University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections

Location: Islay
gaelic culture, gaelic language and placenames

Donnchadh MacIain, the Islay bard

Donnchadh MacIain (Duncan Johnston) was born in Lagavulin in 1881 in an Islay family claiming descent form the MacIains of Tigh Carmagan, hereditary pipers to the medieval lords of the Isles.

Conscripted in WW1 to serve in Flanders with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, one of his first songs was composed in the trenches, Sìne Bhan (Fair Jean).

Invalided after a gas attack in 1916, he returned to Islay before taking on a janitor post at the university of Glasgow two years later, where he was able to continue composing songs in his native language. Love, war and history became his recurrent themes and the value of his work was recognised at the 1929 National Mòd in Perth where Donnchadh was crowned Bàrd of an Comunn Gaidhealach, the highest honour in Gaelic poetry.

Nine years later, he published Cronan na Tonn (the croon of the sea) which included songs which have now become classics of the Gaelic repertoire such as Tuireadh nan Treun (the Lament of the Brave), Sìne Bhan, and Carn air a’ Mhonadh (Cairn on the moor) about the famous Islay battle of Gruinart sands.

After his death in 1947, a memorial monument was erected to him in Lagavulin by the Islay branch of An Comunn Gaidhealeach. A further honour was to name the National Mòd's writing trophy after him, the Duncan Johnstone trophy.

More information on visiting the area can be found here.