THE Celtic inhabitants of the north-west Highlands have always been
enthusiastic votaries of poetry and music ; indeed in time past they
perhaps paid more attention to these than to the less sentimental arts of
everyday life. Their bards and musicians, encouraged by the sympathy and
appreciation of chiefs and clansmen alike, became an illustrious, as they
ever were a privileged class.
The bards date back to the
days of the Druids; among them was Ossian, the Homer of the Fingalian
heroes. There is no specific connection between the Ossianic poems and the
parish of Gairloch, but these poems are still reverenced in Gairloch, and
some traces of poetic Fingalian legends are still to be met with (Part I.,
The great contest which has so long raged over Macpherson's
"Ossian" does not concern us here. The unwritten poems of Ossian have been
handed down by the bards through many generations. Possibly Macpherson's
were partly fictitious ; they do not correspond to the actual traditional
forms of the poems, as published by Mr John F. Campbell of Islay (brother
of the present Lady Mackenzie of Gairloch), who has passed to his rest
whilst I write ; he took down the poems from the mouths of the old men who
had become the receptacles of them, and collected them in a book entitled
" Leabhar na Feinnep" perhaps the most valuable contribution to the
The bard of old was called the *seannachie,"
properly "seannach-aidh,"—almost synonymous with "antiquarian" or
"historian,"—a name appropriately signifying that he was the repository
and remembrancer of the history, achievements, and genealogy of his clan
or sept. It was the bard's office to sing or recite the valorous deeds of
the chiefs and heroes, and to cheer on his kinsmen in battle by inspiring
songs or war cries, chaunted, shouted, or sung.
Later on, when clan
contests became less frequent, some of the bards found congenial berths as
family retainers of the great chiefs and proprietors, who generously
rewarded their poetic talents. These family bards recited or sang in the
halls of their patrons songs of their own or others composition, and
frequently repeated some of the poems of Ossian. They were also the
poets-laureate of the great families, composing poems to celebrate their
chief events and personages.
Captain Burt gives a list of the officers
who in his day (1730) attended every chief when he went a journey or paid
a formal visit. Among them are the bard, the piper, and the piper's
gillie. The last bard of the Gairloch family was Alexander Campbell, who
died in the first half of the present century. A short memoir of him is
given further on.
Other bards and poets were found in the more private
walks of life, and they are even now to be met with, still the receptacles
of the treasured traditions and legends of their ancestors and country,
still the composers of Gaelic songs and poems, and still the reciters or
singers of their own compositions or of those of other bards, ancient or
modern. Family traditions and genealogies possess more historical value in
the Highlands than in other parts of Britain, from their having been
preserved and handed down by means of the trained memories of the bards.
In most cases, every word put in the mouths of the traditional heroes is
accurately repeated on each occasion of the story being told.
called "ceilidh," used to be frequently held during the long winter nights
of this northern region, when the people gathered in each others' houses
to be entertained by songs, poems, traditions, legends, and tales of all
kinds. At the "ceilidh" the bards, in their character of "seannachaidhean,"
were in much request, and we can well imagine how the popular applause
fostered the spirit of the bards and helped to preserve the old traditions
of the Highlands. They say these " ceilidh " are not yet altogether given
up in Gairloch parish.
Pipe music dates back at least as far as the
fourteenth century, and probably much farther. Mr Robertson Macdonald of
Kinloch-moidart wrote to the Scotsman a few years ago, stating that he had
the chanter and blowpipe of bagpipes which he believed to be older than a
bagpipe reported at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland to
bear the date of 1409. Mr Macdonald's relics were given in the end of last
century to his maternal uncle, Donald Macdonald of Kinloch-moidart, by the
Macintyres, who were the hereditary pipers to the Clanranald branch of the
Macdonalds, as they were on the point of emigrating to America ; they said
the Macdonalds had followed the inspiring strains of these bagpipes into
the battle of Bannockburn, 24th June 1314.
The vocation of the pipers,
who had gradually displaced the more ancient harpers, corresponded very
closely with that of the bards. Like the bards, they accompanied their
clansmen to battle. On all social occasions they played their stately
pibrochs, or thrilling marches, or lively reels and jigs ; weddings and
funerals were always attended by pipers, who moved the assembled companies
with their stirring strains. Most of the chiefs had their family pipers,
and the office was often hereditary. The Mackays were the hereditary
pipers of the lairds of Gairloch (see next chapter) during the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, and were well rewarded by their patrons. The
MacCrimmons of Dunvegan, Skye, were the great teachers of pipe music in
the north up to a recent period ; they held their lands from Macleod of
Macleod, in return for their attendance on his person and family.
these modern days pipers are still numerous in Gairloch, and still enliven
many a wedding party with their music. The Gairloch volunteers have their
efficient pipers, who in tartan array play many a lively air as their
comrades move in column, and who accompany the march-past on review days
to the favourite tune of "Highland Laddie." Highlanders march with lighter
tread, more spirited step, and more accurate time, to the music of the
bagpipes than to any other.
The strains of the great Highland bagpipes,
when played indoors, often sound harsh and shrill to the unaccustomed ear,
but they never do to the Highlander, who to this day prefers the pipes to
all other music. Their effect on the Highland soldier, in the presence of
the foe, is too well known to need description here.
The love of pipe
music, and of songs in their native tongue, is as powerful to-day with the
Highlanders of Gairloch as it can ever have been. At a dinner of the
Gairloch volunteers, on 8th May 1884, the thrilling music of the pipers,
and the Gaelic songs exquisitely rendered by Mr Alexander Macpherson of
Opinan, one of the volunteer sergeants, seemed to arouse the enthusiasm
and stir the feelings of all present to an extent it would have been
difficult, if not impossible, to effect by any other means.
Some of the
bards and pipers of Gairloch attained great' eminence. Amongst the memoirs
of them which follow is a short account of John Mackenzie, the author of
the "Beauties of Gaelic Poetry," who was himself somewhat of a poet, and
an excellent piper.
There were many less eminent bards and pipers in
Gairloch. Three of the old bards are mentioned in Part I. of this book,
viz., Ruaridh Breac, "the English bard," and Duncan M'Rae.
son of fair Duncan, lived at Cromasaig, near Kenlochewe, in the first half
of the seventeenth century. He composed a celebrated song to the "Guard of
the Black Corrie."
The English bard called in Gaelic "Am Bard Sasunnach,"
was a Cross, son or descendant of one of the Letterewe ironworkers. He was
living at the time of the "Forty-five" at a house he had built at Kernsary,
called to this day Innis a Bhaird, or the "place of the bard."
M'Rae, of Isle Ewe, mentioned in Part II., chap, xiv., as the composer of
"Oran na Feannaige," was also a bard.
Of past Gairloch pipers, other
than the Mackays, I have no account, except of three who belong to recent
Roderick Campbell, a celebrated piper and fiddler, lived at
Cuil-chonich, above Aird House, near Aultbea, in the latter part of the
eighteenth century. Ruaridh Mac Iamhair, as he was called in Gaelic, was
descended from the Campbells of Leckmelm, on Loch-broom. His father was
Norman Campbell; he had four sons, viz., Kenneth, Donald, Roderick (the
piper), and John. Donald was also a great fiddler. John Mackenzie (Iain or
John Glas) of Mossbank, Poolewe, is a grandson of Kenneth. John, the
youngest brother of Roderick, emigrated to America. Roderick was a pupil
of Angus Mackay (one of the Gairloch hereditary pipers), and it is said
that Roderick made such progress, that when his term of apprenticeship to
Angus had but half expired he had learned all that his accomplished master
could impart. Roderick attained great fame as a piper, and was mucjh
respected through the country for his talents and agreeable manners. He
lived in a day when the young men laid themselves out to amuse and
interest others. While still young he was drowned in the Old Cruive Pool,
on the River Ewe, when attempting to cross the river by means of the
Cruive dyke, there being no bridge at Pool-<ewe till long after. The
musical reputation of the family is sustained by Alexander Mackenzie, the
present senior piper of the Gairloch volunteers, who is the son of John
Iain Mac Coinnich (John Mackenzie), known as Piobaire
Bhan, or the "fair piper," was a first-rate performer during the present
century. He lived at Leac nan Saighead, and was blind. He died about 1870,
an old man.
William Maclean, formerly of Ormiscaig, must be reckoned as
a past piper of Gairloch; the excellent music he discoursed is still
remembered; the origin of his talents is related in Part II., chap. xii.
The following is an alphabetical list (probably imperfect) of Gairloch
pipers now living: