Stories of the Tunes – Black Donald’s March

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Black Donald’s March – Piobaireachd Dhomnuill Duibh – is a piobaireachd in the secondary classification that has been adapted successfully into a 6/8 march, a jig and a hornpipe. It has been popular with pipers ever since it appeared in Donald MacDonald’s book in the early 19th century.

Pipe settings have also been published by Donald MacPhee, General Charles S. Thomason, and David Glen. The popularity of the tune more generally is down to Sir Walter Scott who used the melody for his song. Pibroch of Donuil Dubh in 1816.

The tune has been claimed by the MacDonalds and the Camerons, with dates said to go back as far as the 15th century, along with a connection to one of the battles of Inverlochy near Fort William.

In all probability, Black Donald was an early chief of the Camerons, but like many other clans, the chiefs tended to have the same name so it’s virtually impossible to date the tune to a particular Cameron chief.

If we are uncertain as who exactly Donald was, we can be a bit more sure of the episode that gave rise to his tune. The first skirmish that took place at Inverlochy was in 1431 when King James I of Scotland attempted to reduce the extensive power of Alexander of Islay, Lord of the Isles. It seems unlikely to us that the tune refers to this battle, though. It is simply too far back. If it relates to Inverlochy then it is probably to the battle that took there on February 2, 1645 during the so called Wars of the Three Kingdoms when a Royalist force of highlanders and Irish troops under the command of James Graham (the first Marquess of Montrose), routed and destroyed the forces of Archibald Campbell, (the first Marquess of Argyll), who had been at the castle. The period is right in the middle of the heyday of Gaelic culture and of ceòl mòr composition.

All that’s left of Inverlochy Castle,

This battle was the most spectacular battle during the bitter war between the forces of the English parliament, allied to the Committee of Estates in Edinburgh, and King Charles I. Second-in-command of the king’s forces was Major-General Sir Alasdair MacDonald, better known as Alasdair Mac Colla Chiotaich MacDhòmhnaill of Colonsay – Colkitto.

In the six weeks up to the end of January 1645, this army had wasted Breadalbane, Argyll and Lorne. Montrose then marched his 1,500 troops into the Great Glen intending to take Inverness, which was defended by the Earl of Seaforth and his raw army numbering around 5,000.

Montrose’s astonishing winter march to the Battle of Inverlochy. (Click to enlarge).

Camped near Cille Chuimein (what is now Fort Augustus), Montrose learned that the Marquis of Argyle was behind him at Inverlochy with an experienced and battle-hardened army of 3,000 men, comprising mostly of Campbells and Lowland Covenanters. They were applying to Lochaber the treatment that Montrose had given to Argyllshire. The Royalist general seemed to have limited choices. He could continue north to Inverness knowing that he might be caught between the two armies, or wait in the freezing cold and deep snow for them to attack him, or march back the way he had come and confront Argyle who would have had plenty of time to prepare the battlefield.

On January 31, Montrose attempted what seemed impossible. He led his men up into the mountains south east of the Great Glen. In biting cold and thick snow his army made an epic march over the hills into Glen Roy, across Glen Spean and up into the Ben Nevis range. Some 36 hours later, on the evening of Saturday, February 1, they were in Glen Nevis over-looking Inverlochy from the south.

The night was clear with a bitter frost. The exhausted men lay under arms regaining their strength. Argyle’s men assumed the desultory musket fire coming from from the foothills was from locals showing a pathetic disapproval at the presence of the invaders. It could not be Montrose for he would come from the north, they reasoned confidently.

James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose.

They discovered their mistake at first light the next morning when they heard the silver trumpets salute the royal banner. Then the royalists attacked. The Campbell clansmen on the right wing were used to traditional warfare – fighting as individuals within a brawling mob. McColla, though, had pretty much invented the Highland Charge. Argyle’s royalist army ran forward, fired their guns at the edge of their range then threw themselves on the ground to avoid the returning volley. Abandoning their muskets, they then leapt to their feet and, splitting into wedges of about a dozen men, burst through the shroud of powder smoke into the enemy whilst they struggled to reload.

The Campbells had no answer to this and crumbled. Their collapse affected the rest of Argyle’s army. The Marquis was safely in his galley in Loch Linnhe, but his men fled. In the battle and the pursuit, 1,500 men including 40 Campbell barons were slaughtered. Montrose lost eight men killed and only 200 wounded.

Seemingly, Alasdair McColla killed 20 himself.

The following week, the Parliament of Scotland found Montrose and 19 of his main followers, including Mac Colla, guilty of high treason in their absence. Argyle himself appeared before Parliament, with his arm in a sling, dismissing the loss as a minor setback!

Montrose used the conflict to rally Clan Donald against Clan Campbell. In many respects, it was as much part of the clan war between these two deadly enemies and their allies as it was part of the wider Wars of the Three Kingdoms, and that is how it was portrayed in Gaelic poetry, song and music. For example, Iain Lom, the bard of the MacDonalds of Keppoch, watched the battle from a vantage point on a hillside, and afterwards wrote the poem Là Inbhir Lochaidh (The Day of Inverlochy) about it.

• The tune is pentatonic and can be played in either 3/4, 4/4 time or in 6/8. Many pipers feel the 4/4 timing makes the tune somewhat square and dull and that prior to 1930 the tune was usually timed in 6/8. The David Glen setting is quite attractive musically. Here is John D. Burgess playing the tune in 4/4 (video uploaded by Brett Tidswell, Australia):

• Read ‘In Montrose’s footsteps with the soldiers and the phantom piper’.