Burns March: a Gaelic harp ceòl mór?

For some years now, in my teaching and performance of historical Gaelic harp music, I have been holding up “Burns March” as the only extant notated ceòl mór from the Gaelic harp traditons of Scotland and Ireland.

I would like to canvass some opinions from piping and ceòl mór specialists here, on how far my claim can stand up, however.

Certainly, I have not come across any other notations that I think qualify as “genuine harp ceòl mór”. Some people point to the Angus Fraser manuscripts, but these are not harp notations, they are fiddle or piano settings, and they seem to be largely Angus’s own compositions. Some people point to tunes in Dow and other fiddle sources but of course these are fiddle settings, whether or not the melodies originated as harp tunes. And in fact that goes for pretty much anything that is suggested as possible harp pibroch – it is not harp music in its extant notated forms, and the connection with the harp tradition is just speculation; if it did originate as harp music, there is the strong probability that it has changed in the course of transmission from harp to fiddle or keyboard.

Burns March by contrast is definitively linked in to the old harp traditions. This is the primary source, written down by music collector Edward Bunting at speed in the field, as a live transcription of the playing of North-West Ulster harper Denis O’Hampsey in the 1790s:

Field transcript of Denis O'Hampsey's playing of Burns March. Click to enlarge.

Special Collections, Queens University Belfast, MS4/29 f14v-15r

Bunting has written it out twice, on the left page very sketchily, and then again on the right page more clearly. You can see the structure of the tune; the 2-bar “urlar”, followed by a series of figured variations, consisting of a mostly-stable series of head-notes, and with different “gestures” applied after each head note. On the right page, Bunting writes “DC” after each variation to indicate a repeat of the urlar.

Here’s a rather scrappy old video demonstration of this setting played on a copy of O’Hampsey’s harp:

A second, independent source for the tune is these two manuscript pages, notated again by Bunting from the South-east Ulster harper Patrick Quin in c.1800. Here Bunting attempts to catch something of Quin’s bass during the urlar, and he also makes a big mistake in his initial transcription of the way the hands interlock in the variation, and has to scribble it out. He notates two variations, the second seperately a couple of pages later in the notebook.

Field transcript of Patrick Quin's playing of Burns March. Click to enlarge.

Special Collections, Queens University Belfast, MS4/33(1) f32r & f31r

Here’s a video demonstration of this setting of Burns March, played on a copy of Quin’s harp:

The harpers told Bunting that Burns March was one of the first four tunes traditionally taught to young harpers, and it seems to me that it was not part of the normal performing repertory of the harpers in the 18th century; it is very different in style and structure from all of the other music collected by Bunting, and I speculate that it may have been preserved by the harpers purely as one of the standard didactic teaching tunes.

One other thing of interest is the associated song, which reminds me very much of the songs attached to pibroch tunes. This song was collected by Bunting from Denis O’Hampsey in the 1790s; Bunting had no Irish so the song, originally in Irish, appears to have been translated by O’Hampsey into a metrical English translation.

Field transcript of Denis O'Hampsey's singing of Burns March

Special Collections, Queens University Belfast, MS4/29 f23r

I am not seeing the song words as a particularly good fit for the harp instrumental set notated from O’Hampsey by Bunting, but the song does go well with the fiddle settings of Burns March. I think it is of more value in shining a little light on the way that a lyrical song is paired with a formalised geometric instrumental variation set to help preserve and transmit it within an oral tradition.

Bunting’s normal working method was to use these “live” field notations of what his harper informants actually played, as a basis for his own piano arrangements. I think the pencil X through the second notation of O’Hampsey’s performance is Bunting’s way of indicating to himself that he had transferred the tune into a piano notebook, and therefore that this field draft was now “superfluous” for his purposes. It seems that in the late 18th and early 19th century there was no market for, and perhaps even no concept of, presenting an “authentic” diplomatic transcription of the living tradition. Instead, the music had to be cast in contemporary commercial style suitable for bourgeois performance on the piano (just as we see in the published books of pibroch by Donald MacDonald and Angus MacKay). A lot of the criticisms of Bunting’s work, and a lot of commentary on the nature of the old Gaelic harp music, have in the past been based on reading only his printed notations. Here is the 1809 published piano arrangement of Burns March, combining variations from O’Hampsey and Quin, and adding piano harmonies:

Edward Bunting's 1809 published piano arrangement of Burns March

Edward Bunting, A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland. Clementi, London, 1809

I think you can see that study of the field manuscripts is very necessary to get to the bottom of what the harpers were actually playing!

I am searching for versions of this tune in other sources. My current list of variant versions is at http://www.earlygaelicharp.info/tunes/burnsmarch including fiddle, pipe and vocal settings. Some of the these have sections that can be identified with the harpers’ urlar and variations, or with the chorus and verse of the song, but none of these other settings looks like ceòl mór at all. Only the harp settings from O’Hampsey and Quin make me think of pibroch, and make me wonder whether this really is a living fossil, carrying the almost entirely lost Gaelic harp ceòl mór traditions down late enough to be notated.

So, over to you. What do you think? Is this ceòl mór? I would welcome your input here into how these versions of this tune fit into the wider picture, and whether or not I am right to claim this as the only extant harp ceòl mor.

Thanks to Special Collections, Queens University Belfast, for permission to reproduce the manuscript pages.

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15 thoughts on “Burns March: a Gaelic harp ceòl mór?

      1. Hmm. Curious, Simon.

        I just tried the link here on my office computer and it works fine. Same from my laptop at home last night. I’m using IE10 and MediaPlayer on both machines. Are you using Quicktime perhaps? Those audio files appear to be in WMA. You may need to download it and open them in MediaPlayer or convert them to MP3.

    1. Congratulations on a really interesting exposition of this simple yet important musical survival – I think the idea that it is a ‘living fossil’ is apt. It sounds to me like a fragment of a siubhal movement from ‘Menzie’s Salute’, and suggests strongly there was a common ground between pipers and clarsairs.
      The idea that so simple a musical motif as this could be used for teaching is especially revealing; from such small blocks could larger pieces be constructed – a process we see in pibroch, where there are very simple motifs, and also complex ones, sometimes incorporating the simpler ones.

  1. This is a very welcome and significant contribution. Thank you Simon! Wonderful to have the evidence gathered together and discussed with such clarity, asking interesting questions rather than jumping to answers.

    I think the concept of ceòl mór is unhelpful and that if this term wasn’t born in the 19th century, then it has become loaded with 19th-century baggage.

    This isn’t about an art/folk distinction. Yes, perhaps there is an element of high- / low-register style, or setting the educated professional musician apart from someone without training. But fundamentally, it is an older way of making music: any sort of music. Heavy, light, big, small, complex, simple, advanced, elementary – all these things are encompassed and that’s where ceòl mór fails us. It doesn’t represent what’s in Colin Campbell’s collection, nor Angus MacKay’s collection.

    Pibroch is bigger than ceòl mór and I’d suggest we’d benefit from a new word or words that avoids a pipe-centric view of the universe (usages like “pibroch song” or “fiddle pibroch”). It has nothing to do with pibroch – this is a way of making music that, as Robert ap Huw’s tablature shows, was part of a much wider way of doing things. Are the words “ceremonial”, “court”, “classical”, “Gaelic” “few-pitch”, “professional”, “learned”, “medieval” useful?

    What are the earliest recorded uses of ceòl mór? Do we keep the term but try to redefine what it means? It would be good to bring together all the pibrochs that are not big, not least because Burns March fits squarely among them. Therefore, yes, it is “….” (whatever we call this way of making music that, at least in the 1500s, had a much wider currency than the Highland bagpipe).

    1. Thanks Barnaby. It’s an interesting question about terminology or nomenclature, one that we also have in choosing what to call our harps.

      I have been using “ceol mor” in preference to “clarsach pibroch” – I like that it is a Gaelic term, in common use to describe this kind of music, and with implications that the music is “grand” or “big” (which I think it is, in a non-judgemental and existential kind of way). But I wasn’t really aware enough of its own problems, I never saw a folk/art dichotomy in this usage. I think one of the issues is using words that have established meanings, vs. coining new terms – I usually prefer to use established words (perhaps in novel combinations) and also I like to have flexibility of use – I prefer to use natural descriptors rather than artificial capitalised titles for these concepts. Also I tend to use ad-hoc names in real life, describing a particular thing without trying to define a genre or category. I note this site calls itself “pibroch” – one of my missions here is to push fiddle & harp as equal participants in this sound-world, not secondary to the pipes.

      Part of the issue (same as with naming the harp) is drawing the boundaries, what do we want to include and what do we want to exclude? Does a Gaelic harp have to have na comhluighe, for example? How tight to draw the noose? And that takes us back to the premise of this post – I want to include Burns March, but exclude Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin… but am I right to want that?

      1. I am more inclined toward Simon’s approach to language. Natural language has a way of being flexible in ways that include not only “baggage”, but also “extends meaning”, perhaps to the point where a jettisoning of that baggage can take place.

        Artificial and academic terminology, while having the benefit of precision, is persuasive and germane mainly when addressing limited and specialized audiences. It becomes pedantic to ears of broader audiences who must be convinced and persuaded of the value of such specific terminology.

        Stick with what you know and feel comfortable with. Brains are capable of understanding nuances, when nuances become important enough to be lifted up for consideration.

      2. Simon, of the earlier variants you have cited , one if not both of those from Patrick MacDonald would have been collected by his younger brother Joseph before he left for India, so would date to pre 1760. ‘Ancient’ was one of the most overused and inaccurately applied claims made in historical works of all sorts around that period. I have long had reservations about the claims for the dating of the ‘Burns March’ setting, although there is of course no reason why some earlier variant of it could not have been used for teaching purposes.

        The use of the word ‘march’ certainly accords with its ‘left right’ rhythm but the word ‘march’ originally meant a boundary. From an association with going around the boundaries of lands to establish where they were it widened to mean any journey from A to B and was still being used that way well into the 18th C. James Boswell used it in his journal when referring to his days journey with Dr Johnson and as it had been on horseback there was no doubt of the meaning. The connection of ‘march’ with moving feet to a regular time as has been pointed out by Col David Murray among others, only happened late in the 18th C when surfaces smooth enough to ‘march on’ were developed.

        Apart from using the term ‘march’, that title is in fact in English with no hint of an equivalent Gaelic version; and Bunting was quite happy to ‘mash’ Gaelic titles elsewhere , including the alternative names he gives for variants of the tune. Therefore a questionable title which along with Collette Moloney’s dating of Bunting’s manuscript compilations in which they appear raises a question. Was ‘Burns March’ an example of the general outbreak of ‘Martial Music’ which occurred around that time when the whole of Britain, including Ireland was moving onto a War footing in response to the activities of Napoleon?

        Barnaby’s comment on ’19th Century baggage’ is very apt.Following the previous post I looked out my records of musical terms in pre 1800 Scottish Gaelic source material, mostly poetry and there was actually no record of ‘ceol mor’ (in that configuration), being used at all. The earliest I could then subsequently find was in Dwelly, but he curiously adds a hyphen making it ‘ceol-mor’.

        The problem is that the modern world likes definitions which give an appearance of an exactitude which is often not really there. For example the problem created by the miss use of the word pibroch, as in ‘Fiddle pibroch’ a term originally coined by David Johnson as part of a catchy title for an album his ensemble made many years ago. It is a bit like ‘kosher bacon’, if it is kosher then it ain’t bacon and if it is bacon it ain’t kosher. Ironically the more open musical boundaries Barnaby suggest were already there in the original Gaelic descriptions, ‘piobaireachd’ was what a piper did, irrespective of what he was actually playing. Likewise ‘fidhleireachd’ was what the fiddler did , the terms covered all manner of music the only ‘definition’ being the nature of the instrument on which it was being played.

        Oddly though I have never in historical terms seen the harp defined that way, but that is probably because it would have not been separated from it’s main use as vocal support.

      3. Following on from the question of taking things back to their foundations another good example of what happens as the layers are stripped away takes us back to the original question posed by Simon when mentioning the Irish harper Ruairi Dall O’ Cathain. That harper treated as a firm fact, indeed a few years back listening to a talk given at the Historical Irish Harp Society Kilkenny event I was surprised to learn that the harper was buried behind the Stable Block at Armadale on Skye. Though I am afraid that there is a greater chance of finding faeries there than the body of the harper.

        It is though an example of how far beyond the facts of the real evidence for that harper the popular story has gone. The main source of information about Ruaidhri Dall O’Cathian was related by the harper Arthur O’Neill one of the attendees at the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival. The first real academic study was made by Prof Colm O’Baoill to the Gaelic Society of Inverness, published in 1972. A further updated version was subsequently published in ‘Defining Strains in 2007.

        Prof O’Baoill starts by pointing out the problems with accepting O’Neills version before exploring possible solutions to that problem. Colm O’Baoill is a very thorough and cautious man and apart from quoting one actual claim made in the Chambers Edinburgh Journal that Alexander Campbell had visited the harpers grave , O’Baoill’s summation was that until some solid evidence is found ‘ the only relic we have of Ruairi O’Cathain is his music’.

        In fact the grave visit was claim is wrong, not Prof O’Baoill’s fault, that is what the source he quotes said but Chambers had got his facts wrong and Campbell had actually said he had visited the grave of the Scottish Harper Murdoch MacDonald while on Mull. So turning to the music the hard evidence here is that there is a tune called Port Rorie Dall in the Straloch Lute Manuscript which dates to 1627 which is far to early to be the other Scottish Harper Rory Dall Morrison . So that does seem to provide at least some firm evidence for the Irish Harper.

        But there is a problem even here which leaves that basic fact a little shoogly. The original Straloch manuscript is lost and what is being quoted is a transcription of the music for some 28 tunes copied from the original manuscript when it was in the hands of George Graham and which includes the tune Port Rorie Dall. However, Graham had separately made a complete list of the titles of all the tunes in the Straloch manuscript which is NLS Adv 5.2.18 and there is no reference to a tune called Port Rorie Dall in that list.

        So it raises some questions, is it just coincidence that the crucial piece of evidence for a the Irish Harper happens to have been accidentally missed out by Graham when compiling the complete list or was there a name change by the transcriber when he recognized it as a variant of another of the existing titles. It would not be the first time a tune which has harp and piping connections has had a name switch. In the Angus Fraser MS, the tune named ‘Croabh nan teud’ or Tree of Strings was a replacement by Fraser of the original title of the actual music he gives.

        Where then does this leave the case for Irish harper. Well I have for over 40 years been looking for some contemporary evidence and although I have in that time found quite a number of Scottish Harpers there is to date no sign of the Irishman. Furthermore the ongoing project under the auspice of R.E.E.D compiling a Scottish version of what early records similar to the volume by Fletcher in Ireland has up to the last time we compared notes only found a similar story to mine, although they did locate one Irish Harper but he was called William MacAodhagain, and appears in the 1580 s at the Royal Court and again around 1601 in the North East. The right time and place were the tunes called ‘Ports’ were composed and at the right time to have been the one to take them back to Ireland.

        Therefore returning to Simon’s question he is probably right to exclude Ruairi Dall O’Cathain at least until there is some firm evidence for him , but at least the evidence for including Burn’s March which was actually played by some late 18th century Irish Harpers is far more solid.

    2. Well the answer to that one is less than helpful as it’s use to define a class of pipe music is rather modern. The contemporary evidence from mostly Gaelic Verse, which is all we really have to go on is mixed. In fact the use of ceolmor in that combination is in fact rare and one of the few uses to date actually refers to dance. It has been quoted by Michael Newton in a paper on dance and is from a poem by an unnamed poet composed for a Grant Chieftain who was sick and away in England.

      That description really only fits Brigadier Alexander Grant of Grant who after serving on the government side in the 1715 was appointed Governor of the Fort at Sheerness and who actually died on his way back to Scotland around 1720. His piper was Wm Cumming the man in the well known portrait of Grants piper.

      The verse which was taken by Newton from Patrick Turner’s MS published in 1813 page 181, in the relevant lines goes;-
      Damhsail urramach ceolmhor;
      Mnathan ‘s fleasgaichean oga
      ‘S iad gu furanach ceolmhor a’ damhsa.

      Michael’s ‘modern’ translation does not exactly help but the context suggests that ‘Ceol Mor’ was being used in the same way that today we might referring to a previous evenings session say ‘that was great music last night’.

      Incidentally as a ‘PS’ to David and Barnaby (wherever he is in his travels). If Barnaby there are still some funds for scanning documents for this site, then you still have some missing, the relevant material in the Sir John MacRa papers now in the NLS. The copy Sir John made of the earlier draft of Donald MacDonald’s MS circa 1824 and the Mackay MS Sir John got seem suitable for completing the sites archive of the early MS?

      The case for the earlier MacDonald draft copy being made available online is compelling, if only in terms of academic debate. Thereby allowing all who wish to demolish any of the arguments made by Roddy Cannon and myself in the edited version to work from the same base we did.

  2. Thank you Keith! We would certainly like add Sir John MacRa’s pibroch MSS and will hopefully be able to scan photocopies made before they were purchased by the NLS. It’s on my list…

    Writing about pibroch in Dastirum (2007, p. 56), John MacInnes speculated that “its developed form almost certainly derives in some measure from the musical traditions of harpers who, until the passing of the Middle Ages, were the high-caste musicians of Gaelic society”. I’d like to add “high-caste” to my list of words above (“ceremonial”, “court”, “classical”, “Gaelic” “few-pitch”, “professional”, “learned”, “medieval”) and agree with David about using flexible, natural language. John Bàn MacKenzie distinguished himself from other pipers with a sense of superiority that can be found in the musical maestros of any culture: https://archive.org/stream/piobaireachditso00gran#page/32/mode/2up

    My interest is in finding clear language that helps to raise the status of those parts of ceòl mór that don’t fit ideas of “big” or “great” – the pibrochs most similar to Burns’s March. The aim of using these words is to shift thinking, carrying the smaller, lighter musical items that are “aristocratic” or “high-caste” from the periphery towards the heart of the canon.

    I’m not suggesting that we stop using the term ceòl mòr – just that we understand it is not all big and are able to flex our language so that Burns’s March and the shorter or lighter works in Colin Campbell’s 1797 volumes are fully embraced, accepted as they are rather than discarded or transformed to fit 19th-century conceptions. The agenda here is partly to make modern pibroch more enjoyable, partly to help disseminate the fact that the repertoire of an elite professional musician, whether harper or piper, was significantly broader that what is generally understood by the term ceòl mór today. It contains fast, fun stuff too!

    Simon asks “I want to include Burns March, but exclude Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin… but am I right to want that?”. Yes, I think so. Technically speaking, I suggest that it is the use of cycles and motions that defines the craft of elite Gaelic musicians – the lineages of aois-dàna (people of the arts) who received a professional education and aristocratic patronage in order to elevate a chieftain’s magnificence at home and abroad.

    Further to Keith’s comment on earlier meanings of the word “March”, I noticed this in the 1785 competition bill reproduced in Piping Times 19/6, p. 9: “Siubhal Mhic Allain, Clanranald’s March”. It appears twice – items 33 and 37 – in a programme containing 49 pibrochs and 4 Highland dances between acts. Starting at 11am, that would last till after midnight if the pibrochs were as “great” as the concept ceòl mòr has made them. Do we know what time the event finished and how many competitors didn’t play?

    What about adding to the list of adjectives seann-nòs (old style) piping/harping, connecting with Irish sean nós singing? These may all be useful in different situations: my point is, ceòl mòr on its own doesn’t map onto 18th-century reality. In the sense of “pibroch”, rather than meaning “fine music” more generally, it probably began as a term of convenience or wishful thinking. I suggest that, over 200 years, the pibroch canon transformed to fit the term more tidily: anything that wasn’t “great” was either dropped or made “great”.

    One could also emphasise the meanings “senior / old” and “junior / young”, familiar from the names Pàdruig Mòr and Pàdruig Òg. The problem here is that the contrasting term is ceòl beag (small music), not ceòl òg (young music). It is hardly controversial to conclude that not all pibroch (and not all court harp music) was “fine music” or “big music”, which makes it easier to welcome Burns’s March into the fold. Thank you Simon for enriching us!

  3. Barnaby, your comment really seems to be a list of questions which take longer to answer so I will try and break them up into two separate posts.

    Yes Clanranald’s March with ‘march’ translating ‘Suibhal’ fits the journey concept well. Indeed another longer version of the title was ‘Clanranalds March to Edinburgh’ which again has a journey concept. Mind you the tune titles have also to a degree been standardized over the years. For example ‘Lasan Phadruig Chaogaich’ which is better known these days by the translation ‘A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick’ was in the list of tunes submitted by old MacRae in one of the earlier competitions, reduced to simply ‘Flaming Mad’.

    That neatly brings us to the competition questions. The 1785 competition was interesting from a number of view points and confirms the idea that I should send you the ‘MacIntyre Family tree’ for use on the site. However how long that competition took is not known though it should be remembered that attention spans would have been far longer back then especially for such events which did not come often. When all music had to be performed live exposure to music of any sort was considerably less than this modern world of transmission and recording and therefore people did actually listen intently for long periods.

    However there are some events where time was mentioned, and recently in response to another site which put up the poster for the competition of 1823 I looked up my file of the old newspaper accounts and noticed that one did provide times. It started dead on mid-day and ‘did not terminate till past 3 when the judges retired to consider their verdict which took about half an hour’. Because of the large number of competitors there had been a preliminary and 16 were selected from that to compete on the day. Before the first competitor a Salute was played on the prize pipe and the 16 players were broken up into groups with 4 dances interspersed between each group.

    By that period the practice of repeating the ground had stopped and the pipers probably arrived on the stage already tuned rather than the modern practice of spending time messing around tuning in front of the audience. So if we assume that after 3 and therefore before 4 has a mean of 3.30 or 210 minutes divided by 17 pipers and 4 dances gives an average for each of about 10 minutes.

    Some of the other points can be rolled into one answer, Ceol Mor/Ceol beag are modern and I suspect that the ‘Ceol mor’ or fine music and the other definitions are more a product of the competition system and a desire that the tunes are of ‘sufficient weight’. (did the PS not recently for the set tunes couple the smaller tunes together with the competitor playing two tunes one after the other?). I return however to what I think I may have touched on in a previous post, that the historical evidence does not suggest that the music was defined to such exactitude. In fact as there was no Gaelic word for ‘to sing’ references to ‘ceol’ presumably could also cover an accompanied song.

    ‘Sean Nos’ also moves us into a grey area in terms of when the term was coined or the date of the styles first appearance. What does seem clear is that it was associated with the poorer residual Gaelic speaking parts where in any case the poverty levels meant that instruments of any sort were beyond affordability and the voice was the only musical source. (A bit like Scottish Gaelic ‘mouth music’ although today the singer more often seems to be accompanied by a band).

    To return to the lack of definitions in the past and looking at the supposed ‘high art’ world of poetry. A lot of that was refined through modern or at least Victorian mores . It took until the 1980’s until the un-edited poetry from Book of the Dean of Lismore, passed over by earlier ‘sensitive’ editors was published by Wm Gillies, and then not with tut tuting from a lot of native Gaels. Yet this ribald material in terms of its structure would have been part of the verse/harp performing world and its purely poetic merits are equal to the rest of the Dean’s content.

    Looking to the Welsh examples which are also being used these days for comparison then a similar situation arises. Certainly two early poets, one male and one female composed fairly good quality verse specifically on the subject of their more sexually defining delicate parts and the ‘Lady’ was a harper since she also composed some verse asking for a harp., while another of the lady’s poems was devoted to her maid undertaking a bodily function.

    It does raise a question for experimenting with both context and trying out possible ways in which the harps did accompany verse. Should recreation of performances of that sort of poetry not also come into the equation?

    1. Answer to Barnaby’s post part 2.
      The quote from John MacInnes reads better in its full context rather than the one liner. ‘almost certainly’? Something is certain or it is not and perhaps ‘probably or ‘possibly’ would have been a better choice of wording. Taking what is said on that page overall, then we have to come to his conclusion on the top of page 57, ‘All that is of course speculation’ and work back from there. That the pibroch grounds have a close connection with the vernacular Gaelic song which in turn has as stated an ‘International’ background, especially through the Norman world is not unlikely. It was a point made by the late William Matheson many years ago when discussing the music of the Blind Harper.

      However the ground is just that and what turns it into ‘piping’ is the nature of the instrument and what follows after, possibly a subject for starting a different thread. Where the claims similar to that made by John come off the rails is when it is suggested as here that ‘it derives from the musical traditions of harpers’. when there is actually no evidence yet what exactly those traditions were. It is usually further compounded by absence of any evidence of firm knowledge of the harp or pipes. For example I think, unless you have changed your mind that you share with me the view that the only difference between what is played on a mouth-blown triple pipe and a bagpipe is the actual technical aspect of a bag. In other words, ‘pipe music’ of some sort goes back into the same mists of time as the ‘harp’.

      The harp, through its association with the poets was it seemed of a somewhat higher status than the other instruments but that is mainly based on the ‘plans’ of seating arrangements like that for the ‘ Hall of Tara’ (from a 14th Century MS) which although providing some comparisons is not taken too literally. In any case the ‘high class instrument’ called a ‘Crot’ in those plans was at the period they were supposed to have represented was actually a Lyre and not a harp. In any case there is no logical reason why that status necessarily has to influence anything else and in the absence of evidedence is pure speculation.

      I have great respect for the work of John MacInnes, he in fact has long made the case that there was a difference between the nature of the poetic orders in Scotland and Ireland but when it comes to the early instruments things are still an academic mess. Recently Prof Fergus Kelly, another man for whose work I have great respect gave the Dublin Institute Statutory Lecture choosing as his subject ‘Early Irish Music’. I sat bolt upright when he stated that the ‘Tiompan was a harp’ and promptly replayed the stream back from the end to check I had heard correct. Prof Kelly gave a revised version of the talk in the Na Piobairi Uilleann Notes and Narratives series a little later but that comment had not undergone any revision. What was even more surprising is that he paid due acknowledgement to his use of the work of Ann Buckley who has fairly convincingly made the case over many years that the Tiompan was in fact a Lyre.

      I enjoy all aspects of research into the origins of the bagpipes and harps of Scotland and Ireland but also bring from my former professional occupation a well developed scepticism which looks for firm foundations. For example although an extreme one, up until 1999 there was a statistical analysis used by most medical research papers. But that year Robert Mathews published a short booklet called ‘Statistical Snake Oil’., which argued that the method was basically flawed. It was not well published but I was intrigued and sent off for a copy then sat back to wait the responses. There were none, but over the next year or two that type of analysis disappeared from any new research papers. What did and does amuse me though is that subsequent published papers by more modern authors will often cite references whose original authors had used that method in their results.

      Now that was an extreme example, but the concept of arguments built on foundations which have changed is still a problem. For example and closer to harps and pipes, the uniting of the music to the Gaelic words of the ‘Harlaw Brosnachadh’ and the subsequent performances was a good piece of work. Since it was also likely to have been performed with a harp accompanied it added further interest. But current thinking now is that the poem was not a product of its time having been performed on the eve of the battle but a later poets view of how such an event should have been. In any case even viewed from the direction of harp music it has been described as’ composed in the vernacular rather than the literary language and well removed in style and substance from the classical panegyric tradition’, the support of which was the harps main function at that time.

  4. Many thanks for so clear and thoughtful a presentation. I Think your ideal that ‘Burn’s March’ is a ‘living fossil’ is apt. It reminds me of the suibhal movement of ‘Menzie’s Salute’, and suggests that bigger tunes were constructed from simple motifs, themselves ideal for teaching.

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