As well as the formal instrumental variation set, it is also a Gaelic song.
The earliest written source for this tune is Donald MacDonald’s manuscript of pipe music, from the 1820s3. It remains a well-known tune to pipers, with written settings in many of the main 19th and 20th century pibroch collections.
Some 19th century sources call this tune ‘An t-Arm Breac Dearg’, which would mean the red tartan army4; this title is connected to the battle cry of the McQuarries of Ulva5. The ‘Bull’ title is more common however, and there is a traditional story about Ranald fighting with a bull, which is given to explain the title6.
The words of the song refer to the story about Ranald fighting with the bull. The words were written down in 18747. A traditional sung version was recorded in 1937, but the recording is now unfortunately unplayable8.
Allan MacDonald (song & pipes), ‘An Tarbh Breac Dearg’, track 4, Dastirum, CD, 2007, Siubhal 2. more...
Nan MacKinnon (song), ‘An Tarbh Breac Dearg’, 1965, University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies tape SA1965.18.B1, online at Tobar an Dualchais. This sung version has a somewhat different melody.
A clarsach setting of this tune is included as the title track on my new CD Tarbh. The following video presents a much earlier experimental version of my harp setting of this tune:
1. Barnaby Brown & Allan MacDonald, ‘The Red Speckled Bull’, Piping Today issue 26, 2007, p.44-5. Online at pibroch.net. This paper discusses all aspects of the tune including the story, the song lyrics and the earliest written setting of the tune. ^
2. The first attribution to Ranald I have seen is from D.C. MacPherson (Abrach), ‘Raonull Mac Ailein Oig’, in An Gaidheal, summer 1874, p.72-3 ^
4. An t arm breachd derg, Se ’n t’arm mharbh me, Donald MacDonald’s notes to his tunes (unpublished), 1826, NLS MS 1680. Online at piobaireachd.co.uk. “These words describe the appearance of an army at a distance. The composer of this rattling march, was one of the pipers who was at the battle of Maol-roy, and he says, it was the army that killed him; which is the literal meaning, of the Gaelic above.”. The Battle of Maol Ruadh was fought in 1688 near Spean Bridge, and MacDonald of Keppoch led one side. ^
5. A.J. Haddow, The history and structure of ceol mor, 1982, 2nd ed. 2003, p.131 ^
6. Charles MacDonald, Mar a rinn Raghnall mac Ailein Òig am port mór ‘An Tarbh Breac Dearg’, 1954, Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies tape SA1954.42.2, online at Tobar an Dualchais.
Also, Ronald McLean, Raghnall agus an tarbh, 1954, Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies tape SA1954.49.8, online at Tobar an Dualchais.
Also, D.C. MacPherson (Abrach), ‘Raonull Mac Ailein Oig’, in An Gaidheal, summer 1874, p.72-3.
Also (an English paraphrase of MacPherson), Henry Whyte (Fionn), ‘Our Musical Page’, The Celtic Monthly, vol iv, 1896, p.68. Also (briefly), Calum MacLean, The Highlands, Batsford 1959, p.89-91. ^
7. D.C. MacPherson (Abrach), ‘Raonull Mac Ailein Oig’, in An Gaidheal, summer 1874, p.73. ^
8. Margaret Johnston (nee MacNeill) of Boisdale, Nova Scotia., ‘An Tarbh Breac Dearg’, tune and melody transcribed in J.L. Campbell, Songs Remembered in Exile, Aberdeen, 1990, p.92. ^