DUNCAN Ban MacIntyre’s last visit to Ben Dorain on September 19, 1802 prompted the following day his composition, “Last Leave-taking of the Bens”, a moving farewell to the mountains, especially Ben Dorain, which his 18th-century poetry sang of so piercingly. It’s an old man’s elegy recollecting the energies of youth, the chase of the greyhound quickening as its owner’s breath becomes more laboured.

Donald E Meek, in his anthology The Wiles of the World (2003), notes that George Calder in 1912 tells how Duncan Ban made the song “sitting on a stone opposite Annat, less than a mile upstream from the Railway Viaduct in Auch Glen” and that the bard could not finish it “owing to the extreme agitation he experienced on beholding the scenes of his youth and early manhood, and that he was assisted to complete it by his brother Malcolm”. The environment of the mountains, he had known, was being devastated by the new economy of sheep.

This is one of the most immediate legacies of 18th-century Gaelic poetry and portends what followed. Personal pathos and social conflict are entwined in poems evoking “the faithful native people” who were “being displaced” by landowners, landlords, overseers and accountants.

One key figure in the story of the 19th-century Gaelic world is John Murdoch (1818-1903), one of Scotland’s great radicals, leader of the Crofters’ Revolt and the movement for the recognition and revival of Gaelic culture in Scotland.

He was an associate of the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell, Professor John Stuart Blackie, major propagandist, translator and advocate of Gaelic literature, and Keir Hardie, founder and leader of the Labour movement. Selections from his work are collected in For the People’s Cause: From the Writings of John Murdoch, edited by James Hunter (1986).

In The Company I’ve Kept (1966) Hugh MacDiarmid places Murdoch alongside John MacLean, Thomas Muir and John Swinton: “Scots who are relatively far too little known and yet, in our opinion, of far more consequence than most of those who figure prominently either in our history books or in contemporary life”.

MacDiarmid describes Murdoch as “MacLean’s agrarian counterpart”. James Kelman, in an interview in the Scottish Review of Books (vol.8, no.3), observed: “Heroes who are radical heroes, like John MacLean, John Murdoch and Donald Macrae, James Connolly or Arthur McManus, Helen Crawford, Agnes Dollan, they’re not really known. In other countries they would be heroes, but they’re not known in their own country, they’re radical figures politically.”

And they remain unfamiliar to most of us. It’s a long legacy, from the 18th century through the 19th and 20th, to now. The conflicts involved when people profoundly loyal to clan and kinship are confronted with the insults and abuses of absentee landlords. Remote and ruthless political power and economic exploitation are still among us. Misplaced loyalties are nothing new.

One of the most memorable poets of the 19th century was Màiri Nic a’ Phearsain/Mary MacPherson (1821-98), known as Màiri Mhòr nan Oran (Big Mary of the Songs) partly because of the magnitude of her outspokenness and partly because of her girth.

She was energised by the agitation for land reform in the 1880s on the Isle of Skye, where she was born, though later she lived in Inverness and Glasgow. Her songs combine elements of yearning for the isle of her youth and overt commitment to political reform. Love of homeland and political outrage formed a dynamite mix.

IMPRISONED on a charge of theft, she wrote “The Oppression I Suffered” and stated that injustice was what drove her to verse. “When I Was Young” is a characteristic song of nostalgic longing made bitter by factual reference to the Clearances.

In “Song of Ben Lee” she lists the heroes of the land reform movement and in “Incitement of the Gaels” pledges loyalty to the reform candidates in the 1885 elections and describes the boatloads of soldiers and policemen sent to put down the protesters.

Mary was the subject of a play, Màiri Mhòr – The Woman from Skye (1987) by John McGrath and the 7:84 Theatre Company and a filmed version was broadcast on television (1993). More recently, her presence is intensely felt in the brilliant short film An Ceasnachadh /Interrogation of a Highland Lass (2000, only recently broadcast on BBC Alba). For my money, this is the best Scottish film of the 21st century but you probably won’t have heard much about it either, for the usual reasons.

It centres on the police interrogation of Kay Matheson, one of the small group who brought the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey back to Scotland in 1950. The performance of Kathleen MacInnes in the film is stunning. Mary MacPherson stays with us, not in history but in living memory, and her example is vital.

Produced by Douglas Eadie from his own scripts with Gaelic translation by Dolina MacLennan and directed by Mike Alexander, this is one of those rare films in which, throughout, for the duration of every one of its 55 minutes, you cannot take your eyes off the screen.

It establishes a continuity from the 19th century to now, and with Mary MacPherson, we stand on the threshold of the 20th century. The Clearances, the land raids, the question of who owns the land, what it is and is not used for, and how the Gaelic language is treated were among the most pressing urgencies of her world. They have not gone away. In the anthology, 100 Favourite Gaelic Poems, Mary is represented by an extract from the poignant and perennially beautiful song, “Nuair bha mi Og”/“When I Was Young’ and the asportation of the stone is commemorated in “Oran na Cloiche”/”The Song of the Stone” by Dòmnhall Ruadh Mac An t-Saoir/Donald MacIntyre. Two aspects of the tradition: one of immediate historical reference, the other of lasting human significance. Poetry and song and all the arts enact this complementarity. We measure one against the other.

When we see how badly misreported contemporary news is through the media today we should step back and remember how utterly disregarded the whole historical understanding of contemporary politics is. Not only misreported, but simply not reported at all. The most dangerous policy of all is the slow infiltration of consciousness to gently persuade people generally that this is how it is, how it always was, and how it should forever be.

This is wrong. It is morally repugnant. It is the work of liars and villainy. Some things we must never get accustomed to. Some things must always be resisted. Reading Duncan Ban MacIntyre, John Murdoch and Mary MacPherson are a perpetual reminder and renewal of this truth.