They were born and brought up in Wester Ross where their father Archibald was a local dominie in the Loch Broom district. Archibald, who was of Craigens in Gruinart stock, was an erudite man and a bard of no mean ability. His brother Hugh, who died at an early age, was the headmaster in Jura and numbered among his pupils Neil Shaw, later to become the kenspeckle secretary and eventual president of An Comunn Gàidhealach.
Following a visit to his brother in Jura, the bards' father was involved in a street accident and died from the injuries sustained. This led his widow Elizabeth (MacDonald) to move to Islay along with the family members still remaining at home. They set up home at Rockside in the Kilchoman district and it was here that the bards were to spend the rest of their lives.
Charles was born in 1874 and Duncan first saw the light of day in 1880. They were 24 and 18 years of age when they moved to their father's home island.
Although little is known of the bards' early education, they were both well read individuals and had a wide interest in literature and the language of the Gaels. They both wrote poetry from an early age and Duncan's pen remained active even when serving in the Royal Navy during the 1st World War.
Both competed regularly at both local and national Mòds and won many awards in the process, even if the bardic crown eluded them. Duncan was the more prolific of the brothers and his verse ranged from love songs to comic offerings. Local events were also highlighted in his verse, island personalities were poetically praised, and a dance at Coull and a memorable night of wooing cannot fail to raise a smile.
Two of his best known songs, 'Mairi Dhonn' and 'Mo Nighean Dhonn', are still heard at concerts, ceilidhs and Highland gatherings. He was even prompted in 1943 to dip his pen in the English inkwell and give us 'The Green Hills of Islay'. Many of his other songs would have been better known if they had been set to new tunes as opposed to using existing airs.
Charles made his own poetic mark with his focus on local events and socials happenings in the island community. His bàrdachd baile is often heartfelt, sometimes caustic with a decided sting in the tail, and paints a picture of the island community where he lived and worked. Among his comic gems are 'Gànradh Pheigi', 'Banais Chorsapuil' and 'Coileach Iain Chiobair'.
Although many of the bards' songs are not widely heard nowadays, some of their poetry crops up regularly as prescribed pieces at both local and national Mòds. A collection of their works was published under the title 'Bàird Chill-Chomain' in 1936 and includes 82 items by Duncan and 18 by Charles. Other compositions by the bards are in private hands and have never been published.
The brothers worked as farm labourers and lived at Rockside, now the setting for the Kilchoman Farm Distillery. No trace of the MacNiven home remains but a roadside plaque commemorates their lives and works.
Charles was the more inhibited of the brothers and did not socialise to the same extent as Duncan, a gregarious person who often looked on and invariably succumbed to the wine when 'twas red'.
Charles died in 1944 at the age of 74 years. Duncan's final years were dogged by ill health and he had a leg amputated. He died, aged 75 years, in the Gartnatra Hospital at Bowmore which now houses Ionad Chaluim Ìle, the island's St Columba Gaelic Centre.
Both are buried in Kilchoman cemetery in the district where they spent the largest part of their lives and whose people and topography inspired much of their poetry.
Ho ro! eileanaich mo ghràdh,
Ìle bhòidheach m'àite tàimh,
Bheir e 'n t-urram thar gach àit',
'S bidh mise 'n drasd ag cainnt air.
Text courtesy of Hugh Smith, B&W photographs courtesy of Etta Shaw, the bards' grand niece