Fhuair mi Pòg by Margaret Stewart and Allan MacDonald (Greentrax Recordings Limited CDTRAX 132).
By Roderick D. Cannon.
The title track begins with Allan MacDonald playing the song version of the famous piobaireachd (I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand) on the full Highland bagpipe; then as the sound level is turned down Margaret Stewart sings the words to the same melody; and then without a break Allan plays the ground of the piobaireachd at full length in the usual pipe setting. It is a stunning opening to a unique and memorable recording. The piper and the singer complement each other perfectly, with first-rate execution, excellent tuning and beautifully clear diction. Next comes a love song, unaccompanied; a tune composed by Allan, played on an ensemble of instruments; and another bagpipe and voice duet, this time with small pipes. The song is a short, plaintive lament that was at one time played by pipers at funerals in South Uist. It, too, has the character of piobaireachd, and Allan adds extempore piobaireachd type variations. I think he is following a sound instinct here as to my ear the tune has more than a passing resemblance to the piobaireachd Cumha na Marbh (Lament for the Dead).
Among other highlights are spirited waulking songs, another piobaireachd, (MacIntosh’s Lament), the fine melody known to pipers as We Will Return to Kintail with Allan and Margaret singing together over the small pipes, a set of pipe reels, and a beautiful rendering of the old song Uamh an Oir (Cave of Gold) which also seems to preserve elements of piobaireachd. There are old pipe tunes and new ones, including a particularly fine hornpipe in Cape Breton style and an Irish tune from the Blasket Islands.
There is surely something here for every taste in Gaelic music. For my own taste, the sentiment is laid on just a little too thickly in track 6, where Margaret’s singing is underlaid with an electronic keyboard. But then, I have always preferred the dry to the sweet, and there is enough beautiful unaccompanied singing to satisfy even my purist tendencies; as well as some very well designed accompaniments by the band, consisting of Allan and Ingrid Henderson, Iain MacDonald, Iain MacFarlane, and Nick Turner, variously playing fiddle, piano, clarsach, whistle and bass guitar.
A truly chilling track is No. 14, ‘S olc an obair do theachdairean cadal. Listen to Margaret’s singing, exquisite as always, and the lilting 6/8 melody, and if, like me, you don’t follow the Gaelicwithout a crib-sheet, you may well think it’s a love-lyric or a fairylullaby. A fairy song it certainly is, but as the accompanying booklet makes clear, it is the story of a man in South Uist whose young wife was in childbirth. He goes to fetch the midwife but his way is barred at a ford because the tide is up. While waiting for the ebb, he falls asleep and when he wakes, the tide is up again and his wife is dead.“Sleep is ill work for messengers” sings the fairy and the contrastbetween the lightness of the music, and the tragedy of the story is a grim reminder that the culture which has given us this music was not all ceilidh and song.
The CD comes with an excellent booklet, edited by Morag MacLeod, which gives explanations in Allan and Margaret’s own words, in both Gaelic and English, and full texts of the songs. The texts are in Gaelic without translation, and anyone in the process of learning the language couldn’t do better than study them while listening to the perfect enunciation of the two singers. Some of the songs I understand have been published elsewhere, and in fact the only criticism I have is that I would have welcomed more cross-references to the publications in the booklet.
There is of course a sub-text, which will not be lost on present day pipers. Both Allan and Margaret believe firmly that Gaelic song and Piobaireachd are closely linked – or rather that they should be more closely linked than they are nowadays. And this belief, if correct, must surely have some implications for the way piobaireachd is played. To this I would add that the converse is presumably also true, and piping must have some effect on the way songs are sung, at least as regards the genre of “pibroch songs”. So this recording is a contribution to a debate: but whatever you think about that, don’t fail to buy it and enjoy a unique musical experience.
* This review first appeared in the June 1998 Piping Times.