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Clan MacCrimmon


PIBROCH: Cogadh no Sith.

MacCruimin THE bagpipe as a musical instrument is common to many nations in Europe and Asia. It was probably a natural, though ingenious development of the simple reed instrument blown directly from the lips. By interposing the mechanical device of a large bag or wind reservoir between the inlet pipe and the chanter or pipe containing the reed and the finger-holes by which the sound was produced and manipulated, the player would find he added immensely to the volume of his music and to his own powers of endurance. A still later and formidable improvement was the addition of the drones. In no country, however, has pipe-music been brought to such perfection and used to such effect as in the Highlands of Scotland. The original musical instrument of the Gael was not the bagpipe but the clarsach, or portable harp. The songs of Ossian and the later Celtic bards were sung to the accompaniment of this sweet but rather feeble instrument, which, by the way, was also common to many primitive peoples, such as the Jews. Miriam, the sister of Moses, danced before the Ark on a famous occasion to the sound of the clarsach. The bagpipe was a comparatively recent introduction to Scotland. There is no word of it in the story of King Robert the Bruce as told by Barbour, or in the romantic narrative of Froissart or the accounts of the battle of Harlaw a hundred years later. Mr. Manson, in his History of the Scottish Bagpipe, sets its introduction about the first quarter of the fifteenth century.

No musical instrument could have been better adapted to the hills and glens and lochsides of the Scottish Highlands, or to the methods of clan warfare, and it is characteristic of pipe-music that many of the most famous airs extant at the present hour had their origin in some historic event like the triumph or defeat of a clan, the death of a famous chief, or some other outstanding episode of Highland history. No instrument is better adapted for battle purposes. Even now, when the other bandsmen are sent to the rear, the piper of a Highland battalion goes "over the top" with his company, and many a thrilling and heroic tradition has been added in this way to the lore of the mountain music within recent years.

Coeval with the coming to Scotland of the bagpipe itself appears to have been the rise of the family which more than any other raised pipe-playing to eminence as an art, and added lustre to its practice by the excellence of its performance and the charm of its compositions. According to a very questionable tradition the first of the race was an individual who studied at Cremona in Italy and settled in Glenelg. At any rate, whatever their origin, the MacCrimmons appear to have been the hereditary pipers to the Chiefs of Macleod for something like three hundred years. As the endowment of their office they held the considerable estate of Boreraig, and there to the present day is pointed out the residence, Oiltigh, where they carried on a more or less regular college or Academy of Music for the instruction of aspiring pipers from all parts of the Highlands who flocked thither in the hope of attaining the secret of their mastery and something like their enduring fame. The family is believed to have held the office from a date early in the sixteenth century, but the first of the name on record was Ian Odhar, or Dun-coloured John, who flourished about the year 1600. A genealogy of his descendants is given in Manson’s Highland Bagpipe.

Countless stories are still told in the Highlands regarding these MacCrimmon pipers. During the feuds between the Macleods and the Mackenzies a brother of Donald More MacCrimmon, son of Ian Odhar, and chief of the name at that time, was slain by the Mackenzies in Kintail, and Donald More himself experienced many thrilling adventures and escapes in his effort to avenge him. Among other exploits he set fire to eighteen houses in Kintail, and brought the country about his ears. His exploits came to an end with an episode not unworthy to be set beside that of David, King of Judah, when he cut a fragment from the skirt of the robe of his enemy Saul in the Cave of Adullam. The Mackenzie Chief, hearing that Donald was in his neighbourhood, had sent out his son with a party of men to arrest him, and these men happened to come to the very house where he lay concealed. As they sat round the fire they barred his only way of escape, and it seemed only a question of time till one or other of them must discover him. The day, however, happened to be wet, and as they threw off their drenched plaids, the woman of the house, on the pretext of drying them, hung them across the room in such a way that MacCrimmon was able to pass behind them unperceived, and make his escape. The day continued stormy and the Mackenzies remained telling tales round the fire. That night, when the party lay asleep, he returned, and, collecting their weapons, laid them across each other beside the bed in which their leader slept. In the morning Mackenzie was startled to find the weapons there, but, rightly judging whose daring hand had laid them by his bed, and had spared his life when he might have taken it, he arranged an interview with MacCrimmon, procured his pardon, and sent him home to Skye unharmed.

This Donald More’s son, Patrick More, was the author, under very affecting circumstances of one of the finest bagpipe airs. He was the father of eight grown-up sons, all of whom together frequently accompanied him to kirk and market. In a single year he had the grief to lose no fewer than seven of them by death, and on recovering somewhat from his grief he immortalised his loss by the composition of the pathetic pibroch Cumhadh na Cloinne, the "Lament for the Children."

This same Patrick More MacCrimmon is himself commemorated in a well-known salute and in a lament for him composed by his brother. Another famous composition of the MacCrimmons, Cogadh no Sith, "Peace or War," is commemorated as the motto of the clan under their crest.

At the time of the landing of Prince Charles Edward in 1745 the chief of the MacCrimmons was Donald Ban. As piper he accompanied Macleod, who adhered to the Government, when with the Munros he marched upon Aberdeen to seize Lord Lewis Gordon. The force, however, was attacked and routed at Inverurie, and Donald Ban was taken prisoner. Next morning, contrary to custom, there was no pipe-music at the Jacobite quarters. When Lord Lewis and his officers enquired the reason, they were told that, so long as MacCrimmon was a prisoner there would be no pipes played. On hearing this Lord Lewis at once ordered that Donald Ban should be set free. Not long afterwards, however, MacCrimmon met his fate. He was one of the party sent out by Lord Loudon from Inverness to seize Prince Charles as he lay unguarded at Moy Hall, the residence of the Mackintosh chief. The raid was turned into a rout by the strategy of Lady Mackintosh and the courage of tile blacksmith of Moy with two or three clansmen, and in the confusion and flight Donald Ban was slain. His death is commemorated in the affecting lament which goes by his name, the finest of all bagpipe laments, Ha til mi tulidh, "We return no more."

Following the last Jacobite rising, the Act of Parliament of 1748, which abolished hereditary jurisdictions, and the retaining of pipers and other followers by the chiefs, sounded the knell of MacCrimmon’s greatness. The lands which they had held as an endowment of their office were resumed by the Chiefs of Macleod. Deprived of their independence and prestige they dwindled and disappeared. On the departure of the last of them to Greenock with the intention of emigrating to Canada, he is said to have composed the touching lament, above referred to, Ha til, ha til, ha til, Mhic Chruimin, "No more, no more, no more, MacCrimmon." He got no further than Greenock, however, for the love of the home of his fathers drew him back to Skye. This individual, Donald Dubh, died in 1822 at the great age of 91.

Following the vogue set by the MacCrimrnons, the pipers of the Highland chiefs have attracted the attention of every notable visitor to the Highlands. Dr. Samuel Johnson was struck by the performance of the piper of Maclean of CoIl, and Sir Walter Scott in the journal of his voyage to the Hebrides in 1814 describes with evident appreciation the escort of Macleod of Macleod himself at Dunvegan. "Return to the castle," he writes, "take our luncheon, and go aboard at three, Macleod accompanying us in proper style with his piper. We take leave of the castle, where we have been so kindly entertained, with a salute of seven guns. The chief returns ashore, with his piper playing ‘The Macleods’ Gathering,’ heard to advantage along the calm and placid loch, and dying as it retreated from us."

In early times the piper was one of the principal members of the "luchdtachd" or personal body-guard of ten men who attended a chief. These men were as ready to fight as to furnish other services, and there is in existence a composition by the piper of Cluny Macpherson, in which he regrets that he has not three arms so that he might wield the sword while he played the clansmen to battle. In more recent days the Dukes of Kent and Sussex, sons of George III., each adopted the fashion of having a household piper; and the Duke of Kent’s daughter, Queen Victoria, at Balmoral, followed the example of the Highland lairds in the same manner. To-day there are many societies and clubs in our cities for the preservation and practice of pipe-music, and few things could be more impressive than the appearance, at civic banquets and the banquets of the clan societies, of the pipers, splendidly attired and marching with inimitable swing as they play the appropriate point of war at the climax of the feast. The pipes, too, have made an immense sensation on occasions such as the funeral of Professor Blackie, when they headed the cortege down the aisles of St, Giles’ Cathedral with the heart-searching lament for "The Flowers o’ the Forest."

For a very large part of the effectiveness of pipe-music and the vogue which has made it so inspiring a feature of Highland life and manners the country is without doubt indebted to the famous race of the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to the Chiefs of Macleod. These pipers had a method peculiar to themselves, of writing down the pipe-music in words. A collection of this was published in 1828 by Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto. Though to the ordinary eye it looks like nonsense, it was read and played from as late as 1880 by the Duke of Argyll’s piper, Duncan Ross.


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