My new CD released today features five solo harp tracks of late 17th or early 18th century music attributed to a great local hero of the West of Scotland – Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig. These grand formal tunes come from the pibroch tradition of the pipes, and also from early fiddle and vocal sources, and I have turned them into dreamy, beautiful clarsach meditations. Each tune has a very different atmosphere, and the CD booklet includes five full-page illustrations made by Ealasaid Gilfillan especially for this project. These unique and intense montage images really give you a sense of the meaning of each tune.

For more info, please visit www.earlygaelicharp.info/tarbh

As a companion to the CD I have also made a set of web pages all about Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig – Ronald MacDonald of Morar, said to have lived 1662-1741. The pages include all the references I used as sources for the CD and also include links to a number of fascinating songs and stories on archive audio recordings at Tobar an Dualchais – the online portal for the tape recordings preserved in the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.

Pìobaireachd – what it might mean for the clarsach / John Purser

At the Edinburgh Harp Festival on Tuesday April 9th, 11:00 am, at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, John Purser is giving this interesting presentation:
Pìobaireachd – what it might mean for the clarsach

I have already booked a ticket – it will be fascinating to hear what he has to say. John has been working with Bonnie Rideout for some time now on the fiddle pibroch repertoire (see Bonnie’s CDs in my Emporium) and so I hope he will have some useful insights about harp ceòl mór.

I was thinking about who has already been working on this and there are quite a few people who have recorded piobaireachd on the clarsach – Alan Stivell, Alison Kinnaird, Ann Heymann, Violaine Mayor, and more recently a number of youtube experimenters including Brendan Ring, Dominic Haerinck, Chris Caswell (who passed away very recently), and Sue Phillips. Quite apart from Grainne Yeats and Charles Guard who have recorded Burns March – in my opinion the archetypal Gaelic harp ceol mor.

Both of my previous CDs included ceol mor or pibroch – but the next one will be “wall to wall”. I have also put some experiments on youtube – here’s a very early and rough version of a classic piobaireachd that I adapted for harp:

I’ll be on site during the harp festival week with my Emporium bookstall – if you are there do come along and say hello.

MacCrimmon, Piobaireachd & clarsach traditions

“…I had the good fortune to meet a direct descendent of the Borreraig MacCrimmons,
 … he told me that the clarsach influenced the pipe pointing out how the [pipe] music of the late 16th or 17th century stood above all others [later] in merit.
He went so far as to say that piobaireachd renderings on the clarsach were common at one time…”

From The Oban Times, 26 August, 1933, via pmjohngrant.com

Maol Donn

At the moment I am working on Maol Donn. This lovely pibroch is often given the romantic English title “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart”. Its original title means brown or tawny hummock, or rounded thing, perhaps referring to the bald hornless forehead of the cow that was lost in the bog, which some stories say is the origin of the tune. I like the story of Ranald MacDonald of Morar composing this tune to a smooth brown seashell he found on the beach.

There are a number of recordings available of this tune played on the pipes. The oldest is played by John MacDonald of Inverness in 1926:
from Ross’s Music Page

My favourite is played by Calum Johnston in 1955:

Here’s the traditional song that goes with it, sung by Kate MacDonald in 1970:

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.