As an instance of the antiquity of Gaelic music I find on extended search an enquiry that the opinion I have always held regarding this class of music is being gradually confirmed. Some months ago I published a version of the beautiful Gaelic song “Tha mo run air a’ Ghille,” composed by a daughter of the Chief of the Grants of Glenurquhart, for Donald Donn of Bohuntin, who was executed in 1692, making it at least 209 years old. Since then I have come across evidence to show that it is probably much older than the 17th century. Mr Alex. Carmichael, in sending me a couple of verses of the song not generally known, mentions that he got them from Captain Anderson, Saltcoats, a native of Lismore, whose maiden aunt, Isabella MacGregor, was the most beautiful singer of Gaelic songs he had ever heard. Not the nightingale, says Mr Carmichael, at its best, had a more sustained and beautiful voice than had Miss MacGregor. Melody was as natural to her as it is to the mavis of the rock, the merle of the brake, or the lark of the sky, and in his opinion the song under consideration is very old. “At the close of the interesting and instructive Pan-Celtic Congress in Dublin in August last the president of the Congress, Lord Castletown, invited several of the delegates to the Congress to Donevaile Court, his country seat in the county of Cork. Five branches of Celts were represented there–Breton, Welsh, Manx, Irish, and Alban Celts. At this delightful house party songs of the five different dialects of the Celtic were sung and played. Among those was “Tha mo rùn air a’ Ghille.” “That,” said a Breton present, “is a Breton air,” and he sang a verse of the song to the same air in his native dialect. He further remarked that his old uncle had the whole song, and that it was considered very ancient. It is interesting to know that this beautiful air is known in Brittany as well as in the Highlands of Scotland, probably the common heritage of both branches of the Gael. Now, the interesting question here is when did it come to Scotland, prior to, or within historic times. The fact of its having been a well-known and popular air in the Highlands more than 200 years ago shows that it had nothing to do with the ’45 period. Of course there has been some intercourse between the French and the Scottish people for many centuries, but the latter would be much more likely to bring over brandy and tobacco, than “Tha mo rùn air a’ Ghille.” On the other hand, it is very unlikely that the Bretons imported it from the Highlands of Scotland. The most likely solution is that it was brought over from Gaul by the early Celts, and probably long before Caesar’s invasion of Great Britain. Historians, antiquarians, and philologists have their various opinions regarding problems of this nature, but the one that fits best is the most natural. When Britain was first peopled we know not, but it is extremely probable that the original inhabitants came over from the neighbouring coast of France, and at a time when the Straits of Dover were much narrower than they are at the present day. The period has probably been so remote, that one can hardly risk reducing it to figures. It might have been three or then thousand years ago or more, but whatever the time may have been “Tha mo rùn air a’ Ghille,” in all human probability come over from the original habitants of Great Britain, so that the least age I can claim for it is something more than two thousand years. It is interesting in connection with this subject that upwards of five millions of people speak “Breig” in Britanny, and of songs and airs they seem to have a vast number. Two of the Breton gentlemen who were at Donevaile Court have collected more than nine hundred Breton airs, and, other Bretons are doing similar work. Mr Carmichael complains that those people are in advance of us in collecting the music and songs of their country, and sadly laments that hundreds, probably thousands, of Gaelic songs and Gaelic airs have died out or been killed during the last two centuries, and prays for an earthquake to shake up the dry bones of Highland apathy!
MR CARMICHAEL’S VERSES
Moire ’s mo ghaol am fiùran,
Mach à teaghlach Bhothionndain (Chilliondain),
Sealgair fèidh am beinn a’ bhùiridh,
’S eilid luth nan luath air.
Naile, ’s e mo ghràdh an t-òigear,
Aig am bheil a phearsa bhòidheach,
Fhir ’chul-dualaich chuachaich òrbhuidh,
’S fiamh an ròis ’ad ghruaidhean.
MacDonald, Dr Keith N., ‘Music and Song’, The Oban Times, no. 2448 (26 Oct., 1901), p. 3
Image: Portrait of Dr Keith N. MacDonald from The Celtic Monthly.