A well-known piece of South Uist tradition is the story concerning the pipers of Smerclete. This version picked up by Alexander Carmichael, probably from Duncan Maclellan, a stonemason, from Carnan in South Uist, in April 1872, follows the general gist of other, and sometimes even more detailed, variations of this story:
The Macintires of Smearcleit were
celebrated pipers. Others came to try them.
One of the sons who had never tried the pipes
was coming home & a ban shi met him
& told him that 3 celeb[rated] pipers came to play
against his fath[er] & bro[ther] But said she you[r]
fath[er] & bro[ther] although good enough pipers are
no match against these men. Ach cuir
thusa do mhiar am bhialsa ’s cuiri[dh]
mise ceol ann s cha tig ad a nall
eir faothail s cha tig ad a nall eir
fairge na chuir fath no fiamh ort.
He put his finger in his mouth & he
went home. Cia phiob athar said he cluich mi fhe[in] porst dha
na na daoine coire tha[in]ig dhach[aidh] orm
a so “Us amad[an] dol a bhreith piob
ors athair amad[an] ’us dol a bhre[ith] eir piob
ors a bhrairean ’s nach d rug [th]u eir
piob ria[mh]. But he got hold of a pipe & he played[a]y[e]d so extra well as to astonish the stranger[s]
& to make his fa[ther] & bro[ther] stare with amasement.
The strang[ers] left with[out] divulg[ing] their errand say[ing]
to each other If this fel[low] be the worst ^[supra: piper] of the family
what must the others be […]
Unfortunately, though Carmichael stopped there – it would appear that a few words have been omitted – it could hardly be called a cliff hanger. The ‘celebrated pipers’ are usually namechecked as the MacCrimmons of Skye, the hereditary and famed pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan. Not surprisingly the gift of music from a fairy is also attributed to the MacCrimmon dynasty as well as other famous piping families. Such a story has an international resonance as classified by Annti Aarne and Stith Thompson as AT 503 The Gifts of the Little People [and latterly ATU 503]. Such stories inspired Alexander Carmichael’s daughter, Ella, to write an article about it that appeared in the second volume of The Celtic Review and in the same journal a posthumous article appeared from the pen of Father Allan McDonald, or Maighstir Ailein, a noted afficionado of bagpipe music, about the pipers of Smerclete. The story has also inspired a brilliantly animated version called Pìobairean Bhòrnais (2003) that seamlessly interweaves animated drawings with a narrative collected in South Uist as recently as 1975.
CW 90, fol. 36v.
CW 90, fol. 36v.
D.M.N.C., ‘Uamh an Oir’, An Ròsarnach (1917), pp. 159–71.
Ella C. Carmichael, ‘“Never was Piping so Sad, and Never was Piping so Gay”’, The Celtic Review, vol. II (1905–06), pp. 76–84
Fr. Allan McDonald, ‘Pìobairean Smearclait (The Pipers of Smerclait)’, The Celtic Review, vol. V (1908–09), pp. 345–47.
Image: Still from Pìobairean Bhòrnais. Many thanks to Catrìona Black www.ambocsa.co.uk for permission to use her image.