Clan Donald

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Clan Donald Magazine No 2 (1962) Online

The Songs of Lochness-side by Mairi M. Macdonald.

The story behind two recent outstanding broadcasts of Gaelic Folk-song.

Both of my grandparents' families had known Lochness-side, its poetry and its folk-song for generations. My grandfather Angus was a direct descendant of Alexander MacDonald of Aonach, one of The Seven Men of Glenmoriston who hid Prince Charles Edward Stuart in a cave there, after his escape from Culloden, but though he was an authority on the legend and history of Lochness-side, it was my grandmother - herself a violinist and poetess - who collected its poetry and folk-music.

In 1863 she published the poems, in their original Gaelic, of Archibald Grant, the Glenmoriston bard, which she herself had previously collected and edited. She then turned her attention to folk-song, noting both words and music accurately - and usually adding a short history and possible date of composition to each song. This hobby she continued with all her life.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that my father, from boyhood, was deeply interested in the Gaelic language, literature and song, and that he too continued to collect old Gaelic airs on his own, and to note down the words sung to them. From 1890 up to the year of his death, 1928, hardly a week went by without a song from his collection appearing in one of the Inverness-shire papers, under the title of "The Songs of Lochness-side." A selection of these appeared in his book, Story and Song from Lochness-side, published in 1914. Previous to this, in 1895, he had published Coinneach 'us Coille - a volume of original Gaelic poetry.

For many years after my father's death the book containing both these collections of Gaelic folk-song lay in a drawer - neglected. As the years passed, however, I began to feel almost guilty about this, and the feeling persisted, insisting that somehow I must do something about these songs - but what?

On examination I found that there were about a hundred of them, comprising lullabies, love songs, sheiling songs, songs relating to the story of some happening of note, songs sung to the poetry of William Ross, the sweet singer of Gairloch: Mary MacLeod, the Skye poetess; John MacDonald (Iain Lom), the celebrated Lochaber bard: Donald MacDonald, the Strathconon bard; Allan MacDougall (Ailein Dall), Glengarry's bard; Alexander MacDonald, the great Jacobite bard (MacMhaighster Alasdair); Dugald Buchanan, and Archibald Grant.

I must admit I was thrilled to find so much music for the poetry of the bards - for one thing had always dismayed me about collections of Gaelic poetry and music. One found either a Collection of poetry, or a collection of music - but it seemed that no one had ever tried to combine these two and give us the poems as they were sung. I played over on my piano the music given for Dugald Buchanan's famous poem "The Skull," and as I played I felt certain that on this score alone the collection had interest and value.

Then I had a stroke of luck. At a dinner party I met Walter Susskind, leader of The Scottish Orchestra. During the evening I showed him the collection. "But this is wonderful," he said, as be hummed some of the airs over - "the real thing - real folk-music such as I have not found so far all over Europe. You must do something about it."

In the knowledge that I really did have something worthwhile to offer, I approached the BBC and there, with the very kind help of Mr Fred Macaulay, the songs were prepared for broadcasting. In collaboration with Mr William Matheson, the greatest living authority on Gaelic folk music, a programme was produced which amazed even the producers. The singers were Evelyn Campbell and Alasdair Gillies, and under Mr Matheson's expert guidance these "star" vocalists produced true folk singing of superb quality. There was so much to it of another and a different age - the old bagpipe "ornamentation" notes, so skilfully and neatly introduced; the swing of country toil of a robust and happy people; strangely impassioned, very delightful old love songs which had passed between sweethearts; drinking-songs, laments, and songs in praise of the countryside they knew and loved.

As I listened-in to the first broadcast I felt extremely happy. I was sitting in the library of our home, and somehow my father seemed to be there too, beside me, in his own big armchair, writing-pad on knee, and chanter in hand, trying out the airs and noting them down - just as he used to do. The singing was extremely beautiful, surprisingly so. Could it be that I was biased, and exaggerating the quality of this music? Would the great audience of listeners be impressed, or would it all be accepted as just "Gaelic Songs?"

The flood of congratulations, which poured in almost immediately after the broadcast, dispersed my fears. A second programme was the result - even more superb than the first - and the clamours for further broadcasts still continue.

Description which would convey the character of these songs is well nigh impossible, but short notes as to the composition of a few may interest:

A universal favourite was one, composed by Mary MacLeod, the Skye poetess, to John, the son of Sir Norman MacLeod, who had presented her with a snuff-mill. She expressed her gratitude in the form of blessing, which was sung to a very impressive, almost declamatory air:

Safe fare thee, by land and sea,
Lucky thy path be to follow.
May the hunt go well with thee
Thou son of grace, so fair to see.
True thy gun, thy hands ready.
Bird and beast both fall to thy pleasure.
Pistol and blue blade be found
Fit to serve thee and make thee renowned.

Another favourite was a "Song to Summer" by Alexander MacDonald (MacMhaighstir Alasdair) which rivalled any part of "The Ode to Summer" in Thomson's "Seasons."

Allan MacDougall, Glengarry's bard (Ailein Dall), provided the verses for a beautiful lament for the death of Colonel John Cameron, who was killed at Waterloo, and whose remains were afterwards buried at Kilmallie, in his native country.

There was the very moving song composed by Donald MacDonald, Bohuntin (Donald Donn), on the occasion of his capture, near Ruisgich, on the Glenurquhart estate, a short time before his execution in Inverness during the early years of the eighteenth century.

Another interesting number was a song written by a daughter of one of the Camerons of Lochiel, the hero being her father's forester.

A very lovely "Oran Mor," written by Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, had an unusual theme. This was considered to be a "lost song," and had a strange history. Mary, the poetess, was known as the daughter of Alexander MacLeod, son of Alasdair Ruaidh, a descendant of the chief of the clan. When well advanced in years, however, she learned that she was a daughter of a distinguished MacDonald of that period. The discovery led her to compose the song.

"Tailhe na Morthir" ("In Praise of the Mainland"), by Alexander MacDonald, the great Jacobite bard, and prince of Gaelic poets, was sung to a "falling song melody," the rhythm of which helped the snap, boldness, and unique fluency of the words.

A very touching song was in memory of John Garbh MacLeod, who, when visiting friends in Skye, was drowned, with all his party, in a terrific storm. So violent was the storm that there was a suspicion that witchcraft had been instrumental in raising it and bringing about the disaster. Mourning over the incident was widespread in the Highlands and Islands, so much so that the natives of Lochness-side sang a version of their own of the lament, which had been written by MacLeod's sister.

Few songs were more popular at Highland Gatherings than this old "Bottle Song" which, when sung to its own lively music, bids fair to equal any drinking-song in opera:

Hey bottle, horo little old bottle,
Ho bottle, oh come to us here.
Small bottle, you've warmed our throttle,
Big bottle, you'd give us more cheer.
Ho, let us all join in singing.
Work well, our ransom is gold.
Tiny seeds on light winds winging
Fall - and oak trees' leaves now unfold.

Hey laddies, let us banish our sadness
Life's not ours to shape to our will;
Drams have turned sad near to gladness,
You, bottle, put spells on them still.
Ho, let all join us in singing
Though Spring has robbed us of wealth,
Yet we'll live, our thoughts aye winging,
To the bottle, "Friend, Here's your health."

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