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The music of the pipes is essentially the music of a mood. It is intended to express or commemorate a moment of emotion, and nothing more; it deals with the simple and fundamental feeling common to all mankind: grief, defiance, joy, longing, or contempt, but before all, the lust for a fight and the call to battle. Its range is very limited, but within its limits it is unsurpassed.
The pure spirit of sorrow was never better expressed than in the finest of the pipe laments, whether the wild despairing grief of MacCrimmon’s, or MacGregor of Roro’s Lament, or the solemn mourning of Mackintosh’s or Lord Lovat’s. This – that it is the simple statement of a fundamental feeling – is the secret of its appeal to all nations as well as Scotsmen; the reason why you may find a Gurkha regiment marching to a pipe band playing, Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie.
For many of these airs tradition has preserved the story of how many of them came to be made. In the old days every clan had its own particular tunes; each had its own lament, played at the death of a chieftain; its gathering, which summoned the clan to battle; and its rant, which hurled defiance at the enemy. Many, perhaps all, of these arose from particular circumstances.
Unlike some Gaelic singers who may excel in their presentation, but know little of what they are singing about, Scott Burgess Hay does. His knowledge of the history of the pipes, their tunes, composers, and the stories behind their titles is phenomenal. As a historian I enjoyed his easy way of telling them.
A gruesome tale is associated with the MacDonells of Glengarry attacking a church in Mackenzie country.
About the year 1610 the chief was a very old man and his son had not yet come of age, so his nephew Alan MacDonnell of Lundy, was chosen captain, or commander to use the modern term, of the clan. He was nicknamed ‘Alan with the Red Jacket’ from a handsome scarlet coat which he was fond of wearing.
One day Alan, wishing to introduce his young cousin in the arts of war, took him with him on a raid on their hereditary enemies, the Mackenzies. On this occasion the Mackenzies got the best of it; they laid an ambush for the MacDonnells’, galleys as they returned, sunk two of them, and killed the young chief.
Alan, who himself only escaped by swimming, was furious, and vowed to reek such vengeance for his kinsmen that it would never be forgotten. He waited quietly until a day came round when he knew that the most important families of the Mackenzies would be attending a service in the church of Killechrist. There he secretly led a band of picked men, surrounded the church, and set fire to it.
Meantime the alarm passed through the country, and the Mackenzies gathered and pursued their retreating foes. Most of them were cut off and killed, and Alan with the Red Jacket himself was severely wounded and only escaped, it is said, by leaping a tremendous chasm in the rocks, where no one dared to follow. The tune, however, was preserved under the name of Killechrist and became the gathering call of the MacDonnells of Glengarry.
The Spoiling of the Wall is another pipe tune associated with the burning of a church. It happened on the Waternish Peninsula on Skye in 1578 between the MacDonalds and the Macleods and was a tit-for-tat revenge between these two feuding clans.
The MacDonalds barred the door of Trumpan Church, or St Conan’s, to give it its old name, when the Macleods were at prayer. They then set fire to it. No one escaped except for one girl who, although badly burnt, managed to give the alarm. On hearing the news, the chief of Clan MacLeod and his men set off for Ardmore Bay and slaughtered the MacDonalds. Their bodies were laid out side by side below a nearby dyke which was then pushed over on top of them thereby saving the Macleods having to dig a grave.
I do not know who composed the tune and can only speculate that it must have been a Macleod. The contempt in lamenting the loss of the wall rather than the death of the MacDonalds is almost palpable, but that was life in the 16th century. The church has remained a ruin since as a memorial to the Macleods who perished there.
A pleasanter story is that of the Cock of the North – a 6/8 military march – with the title coming from the nickname of Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon, who in 1794 raised the 92nd Regiment of Foot which later became the Gordon Highlanders.
The popular tune, The Barren Rocks of Aden is said to have been written when a Highland regiment was stationed there. The pipe-major fell in love with the colonel’s wife and they became lovers. The colonel found out and sent her back to Scotland. Whether it was the pipe-major who was distraught and wrote the tune or the pipe-band taking the Mickey, we will probably never know. When William, Duke of Cumberland, marched from Edinburgh to Culloden his pipers played, Up and waur them a’, Willie, which is still a popular pipe tune. MacCrimmon’s lament, with its refrain, ‘No More, No more’, used to be played when the 17th century Highland emigration began. To my mind the old, original version, known to very few pipers, is the best. It can be heard on YouTube under Jacobite Piper Plays Lochaber No More. This funeral march, or lament, which may or may not be Irish, is said to have been written by Myles O’Reilly about 1636 in Killinkere, County Cavan.
No better example of an expression of grief or sorrow in a lament is to be found than in the opening lines of an old melody preserved in the Ardgour district called, The Lament of the Maclean of Ardgour: ‘Wail loudly, ye women, your coronach doleful, lament him ye pipers, tread solemn and slow; mown down like a flower is the chief of Ardgour, and the hearts of the clansmen are weary with woe’.
The composer is unknown but the subject was Donald the Ist Maclean of Ardgour, known in Gaelic as ‘Dhomhnuill na Sealgair’ – Donald the Hunter. His death occurred about 1450 when he was killed by a stag during a deer drive in the foothills of Sgurr Donald – a 2,915 ft high mountain named after him, lying at the west end of the ridge separating Glen Gour from Glen Scaddle.
Scott, himself a composer of pipe tunes, is gathering information for a book on piping to coincide with the opening of the Burgess family Highland Bagpipe Centre.
Watch this space.