‘Piobaireachd Cheann Deas, or the Earl of Ross’ March’

The background to this tune has produced much speculation over the years with its Gaelic named version usually linked to the place of that name in Ross and Cromarty, about five miles NNE of Alness. Even there, confusion reigns as the modern name of Kindeace House and its estate only dates from the eighteenth century, after Robertson of Kindeace (the original Kindeace close to Nigg) acquired what was then known as Inchfuir and renamed it on selling the original Kindeace.

Both place names, Inchfuir and the original Kindeace, go back a long way and were part of the Earldom of Ross. The former first appears in 1373 when a charter by King Robert II was issued confirming a grant by William Earl of Ross to his harper Hugh of the land of ‘Inchefure’. The name was probably a good deal older as there is evidence that it alternated with ‘Pitfure’, the ‘Pit’ instead of ‘Inch’ suggesting that it originated during the period of the Picts.

Kindeace first appears a little later, in 1449, in a charter by John Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles to Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath. As this charter was specifically for ‘Estyrkyndeis’ (Easter Kindeace), the original land had clearly been around long enough to have been split into two parts. However, tracing the two properties and their changes in ownership is complicated by the constantly changing names. For example, Easter Kindeace is recorded as ‘Little Kindeace’ in 1571, and its complementary half as ‘Meikle Kindes’ (i.e. ‘Great’ Kindeace) in 1555 before it reverts to ‘Kindece Wester’ in 1580.

A further problem occurs when, despite there being two distinct properties, the owners simply referred to themselves as ‘of’ or ‘in’ Kindeace without being specific as to which part was theirs. For example, when the first of the Robertson family who subsequently transferred the Kindeace name to Inchfuir acquired a charter for Easter Kindeace in 1631, he called himself William Robertson of Kindeace from the start. That same year, however, Thomas MacCulloch of Kindeace (d. 1637) gave a charter of the whole of Wester or Meikle Kindeace to his eldest son Thomas.

William Robertson was a wealthy merchant burgess of Inverness who was descended from the Robertsons of Strowan in Athole. The family from whom he bought Easter Kindeace were called Ross and it had been in their hands for at least two generations. When the descendants of William Robertson on transferring their main home to Inchfuir sold Easter Kindeace, it again returned to a series of owners called Ross; including David Ross of Tarlogie who sat on the bench as Court of Session Judge Lord Ankerville. It was from this point that the names Little or Easter Kindeace disappear and the modern name of Ankerville replaced them.

The place name Wester or Meikle Kindeace, at least the latter, continued into the eighteenth century. According to the Exchequer Valuation Rolls for 1756, it was owned by a Duncan Ross and valued at £404. (Interestingly, Ankerville, formerly ‘Little Kindeace’, had a considerably higher valuation at £527). The corresponding rolls for 1802 show both properties still with the same valuations, but Ankerville was now owned by John Ross of Shandwick and Meikle Kindeace by William Mackenzie of Bayfield, the name by which it is known today. A letter among the Ross of Pitcavie papers, (NRS GD199/87/31), suggests that it had been placed up for sale in 1783 and that ‘Kindace Robertson’, i.e. the representative of the family now at Inchfuir, might have been interested because of the ‘Kindeace’ title – but the expatriate MacKenzie presumably had the deeper pockets.

Over the course of centuries, the estates using the title of ‘Kindeace’ in some form or other can be seen to have had some historical connections with the name ‘Ross’, both through ownership by people with that surname and from originally being part of the Earldom of Ross. It would be possible to expand further on the convoluted ownership of what settled for a while into being known as Meikle Kindeace (Wester), and Little Kindeace (Easter), including the apparent transfer of ‘Little Kindeis’ to the Earls of Cromarty at some point under Queen Anne. However, enough has been covered to provide grounds for connecting the two titles given to the pipe tune by Donald MacDonald: ‘Piobaireachd Cheann Deas, or the Earl of Ross’ March’ (PS 118). If only it was that simple.

When turning to the sources of this tune, fresh doubts start to creep in. Part of the tune first appears unnamed in Joseph MacDonald’s treatise where he describes it as ‘Another Key or Taste for Laments & Rural Pieces / Ex[ample] of a Lament’:

Joseph MacDonald’s treatise (c. 1760), folio 20v

It then appears as ‘Chean na Daise’ in volume two of the Campbell Canntaireachd and ‘Cean na Deas or the Earl of Ross’s March’ in Sir John MacRa’s copy of the earlier draft of Donald MacDonald’s MS. It also appears in MacLeod of Gesto’s book of 1828, collected from old John MacCrummon at a somewhat earlier date. Gesto has one of the more idiosyncratic spellings, giving it as ‘Kiaunidize’. The presence of ‘ni’ in the middle suggests that this corresponds to the previous two versions with three words run together.

It is when we get to Donald MacDonald’s manuscript and the associated ‘History of the Airs’ that it is possible to detect the first real changes in the titles used for this tune. Above the actual tune is written (in pencil) just ‘Earl of Ross March’. It may have been prefixed by ‘The’ although the digitised version is unclear at this point. However, in the historical notes (p. 6) it is called ‘Piobaireachd Cheann Deas, or the Earl of Ross’ March’. This represents a significant change from the title recorded by Sir John MacRa, which, agreeing with Campbell and Gesto, contains the additional word na (or ‘ni’) and presumably was copied from Donald’s earlier draft.

In the form Donald finally settled on, the na is dropped and the result is closer to the place name ‘Kindeace’ in Easter Ross. Furthermore, with no attempt to explain the Gaelic name or its connection to the second title given, ‘Earl of Ross March’, Donald launches into a detailed explanation of how, through marriage to the heiress of Ross-shire, Donald Lord of the Isles also became for a while Earl of Ross and that their heirs were the progenitors of the then Lord MacDonald. This suggests that Donald did not know or understand what lay behind the Cean na Deas title but was trying to reconcile two apparently different names.

As the name Ceann na Déise seems to appear first and to carry greater traditional authority, where did the ‘Earl of Ross’s March’ title come from? An answer does present itself. In Peter Reid’s MS, compiled roughly around the same period that Donald MacDonald was working on the drafts of his manuscript, Reid has the tune simply under the name ‘Piobaireachd Iarla Rois / The Earl of Ross’s Pibrach’:

Peter Reid's MS, f. 21v

Added in the top corner is a short note, ‘As performed by Gun. J McNab of the Royal Scots’. This opens the door to proposing a firm date for when the older title was superseded by the later and that the tune circulated through a small connected group of people.

There was a piping family of MacNabs who can be traced from the early eighteenth century through to the early nineteenth. However they tended to remain more in the background and when they do appear it was often through holding positions as military pipers. When Donald MacDonald was the second piper in the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles, the first piper or ‘Piper Major’ was a MacNab and that family would have therefore had a strong influence on him. But to make all the connections requires starting with the Highland Society Competition of 1819.

Among the competitors that year was a John Gordon, piper to a Captain Stewart but described as ‘from Glen of Fincastle’ in two earlier competitions where he had placed 4th and then 3rd. For the 1819 competition, the competitors were required to submit six tunes and among John Gordon’s tunes was ‘Pibrachd Cean Dias’. What is perhaps significant is that it was the only one of the six which did not have a translation or alternative name. Furthermore, it was not among the tunes he had submitted in 1816 when he was placed 4th. One other piper that year, Donald Duff from Sir Neill Menzies’s estate, also had ‘Piobrachd Ceann Dias’ in his list but in his case with a translation, or at least an alternative title, which appears to read ‘A Salute in Strathg…ning’ but is partly covered with an ink blot:


It is possible that the addition was in any case an error as, when Donald Duff competed in 1821, his tune list again included ‘Piobrachd Cean Dias’, but this time without any additional title. Likewise, that year James MacDonald, son to Donald MacDonald Pipe Maker, was a competitor and his tune list also had ‘Piobrachd Cean Deas’ with no translation. However, John Gordon, now described as ‘Piper to the Atholl Club’, had in his list ‘Piobrachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross’s March’, the form in which it also appeared in the lists of Alexander Dewar from Sir John Menzies’s estate and Donald Scrimgeour, Piper to the Centre Regiment of the Forfarshire Local Militia. James MacDonald’s brother Donald also competed that year but neither version of the title appeared in his tune list. In the following year’s competition in 1822, both John Gordon and Donald Scrimgeour had ‘Piobrachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross’s March’ in their tune lists, as did Donald MacDonald son of Donald MacDonald Pipe Maker.

In the 1824 competition, the year that Donald Scrimgeour won the Prize Pipe, the number of tunes to be submitted had risen to twelve; he again included ‘Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross March’ among them and it was his winning tune. It was also in the lists of John Gordon and John MacNab son to Duncan MacNab late piper to the Royals but in the latter’s list the last word of the translation, probably ‘march’ has been crossed through with ‘Piobrachd’ written over it. That year two other competitors also had the Earl of Ross version of the titles in their lists, a John Arthur from Dunkeld and Donald Duff from Sir Neill Menzies’s estate who previously in his 1821 tune list had used the ‘Piobrachd Cean Dias’ title with no translation or alternative title (see Addendum 1 below).

The year 1825 seems to mark a turning point. For the second year running, ‘Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross March’ appears in five competitors’ lists, whereas ‘Piobrachd Cean Dias’ appears in none. The following year, in 1826, it was down to just three competitors, John Gordon, John Scott and Donald MacDonald son of Donald MacDonald the pipe maker, and neither title appears again for several years. It should be emphasised at this point that these references to the tune are simply to its appearance in the lists of tunes submitted by competitors in the Highland Society competitions. 1826 was only the second time it was selected for performance at the actual competition. On that occasion it was played by John Gordon and he won the first prize.

That the tune should have then slipped out of the competitors’ tune lists is not a surprise given that it only appeared in the repertoire of what was a small and interconnected group of pipers. Two of them won the Prize Pipe so took no further part in competitions: Donald Scrimgeour and John Gordon, with whom it seemed to have been a particular favourite from its first appearance in 1819 as ‘Pibrachd Ceann Dias’ to its last in 1826 as ‘Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross March’. Likewise, Donald MacDonald junior and John MacNab junior both joined the army and in Donald’s case died in South Africa. Although both Peter Reid and Donald MacDonald senior clearly knew the tune, under both names as far as Donald was concerned, they had only recorded it in their manuscripts and it was not until Angus MacKay’s published work that it gained a wider potential circulation.

Although it involves a degree of speculation, some conclusions can be drawn from these tune lists. The tune first appears in the lists of John Gordon and Donald Duff in 1819 but not in their earlier lists for the 1816 competition. However, 1816 was the year that John Campbell was recorded as bringing a copy of Colin Campbell’s Instrumental Book to the competition, when several of the other pipers were said to have understood it and that volume was then bought by Sir John MacGregor Murray. Subsequently, the tune appears in the pipers’ competition lists under what looks like a slightly corrupted version of Colin Campbell’s title and, with only one dubious exception, no attempt at a translation or alternative title.

However, within a few years that title had been replaced with the alternative, ‘Earl of Ross’s March’, and even in the historical notes to Donald MacDonald’s manuscript, where he includes both titles, he makes no attempt to explain ‘Piobaireachd Cheann Deas’. It is also noticeable that he makes no direct link to either title but his note is simply a history of the background to the MacDonald claim on Ross, which leads to the question: What is the link between the tune, the place name and the Earl of Ross? The answer to that requires looking at the circumstances surrounding the change from one title to the other. In the pipers’ tune lists, it was an abrupt change with no suggestion that one was an alternative to the other.

In the 1821 tune lists only two pipers, James MacDonald and Donald Duff, retained the ‘Cean Deas’ form while the other three – James Gordon who had used that form in his 1819 list, Donald Scrimgeour and Alexander Dewar – all had the Earl of Ross title instead. What is significant about these three pipers is that they were all connected through a network of Perthshire ‘lairds’ most of whom would have been members of the Atholl Club and many of whom were Robertson Lairds or were related through marriage to Robertson Lairds. The Robertson families had also established a presence as wealthy merchant burgesses in Perth, Carnoustie and even as far as Dundee through younger sons becoming merchants during the 17th century. The piper John Gordon was a classic example of these connections as when he first appears and probably still while ‘Piper to the Atholl Club’ he was based at Glen of Fincastle on the Stewart of Bonskied Estate – a family which had been closely related to the Robertsons of Lude from the beginning of the 17th century.

It would be unlikely for someone in that social circle not to be aware of the Robertsons’ northern cousin at Kindeace and therefore not to make a connection between the laird of Kindeace and the poorly-understood Gaelic title Ceann na Déise. If this surmise is correct, then the knowledge that the place name was in Ross and predated the Robertsons’ acquisition and therefore was ‘old’, could naturally lead to the grander English title of ‘The Earl of Ross’s March’ without any real historical justification.

Once the connection to the place name is broken, then it is possible to return to MacLeod of Gesto’s book as the only primary source of the tune which does provide an explanation of the title:

Gesto's book (1828), p. 16

Played at a time when the Scotts were at War in England, and obliged to feed on the Ears of Corn for want of Provision, commonly called KIAUNIDIZE.

It has been pointed out by Roderick Cannon in his ‘Notes on Gaelic Titles’, that although Gesto has ‘Ears’, plural, his spelling Kian (based on its use elsewhere by Gesto) would suggest the singular ceann, i.e. head/ear of corn rather than ‘ears’.

To my mind, the wider context this points to is a period of famine. Apart from war as a cause, famine through weather-related crop failure or cattle and crop disease, was a regular visitor and the after effects prolonged. Hungry people will eat the last ‘ear of corn’, meaning that those that do survive have nothing to plant the next year. The period from the 1690s, ‘King William’s ill years’, through to around 1715 when weather- and war-related famine was prevalent throughout Scotland led to an estimated 200,000 Scots emigrating to Ireland. A remarkable figure when it is considered that the total population of Scotland at that point was only just over one million.

When Joseph MacDonald included part of Ceann na Déise in his treatise, it was to illustrate a ‘Key or Taste for Laments or Rural Pieces’, and he clarified that this was an example of a lament. That, together with Gesto’s explanation of the tune’s title, would suggest that Ceann na Déise was composed to commemorate a period of famine, perhaps one of the most devastating periods of famine while the Highland piping tradition was in its prime.

This does of course leave one unanswered question. If the pibroch title and the place name are not one and the same, what then lies behind the place name in Ross? Although W. J. Watson in his ‘Place-names of Ross and Cromarty’ considered that question, he regarded the ‘corn-head’ translation as ‘doubtful. It is however possible to suggest another explanation if the problem is approached from a topographical direction, drawing a parallel with another part of Gaelic Scotland.

According to the maps of the ‘Earldoms and provincial lordships’ in the Atlas of Scottish History (1996: 184–6) the earldom of Ross extended from an area north of Loch Ness through to the east coast, bounded by the Cromarty and Dornoch Firths. Apart from those tidal firths, the Earldom’s main North Sea coast is the ‘anvil shaped’ double-ended promontories with Nigg at the south end and Tarbat Ness at the north end. That north end is very sharp – a clearly-defined ‘Ness’ or pointed promontory – but though there is a small point called Dunskeath Ness opposite the town of Cromarty, the south end which includes Nigg is far broader and rounded: less ‘Ness’-like than the north end.

Apart from the ecclesiastical centre at Nigg, most of that south end is covered by the lands of Kindeace, which looks like a corrupted version of Ceann a Deas meaning ‘southern part’. Ceann a Deas is the historic name for the southern part of South Uist and Eriskay. It appears in the older records more often than its modern counterpart, South Uist, which now refers to the whole of the island (Raven 2005: 110). The Western Isles ‘Kindess’ was a 23 merkland and an inventory among the Clanranald papers (GD201/5/1234/20) states that it comprised the lands from Kilpheder and Frobost right down to and including the island of Eriskay, in other words the whole of the southern part of the island. Like its Ross counterpart, there are a number of variations in the spelling of the Uist place name but always in the compressed form, dropping the central ‘a’. Rather than reflecting how it was pronounced by Gaelic speakers, this compression may be due to the Lowland Scots-influenced scribes who wrote the physical records.


Adam R. J., ed. (1992), Calendar of Fearn

Cannon R. D. (1994), Joseph MacDonald’s Complete Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe

McNeill P. and MacQueen H. (1996), Atlas of Scottish History to 1707

Munro J. and Munro R. W. (1986), Acts of the Lords of the Isles

Raven J. A. (2005), Medieval Landscapes and Lordship in South Uist. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow

Watson W. J. (1904), Place-names of Ross and Cromarty

National Records of Scotland

E106 Valuation Books

GD121 Grandtully papers (Royston Estate), records relating to Ross and Cromarty

GD146 Robertson of Kindease papers

GD201 MacDonald of Clanranald papers

GD305 Earls of Cromarty Papers

RHP680 Map of Nigg 1763

Addendum 1. Competition Tunes

John Gordon Piper to Captain Stewart of Allean. Previously won 3rd and 4th prize. List of six tunes includes Pibrachd Ceann Dias. Only tune in list without translation or alternative title

Donald Duff from Sir Neill Menzies’s Estate. List of six tunes includes Piobrachd Ceann Dias – A Salute in Strathg… as far as readable before an inkblot. The Salute ‘in’ somewhere has no other precedents normally being a Salute ‘to’, and the fact that in his 1821 list this piper also has the same version of the Gaelic title but without any translation or alternative suggest this is an error by the scribe.

James MacDonald son of Donald MacDonald Pipe Maker. List of six tunes includes Piobrachd Cean Deas

Donald MacDonald son of Donald MacDonald Pipe Maker. List of six tunes but neither title included

John Gordon Piper to the Atholl Club. His performance tune was Piobrachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross’s March

Donald Duff from Sir Neil Menzies Estate. List of six tunes includes Piobrachd Cean Dias

Alexander Dewar from Sir John MacGregor Murray Estate. List of six tunes includes Piobrach Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross’s March

Donald Scrimgeour Piper to the Centre Regt of Forfarshire Local Militia. List of six tunes includes Piobrachd Iarla Roiss – Earl of Ross’s March

John Gordon Piper to the Atholl Club. List of six tunes includes Piobrachd Iarla Rois – The Earl of Ross’s March

Donald MacDonald Son of Donald MacDonald Pipe-maker. List of six tunes includes Piobrachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross’s March

Donald Scrimgeour Piper to the Forfar Militia. List of six tunes includes Piobrachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross’s March

John MacNab son to Duncan MacNab Piper to the Royal Scots competed but has neither title in his list of six tunes.

Donald Scrimgeour Piper to the Centre Regt of the Forfar Local Militia. List of twelve tunes including Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross March with which he won the Prize Pipe

John Gordon Piper to the Atholl Club. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – Earl of Ross March

John MacNab son to Duncan MacNab late piper to the Royals. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross’ March

Donald Duff from Sir Neil Menzies Estate. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross’ March

John Arthur from Dunkeld. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – Earl of Ross’s March

John Gordon Piper to the Atholl Club. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – Earl of Ross March

[John] MacNab [son of Duncan MacNab] late Piper Major to the Royals. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross March

Donald Duff from Sir Neil Menzies Estate. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla – Earl of Ross March

Robert Wallace from Dalguise. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross March

John Scott from Pitlochry. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross March

John Gordon Piper to the Atholl Club. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross March, the tune he played at the ‘performance’

Donald MacDonald son of Donald MacDonald Pipe Maker. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross March

John Scott from Pitlochry. List of twelve tunes includes Piobaireachd Iarla Roiss – The Earl of Ross March

Addendum 2. Place name variants

This list aims to provide an overview of the variants of that particular place name in Ross. Although it has been laid out chronologically, that is not meant to indicate the prevalence of any particular version, or that it was necessarily the first time a version was used. Indeed in several documents it occurs in several different spellings. Likewise it concentrates on the spellings of the place name and does not include the further qualifying descriptions of Easter/Wester and so on unless combined into one word.

Estyrkyndeis 1449 (Acts of the Lords of the Isles)
Kyndes/Kindes 1555 (GD86/210)
Kindece 1580 (GD146/22/11)
Kindess c. 1590 (Pont’s Map)
Kyndeis 1604 (Retours Ross and Cromarty nos 15 and 18)
Kindeice 1649 (GD146)
Kindess 1654 (Blaeu Atlas)
Kindeiss 1654 (GD146)
Kindeas 1665 (GD146/23/58)
Kindeise 1670 (GD305/1/151/245)
Kindass 1710 (GD146)
Kindiss 1747 (Roy’s map)
Kindace 1747 (GD872/12)
Kindeace 1751 (E751/3)


2 thoughts on “‘Piobaireachd Cheann Deas, or the Earl of Ross’ March’

  1. I find this compelling; in all its complexity, a most satisfactory interpretation. We should not overlook, however, the prominent role of pipers in the sowing and harvesting of grain, or in the annual festivals and ancient rituals in which grain and piping were central at prestigious public events. Supernatural forces were cultivated for millennia to help ensure good harvests. At some of these, entire communities participated – and much wine was drunk!

    The piping-led musical culture of ancient Athens, and Eleusinian Mysteries which spanned two millennia, had a wide influence through the popular religions of the Roman empire. The myths about Triptolemus at https://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/EleusiniosTriptolemos.html , for example, find resonances across Europe, not least in West Highland tales. In one 5th c. AD epic popularised in the Renaissance, Nonnus writes: “Those born of the blood of Triptolemos [i.e. the priests of the Eleusinian Mysteries]: who once flew through the air, with his load of corn-ears, and lashed the serpents’ backs” (Dionysiaca 13. 188 ff, trans. Rouse).

    Many Greek and Roman coins show corn-ears, or Demeter/Ceres holding stalks of grain (e.g. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_1868-0514-145). A sacred piece of music called “Ears of corn” makes perfect sense in a premodern society, particularly one that venerated Classical learning.

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