Cogadh no Sith – Clàrsach piobaireachd

From our club member, Simon Chadwick.


Here are the details from the YouTube page:

This is the pibroch tune ‘Cogadh no Sith’, re-imagined as a medieval ceremonial march for the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, to give a flavour of the kind of elaborate, formal, learned music that might have been heard in the great hall at Finlaggan in the 15th century.

Played on the replica of the medieval West Highland / Hebridean clarsach (the ‘Queen Mary’ harp), by historical Gaelic harp specialist Simon Chadwick.

For more information please see

From the programme notes:

Cogadh no Sith – War or Peace
A traditional ‘pibroch’ arranged for the harp, with characteristic variations. ’S coma leam, ’s coma leam, alike to me, alike to me, cogadh no sith war or peace marbhar ’sa cogadh, I’ll be killed in the war no crochar ’san t-sith mi or hanged in the peace

The tune is based on a simple eight-line melody with a sequence of twelve variations. Each one is presented twice, first lyrically and then intensely. The ‘ground’ melody returns after each one.

The first six variations are in medieval harp style, while the last six are in traditional bagpipe style. The variations gradually increase in difficulty and intensity. Variations seven and eight are played low on the harp for a dramatic change in sound.

The tune was known as the “true gathering of the clans”; it has long been associated with the Scottish regiments, and before then as a military tune played by all of the Highland clans. There is a tradition that it was played in medieval times as a kind of anthem or march for the Lords of the Isles.


1 thought on “Cogadh no Sith – Clàrsach piobaireachd

  1. Well I am glad to see that Simon uses the wordings;- ‘re-imagined’ and ‘might have been’ rather than suggesting there was any solid evidence behind it. Though the programme notes lean towards that suggestion but it is well understood that any performer has to ‘coat’ their product to attract their audiences.

    That the ground of Cogadh no Sith was thought to be based on an earlier military flute tune has been discussed previously on this site and as it also seemed to have been in the repertoire of the MacCrummens might point to the crossover point between the two instruments as being around 1701-1703 when John MacIntyre the young Breadalbane piper who had been sent to Mull and then Skye for training served in Captain Campbell of Fonabs Company with the other pipers over that period being first John then Donald Mccrummen. (National Records of Scotland, Muster Rolls, E100/38/2/1-9).

    The longest version of the tune is that by Angus Mackay, though the extra variations were probably added by him. It is questionable whether any tune which seems to have been used as an alarm or gathering would really have run to very many variations in actual use. However the fixed approach to tunes and variations is likely to have been a relatively modern development whereas the ground and variations should be viewed separately. The ground is merely the start it is what then develops through the fingers of the player which makes it into ‘piobaireachd’.

    There was an example some years ago at one of the PS Conferences when at the start of a talk John MacLellan began by playing through the ground and parts of some of the variations of a tune, then paused and asked the audience for comment. It was a teaser as it sounded familiar but not enough to put a name on it. Then the penny dropped with someone, memory leaves me on the actual tune but it was of similar status to ‘Mary had a little lamb’. The point is made more emphatic by the recent publication by Jackie Pincet of ‘Breton piobaireachd’ where he has turned a number of songs and airs from that region into ‘pibroch’.

    But returning to the performance notes while the ‘Great Hall at Finlaggan’ sounds grand in reality from the excavated floor plan it was similar to the other Lords of the Isles castles a simple keep with the main ‘hall’ no larger than some of the drawing rooms in the Edinburgh New Town. Many of the towers of that period were also without fireplaces so probably a central peat fire and thatched roof. However I have considerable sympathy with Simon and others who are trying to perform on reproductions of the medieval harps when there is a serious lack of musical evidence for that period.

    For a re-imagined performance at Finlaggan to have really connected with historical evidence then the harp would have been supporting the reciter of verse composed by MacDonald’s File. The relationship between File, recaire and musician which was what actually gave the string player his more exalted status in society. However this reaches the crux of the problem in that the amount of genuinely solid evidence as to how that worked is almost non existent. It was due to this void in the music of the small harp that when Francis Collinson suggested that the pipers had ‘inherited’ the harpers music that the Clarsach Society in Scotland grabbed it with both hands.

    Lacking any major solution to the missing harp music, (and realistically there will probably never be one), later players of the small harp have continued heading down that cul-de-sac; despite the evidence produced by Collinson being easily demolished. But history tends to be what people believe happened rather than their taking the considerable effort required to really examine the real evidence, or lack of. An example of how things can be misconstrued occurred when the late Frans Buisman was obliged to correct a reader of one of his articles;-

    ‘…misread one of the notes that I added to my article on ‘Port Mheadair’. I did not mean to imply that ‘piobaireachd was developed on the harp’. On the contrary, my own view is that piobaireachd could never have been developed on any instrument but the Highland bagpipes. Perhaps, as suggested I may be able to put more light one the question of the relation between ‘great’ pipe music and ‘great’ harp music in the future’. (Piping Times vol 41, No 1, page 56).

    Now that was a rather emphatic comment while my own views on the origins of piobaireachd are available elsewhere on this site. But neither of us would not expect some common ground with musical forms that arose against a similar cultural background, a shared Gaelic musical vocabulary being one example. But in terms of producing music the two instruments are quite dissimilar although as far as the harp is concerned one small piece of evidence does emerge from those three surviving instruments.

    When the one now known as the Trinity College Harp was ‘restored’ by the British Museum it was temporally restrung and played by Mary Rowland. In her submitted report she stated that the only playing position she had found that allowed her to march up with the wear marks on the harps soundbox was to kneel with the harp in front of her supporting it with her wrists. In other words with her hands in a fixed playing position which also provides a pointer to the possible function of ‘the sisters’.

    This kneeling position is supported by the wear marks on the other two harps as well as contemporary depictions of a harper in one of Derrick’s Images of Ireland, a medieval grave slab at Kilchoan on Skye and the inauguration of Alexander III in 1249 as shown on the seal of Scone Abbey. This latter being especially relevant to the harps use, at least at that period in Scotland, as the harper is supporting the reciter of the genealogy of the newly crowned King.

    I will admit it is not easy given the time restraints on most people who are simply trying to earn a living, especially if it is through performing music of any sort. Attempting to sort the more solid and reliable historical content from the rest takes time and effort even when such information is available. As an example of another ‘historical’ statement which is often repeated but built on sand is the claim the ‘descendants of English conquerors of Ireland had become ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. As it is put by S. J Connolly in his ‘Contested Island’, ‘To nationalist writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries the ‘gaelicization’ of the settler population was a valuable means off smoothing over what would otherwise have been awkward discontinuities in the making of the ‘Irish race’.

    But he continues, ‘Today it is recognised that the supposedly contemporary phrase dates only from the late eighteenth century while the Latin form (Hiberniores ipsis Hibernis), sometimes used to give it an authentic medieval ring from later still’. Although such deconstruction of history can be a negative process one further example of returning to the bedrock and rebuilding from there can be used to end this comment.

    In his paper ‘The court poet in early Ireland’ (worth reading in more general terms in any case); Alex Woolf examines the claims in a number of manuscripts suggesting the seating plans for a Kings household. These are the ‘texts’ which in some versions place the poet and string players much higher up in the pecking order than the wind players. He compared the size of the households with the contemporary Irish archaeological evidence to show that even the largest ‘roundhouse’ dwellings of the period could not have possibly held but a fraction of the numbers in those ‘plans’. He then suggests that the writers and compilers of those works were in fact purely imagining a King’s ‘Household’ and had used as their template a knowledge of the much larger Anglo Saxon Halls in England.

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