Who was Black Donald ?

Piobaireachd Dhomnuill Duibh (Black Donald’s March), in the original form and especially from it’s adaption into a 6/8 military march, is one of the more generally known titles both among pipers and the more general population. The background history of the tune is, though, another of the occasions when there are competing stories being claimed for both the MacDonalds and the Camerons, with dates said to go back as far as the 15th century, along with a connection to one of the ‘Battles of Inverlochy’.

Since I have spent much time and effort over the years attempting to piece together the life of Donald MacDonald it pains me to suggest that the finger of guilt for the confusion points towards him and his published book, but to explore the background to the tune we have to start before he was born. The tune was certainly around by the mid-eighteenth century and was known to Joseph MacDonald, albeit title-less like all of the music in his ‘Treatise’. It also appears in some of the fiddle collections around the same time.

Moving onto firmer ground, it was played by two of the competitors in the 1786 Highland Society Competition, where the programme gave it on both occasions as ‘Piobrachd MhicDhonail Dhuibh’ translated as ‘Locheil’s March’. It does not at that time seem to have been a regular choice for the competitions, but when it appeared in 1804 played by Finlay MacLeod from Glenmoriston the title was given as ‘Cruinnach Mhic Dhonailduibh’ or Cameron of Locheil’s Gathering. By 1816 the Gaelic form of the name had more or less settled down in form other than one small fluctuation. It was in the tune lists submitted by two of the competitors that year, but while both agreed on the Locheil’s March, one had the Gaelic version as ‘Piobrachd Dhomial Duibh’ while the other had ‘Piobrach Mhic Dhomail Duibh’.

Although the exact spellings of Piobaireachd Dhomnuill Duibh varied, as did most spellings at that time, apart from a re-occurrence of the ‘Mhic’ addition in 1822, it continued to be noted along with the ‘translation’ of Locheils March in 1824 and 1829, with an occasional straightforward literal translation of just ‘Black Donald’s March’. However, in 1832 came the first significant change when it was included in the tune lists submitted by two of the competitors. One, Adam MacPherson simply had it as ‘Black Donald or Domhnuil Dubh’ but George Murchison in his list recorded it as ‘Black Donald Balloch of the Isles or Dhomhnuil Dhubh’. (These lists had the English names first with the Gaelic originals second.)

It would seem that the publication of Donald MacDonald’s book was starting to have an effect as the work became more accessible through the numerous re-printings. In his work Donald had given it the much expanded and grandiose title of Piobaireachd Dhomhnuill Duibh; Black Donald Balloch of the Isles march, (and not Locheils), to the first battle at Inverlochy 1427. The words in parentheses were scratched out in most of the early printings and omitted thereafter. Although it is possible to make allowances for Donald’s general leanings towards his own clan, the MacDonalds, in this case his over-enthusiasm has created a historical nonsense by conflating two different people.

Donald Balloch, or ‘Freckled’, first appears aged 18 at the battle of Inverlochy in 1431 (not 1427 as Donald MacDonald has it). Thereafter he usually appears in documents with his full territorial designation as ‘of Dunivaig and the Glens’ (of Antrim). He died sometime between August 1476 and June 1481. At no time was he ever referred to as ‘Donald Dubh’; that was the name of a later member of the family of the Isles who was the grandson of John, the last Lord of the Isles. Born shortly before the death of his father Angus, Master of the Isles in 1490, his mother was a daughter of Argyll and he grew up a prisoner in the Castle of Inch Connel in Loch Awe. He escaped in 1501 and was at liberty for about six years before being retaken and then remained a prisoner until 1545 when he was again at liberty.

He raised a force and crossed to Ireland with a fleet of some 180 galleys. But although he had started to treat with the English and was waiting for the English supporting Lennox to arrive, his followers began to quarrel over the distribution of the English money. Although an expedition back to Scotland did eventually depart, it achieved little and so returned to Ireland, where Donald Dubh died of fever at Drogheda in 1545.

In fact, neither of these two MacDonalds really fit Donald MacDonald’s title. Donald Balloch can be completely discounted, as the title is clear about it being a ‘Black Donald’. The Donald Dubh who died in 1545 does at least match with the tunes title, but can be discounted as he was not around at the time of either battle of Inverlochy. In any case, having ‘removed’ Donald Balloch as the a possible candidate, the Battle of Inverlochy on which Donald MacDonald lays much emphasis must also be ruled out.

However, if we reject Donald MacDonald’s explanation of the title ‘Piobaireachd Dhomnuill Duibh’ and return to the tune’s earlier association with the Clan Cameron and their chief Locheil, then a likely solution does appear. The first leader of that clan from whom the subsequent ‘Locheils’ claim descent is on record in 1472, when Alan son of Donald Dubh, Captain of Clan Cameron was appointed constable of Strome Castle and the lands of Kishorn. Although it is unlikely that the tune goes far enough back to be referring to that actual person, ‘Donald Dubh’ became an alternative epithet for Cameron of Locheil.

Likewise, although it appears to have been a red herring introduced by Donald MacDonald, along with ‘Donald Balloch’ some association with Inverlochy can be accommodated. In 1815 Alexander Campbell under the guidance of MacLeod of Gesto and with acknowledgements to the MacCrimmons noted the tune down with the English title as ‘Camerons Gathering’. Campbell also added under the music the words of a verse set to the ground. The last line reads ‘Piob agus Braddach air faich Inbherlochi’, which can loosely be translated as ‘Pipe and Banner on the reviewing place at Inverlochy’. In other words, it is describing the gathering of the clan for a presumed military action, though not necessarily at Inverlochy, which being at the heart of the Cameron lands would have been the natural assembly and review point.

So bringing it altogether, the answer to the question posed by the title of this article is that the ‘Black Donald’ of the pipe tune was an early Cameron Chief. But as that by-name tended to be applied to whoever was the current ‘Locheil’, its identification with the Camerons and Locheil cannot be applied to a specific period. The tune was certainly around during the 18th Century and probably before, and might be as old as the second Battle of Inverlochy (at which the Camerons were present) in 1645. But, as the battle connections were part of the confusion created by Donald MacDonald’s introduction of ‘Donald Balloch’, there is no firm evidence and a large element of doubt.


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