Mairi Mhor Nan Oran

Skye Gaelic bard and Highland Land League shero, Mairi Mhor Nan Oran.

Mairi Mhor Nan Oran was many things; a nurse and midwife, a one-time prisoner and most notably a gaelic poet and songstress. It was through this work that she earned her shero status and, due to her body type, the name Mairi Mhor Nan Oran, meaning Big Mary of the Songs.

Mairi Mhor was born in Skeabost, on the Isle of Skye in 1821. She was born Mary MacDonald, into a crofting family. Her early life was characterized by the rural and domestic arts typical of her gender and social class, crofting work and home textile production. In her 27th year she moved to Inverness and married a shoemaker by the name of Isaac MacPherson. Around the age of 50 in 1872, Mairi Mhor, whilst engaged in domestic work, was imprisoned for stealing clothes from her mistress. The charge was widely considered to have been unjust.

After her imprisonment, and the death of Isaac, Mairi moved to Glasgow and gained a certificate in nursing and a diploma in obstetrics. However, her time and treatment whilst in prison had made a lasting impression on Mairi and revealed a talent for poetry and songwriting that had previously lain dormant.

Mairi Mhor’s poetry was contemporary with the Highland-wide struggle over crofters’ land rights and the agitation was a subject with a strong presence in her work. Mairi Mhor’s talent for Gaelic poetry and ability for story telling made her socially and politically significant in Glasgow. She became a focal point amongst the ‘exiled’ highlanders in Glasgow and Greenock, and was present at number of gatherings there. Mairi often took to the platforms drawing sizable crowds for political speakers. In her songs Mairi represented the beauty of the Skye and the strength of its peoples’ character.

Mairi Mhor returned to Skye permanently in 1882. There Mairi Mhor’s work became a galvanizing force in the crofters’ struggle for rights. Mairi vigorously opposed the treatment and disenfranchisement of Skye crofters and wrote songs directed at those she held responsible and the indifference of those unwilling to act. This included a criticism of the Skye clergy;

‘The preachers have so little care

Seeing the ill treatment of my Isle’s folk

And so silent about it in the Pulpit

As if brute beasts were listening to them.’

In addition to criticisms of individuals and privileged groups, Mairi Mhor wrote songs that celebrated the crofters and key events in their fight for land rights. These events included the ‘Battle of the Braes’ in the year of her return to Skye. This was an incident wherein men, women and children, armed mostly with stones fought with a force of police and soldiers sent from Glasgow to evict them.

In the nineteenth century women amounted to a small minority of Gaelic poets. Yet, Mairi Mhor managed to span the social classes with her poetry and songs. Whilst she was a significant influence on the working classes and crofters she also held the acclaim of academics and scholars with whom she also formed strong friendly relationships.

Mairi Mhor’s hero status has not waned with the passing of time. In 2007 she was amongst the names of a number of women commemorated for their political impact at Holyrood. Community groups in recent years have collected stories that still survive in family traditions, these stories include how Skye communities grew excited by her frequent visits, and how when in Glasgow she would deal with hecklers with a robust sense of humour. Finally in 2013 the Island Book Trust published a historical novel of Mairi Mhor’s life , Love and Music Will Endure, demonstrating that there is no sign of a demise of her hero status in the near future.

Written for Sheroes of History by Michael James.

Find out more…

To read a longer piece about Mairi Mhor on the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement’s site, click here.

For more information on The Battle of the Braes, see this BBC video.

The BBC also have a cool comic strip about Mairi Mhor’s life on their BBC Bitesize history page. You can look through it here.

Some of her songs have been recorded and you can listen to them today online, or on CDs which you can buy.

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