OT: 4 February 1911 – Fraoch Eilean [John Grant] “Cumha Dhounachaidh Mhic Iain”

The Oban Times, 4 February, 1911

Cumha Dhounachaidh Mhic Iain

31 January, 1911

Sir,–After the long series of wars and disastrous conflicts which raged over Scotland for many, many centuries, and did not end till the Rising of 1745, it is not to be wondered at that the origin and history of many of our finest piobaireachds are wrapped in the mist of antiquity and history. Such may be said to be the fate of the tune now brought before us by your correspondent “Christine.”

To those who have made the art of piobaireachd a special study, it is hardly sufficient to say that the one in question is a MacRae tune.

In the olden days, when piobaireachd was in its infancy, a date very difficult to fix, although I am quite satisfied that this ancient art must have been practiced even before the Christian era, it was then the custom to write the titles of all tunes in the Gaelic language, before there may have been an English translation at all. The Gaelic title being of most importance, let us deal with it first–”Cumha Dhounachaidh Mhic Iain,” which is, and must be, the proper name of the tune. The only possible way that it could be a MacRae tune is by the English translation, “Duncan, the Son of John’s Lament,” with the surname “MacRae” being at some time omitted by mistake.

In the 1st instance, there never was a Duncan, the son of John MacRae of Kintail, so that even to suppose that the word “MacRae” or “Mhic Rath” had been at some time omitted from the Gaelic titles here given, is impossible. Accordingly, it is quite impossible, from the above information, to say that it is a MacRae piobaireachd. Secondly, there certainly was a Duncan MacRae, but he was the son of Alexander, which proves still further that the English title given with the Gaelic of the tune, viz., “Duncan MacRae of Kintail’s Lament,” is absolutely incorrect.

In every instance when a lament was composed to the memory of a Highland chief or representative of his family, or salute in honour of some special event, these two species of piobaireachd always had the surname mentioned in the Gaelic title.

Let us now deal with the Gaelic title of this tune as we have it, and its actual meaning. “Cumha Mhic Iain,” the proper translation of which is “Duncan MacIan’s Lament.” As everyone is aware who has heard of “the massacre of Glencoe”–and how many Highlanders have not?–MacIan or MacIain was the patronymic given to the MacDonalds of Glencoe, who were so cruelly massacred at the early hour of four in the morning of 13th February, 1692. To me, as well as those who have a better knowledge of the Gaelic language, this tune must be a MacDonald piobaireachd from its Gaelic title. Alaster was the chief of the MacDonalds who were murdered in the massacre of Glencoe. He left two sons named John and Alaster, who both escaped unhurt, and may have left issue of the name of Duncan. Or it may even have been composed to the memory of the Chief of the name of Duncan who had lived prior to the massacre. If anyone who is familiar with the MacDonald lineage could throw any light on some of the chief’s names, it might be a great assistance in settling this question.

If this tune was “Duncan MacRae of Kintail’s Lament,” the Gaelic translation would be “Cumha Dhounachaidh Mhic Rath Chinntaile.” Whereas the Gaelic title “Cumha Dhounachaidh Mhic Iain” does not even mention the name MacRae. Therefore it cannot be a MacRae piobaireachd. Ross, in his collection of pipe music, which is a modern publication, gives the piobaireachd under the title of “Colin MacRae of Inverinate’s Lament,” in Gaelic, “Cumha Cailean Mhic Rath Inbhearaibhnaid.” There is not the slightest foundation for this being correct. It is just like two men, one being named Duncan and the other Colin, and perhaps to serve a certain purpose, both their heads were cut off, Colin’s placed on Duncan’s shoulders, and there being no lament for Colin, he would claim Duncan’s lament, or be a means of it being dedicated to him. –I am, etc.

Fraoch Eilean [John Grant]