Piobaireachd names in Gaelic – curios, mix-ups and puzzles


• From the January 2008 Piping Times.

By Angus Nicol

The End of the Great Bridge or ‘Ceann Drochaid Mhoire’ (ceown drochitch voiruh) is something of a mix-up. Drochaid is feminine, so it should, in the genitive, be drochaide. But with the article it na drochaide (nuh drochitchuh). So the whole name is properly Ceann na drochaide mhóire (ceown nuh drochitchuh voiruh). Grammatically, the same is true of The End of the Little Bridge ‘Ceann na drochaide bhige’ (ceown nuh drochitchuh veekuh) in Book 8.

The high bridge over the River Spean in Lochaber was the scene of the battle commemorated in the pibroch, 'The End of the Great Bridge'.
The high bridge over the River Spean in Lochaber was the scene of the battle commemorated in the pibroch, ‘The End of the Great Bridge’.

Siubhal Sheumais’, in Book 3, is usually called The Lament for the Departure of King James, though one does increasingly hear the Gaelic title nowadays. Angus MacKay called it Cumha Righ Seumas (coowah ree Shamus), King James’s Lament 1688, and that date alone connects it with the departure of King James VII. Donald MacDonald is more explicit, though his spelling is strange: “Suihel Shemes, Lament for King James’s departure. The Gaelic word siubhal is fairly elastic, and means not only travelling, but departing, and even dying, among still further meanings.

There are two versions of the name which should be Cumha an t-sean chlaidheimh (coowah un tshown chlaiyiv) or The Lament for the Old Sword, neither of them exactly right. In the contents it is called Cumha an t’seana chlaidheamh, and on page 77, Cumha an t-seann chlaidheamh. The former is obviously wrong; the article should be an t-. But the adjective sean only becomes seann before certain consonants of which C is not one. It should also be followed by a Svarabhakti vowel which could be rendered by the letter A, though it should not be written in after or at the end of the word.

The subject of a lament is normally put in the genitive, so that the word for sword must end – eimh (yiv).

Oban Bay – another name for 'Scarce of Fishing'?
Oban Bay – another name for ‘Scarce of Fishing’?

Scarce of Fishing is a curio because of the meaning of spìocaireachd
(speechkerochk). Dwelly gives the following meanings: dastardliness, pusillanimity, insignificance, meanness, niggardliness, churlishness, parsimony. Some of them could bear a significance not unrelated to scarcity, but why choose that word when there might be others more apt?

There are other names for this tune. Angus MacKay called it, ‘Tha spìocaireachd iasgaich am bliadhna an Geogheoban’ (speechkerochk eeusgeech um blee’onuh un geoyoban) and also Lochnell’s Lament Geogheoban at Loch Nell, while Reid called the tune Cumha Fir Ceanloch an Eala (coowah feer ceownloch un yala). The connection with Loch Nell, near Oban, seems established. Campbell of Loch Nell is the senior of the Campbell chieftains after Mac Cailein Mòr himself.

The word Geogheoban (geoyoban) is obscure. Could it, conveivably, be something like ‘geodha an Obain’, a rather strange way of referring to Oban Bay?

Book 4 begins with ‘An tarbh breac dearg’ (un taruv brechk djeruk), The Red Speckled – what: Bull? Army? There is some authority, it seems, for either an t-arm (un tarum) or antarbh, the sound of each being not dissimilar to that of the other.

It is true that the tune An ann air mhire tha sibh (Un own er veeruh ha shiv) is never so called, but always The Salute on the Birth of Rory Mòr MacLeod. The Gaelic title, which has no apparent connection with Rory Mor, could be translated as “Is it mad that you are? or even “Are you beside yourself with mirth?” The Revd. Dr. Ross (see Book 4, page 122) made the point, which is clearly right, that air mbhire carries a stronger significance. Dwelly suggests the alternatives, stark mad or a transport of joy or mirth. The use of ‘an ann’… puts the stress on the adjective: for instance, is it mad that you are (as opposed to drunk or joyful). Donald MacDonald clearly connected the tune with the birth of Rory Mòr MacLeod at Dunvegan in 1715, but that has been doubted on the ground that the only famous Rory Mor died in 1626. That is not to say that there was not some other Rory Mòr MacLeod, perhaps not one of the chiefs, born a century or So later.

Professor Alex Haddow made important suggestions regarding names of many tunes including 'Beinn a' Ghriainn'.
Professor Alex Haddow made important suggestions regarding names of many tunes including ‘Beinn a’ Ghriainn’.

Beinn a’ Ghriain (beyn uh ghreean) has long been a puzzle. Angus MacKay calls it Beinn a Ghriann; however, there appears to be no word griann, and grian, the sun, has its genitive as greine (greynyuh). But there are those who maintain that it should be “The Hill of the Sun” (Beinn na Gréine) and who do not agree with the accepted spelling: who knows, they may be right.

There is also word, grian, which means the bottom of the sea, which sounds unlikely as a name for this tune. Its genitive is grein. Perhaps the name should be something like A’ bheinn ghrianach (uh veyn ghreeanoch — the sunny mountain). But Professor Haddow has suggested Beinn a Ghriam, which might mean the hill of licheny rocks. Probably, we will never know,

The full Gaelic name of The Old Woman’s Lullaby is Crònan na caillich ’s a bheinn bhric (crawnun nuh calyeech suh veyn vreechk). But the translation of the Gaelic is “the keening, or wailing, or crooning of the old woman on the speckled hill” In the Campbell Canntaireachd it is called Bhair bhi Dhilan n’a bhi pos‘d (var vee yeelan nuh vee pawst), which is obviously very strange spelling by modern standards, and not at all easy to translate. Bair is actually a noun, meaning strife, or game, or a beaten path. I can find no word dilan (which is an unlikely word anyway), the nearest being diolan. That also has a number of meanings, including a bachelor, or fornication. There are also dile (gen. dilean) meaning a flood or deluge, and dileann, a rope used to hobble cattle: neither very likely in this context. Pos’d (which should be posd’) means married. One could force a meaning out of it, like a jigsaw piece that does not quite fit, something like “There will be strife [for, with?] a bachelor who will not be married”; at a pinch, “The Bachelor’s Complaint”. There are obviously other possibilities.

Port a’ mheadair (pawrst uh veter) is otherwise known as The Bicker, which, in this context, means a beaker not a squabble. In the Seaforth MS it is translated as The Bicker, or Cogue, a cogue being a wooden vessel for liquid. Dwelly gives the following meanings for meadar: a small pail or circular wooden vessel, a milk pail, a bicker. He goes on to say “… the Scottish Gael’s meadar is like the lowland ‘luggie’, round, hooped.” Why a piobaireachd should be given such a name remains unexplained.

Some of the names illustrate the Gaelic names of chiefs and of other people of distinction in the way they would have been addressed. One of the latter is Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (Mari neen Alasdur rooy – Mary daughter of red-haired Alasdair) otherwise known as the famous poetess Mary MacLeod, who was also nurse to several generations of the MacLeods of MacLeod. As a poet she was prolific and innovative, to the extent that she incurred the displeasure of other more conventional poets of her day. For other reasons, the nature of which have been discussed almost from that day to this, she angered MacLeod, and was exiled for some time on the island of Scarba . Eventually, she was allowed to return to Skye, on the condition that she composed no poetry either within or without the house. She therefore composed some standing half in and half out on the threshold. She is alleged to have lived from 1595 to 1705, though it is more likely that she lived from about 1615 to 1705 or thereby.

Chiefly names in piobaireachd include MacGille Chaluim (machk peelyuh chalim -— MacLeod of Raasay), MacCoinnich (machk connich — the Earl of Seaforth, Chief of the MacKenzies), Mac mhic Ailein (machk veechk ailin — Clanranald), Mac mhic Alasdair (machk veechk alasdur — Glengarry), Mac Dhomhnuill Dhuibh (machk ghawhill ghooy — Cameron of Lochiel), Mac Cailein Mor (machk calin mor — the Duke of Argyll). In one of the tunes, the particular chief is specified by his own personal name, such as Iain Garbh mhic Ghille Chaluim (iayn garuv vichk yeelyuh chalim), and ilies Dubh Mhic Coinnich (oolyum doo vichk conneech).

Lasan Phadruig Chaogaich (lassan fatrik chogeech) is always translated as A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick. However, lasan actually only means a flame, or flames, and the wrath has to be inferred. Caogach, according to Dwelly, means winking blinking as well as squint-eyed, though the verb, caog, from which caogach comes, means wink, and also “to take aim by closing one eye”. The meaning “connive’” is also given, suggesting an equivalent of the English idiom, to wink at something. I do not know which came first historically.

Mal an Righ (maal un ree) is known as The King’s Taxes. But mal primarily means rent, though it can mean tax or subsidy. The plural, taxes, would be mail. The more usual word for tax is cis (keesh). As has been pointed out, whichever it is it is an unlikely name for a piobaireachd. There is an obsolete word mal (mol), which bears the meanings king, prince, champion, soldier and even poet. There is also the word mol, which is spelt mal in some parts, meaning praise. Both of them open up further speculative possibilities.

It must be ‘stressed that the attempts above 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.

• The National Piping Centre Gaelic runs a ‘Gaelic for beginners’ class. Click HERE for more information.