‘Lays of Brigadoon’

There is a lost and lonely glen

Whose tale I shall proclaim.

It lies outside the ken of men

And Brigadoon’s its name.

The Glen, by Hugh Williams, 1812Published on 21st June 1862, ‘Lays of Brigadoon’ was MacGregor’s first completed literary work following two years of silence brought on by the death of his first wife. It is a narrative poem in seventy-seven stanzas concerning the inhabitants of Brigadoon, a Scottish township fated to appear in our world only on midsummer’s eve once in a hundred years.

the-owl-service-supports-bard-of-tweeddaleThe opening stanzas show an idealised medieval Scotland unchanged by several hundred years of our history and in the seventh stanza a young newly engaged couple from our world, Peter Cavendish and Lucy Orne, stumble on Brigadoon on one of its rare appearances. Initially, there is comic confusion between the nineteenth century sensibilities of Peter and Lucy and the archaic seeming Brigadoon but the township begins to work its charm on the young couple and presently Peter falls in love with Fiona, a maiden of the village, breaks his engagement with Lucy and declares he will remain in Brigadoon forever. Lucy, meanwhile, has fallen in love with the mysterious Laird of Brigadoon, but at the last moment cannot bear to part from “Edenborough’s pairties and courts and lichty streets” and returns to our world alone. In the penultimate stanza we see how her life developed and learn that she has often regretted her decision and in the last stanza when she is dying of old age a doorway opens between our world and Brigadoon and she returns, youthful once more, to marry the laird.

It was not a wholly original concept but had much in common with Germelshausen, a German novel of 1860 by Friedrich Gerstäcker which was itself based on a folktale.Germelshausen, author's own copyThe name Brigadoon probably derives from Brig o’Doon, a supposedly haunted bridge over the River Doon in Ayrshire, but the township’s mysterious appearances and the rules that a human may only enter under special condition and no native of the village can ever leave identify both Brigadoon and ‘Germelshausen’ in Gerstäcker’s novel as ‘elfhame’ or fairyland. Elfhame, the land of the elves, appears in numerous Scottish ballads, including the well-known ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and ‘Childe Rowland’. Elfhame may also be the mysterious wasteland ruled over by the lamed Fisher King. The correlation between Brigadoon and Elfhame is confirmed by the attributes and character of the Laird of Brigadoon who rules the village and is responsible for its suspension out of time. Although never directly named, reference to his magickal powers such as speaking to animals and possession of a cloak of invisibility whereby he eavesdrops on the conversation of the incomers to the village tells us that the Laird of Brigadoon is in effect Oberion, King of Faerie, and places ‘The Lays of Brigadoon’ firmly within the tradition of journeys to the otherworld.The Bridge of Doon, Ayrshire, Engraved by G. K. Richardson 1838‘Lays of Brigadoon’ is of particular interest to us for a number of reasons:

It is common today for authors to keep their readers waiting years, even decades, for new works, but demand from readers in the nineteenth century was rapacious and they would have lost patience and interest in such dilatoriness. Earlier in his career, MacGregor had excelled at satisfying this demand and kept up an average of one novel every ten months for eighteen years, but the four year gap between publication of Edmund Pevensie and ‘Lays of Brigadoon’ left MacGregor and his publisher uncertain whether he still had an audience.

In form and tone, ‘Lays of Brigadoon’ was a return to MacGregor’s early poems in the minstrel tradition and although a backward step in terms of the development of poetry, the combination of minstrelsy and the quasi-medieval setting met with broadly positive reviews. The lightness of tone also disguised the content of the poem which was darker and more visceral than anything he had written before. I very much doubt ‘Lays of Brigadoon’ was a deliberate exploration of the limits of public taste but its acceptance by his publisher and readers (albeit sales were slow) surely encouraged MacGregor to continue and deepen his exploration of the darker and more physical side of human nature in Acts of the Servant.Submersion in Lethe, Gustave Doré, 1857A second aspect that ‘Lays of Brigadoon’ shares with Acts of the Servant is the dominant role given to magick. However, I suspect MacGregor failed to appreciate that while traditional Scottish poetry had its share of bogarts, kelpies, hags, washerwomen, glaistigs, brown-men-of-the-moor, and other other-worldly beings and magickal places, the Scottish novel was predominantly realist in subject and what was acceptable in poetry may not, and in the event was not, be acceptable in prose.

Reading ‘Lays of Brigadoon’ alongside the first draft of Acts of the Servant one detects a continuum in MacGregor’s study of the darker, less seemly side of human nature but also a harking back to MacGregor’s very earliest literary endeavours and for that alone, regardless of the merits of ‘Lays of Brigadoon’ as an independent work, it should interest any reader of Acts of the Servant.

Bard of Tweeddale


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