Lays of the Heather, poems by A. C. MacDonell

I found a PDF version of the Lays of the Heather (1896) collection of poems by my great great great aunt Alice Clare MacDonell of Keppoch, Bardess to Clan Donald Society. As a staunch Jacobite, she dedicated her book to “H.R.H. Prince Rupert of Bavaria, Heir to the Royal House of Stuart”. 

I’ve already included an extract from MacDonald Bards: from Mediaeval Times written by Keith Norman MacDonald, M.D. in 1900, which includes a sketch about Alice and some abridged poems (see here). I’ve also included a selection of her poems on this site, such as Culloden Moor, To The Clan Donald, Lochabair Gu Bràth, Lochaber’s Sons and The Weaving of the Tartan. I’lll hopefully get around to publishing them all, but in the meantime I’ve included a few more below.


Hast thou e’er heard it—
Heard it and understood—
The sough of the low wind’s warning
Sweeping across a wood ;
The tension of nerve in the silence,
The hush ere the coming storm,
Riving the pine from the mountains,
A helpless and quivering form ;
The voice of the wild hills calling,
In the roar of the cataract’s foam ;
Dashing against your heartstrings,
Pursuing wherever you roam ?
Hast thou e’er watched the dawning,
As her touch through Nature thrills,
The pulse of new life awaking ”
In the hush of the slumbering hills ;
The whirring noise of the wild duck
Skimming the mountain tarn ;
The gentle lowing of cattle,
Warm-housed below in the barn ;
God’s dumb creation arising
At the call of that mystic hour,
Dividing the day from the darkness,
To praise His infinite power ;
Sinking again into slumber,
To await the new-born day,
Whose trumpeting herald proclaimeth
The night is passing away ?
Far out on the plains of Iceland,
White with untrodden snow,
The reindeer are racing in thousands,
Jingling their bells as they go.
The weak, the fallen, the luckless,
Wild hearts with fever afire,
Who fall in the race are trampled—
The race for a life’s desire.
Once in a life, if once only,
Reindeer and doe must fly,
To drink of the brackish waters
Of the wild North Sea—or die!
In the silence of virginal forests,
In the heat of the tropical grove—
Wherever man’s restless ambition
His brother to exile drove ;
In the marble halls of a palace,
By the tottering steps of a throne,
Be that man a son of the mountains,
The mountains will claim their own.
Once in a life, if once only,
With heart and brain afire,
Through the ranks of love or friendship,
Comes the thirst of a life’s desire.
To hear the falls of the Spean*
In their tumbling vehemence roar,
Or watch the salt spray dashing
In a storm on the ‘ Dorus Mor ;’+
When the spell of the mountain calling
Rends the soul with her plaintive cry,
Back to the heather-clad mountains
Her sons must return, or die !
* A river in Lochaber.
t Near Corryvrechan.


‘Mid the turmoil of the city,
High above its noisy din,
To the pipers’ stirring marches
Are our clansmen gathered in.
In their bright and varied tartan,
In each noble, manly form,
Steadfast eye, and truthful faces
Speak the kind hearts, true and warm.
From the far-off sea-girt islands,
From the beauteous mountain-glen
Come the merry-hearted maidens,
Come Clan Donald’s loyal men.
Never such a day of meeting
Since that dark and fatal day
When ye met and fought together
In that last disastrous fray ;
When thy best blood stained the heather
With a deeper purple tinge —
Pledge of that undying spirit
Made to conquer, not to cringe !

Not in vain our clansmen gathered
‘Neath the banners of our name,
Till the English strongholds shuddered
To the echoes of their fame.
For their own sweet Highland homesteads
‘Gainst our foes they took the field :
Shall we see them pass to strangers,
Or our rights more tamely yield ?
Glens of birch and tangled hazel
Now their children also claim :
Is there one refuse to aid us,
Let us not partake his shame !
Outcast from his clan for ever,
As an alien let him be,
Or a withered branch that’s severed
From a green and living tree !

Clansmen, may no distant future
See our meeting, if God wills,
Not within a crowded city,
But upon our heather hills !
Through the glens, once more repeopled,
On the land once more our own,
Wake the sleeping pulse of Nature
With the pipes’ melodious tone !
It is coming, just as surely
As the mist must slowly rise,
Disclosing old familiar places
With a new and glad surprise.
Golden fields of ripe corn waving,
Maidens singing at the wheel,
Silent forest-echoes waking
To the children’s merry peal.
Highland customs, Highland faces
Reigning both in cot and hall,
And the claims of kin and clanship,
One great bond, uniting all.

* ‘ The Children of Conn,’ a designation of the Clan Donald.


On the purple wings of the twilight hour,
When love expands as the evening flower,*
Disclosing her heart in a golden shower
When the glare of the day is over,
A soft West Wind stole over the seas,
Rustling and sighing ‘mid the rowan-trees,
Whispering to the slumbering leaves
Where the bees on the rosebuds hover.

A maiden sighed as the shades came down,
Hiding the day with their darkening frown,
And the surf came rolling in, sullen and brown,
Flecked with a white-frothed anger.
Her heart stirred, restless and ill at ease—
E’en the scent of the roses ceased to please —
For the song of the wandering evening breeze
Was fraught with a dreamy languor.

Far from her home, in a stranger land,
Gazing beyond the ribbed bars of sand,
Where the winging seamew’s snowy band
Proclaimed the flight of the swallow

Away on the breath of the driving wind,
With nought to harass and nought to bind,
‘Neath brighter skies a new home to find,
Where, alas ! she could not follow.

‘ Tell me,’ the lonely maiden cried,
‘ O wayward Wind, that wanders so free
Over the land and over the sea,
Hast thou no message or song for me
That shall still my heart’s desire ?
Thou bringest the rain to the parched rose,
A smile where the rippling streamlet flows ;
The violets their sweetest perfumes disclose,
Wooed by thy magic lyre.’

The Wind in the trees softly replied :
‘ I come from the fertile land of France,
Breathing the airs of an old romance
Blent with a lily, a smile, and a glance;
‘Tis thine, should you will it so.’
‘ Bear back thy song,’ said the maid ; ‘ though sweet,
Like yon fleecy cloud ’tis as airy and fleet:
The theme of the song for the nation is mete—
Transient as meteor-glow.’

To the fair, sunny South, its flowers to explore,
And gather anew for the maid rich store,
The Wind swept out on its mission once more,
To essay some new charm again.
A song, ‘neath the gleam of the evening star,
To the tinkling sound of a light guitar,
Wafted a message of love afar
From a dark-eyed son of Spain.

‘ Such passionate love as this I dread,
Where jealousy runs like a twisted thread ;
Though warm and true, no doubt,’ she said,
‘ To such I will ne’er surrender.
The maid who would wed with a son of the South
Must guard every word that falls from her mouth,
Lest the monster should grow to such monstrous
From which dear Heaven defend her !’

‘ I come from one of Albion’s sons,
Where gold like a mountain rivulet runs
Still into the lap of those favoured ones,
To add new heaps to their store;
Whilst the poor and needy must rest in peace,
Content with the sweat of their brows to increase
New wealth for the master who holds the lease
Of lives that are dead at the core.

‘ Yet for thee I sing a more pleasing tune,
Though ever the strain harks back to the moon

A waltz, a dream, or a night in June;
For, alas ! there is no variety.’
‘ Ah, no,’ sighed the maiden, ‘ I ne’er could go
To a land so monotonous, dull, and slow,
Without song or dance to break through the woe
Of a leaden-faced propriety.
For gay and loving, tender and true,
Must the heart be found, though you search the
world through ;
I have tended and guarded the rose for you,
But the rue you have brought to me.’

On the voice of the Wind came a tremulous sound,
As if angel wings were sweeping the ground;
Such a flood of melody swelled around
As of heavenly harps let loose.
‘Twas a child of Erin, with Erin’s smile,
Who struck the wild chords with such loving guile,
The heart of the maid he did almost wile
In a net tied with Cupid’s noose.

‘ Oh, son of the Emerald Isle, depart!
You have snared my senses, but not my heart,
With thy witching eyes and thy winning art,
But I do not sigh for thee.
I sigh for a smile as witching as thine,
And for eyes that as true as the starlight shine,
That once, and once only, looked into mine,
Far down by the Western Sea.’

Wearied and spent, the Wind listlessly strayed
Midst the Northern mountains in beauty arrayed;
O’er a bed of white heather his errand betrayed,
Where Cupid reposed on his throne.
‘ Oh, where hast thou been, thou perfumed Wind ?
‘Tis a breath of the heavens thou hast been to find;
Now all the world seems so beauteous and kind,
And its flowers have lovelier grown.’

‘ I have been where the delicate harebell blows,
By the waters whose musical cadence flows
Down the hills where the heather and rowan grows,
And the snow on the summits lie.
I have heard the weird music that bursts on the ear
To drive away sadness or dissipate fear,
As through the wide glens the pipes sounded clear
Till the answering echoes reply.

‘ There the trimly-built sons of the North look so gay,
With their wide-floating plaids, in their tartan array,
As they dance to a reel or a stately strathspey,
Whilst their hearts beat a rhythm as true.
From the brightest, the lightest, best dancer of all,
As a tree of the forest, both graceful and tall,
I bring thee a token his face to recall—
A sprig of white heather for you.’

Then trembled the maiden, and placed in her breast
The magical flower that soothed trouble’s unrest.
‘ Oh, bear me away, thou kind Wind of the West,
To the hills of the North, as a bird seeks her nest.
I have found me love’s haven, now ended thy quest—
‘Neath the tartan plaid beats the heart truest and best !’

* The evening primrose.


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