Ceòl mór

Ceòl mór (big music), or pìobaireachd (piping) or pibroch, is the formal art music of the Scottish highland bagpipes1.

However, in previous centuries, similar music was also played on fiddle and on the early clàrsach (early Gaelic harp)2, and many scholars have suggested that the modern living pipe tradition has its origins in the lost medieval Gaelic harp traditions. This music was also played on the fiddle in the 17th and 18th centuries.

I think that it is a mistake to think of the familiar living bagpipe tradition as primary - fiddle pibroch is often included under a general heading of ‘imitative music’3. To me it seems clear that that both pipes and fiddle independently took up the ceòl mór style and idiom from the much older harp traditions, which date back to medieval times in Ireland and Scotland.

We don't have very much concrete information about Gaelic harp ceòl mór. It would have been an older strand of the Gaelic harp tradition, more complex and idiomatic than the ports or vocal music which were notated in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I am only aware of one example of Gaelic harp ceòl mór noted from the playing of one of the old harpers.

Burns March was said to have been composed for the Burns or Byrnes near Newry in the 13th century4. The tune was collected from the elderly Ulster harpers, Denis O’Hampsey and Patrick Quin, in the last decade of the 18th century, by Edward Bunting. It is not like the other music they played for Bunting; I think it is likely that they preserved it in their reperory simply because it was ‘one of the first tunes taught young harpers’5.

Burns March as collected from O’Hampsey and Quin has a short ground and a number of gestural variations. It also has a song associated with it6, like many of the pibrochs played on the pipes. Versions of the tune are preserved in 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 gestural variation sets. But because a piece of ceòl mór starts with a formal slow air, it seems likely that some surviving harp 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