OT: 27 May 1911 – Boreraig [John Grant] “Cumha Dhonnachaidh Mhic Iain”

The Oban Times, 27 May, 1911

“Cumha Dhonnachaidh Mhic Iain”

22 May, 1911

Sir,–I am deeply interested in the art of piobaireachd, and more especially the origin and history of the many tunes which we have no record of. I have read with great interest the various letters which have appeared in “The Oban Times” regarding this Lament. Some of them bear out good proof as regards to who this Duncan MacRae was, and must have been written by someone who is intimately acquainted with a different families of MacRaes.

If this Lament is a MacRae tune, which from the evidence that has already appeared, it must be, it can only be so in one sense, viz., “Cumha Dhonnachaidh Mhic Iain,” i.e., Duncan, son of John. This Duncan, son of John, was a celebrated Kintail MacRae of the Torlishich branch of the Clan, who fell at the battle of Auldearn somewhere about the year 1645. There is no shadow of doubt that this fine Lament was composed to perpetuate the memory of this hero. After some delay from the time that “Christine” first raised this question, correspondents interested in the history and welfare of the tune have come forward, and two in particular, viz., “Piobaire,” and “Cumha Dhonnachaidh Mhic Iain,” must be in possession of real facts regarding the tune as well as myself. At the last moment a correspondent, “B. Matheson,” comes forward, claims the tune, and seeks to upset all previous efforts to decide this important question. Ms. Matheson says, viz.,:–

No satisfactory answer appears to have been given, though the history of this Lament and air is well known in the vicinity of its origin, Kintail.

The question for consideration now is, Is this letter a satisfactory answer? I do not doubt for one moment, as your correspondent states, that a poem was composed on the death of Duncan MacRae of Inverinate, but anyone with a thorough knowledge of the art of piobaireachd must only give one decision regarding Miss Matheson’s claim or history. She refers to a poem, not a piobaireachd. She says–” the words of the Lament are as beautiful as they are pathetic.” This undoubtedly refers to a poem, and in many cases Laments were composed in the form of poetry by the relatives of deceased heroes, etc., but poetry has nothing whatever to do with piobaireachd. Miss Matheson goes on to say–” this Lament is said to have been composed by his widowed lady.” This again proves it to be only a poem.

One of MacCrimmon’s daughters could play the pipes and superintend instruction of her father’s pupils in his absence, but no claim that any lady ever composed a piobaireachd has ever been put forward. In fact, no lady ever did compose a piobaireachd of any description. This is proof that the account given by your correspondent is only supposition, and that she is confusing two arts, which are not at all related to each other. There being no connection between poetry and piobaireachd, I have no hesitation in contradicting Miss Matheson’s statement or claim regarding this tune, on the basis of her letter.

Another question of equally great importance is the setting of this tune, as happens in the same way with several other good piobaireachd. In two large collections of piobaireachd or pipe music in my possession this Lament appears. In the one the tune is written in 3-4 time; the other gives it in, and time. The best rendering of the tune can be given in 3-4 time. This piobaireachd seems to have been noted down from the playing of some piper who had not got the proper or complete setting of the tune, as anyone can see from it as it stands. The author of this fine Lament never composed the last four bars of the ground as they appear in print. He did not leave a fine melody, theme, or strain as we have it in the first two parts of the ground, and finish up with a zigzag of notes as we find it commonly written. There is something very far wrong with the first and last bars of the third part of the ground, and this is carried all through the variations to the end of the tune. In one setting an odd bar is given in the ground, with 6, 6, and 5 bars. This is quite wrong; there is no such irregularity in piobaireachd; it is always, in this type of tune, 4, 4, and 4 bars. A lament must be slow and of fine feeling before it can touch the finer chords of the heart and produce sadness.

According to the time given to the bulk of the notes in the ground in comparison with the two bars I have already mentioned, there is no reason to doubt that there is something far wrong. A hurried group of notes is more like a gathering than a lament. What surprises me most of all is that in the toarluath and doubling, as well as in the crunluath and doubling, this conglomeration of notes is carried right through, and has to be cut down, not in the form of their relative variations, but in themal form, to semiquavers, to suit the time of the variation.

No proper piobaireachd has ever been so mixed up as this one is, nor is there any other tune where one will find the toarluath and toarluath-brebach types of variation so mixed up. In the toarluath variation, it begins in strict keeping with the toarluath, but finishes up with the toarluath-brebach form. This is absurd. The toarluath and crunluath, with their doublings, and toarluath brebach and crun-luath brebach and their doublings, must be carried out in either form right through a tune, but not a mixture of the two types of variations in one tune. If a piobaireachd has a toarluath and crunluath with their doublings, it must have this form only. If it has a toarluath brebach and crunluath brebach with their own doublings, it must be strictly in this form also. This rule in piobaireachd must always be adhered to, otherwise there would be no need for distinction between these variations, and piobaireachd would be a muddle up instead of being perfect by adhering to its proper rules of construction.

I have no hesitation in saying that from the tunes before me I could produce a very fine setting and give fine feeling, beauty, and regularity in all its variations, leaving out the superfluous notes, and keeping those which are necessary to make piobaireachd appear in perfect form. On the eve of sending this letter to the press, I found an old MS. of this tune, which gives a very fine setting different from any in print, and, I am glad to say, will settle the vexed question of setting. –I am, etc.

Boreraig [ John Grant]