Tuesday 6 July 2010

Cumha Mhic an Tòisich – Mackintosh’s Lament

There can be little doubt that one of the most powerful, heart-rending and beautiful laments that can be played upon the Great Highland Bagpipe is a tune called Cumha Mhic an Tòisich – Mackintosh's Lament. Carmichael had seen the obituary notice of the Mackintosh chief in The Highlander newspaper and what he read there must have piqued his curiosity so much that he wrote a couple of letters on the subject of this famous lament that later appeared in this newspaper’s columns. The traditional story behind the tune is given, as well as the lyrics taken down by Carmichael from Marion MacNeil or Mòr nighean Alasdair ’ic Ruaraidh Bhàin (1843–1927), daughter of the famous Gaelic seanchaidh Alexander MacNeil or Alasdair mac Ruairidh Bhàin (c. 1787–1881), Kentangaval, Barra.

In the interesting notice, in The Highlander, of the 25th ultimo, of the death of Mackintosh of Mackintosh, it is said:–“In the Northern Meetings he took much interest and frequently acted as one of the judges. His admiration for Highland music was great, and in connection with this, we may note that so highly did he esteem some of the old tunes that he was at considerable labour in tracting the history of some of them. “Cumha Mhic-an-Toisich,” “Mackintosh’s Lament,” was, we understand, so traced by him, and a copy of it, as supplied by him, was published by Messrs Fullarton & Co. In regard to this tune, the deceased wrote–“The tune is as old as 1550 or thereabouts. Angus Mackay in his ‘Pipe Music Book’ gives it 1526, and says it was composed, on the death of Lachlan, fourteenth laird; but we believe it was composed by the famous family bard, Macintyre, upon the death of William, who was murdered by the Countess of Huntly, in 1550. This bard had seen, within the space of forty years, four Captains of Clan Chattan meet with violent deaths, and his deep feelings found vent in the refrain–

Mackintosh the excellent
They have lifted;
They have laid thee
Low, they have laid thee.

These are the only words in existence which I can hear of.” These things are of more than passing interest. The Chief’s statement that these four lines are all he could recover of the famous piobaireachd induced me to search for something more among my own MSS., and I now give the result.
The following poem was taken down on the 25th Sep., 1872, from the singing of Mor nighean Alasdair ’ic Ruaraidh bhain, Keantangaval, Barra. Alexander Macneill, the father of this intelligent cottar girl, is an an excellent sgeulaich (storyteller), and as such, is often mentioned by Mr Campbell of Islay, in his well-known West Highland Tales.
According to my notes, written from the narration of the singer of the lament, there was a prediction prevalent amongst his clansmen that Mackintosh of the day was destined to die through the instrumentality of his beautiful black steed–a steud dubh aluinn–whose glossy skin shone as the raven’s wing, and whose flowing mane and tail waved free as the mountain mist. But whatever he felt, the Chief resolved to show to his people that he treated the prediciton lightly, and so he continued to ride his favourite notwithstanding the entreaties of his friends to the contrary.
On the day of his marriage, the spirited Chief rode his spirited black steed, which, on the way to church, became more than usually restive. The steed reared, and plunged, and curveted, and altogether behaved so wildly, that the rider, losing control over himself and his horse, drew his pistol and shot him dead.
A gille-mor, “man nearest to him,” as the old people say, handed his chief another horse and they proceed to church.
After the marriage ceremony, the gay party set out on their homeward journey. The bride and her maids, upon white palfreys, preceded, and the bridegroom and his friends followed. In passing, the chief’s roan horse shied at the dead body of the black horse, and the rider was thrown to the ground and killed on the spot. A turn in the road hid the accident from those in front, and thus the bride, unconcious of the scene of misery behind her, continued her way home, the happiest of happy brides! She is said to have composed the air and elegy–Cumha Mhic-an-Toisich–The Mackintosh Lament.
“A distressing occurrence,” I remarked, as the narrator ended her interesting introduction to the poem.
“Yes sir,” said the girl, who is a Catholic, “But it was fated to him–bha e ’n dan dha,” which brought out the latent predestinarianism which seems so ingrained in the Scottish mind of all denominations.
I know not of what family was this unhappy lady, who, if this tradition be correct, has had the honour of composing one of the most plaintive, pathetic, and touching, and withal one of the most beautiful things in the Gaelic language.
The late young Mackintosh states that Mackay in his Pipe Music says that the air was composed in the year 1526 on the death of Lachlan, the fourteenth laird, while, he himself, believes that it was composed of Huntly in 1550. The period would agree with an expression in the seventh stanza:–

             Cha lubadh tu am feornan
             Fo shroin da bhroig arda.

            (In dancing) thou wouldst not bend the grass-blade
            Beneath the point of thy high shoe.

In the time of Elizabeth and James, fashionable people in England and Scotland wore shoes curving up at the point, like those worn by fashionable Indians at the present day. In extreme cases shoes curved up to the extent of two feet. The only difficulty is to believe that a Highland chief of that period wore these high shoes. Perhaps after all these are not the shoes meant.
The Rev. Mr Macgregor, Inverness, whom I consider the purest Gaelic writer of the day, has kindly supplied me with this note:–

Tradition also relates that the afflicted widow of the Mackintosh, who came by his death as stated above, not only composed the beautiful air of the Lament, but chanted it as he moved forward at the head of the bier at her husband’s funeral, and marked the time by tapping with her fingers on the lid of the coffin. That, it is said, she continued to do for several miles, from the family castle at Daleross to the burying ground at Petty, and ceased not until these was torn away from the coffin, when it was about to be lowered into the grave. A. M’G.

Cha ’n eil saoidh gu’n a choimeas–“there is no hero without his prototype.” The versatile author of The Ingoldsby Legends gives a story–“The Grey Dolphin”–which, in one point, resembles this. A witch announces to the Baron de Shurland that his favourite dapple-grey steed is to be the means of his death. In order to belie the prediction, the doughty Baron draws his sword and cuts off the steed’s head. Three years thereafter, as the Baron returns home to Scotland, whither he had been with Edward Longshanks fighting an unrighteous war against Wallace, he sees the witch sitting on the bleached skull of his good old steed. Curiosity leads him to approach, when the witch mysteriously disappears. In his disappointment, the Baron kicks the skull, one of whose teeth enter his foot, causing mortification and death.
I regret my inability to throw further light on the subject of the following poem, which I beg to subjoin. ALEX. A. CARMICHAEL.
              Creagorry, Outer Hebrides,
                     17th Jan., 1876


Is mise ’bhean mhuladach,
’Giulan na curraice.
O’n chualas aig gach duine,
Gur ann ’na mhullach bha am fabhar.

Och! nan och! leagadh thu,
Och! nan och! thogadh thu,
Och! nan och! leagadh thu,
A’m bealach a’ gharaidh!

Leag an t-each cionnan thu,
Cha do thog an t-each cionnan thu,
Leag an t-each cionnan thu,
A’n ionadh a’ gharaidh!

’S truagh! nach robh mis’ a’n sin,
’S truagh! nach robh mis’ a’n sin,
’S truagh! nach robh mis’ a’n sin,
’S bheirinn air laimh ort!

’S i maideann ro-dhabhach,
Nach fhainichear tuillead mi,
O’n taca so ’n-uiridh,
O’n la chuireadh am fainn orm.

’S mise’ tha gu tuirseach,
’S tric snidh air mo shuilean,
’S mi ’g ionndrain an fhiurain
Marcaich ur ’nan steud aluinn.

Am fion bha gu ’d bhainnis,
’S ann chaidh e gu d’ fhalair,
Gur mise bha galach,
’N am ’nan gallan a thraghadh!

Cha teid mi gun bainnis,
Gu feill no gu faidhir,
Gur ann toiseach an earraich,
Fhuair mi an t-saighead a chraidh mi!

Gur mise tha tuirseach,
O’n chuir iad ’san uir thu;
Thoir mo shoraidh le durachd,
Gu tur nan clach arda!

Mo cheist air mo leannain,
Fiuran a’ chuil chlannaich,
Gur cubhraidh o’n canail,
Leam anail do bhraghaid.

Dhannseadh tu comhnard,
’Nan seinneadh iad ceol dhuit,
’S cha lubadh tu am feornan,
Fo shroin do bhroig arda!

Mo cheist air do phiuthair,
Bean og a’ chuil bhuidhe,
Gur maith a thig dhuit rughadh
’Tighinn o shiubhal do bhráighe!

Sealgair an fheidh thu,
’S a bhric’ air an leumadh,
’S choillich dhuibh air bharr geige,
’S gu’n reubteach ’n t-eun ban leat!

Marcaiche an eich leumnaich dhuibh!
Leumnaich dhiubh! leumnaich dhuibh!
Marcaiche an eich leumnaich dhuibh!

Eodhain Oig! leaghadh thu!
Eodhain Oig! leaghadh thu!
Eodhain Oig! leaghadh thu!
An eabar a’ gharaidh!

Eodhain Oig! thogadh thu!
Eodhain Oig! thogadh thu!
Eodhain Oig! thogadh thu!
Och! gu’n fhios domh ’s mi laimh riut!

Och! nan och! leagadh thu,
Och! nan och! thogadh thu,
Och! nan och! leagadh thu,
A’m bealach a’ gharaidh!

Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Cumha Mhic-an-Toisich–Mackintosh’s Lament’, The Highlander, vol. II, no. 143 (5 Feb., 1876), p. 6, cc. 1–2.
Macneil, Calum, ‘Carmichael in Barra’ in Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart (ed.), The Life & Legacy of Alexander Carmichael (Ness: The Islands Books Trust, 2008), pp. 44–57.
Image: Black Steed.

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [© carstenflieger.com]