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Ceòl mór

The Gaelic words ‘ceòl mór’ mean ‘great music’. This modern term is usually used as a synonym for pìobaireachd or pibroch, the formal art music played on the Scottish highland bagpipes1. However, in previous centuries, similar music was also played on fiddle and on the early clàrsach (early Gaelic harp)2.

When played on the fiddle, ceòl mór is usually referred to as ‘fiddle pibroch’ and it is sometimes assumed that this is a secondary genre, with the fiddle merely imitating the pipes - fiddle pibroch is often included under a general heading of ‘imitative music’3. However, What seems clear instead, is that both pipes and fiddle independently took up the ceòl mór style and idiom from the much older harp traditions, which date back over 1000 years in Ireland and Scotland.

Because the Gaelic harp ceòl mór was an older strand of the Gaelic harp tradition, and was more complex and idiomatic than the ports or vocal music, it does not seem to have been notated down in the same way that other elements of the Gaelic harp tradition were. Indeed, I am only aware of one example of Gaelic harp ceòl mór noted from a player.

Burns March, said to have been composed in the 13th century for the Burns or Byrnes near Newry4, was collected from the elderly Ulster harpers, Denis O’Hampsey and Patrick Quin, in the last decade of the 18th century, by Edward Bunting. Presumably they preserved it in their reperory not because it was ceòl mór, but because it was ‘one of the first tunes taught young harpers’5. It has a short ground and a number of figured variations. It is also interesting that it has a song associated with it6, like many of the pibrochs played on the pipes. Versions of this tune are preserved in two Scottish sources as well, highlighting the pan-Gaelic nature of ceòl mór and of the early Gaelic harp traditions7.

Below is a video of a live performance of ‘Burns March’, played by Simon Chadwick on a replica of the 15th century ‘Queen Mary’ harp.

Notice the way in which each variation is built up from a repeated cluster of grace notes, applied to the main or head notes which remain constant from one variation to the next. Such clusters have Gaelic names, some of which are identical to or similar to the names used by pipers to describe their grace notes and finger movements8.

Other examples of Gaelic harp ceòl mór are preserved secondhand, by being noted in fiddle books. It is, of course, impossible to be sure which of such tunes really do have an original harp provenance rather than being originally composed for fiddle or bagpipe, but likely examples include Cumh Easpuic Earraghaoidheal9, and Cumh Ioarla Wigton10.

For us today, the defining characteristic of ceòl mór is the figured variation sets. But because a piece of ceòl mór starts with a formal slow air, it seems likely that some surviving slow airs may be ceòl mór which has lost its variations. Perhaps we will be able to tell, if we understood more about the subtelties of ceòl mór on the Gaelic harp.

Simon Chadwick