Stories of the Tunes – Glengarry’s Lament


Today we look at a tune that is quite often the first piobaireachd most of us will learn. It is a straightforward yet musical tune in the Primary classification. A little known snippet of information is that the man for whom the tune was named was the inventor of the glengarry cap. The historical background to the tune was the subject of Dugald MacNeill’s article from the November 1997 Piping Times and is well worth another read:

By Dugald B. MacNeill

In our family the two most popular lullabies were Dream Angus and one about leaving the baby there to go and gather blaeberries. I didn’t know it then but the latter one was my first exposure to piobaireachd, for these words were sung to the doubling of the dithis of Glengarry’s Lament.

The song was very popular in Argyll; I sometimes wonder if it predates the Archibald Munro 1828 composition. When I came to be invited to learn piobaireachd, Glengarry’s Lament was the first tune, and right away I was familiar with part of it.

It is pentatonic in A, of primary construction and is a good example of two very simple phrases making an expressive and fine lament. Once learnt, it stays in the repertoire. Seumas MacNeill had it as the fourth tune in his Tutor for Piobaireachd [it is the first tune in the National Piping Centre’s Piobaireachd Tutor book – Editor].

Raeburn’s famous painting of Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry (1771-1828).

It was composed comparatively recently by Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry’s piper, Archibald Munro, when Glengarry died as a result of injuries incurred when he had to quickly abandon one of the early steamboats that had foundered.

In 1997, the National Gallery of Scotland held an exhibition of Sir Henry Raeburn’s portraits among which is one of Glengarry. He is identified more accurately as the 15th of Glengarry and the 22nd in line from Somerled, the first Lord of the Isles. We know a lot about him because he lived so recently. He always wore Highland dress of some sophistication and always travelled with a large retinue of servants including his piper. He was a contemporary of Sir Walter Scott and took a fairly prominent part in the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. His estate was huge, stretching from the Great Glen westward to Knoydart on the Atlantic.

To preserve his lavish lifestyle, Glengarry continued, as his father had begun, to clear and evict his own clansmen from their homes in favour of sheep and immediate profit. He was also what would be called in America a ‘draft dodger,’ having raised many clansmen to go to the Napoleonic wars he himself stayed at home and quarrelled with the sheep farmers. He negotiated good terms for wayleave for the Caledonian Canal to go through his lands but then made it very difficult for them; opposing the venture and appropriating their timber and equipment. In a subsequent lawsuit he lost even more money and went very deep into debt.

In January 1828, while sailing south on one of the earliest steamships to deal with his financial problems, the ship [the Stirling] ran aground in bad weather in Inverscaddle Bay on the Ardgour shore of Loch Linnhe (near Fort William). In the scramble to get ashore he fell and sustained injuries from which he died later that same day*.

It is difficult to find any redeeming features in his life or character. He was, as his portrait depicts, arrogant and aggressive, and indeed he picked a quarrel with Flora MacDonald’s grandson, Norman MacLeod, and killed him in a pistol duel. Alex Haddow in his book on the History and Structure of Ceol Mor says that the Raeburn portrait is the only good thing about him. I believe Archibald Munro’s piobaireachd is also worthy of our admiration albeit that it bears the name of a man of whom Scotland should be deeply ashamed.

There is another older tune also very popular called the Lament for Alasdair Dearg MacDonnell of Glengarry. This, if it is correctly named, must refer to an earlier ancestor. It is in the Campbell Canntaireachd where it is called Glengarrie’s March. We would like to think that Alasdair Dearg was more deserving of his lament than his successor.

* Editor’s postscript: After Glengarry’s death, the estate was broken up and sold. There had already been four waves of emigration between 1773 and 1802 on the estate, largely voluntary. Those that took place between 1828 and into the 1850s were forced. Leaders and clansmen of the clan sailed to North America, many of them settling in Ontario, Canada.

Robert Burns wrote a satirical poem about Glengarry called the Address of Beelzebub.

Here is a recording of Pipe Major Donald MacLeod MBE taking us through the tune: