translation.

The conversation occurs between left and right text – an antiphony, a distant cousin of a native Gàidhlig musical form, ceòl mòr, or pìbroch, which is the high art of bagpipe music. Its elaborate melodic structure subsequently found its way into poetry via the innovation of Mac an t-Saoir’s predecessor, the great Jacobite provocateur, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair. Literary pìbroch would shape Mac an t-Saoir’s poem.   

When MacKenzie writes that a ‘new, open form’ can help draw out ecological material from the original, he invokes pìbroch and adapts its essential function:

                                         How does it begin? 
					With the piper’s drone…

					Landscape as pìbroch:
					the drone never silent… 

Left and right textual voices flit:

at the graceful sweep of land where the deer hold court…

					(kingdom of cuckoo, wren and chaffinch)

at the mountain’s gleaming face

To be sure, this new, open form is not pìbroch at all, but it does recall the spirit of pìbroch. The mountain itself, with its long resonant grasslands, had nuanced Mac an t-Saoir’s ‘ùrlar’ and ‘sibhual’ sections, or ‘ground’ and ‘variation’.

In pìbroch, a melody is established then developed during its ‘sibhual’, and the metre in each ‘siubhal’ deviates from each ‘ùrlar’, often in double-time. The two braid together, interacting yet nominally distinct, like insular latticework, until they culminate to a concluding section called ‘an crùnluadh’.

The reader may be tempted to see Ben Dorain’s form as a mere conversation, but this temptation should be avoided. Scrutinize the ‘free’ in free translation enough, and it is evident from the outset that MacKenzie has done more than create a version of Mac an t-Saoir’s Gàidhlig:

Is aigeannach fear eutrom
Gun mhòrchuis

Over there is a stag who knows his mind,
A deep one      who doesn’t need to brag.  

The second line of English is a version of Mac an t-Saoir’s couplet above, ‘aigeannach fear’ translated as ‘deep one’ and ‘gun mhòrchuis’ as ‘doesn’t need to brag’ (lit. ‘without pomp’), but the first line is MacKenzie’s own.

There are potential weaknesses here. The rhyming of ‘stag’ and ‘brag’ (though lineation might suggest otherwise) sees MacKenzie searching for song in expansion, whereas Mac an t-Saoir worked in compression, and the result sounds a little strained. What does it mean, in this case, for one to ‘know [their] mind’ anyway? Certainly, one can know their own mind without desiring to change imprudent behaviour, such as bragging.

Similar weaknesses sporadically occur, but they are outweighed by Ben Dorain’s overarching vision, which refreshingly updates our imagined context of the original. MacKenzie’s piper, which in the 18th century would have been a male role, is female:

                                        The song is in the piper’s view,
					her fingers climb
					not to a summit, but the plateau 
					where she stays as long as she can. 

She ascends to dwell, to ‘stay as long as she can’ in virtue of rooting herself. With such seamless role reversal, MacKenzie overcomes the obvious shortbread-tin depictions. Everything about his challenge-to-norms is seamless. However, within a few lines the same piper disrupts our assumptions yet again:

                          Sometimes she comes back to the ground 
                          Sometimes the song takes off 
                          like a deer fleeing over the heath.

The piper never pledged to stay put in the first place, so why should her agency surprise us? Our most deeply held beliefs are often, if not always, at odds with reality. We need them, in one respect, to provide reassurance that, to a degree, the world is understood and can be understood. But only to a degree. Indeed, there is always more we misunderstand, and disorder results. We are bound to grapple with it.

MacKenzie anticipates this. Seamless disruption is how he gets the reader to pay attention. Look again: the piper ‘sometimes comes back to the ground’ (in the dual sense of ‘ground’ in pìbroch, as well as in returning from the summit). The piper becomes her song, and her song becomes a deer, all in three lines. When the deer later develops, she is ‘shrewd at reading the wind’.

MacKenzie demands we read likewise. Shrewdly. Because we as readers are about to undertake a whole book of such disruption. It is fascinating to encounter its many instances. Textual call-and-response churn out inspiring surrealism:

	       The stag’s vision is sharp,
		his quick gaze steady
		as he portions up the glen;
		below his grey eyebrows
		beneath lashes and lids
						are pupils
						as remote
						from me
						as Jupiter. 

Apparently confessional moments reveal melancholy:

                                       you’ve spent hours walking the mountain
				       deeper and deeper in
				       until you’ve come to know its paths,

					and the twenty-year ache
					in your knee…
					In the village that night,
	`				you sit with the first cold pint before you,
					like a whole world: 
		that’s how deeply the doe drinks
		from the great spring…

Walking the mountain ‘deeper in’ recalls Nan Shepherd whose Cairngorms were cherished by going ‘into’ the mountain. MacKenzie insists we follow likewise to Beinn Dòbhrain. It was, in the words of the great Norman MacCaig, a ‘huge concept[1]’, and while MacKenzie humbly takes after forebears, he pushes beyond them, too.

Beinn Dòbhrain becomes a microcosm through which rich historical ecology  is retraced for the reader, past to present: a bounteous yet ominous reminder of our human impact on wild places. One which must have required considerable research.

For those concerned about poetic virtue signalling, MacKenzie rather reveals an ecosystem under threat, the solution to which begins with actually seeing it. Bearing witness. To this day, Beinn Dòbhrain and the surrounding 28,300-acre Auch and Invermearan Estate (sold for more than £11 million) remain under private ownership. Wealthy tourists worldwide jet-set there for the trophy hunting of red stags, and environmental costs result. The legacy of the 18th century is still very much with Scotland; thus, MacKenzie’s interrogation could not be more urgent.

               . . . as the last  
                             faint glaze of light
                        hangs over the cobalt hills
                        they are there
                        in the hollow
                        at the foot
                        of the mountain
                                    this fellowship
                                    of calves and hinds,

Form gives rise to Ben Dorain, and it is unquestionably effective. Suzanne Simard’s science of mycorrhiza comes to mind: the interconnectedness of trees, their quiet carbon-coded hush conversing via underground fungal networks.

MacKenzie’s poem evolves by similarly vital interconnectedness. His is an intertextuality with some striking references, from Darwin to Heraclitus to the US poet Jorie Graham: ‘adjacency creates a glow of meaning’. Rather than allude to Graham, MacKenzie quotes her verbatim, first and surname retained, and thus brightens the glow by luminous communion.

Readers may downplay quotation in poetry as name-dropping, since shared attitudes can be expressed by subtler design. As a general rule, there is truth to this, especially on a smaller scale.

But Ben Dorain being an extension of the Mac an t-Saoir poem (indeed, being an extension of the mountain itself) should be read as an environment where names are intrinsic. Ben Dorain is thus an ecopoetics. Human names and references are not littered there but rather flourish and should be read no differently than ‘clubmoss’ or ‘tormentil’.

MacKenzie’s intertextuality is a ‘gallus team’. He marries ecology and philosophy and deer science with the instinctual intellect of Donnachdh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir, whose verse might rank highest among the Gàidhlig community. He takes Mac an t-Saoir’s cue to ‘bring on the Gaelic heroes of old’, reimagining a worldwide pantheon where a hind grazes by the Yggdrasil and ‘turns’ like the Choctaw deer-woman, or Saraswati, Hindu goddess of wisdom.

The poem culminates with lines stylized after Amergin, to whom legend assigns the first Gàidhlig poetry. An insightful foreword by Scotland’s national makar, Kathleen Jamie, reinforces the book’s accomplishment.

Yet most surprising is how ‘Part II’ is not MacKenzie’s work at all but an essay, in Gàidhlig and English, by Meg Bateman, one of the leading lights in contemporary Gàidhlig poetry, which contextualizes and introduces the original Mac an t-Saoir poem for readers unfamiliar with the poem, or without Gàidhlig literacy.

Finally, the original Mac an t-Saoir poem – untranslated, untouched, and existing in its own space for Gàidhlig readers, but also adding another layer of engagement – concludes this remarkable book. What is bound as a single work showcases teamwork, yet it confirms MacKenzie’s singular vision.

About our contributor

Taylor Strickland is a poet and translator from the United States. He is the author of Commonplace Book and Dastram/Delirium,(both with Broken Sleep Books). Recently, his poem ‘The Low Road’ was adapted by American composer, Andrew Kohn, and performed in Orkney. His poem ‘Nine Whales, Tiree’ is in the process of being adapted to film with filmmaker Olivia Booker and composer Fee Blumenthaler. He is currently a doctoral candidate in literary translation at the University of Glasgow, and he lives in Glasgow, with his wife, Lauren.

[1] From ‘One of the Many Days’, published in The Many Days: Selected Poems of Norman MacCaig; Birlinn, 2022. 

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