An Tarbh Breac Dearg

An tarbh breac dearg, an tarbh a mharbh mi,
An tarbh breac dearg, an tarbh a mharbh mi,
An tarbh breac dearg, an tarbh a mharbh mi,
Tarbh buidhe, buidhe, buidhe,
Tarbh buidhe, buidhe, a mharbh mi.
The speckled red bull, the bull that killed me,
Yellow bull, that killed me

From J.L Campbell, Songs Remembered in Exile, Aberdeen 1990, p.92

I have recently been working on this pibroch or ceòl mór, which I first heard on Allan MacDonald’s CD, Dastirum. I had been on the look out for it anyway, since I have a gradual project to learn up versions of the various tunes associated with the Morar harper, piper and fiddler, Raghnall MacAilein Òig (1662 – 1741), whose name is unfortunately Anglicised as Ronald MacDonald.

I have been playing A Ghlas Mheur in concerts for a wee while now and am very pleased with how it is turning out. I have only just started learning An Tarbh Breac Dearg, and it is changing every time I play it – already I am thinking of different sonorities for the ‘away’ sections, and wondering how best to return to the ground between variations.

I am very struck by how both A Ghlas Mheur and An Tarbh Breac Dearg are so obsessively focussed on three note binary sequences. They remind me very much of the medieval Welsh harp music notated in the Robert ap Huw manuscript, and I wonder how much that is because of Raghnall being trained in the old clarsach traditions as well as being a piper and fiddler. Certainly these compositions seem of a different taste to other bagpipe pibroch I am familiar with.

The other thing I am not yet clear about is the actual subject matter. Early piping sources call this tune An t-Arm Breac Dearg, the red tartan army. The song refers to the bull, and the association with Raghnall gives us bull stories to link it with, but I do wonder if they are both later accretion onto an originally martial composition.


“Nisi enim ab homine memoria teneantur soni, pereunt, quia scribi non possunt”
for unless sounds are held in the memory by man they perish, because they cannot be written down

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, III, XV.

This quote has often been held up as evidence for the start of musical notation; because (so it seems), once notation is invented in the form of neumes and the musical staff, sounds can be written down.

This is of course a false, or at least very naive view. Notation only writes down certain lexical or semantical parts of the musical sound. I think Isidore was perhaps contrasting the world of sound, with the world of language – language is by its nature organised in semantic or lexical units, which can be assigned graphic symbols and so utterances can be preserved in writing.

But the world of sound is a sensory continuum. For the past century or so, sound has been able to be written down by the use of mechanical transponders, i.e. microphones; the written sound is in the form of a waveform etched onto wax or shellac or vinyl, or more recently chopped up and represented digitally. But even a stereo recording only captures the sound world at two specific points – sound is a 3-D phenomena filling a room or a space, and so far no way has been invented to my knowledge of writing down the totality of sound phenomena in any enclosed space.

I was, I now realise, very lucky to have been brought up in a living indigenous music tradition that to this day does not use conventional staff notation at all. I have seen fragments of performances transcribed into staff notation, but never for the use of practitioners – it is simply irrelevant, not done. The musicians do use a couple of different geometric and numerical tablatures, but these are not used in performance, only for composition, teaching, memorisation and record-keeping. The performance is entirely free from any written notation.