• From the December 2007 Piping Times.
In his introduction, Kilberry said, “The writer is not going to give all his tunes titles in both Gaelic and English. Few of the known leading piobaireachd players of today  use Gaelic as their every-day conversational tongue, many have no Gaelic, some are not Highlanders. The Blue Ribbon and The Bells of Perth are known by those names, and by no others, to everyone who plays nowadays, and to repeat these names in Gaelic would merely increase the cost of printing (if this book should ever be printed), without helping anybody. Nor does he allow the authentic name of any piobaireachd to worry him.”
Slightly surprising words, I cannot help thinking, for someone who, in other respects, gives the impression of being a purist. We are now little short of 60 years further on in time, and the last decade or so has seen a strong recrudescence of both interest in the language and (contrary to the expressed view and hope of successive anti-Gaelic governments of either flavour) in the number of Gaelic speakers. A study of the Gaelic names of ceòl mòr is not without interest, in spite of the ‘hopeless tangle’ into which piobaireachd nomenclature has fallen over the centuries. It is not unusual nowadays to hear a piper referring to Siubhal Sheumais (pronounced shoowel hamish), Togail nam Bò (togail num baw), or Maol Donn (möl down), although they have English titles which may be better known.
One of the things which is immediately noticeable in the Gaelic names is the inconsistency of spelling. That is sometimes grotesquely inaccurate, even mis-leading, as compared with modern Gaelic spelling. By that expression I refer to, the spelling which was accepted as accurate and correct by Dr. MacLeod in the dictionary compiled by him in 1828, commissioned by the Highland Society of London, and upon which, in the first decade of the 20th century, Edward Dwelly based his Gaelic-English dictionary, which is still regarded as authoritative (the present edition is the 12th, published in 2001). In the last 10 or 20 years, however, there have been forced upon the language alterations in spelling for which there appears to be no linguistic, grammatical, or logical reason. And this lamentable process is continuing to this day. However, that is another story. Suffice is to say, that for the purpose of this article l am, where necessary, comparing the spelling to be found in some names of tunes with modern Gaelic as defined above.
It has to be remembered that those old spellings were written down at a time when the spelling of Gaelic was in a state of flux, as was also true of English: compare, for instance, Chaucerian English with Shakespearian and with English as found in documents of the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries. Also, some of the names appear to have been written down by people who may not have had Gaelic themselves, or, if they spoke Gaelic did not write it, and who wrote down, in terms of English letter-sounds, what they heard. It would not, therefore, be correct to say that the spellings, by the contemporary yardsticks of their times, were ‘wrong’. But it should also be noticed that in a number of cases names are grammatically wrong. There are frequent unnecessary lenitions (or aspirations) rather in the manner of those who, thinking to give a Gaelic flavour to a name or word, insert a spurious H after the initial letter. The genitive case is also frequently forgotten or confused, as is gender. However, I am not going to deal with mere grammatical errors; it would make for a very tedious piece, though a smidgen of grammar may have to intrude now and again.
Another anomaly is to be found in the translations of Gaelic names into English, some of which are quite inaccurate. Whether that was the result of imperfect knowledge of one language or the other, or simply because the translator preferred the English word that he used, we will never know. This article is really to examine some Gaelic names which seem to be of interest. What better way than to start with Book 1 of the Piobaireachd Society’s books and go on from there, and then include Kilberry and the MacArthur-MacGregor collection.
As will be seen above, the editor has asked that I include phonetics to assist the non-Gaelic speaker with pronunciation. This I have done in brackets where appropriate but it must be stressed that these attempts to put on paper the sounds of the Gaelic words are no more than approximations intended to give some idea of the pronunciation. If pronounced simply, with either a Scots or an English accent, they would not sound particularly Gaelic. A number of Gaelic sounds do not occur in English, and some of these I have attempted to put on paper by underlining letters or by diacritical signs. Those are as follows:
ö – Something like the German Õ, but not with pursed lips
ñ – A final n is sounded with the beginning of -ni- as in onion just audible
ch – An unvoiced guttural CH as in loch
gh – A voiced guttural sounded in the throat
k – An unvoiced G, somewhere between G and K
l – A thick L, sounded with your tongue pushed up between your upper lip and front teeth. An awkward position, but only that will give the sound, which is also to be found in Russian.
o – A short O sound, as in pot.
One of the interesting names in Book 1 is Guileagag Moraig (goolyakuk mawraik), Praise of Morag. There are several theories as to the origin of the tune and its name. There is a famous poem by Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald, c.1695-c.1770), entitled Moladh Morag (molugh mawraik), which is composed in 21 16-line parts which are designated by the names given to the parts of a piobaireachd. First, three called urlar (oorlur), then three called stubhal (shoowul), then urlar followed by three siubhail, urlar, three siubhail, urlar, three siubhail, urlar, and finally two crunluath (croonloouh). There is no indication in the poem that its scansion is intended to fit into the musical rhythm specifically of Guileagag Moraig; it would not be impossible, though not a perfect fit. Nor would it be impossible, if a little contrived, to fit the scansion of the poem into the syllabic rhythm of the canntaireachd of ‘Guileagage Moraig’. It is suggested in Binneas is Boreraig (beenyus iss borerek) that Mac Mhaighistir Alasdair was the composer of the tune. It is not impossible, though I have come upon no reference to his having been a piper nor having composed that tune. If he had composed the tune for the poem, one might expect that he would have kept to the actual structure of the tune: ùrlar, variation with singling and doubling, taorluath and crunluath each with singling and doubling, and crunluath a-mach. It wold be interesting to explore the rhythm of the whole poem set against the tune. The later siubhail in the poem seem to have the same scansion as the crunluath.
The word guileagag does not, in fact, mean ‘praise’, though the alternative, moladh, given in the title of the tune, does. According to Dwelly, the primary meaning of guileag is a swan’s note. Other meanings are, singing, warbling, a shout of joy or exultation, or a drawling screech said to resemble a swan’s note or wailing. Guileagag is simply a diminutive of that. A little shout of exaltatioin is perhaps the nearest one can approach to ‘praise’ in those meanings. It might conceivably mean praise in some particular locality, and the use of it to convey rapture is not wholly remote from praise.
In Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s poem, the second siubhal begins with the words:
O guileagag, guileagag,
Aice ata chùlaidh
Gu cuireadh nan òighfhear
O goolyookuk, goolyookuk
echkyuh atah chooly
gu coorugh nun awyur
In his edition of Selected Poems by Mac Mhaighstir, Professor Derick Thomson gives the word guileag as being more usual, “in the sense of a bird’s warble; here the word is used as an expression of rapture.” The lines then praise the attractiveness to young men of her attire, though hinting that more than just her attire is meant; the poem is one of MacMhaighstir Alasdair’s less restrained eulogies. It may be that the diminitive was used in order to preserve the scansion, though in another siubhal section the one-two-rhythm (which corresponds with the variation in the tune) is not maintained (and see below ‘Dastirum gu seinnim piob’ pronounced ‘dashchirum goo sheynim peep’).
It is also said that Mòr, or Mòrag, was a codename during the ’45 for Prince Charles Edward, and so the tune may have been adopted as a salute to him. If so, it would have been well known to John MacGregor, who was his piper. It is said that Prince Charles Edward had little Gaelic, but that he was able to say to him, “Seid suas do phiob, Iain” – “Blow up your pipe, John”.
The tune may have been a lot older. Dugald MacDougall (not the MacDougalls’ piper and composer of The Lament for Captain MacDougall, but the Dunollie bard), writing towards the end of the 19th century, mentions the tune in a poem entitled Cumha do Chloinn Dhughaill na Gallanaich (the Lament for MacDougall of Gallanach) written in about 1888, and in a footnote to the poem states that this tune was MacDougalls’ gathering tune or march, so perhaps it was an older gathering tune than the one that we now know as The MacDougalls’ Gathering.
The Gaelic name, ‘Cumha Chlaibhers’ (coowah chlaverus) – best known as the Lament for the Viscount of Dundee – raises a note of interest. First, it should be borne in mind that there must be a Svarabhakti vowel [the development of a vowel between two consonants] between the R and the S if it is to be pronounced in the usual way, claverus; although there would not normally be a Svarabhakti between R and S. That improves the repetition of the immediately preceding vowel or an indeterminate vowel sound, which occurs in certain combinations of consonants approximate to ‘Claverhouse’. But the tune Cumha na h-inghinn (coowah nuh hinee’inn), as it is called by Angus MacKay and others, is also known under other titles: Cumha Chleibhar (coowah chleyvar) or a ‘Lament for the Death of General Cleaver’ (Donald MacDonald Snr.) and ‘The Lament for Graham of Claverhouse, slain in Killycrankie 1689’ (Reid). So whether Cleaver is the same as Claverhouse (which seems likely), and why there are two tunes lamenting his death, are further unsolved mysteries.
Examples of grammatical errors are also to be found. The word daorach (doroch), although it looks as though it should be masculine, is in fact feminine. Therefore the three daorach tunes (known commonly as the Big Spree, Middling Spree and Wee Spree) should be An Daorach Mhoér (un döroch vor), An Daorach Mheadhonach (un döroch vee’onoch) and An Daorach Bheag (un döroch vek). A less straightforward one is Cumha Caisteal Dhun-naomhaig (coowah cashchel ghoon névik), known as the Lament for the Castle Dunyveg as it is called in Book 1. The English version of the place name, Dunyveg, is suspect, or would be but for its being in Islay, where the Gaelic is not unlike that of Ulster, where naomhaig would be pronounced ‘neeveg’ rather than as the mainland Gaelic in which would be more like növek’, and in some places ‘nö’ek’. If Dùn Naomhaig is two words, then it would be Dùn Naomhaig. But if it is treated as a compound noun, as it appears to be, it should be Dhùin-naomhaig.
There are two tunes in Book 2 which are worth noticing. First, ‘Caismeachd Eachainn mibhic Ailean nan Sop’ (cashmeachk echinn veechk alen nun sohp), translated as Hector MacLean’s Warning. While the word ‘caismeachd’ does mean alarm or warning, its more usual meaning is march or war song, or the beating of time to an instrument with the foot. Gaelic speaking pipers often refer to the march, strathspey and reel competition for former winners as ‘a’ chaismeachd mhor’.
Eachunn mac Ailean nan Sop is not a Gaelic chiefly title. He was described as a marauder, and no one seems able to offer a reason why he gave or received a warning or why this tune is so called.
• Angus Nicol is a fluent Gaelic speaker and scholar. He is President of the Scottish Piping Society of London, a member of the Highland Society of London and a Steward of the Argyllshire Gathering.