January 06, 2018

Saint Angus

Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart,
You’re shaking my confidence daily.
Oh, Cecilia, I’m down on my knees,
I’m begging you please to come home.

Paul Simon’s hit, “Cecilia,” from 1970 is at first or hundredth listen assumed to be about a girlfriend, but it’s also, he admits, about St. Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music in the Catholic tradition. One of the greatest songwriters ever, it’s as lyrically genius as pop music ever gets, while being incredibly simple. (But please don’t get me started on Foo Fighters’ dreadful and derivative “St. Cecilia”.)

As a songwriter relying on the whim of the muse, Simon’s lyric has him begging to Cecilia to stay with him, knowing how quickly the muse can vanish, and how fast she can reappear. It reminds me of many U2 songs about girls (“Mysterious Ways,” anyone?) that are actually about the Virgin Mary. Every U2 concert is a big prayer service and most of the audience doesn’t realize or care. I digress.

But it got me thinking that, while piping and drumming is of course music, and Cecilia could sort of look after us, maybe we need our own patron saint.

Looking around, there doesn’t appear to be anything officially declared.

I’m not a religious person, but I appreciate spirituality. Paul Simon was raised Jewish, as I was raised Presbyterian, and I believe he’s not religious,either, but perhaps errs on the side of spirituality.

I defy even the archest atheists who have visited Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona on a sunny day with beams of fantastical yellows, reds and blues raying in through his gorgeous windows, bifurcated by the massive sequoia-like beams, not to feel spiritually moved. It’s so beautiful it makes one’s eyes well with tears.

Given that spirituality is a good thing, it wouldn’t hurt to have a Patron Saint of Piping & Drumming. But who or what? There’s no apparent Catholic saint who played a bagpipe. There are depictions of pipers in various abbeys and kirks, but these are only gargoyles and the odd seraphim.

St. Andrew I guess would be a natural, but he’s a bit predictable. In North America, anyway, St. Patrick is much appreciated for his big pipe band money-making day in March, but that a bit tacky. St. Philemon the Piper is the only allusion to it, but the “pipe” in this context appears to be a flute, not a bagpipe. After Ireland, St. Columba was all about the Highlands and Islands, so he’s getting there, but it’s a bit too close for comfort between Celtic and Rangers supporters.

So, with the lack of existing options, and the problems with religiosity, could we not collectively anoint one of our own as a “saint”? There are pipers and drummers in our history that seemed to perform miracles of music.

Saint Angus? Saint Padrick Og? Saint Donald Mor? Saint Alex? Saint Willie? Saint Donald? Saint G.S.? Saint Alasdair? Saint Gordon? Saint Captain John? Saint Seumas?

I doubt any of these greats were 100% pure, but no piper or drummer I know of is. And the histories of most “real” saints are often filled with violence and evil-deeds. I mean, killing snakes and serpents by today’s standards isn’t very nice.

There’s been more than one piper or drummer who’s said a little prayer at the line or during a tune or would commit him or herself to God in return for the creation of just one divine tune that would be played in perpetuity by the piping world ad infinitum, Gloria in excelsis Deo.

We could use a little divine intervention these days to keep us on the straight and narrow. Even if it’s all hokum, it sure can’t hurt to have a little talisman in the sporran, a superstition for moral support, or, when no one else out there seems to care, a piping and drumming saint who’s got your back.

She loves me again!
I fall on the floor and I’m laughing.



  1. I had not meant to reveal this prematurely, but your end of solstice festivities’ piece and its plaint to our(?) creative muse has made me reconsider. What Patron Saint indeed? Without stealing Neil D’s inspiration for his magnificently laid out “Creatively Blocked” tune in his first book (perhaps lifted from an early future vision of Scots Guards 4, but I hazard not to guess) – a perennial piping piece whose execution flow easily off the fingers, I ventured on my own research these past few years searching for an elusive, rudimentary manuscript of tunes that related the earliest conjoining of harpist and piobaireachd fundamentals in their most elementary form. In this regard I was heartened and somewhat guided woozily towards Skye’s Boreraig region by Professors Joshua Dickson and Hugh Cheape on recent visits to Piping Live. Although cursory in their suggestions, I used a number of other pointers and native Gaelic speakers’ oral history vignettes to steer aright to this wondrous parchment. To make a long-winded search’s details shorter, I was lucky to stumble into Seonaidh Beaton from Cape Breton at a delighful auld BnB on Sleat. The weather was simply bonny, and it perhaps led her to divulge a bit more than might seem discreet, as we joined up for a walk on the Crags that day. She gradually revealed she had just found an “ancient” rudimentary notebook of tunes from a veritable ancestor of hers, Domnhalla MacCruimein MacArthur. She was niece to Padruig Og apparently, although Seonaidh was still trying to draw a connection via marriage – and as with all such historical sleuthing, it was looking through a spyglass very darkly, and details are still shrouded in the renowned mists o’ Skye. Aye.

    I felt the hair on my neck stand up when she later brought the notebook down from her room, and I felt curiously exalted as the enormity of its historical significance gradually enveloped me. I was further surprised when young Seonaidh in her exuberance to share, allowed me an electronic capture via my cell phone. I have been long studying and attempting to decipher its contents, but she went on to say then that her search into a certain Gesto document alerted her to some of its peculiar notation/inscriptions. I won’t verbose about such pedantic details at present (all hopefully due for publication soon enough, given I can obtain graceful Seonaidh’s and others’ permissions) but Harping notation was non-existent at that time, and piping stuff as per its bucolically sufficient Canntaireachd was rudimentary indeed. Domnhalla had devised what appears at this preliminary blush an ingenious system to capture this curious set of Orans and Beuls. What little I have transliterated to modern scales appear very delightful indeed, and often smack of a fragrance of more updated piobaireachds and other Gaelic mouth music still extant. Seonaidh was attempting to prove that Padruig Og and later MacCrimmons etc had often stole her melodics almost holus bolus, although the story and trail become confused due to what Seonaidh claimed were very poor handoffs musically over the generations and a general sanitizing of the original pastoral themes for the purpose of broader Sassenach audiences not initiated to the wonders of Gaelic, and particularly Skye traditions in general. I was lucky to sleuth and sniff out some Deep Thought Google sort of heuristics that enfurther my puny efforts to master its essence. All this is very tentative at the moment, but some Gaelic inspiration from more musically able friends is assisting a slow process.

    But I digress – and all seriousness aside, Andrew – I do salute such a “spiritual” quest and proffer Sainte Domnhalla as an inspired Musess to the playing fields and glens with esoteric sounds of Sleat mist upon our brows to help us through our dark, cold winter nights . As Neil Young of leftest most Coast once related – he was going down a street (and not his ecliptic meet with Stephen Stills on Hollywood Blvd.) but he heard the likes of Dylan’s Rolling Stone booming out from a passing car’s speakers. Neil claimed you don’t “own” these songs, and I’m sure he too bewailed they cannot be made to order on demand. But clearly there are times, like in the Frasers’ practice hall when sufficiently minded people can reinforce each others’ creative efforts.

    Spoofily yours into the New Years ahead and all creative musical endeavours – robin



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