Coire na Creiche in the Cuillin hills of Skye. This was where the last clan battle took place on Skye. It was fought between the MacLeods of Dunvegan and the MacDonalds of Sleat in the summer of 1601.
Coire na Creiche in the Cuillin hills of Skye. This was where the last clan battle took place on Skye. It was fought between the MacLeods of Dunvegan and the MacDonalds of Sleat in the summer of 1601.

The MacDonald’s Salute is one of three compositions relating to the reconciliation between the MacLeods of Dunvegan and the MacDonalds of Sleat, following a protracted period of conflict between the two. The other tunes are MacLeod’s Controversy and The MacLeod’s Salute. The tunes are attributed to MacLeod’s piper, Donald Mòr MacCrimmon.

The origin of the feud – which came to be known as the ‘Wars of the One-Eyed Woman’ – was seemingly a public insult to the MacLeods by Donald Gorm MacDonald who had taken Rory Mòr MacLeod’s daughter, Margaret, in marriage. After a year, the woman – who had only one good eye – was sent back to MacLeod tied and facing backwards on a one-eyed horse, led by a one-eyed man with a one-eyed dog. The tune has an alternative name, ‘Fannet’ which is from the Gaelic word, ‘fanaid’, meaning ‘ridicule’ or ‘mockery’ – which certainly hints at there being a thinly-veiled insult or double meaning to this so-called ‘salute’.

The last skirmish between the two clans took place in Coire na Creiche (Corrie of the Foray) overlooking Glen Brittle. King James VI then intervened and ordered MacLeod and MacDonald to end the feud.

The MacDonald’s Salute, which was first published in1838 by Angus MacKay, was last set for the Senior competitions in 2016. Master piper, Andrew Wright, in the February 1997 Piping Times, shares his thoughts on it:

This is one of three tunes related to the great feud between Donald Gorm of Sleat and Rory Mòr MacLeod of Dunvegan. It dates to the start of the 17th century and is said to be a composition of Donald Mòr MacCrimmon to mark the occasion of Donald Gorm’s attendance at a banquet held at Dunvegan Castle, Skye, either in anticipation or celebration of the appeasement of the feud. The composer is also credited with the composition of two other tunes connected with this event, namely The MacLeod’s Controversy and The MacLeods’ Salute sometimes called The MacLeods’ Rowing Piobaireachd.

All of these tunes are of similar flavour and the touch of a common composer can be detected, and each contain the movement which today has been nicknamed as the Donald Mòr Rundown, which is an alternative timing of the note sequence B, low A, low G preceded with an E cadence and D gracenote. The movement is usually depicted in the Piobaireachd Society publications thus

but more often timed by today’s pipers in other tunes like

The timing and the notation of the Donald Mòr rundown emanates from Angus MacKay’s Collection of 1838 where it is shown in the three tunes mentioned as

Sometimes the D gracenote on B is shown as a semiquaver which could have led to the timing today as

where the D becomes a short melody note and is played with the B and C fingers lifted off the chanter.

The movement can be very expressive and has quite a startling effect in the groundwork of a tune, but becomes and sounds over-repetitive when carried through to the variations and often grates upon the ears, especially if it is badly timed.

Angus MacKay, in his collection carries this pointing through to other tunes in his book e.g. Hector MacLean’s Warning and partly in MacKenzie of Applecross’s Salute but in his father’s composition, Lady Doyle’s Salute, he departs from this and his timing of these movements is more in line with what is heard with this note sequence today.

Dunvegan Castle, where the MacDonald's Salute was given its first airing in 1603 during a celebratory banquet to which the MacDonalds of Sleat were invited and which was held to mark the end of the feud with the MacLeods of Dunvegan.
Dunvegan Castle, where the MacDonald’s Salute was given its first airing in 1603 during a celebratory banquet to which the MacDonalds of Sleat were invited and which was held to mark the end of the feud with the MacLeods of Dunvegan.

It has often been said that pipers become too bogged down in gracenote detail and the whole issue of timing is open to interpretation. MacKay himself is often seen to be struggling to illustrate what he actually meant, as a glance through his collection will show. Then again, the whole collection is riddled with editorial errors and misprints. Indeed, tradition tells us that the poor job made of publishing the book was part of the reason for the mental illness which became his end.

It is testimony to the esteem in which he was held that his collection was referred to as ‘The pipers’ bible’ by piobaireachd players of past generations. This reverence often reached absurd proportions and nowhere is this better evidenced than in his printed setting of The MacDonalds’ Salute.

The structure of the variations following the gound is normally straightforward in a tune of this type where the route followed is to take the four pulses in each bar of the ground and carry them through couplets, taorluaths and crunluaths to the finale.

All in all, pretty straightforward stuff but employed to great effect in such tunes as The Unjust Incarceration and My King has Landed in Moidart. In point of fact the other manuscripts where MacDonalds’ Salute is found i.e. The Campbell Canntaireachd and that of Donald MacDonald junior follow this pattern exactly but the strange thing is that MacKay’s setting adopts a different sequence of notes in the variations to that in the ground.

Despite its popularity, Angus MacKay’s setting is seriously flawed.

The editorial notes in the Piobaireachd Society collection book 11, whilst acknowledging the fact that there is a distinct clash between what has been published by MacKay and that which has been recorded by others, has been reluctant to alter that which has been played and accepted since it first appeared in MacKay’s book and on that basis have adopted it for the modern day score. In the process, they have expressed serious misgivings about MacKay’s setting and have suggested that pipers take a look at the variations in the other settings and to this end have printed the score of the taorluath singling as noted by Donald MacDonald junior. That is further evidence even today of the reverence in which MacKay is held.

In this case, however, the MacKay setting is seriously flawed and due entirely to a printer’s error and a major one at that. This can be illustrated by an examination of the musical scores and for this purpose a skeletal illustration of the main notes in the variations of MacKay and Donald MacDonald junior will suffice and are shown thus:

Note sequence – MacKay Variations

Note sequence — Donald MacDonald Junior Variations

In Angus MacKay’s setting if the last low A is taken from the final bar in each line and inserted at position X in the same line i.e.

at the start of bar three in line one

at the start of bar three in line two

at the start of bar one in line three

and the remaining bar lines moved to the left in order to accommodate four notes, then MacKay’s variations follow his own groundwork and the variations as recorded in the other settings. The sheer randomness of this difference in MacKay’s score against that of the others can point to no other thing but an error and if one considers the method of printing which was current at the time of publication, and which would have been by printer’s block method, the type setter could easily have missed the block carrying this note in line one and then tagged it on to the end of that line, then set the other lines in conjunction with this.

The MacDonalds’ Salute is an excellent tune calling for a bold approach and strong bottom hand finger work. Over the years it has won many prizes at major competitions with performers playing MacKay’s setting, but there surely must have been those amongst them who questioned what they were playing just as there must have been those who steered away from the tune due to the absurdity of it all.

It is hoped that this discourse will raise questions when the tune is included again in the set pieces prescribed for the major competitions.