Today we begin an occasional series looking at the stories behind some of our well known tunes. We kick off with Pibroch of Donald Dubh, an old tune that was originally a pibroch but which was developed subsequently into ceòl beag (there are excellent march, jig, reel, quickstep and hornpipe arrangements of it).
The following was written by General Frank M. Richardson (1904-1996) and published in the February 1986 Piping Times. Richardson was a prominent piping figure for decades and co- author, with Seumas MacNeill, of the classic, Piobaireachd and its Interpretation (1987).
This tune is an interesting example of a quickstep derived from a classical source. This melody was, at the end of the 18th century. both the theme of a well known piobaireachd and also the melody of an equally well known Gaelic Saga, both of which commemorate events which took place in the 15th century. ‘Donuil Dubh’ was Donald Cameron of Lochiel, a kinsman of Donald, second Lord of the Isles. The Lords of the Isles had always been a law unto themselves and in 1411 Donald set out to enforce his claim to the Earldom of Ross. Donuil Dubh supported him in this enterprise, which was only partly successful because although he gained vast areas of Skye, Inverness-shire and Moray he did not obtain title to the Earldom. This campaign ended with the savage but inconclusive Battle of Harlaw which was fought in Aberdeenshire against the King’s Army led by the Earl of Mar (the Duke of Albany was Regent for his young nephew, King James I).
Donald died in 1423 and was succeeded as third Lord of the Isles by his eldest son, Alexander. In 1424 King James I apparently threw off the influence of his uncle (the Duke of Albany) and decided to manage affairs for himself. A Parliament was held at Inverness in 1424 and again in 1427. Alexander was apparently in favour with the King and was styled Master of Ross (but not Earl!)
Meanwhile, the King was intriguing behind this apparent friendship and tried to inveigle John Mòr of Kintyre against Alexander. John Mòr refused to side against his nephew and was treacherously murdered by James Campbell, the King’s agent. At the 1427 Parliament, King James I took the opportunity to capture and kill a number of chiefs who had been summoned. Alexander (and his mother) were captured and imprisoned, but were later released. James Campbell was killed for the murder of John Mòr of Kintyre, though he claimed to have acted under the orders of the King.
On his release, Alexander brought out Clan Chattan for an expedition against the King. Donuil Dubh, who had joined his father’s expedition to Harlaw, again brought out Clan Cameron for this foray. The Lord of the Isles laid waste as far as Inverness but had to withdraw before a powerful Royal army. In 1429, they were defeated by the King at a battle which took place in Lochaber .
Donuil Dubh now decided that in the interests of survival he must change horses and therefore declared for the King. The traditional, but uneasy, alliance between Clan Chattan and Clan Cameron was broken by this action and a dispute about land. On Palm Sunday 1430, the Camerons were savagely attacked.
At this point, Alexander decided to seek forgiveness from the King and gave himself up. He and his mother were again imprisoned.
Lochaber was once again occupied by a powerful Royal army under the Earls of Caithness and Mar. Possibly because of the depredation of this force, but also because he saw an opportunity to revenge the murder of his father John Mòr of Kintyre, the fiery young Donald Balloch brought out Clan Donald. Donuil Dubh was again faced with the dilemma which had tortured him in 1429. Again, he decided to side with the King (as did Clan Chattan, with their chief imprisoned in Tantallon Castle). The result was that when the MacDonalds swept through Lochaber in 1431, at the Battle of Inverlochy, Lochiel again found himself on the losing side.
This brief historical summary is to a certain extent conjecture. Little was recorded for posterity in those days, though battles, important events and the history of the clan generally was woven into the songs and sagas of the bards, as seen from their own point of view. Such events were also recorded in the piobaireachd traditions of the clan, where they inspired the composition of a new tune.
The song, Piobaireachd Dhomhnuill Duibh comes to us through the MacDonald traditions from South Uist. There were other versions of the song in Skye and Barra. It has been claimed that the song was a MacDonald song celebrating the victory of Donald Balloch at Inverlochy. It has also been argued that the Camerons would not compose such a song to celebrate a defeat. However, there are other reasons for believing that patronymic ‘Mac Dhomhnuill Dhuibh’ applied to the Cameron chiefs to this day derives originally from the Donald Cameron of Lochiel who fought at Harlaw and later at Inverlochy.
There are reasons for believing that the piobaireachd (the theme of which is very similar to the song) could have been a 15th century composition. There are other early piobaireachd which are similar in construction and which are linked with events at that time in history. But why would the Camerons cherish a piobaireachd which commemorates a defeat? This particular tune does not evoke the feelings and sentiments associated with a lament, it is too bold a tune.
Fact and fantasy are further compounded by Sir Walter Scott’s version of the song. In his Legend of Montrose (1814) he used this quatrain as a sub-heading to the chapter dealing with the Battle of Inverlochy. By implication, of course, he is referring to the second Battle of Inverlochy in 1645. Scott should not be regarded as an authority on the battle and no conclusion can be drawn from his use of the song except that he used it as the basis for his poem.
Referring to the piobaireachd in 1815, Neil MacLeod of Gesto names it Piobaireachd Dhomhnuill Duibh, or Camerons’ Gathering on the authority of lain Dubh MacCrimmon. General Thomason names the tune in Gaelic and Black Donald of the Isles’ March quoting presumably his principal authorities, Donald MacDonald (1800) and Angus MacKay (MS dated about 1840). There is a mistake here in that “of the Isles” cannot refer to “Black Donald”. The Piobaireachd Society failed to throw light on the problem by publishing the tune in 1920 under the name Black Donald Balloch of the Isles’ March to Inverlochy thus confusing the issue between Black Donald (i.e. Lochiel) and Donald Balloch (i.e. Freckled) of the Isles (though he was never Lord of the Isles — that was his cousin Alexander). The current version of the Piobaireachd Society’ books gives the tune as Black Donald’s March.
In 1797 both the song and the piobaireachd would have been well known to many of the highlanders who joined the 79th Cameron Highlanders, as they became under Alan Cameron of Erracht. There is no record of when or how the tune was adapted as a quickstep but it was a popular tune within all the right associations with Clan Cameron and therefore it is not hard to imagine how some piper might have experimented with the rhythm of the drummers’ beating applied to this tune. The result was obviously successful and popular and from the earliest record of this activity, Pibroch O Donuil Dubh is given as the Regimental March Past.
Why should this tune also have been the Regimental March Past of the Seaforth Highlanders? There is no obvious reason, other than the fact that it is a particularly good marching tune. There is no reference to this tune having been used by the 72nd Highlanders, it was in vogue in the 78th Highlanders probably from the time of Pipe Major Ronald MacKenzie (Pipe Major 1865 1879). It is referred to by Sir Wolsey Haig in the 78th as the March Past in Column. It is recorded as the Fall In and March Past of the 3rd Volunteer Battalion Seaforth Highlanders in their Duty Calls and Favourite Tunes of the Seaforth Highlanders published in 1901 (Ronald MacKenzie was still serving as Pipe Major of the Volunteers at that time). In 1912 when the Duty Calls of the Seaforth Highlanders were standardised, this became the Regimental March Past.
Thus, the Queen’s Own Highlanders are continuing a very old tradition in using a tune that is over 500 years old.
*Watch a short clip of the Seaforth Highlanders playing a snatch of the tune at its last parade in 1960: