A Paean to the Bagpipe in Nova Scotia, 1816

The “Great Highland” bagpipe is now an iconic symbol of Scottishness in Scotland and abroad, but inadequate attention has been paid to how Highlanders themselves perceived, described and discussed their musical traditions and instruments amongst themselves. The following poem is, as far as I know, the earliest surviving commentary in Gaelic – thus composed by Gaels about their own tradition, for “internal” discussion, as it were – about the bagpipe and its role in Gaelic tradition that survives from the North American diaspora.

I transcribed the text several years ago from the newspaper The Casket and Barry Shears recently asked me to provide a usable edition and translation for a new book project on which he is currently working. It is an interesting poem that provides us with important insight not just about the bagpipes but about self-perceptions at this very transitional point in time, as the Gaelic community was re-establishing itself in a new geographical and socio-political context.

Notes and Analysis

The text is essentially a panegyric – the dominant rhetorical mode of Gaelic poetry – to the bagpipe in which the instrument is addressed directly and, to a degree, personified. This is not an uncommon literary convention, but there are not many other Gaelic poems that work quite in the same way (Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s “Moladh Mòraig” is another). The poet’s social role as panegyrist and a warning to the subject of praise to maintain standards is particularly explicit in lines 79-81. The sound of the bagpipe is compared to a frightening shriek (lines 17, 38 and 54), although it is also (as in many other Gaelic sources) compared to the sound of a bird (line 15) and a Gaelic choral song (line 31).

The poet alludes to the human bagpiper but he remains un-nnamed, a secondary figure in comparison to the instrument itself. I am unsure of the identity of this bagpiper, although Barry may know who is intended. Regardless, the agility of his fingers and hands is noted by the poet (lines 10 and 74).

Also central to the piece is the militaristic role of the instrument and the musical tradition. It is absolutely crucial to take into account the Gaelic community’s desperate and servile need for external validation via military employment (as I have discussed at length in my recent volume Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, pp. 68-120, 507-14). Highlanders were experiencing severe social trauma and physical dislocation at this time and attempting to push against the dominant anglocentric narrative of the inferiority and deficiency of Gaelic culture and society. Militarism provided a means for Highlanders to assert their value to an empire expanding through the use of force and violence, imagery which is striking in this text (lines 19-48).

As has been noted by previous scholars, conflict against the French (see lines 31-45) was instrumental in cementing a sense of Britishness in this period, and warfare between the two empires extended into battles in North America. The poet shares a marked note of self-congratulary reassurance that the people of England grew to appreciate Highlanders’ martial skills (lines 55-57). There is only a muted reference to the Jacobite Cause (lines 58-60).

It should be noted that the original text contained a number of errors and irregular spellings, so some emendations have been necessary. I am relatively certain about the text as it now stands in this edition.

Edition and Translation

Rann do’n phìob mhóir Ghàidhealaich a rinneadh ’s a’ bhliadhna 1816 le neach àraid air dha a bhràthair (a thàinig ’s an àm sin da’n dùthaich seo mach á Albainn) a chluinntinn a’ cluich ro thaitneach air a’ phìob, thuirt e na focail seo a leanas.

1 A chorr-fheadanach,
Fhad-ghobach,
  Nan dos mór-fhuaim:
Thig ceòl leadarra
5 Gun obadh,
  Ás do sgòrnan.

’S e dian ruith-leumach,
Fìor mhireagach,
Gun bhith sgòdach,
10 Le meur mhìn-bhuilleach,
Nan cliath bhinn-fhuaimneach,
Gun dìth eòlais,

Lìonte, sgoinneil thu,
’S fhiach do cheileireadh,
15   ’S gach big chomhnard;
Bu mhiann loinneil leinn,
Do sgiamh eireachdail,
  ’Thighinn ’nar comhdhail.

’S neo-ghann spiorad bhuat,
20 An àm tionalaidh
  Do dh’fhir òga;
Cha teann giorag riuth’,
Ach sannt mire-chath
  An strìth comhraig.

25 Gach pong chuireadach,
Toirt fonn iomairt dhoibh
  Le sunnd mòrail,
Gach sonn bunailteach,
Bu throm buillean bhuath’
30  An camp fòirneirt.

Nuair chluinnte luinneag bhuat,
Ged b’ aingidh Bonapart,
  Rinn fann-bhuilleach e;
’S a mheall a phròis air,
35 Tighinn teann bu duilich leis
  Air rang do chomhlain.

Rinn’ call fuileach air,
Le’n ceannsgal ’s t’ iollagaich,
  A ghléidh buaidh-làraich,
40 Air Frangaich ghuineadach,
Nach mall air gunnaireachd,
  A threut gu bàs i.

Fhuair cliù mar thoilleadh iad,
Bho Dhiùc Wellington,
45  Le’n sgoinn ’s an àraich:
Fuil dhlùth ’g imeachd leò,
’S lùbadh mhuineachan,
  Air ruinn na stàilinn.

Crùnludh faramach,
50 Toirt dùsgadh caithreamach
  Do shuinn shàr-bheum;
Le sùrd casgairt orr’,
Smùid ’s spealtaireachd,
  Chluinnte an rànail.

55 Bu lìonor batail leò,
’S miadhail Sasann orra
  Gu gnìomh gàbhaidh;
Nam b’ fhiach acainean
Gach triath air gaisgichean,
60  Cha strìochdadh Teàrlach.

Tha t’ fhuaim neo-airtnealach,
Bheir cruadal sgairtealach,
  Do dhùthchas Ghàidheal;
Deagh bhuaidh a thachairt riuth’
65 Bheir nuallan taitneach ort:
  ’S ann diubh mo bhràthair.

Gach coigreach ’chlisgidh tu,
Gun chorr fiosraich ort,
  Na eòlas nàduir,
70 An comhraig sgrios-bhuilleach,
Bheir leòn dha, misneach ann
  Do cheòl, toirt tàth ast’.

Tha uaislean measail
Air do chuairtean clis-mheurach
75  A cluichear làn-mhath
Le fuaim dheas-làmhach,
Bheir buaidh theas-ghràdhach,
  A chluinntear àghmhor.

Thuirt mi ’n urrad ud,
80 Toirt cliù ’s urram dhuit:
  ’S cùm gun tàir e;
’S a’ phuing, chan urra’ mi,
Chionn sin, sguiridh mi,
  ’S gum bu slàn leat.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

A poem to the Great Highland bagpipe that was composed in the year 1816 by a particular person after he heard his brother (who had immigrated at that time to this country from Scotland) playing very melodiously on the bagpipe: he uttered these following words.

1-6: O pointy chantered-one, (who is) long beaked, and has drones that make great sound: melodious music comes abundantly out of your throat.

7-12: It is vigorous, quick-leaping, truly animated, without any deficiency; with a precisely striking finger of a melodious run of notes, with no lack of skill.

13-18: You are perfected and efficacious, every smooth chirp is worthy of celebration; we sincerely wish for your elegant shriek to meet up with us.

19-24: You do not lack spirit when it is time to gather up the young men; dread will not visit them, but rather a lust for fighting in the strife of combat.

25-30: Every enticing (musical) note provides an impetus to them with majestic energy; every steadfast warrior pounds out heavy blows in the war camp.

31-36: Even though Bonapart is bellicose, he would become faint-hearted when he would hear a song from you; his arrogance failed him, he was sorry to come close to a column of the battalion.

37-42: Their power and your shriek, that won the battle, caused him a bloody loss, and a loss to the fierce French; swift in their use of guns, continuing until they died (?).

43-48: They received the honour they were due from the Duke of Wellington from their efficacy in the battle-field: shedding copious amounts of (enemy) blood and breaking necks on the points of steel-blades.

49-54: A booming “crowning movement” [section of pìobaireachd] giving a triumphant awakening to hard-pummeling heroes; with the excitement of combat in them, gunpowder-smoke and melee, the roar (of the pipe) could be heard.

55-60: They fought many battles and England esteemed them for dangerous deeds; if the concerns of all chieftains for warriors had been heeded, [Prince] Charles would not have lost.

61-66: Your high-spirited sound gives fierce resilience to Gaelic heritage; it is good luck to encounter those who give a pleasant report of you: my brother is one of those (who do).

67-72: Every stranger, who knows nothing of you beyond the obvious, who you would startle in death-dealing combat that will wound him, there is inspiration in your music that weakens (the enemy’s) cohesion.

73-78: Nobles are fond of your quick-fingered cycles that are expertly played with fine-handed sound, that has a passionate effect, that is heard gloriously.

79-84: What I have just said gives you praise and honour: do not bring it reproach; I cannot add to that, and so I will stop; farewell to you.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Hugh Cheape for suggesting an emendation on the Gaelic text and feedback about it.

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