Happy Valentine’s Day! Did you know that one of our sweetest love-songs is really about a cow?
We think about pipe tunes about love, courting and sparking appropriate for the day, and we immediately land upon the great and popular piobaireachd, “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart.”
Yes, one might assume that this piece is a song of homage by one of the MacCrimmon dynasty to a fair maiden romantically roaming the fragrant heather hills of Boreraig on the Isle of Skye.
Well, if your idea of a fair maiden is a beautiful Highland cow, you’d be correct.
The piobaireachd is not about a lady or a man or even a human, but about a lovely bovine beauty. A moo-cow. A coo.
This is one of the best-loved piobaireachds, an old favourite frequently offered in competition from the later 18th century onwards, and one of the tunes recorded by John MacDonald of Inverness on the Columbia label in 1927. There are a number of stories attached to the tune, this one given by John Johnston of Coll in C. S. Thomason’s “Ceol Mor Legends”:
This is a tune composed by Clanranald’s piper — of the day – to a cow lost in a bog by a widow in Benbecula, South Uist. The cow was a noted one, & was greatly admired by the widow, as her only one apparently. It got lost in the common moss one day, & ultimately the whole neighbourhood turned out to look for it, likely in compassion for the owner, the piper among the rest; but its finding defied them, after their best efforts, nor was the skeleton of it found till over a year afterwards, by a mere accident. The whole circumstances therefore afforded the piper a good theme to begin, which he did as if the widow herself was the author, thus: — “Gad iunndrain a tha me, si mo ghradh a mhaol dounn, Gad iarreidh feadh fhraochan, s’ gad shlaodadh a poul.” This tune was also a great favourite with the old pipers, though composed for a trifling matter, owing to its own merits & its plaintive air throughout. It is very old . . .
The Gaelic scholar and journalist Henry White of Easdale who wrote under the pen name “Fionn” stated in his historical notes to Glen’s Ancient Piobaireachd that the tune was a composition of Donald Roy MacCrimmon, and that “Maol Donn” was a common name for a Highland cow.
So, there you have it. Perhaps our most obvious tune for Valentine’s Day, “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart,” is, well, sort of appropriate, even though it might not by a MacCrimmon and not even about a human.
But there’s no doubt that the piobaireachd, with its fluid compound rhythm that builds three grounds to a throbbing climax, is one of our most poignant and seductive melodies.
Love is a mysterious thing . . .
Happy Valentine’s Day from pipes|drums!