Ewen MacLachlan, the noted Gaelic poet, scholar and translator, died on the 29th of March, 1822.
Ewen MacLachlan was a Gaelic poet and a classical philologist of distinction, who was one of the most important figures in the preservation of Gaelic literature. MacLachlan was, undoubtedly, the foremost Gaelic scholar of his day and achieved renown for his translations of ancient classical literature into that language, particularly his translation of Homer, for his own Gaelic verse, and for his contribution to Gaelic dictionaries.
At time of his death, MacLachlan was engaged in two monumental tasks, one of which was, as an obvious consequence of his early death, never finished. That unfinished work was the translation of Homer’s Iliad into Gaelic heroic verse, of which he had by that time committed eight books to manuscript, experimenting with the metres of Gaelic ballads in the process. MacLachlan's other task was his significant contribution to the compiling of the Highland Society’s Dictionarium Scoto-Celticum, which was ultimately published in 1828. In that latter mammoth task, MacLachlan collaborated with the Revd. Dr. John MacLeod.
We know MacLachlan worked heroically on eight books of the Iliad, because a book, edited by John MacDonald, M.A., Reader in Celtic at the University of Aberdeen, was printed for the University of Aberdeen by R. Carruthers & Sons, Inverness, in 1937. That book was entitled: Ewen MacLachlan’s Gaelic verse, comprising a translation of Homer’s Iliad, Books I-VIII, and original compositions. Never mind it was only eight books, the effort and achievement were immense and the result astounding.
As a Gaelic scholar, in addition to the aforementioned dictionary, MacLachlan also undertook a study of the manuscripts of the Highland Society of Scotland and transcribed the fascinating anthology of Scottish and Irish poetry, the ‘Book of the Dean of Lismore’. His contribution to the Gaelic language cannot be underestimated, for not only did he produce some enormous translation efforts, he contributed a decent amount of his own, original work, in addition.
In 1798, when Alan (Dall) Macdougall’s Gaelic poems were printed in Edinburgh, some of MacLachlan's own were published along with them. Those included poems such as ‘Dáin nan Aimsirean’ (‘Songs of the Seasons’) and some translations. MacLachlan also composed and published his own Gaelic ‘in Verse’, in 1807. MacLachlan's Gaelic verse reveals classical influences, unsurprisingly, but there are also strains of some 18th Century Gaelic poets in there, too, most notably Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir, and Alasdair and Donnchadh Bán Mac an T-Saoir.
In 1816, a full volume of MacLachlan's own work appeared, entitled ‘Metrical Effusions’. That consisted of a number of Latin and English poems, several Gaelic poems, and one in Greek. MacLachlan is remembered as the last of that series of 18th Century poets whose writings are “among the chief ornaments” of the Scottish Gaelic tongue.
Without doubt, any account of the love-poetry of the Gael cannot be complete without reference to the ‘Ealaidh Ghaoil’ of Ewen MacLachlan. That was written, similarly to many of Burn’s songs, to expand upon a few lines and a chorus which, along with their air, he got “from some of the north country students in Aberdeen.” MacLachlan's poetry is also replete with the love of nature and some would say, equal to that of the likes of Wordsworth. See what you think; here is a verse (in English, mind, which is not the language in which it was written) from the ‘Ealaidh Ghaoil’...
“Not the swan on the lake, or the foam on the shore,
Can compare with the charms of the maid I adore;
Not so white is the new milk that flows o’er the pail,
Or the snow that is shower’d from the boughs of the vale.”
Ewen MacLachlan (Eòghan MacLachlainn) was born on the farm of Coiruanan (Torraculltuinn or Coruanan, near Onich) in Lochaber, in 1775. Soon after his birth, his parents flitted to Fort William, where Ewen was to receive his early education. At first, for several years after he'd left school, Ewen acted as tutor to the bairns of upper class families, locally. However, he continued to study during that period and, scholar that he was, studiously devoted his time to learning Greek and Latin. Ultimately, his efforts paid off as he won a scholarship to King’s College, at Aberdeen University, in 1796.
At King’s College, MacLachlan distinguished himself in the classics, and graduated with a Master of Arts, in 1800. Originally, Ewen had intended to become a minister and actually took a full course at the Divinity Hall. However, he was diverted from that course by the advice of friends of his, notably Professor Beattie, author of ‘The Minstrel’. Those friends, recognising his exceptional linguistic gifts, encouraged him to seek a Professorship, but Ewen MacLachlan never succeeded in rising to such exalted office.
MacLachlan did, however, become assistant librarian of King’s College, from 1800, whilst he was also the parish schoolmaster in Old Machar. MacLachlan became rector (headmaster) of the Old Aberdeen Grammar School in 1810 and held that position, along with the librarian’s post, until he died at the age of forty-seven, on the 29th of March, 1822. Ewen MacLachlan is commemorated by an obelisk at Fort William, Inverness-shire; you can find it just beyond the railway station.