The origins of ceòl mòr, a theory – part 2

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 May 1980 Piping Times.

By Bridget MacKenzie

This is the second of a series of articles by Mrs. Bridget MacKenzie
on the interesting parallel between Scottish ceòl mòr and Norse skaldic

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).

In some of the less regular piobaireachd, some interpreters phrase the music in such a way as to extend the phrase beyond the end of the line (Salute on the Birth of Rory MacLeod, Ronald MacDonald of Morar, Lament for the Children, where the second and third lines merge together). In skaldic verse there are similar metres: one has the phrase prolonged into the next line as a systematic feature of the metre; others have this device sporadically. Yet another has the first and fourth lines ending at the end of the line, and the second and third form a separate unit of the verse.

Some lines in Skaldic verse, not usually the first line, begin with a few lightly stressed syllables which lead into the line proper. These syllables never have alliteration, and are often to be recognised by this lack, especially in manuscripts with somewhat corrupt readings. In some piobaireachd there is doubt as to the function of notes which may or may not be “link notes” between phrases, and not part of the phrase itself. If these are indeed link notes, they do not have grace-notes.

The piobaireachd type known as 3-line Primary, which has the pattern AAB ABB AB, is perhaps more easily comparable with metrical structure when in the uncontracted form:

ab ac db
ac de db
ac db

This would be written in metrical form as:

ab ac

ac de

where db appears as a kind of 2-line refrain. In: known metres of skaldic poets, there is one from the 12th century which has two groups of four lines followed by a 2-line refrain, the whole ten-line unit being then repeated with variations, but the two lines of the refrain re-appearing unchanged. It is possible that a [42.4.2] metre existed once, but against this, there is a body of opinion that believes this metre to be borrowed from French (Provencal) song metres, and never to have been a widely used, fully Norse metre.

The rhyme patterns (ABC, etc.) and the techniques of the skalds are not exactly the same as those of the pipers. It would be very strange if they were, with centuries lying between them. But a few of the existing piobaireachd have resemblances to some of the surviving skaldic poems (and there can be no doubt that many more of both once existed and are now lost; or that the forms in which we now know them have been very much corrupted). For example, there is a poem called ‘Sigurthardrapa’ (‘Salute to Sigurth’), made by an Icelander called Kormak in the 10th century. He used a rhyme scheme broken at irregular intervals by a whole line with all the heavy stresses and some of the light ones, too, rhyming together internally – i.e. all the syllables end in the same consonant cluster, giving a bell-like effect. This may be compared with the ùrlar of Lament for the Children, where, shorn of its grace-notes, a single-note line appears fourteen times in the thirty-two phrase ground. As played, of course, it is not shorn of its grace-notes, and Kormak’s poem retains its pattern of alliterating initials even when the rhyme scheme is thus broken. Kormak, incidentally, had an Irish name, possibly Hebridean, and his poetry shows many signs of affinity with Irish verse.

There is a poem Lament for the Children or ‘Loss of Sons”(‘Sonatorrek’) – it bears no detailed resemblance to the great pìobaireachd, but in general terms there are similarities; the stylised and pre-determined repetition and arrangement of phrases, and the use of a type of rhyme called vertical or chain- rhyme, which is the threading of one, two or more rhymes right through the work, echoing a phrase and variant forms of it, over and over again. It is similar, too, in the intensity of its feeling, but this is not unexpected: the grief of a father for his dead children is a universal emotion, found in almost any literature or music.

Two long poems have survived in Old Norse which may be said to resemble piobaireachd in that each section or verse is composed in a different variant metre.

One of these is a 12th century work, now incomplete. Of a possible 100 verses originally, 82 remain, illustrating 41 metres, two verses in each metre. One manuscript tells us that when it was first composed, the poet made five verses in each metre; another manuscript says it was three in each metre, and that it was cut to two because it was becoming too long and over- elaborate. All the 82 verses are on one theme, and the work is a coherent whole, yet each verse is an entity on its own.

The other poem was about 100 years later, and was composed to go with a handbook on metrics. It has one verse for each metre, 102 in all, and it seems to be complete. It is made up of three separate poems, each of which could stand alone, but all on the same subject, the poet’s praise for his two patrons. All the 102 verses say virtually the same thing, and each could stand alone as a separate entity. It is a work more interesting for its technique than for its poetic feeling.

These two works are remarkable because they may be seen as a type of enlarged pìobaireachd. The Irish equivalent, the handbooks of the 11th and 12th century metrists in Ireland, did not take the same form: their different metres were illustrated by unrelated snippets quoted from other poems.

The Norse examples resemble huge pìobaireachds, with 41 and 102 variations respectively. The poets of both poems had strong connections with Orkney and the Hebrides, indeed, one of them was a very close friend of a bi-lingual, educated Hebridean who was probably also a poet. If, in the 12th century, either in music or in poetry, men like him were developing the idea of using different metres or measures when repeating a theme, it is easy to see how such techniques could be interchanged between Irish and Norse, and between poetry and music.

These Norse poems were much longer than any known pìobaireachd, and they did not work their way through from the most simple to the most complex before returning to the simple. The 12th century poem is a jumble of metres in no discernible order; the end is lacking from the manuscripts, so we have no way of knowing how it finished. The later poem groups the metres according to kind, and certain sections have a kind of progression, some going from simple to complex, some from complex to simple. None has the rounded form of returning to the beginning; the progressions are for the purpose of cataloguing types rather than artistic varying of a theme. In some of the sections within the poem, the poet juxtaposes metres with 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 syllables per line. This work of 102 verses dates from about 1215.

From the above, it might be thought that a direct development of ceòl mòr straight out of skaldic verse is being postulated; that the two forms, both appearing without introduction in the same small geographical area, and having so much in common, must have been closely related. But such a direct relationship is doubtful, for several reasons:

  • There is no evidence whatsoever that the Norsemen knew any serious music for the pipes. They did know the pipes, but only as an interloper from southern Europe, and only as low, light, comic and disreputable music, the instrument of entertainers like jugglers and acrobats. The Norsemen’s instrument was the harp, but very little is known about it, what form their harp took, when it was played, who played it, or what form such playing had. We do not even know if it was ever played as an accompaniment to skaldic verse. The Irish harp of early times is almost as obscure. We do know that one form of it had nine strings, so that its music must have been easily adapted to the pipes. We also know that it was used to accompany the public performance of Irish syllabic poetry, and that many poets were themselves accomplished harpers. The Norsemen called the pipes pipur, trumba or simfon, but it is not certain what kind of pipe these names denote. It is perhaps of interest that the references in Norse skaldic verse to pipers playing in troupes of gleemen for the entertainment of the courts use the same terms as are used in the contemporary (12th-13th centuries) Irish sources for the same kind of playing (see Collinson, “The Bagpipe,” pp. 71-73).
  • The Norse language must have died out in Scotland, except in the Northern Isles, by 1400. It was one of the languages spoken by a bi-lingual race, the Gall-Gaels, who lived in the Hebrides, the west of Scotland and in Ireland, in the 11th to 13th centuries. Of mixed Norse-Celtic blood or upbringing, they spoke the languages of both parents, Norse and Gaelic. It has been estimated that there were about 10,000 of them – a political force of some importance. The principal clans of the north- west derive from these people, notably the MacLeods themselves. When Iceland was colonised in the 10th century, many of the first settlers were of Hebridean and Irish blood; to this day the blood-groups of the Icelandic people correspond more closely to those of the Hebrideans than to those of the Norwegians. The link between Norse and Celtic was strong, but it was broken in 1264 when the Western Islands became part of Scotland, having previously belonged to Norway. The Norse side of the mixed race was not renewed, the Celtic strain took over, and Norse ceased to be spoken. This was obviously a gradual process, but it seems likely that it was completed by about 1400. It was not possible for a person who did not speak Norse, or who spoke it poorly, to follow skaldic verse, let alone hand on its traditions to later generations, but these traditions could have survived in musical form after the Norse language died out, if the skalds had already given their structural patterns to the harpers. There is, of course, no direct or clear evidence of this, nor to support the idea that the harpers took their patterns from Norse or Irish poetry, or indeed from anybody.
  • Skaldic verse seems to have flourished only in the period when close Norse Celtic contact in both Ireland and western Scotland was at its most intense. Known to us mainly from Icelandic sources, it had no native Germanic ancestry and was not part of earlier Norse tradition. This isolated Norse art form had died out by about 1400, even in Iceland, obliterated by a rising tide of French fashion in literature. It is most unlikely that the arts of the skalds and those of the pipers overlapped at any time.

It seems therefore unlikely that the Hebridean pipers knew the techniques of the Norse skalds directly. It is, however, likely either that the Norse and Irish poets passed on their metrical techniques to the (contemporary) harpers, who later gave them to the pipers, or that both skaldic verse and piobaireachd have a common ancestor – and this ancestor would have to be Irish. Whether it was Irish poetry or Irish music, or both, we do not know, but it must have been from Ireland between the 6th and the 12th centuries.

It is known that the Irish had two kinds of pipes, and that they used one kind as a war instrument and the other for dancing and light entertainment (see Collinson, The Bagpipe, p. 68). Pipers in Ireland were classed with the jugglers, cooks and horsemen, well below the poets and harpers in the social order. They were not the exponents of piobaireachd as a serious art who were later given the highest honours in the Hebrides.

But it is also known that King Brian Boroma, around 1000, and later certain powerful Irish families, made a strong and conscious effort to encourage the arts and scholarship in Ireland; they set up schools where poetry was composed, history written and music performed – and Brian’s musicians were mainly harpers. Many poets were harpers as well, or employed harpers to accompany their work. There was close contact between all the scholars and artistes at these centres of learning, and encouragement to exchange ideas, and doubtless techniques, too. In a climate like that, experiment would flourish, and the transfer of techniques between cultures would be expected.

The metrical tracts of the period following this list the different ranks of poet and bard, and the different kinds of poetry they composed. Among their (very obscure) terminology we find the terms crom (or cron) luatha or luatha alone – the manuscripts disagree; and cli; and cano; and two metrical terms brosnacha and corranach. Dwelly’s Gaelic-English dictionary tells us that brosnacha or brosnaha was a call to battle, in poetry or on the pipes, while corranach was a funeral piece played on the pipes, or a funeral elegy in memory of the dead. Both these terms originated as metrical terms, brosnaha the name for metres belonging to the bards and not to the highest order of poets (the bards wrote eulogy and elegy), and corranach, literally meaning “hooked,” denoting extra lines hooked onto a verse to enlarge it. Presumably these enlarged verses came to be used for funeral elegies, and hence the name passed to elegies in general, including laments played by pipers. Some editions of Dwelly’s Dictionary add that corranach should here be cumhna “lament,” but Dwelly evidently found corranach used in this sense in Armstrong’s Gaelic Dictionary of Mid-Perthshire Gaelic. Dwelly first began to publish his dictionary in 1901; there have since been six editions. He acknowledged the help of Malcolm MacFarlane of Elderslie, in Renfrewshire, as a source for his piping material, and drew also on Armstrong’s Dictionary, and for his account of canntaireachd, refers to “the kindness of Chas. Bannatyne Esq., M.B., C.M., Salsburgh, Holytown,” who had evidently drawn on MacLeod of Gesto. In some later editions of Dwelly, Malcolm MacFarlane was mistakenly referred to as Malcolm MacPherson, but this was corrected.

Whether the terminology passed direct to the pipers, or whether it was through the intermediate stage of the harp, does not matter: here we have evidence that the different arts did exchange terminology. Almost certainly this exchange took place without awareness of the original meaning of the terms.

Cli was the title of a grade of poet – one about half way through his Higher Ordinary Course. The same word in the plural was used in the Hebrides to denote all the assembled poets of a chieftain’s household, poets of any rank, seen collectively. The term must remind us of Joseph MacDonald’s Clialuath, but the light it sheds seems to add little to the illumination of that word. Cron or crom luatha was another grade of poetry; luatha may here indicate “praise, praise poetry – it was probably the somewhat stereotyped panegyric of the professional praise-poet whose sole task was to eulogise his lord, regardless of the facts. Cano was a grade of poet whose function is obscure. His title is from the same root as that of canntaireachd, and may have something to do with chanting. When we recall that canntaireachd is a term used by both pipers and Irish harpers, we may think that this is another link between the cultures.

We know from Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840, that the terms siubhal, crunnluath, barluath, barluath fosgailte and canntaireachd were used in “ancient” harp music in Ireland. Bunting had them from old harpers whom he consulted in 1793, but we have no idea how old their traditions were. From these terms we may deduce that harp music at one time had a system of variations, and of chanting syllables to represent notes; but they do not tell us if the harpers drew their terminology from the pipers, or vice versa, or indeed if both drew the terms from an outside source. It seems likely that the harpers developed this kind of music earlier than did the pipers, because of their close relation with the poets, but if the system of developing a theme by progressive variations was a late introduction which brought the terminology with it, then the pipers may well have had it first. Or again, both may have acquired and developed it at the same time (see later).

Click here to read part 3.