The origins of ceòl mòr, a theory – part 1

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Christian Krohg's depiction from 1899 of King Olaf presenting a sword to Icelandic skald, Sigvat the Skald (995-1045).
Christian Krohg's depiction from 1899 of King Olaf presenting a sword to Icelandic skald, Sigvat the Skald (995-1045).

• From the March 1980 Piping Times.

Mrs. Bridget MacKenzie, nee Gordon, was, until her marriage to Dr. Alex MacKenzie, lecturer in Old Norse in the Department of English Language at Glasgow University. A graduate of Oxford and Glasgow, she is a daughter of the late Professor E. V. Gordon, a Canadian of Scottish origin who came to Britain as a Rhodes Scholar and became Professor of English Language and Mediaeval Languages at the University of Manchester.

Dr. Alex MacKenzie is well-known for his work on the acoustics of the Highland bagpipe, on which he gave an interesting lecture at the 1978 Piobaireachd Society Conference.

Mrs. MacKenzie here shows the interesting parallel between Scottish ceòl mòr and Norse skaldic verse. This is the first of three articles.

By Bridget MacKenzie

Campbell of Kilberry wrote: “So far as any investigation which has been made has gone, nothing resembling ceòl mòr has been discovered in any other country in the world, and certainly not in Ireland”. This was possibly true enough in 1948, but since then investigation has gone a little further – and partly into Irish territory.

There was at one time, before ceòl mòr, a non-Irish art form which resembled ceòl mòr in many respects. Like ceòl mòr, it was composed by professionals who were maintained by patrons. These professionals had reached that status after long training, and they usually remained professional composers and performers for their lifetime. Their patron was a chieftain, or king, or earl, an eminent man ruling over his own territory, large or small, and he had his artistes, musical and poetical, living in his household. These men were not necessarily born under his rule or in his territory, but often they had received their training there. Some, however, moved from one chief to another, either permanently or for a visit; such travelling gave them enormous prestige, and raised their status socially.

A chieftain might maintain a group or ‘school’ of such artistes, and they competed with each other and with their lord’s visitors. The lord himself was often competent in the art, both composing and performing alongside his men, and highly critical of their performance. The artistes learned from each other, borrowing and adapting techniques, ever widening their own experience. They passed on their art by an ‘apprentice’ method, sometimes father to son, or uncle to nephew, sometimes merely teacher to pupil. There are isolated instances of a woman composing, but this is exceptional, and women were not part of the patronage system, nor do they appear to have been teachers.

The art was always taught by word of mouth; compositions were memorised, and nothing was committed to writing until very late in the development of the form, when it was well past its Golden Age. Each man during his training seems to have stored up a ‘ban’ of expressions and phrases, forming half- wrought works on which he could draw when the occasion demanded.

The compositions were all ‘occasional,’ i.e. they were made for a specific occasion, either addressed to a specific person or commemorating a specific event. The convention was that they were spontaneous, and to suggest otherwise was to insult the artiste, but there is evidence that this spontaneity drew heavily on the store of training previously built up. The occasions for which they were made were times of high emotion, occasions of grief, triumph, rejoicing or of battle, for the artiste went into battle alongside his chief, and, we are told, often urged on his leader by his compositions as they fought. Another of his tasks was to help to rouse feeling for the fight before the battle began; and he had to commemorate the dead when it was over. He was expected to eulogise his patron and his patron’s family, both extant and long dead; he worked in joy for birth and marriage, in grief for death in his patron’s family, or in triumph if the death was in the enemy’s family. Above all, he must praise his patron for courage, prowess in battle and generosity to his followers.

All this would, of course, apply to ceòl mòr, composed in the Hebrides and the western seaboard of Scotland; it would also apply, in a more limited way, to the Gaelic poetry of Ireland, the Hebrides and western Scotland; possibly also to harp music in the same area, although evidence is sparse. But here, in fact, it is not a Celtic but a Germanic art, Old Norse poetry, of the kind known as ‘skaldic,’ a skald being the Norse name for this type of professional poet. There were amateur Norse poets at the same time, just as there were amateur pipers at the time of the MacCrimmons, but the closest parallel is between the professional skalds of the Scandinavian courts and earldoms, and the professional pipers of the Hebridean clan colleges and households. The Skalds were men from Iceland, Norway, Orkney and the Hebrides, and they all had access to Irish poetry and Irish poets. The courts of the kings and earls for whom they worked were in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Orkney and Shetland; very many of the skalds working there were Icelanders, whose ancestry had a strong Hebridean-Irish element.

For clarification at this point, it should be said that ceòl mòr is taken as dating from before 1500 to the present day, with its Golden Age in the 17th century. Old Norse skaldic verse belongs to the period between about 850 and 1400 (see G. Turville-Petre, The Origins of Icelandic Literature, Oxford, 1953). Irish poetry of comparable type, known as syllabic, developed from the 6th century until about the 14th, but lived on, virtually unchanged, in Scotland until the early 18th century. It became known as ‘bardic’ poetry (see R. Flower, The Irish Tradition, Dublin, 1947; and D. Thomson, An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry, 1974). It should be borne in mind also that the term ‘Irish’ was applicable to the Gaelic-speaking areas of both Ireland and Scotland, at least until the Reformation.

The common geographical background for the evolvement of poetry and music does not mean that the works themselves were necessarily similar. But even apart from the comparable social background outlined above, ceòl mòr and Old Norse skaldic verse had more in common than geography – and what they shared was to some extent what made them differ from Irish poetry.

The mystery of the provenance of ceòl mòr, which appears apparently without ancestors, around 1500, is reflected in skaldic poetry. It too appears as if from nowhere, almost fully formed, around 850, and it too has no obvious antecedents. There was an earlier Old Norse poetry, but it was not skaldic. In Irish there is not the same problem; early Irish poetry had its roots in early heroic verse and genealogies, in an indigenous syllabic verse going back to Indo-European times, and in Hiberno-Latin verse, especially Late Latin hymns (see G. Murphy, Early Irish Metrics, Dublin, 1961; and C. Watkins, Indo-European Metrics and Archaic Irish Verse, in Celtica VI, p. 194 ff). Skaldic verse and ceòl mòr appear to have no such embryonic forms.

This is one difference between Old Norse and Irish poetry. Another is in the form of the verse. Both types of poetry used many metres, many of which have been lost to us, although some hundreds have survived. Norse skaldic metres were more formal, more stylised, more rigid in observance of the rules of metre; the Irish allowed more licence, were less formal, and relied more on poetic feeling than on strictness of form. Of both it could be said, as of ceòl mòr, that they were likely to be meaningless to the uninitiated or untrained listener. A certain amount of understanding of the form is necessary for an appreciation of even the basics, with all three forms; this is even more true of ceòl mòr and skaldic verse than it is of Irish poetry.

Although all three relied heavily on a stock of conventional phrases, and their art lay to some extent in the selection and arrangement of this stock, all became perhaps a little stereo- typed. Possibly, this is truest of the Irish panegyric verse in its latter years. Like ceòl mòr and skaldic verse it was “occasional,” put Irish occasional verse is difficult to assign to one particular person or event, the designation being vague and the poetic expression extravagantly far-fetched. Ceòl mòr and skaldic verse have both preserved some semblance of the personal or specific designation in title or subject matter; however spurious or corrupted these designations may have become, the tradition of their use has been preserved.

Of all three, it must be said that they are highly wrought and formal, not in any way impromptu improvisations. None is ‘folk art’, all are highly developed, highly skilled, scholarly work. In ceòl mòr and in skaldic verse, every note, phrase or letter has a purpose. This is not really true of Irish poetry, where the metrical features such as rhyme, etc., are more ornamental and less basic to the structure. Irish verse conveys emotion more as poetry does today, by the meaning of the words, made more emotional by the poetic adornments. Skaldic verse uses the very tightness of its structure to express feeling: the more formal the vehicle, the more concentrated the emotional effect.

The same is true of ceòl mòr: often the music does not flow on in a vaguely emotional melodic fashion, rousing the feelings as conventional romantic music does; the effect is achieved by strict formalism, so that the smallest variation from it serves to arouse the strongest feeling.

Every note is counted. In good skaldic verse, every word, every syllable, every letter, has its place in the scheme. Displace one slate and the roof leaks. If a skaldic verse is examined and compared with a section of a piobaireachd, there is a correspondence between note and syllable, forming into lines, and these lines are built up into sections – called stanzas, strophes or verses in skaldic poems. These sections are put together to form the complete work, but each section is complete in itself. In this again, Irish verse differs in that Irish poems often have their stanzas linked by metre and by meaning, so that they must follow each other in a certain order: the whole poem is the unit.

Skaldic poems are of no great length as a rule, especially those composed for recital in a court. Longish ones are sub- divided into shorter sections, usually in multiples of eight (eight stanzas to the section). Each verse or stanza has eight lines, in two groups of four; each line has the same number of syllables throughout the poem, usually six syllables per line, although any number from three to ten is permitted in different metres. It is thought that all these were regarded as variants on the original six syllables per line. Only very rarely do lines have different lengths within the verse – which is very frequent in Trish verse, going back to Latin hymns.

Within the verse of eight lines of equal length there is a basic theme, varied in different ways. The method is not the same in each verse, nor in each poem. It may be varied by position patterns, ie. the poet is saying the same thing four times over in one verse, but he uses words which echo and re-echo each other in rhyme’, half-rhyme, initial alliteration, etc., regardless of the meaning. These patterns are in a set order, every syllable having an expected counterpart or echo, until an intricate, but never symmetrical, pattern is woven. In this type of verse it is accepted that one, or sometimes two, of the syllables are ‘rogues’, i.e. left unrhymed. This is often in the last two lines, just as ceòl mòr often has a “rogue,” or unrepeated phrase, or two, towards the end of the ùrlar. Clearly, it was felt to be unsubtle to rhyme every syllable in a neat bundle. In many skaldic poems the unrhymed ‘rogue’ syllable of one verse is picked up and rhymed or repeated in the next; it is possible that a link of this kind was the original function of the ‘rogue’ unrepeated phrase in ceòl mòr.

Another method of varying the theme was to repeat the meaning over and over again, but never quite exactly the same; a slight alteration or addition to the words each time gave the added stimulus.

Or the poet could proceed in very regular, conventional terms, and then suddenly break the pattern by a startling interruption.

In other words, the poets were doing in words what the pipers did later with notes. We do not know whether skaldic verse was spoken, chanted or sung, although many scholars think it was probably chanted. In any case it is always difficult to compare words with music and come to any worthwhile conclusion. Possibly it is less difficult in the case of ceòl mòr, by virtue of canntaireachd. In the past, when the system was fully understood (if indeed it ever was, and if it ever could be called a system. It is not known how old canntaireachd is; Bunting refers to it as a part of the harp terminology of the 18th century, but there is no indication at all of how old the system then was. In the Highlands it seems to have been a fragmented system, with different centres using different forms of it. This would be consistent with its having originated in Ireland and been brought to Scotland by different people at different times. The Irish used the human voice as a musical instrument as early as the 6th century. It seems obvious that canntaireachd was a system formed in times when music was not recorded in written form – but that could be any time up to the early 19th century as far as pipe music is concerned; written records of harp music (Welsh-Irish) are extant from the 16th century), canntaireachd would have enabled players to use syllables as a medium for

*Rhyme occurs not only at the ends of lines but also internally, expressing musical ideas. In a similar way, the basic structures of skaldic verse are often taught by means of ‘nonsense’ syllables, so that the patterns of rhyme may be seen uncluttered by meaning.

Meaning may be used also as a means of variation, but the underlying structural pattern is mechanical. The syllables of canntaireachd, like those of skaldic poetry, make use of every letter, and no sound in it is without significance (even though the syllables of canntaireachd have no grammatical function or meaning). If we picture a skaldic verse as a section from a piobaireachd transposed into written canntaireachd, we have some idea of the structure of a skaldic verse. To the bare syllables of canntaireachd is added melody; to a skaldic verse, meaning – and both are implicit in the forms used.

Skaldic verse has repeating patterns that may be designated A, B, C, etc., and the different metres are discernible according to, the ABC patterns formed. The phrases may echo each other by similarities particularly in the middle or end of the syllable (e.g. ‘ban’ may echo ‘ben,’ or ‘ban’ may echo ‘man’). The line has some heavily stressed syllables, some light, often three of each, not necessarily alternating; it is usually the heavy stress that bears the rhyme, but it is not always obvious which syllable does bear the heavy stress, and the presence of rhyme does not always signify a heavy stress. Each line corresponds to a phrase or bar in the Urlar of a piobaireachd (the phrase designated with a small a, b, c, etc., in Seumas MacNeill’s Piobaireachd, B.B.C. Publications, 1968, rather than the pairs of phrases which he calls big A, B, C, etc.). Each syllable is roughly equivalent to a note in the melody of the ùrlar when stripped of its grace-notes.

This interweaving of rhyme and half-rhyme within the verse was a patterned repetition and echoing of certain sounds; as well as this, and interwoven with it, Old Norse skaldic verse had a system of initial alliteration independent of the rhyme scheme. Stressed syllables began with the same initial letter, regardless of whether the same syllable had rhyme, half-rhyme or no rhyme at all. Usually, the alliteration was on the first three stressed syllables of a pair of lines, or on three of the first four. It served to bind the two halves of the pair together. The patterns of alliteration are very similar to those of grace-notes in ceòl mòr – and indeed in canntaireachd, gracenotes on the same note must take the form of alliteration. Just as gracenotes are not always on the same note, alliteration is not always on the same initial letter; there could be two or three alliterating letters within one pair of lines or within the half-strophe, following consecutively, or crossing and interweaving.

Another device of the skalds was replacement of a syllable – rather like Cockney rhyming slang in some instances. Instead of the expected word, the poet substitutes a synonym, or near-echo. Thus, instead of calling a spade a spade, he could call it a shovel, or a hovel, or a maid, or (a double substitution) a blade. This technique, which adds considerably to the obscurity of the verse, may remind us of the Ordag (Thumb) variation, where, say, high A may replace E throughout. The tune is changed considerably – but the essence of the variation is that the listener is aware always of the underlying original. If he is not, the whole section becomes unintelligible. The same is true of the skaldic substitution. This technique is the characteristic of that particular metre or variation.

The ‘content pattern’ piobaireachd has an exact equivalent in skaldic verse: a very common type (not really a variant in itself, since many variants use this device) has two statements or sentences interweaving, and very often the two sentences are of different kinds: one, for example, may relate the action in factual terms, the other may give the onlookers’, or the poet’s, simultaneous reaction or comment; or one may relate to visual appearance, the other to action. These verses are extremely tricky to interpret, as the crossed sentences may make sense as they cross, at least at first glance. (e.g. “The cat sat on the mat” interwoven with “How happy I felt to see it” could give “How happy felt the cat to see I sat on the mat”. In English it is impossible to disentangle the parts of the sentences, but in Old Norse the words may be in almost any order, since the highly inflected word-endings always reveal their function in the sentence. Often the poet deliberately complicates the verse by interweaving two sentences in such a way that two, or even three, interpretations are possible).

Click here to read part 2.