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Home Life of the Highlanders 1400 - 1746
The Music of the Clans
By Rev. M. N. Munro, M. A.


THE student of folk-song in its development and evolution could not find anywhere a more interesting and instructive region than the Gaelic-speaking districts of Scotland for the prosecution of such studies. Folk-song in many parts is still alive and creative, especially where Gaelic is the chief language. At a social gathering in the outer Isles last year the people entertained one another with folk-songs for four hours on end. Not a book or manuscript was used by any of the singers. Highland vocal music is probably as primitive, simple, and beautiful in expression of the spontaneous musical genius of a people as can be found anywhere else in the world. The folk airs of Lowland Scotland, closely allied in character to Gaelic sirs, have been pretty well exhausted by a large band of gleaners years ago. In England able musicians associated with the Folk-Song Society have of late years been very successful in recovering many old modal airs, never before recorded, from the peasantry in rural districts. In Wales also modal airs are found at the present time more like the tonality of Gaelic music than the Welsh tames in the ordinary collections. The collectors of earlier years ignored much of the most characteristic modal music in England and Wales, or took the heart out of the tunes by forcing them into the modern minor or major, often changing them beyond recognition. Yet it was stated by some that in England all folk-music worth printing had been collected long ago. I am convinced that in the remoter districts of the Highlands, where socially you may find the eighteenth century conditions still surviving, much unpublished music may be found if diligently searched for. The collector should know Gaelic, and be possessed of much tact as well as musical qualifications.

Our professional and cultured classes too long were accustomed to dismiss the people’s music with the sniff of superiority. Now it is gradually dawning on their minds that the people’s songs are worth preserving. Though the artificially cultivated flowers of the conservatory and garden may be gorgeous, the wise man will not despise Nature’s wildings, the flowers of the field. They have a sweet charm that is all their own. Even so the people’s song is now coming into favour, and is treated with intelligent and loving appreciation. This new attitude corresponds to the Wordsworthian spirit in poetry that sees the beauty of common things, the glory of the daffodils and the deep suggestiveness of the meanest flower that blows.

The Golden Age of Gaelic poetry was the eighteenth century, the period of the ‘45 and the half-century following. Then flourished Alexander M1)onald, Duncan Ban, Rob Donn, and Dugald Buchanan. There was a great outburst of poetic genius expressed in patriotic song, nature description, a new type of passionate love-poetry, and many religious poems. Also, a rich variety of Jacobite Gaelic poetry was composed then, before the best Lowland Jacobite poetry was written. It is very probable that this century was an actively creative period in vocal music as well as poetry. The two arts are practically inseparable in the Gaelic world.

But vocal music of some sort must have existed at a much earlier period. A large collection of heroic and legendary ballads are preserved in the Dean of Lismore’s book—a pre-Reformation collection dating 1512-1526, taken down from oral tradition, and undoubtedly genuine. There are 11,000 lines of poetry in it in old and difficult Gaelic, and 800 of those lines are Ossianic. There are no prose passages. Most of these poems are in fairly regular metres, and would be chanted to music in the halls of the chieftains. The harp would no doubt often be used as an accompaniment. The fine ballad of Ossian in praise of Fionn, given in this collection, is in a very singable metre, nearly the same as "Mo Roghainn ‘s mo rim, a chunna mi n dd." The air to which the song was sung may be still preserved, but we cannot identify it.

The old Irish Gaelic is practically identical with the Scottish Gaelic when we go back a few centuries, and no doubt the cultivation of vocal music was on similar lines in both countries—Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland. Variants of the same air are often found in both countries, just as in the case of the folk-tales. Even at the present day one may hear Irish native singers at the Oireachtas in Dublin, whose style and expression recalls with startling suggestiveness the traditional singing of the Scottish Gael. It may not be too much to say, in view of these facts, that in the early centuries the history of Irish music is also the history of Highland music. Giraldus Cambrensis, writing in the twelfth century, says that "Scotland and Wales, the former by reason of her derivation, the latter from intercourse and affinity, seek with emulous endeavours to imitate Ireland in music." In the same century Somerled, Lord of the Isles or King of Argyll, was also Ruler of Louth, Arinagh, and Monaghan in Ireland.

Until the Lordship of the Isles was surrendered to the Scottish Crown in 1493, an event Hume Brown calls the "Conquest of the Hebrides," there was a close bond between Ireland and the West of Scotland, between Scotia Major and Scotia Minor. Irish bards and harpers, O’Dalys and others, were frequently entertained at Inveraray and Dunstaffnage and other western strongholds during this long period.

The HARPER and the HARP were of much importance in early Gaelic music. The harper was a man of social rank and political importance. He was highly paid, and often travelled from place to place carrying news and messages of moment from one chief to another. His retentive memory would be stored with. songs and tunes and ballads, and as an entertainer he would everywhere receive a ready welcome. In war their persons were safe from violence. Through the harper much assimilation of tunes would take place between Ireland and Alba. Highland chiefs had harpers who studied in Ireland as late as the eighteenth century. There were also schools of medicine and colleges for bards in Ireland, as well as schools of music, in which many Scots were trained.

The use of the harp in Scotland began to decline in the seventeenth century. M’Lean of Coll had a harper who had been learning his craft in Ireland even as late as 1734. The more martial instrument, the bagpipe, became immensely popular when introduced among a warlike people, and most regrettably the clarsach fell into disuse, until to-day it may be said that the Scots and Irish have quite forsaken their beautiful and ancient instrument. The use of the harp in Scotland and other countries goes back to immemorial antiquity. Skene states that on two ancient sculptured stones in Scotland there are representations of a harp similar in appearance to the Highland type of instrument. One of these stones is a ninth century one, and the other is older still. Probably the oldest representation of a harp in the world has been found on a tablet in Babylonia, dating about 3000 B.C.

The Celtic harp was well known in Italy as far back as the thirteenth century. The poet Dante (born in 1265) refers to it thus in an interesting passage, quoted by Grattan Flood: "This most ancient instrument was brought to us from Ireland, where they are excellently made and in great numbers, for the inhabitants of that island have practised on it for many ages. .. . Nay, they even place it on the arms of the kingdom, giving as a reason their being descended from the royal prophet David." It is not matter for surprise that Italians should be acquainted~ with Irish customs, for the early Celtic Church had representatives on the Continent long before Dante’s time. The famous Columbanus, after preaching in France and Switzerland, ended his days with other Irish companions at Trebbia in Northern Italy in 615 A.D. Doubtless Dante was keenly interested in Ireland and the early Irish Church.

Though the ancient harp (perhaps the most graceful in form of musical instruments) has fallen into disuse, still it may be said to live on pretty vigorously, disguised and enclosed within the case of the modern piano. It is strange that that splendid instrument, the modern pedal harp, is now comparatively neglected. Few composers have written music for it, and its great capacities are undeveloped. A recent writer says that "nothing can approach it for sweetness, and it affords an ideal accompaniment for the voice." Unfortunately its initial cost is great, and it is troublesome to keep in tune and to move about from place to place. One could wish to hear Gaelic music once more sung to the harp by a good player. Why not use the modern pedal harp, with its complete chromatic scale, as it is the best form of the instrument available? Inferior forms of the instrument will not sufficiently repay the trouble of learning the art, and must inevitably disappear.

Regarding the BAGPIPE and its antiquity in the Highlands, much controversial literature has been written. Some claim that it was known to the Gaels from the earliest time, and others hold that it was unknown before 1500 in the North. Whether it was known to the Gaels at an early date or not, it is an instrument of respectable antiquity, and was used in one form or another by nearly all the primitive European peoples in ancient times. It was probably at one time in common use all over Europe. It now survives in Highland districts, in Calabria, the Tyrol and the Highlands of Scotland, and also in Northern India.

A terra-cotta of 200 B.C. has been found at Tarsus representing a player blowing a wind chest to which several pipes are attached. This sort of bagpipe is the type which evolved later into the organ. One of the earliest pipers on record is the Emperor Nero! The word "piob" is derived from an imitative root that occurs in many European languages, which suggests the action of the lips on a reed. Dr. M’Bain of Inverness has given some grounds for the conclusion that the instrument came to the Lowlands in the fourteenth century, and reached the Highlands in the sixteenth century, where it received a Highland welcome. Dr. M’Bain hunted out the earliest literary allusions to the pipes in Scottish literature. Yet his mode of argument does not prove with absolute conclusiveness that the pipes were not in use long before the earliest literary reference. If we were to discover the earliest mention of the Quern or the "Cruiskean" in literature, would that fix the date of the invention? The double reed pipe is prehistoric in its origin, and may very well have come to Britain with the first wave of Celtic or other migration. Possibly archaeology may yet have something fresh to say regarding the antiquity of the pipes in Scotland. Whatever was the origin of the reed chanter, the manner in which the Gaels developed the instrument to the utmost of its capacity, by composing a very large amount of interesting pipe music for it, is evidence of their strong natural musical gifts. The art of playing the pipes was carried to a high pitch of perfection in the eighteenth century. It is bound up with the splendid history of the Highland regiments, and is much cultivated at the present day.

Vocal music is the most heart-stirring of all music, as the human voice is infinitely superior to any instrument in emotional power. Yet it is found that when vocal music is highly developed, there is always a disposition to welcome and cultivate instrumental music. For dance music and march tunes the pipes, with their clear, piercing notes, became popular early, and the stately pibroch, with its slow movement, followed by rapid variations of the theme, was inventied by Highland pipers and reached wonderful perfection. Highland Violin Music (Strathspeys and Reels) attained an interesting development at a later period, and is beyond the scope of this paper.

Pipe music may be accounted a form of Folk Music. The folk piper, ignorant of notation but with many traditional tunes in his head, may still be found in remote places.

The old clan system, in spite of many faults, tended to foster poetry and song and the music of instruments like the harp and pipe. Each great chieftain had his Seannachie, harper and piper, and doubtless between these functionaries in neighbouring clans, strong rivalries and the desire to excel one another would exist. The clansmen would take a pride in their own bard and piper, and would depreciate the skill of all outsiders. Thus the competitive spirit would be aroused and creative power awakened. Prof. M’Kinnon says that "the Seannachies provided genealogies and histories which were not always true, but it would have been far worse if there were none." One gain of the system was that the literary and musical art was kept alive in a troubled and stormy age.

The airs made for the pipes are necessarily different from those suited for the voice, because they are conditioned by the instrument for which they were composed. The great bulk of our vocal airs are too wide in compass to be played on the chanter. The real pitch is low G to A (middle), and the range is only an octave and a tone, fah, to soh. Gaelic vocal airs often have a compass of an octave and a third or fourth. There are a few vocal airs and some Puirt-a beul that exactly fit the true chanter scale in key D. Vocal airs or violin tunes of wide compass, when cut and carved to suit the chanter, are nothing better than caricatures of the original. What best suits the bagpipes is music composed on the instrument. The pibroch or Ceol Mor, the classical music of the pipes, is effective and satisfactory, though the variations are somewhat mechanical, and too much of one type. The grace notes or warbiers that can be played on the chanter are a remarkable feature of pipe music. The flute is supposed to be the most agile of all instruments, but the chanter can beat it in the execution of compound grace notes, that sometimes warble on eleven notes between the last up beat and the first down beat of a bar. Even on that beautiful instrument, the oboe, the highest modern development of the chanter, it is doubtful if the most expert player could reproduce the lightning grace notes that can be played with ease on the bagpipe.

The much-discussed piper’s "Canntaireachd" is an interesting and unique musical problem connected with the pipe music of the clans. It is a series of apparently meaningless vocal syllables supposed to represent the time and tune combined of pipe airs. The key to the system is lost, at any rate I have not seen a satisfactory solution of the puzzle. If the mnemonic words give time and tune together, the invention of the old Highland pipers beats Curwen’s Sol-fa completely, and is the most remarkable musical notation in existence. here is a characteristic specimen given by Campbell of Islay:

Cogadh no Sith—Battle or Peace
Hodroho, hodroho, haninin hiechin,
Hodroho, hodroho, hodroho, hachin, etc.

Finishing measure:

Hinndratatateriri, hiendatatateriri,
Hinndratatateriri, hiundratatateriri.

The syllables in the latter line remind one strangely of Curwen’s time names "taa taatai" and "terele-tirili." Did he borrow the ideas from the old M’Crimmons?

It seems to me that the piper’s system is a mnemonic device to help the memory of a player who has already learned the tune by ear, and that it is not a complete system. These words memorised from the teacher would give the time and the number of bars, with a suggestion of changes. The closing cadence particularly is marked by a different word. Something like these curious syllables may still be heard when old folks try to recall a pipe tune and hum it over with the voice.

In General Thomason’s "Ceol Mor" may be found a very interesting account of the technicalities of pipe-playing, and many suggestive thoughts, along with 278 pibrochs, compressed into manageable bulk by the use of an ingenious and elaborate system of abbreviation signs of his own invention. The volume is unique in Scottish musical literature.

The chanter scale is never exactly correct in its intonation, that is, according to the modern diatonic scale. The Fah of key D is neither Fah nor Fe, but a compromise. One wonders whether this may not account for the inaccurate or hesitating way in which many native singers take their semitones. Or is it the influence of the old Pentatonic scale, which rejects the notes Fah and Te altogether? In the Hebrides and elsewhere it is curious to note how the people invariably alter the notes in a line of the Psalm Tune "St. Paul" despite the desperate efforts of the preoentor. What should run thus,

:d  |r  :m  |f  :m  |r  :d  |t  :—  ||

they insist on singing as

:d  |r  :m  |m  :m  |r  :d  |d  :—  ||

Other instances of the same tendency might be cited. But strangers to the Highlands should be cautioned not to judge the musical qualities of the Gael by the congregational singing generally met with. In the Gaelic services the service of praise has been sadly neglected, and is iii a state of arrested development.

We pass to the most interesting part of the music of the clans, their VOCAL Music. The voice is the instrument of speech as well as of musical tone, and is a miracle of constructive design. The old tunes, like the old poems, were produced not according to the rules of art discovered in modern times by the analytical minds of scholars, but were the spontaneous expression of strong natural feeling. There is life and reality behind them. They are based on the bed-rock of human nature, and are thus full of vitality and power. These airs would come to some man or woman who possessed the valuable gift of melody in a time of some ardour of joy or sorrow. The air would be crooned over with intense feeling, joined, perhaps, to original words that expressed the mood of the soul that demanded expression, or some poet who could not compose airs would bring his song to a man who was specially gifted in order to get an air fitted to it. Next, it would be sung to others, and they in their turn, if moved and delighted by it, would quickly memorise words and music and transmit it in later days and years to scores of interested listeners. Or, perhaps the people might not care for the song. In that case it was soon forgotten. Or the air might be picked up by another singer of musical talent and good range of voice, and the result might be an improvement on the original, a development into a more beautiful form of the melody. On the other hand, a good original might be spoiled by the defective memory of some person who formed a link in the chain of transmission. After a long lapse of time a tune might be changed almost beyond recognition.

Many variants of the same air occur to-day throughout the Highlands. But the really fine airs would probably be best remembered and preserved, because any change would be a change for the worse. What seems to be the true theory of folk-song is thus expressed by Boebme, a German, and quoted by Cecil Sharp: "First of all one man sings a song, and then the others sing it after him, changing what then do not like." Folk-song in all nations is, while unwritten, subject to a living process of creation, growth and decay. There is much freedom and plasticity, yet continuity is preserved. The evolution of folk-song has three factors - Continuity, Variation, and Selection. Mr. Sharp applies these principles in an illuminating way to English folk-song. They are principles of general application.

Continuity of the framework of a melody is the rule and variation is the exception. Otherwise we should have perpetual change and confusion. The memory for tunes of the unlettered singer is immensely better than that of the modern singer who always uses printed music and sings so many songs that he can hardly remember one without the book.

The accuracy of transmission of the traditional singer is proved by the fact that melodies among the people to-day are much the same in form as those taken down in the middle of the eighteenth century by the M'Donalds. A song composed in Rannoch was heard in a Lewis shieling by a friend, and was learned from the native singer. The singer thought it was by William Ross, but on examination I found it to be "Mi ‘m shuidh am ònar." The air was simplified a little, at least it differed slightly from the form known in the south, but the words were exactly right. In passing to the Western Isles, the song may have been handed on by a chain of singers in which there were very many individuals. Motherwell says, in this connection: "It is not with the unlettered and rude that the oral song suffers vital and irremediable wrong."

Yet we have considerable variation of form with manifest identity of melody at present in different districts. The general experience of collectors is that if the words are f or-gotten the air is also in danger of loss or of great variation from the original form. Some singers, says Mr. Sharp, are ‘habitually unconscious of the tune they are singing, and they may thus introduce unpremeditated variation." In other cases "melodic alterations apparently spring spontaneously from out the heart of the singer." Specially gifted singers invent new phrases, but such persons are always few in number. The desire to introduce ornament and to prolong notes for emotional effect also causes variation. The most extraordinary instance in the north of variation through ornamental notes is to be seen in the Long tunes sung to the Psalms in Ross-shire and Sutherland. The old common tune is there, but it is lost in ornamental notes that have now become essential notes. The result is wildly beautiful and unique, and the singing of these to slow time has a most solemn effect. Two of these tunes have been printed recently with harmonies for the Mod choirs. These Long Tunes, in the opinion of Mr. W. H. Murray, could not have been constructed by an art musician, and are a product of Celtic genius.

Unconscious change of mode is another cause of variation. Some Gaelic airs appear in the Soh mode and also in the Lah, mode. The frequent metrical irregularities in the older Gaelic poetry often cause minor changes in melodies.

In Gaelic music sometimes a simple little melody, even a Port-a-beul or vocal dance tune, may develop into several fine tunes for songs, even as one little seed may produce many plants. From the Port-a-beul, "An aparan goirid" as origin, we may derive several modern tunes. "Mo shuil a’d’ dhèigh," a fine tune, is derived from it. There are two or three distinct variants of this tune, all beautiful. One is sung in Skye and another in Poolewe. Then "Théid mi ‘gad’ amharc" is from the same germ, but much changed. The time is faster; the poem is livelier. A still further change and variation may be traced in "0 till a leannain." The original four-line tune has got a new second part, and now is an eight-line tune. But the root of the melody seems to be "Mo shuil a’d’ dhéigh."

The factor of Selection determines which melody or variant shall live the longest in the struggle for existence. It depends on the popular taste and the class of tune and song that makes the strongest appeal to the people. What the people like they will remember easily; what they do not care for is forgotten, unless preserved in writing. "National peculiarities must alternately determine the characteristic of the folk-songs of different nations." The community will eventually select and preserve those airs and songs which appeal most to their mind and heart.. "The individual invents, the community selects" (Sharp). The same general principle is at work to-day in modern literature and music.

There are various classes of songs in Gaelic, but as our space is limited we cannot enter minutely into details. We have referred to early legendary and heroic ballads. Many of these will be found in the Dean of Lismore’s Book and in Lea bhar na Feinne, by Campbell of Islay. Some few authors of the first-named collection date about 1200 A.D. The Oran Mor class would include these and more modern compositions of a historical nature relating a battle or in praise of the clan or chief, and also might include descriptive pieces, such as "Ben Dòran," "An Dubh Ghleannach," or satire as "Caberféidh." In this class the melody is not always very marked. They are almost musical recitative, and depend for their best effect on forceful expression and dramatic delivery with some action. They are songs in the grand style, so to speak; they give scope for dramatic art, and can be rendered with great effect by a good singer.

There are a great variety of action songs, where two or more singers are required, as a rule. In rowing songs and waulking songs one singer leads the band, singing a verse solo, and all join in a stirring chorus, often composed of musical vocalic syllables. In the eighteenth century it is said that the Gaels were as musical as the Arcadians of old. They sung at all sorts of rhythmic work. There were quern songs, milking croons, songs for watching the folds, and even songs for bands of people mowing the corn or haymaking in the fields. Such songs as these were heard and much admired in the Lowlands long ago when the Highland reapers went south to help the Lothian farmers in autumn tide. Certain songs of a delicate and graceful class were ascribed to the fairies, and the very words of the Gaelic were supposed to have been composed by the little people. Beautiful lullabies were sung by the women to their children, and most probably they were composed by the women. Indeed, the women folk have had as much to do with the making of Gaelic music and melody as the men, if not more. They have written beautiful love-songs themselves, and, of course, they have inspired all those composed by the other sex! Gaelic is very rich in songs of love and sorrow, two themes ever closely allied. Of the ancient coronach we have few examples, but there are plenty elegies to the departed in Gaelic secular and religious poetry. There is also a considerable number of fine hymn tunes in Gaelic now undeservedly neglected in favour of inferior translations of English hymns. Many of these will be found in Mr. L. M’Bean’s Hymns and Songs of the Gad.

We have undoubtedly a rich endowment in our national heritage of music. Mrs. Kennedy Fraser says that "Highland music is undoubtedly older than Lowland music, the airs are more strongly characteristic and more abundant. The Scottish Gaels, like their cousins of Ireland, are pre-eminently a music-loving race, and their love of singing for its own sake is proved by the wonderful wealth of old Highland airs and island songs that are still to be found."

It may be confidently hoped that there is yet a great future before Gaelic music. Largely through the influence and remarkable growth of the Mod, Gaelic music was never so much cultivated as now. A pressing need exists for competent collectors, who should travel through the remoter Highlands and get the tunes in correct form from the old people before they pass away. Perhaps the Carnegie Trust might do something to help such a worthy and patriotic object.

Is it a vain dream to hope that some day a Gaelic school of music may be formed in Scotland? The great German and Norwegian schools of art music have been built in a foundation of folk-song. Some musician of supreme genius may yet appear, steeped in the folk-music of the Celt, and able to translate it into the terms of art music. Mr. Sharp points out the extraordinary fact that a Russian school of composers has been formed within living memory by one man, Glinka, who was called by Liszt the "Prophet Patriarch" of Russian music. His work was carried on by Tchaikovsky, the greatest of all the composers of the new Russian School. It is strange that nowhere in Britain has such a composer arisen. The reason may partly be that folk-song has been neglected or undervalued for generations, and musicians are content to write mere imitations of great foreign composers’ works, instead of striking the roots of their art deep in the soil of their native land.

Perhaps the hour and the man of destiny may yet arrive. We may at least, by collecting materiaj, help to prepare his way. But let us not forget that Folk-song has high intrinsic value of its own. For, "the unconscious output of the human mind is always real and sincere. With art music this is not always so. The folk-musician.. . working unconsciously, practises his art only when feeling and the desire of expression compel his utterance. Now these are just the conditions when true art is brought to birth."


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