This sweet tune is a favourite with most pipers. According to Donald MacDonald (in his manuscript of 1826), Lament for MacSwan of Roaig was composed on the death of the chief of this minor clan who lived in northwest Skye. Like many in the wider region, the clan was of Norse origin.
Some believe the tune is a MaCrimmon composition, but, as MacDonald notes, there is no evidence that MacSwan’s piper was a MacCrimmon. As Dugald MacNeill suggests, below, however, it may indeed be a MacCrimmon composition due to family and geographical links to the MacLeods of Dunvegan.
The last MacSwan in Roaig was Suain MacSwan, who left Roaig in the mid-18th century and moved to Coll, where he received a tack from MacLean of Coll, his foster brother. Apparently, during a visit to Coll on their famous tour to the Western Isles in 1773, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were entertained by this MacSwan.
By Dugald B. MacNeill
This piobaireachd belongs to the 17th century, the golden age of Gaelic culture when great poetry and songs were composed and the remarkable MacCrimmon family had produced a succession of great players and composers each surpassing the last. It is fairly certain that piobaireachd was well established before the end of the 16th century but before that it is a matter for conjecture even although there are tunes whose names and traditions would indicate that some form of the great music was practised from as early as the 15th century. What is beyond question is that in parallel with that time of enlightenment across Europe, the development of piobaireachd, led by the MacCrimmons, took it into that golden age. Most of the great tunes date from this period and one can trace the increasing-sophistication and increasing musical quality from the earlier and more primitive compositions. Lament for MacSwan of Roaig was a very good example of this golden age.
One of the most interesting things about composing and naming tunes is that a composer can compose whether or not there are great events to commemorate. While a bard or poet-laureate, or a chief’s piper is aware of the need to produce a suitable composition for the big event, he will not wait for that event but will work at fashioning his ideas into the semblance of a finished piece of work. It is not difficult to imagine that tunes already composed but not ‘dedicated’ or named could be given a final polish and a title to mark an occasion or a tribute to someone.
Donald MacSwan was the 21st chieftain of the MacSwans of Roaig in Durinish in Skye, not far from Boreraig [deriving from the Scottish Gaelic, Ròdhag, it is usually spelled Roag – Editor]. He had been married to Florence the tenth child of Sir Rory Mòr MacLeod of Dunvegan and died in the middle of the 17th century. One supposes that the tune dates from then. Incidentally, if Donald was the 21st chief it makes the MacSwans a very old established family (not quite to be compared with the MacNeills but still quite ancient and perhaps older than the MacLeods themselves.)
Donald MacDonald senior, in his manuscript has a note that the tune “was composed by his (MacSwan’s) own piper and is very old.” It is strange that he added “and is very old,” since if it was composed by MacSwan’s piper then its age was fairly exactly known. Considering these facts, MacSwan was the son-in-law of MacLeod, MacLeod’s piper was Patrick Mòr.
We know little of MacSwan but he must have been a very fine person to merit this beautiful lament, one of the great masterpieces in piobaireachd. It is firmly pentatonic in G with a definite foretaste of an even greater composition which was to follow about 50 years later, namely the Lament for Patrick Òg.
Lament for MacSwan of Roaig is a favourite with most pipers; those who have learned it as a set tune for the big competitions usually hold it in their repertoire long after allowing lesser tunes to be unplayed and forgotten.
• From the November 1996 Piping Times.
* Listen to Alexis Meunier play Lament for MacSwan of Roaig during the 2017 Lorient Interceltic Festival: