St. Clement’s Church, Rodel, Harris.

The year is around 1707. It is only a couple of years since the burial of Sir Norman MacLeod of Berneray, one of the most famous chiefs of the Berneray branch of the MacLeods of Harris. He was the third son of Sir Roderick XV of Harris and Dunvegan. Today, though, we are waiting for the boats bringing from Berneray the body of Mary MacLeod — Mairi ni’n Alasdair Ruaidh — the bard who had so often sung Sir Norman’s praises.

Mary had been a well-known figure, in her tartan shawl, and carrying a silver-headed staff. She was one of the last of the old style clan bards, praising few except MacLeods and their allies, but doing so in a popular style, instead of the older courtly style of verse.

She was of the clann Alasdair Ruaidh MacLeods who were latterly on the farm of the Baile mu Thuath on the island of Pabbay. She may have been born in Harris or at Ullinish in Skye, where her father had a farm for a time. She had been a nurse in the castle at Dunvegan, but her strongest allegiance was to the MacLeods of Berneray, and in particular Sir Norman. Her praise of him beyond all others is said to have resulted in her banishment from Dunvegan for a time, and her eventual settlement beside her hero in Berneray.

At Dunvegan she was part of a small group of musicians and bards that were dubbed later as the ‘Talisker Circle’ (due to patronage from the cadet branch of the chiefly line) that included Roderick Morison (the Blind Harper) and Patrick Òg MacCrimmon (MacLeod’s piper). Part of one of Mary’s poems, Fuaim an Taibh (The Ocean’s Sound), written at a time when she was exiled from Dunvegan, runs:

Re fuaim an taibh
‘S uaigneach mo ghean –
Bha mis uair nach, b’e sean m’àbhaist.
Ach pìob nuallanach mhòr
Bheireadh buaidh air gach ceòl
Nuair ghluaiste i le meòir Phàdraig.

At the ocean’s sound
my mood is forlorn –
not always has feeling thus been my custom.
But a great roaring pipe
that left all music behind
when it was stirred by Patrick’s fingers. [Patrick = Patrick Òg]

Sir Norman had built Tobhta nan Craobh on Berneray for Mary and here she had spent her final years. It is situated very near to his own house.

Mairi’s wish was that she be buried in St. Clement’s Church at Rodel. The reader can picture the scene as the boats arrive at her funeral. They have come from Berneray, from Skye, from Uist and other parts of the Western Isles, with mourners for her who had mourned the heroes of their lines. She will be buried in the south transept of the church, but, by her own wish, face-downwards — ‘beul nam breug a chur foidhpe’ — ‘with her lying mouth down’. Was she regretting a poem in praise of the Dunvegan MacLeods which she had made after her return from exile, or was she making a typically sharp-tongued comment on her detractors, even from the grave?

What about the tune itself? It is certainly a popular tune but it is a grave misconception to think it’s an easy tune to play. It is anything but and before approaching it the student really should seek out an expert tutor. As Seumas MacNeill wrote in the Piping Times of June 1979:

“Undoubtedly, this is the most favourite of all piobaireachds. It always features prominently on free lists submitted in competition, and in fact at Grants’ Championship [the Glenfiddich] on several occasions it was the most popular of all the tunes submitted by the 12 leading contestants of the year.

“The reason is not hard to find. It is a straightforward piece, of outstanding melodic beauty, not too long and not too short, with the right standard of difficulty for winning prizes. But for one snag (to be mentioned later) it could well have become the non-piobaireachd player’s favourite piobaireachd.”

Mary MacLeod, wrote Seumas, was one of the few bards who had a good word to say about pipers and our music. Tradition has it that she was more than friendly with Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon, but it is not clear which came first — the love of the man or the love of the music.

It used to be believed that Patrick Mòr composed the tune by, but in fact we know now that Patrick Mòr was dead long before Mary. The tune has always been considered to be a MacCrimmon composition, so its most likely author is Patrick Òg MacCrimmon — which caused piping scholars to re-asses the earlier belief that Patrick Òg was not a good composer. As Seumas wrote, “Whoever composed this tune was an outstanding musical genius.”

The two references for the tune given by the Piobaireachd Society are of course the Kilberry Book (No. 96) and the Piobaireachd Society Collection, Book 5. The settings given are identical. However, two other settings are well worth looking at: Dugald MacNeill’s Sight Readable Ceol Mor (Book 1) and Dr Roddy Ross’s Binneas is Boreraig.

Part of ‘Lament for Mary MacLeod’ as set out in ‘Sight Readable Ceol Mor’.

Part of the tune – as played by the late, great Malcolm R. MacPherson (1907-1966) – from ‘Binneas is Boreraig’.

“The two most important facts to note,” wrote Seumas “are that the only fundamental source of the tune is Angus MacKay’s manuscript, and that the setting printed is the arrangement as taught by Alexander Cameron. The two are not the same. Alexander Cameron was a great emender of tunes, presumably to suit his own playing and his own musical taste, but since we may not all have been endowed with his preferences it is well to compare his “improvements” with the originals.

“Fortunately, there are few of any importance. In Variation 1 doubling there are three E’s in the printed text, two in line 2 and one in line 3, which in Angus MacKay are written as low A. These are the third notes of bars 1 and 3 in line 2, and the third note of bar 1 in line 3.

“The editorial comment reads, ‘Colin Cameron played A. Alexander Cameron admitted A to be a correct alternative. MacDougall Gillies played E. A is frequently played.’

“There can be no doubt that Alexander Cameron put the cart before the horse. The low A’s as written by Angus MacKay (since his manuscript is the only authentic source) must be accepted as being correct. The problem really is, should the E’s of Alexander Cameron be accepted as correct alternatives?

“Probably it would be hard to argue that they are ‘correct’ but having been played by a great many good pipers for over a hundred years they must surely be considered nowadays to be ‘acceptable’.

“Accept the scream of agony, and give it [the high G] its full duration.”

“The answer then either play the A’s as Angus MacKay wrote the tune, or the E’s as Alexander Cameron changed it, but know the authority for the way you play it. When learning the tune for the first time you should try both methods, and then choose the one that from your point of view makes the better music. Of course, if you have already learned the tune one way, then it is unlikely that the other way will sound like an improvement.

“There are some other details of gracenote ‘amendments’ but these are unimportant as they do not affect the tune very much. If, however, you play any of these different from what appears in the printed text then you must warn the judges in advance. There is no need to mention the business about the low A’s and the E’s because the ‘Bench’ will expect to hear it either way.

“Another important alteration occurs in the last bars of lines 2 and 3 of the taorluath and crunluath doublings. Angus MacKay writes these bars identically, both the same as the last bar of the third line. It seems that Alexander Cameron preferred to end the second line the same way as the first, instead of the same way as the third. John MacDonald of Inverness preferred the Angus MacKay style, so once again you can take your choice – on the one hand you have Angus MacKay approved by John MacDonald, and on the other Alexander Cameron’s emendation approved by the Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society. Judges nowadays will have to accept either as correct, and musically I suppose there is not much in it. The trouble is we always tend to prefer the style we know and play, but good judges have to overcome that bias.

“The crunluath variation of this tune is quite unique, in that it is a breabach with an extra note added each time. That is, instead of having a straightforward crunluath followed by for example a low A and E we have the crunluath and then low A, E and B.

“The timing of this is a puzzle for anyone trying to learn on his own, for obviously the five-beat rule for a crunluath breabach cannot be applied here.

“Fortunately, the timing is quite simple. Each theme note, crunluath movement and three following notes keep pretty closely to a four beat pattern, as follows:

1. The first beat is at the start of the theme note.

2. The second beat comes on the E at the end of the crunluath movement.

3. The third beat comes at the start of the middle note of the three which come after the crunluath.

4. The fourth beat comes also on this same note, in fact two thirds of the way through it.

“The rhythm is quite easy to follow once you beat it out on your fingers a few times.

“Only one thing is left to mention about this tune, and that is the ‘snag’ mentioned earlier. In line three of the three doubling variations, in the middle of the line, there appears quite suddenly and with no previous warning, a fantastically jarring high G. I have on many occasions watched audiences being lulled into a dwam by the beauty of this great tune, and then suddenly coming bolt upright in their chairs when the high G hits them unexpectedly. Non-piping musicians give the best reactions, because they have accepted the rhythm and the scale (pentatonic in A) and then to their astonishment the scale falls apart.

Angus MacKay.
Angus MacKay.

“Some pipers have been known to substitute high A for the high G on the three occasions where it occurs, and it may be that they are doing the right thing, although there is no written or traditional justification for it. I had once hoped that Angus MacKay’s manuscript might be wrong, and that he had simply omitted to put the leger line through the note, but an inspection of the original shows that he definitely meant it to be a high G.

“What justification then can there be for what is by anyone’s standard a shocking note? Is it perhaps meant to be a cry of pain, the kind of thing that might happen to a singer of a coronach when he loses the note in a sudden realisation of his grief?

From Angus MacKay’s manuscript.

“We will never know, of course, and regretfully I think we are stuck with the high G. Try to make sure, however, that your high G is of as good quality as possible, and certainly not sharp. And lastly, although you have to break the key, do not break the rhythm. Some pipers dutifully play the high G but get off it as quickly as possible because they hate the sound of it themselves. Accept the scream of agony, and give it its full duration.”

• Listen to the late Martyn Bennett’s outstanding 2005 orchestral arrangement of Lament for Mary MacLeod along with Neil Kempsell’s animation. The orchestra is the City of Edinburgh Music School Chamber Orchestra, the speaker is Dr Kenneth MacKay and the solo piper is Ben Duncan, now Pipe Major of the Royal Scottish Dragoon Guards: