The story goes that when Dugald Buchanan died at Kinloch Rannoch in 1768 there was almost a bloody battle over his remains. His fellow clansmen came over the hills from Balquhidder with the intention of bearing their kinsman back to lay him to rest with his forefathers, while the people of Rannoch were equally determined that their beloved teacher and preacher should stay among the people to whom he had endeared himself by his example and message.
Born at Ardoch, Strathyre, in 1716, Buchanan received a sound education. He was then apprenticed to a carpenter in Kippen, and practised that trade for several years. Around 1744 he ended a long spell of religious doubt and quest, vividly described in his diaries. Although he never trained as a minister it was not long before he began a lifelong commitment to lay preaching in the contemporary Highland evangelical tradition inspired by the messages of Bunyan and Wesley. He later became a noted preacher and catechist throughout Perthshire and beyond, with a message that owed its strength to Presbyterian steel tempered by the challenge of scepticism and reinforced by evangelical insistence on the possibility of salvation through recognition of God's love.
In 1749 he married and settled down at the family farm in Strathyre. His school teaching began in 1751, when he was invited to undertake the duties of schoolmaster in Rannoch. For centuries before Rannoch had had something of a bad name as a wild, dangerous place, the haunt of reivers and outlaws. It was still reckoned to be backward and ungodly in the years after the '45, when the initial military subjugation of the Highlands was giving way to economic and educational policies aimed at bringing them into social conformity with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Regarding Buchanan's individual impact, contemporary sources reported on the great educational improvements that he was bringing about, and in the decrease in lawlessness that accompanied these changes. "The country of Rannoch from being possessed of the most lawless and thievish people, is now becoming greatly civilised, and no thefts or robberies are heard of among the inhabitants, two thousand in
number." His lay preaching continued. His wide and scholarly knowledge of Gaelic was no small advantage in winning the confidence of his listeners, most of whom spoke only Gaelic. The spread of bilingualism was accomplished through education of the sort that Bochanan was providing for the young.
Buchanon is best known today as one of the greatest Gaelic religious poets. Perhaps with the example of John Mackay, the Sutherland hymnist, before him Buchanan discovered in Gaelic poetry a medium to which the ears of the people were as sensitively attuned as his own. In 1767, when he was in Edinburgh assisting with the proofs of the New Testament in Gaelic, he published the seven long poems on which his reputation rests. These include the narrative 'Passion of Christ' and the powerfully imaginative 'Judgment Day". In 'Winter' Buchanan takes on his poetic contemporaries who spun out pastoral odes to summer, and warns of the winter of old age and requital of one's sins; while in 'The Hero' he challenges the martial aristocratic stereotype of traditional bardic poetry, replacing it with that of the
Soldier of Christ. 'Who would true valour see...'
Buchanan's power lies equally in his technical artistry, his power to extend the existing conventions of Gaelic poetry in quiet but fundamental ways and the rich flow of memorable analogies and images he used to communicate his vision and message. He was a
champion of the people, too: in 'The Skull', a meditation that examines in turn different models of human life as lived by his contemporaries, his condemnation of rapacious landlords is crusading in spirit and does not mince words. When Bochanan died of a fever in 1768 it was the universal recognition by ordinary people of his conspicuous loving kindness towards his flock that made them so loth to lose his remains. However, the Christian ideals which he had implanted prevailed, and Buchanan was interred, without a fight, in Balquhidder. An account of his life, with English translations of his poems, is contained in Lachlan MacBean's Buchanan, the Sacred Bard. For the spiritual and doctrinal background see John Maclnnes, The Evangelical Movement in the Highland's