Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Gaelic music

Among the Celts, poetry and music walked hand in hand. There need be no controversy in this case as to which is the more ancient art, they seem to have been coeval. Hence the bards were musicians. Their compositions were all set to music, and many of them composed the airs to which their verses were adapted. The airs to which the ancient Ossianic lays were sung still exist, and several of them may be found noted in Captain Fraser’s excellent collection of Highland music. They are well known in some parts of the Highlands, and those who are prepared to deny with Johnson the existence of any remains of the ancient Celtic bard, must be prepared to maintain at the same time that these ancient airs to which the verses were sung were, like themselves, the offspring of modern imposition. But this is too absurd to obtain credence. In fact these airs were essential to the recitation of the bards. Deprive them of the music with which their lines were associated, and you deprived them of the chief aid to their memory; but give them their music, and they could recite almost without end.

The same is true of the poetry of the modern bards. Song-singing in the Highlands was usually social. Few songs on any subject were composed without a chorus, and the intention was that the chorus should be taken up by all the company present. A verse was sung in the interval by the individual singer, but the object of the chorus was to be sung by all. It is necessary to keep this in view in judging of the spirit and effect of Gaelic song. Sung as songs usually are, the object of the bard is lost sight of, and much of the action of the music is entirely overlooked. But what was intended chiefly to be said was, that the compositions of the modern bards were all intended to be linked with music, sung for the most part socially. We do not at this moment know one single piece of Gaelic poetry which was intended merely for recitation, unless it be found among a certain class of modern compositions which are becoming numerous, and which are English in everything but the language.

The music to which these compositions were sung was peculiar; one can recognise a Gaelic air at once, among a thousand. Quaint and pathetic, irregular and moving on with the most singular intervals, the movement is still self-contained and impressive, - to the Celt eminently so. It is beyond a question that what is called Scottish music has been derived from the Gaelic race. Its characteristics are purely Celtic. So far as the poetry of Burns is concerned, his songs were composed in many cases to airs borrowed from the Highlands, and nothing could fit in better than the poetry and the music. But Scottish Lowland music, so much and so deservedly admired, is a legacy from the Celtic muse throughout. There is nothing in it which it holds in common with any Saxon race in existence. Compare it with the common melodies in use among the English, and the two are proved totally distinct. The airs to which "Scots wha hae," "Auld Langsyne," "Roy’s Wife," "O’a’the airts," and "Ye Banks and Braes," are sung, are airs to which nothing similar can be found in England. They are Scottish, and only Scottish, and can be recognised as such at once. But airs of a precisely similar character can be found among all the Celtic races. In Ireland, melodies almost identical with those of Scotland are found. In fact, the Irish claim such tunes as "The Legacy," "The Highland Laddie," and others. So with the Isle of Man. The national air of the Island, "Mollacharane," has all the distinctive characteristics of a Scottish tune. The melodies of Wales have a similar type. Such a tune as "The Men of Harlech" might at any time be mistaken for a Scottish melody. And if we cross to Brittany and hear a party of Bretons of a night singing a national air along the street, as they often do, the type of the air will be found to be largely Scottish. These facts go far to prove the paternity of what is called Scottish music, and show to conviction that this music, so sweet, so touching, is the ancient inheritance of the Celt.

The ancient Scottish scale consists of six notes. The lowest note A, was afterwards added, to admit of the minor key in wind instruments. The notes in the diatonic scale were added about the beginning of the fifteenth century, and when music arrived at its present state of perfection, the notes in the chromatic scale were farther added. Although many of the Scottish airs have had the notes last mentioned introduced into them, to please modern taste they can be played without them, and without altering the character of the melody. Any person who understands the ancient scale can at once detect the later additions.

"The Gaelic music consists of different kinds or species. 1. Martial music, the Golltraidheacht of the Irish, and the Brosnachadh Catha of the Gael, consisting of a spirit-stirring measure short and rapid. 2. The Geantraidheacht, or plaintive or sorrowful, a kind of music to which the Highlanders are very partial. The Coronach, or Lament, sung at funerals, is the most noted of this sort. [Note: it has been suggested that the above two terms should be swopped around but as this is how it was written in the book we've kept it that way but genuine mistakes can be made and missed in the proofing so we felt you should know about this possible error.]  3. The Suantraidheacht, or composing, calculated to calm the mind, and to lull the person to sleep. 4. Songs of peace, sung at the conclusion of a war. 5. Songs of victory sung by the bards before the king on gaining a victory. 6. Love songs. These last form a considerable part of the national music, the sensibility and tenderness of which excite the passion of love, and stimulated by its influence, the Gael indulge a spirit of the most romantic attachment and adventure, which the peasantry of perhaps no other country exhibit."

The last paragraph is quoted from Mr Logan’s eloquent and patriotic work on the Scottish Gael and represents the state of the Gaelic music when more flourishing and more cultivated than it is today.

The following quotation is from the same source, and is also distinguished by the accuracy of its description.

"The ancient Gael were fond of singing whether in a sad or cheerful frame of mind. Bacon justly remarks, ‘that music feedeth that disposition which it findeth:’ it was a sure sign of brewing mischief, when a Caledonian warrior was heard to ‘hum his surly hymn.’ This race, in all their labours, used appropriate songs, and accompanied their harps with their voices. At harvest the reapers kept time by singing; at sea the boatmen did the same; and while the women were graddaning, performing the luadhadh, or waulking of cloth, or at any rural labour, they enlivened their work by certain airs called luinneags. When milking, they sung a certain plaintive melody, to which the animals listened with calm attention. The attachment which the natives of Celtic origin have to their music, is strengthened by its intimate connection with the national songs. The influence of both on the Scots character is confessedly great - the pictures of heroism, love, and happiness, exhibited in their songs, are indelibly impressed on the memory, and elevate the mind of the humblest peasant. The songs, united with the appropriate music, affect the sons of Scotia, particularly when far distant from their native glens and majestic mountains, with indescribable feelings, and excite a spirit of the most romantic adventure. In this respect, the Swiss, who inhabit a country of like character, and who resemble the Highlanders in many particulars, experience similar emotions. On hearing the national Ranz de vaches, their bowels yearn to revisit the ever dear scenes of their youth. So powerful is the amor patriae awakened by this celebrated air, that it was found necessary to prohibit its being played, under pain of death, among the troops, who would burst into tears on hearing it, desert their colours, and even die.

"No songs could be more happily consructed for singing during labour than those of the Highlanders, every person being able to join in them, sufficient intervals being allowed for breathing time. In a certain part of the song, the leader stops to take breath, when all the others strike in and complete the air with a chorus of words and syllables, generally without signification, but admirably adapted to give effect to the time." The description proceeds to give a picture of a social meeting in the Highlands where this style of singing is practised, and refers to the effect with which such a composition as "Fhir bhta," or the Boatman, may be thus sung.

Poetical compositions associated with music are of various kinds. First of all is the Laoidh, or lay, originally signifying a stately solemn composition, by one of the great bards of antiquity. Thus we have "Laoidh Dhiarmaid," The lay of Diarmad; "Laoidh Oscair," The lay of Oscar; "Laoidh nan Ceann," The lay of the heads; and many others. The word is now made use of to describe a religious hymn; a fact which proves the dignity with which this composition was invested in the popular sentiment. Then there was the "Marbhrann," or elegy. Few men of any mark but had their elegy composed by some bard of note. Chiefs and chieftains were sung of after their deaths in words and music the most mournful which the Celt, with so deep a vein of pathos in his soul, could devise. There is an elegy on one of the lairds of Macleod by a famous poetess "Mairi nighean Alasdair Ruaidh," or Mary M’Leod, which is exquisitely touching. Many similar compositions exist. In modern times these elegies are mainly confined to the religious field, and ministers and other men of mark in that field are often sung of and sung sweetly by such bards as still remain. Then there are compositions called "Iorrams", usually confined to sea songs; "Luinneags," or ordinary lyrics, and such like. These are all wedded to music, which is the reason for noticing them here, and the music must be known in order to have the full relish of the poetry.

There are several collections of Highland music which are well worthy of being better known to the musical world than they are. The oldest is that by the Rev. Peter Macdonald of Kilmore, who was a famous musician in his day. More recently Captain Simon Fraser, of Inverness, published an admirable collection; and collections of pipe music have been made by Macdonald, Mackay, and, more recently, Ross, the latter two pipers to her Majesty, all of which reported of as good.

The secular music of the Highlands, as existing now, may be divided into that usually called by the Highlanders "An Ceol mr," the great music, and in English pibrochs. This music is entirely composed for the Highland bagpipe, and does not suit any other instrument well. It is composed of a slow movement, with which it begins, the movement proceeding more rapidly through several variations, until it attains a speed and an energy which gives room for the exercise of the most delicate and accurate fingering. Some of these pieces are of great antiquity, such as "Mackintosh’s Lament" and "Cogadh na Sith," Peace or War, and are altogether remarkable compositions. Mendelssohn, on his visit to the Highlands, was impressed by them, and introduced a portion of a pibroch into one of his finest compositions. Few musicians take the trouble of examining into the structure of these pieces, and they are condemned often with little real discrimination. Next to these we have the military music of the Highlands, also for the most part composed for the pipe, and now in general employed by the pipers of the Highland regiments. This kind of music is eminently characteristic, having features altogether distinctive of itself, and is much relished by Scotsmen from all parts of the country. Recently a large amount of music of this class has been adapted to the bagpipe which is utterly unfit for it, and the effect is the opposite of favourable to the good name either of the instrument or the music. This practice is in a large measure confined to regimental pipe music. Such tunes as "I’m wearying awa’, Jean" or "Miss Forbes’ Farewell to Banff", have no earthly power of adaptation to the notes of the bagpipe, and the performance of such music on that instrument is a violation of good taste and all musical propriety. One cannot help being struck with the peculiar good taste that pervades all the compositions of the M’Crummens, the famous pipers of the Macleods, and how wonderfully the music and the instrument are adapted to each other throughout. This cannot be said of all pibroch music, and the violation of the principle in military music is frequently most offensive to an accurate ear. This has, no doubt, led to the unpopularity of the bagpipe and its music among a large class of the English-speaking community, who speak of its discordant notes, a reflection to which it is not in the least liable in the case of compositions adapted to its scale.

Next to these two kinds follows the song-music of the Gael, to which reference has been made already. It abounds in all parts of the Highlands, and is partly secular, partly sacred. There are beautiful, simple, touching airs, to which the common songs of the country are sung, and there are airs of a similar class, but distinct, which are used with the religious hymns of Buchanan, Matheson, Grant, and other writers of hymns, of whom there are many. The dance music of the Highlands is also distinct form that of any other country, and broadly marked by its own peculiar features. There is the Strathspey confined to Scotland, a moderately rapid movement well known to every Scotchman; there is the jig in 6/8 time, common to Scotland with Ireland; and there is the reel, pretty much of the same class with the Strathspey, but marked by greater rapidity of motion.

There is one thing which strikes the hearer in this music, that there is a vein of pathos runs through the whole of it. The Celtic mind is largely tinged with pathos. If a musical symbol might be employed to represent them, the mind of the Saxon may be said to be cast in the mould of the major mode, and in the most rapid kinds of music, the jig and the reel, an acute ear will detect the vein of pathos running through the whole.

In sacred music there is not much that is distinctive of the Celt. In forming their metrical version of the Gaelic Psalms, the Synod of Argyll say that one of the greatest difficulties they had to contend with was in adapting their poetry to the forms of the English psalm tunes. There were no psalm tunes which belonged to the Highlands, and it was necessary after the Reformation to borrow such as had been introduced among other Protestants, whether at home or abroad. More lately a peculiar form of psalm tune has developed itself in the North Highlands, which is deserving of notice. It is not a class of new tunes that has appeared, but a peculiar method of singing the old ones. The tunes in use are only six, all taken from the old Psalter of Scotland. They are - French, Dundee, Elgin, York, Martyrs, and old London. The principal notes of the original tunes are retained, but they are attended with such a number of variations, that the tune in its new dress can hardly be at all recognised. These tunes may not be musically accurate, and artists may make light of them, but sung by a large body of people, they are eminently impressive and admirably adapted to the purposes of worship. Sung on a Communion Sabbath by a crowd of worshippers in the open air, on the green sward of a Highland valley, old Dundee is incomparable, and exercises over the Highland mind a powerful influence. And truly effect cannot be left out of view as an element in judging of the character of any music. The pity is that this music is fast going out of use even in the Highlands. It has always been confined to the counties of Caithness, Sutherland, Ross, and part of Inverness. Some say that this music took its complexion from the old chants of the medieval Church. One thing is true of this and all Gaelic psalmody, that the practice of chanting the line is rigidly adhered to, although from the more advanced state of general education in the Highlands the necessity that once existed for it is now passed away.

Connected with the Gaelic music, the musical instruments of the Celts remain to be noticed; but we shall confine our observations to the harp and the bagpipe, the latter of which has long since superseded the former in the Highlands. The harp is the most noted instrument of antiquity, and was in use among many nations. It was, in particular, the favourite instrument of the Celts. The Irish were great proficients in harp music, and they are said to have made great improvements on the instrument itself. So honourable was the occupation of a harper among the Irish, that none but freemen were permitted to play on the harp, and it was reckoned a disgrace for a gentleman not to have a harp, and be able to play on it. The royal household always included a harper, who bore a distinguished rank. Even kings did not disdain to relieve the cares of royalty by touching the strings of the harp; and we are told by Major that James I., who died in 1437, excelled the best harpers among the Irish and the Scotch Highlanders. But harpers were not confined to the houses of kings, for every chief had his harper as well as his bard.

"The precise period when the harp was superseded by the bagpipe, it is not easy to ascertain. Roderick Morrison, usually called Ruaraidh Dall, or Blind Roderick, was one of the last native harpers; he was harper to the Laird of M’Leod. On the death of his master, Morrison led an itinerant life, and in 1650 he paid a visit to Robertson of Lude, on which occasion he composed a Port or air, called Suipeir Thighearna Leoid or The Laird of Lude’s Supper, which, with other pieces, is still preserved. M’Intosh, the compiler of the Gaelic Proverbs, relates the following anecdote of Mr Robertson, who, it appears, was a harp-player himself of some eminence:- ‘One night my father, James M’Intosh, said to Lude that he would be happy to hear him play on the harp, which at that time began to give place to the violin. After supper Lude and he retired to another room, in which there was a couple of harps, one of which belonged to Queen Mary. James, says Lude, here are two harps; the largest one is the loudest, but the smallest is the sweetest, which do you wish to hear played ? James answered the small one, which Lude took up and played upon till daylight.’

The last harper, as is commonly supposed, was Murdoch M’Donald, harper to M’Lean of Coll. He received instructions in playing from Rory Dall in Skye, and afterwards in Ireland; and from accounts of payments made to him by M’Lean, still extant, Murdoch seems to have continued in his family till the year 1734, when he appears to have gone to Quinish, in Mull, where he died."

The history of the bagpipe is curious and interesting, but such history does not fall within the scope of this work. Although a very ancient instrument, it does not appear to have been known to the Celtic nations. It was in use among the Trojans, Greeks, and Romans, but how, or in what manner it came to be introduced into the Highlands is a question which cannot be solved. Two suppositions have been started on this point, either that it was brought in by the Romans or by the northern nations. The latter conjecture appears to be the most probable, for we cannot possibly imagine that if the bagpipe has been introduced so early as the Romans epoch, no notice should have been taken of that instrument by the more early annalists and poets. But if the bagpipe was an imported instrument, how does it happen that the Great Highland pipe is peculiar to the Highlands, and is perhaps the only national instrument in Europe ? If it was introduced by the Romans, or by the people of Scandinavia, how has it happened that no traces of that instrument in its present shape are to be found anywhere except in the Highlands? There is, indeed, some plausibility in these interrogatories, but they are easily answered, by supposing, what is very probable, that the great bagpipe in its present form is the work of modern improvement, and that originally the instrument was much the same as is still seen in Belgium and Italy.

The effects of this national instrument in arousing the feelings of those who have from infancy been accustomed to its wild and war-like tunes are truly astonishing. In halls of joy and in scenes of mourning it has prevailed; it has animated Scotland’s warriors in battle, and welcomed them back after their toils to the homes of their love and the hills of their nativity. Its strains were the first sounded on the ears of infancy, and they are the last to be forgotten in the wanderings of age. Even Highlanders will allow that it is not the quietest of instruments, but when far from their mountain homes, what sounds, however melodious, could thrill round their heart like one burst of their own wild native pipe? The feelings which other instruments awaken are general and undefined, because they talk alike to Frenchmen, Spaniards, Germans, and Highlanders, for they are common to all; but the bagpipe is sacred to Scotland, and speaks a language which Scotsmen only feel. It talks to them of home and all the past, and brings before them, on the burning shores of India, the wild hills and oft-frequented streams of Caledonia, the friends that are thinking of them, and the sweethearts and wives that are weeping for them there; and need it be told here to how many fields of danger and victory its proud strains have led! There is not a battle that is honourable to Britain in which the war-blast has not sounded. When every other instrument has been hushed by the confusion and carnage of the scene, it has been borne into the thick of battle, and, far in the advance, its bleeding but devoted bearer, sinking on the earth, has sounded at once encouragement to his countrymen and his own coronach.



This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus