By Keith Sanger

I have been following the series, ‘The origins of ceòl mòr — a theory’ by Bridget MacKenzie with some interest. It presents a fascinating parallel between ceòl mòr and Norse Skaldic verse, but while not detracting from its main theme, contains a few areas open to some (I hope constructive) criticism.

The first and least important concerns the derivation of the word clialuath; I am open to correction, but I can find no mention of this word in Joseph MacDonald’s Theory, the printed edition nor in the list of corrections to the printed edition taken from his manuscript and printed in the Piping Times.

My major criticism occurs when the subject of the harp enters the scene. The clarsach and its music tend to be viewed through the mists of antiquity, but unfortunately some mists of more modern origin have added to the gloom. Although this article has been printed (I hope) in a piping journal, I would ask the readers to bear with me while I attempt to introduce some clarification.

Edward Bunting is the main source for information concerning the music and manner of playing of the last of the harpers of the old style. He was commissioned to collect and publish the music and airs they played at a meeting in Belfast in 1792.

Bunting [pictured] published three collections of music in 1796, 1809 and 1840, and it is in the 1840 collection that he included chapters on the harp, harpers and the bagpipe in Ireland. It is in chapter 2 of this work that he gives the method of playing and musical vocabulary of the old Irish harpers. These consist of a number of tables giving the name in Irish gaelic, translation and musical example; and it is in this section that the terms Barluith and Barluith fosgalta are found. They are translated as respectively ‘Activity of fingers’ and ‘Activity of finger tops’. The former is similar to the roll employed by uillean pipers today. These terms are the only ones specifically stated by Bunting to have been used by the harpers.

Following these tables comes a section entitled, “A General Vocabulary of Ancient Irish Musical Terms arranged from the various dictionaries of the Language and other Sources”. The Sources included in a sub-note are, “Twenty-four measures of Welsh music, Arthur O’Neill (one of his harper informants) and various dictionaries of the language, Lluyd2 & C from the earliest to the most modern. It is here that we find the terms Suibhul (a measure in music between fast and slow) and canntaireachd as an alternative term out of three meaning— melody or harmony (the other two are Ceol and Clas Blaisceadul, this last may be a mistake or misprint since in the Irish characters it is given as Clar Bairceadul). The term crunnluath quoted in ‘The Origins of Ceol Mor’ does not appear in either of the foregoing sections.

Bunting was a musician, not a Gaelic scholar, and there is some dispute as to the authenticity of the Gaelic names although the English translations are a very good description of the musical illustrations. With regard to the music published by Bunting, he would appear to have departed more and more from his original sources as he grew older, and by the time of the publication of the 1840 volume he was only trying to remember what he had heard over 40 years before. Comparison between tunes common to both the 1796 and 1840 collections show a marked difference? and in the list of sources for the tunes in the 1840 volume he lists among others pipers, singers and other collectors.

The evidence from Bunting’s musical scores and written illustrations indicates that the Irish harpers used the decorative movements listed within the melody and it is difficult, certainly from Bunting’s evidence to accept Mrs. MacKenzie’s deduction, “That harp music at one time had a system of variations and of chanting syllables to represent notes’.

I suspect that with the exception of the introduction of the term crunnluath, the quotation from Bunting’s work in ‘The origins of ceòl mòr’ may not have been taken from source but from one of the works by Francis Collinson. It is in, The Traditional and National Music of Scotland that Mr. Collinson advances the theory, based primarily on the evidence of two tunes, that piobaireachd could have derived from the music of the harp. Basically, the same material appears again in The Bagpipe — the history of a musical instrument. The evidence is open to a number of differing interpretations, but unfortunately, while Mr. Collinson raises a very interesting possibility it has been presented more as a probability, which in time has been taken up as fact, possibly through not reading the whole of his works. Mr. Collinson states in both of his very valuable books that, “All this is admittedly pure supposition … probably the most that can be said until more evidence turns up is that the theory is not impossible” and, “To sum up we have no firm and incontrovertible proof that the pìobaireachd form was borrowed from the harp music.”

An Analysis of ‘A Complete Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe by C. H. Woodward. Piping Times, Vol. 27, No. 6.

  1. Presumably Edward Lluyd (1660-1709), a Welshman who collected in both Ireland and Scotland cl699. See ‘Edward Lluyd in the Scottish Highlands? by J. L. Campbell and Derick Thomson
  2. The Irish and Highland Harps, by R. B. Armstrong (1904).
  3. Some Thoughts on Irish Harp Music – Grainne Yeats in CEOL, Vol. IV (2).
  4. The Traditional and National Music of Scotland – Francis Collinson (1966).
  5. The Bagpipe – Francis Collinson (1975).

• From the September 1980 Piping Times.