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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XXXVI. Parish Music


STRATHSPEY has been called "the native country of the sprightly dance" (Captain Fraser of Knockie), and yet little can be discovered as to the early musicians and music of the country. Mr Thomas Newt, in his Tour in Scotland (1791), has some interesting remarks on Highland music. He says—" Strathspey is celebrated for its reels, a species of music that happily unites gaiety with grace, moving now with measured step and slow, and now at a quick and sudden pace. Music, in general, was divided by Macrimmon the piper, principal of the Musical College in the Isle of Skye, into four parts: Music for love, music for sorrow, music for war, and music for meat. By the last of these he must have meant Reels, among which the Strathspey is as highly distinguished among the Reels of the North Highlands, the Islands, and Perthshire, as the plaintive melody of the Southern Counties is among the slow tunes that arose in the other parts of the Lowlands of Scotland. With regard to the first composers, or even performers of Strathspey Reels, there are not any certain accounts. According to the tradition of the country, the first who played them were the Browns of Kincardine (Abernethy), to whom are ascribed a few of the most ancient tunes. After these men, the Cummings of Freuchie, now Castle Grant, were in the highest estimation for their knowledge and execution of Strathspey music, and most of the tunes handed down to us are certainly of their composing. A successive race of musicians, like the people of the same caste in Hindostan, succeeded each other for many generations. The last of that name famous for his skill in music was John Roy Cumming. He died about 30 years ago, and there are many persons still alive who speak of his performance with the greatest rapture. The Cummings of London, known as the authors of several mechanical inventions, and descended from the Cummings of Strathspey, are said to inherit in a high degree the musical powers of their ancestors." It is so far confirmatory of this statement, that we find an Alexander Cumming acting as piper and violer to the Laird of Grant in 1653. His wages were 20 marks Scots yearly, and, in his agreement, he bound himself "by the faith and truth of his body to give bodily service and attendance" as required. From a letter of John Donaldsone, Notary Public to the Laird of Grant, dated 28th December, 1638, we learn that at that time the Laird had a clarshear, or harper, as well as a violer, in his service, and Donaldsone complains that they had injured one another in a "drunkin tuillie." Tradition says the Grants always liked to have a Cumming servant in the house of Freuchie, and it is said that the hearthstone of the old Cummings, who originally possessed the castle, was preserved in the kitchen. This was for good luck. Then as to the Browns, it is curious to find one of the name, who was a noted musician, in the service of the Grants about the beginning of last century. He was the comrade of Macpherson, the famous freebooter, commemorated by Burns; but while Macpherson was condemned and hanged (1700), Brown escaped. Macpherson is represented as bitterly complaining of this injustice, in the ballad (Herd’s Collection, 1776)—’

"Both law and justice buried are,
And fraud and guile succeed,
The guilty pass unpunished
If money intercede.
The Laird of Grant, that Highland saunt,
His mighty majestie,
He pleads the cause of Peter Brown,
And lets Macpherson die."

Our Parish has produced not a few good musicians. The composer of "Tullochgorm," Righ-nam-port, is said to have been a Dallas from Kincardine. His fiddle was long preserved at Kinchirdy, and was exhibited at the British Association meeting in Aberdeen, 1859. Later, Mr Donald Grant, Tulloch, called from his lightness of foot Donull na h’iteag, "Donald the Feather," published a collection of Highland music, containing 121 pieces, of which 40 are said to be "old," or "very old," though, unfortunately, the original Gaelic names are not given. Two sons of Grant, Francis and John, were also distinguished performers on the violin, and the former published some music of his own composition, which promised well, but he died young. The following tunes are claimed as having a local habitation and name, connecting them with our parish, but who their original composers were is unknown. It is said it was an Englishman, rescued as a child by Mary Scott, the Flower of Yarrow, from the hands of Watt of Harden, that was the composer of both the words and music of many of the best old songs of the Border. Of him Leyden said—

"He, nameless as the race from which he sprung,
Saved other names, and left his own unsung."

So it may have been elsewhere.

Rhynetian’s Daughter, "Nighean a Bhodaich ann Rinaitinn."—This Strathspey is given by Captain Fraser. He says he obtained it by his father from General Fraser of Lovat. It was well known in our Parish, and was a great favourite of the late Rev. Mr Martin, who was a fine performer on the violin. Most of the Highland Reels and Strathspeys (see Captain Fraser’s Notes) were wedded to verse. It might be some incident of love or war that was sung, and this gave special interest and charm to the song. Often, also, there was a correspondence or likeness of sound and movement between the words and the music which added to the effect. In the tune called "Tha Biodag air Mac Thomais," you seem to hear the very clink and clatter of the dancer’s ornaments—

"Tha biodag air, a’ gliogarsaich,
Oscionn bann na briogaise,
Nam faiceadh e mar thigeadh i,
Gur math gum foghnadh sgian dha!"

On the road to Glenmore, near the Red Burn, there is a cairn called "Barbara’s cairn." It has a story. Barbara Grant of Rhynettan was a great beauty. Her fame was widespread, and she had many wooers. One of them was a noted Cameron from Lochaber, who came again and again to plead his cause, but in vain. Barbara gave her heart to a lad of Nethyside, and the day was fixed for the wedding. The Cameron, in despair, laid a plot. He came with his men one Sunday when all but the bride were at church, and carried off the maiden and much spoil besides. Her strait was great: but she did not lose hope. Now and again she tore bits from her shawl, and dropped them by the way, that they might help those who would soon be following the trail. Then at last, gathering courage, she secretly took off her shoe, which had a high heel of hard wood, and, watching her opportunity, she struck the man who was leading her pony with all her might under the ear. The man fell dead on the spot, and in the confusion Barbara escaped. Her friends by this time were on the track of the raiders, and great was their joy when they met the bride. But they were not satisfied with her rescue. They roused the country, pursued the raiders, and overtook them in Badenoch, where they put them to flight and recovered the spoil. There was a merry wedding at Rhinettan, and the cairn and the tune remain to this day memorials of the event.

The Reel of Tulloch.—Tulloch, meaning knoll or height, is a common name in the Highlands. Owing to this, and the reel being so popular, it is claimed by several localities. Our parish seems to have the best right to it, both on the ground of tradition, and from the existence of the Gaelic song relating to the Tulloch tragedy, although it is only fair to state that in the ballad the air is said to have been composed by a Macgregor from Glenlyon. Ishbel dhubh, black-haired Ishbel, was the only daughter of Allan Grant of Tulloch. It is said that at her birth all the guns in the house went off together. The night when Joan of Arc was born (1412), the cocks crowed all the night long. This was regarded as a good omen; but it was otherwise with Ishbel. The going off of the guns was held to presage bloodshed and death, and the midwife cried out, "Wretch! put her between pillows" ("A bhradaig! cuiribh cadar chluasagan i "). But Ishbel was spared, and grew up a handsome, strong-minded woman. She had a lover among the raiders, John Dowgar Macgregor. Black John, because of his misdeeds, was outlawed. An endeavour was made to arrest him in his own country, but it failed. He then fled to Tulloch. Ishbel stood his friend, and put him to hide in the ox byre. She also smuggled as many guns as she could get into the place, saying she would help to load them, and that he was to keep his back to her and shoot away. Black John was tracked by an officer and twelve men, who surrounded the byre. Helped by Ishbel, he made a brave defence. One of Ishbel’s brothers was with the party, and this so incensed her that she kept saying, "Hold at the man with the red waistcoat "—that was her brother ; but Black’ John was wiser, and let him alone. According to the song, John killed or wounded the whole party, and he was so elated with his success that he cried, "Love, since I have done this brave deed, haste to give me a draught of beer, that I may dance the Tullichan!" and then he breaks out into praise of the tune. Tullochgorm and Seann Trews and the Cutach-chaol-dubh were good, but they could not come near the Tullichan. It was the delight of all gatherings, and old and young felt its charm and stirring power. It is said that Black John was shot some time after, near Ballindalloch, and that his head having been brought to Ishbel, the shock caused her death. She was buried at Kincardine, and a plain slab, without any inscription, marks her grave. The men killed at Tulloch were buried under the knoll called "Torran Mhortaidh" (The Knoll of the Murder). This is the story according to tradition, but the facts, as found in the records of the Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, are somewhat different. The fight took place on 25th December, 1636. The soldiers were commanded by Commissary John Stuart, and the only persons alleged to have been killed were the Commissary and Donald M’Inleith, one of his men. John Grant, alias M’Jockie, and his two sons, Patrick and John, were delated at the instance of Sir Thomas Hope and Elspet Stuart, relict of John Stewart, for the resetting of John Dowgar and other Macgregors, and for the murder of the two soldiers, and were duly tried. The Decreet contains some matters of interest which are worth noting. ‘The Macgregors are called that "unhappy race." John Grant and his two sons are charged with "keeping divers trysts and meetings" with John Dowgar and other rebel Macgregors, and with "furnishing them with meat and drink" within the house of John M’Phadrick Grant, alias M’Jockie, elder. In particular they are charged with intercommuning with them in the month of May, 1636, "within an ale house in Rimoir, and in the barn thereof" ; also in the July following, "within the wood of Tullichie" ; and here comes in an amusing glimpse of the scene: "Maister Collin M’Kenzie, Minister, forgathering with you, and said John Dowgar, in the said wood, in the said Minister’s coming from the Kirk of Kincardin, when you stayed and conferred for the space of ane hour, and took sneising and tobacco together." The gravest part of the complaint is that John Grant and his two sons, "being hoddin with swords, targets, and gunns," had "assisted and taken plaine pairt with John Dowgar and his complices, rebels and fugitives, against John Stewart, Commissioner," when "the said Commissioner, with Donald M’Inleith, one of his company, was treasonably slain." When the assize was held, the Grants were acquitted of the charge of murder, but were found guilty of resetting the Macgregors, and of not giving "concurrence and assistance" to the Commissioner. Final sentence was pronounced on the 14th July, 1637, when the three prisoners were, by command of the Secret Council, and by the mouth of James Graunt, Deemster of Court, adjudged to he taken to "the Borough Muir of Edinburgh, and Execution place thereof and then to be hanged untill they be dead, and thereafter to be hung up in iron chaines within the said place of execution whill they rot and consume, their whole moveable goods to be escheated and inbrought to his Majesty’s use—which was given out for doom."

Other Parish tunes are:—"The Deserts of Tulloch"; "John Roy Stewart," a fine Strathspey, called after the famous soldier; "The Bonnie Wife of Revack," in praise of Captain Gordon’s first wife, Margaret Knight, a noted beauty; and "Mrs Forsyth of the Dell," by the late Mr Sweton Fraser, Achernack; "K. K.," by the late Major Patrick Cruickshanks. "Mhuinter mo ghaol," the Highland "Good-Night," might also be claimed. One other tune deserves special notice, "Cairngorm." Neil Gow gives it in his collection, and calls it a Lament. Captain Fraser also gives it, and says that it used to be sung to the "Pursuit of the Deer." It is a sweet and plaintive air, very touching and suggestive. To Highlanders at home it would call up happy memories of sport and adventure; to Highlanders in foreign lands it would speak of the dear country they should see no more, and of friends and kindred from whom they were parted for ever.

"From the dim sheiling and the misty island
Mountains divide us, and a waste of seas;
But still our hearts are true, our hearts are Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides."


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