OT: 23 March 1901 – Keith N. MacDonald – “Puirt-a-Beul ‘Mouth Tunes’ or ‘Songs for Dancing'” [Mus]

The Oban Times, 23 March, 1901


“Mouth-tunes,” or “Songs for Dancing.”

By Dr. Keith N. MacDonald


Many Highlanders of the advanced school may consider that the foregoing “Puirt-a-Beul” mouth tunes, or articulate music, were not worth preserving. Certainly as far as the poetry is concerned there may be some truth in the statement, but we do not claim the rhymes as poetry. It would be a great mistake to do so, as no effort has ever been made to rank them alongside the more serious efforts of the muse. They were, as a rule, entirely spontaneous, or strung together with little effort, and reflect rather the humorous side of the Highlander in his gayest mood, and are, to say the least, intensely human. The sallies of wit, humour and irony, are numerous throughout, which one ignorant of the language, customs, and habits of the people, will can hardly appreciate. But it was for none of these reasons that the “Puirt” were collected, but to prove beyond the possibility of a doubt that the Highlanders have been from a very remote period an intensely musical people, and had an inexhaustible stock of tunes and songs, and could not therefore have been such an ignorant lot of savages as some historians, and others, endeavour to make them out. Generations before the well-known Strathspey and reel composers were born, the Highlanders had great numbers of these tunes and danced to them in every village, strath and glen throughout the Highlands. Indeed, there is very strong evidence to show that much of our strathspey music was taken originally from the Gaelic. These dancing songs, which are here preserved, are only a fragment of what was once actually in circulation generations and even centuries ago. Not only had many of Marshalls’ and the Gows’ music been laid under contribution, but hundreds more that were never known anywhere else. When we consider that many more must have died out since instrumental music was first introduced into the Highlands, it is a marvel that they did not become entirely extinct long ago. Their preservation is a powerful argument in favour of the tenacity of the tradition in the Highlands.

The first attempt to preserve articulate music was made by Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto, who, in 1828, published a collection of ancient “Canntaireachd’”- piobaireachd – or pibrochs, as verbally taught by the MacCrimmon* pipers in the Isle of Skye, and taken down from John MacCrimmon, piper to the old laird of MacLeod and his grandson the late General MacLeod of MacLeod. There are twenty pibrochs given in this collection, syllables being used instead of notes, the system which was in vogue before the staff notation became general for piping music, which it did some time prior to 1837. This system was not confined to the MacCrimmon pipers and their disciples. The MacArthurs, pipers to the Lord of the Isles, the Campbells of Lorn, and other teachers had different words, which have not been recorded, but which agreed in rhythm with the MacCrimmon system.

If we take an example of the MacCrimmon system of articulate music, we find the syllables that were used fit in pretty exactly with the staff notation. The system was evidently based on the composer’s conception of the sounds of the notes, which accounts for different words being used by different pipers. No two individuals would retain in the memory the same conceptions of the sounds of the music, but by observing a certain rhythm in their compositions it can readily be understood how it was possible for one piper to read the composition of another, or even an outsider conversant with the pipes. The first step was to compose the air. Then, by constant repetition and practice, the tune was impressed upon the memory, and the words and symbols in a regular order were used to impart the full signification of all the intricacies of the piece to the pupils and others. Take for instance “Iseabail N’ic Aoidh” in Captain MacLeod’s book: the words of the first four bars are:–

I hirerine ho botrie,
hiaverla ha botrie,
hierero ha botrie,
hiaverla ha radin.

These are the words for the first four bars, but, both Captain MacLeod and John MacCrimmon having been unacquainted with the staff notation, they went straight on instead of making a sign that the first four bars should be repeated. There are 16 lines in the first measure, each corresponding to a bar, and it is obvious that the first four must have been repeated, as the symbols are identical, either that, or they played it differently from what we do at the present day, as it has been noted down in staff notation. I suspect also they should have had long and short acute and grave accents upon some of the words. The word “radin”’ – the last word in the fourth bar – should, in my opinion, have been written rà-din, the “rà” being a minim in its significance.

Then again, “Cille Chriosd” – “Christ’s Church” – has in the music 17 bars in “MacDonald’s Martial Music of Scotland.” I fancy the last bar should be only played the last time so as to make the piece one of 16 bars in the first measure to suit the 8 lines of syllables, each line occupying 2 bars. This will be seen from the accompanying music:

I hin dro, ho dro, hin do, ho dro,
hin dro; ho dro, hin do, ho dra,
hin do, ho dro, hin da, chin drine
hin do, ho dro, hin do, ho dra.

In the late J.F Campbell’s “Canntaireachd” or articulate music, published in 1880, he gives “Cille Chriosd” in the staff notation, with the syllables from Captain Macl.eod’s collection, but he must have given it to a German professor, as it has been turned out on five flats, 6/8 time and hardly recognisable!
Mr Campbell mentions that in February, 1880, Duncan Ross, the Duke of Argyll’s piper, who learned tunes orally in Ross-shire from the chanting of John MacKenzie, who was Lord Breadalbane’s piper, and a pupil of the Skye school, read the book of 1828, and played from it at sight. The upshot of Ross’ demonstration was that when three notes occurred together on the same line of the stave, by striking three notes with the little finger, two of which were opened and one closed, representing “hiririn” or hir-ir-in. The same Duncan Ross above-mentioned asserted that 150 years ago the pipers did not use grace notes, and their pipes had only two drones. That can hardly be correct, as we have got a picture of a bagpipe that was played in the ’45 and it had three drones, the longest being very long, and it could be heard at a distance of eight miles.

No doubt many would have [had] pipes with only two drones. As to the use of grace notes by the earlier pipers, I suspect they have been in use for a very long time. They were evidently used by the MacCrimmons. I can tell that from their articulate music. but probably not to the same extent as they are at the present day. Duncan Ross was probably right in saying that they played mostly ceol mòr – great music or pibrochs – ceol beag or small music being beneath their notice. The bagpipes must be much older than we have any conception of, for I find that amongst the very earliest form of worship, long before the dawn of any civilisation, proper processions were formed headed by a piper, which would be at least two thousand years before the Christian era. One thing the “Puirt-a-Beul” show very clearly, and that is that they have grown with the people, and are in all human probability as old as their language.
* This name is variously spelled “MacCrimmen” or “MacCrimmon.”

The above is from MacDonald’s “Martial Music of Scotland,” but I am inclined to believe that the MacCrimmons actually played it [‘Iseabail NcAoidh’] with minims as follows:

I agree entirely with Lieutenant MacLennan of Edinburgh that many of our pibrochs were never noted down properly.

“Diggers Requiem” performance in Amiens, France

When John Grant penned his piobaireachd “Lament for the Pipers Who Fell In the War” on 28 December 1918, he published it in his anthology to “The Pipes of War” he co-authored with Bruce Seaton.  How honoured he would be to know that now this Lament is being heard by thousands.  The tune was discovered by Australian composer Christopher Latham in his search for music for “The Diggers’ Requiem,” a work he was commissioned to create by the  Australian War Memorial (AWM) and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA). “The Diggers’ Requiem”–a collaborative effort–was composed by Elena Kats-Chernin, Richard Mills, Migel Westlake, Graeme Koehne and Ross Edwards.  It tells the story of eleven significant Western Front battles involving Australian military forces, one movement for each battle.  The premiere performance was on 23 April 2018 in Amiens, France, using the combined forces of the Orchestre de Picardie and Germany’s Jena Philharmonic along with Australian soloists.  The choice of Amiens for the premiere is significant. “Our central message is that because of the Allied counterattack to retake Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day eve in 1918, the German artillery was denied the high plateau from which it would have flattened the strategic railway yards at Amiens nearby. This act saved Amiens cathedral, France’s tallest and most precious Gothic masterwork, from almost certain destruction,” Latham relates.  The Grant piobaireachd is utilized in the penultimate movement entitled “Lux Aeterna,” composed by Ross Edwards.  A lone piper (Jordan Aiken) entones the Urlar of the Lament, and the orchestra, chorus and soloist enter with the “Lux Aeterna” text.  As layer upon layer are added, 68,000 bells peal–one for each Australian soldier lost in the war.  As the music dies away, a soprano soloist sings in French, English, and German, “We, the dead, speak to you, the living–make peace.”   The remaining performance of “The Digger’s Requiem” is being staged 6 October 2018 at 7:30 p.m. local time in Llewellyn Hall in Canberra, Australia.  It will be broadcast on ABC FM and a CD will be forthcoming.  For more, see http://theflowersofwar.org/.

Hear “Lux Aeterna” 


OT: 16 March 1901 – [unsigned] – “The Highland Bagpipe” [advertisement]

The Oban Times, 16 March, 1901

The Highland Bagpipe

Glasgow has so long been recognised as a centre of Highland thought and enterprise that it is not surprising to learn that shortly we shall see published in our midst one of the most notable books given in recent years to the Highlands. This is “The Highland Bagpipe: its history, literature and Music,” by Mr. Wm. Laird Manson, a well-known city journalist, and an authority on all that pertains to the piob mhor. Curiously enough, while other Highland institutions have as a rule been copiously written of, to the Highland bagpipe only detached references have been made, and the aim of the writer has been in the present instance to do justice to this acknowledged neglect. With this end in view the traditions, superstitions, and anecdotes relating to the instrument and its tunes will be included. The story will be traced all down through the centuries; the peculiar music and even more peculiar literature of the pipe will be discussed; several chapters will tell of the close association between the pipe and Scottish regiments, and of the many deeds of heroism that have been enacted by military players; several, of the more peaceful race, who as a clan or burgh pipers took a leading part in social life; and several, of the superstitions and folklore that are woven round the instrument. The book, which will contain a large number of other interesting articles dealing more or less directly with the bagpipe, will naturally appeal specially to enthusiasts in Highland affairs, but as it is almost entirely untechnical, and is pervaded with the atmosphere of Scottish life and character, may be consulted not only for authoritative data, but also for that lighter national literature that interests Scotsmen everywhere. The price, it is satisfactory to record, has been fixed at an exceedingly moderate figure.

OT: 16 March 1901 – Keith N. MacDonald – “Puirt-a-Beul ‘Mouth Tunes’ or ‘Songs for Dancing'” [Mus]

The Oban Times, 16 March, 1901


“Mouth-tunes,” or “Songs for Dancing.”

By Dr. Keith N. MacDonald


Besides the ordinary reel and strathspey music, the old Highlanders had several ancient character dances in the form of comic or dramatic dances. About a dozen are still known in some places, though not always danced at the present day, and several others have no doubt become extinct. The writer has seen “Dannsadh na Gòraig,” danced many years ago. It was danced by a woman who held the skirt of her gown with both hands, the arms being stretched above the head, so as to hide the face and the head, and the dance consisted of a circular jig around the room which might or might not be accompanied by the “port-a-beul,” ending with a sudden rush out of the room. Long before the days of country dances and waltzes, etc, the Highlanders had an extensive programme of dances, as will be seen from the following list, sufficiently copious for any public function:–

1. The ordinary reel and strathspey.
2. Dannsadh Claidheimh, or sword dance.
3. Dannsadh na Biodaig, or dirk dance.
4. Seann Triubhas, or trews dance.
5. Cailleach an Dùrdain, dramatic character dance.
6. An Dubh-Luidneach, comic dance.
7. Dannsadh na Gòraig, the foolish woman’s dance.
8. Dannsadh nam boe, the dance of the bucks.
9. Figh an Gun, weave the gown.*
10. Croit an Droigheann, the thorny croft.
11. Dannsadh na tunnaig, the duck’s dance.
12. Dannsadh bhriosgaidh, something like the duck’s dance.
13. Cath nan coileach, the cock fighting.
14. Ruidhleadh nan coileach-dubha, the blackcock dance.

All these would have been danced to the “puirt-a-beul,” The tune of Gille Calum dates back as far as the middle of the 11th century and is supposed to have been composed to Malcolm Ceannmore’s tax-gatherer. It was during the reign of the big-headed monarch that the “bodle,” or two pennies Scots, equal in value to a third of our halfpenny, was added to the coinage, and was called in Gaelic “bonn-a-sia,” or coin of six, being the 6th part of a shilling Scots, which seemed contemptible in the eyes of the Highlanders. It is also probable that the tune “Gille Calum dà pheighinn” (Gille Calum Two Pennies) may have been composed in irony to the tax collector or the King himself, for having removed the court from Dunstaffnage Castle to Dunfermline. The writer has never seen the dirk-dance, but he believes it was distinct from the sword dance. The “Seann-triubhas” is well known. “Cailleach an Dùrdain” was a dramatic character dance in which a man and woman took part. During the performance the woman falls and pretends that she has been killed by the man, but he brings her to life again, by breathing upon her and touching her.† “An Dubh-Luidneach” is described in the “Celtic Monthly” as a grotesque dance, performed by one person. “Dannsadh nam boe,” the bucks’ dance, was performed by three men, who “reeled fantastically about like goats.” “Dannsadh na tunnaig,” and “Ruidhleadh nan coileach-dubha,” and “Cath nan coileach” resembled the gyrations of these birds. “Croit an Droigheann” has probably died out. We have met with no one who has seen it danced.
* We have heard this one named “Faigh an gunna–get the gun.
† See Alexander Carmichael’s “Carmina Gadelica,” 1900; the “Celtic Monthly” for February, 1901; and Alex. Campbell’s “Grampians Desolate.”










OT: 9 March 1901 – Keith N. MacDonald – “Puirt-a-Beul ‘Mouth Tunes’ or ‘Songs for Dancing'” [Mus]

The Oban Times, 9 March, 1901


“Mouth-tunes,” or “Songs for Dancing.”

By Dr. Keith N. MacDonald

There is a 3rd version in the “Gesto Collection”

Uamh an Oir – meaning unknown–does not mean of gold. It might be the East, with the sound of ‘O’ gradually lengthened–An Oir–changed to An Òir.

A piper and a party of 12 men entered the cave at Harloish, near Roag, intending to explore it to the other end, which opened at Monkstadt on Loch Snizort; but having been met and destroyed by an Uile-bheisd, or monster, they never were seen again. The last despairing words of the piper were heard by a person who was sitting at Tober Tulach in the neighbourhood, who listened to his lamentations coming up from the depth of the well, and thus learned the fate that had befallen him and his associates. (MacLeod country version of the legend.)

The entrance to the cave of Uamh ‘n Oir is near Monkstadt. Long ago, a piper and 12 men went in, intending to find the outlet – wherever it might be – and some evil having befallen them, they never reappeared; and the last words of the piper were heard (when he could no longer play) by some people who were at the holy well of Leanacro, coming up through the water. (Trotternish version).

“Tobar Tulach” was reputed to be the best well in Skye for restoring health, and for refreshment. The well of Leanacro is on a hill-top, and was believed to possess many purifying properties for the mind as well as the body. The word Oir would naturally be sung to a long mournful sound, and thus acquire a new pronunciation, which led to its being mistaken for òr – gold.



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