Thursday, May 3, 2018

In the glen where I was young

Bluebells at Ballachulish Scotland, photo by Jim Monk 

When asked by a friend on a countryside walk why he had decided to volunteer and fight in the Great War, English poet Edward Thomas is said to have stopped, picked up a handful of earth, and replied, “Literally, for this.”*  It is difficult to overestimate the attachment soldiers felt for their homelands. 

In Scotland, the pull of the land echoed with loss: the defeat of the Scots at Culloden in 1746 and the subsequent Highland Clearances that altered traditional ways of life.  One of the most popular Gaelic songs of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was the mournful “An Gleann ‘s an robh mi òg”— “The Glen where I was young” — written by Neil MacLeod and sung to the traditional tune “When the Kye come hame.”** Translated into English in an 1893 issue of The Highland Monthly and recorded in February of 1914 on 78rpm vinyl, many would have known the lyrics that nostalgically recalled “my bonnie native glen,” where birds sang among the trees, lassies “gaed a fauldin,’” children played along the banks of the lochs, and friends and families gathered about the fire to tell stories of
Averon River near Alness, photo by George Evans 
the brave and mighty men,
That were ance the pride an’ glory
O’ my bonnie native glen.

Ewart Alan Mackintosh, though born in Brighton, spent childhood holidays in his father’s native Scotland, where the family stayed at Alness. The boy learned to speak Gaelic and play the bagpipes, and when war broke out in 1914, Mackintosh joined the Seaforth Highlanders.  His first volume of poetry, A Highland Regiment, was published in 1917, and it included a war poem that alludes to the Gaelic folk song penned by Neil MacLeod over 35 years before. 

Anns an Gleann’san Robh Mi Og

In the Glen where I was young
Blue-bell stems stood close together,
In the evenings dew-drops hung
Clear as glass above the heather.
I’d be sitting on a stone,
6th Seaforth Highlanders,  Aug 1918
© IWM (Q 7007) 
Legs above the water swung,
I a laddie all alone,
In the glen where I was young.

Well, the glen is empty now,
And far am I from them that love me,
Water to my knees below,
Shrapnel in the clouds above me;
Watching till I sometimes see,
Instead of death and fighting men,
The people that were kind to me,
And summer in the little glen.

Hold me close until I die,
Lift me up, it’s better so;
If, before I go, I cry,
It isn’t I’m afraid to go;
Only sorry for the boy
Sitting there with legs aswung
In my little glen of joy,
In the glen where I was young. 
            —August 1914, Ewart Alan Mackintosh

Written in the early days of the war, each of the poem’s three stanzas occupies a different place in time: the past, present, and future.  The first stanza visits an idyllic moment from years gone by: a young boy enjoys springtime solitude amongst wildflowers and water.  In the second stanza, grown to be a soldier, the young man crouches in the muddy waters of a trench and endures his baptism of fire.  Staring at the death and chaos that surround him, he allows himself to slip into the world of imagination, returning to loved ones and his home in the Scottish glen.  In the third stanza, the soldier foresees his own end: cradled by his comrades-at-war, his last regret is not for himself, but for the boy he once was and for the innocence that the war killed long before it claimed his body in death.   

Mackintosh would have known what it was to hold the body of a dying soldier; his best-known poem, “In Memoriam: Private D. Sutherland Killed in Action in the German Trench May 16, 1916, and the Others Who Died,” relates his guilt and grief at not being able to save one of the young men under his command.  Both “In Memoriam” and “Anns an Gleann’san Robh Mi Og” lament not only the casualties of war, but the loss of innocence that war has stolen from those who fight.

Mackintosh himself was badly wounded during the Somme while fighting at High Wood. Sent back to England to recover, he was next assigned as a training officer near Cambridge, where he met and wooed Sylvia Marsh, a Quaker VAD nurse. They became engaged and planned to marry after the war.  The closing lines of MacLeod’s Gaelic folk song express the eternal wish to return home:

When life’s gloamin’ settles down,
An’ my race is at an en’,
‘Tis my wish that death should find me
In my bonnie native glen.

Mackintosh, however, never returned to Scotland.  He was killed by a sniper during the Battle of Cambrai on November 21, 1917 and is buried in France.  The obituary of the 24-year-old  Military Cross recipient appeared in the London Times and lamented the death of “A New Heroic Poet: “What Lieutenant E. A. Mackintosh sang about in his poems he has at last accomplished. The war created him; the war has taken him away.”††
* Eleanor Farjeon, cited in Matthew Hollis’ Now All Roads Lead to France, Faber and Faber, 2011, p. 287.
** Inverness Gaelic Society, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. 9, Free Press Printing Company, 1881, p. 64.
Le Niall Macleoid translated by Fion, “An gleann ‘s an robh mi og,” The Highland Monthly, vol. 4, 1893, pp. 95-97.
†† “Roll of Honour, 143 Casualties to Officers, Personal Notes: A New Heroic Poet,” The Times, no. 41652, 4 Dec, 1917, p. 4.