• From the September 1980 Piping Times.

By Bridget MacKenzie

This is the last of a series of four articles by Mrs. Bridget MacKenzie on the interesting parallel between Scottish ceòl mòr and other art forms.

Pre-polyphonic music in early 16th century Italy had certain features in common with ceòl mòr, but some or all of these may have been present in the purely Celtic tradition, and indeed may have been part of the general mediaeval-Renaissance European tradition. Italian music of the pre-polyphonic type at this time resembled ceòl mòr in having no set divisions into time units, so that bar-lines are not relevant and give no indication of either accent or time; the music falls naturally into phrases, marked by the use of a cadence at the end of each phrase. Colles (The Growth of Music, Part I, p. 15) says the music was “divided into phrases by distinct and beautiful cadences, which have the same effect in music as good punctuation has in literature”. The music, says Colles, had rhythm but not time in the modern sense, and it made use of repeated rhythmic formulae; there was no clear notion of key. Enjoyment of the work of such a composer as Palestrins or Josquin demands that the listener of today first rid his mind of the principles of time and key engrained by modern music.

Another feature of Italian instrumental music of the early 16th century was ‘musica ficta,’ whereby the performance of a composition was to some extent subjective. Unfettered by considerations of key, a player could decide for himself whether to play the written note as F or F sharp, according to his own interpretation of the work. The length of note was also open to a certain amount of subjective judgement. These decisions were minor within the framework of the composition, and they are difficult to detect now from the evidence of the written text only, but ‘musica ficta’ did exist, and it must remind us of the interpretative difficulties of ceòl mòr. Subjective interpretation of rhythm seems to be a feature of both Irish and Norse syllabic poetry, where only the final cadence of each line has a fixed stress, so it is possible that Ceol Mor had this from the native Celtic tradition. Possibly the Italians had it from the Irish. In any case, this similarity in the two traditions would make ceòl mòr the more receptive to Italian innovation.

Another distinctively Italian introduction into music was the gradual development of purely instrumental music during the period 1400-1600 (see Brown, op.cit., p. 257f). Although instrumental music, played separately with no reference to words, was brought in elsewhere, Italy seems to have been the leader in continental Europe. It seems unlikely that this was an innovation in the Celtic areas of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, however, and probably the same is true of Scandinavia; what evidence there is of music in these areas points to the use of both harp and pipes as solo instruments, originally accompaniments to poetry, dancing and battle, but achieving the status of solo instrument by the 12th century at the latest. (See Travis, Miscellanea Musica Celtica, Musicological Studies Vol. XIV, and Giraldus Cambrensis’ Topographia Hiberniae).

Thus it seems that if an Italian innovation did transform ceòl mòr from its native form, it was almost certainly the introduction of sets of linked variations on a stated theme; and it probably happened in the 16th century. The unknown Italian who must have come to Skye had probably been composing or playing dances for the Scottish court. At Dunvegan he would meet the MacCrimmons and hear their music, played on the pipes. Perhaps struck by certain resemblances to his own music, he then transferred his court dance music techniques to the equivalent of court music in the MacLeod household, the music played to entertain the chief and his men, ceòl mòr.

If the Italian influence on ceòl mòr was indeed in the 16th century, as is suggested on musical grounds, the hypothesis is also supported by historical fact: any powerful Hebridean family, but especially the MacLeods of Dunvegan, could have had direct contact with Italian musicians in the 16th century. Both James IV and James V travelled widely in the Highlands and the Hebrides; James IV sent his natural son Alexander to be educated in Italy. Both James IV and his English wife were skilled in the ‘basse’ dancing of the courts of that period, dancing which was based on the Italian ‘passamezzo’ (see above) (See also Bingham, The Stewart Kingdom of Scotland, pp. 132 and 136). James visited the western islands several times at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century; he spoke fluent Gaelic and gained some loyalty from his Hebridean subjects.

James V descended on Skye after Donald Gorm’s abortive rebellion; at Dunvegan, Alasdair Crotach (who had just given the MacCrimmons their land at Boreraig) was in royal favour, and as a pledge of his continuing loyalty, James took Alasdair’s third son, Norman (later 11th chief of the MacLeods), with other chiefs’ sons, to be educated in Edinburgh as the king’s hostages. Here they would have direct contact with Italian dances and Italian musicians. James, whose own education had been largely neglected, was an enthusiast of music – lute-playing and singing – for which he had some natural talent (see Bingham, op.cit., p. 160). Both James IV and James V had Italian musicians with them in their train when they went travelling.

In Edinburgh, both Marie de Guise and her daughter Mary, Queen of Scots had Italian musicians at the court, as well as the queen’s favourite David Riccio, who was an accomplished musician and Singer (See Bingham, op.cit., p. 201). Mary MacLeod, the orphaned heiress of the MacLeods of Dunvegan (and grand daughter of Alasdair Crotach) who was known as the ‘Heiress of the Isles’, was maid-of-honour to the young queen from 1562 to 1565, the very years in which Riccio was at the height of his influence at the Scottish court (see Alexander Nicolson, History of Skye, p. 63). Mary MacLeod had been made a ward of the crown by an act of the Privy Council in 1562, and her position as maid-of-honour was virtually that of hostage, to keep her, and her immense wealth, in the queen’s influence. In Edinburgh she was at the centre of the court, close to the queen herself; she remained there for three years before returning to live for some years in Skye with her uncle, Norman MacLeod (see above). Eventually, she married a Campbell kinsman of Argyle.

Any of these contacts could have brought an Italian in person into the MacCrimmon family, or into the MacLeod household. It is not necessary, of course, to assume that this Italian married a MacCrimmon, but tradition says that he did. This may be merely symbolic of the marriage of two musical styles, but Highland oral tradition has a way of proving accurate. Earlier than the 16th century, the leading Hebridean families were pre-occupied with internecine feuds and the problems of establishing themselves as powerful political forces; the turbulence of the times made close cultural contact with Italy or Italians less likely – though not impossible. The same more prosperous atmosphere of the 16th century which probably led to the adoption of the pipes as an indoor ‘court’ instrument (a development attributed to the building of large stone halls in the houses of the great clan chieftains in the Hebrides) may also have made it possible for close Italian contact to transform ceòl mòr.

To sum up:

A possible line of development of ceòl mòr with various influences on its form:

  1. 600-1200: Irish pipe music as an accompaniment and encouragement to battle, form of music unknown, but possibly a kind of formless and continuous piobaireachd.
  2. 600-1200: Irish syllabic poetry with lines of regular length, subjective stressing, cadences marking the ends of lines; also with internal and end rhyme, and initial alliteration.
  3. 600-1200: Irish harp music as an accompaniment to the above Irish syllabic poetry and taking from it (presumably) lines of regular length, subjective stressing, cadential endings; also repetition of phrases and initial gracenotes.
  4. 12th to 14th century: mass movement of poets, harpers and musicians to western Scotland from Ireland.
  5. 9th to 15th century: Old Norse skaldic poetry in Scandinavian areas, especially Iceland and under Hebridean influence, with lines of equal length, subjective stressing, cadential endings, structural repetition of rhyme (internal and end) and initial alliteration laid out in structural patterns. Also with interweaving of sentences, variation of themes, substitution techniques, but not progressive development of chain variation.
  6. 15th to 16th century: harp music giving way to pipes as a ‘court’ entertainment in the Hebrides; piping colleges set up, Boreraig given to the MacCrimmons by Alasdair Crotach. Development of ceòl mòr as a serious art, with an elaborately constructed form of the ‘Urlar,’ and many ‘lugh’ or metres for many purposes, but not linked in a progressive order. Probably these measures included interweaving of tunes, substitution techniques, etc.
  7. 16th century: introduction of an Italian either in the person of a MacCrimmon son-in-law or as an idea brought to Skye by a MacLeod; innovation of the technique of progressive linked variations on a stated theme and return to the basic theme in simple form again, at the end or between each variation. Older works now made over or added to, to bring them into the new fashion.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3