Stories of the Tunes – The Battle of Auldearn

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The site of the Battle of Auldearn.

Three miles east of the town of Nairn lies the small village of Auldearn, the scene of a bloody struggle on the May 9, 1645 when Royalist forces under James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose fought with those of the Solemn League and Covenant (Covenanters) led by Sir John Hurry during the civil wars fought to establish Presbyterianism in Scotland and England.

A small path from a nearby housing estate leads the way to Castle Hill where the Royal Standard was raised during the Battle. This was the original site of the old castle of Eren or Old Eren hence Auldearn, built in the year 1180 as one of a number of strongholds established to assert the authority of the Scottish Kings of Moray at the time of Celtic revolt.

Today on Castle Hill stands the Boath Doocote (or Pigeon House), a late 17th century circular building now under the care of The National Trust for Scotland. At the edge of the hill and looking down toward the field of battle is a stone podium with a site plan showing the positions of the opposing forces during the fray.

James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose.

The views of modern day historians differ on the course of the battle from what was previously recorded. History ranks the Marquis of Montrose or the Great Marquess as one of the great military commanders having won six major battles within one year, by showing great tactical skill and leadership with an undisciplined Scottish Irish force.

Montrose had as his second in command the seven foot tall Gaelic warrior Alasdair MacColla or MacDonald a kinsman of the Earl of Antrim and son of MacDonald of Colonsay who had been described as a shadowy but fearsome ally with a separate agenda of compelling Clan Campbell to relinquish ancestral MacDonald lands in the west of Scotland.

During the campaign Montrose had led his army from Dundee where he had almost been trapped. He arrived in Auldearn on May 8, 1645. Sir John Hurry in pursuit with the Covenanters was camped 12 miles away in Inverness and by a forced march, intended to surprise the Royal army at dawn the following day. During heavy rain his soldiers were ordered to discharge their muskets when about six miles from Auldearn but the sound carried in the wind thereby alerting MacColla’s Irish who were camped west of Auldearn.

Accounts of the battle vary and some views are that Montrose was indeed caught unawares and MacColla is credited with keeping the Covenanters at bay whilst Montrose organised and rallied his force. Others think that the Royal army was fully prepared and in position when attacked and that Hurry’s army was caught out with a preplanned tactical manoeuvre.

In any case the Covenanting army was wedged between the Royal and Irish force and a slaughter ensued and Montrose with a force of 2,000 won the day against double that number. Part of Hurry’s force broke and ran toward Inverness where they were pursued and put to the sword over the distance of 12 miles. Those who did not run and who remained to fight were caught between the two factions of the Royalist forces and died by sword and pike. The bodies of the officers are said to be buried in the nearby churchyard. 2,000 are estimated to have died on the field.

The view from the Boath Doocote over the site of the battle.

The battle is commemorated in a very fine piobaireachd that has come down to us via the Campbell canntaireached (setting No. 1) and the manuscripts of Angus and John MacKay (setting No. 2). There is no known composer for the tune. In the music of Simon Fraser published by Dr. B. J. MacLachlan Orme there is a transcription of the tune taken from the Gesto manuscript of 1826 which follows the lines of the No 2 setting. Here the tune is called Sir Hugh Montgomery’s Lament. This could possibly be Hugh Montgomery 12th Earl of Eglinton (1739-1819) who fought with distinction in the American war of Independence and who became Member of Parliament for Ayrshire in 1783. He is recorded as the composer of many popular airs and as being devoted to music.

The Battle of Aulearn as written out by Angus MacKay.

The tune has always been a great favourite competition piece. So much so that at the present time it could be falling victim to over-exposure. Perhaps Auldearn is safe. It is easily memorised and rolls well off the fingers. The dithis variations are as often as not used as a tuning prelude, even for much shorter and lesser pieces.

It is constructed in what is termed as the Primary form and this becomes more obvious in the variations after the grounds. Setting No. 1 does not take full advantage of this and in the singlings of the variations has cadences inserted at the end of every phrase often leading to monotony in a tune which after the ground utilises a mere four notes. Setting No. 2 employs cadences only at the ends of phrase repeats and where the phrases stand on their own thus giving the imaginative performer scope to introduce slight variations in tempo and to display musical colour where the phrases overlap.

Both settings record a different variation after the ground. The thumb variation in setting No 1 where the theme notes are separated by going to the top of the octave recalls memories of the old low pitched pipe chanters with loud bottom hands and high As which when properly tuned and blown, melted into the drones giving the effect of the theme notes being separated by gaps in the sound.

The music in the ground doubling of No. 2 setting is captured best by those able to place the fingers gently on the chanter when coming from the E cadences to the bottom notes and in doing so are able to create a softness much preferable to the great thumps which are portrayed by overcutting the E. Auldearn perhaps is a tune which suffers greatly from the modern method of depicting piobaireachd on the stave. When properly expressed it has a hauntingness all of its own.

The battle site today is maintained with support from the Bank of Scotland and the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board.

For those who enjoy the great music with a sprinkling of history the field of Auldearn is worth a visit. There is a fine hostelry nearby aptly called the Covenanters’ Inn.

Andrew Wright.

• From the December 1997 Piping Times.

• Listen to Pipe Major Gavin Stoddart play setting No. 1: