Norman MacCaig

Norman MacCaig, poet 1910 – 1996

Lament for Rory

Here we consider a recording of fiddle playing by the celebrated Scottish poet Norman MacCaig (also named McCaig). The recording (Edinburgh 17/51 T3400.0 Track 1) was made in Edinburgh in December 1951 by the musicologist Alan Lomax and can be accessed at the website Cultural Equity and heard via this link:

Lomax visited Scotland in 1951 when, with guidance from Hamish Henderson, the MacLeans of Raasay and the poet William Montgomerie, he recorded a range of spoken, sung and instrumental music in different parts of the country. MacCaig, who had studied Classics at the University of Edinburgh, was a primary school teacher in his native Edinburgh at the time.

The content is noted as a ‘pibroch’. Piper and writer Robert Wallace advises us that the tune is Lament for MacLeod of MacLeod reputedly a MacCrimmon piobaireachd and clearly associated with the air of the Gaelic song Tog or mo phiob s’ theid mi dhachaidh. He notes that MacCaig plays the first line of the opening urlar once without repeat then the third line, missing out the fourth. The player goes on to the Variation 1 singling where he does the same but plays line 4 instead of 3 and then the doubling of Variation 1, doing the same. Also, in the recording, the very first note of the tune (low A on the bagpipe chanter) is missing.

The concept of playing the classical music of the Highland bagpipe on fiddle has a long pedigree, indeed, in the eighteenth century Scottish violinists made a specialty of bagpipe laments with variations, as first brought to our attention in detail by David Johnson in his book Scottish Fiddle Music in the 18th Century (Edinburgh, 1984), pp. 119-141 and discussed further at Wikipedia here and here.

In 1999 Johnson compiled a typescript list of 18th century texts of fiddle piobaireachd for a talk he gave at the Edinburgh Fiddle Festival. [Raretunes has a recording of that talk and may make it available in due course] The piece under consideration here is not included on Johnson’s list so it can be assumed that MacCaig took the tune directly from modern piping rather than the fiddle literature, most likely from the authorised Piobaireachd Society version published in the early twentieth century, as in the following opening extract [William Stewart, et. al., eds., Piobaireachd Society Collection (first series), ii, 1-4]:


The old Gaelic song and how it relates to the pipe tune is considered briefly by Francis Collinson in The National and Traditional Music of Scotland (London, 1966), pp. 64-65 and by Anne Lorne Gillies in Songs of Gaelic Scotland (Edinburgh, 2005), pp. 159-160. We might presume that it was this piece that was sung by Ishbell MacAskill at MacCaig’s funeral:

One particularly heartfelt performance was in 1996, at the funeral of her friend, the poet Norman MacCaig, when among the songs she sang were verses to a piobaireachd which Norman used to play on the fiddle. [‘Ishbell MacAskill’ Traditional Music Hall of Fame]

The song has been adopted into the Gaelic choir repertory and, according to Anne Lorne Gillies, it exists in ‘innumerable instrumental versions’ (p. 160). A keyboard setting, Lament for Ruavidh Mor-Macleod is contained in the Inverness Collection of Highland Pibrochs, Laments, Quicksteps and Marches Book IV (Inverness, c. 1880, p. 16; p. 76 in the combined volume) and it may be this version that is played on the obscure 78 rpm gramophone record Lament of Sir Rory Mer by Herbert Walton (1869 -1929), organist at Glasgow Cathedral, probably made in 1927.

A full performance of the piobaireachd on Highland bagpipe can be heard here:

MacCaig’s tackling of the classical music of the bagpipe would appear to be unique in the modern period, although it is known that several notable pipers of the early twentieth century were also fiddlers and is reasonable to assume that they too would have played piobaireachd on the violin. His close adherence to the sound and character of the bagpipe chanter and the absence of a full tone or expression through dynamics, vibrato or bow articulation places his style well outside both the classical violin tradition and that dominant strand in Scottish fiddling that relies heavily upon it.
Regarding the performance Robert Wallace notes:

He has followed the piping ornamentation as best he can on the fiddle and makes a pretty good job of it. In terms of expression he needs a few lessons, making the classic error with piobaireachd- of overdoing the slowness. But as I say, pleasant to listen to and a compliment to the bagpipe tradition I think.

The following is a first attempt to interpret the ornamentation used in the opening slow section of the performance based on a regularised rendering of the melody as played. Identifying the nature and pitch of the gracings accurately is challenging and several of those offered are approximations or suggestions from a wide range of options viable on the fiddle. We would welcome others’ more expert analysis and interpretation.

In this extract of the final section, the audio has been tuned to A=440, slowed down and dropped by one octave to allow the relationship between melody and ornamentation to be heard better:

Lament for Rory end.jpg


Note, at proper speed, the bubbling four note ornament (B4A4D5B4 on the note A4, sounded in the duration 1/2 a second) immediately towards the end :

last gracing 1



Here, slowed down further and again reduced in pitch, it can be auditioned in detail:

last gracing 2



Given the absence of any other known contemporary fiddle pibroch practice and the lack of direct equivalents in the classical violin tradition, the player must have devised these gracings for himself. We do know from writer Andrew Greig that MacCaig was an aspiring piper in his earlier years (he was just over 40 at the time of the recording) and this would have informed his musical choices:

In Scottish music, he loved pibroch, the extended high form of piping… Only late in his life did he casually mention to me he used to play the fiddle. … He also played the chanter, but never the pipes. Apparently he pioneered a mode of fiddle playing that took pipe tunes and made an equivalent of the grace notes of pibroch. [Andrew Greig, At the Loch of the Green Corrie (London, 2010), page not known]

His ornaments are akin to very rapid versions of those used by players in the Irish fiddle tradition and also by many younger musicians in Scotland today, such as the roll on open strings or the multi-note clusters used as effective substitutes for uilleann piping effects or as musical devices in their own right. (See, for example, Breandán Breathnach, Ceol Rince na Éireannn Book 1 (Dublin, 1963), pp. xii-xiii and ‘Cran’ in Fintan Vallely, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music (Cork, 1999), p. 91.).
MacCaig’s approach, in which the fiddle becomes the bagpipe chanter, contrasts with that of other, more recent, violinists’ interpretations of piobaireachd. These include the Scottish violinist Edna Arthur (d. 2019) and the American Bonnie Rideout, who have played under the guidance and endorsement of musicologist David Johnson and, in the case of the later, John Purser and other experts. Closer, perhaps, is harper Simon Chadwick’s experiments at playing fiddle pibroch or the the results of bagpipe researcher Barnaby Brown’s academic and creative work with strings player Clare Salaman that explores the genre through its performance on the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.

On being introduced to the MacCaig recording, musicologist and violinist Aaron McGregor wrote in his blog:

MacCaig’s rather individual, uncompromising style and his adoption of Highland bagpipe music – in repertoire, ornaments and temperament… is somewhat different in character to the (very beautiful), but also more violinistic piobaireachd of Bonnie Rideout and others which have a closer relationship with 18th-century violin pibroch sources… it reminded me of Robert Donington’s description of the baroque violin playing of Arnold Dolmetsch – one of the pioneers of the early music movement in the early 20th century, which itself has overlap with the folk music revival:

Dolmetsch’s basic tone on the violin was of a more fiery colouring and a less refined texture than we generally associate with this most versatile of instruments (almost as if 0.01 per cent of bagpipe chanter had got blended in). He played more into the string, and with a more slowly moving bow, than is general nowadays. His accentuation was almost entirely of the crisp variety (sharp attack, often preceded by silence of articulation) rather than of the massive variety (by arm- weight and pressure). His cantabile was exquisitely sustained; but the rest of his playing was highly articulated. Not only were the expressive silences numerous; notes not separated by silences were kept articulated by an incisive little bite of the bow-hair on (not off) the string. The result was piquant and cleanly-etched; it combined intoxicating lightness with solid strength and virility. It was at once vital and relaxed. [Robert Donington, ‘The Interpretation of Early Music’ (London, 1963), p. 465]

MacCaig’s fiddle style (at least in the one recording I’ve heard) has the more constant sound of the pipes, but there is also overlap with the Dolmetsch description: playing into the string, with a slow bow, and crisp accentuation (made both by sharp attack and ornamentation) on the string. …the idea here is imitating the more constant sustain of the bagpipes, with accentuation made through ornamentation.

Functionally, MacCaig’s pibroch was not intended for the concert or competition platform, the folk club, for broadcast or for the gramophone record. His was was an intimate, solitary and meditative music made largely for his own consumption and wholly in keeping with his description of himself as a ‘Zen Calvinist’. But why piobaireachd?

Despite the poet’s high public profile, we still know very little about his musical pedigree and how and why he sought to play the classical music of the bagpipes on fiddle. We are aware, of course, of his identification with the highlands, his maternal links to the Gaelic Hebrides, his love for Assynt where he would spend much of his time and that the fiddle, or fiddler, features in a number of his poems. Did he learn from his mother’s family in Scalpay? At school in Edinburgh?
MacCaig left a clue when he stated that, as a scholar of classical literature, he was attracted to the formality of the high Celtic arts:

Celtic art is very classical. In old Celtic art, all of their arts, songs, poems, sculpture… all are very formal and I think I have always loved form, unconsciously. [Ewan McCaig ed., The Poetry of Norman MacCaig (Edinburgh, 2005), p. xliii]

This was picked up by Andrew Grieg who has suggested that ‘his vision of Gaelic culture, of the Gaelic mind, was resolutely anti-Romantic’, the ’emotion mediated through formal control and complexity’ [Andrew Greig, At the Loch of the Green Corrie, page not known]

MacCaig’s preoccupation with the classical music of the pipes certainly made a strong impression on fellow poet Seamus Heaney:

One day at a party in Edinburgh, in a room full of smoke and music and flirtation, Norman took me into a corner and began to whistle a totally bewitching air. It was a fragment of a pibroch, a few orphaned phrases as piercing as a curlew-call, but it was also a melody of the soul’s loneliness, a tune that was like a secret knowledge. It has grown stronger and clearer in my memory, and nowadays I link it with the clarity of conscious and the moral strength that impelled and sustained MacCaig in the course of his protest as a conscientious objection during the Second World War. I link it also with his labyrinthine ironies and courtesies, the way in which he maintained a debonair style and yet kept faith with a history of loss. The filament of sound that unspooled from his lips that day was an Ariadne’s thread leading in to the heart of the Scottish Gaelic maze: in there, at the outback of modernity and English, there dwells the foetal shape of defeat and dispersal, language loss and trauma.

… But now I can just hear Norman rebuking me for all this, telling me to tone it down, ‘Post-colonial cant! Blarney! Blather! Come off it!’ And yet, and yet… [‘Seamus Heaney, ‘Norman MacCaig’ in Finder’s Keepers Selected Prose 1971-2001 (London, 2002), pp. 399-402]

The writer Alastair Keith Campsie was less convinced after his encounter with MacCaig in one of Edinburgh’s literary pubs:

It was rather like going back to school. There I was pinned against the top end of the Abbotsford bar by MacCaig, the pub didact, while he told me all about pibroch….

I tried to explain to him that, after the intensive training I had been given by Robert Reid, the real King of Pipers, ‘knowing’ a pibroch was irrelevant to knowing how to play a pibroch, for reasons of technique alone. It was hopeless. He didn’t even know what the different movements of a pibroch were called, and as for his later claim that he could mimic the intricate grace-noting of a crunluath on his dilapidated fiddle, it smacks of delusion.

He then informed me that he played the fiddle, but when I mentioned I had been brought up in professional fiddle music, both classical and Scottish, and had myself started to play on my 10th birthday, his mouth tightened and somehow I was never asked to his parties at which he scraped away. I therefore cannot tell you how he played, although I gather it sounded pretty eldritch. [Alastair Campsie, ‘Literary Louts and Layabouts 1’ at the the Piper’s Press website, archived 2 April 2013 by Wayback Machine]

MacCaig’s social circle in Edinburgh in the early 1950s included several of those associated with folk music as performers and academics, including the piper Calum Johnston of Barra (1891 -1972), the Gaelic scholar John MacInnes and the folklorist/collector Hamish Henderson. We know he sang Lowland Scots traditional songs [as can be heard at Tobar and Dualchais tracks 32542, 32544, 32547 and 32550] and Helen B. Cruikshank wrote in her autobiography of a party at her home:

I had Alan Lomax, the famous American folk collector for the Library of Congress, as a one night guest, Isla Cameron pulled at our heart strings as she gentled thro’ I know where I’m going. I think Norman MacCaig played the fiddle. Hamish [Henderson] sang in five languages… [Helen Cruikshank, Octobiography (Montrose, 1976), page not known]

Lewis-born Gaelic singer and actor, Dolina MacLennan, who became his friend soon after she settled in Edinburgh later in the decade, recalled:

I met Norman MacCaig just the week after I met Stuart MacGregor and Hamish Henderson, in 1958. Stuart took me along to Norman’s the following week. I hadn’t heard of him; at school we’d tended to concentrate on historical poets, in both languages. He played the fiddle that night, the one and only time I ever heard him play, in spite of frequent visits over the years. [Personal communication with Stuart Eydmann, December 2013]

MacCaig 2 (2)

MacCaig was certainly still fiddling in the early 1970s when London-based American photographer Larry Herman took pictures of him for the Penguin anthology Worlds. Seven Modern Poets (Harmondsworth, 1974), pp. 163, 168-9.

MacCaig 2 (1)
As the 1950s progressed and he got ‘on the right track’ as a poet (suggested by Alan Taylor as around 1955 [McCaig, The Poetry of Norman MacCaig, p. xxxii]) it appears he began to distance himself from the increasingly popular, urban, folk scene and relegated traditional singing and fiddle music to an obscure part of his back story.
He was soon making it clear that, as a classicist, folk songs were beneath him and in the subsequent infamous tensions and public flytings between Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDairmid over the value of the folk arts he was firmly on the side of the latter [Timothy Neat, Hamish Henderson: Poetry Becomes People (1952-2002) (Edinburgh, 2012), page not known].

In some interviews given late in life the poet referred to his love of classical music but did not mention the traditional, although the obituary published in The Herald did record his love of both. An enduring connection with traditional music and song in the 1970s is evidenced by his participation in poetry and music events such as the Heretics performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe where, for example, he was paired with Glasgow Irish singer Kevin Mitchell, or the tours of the Finn MacCuill Folk Show with singers Nick Keir and Tony Ireland. It has also been confirmed by the recollections of several younger traditional musicians and singers who remember social evenings at his home. Most notable among these is the fiddler Aly Bain:

My first encounter with Norman MacCaig wasn’t too friendly. It must have been about 1971 or 1972. I was having a party at the flat I used to have up by the Meadows in Edinburgh. We were having quite a night of it. There were a lot of people there: actors, musicians, singers, writers, all crammed into my wee living room. Norman came along with a mutual friend, the singer Dolina McLennan.

I was playing a tune on my fiddle. Norman didn’t like what I was playing and said so. He could be like that. There were times when he would drag my bow from the fiddle and tell me that the tune I was playing was rubbish. I had heard of him previously but this was the first time I had ever met him. My first thoughts were: “Who is this guy?”

I met him again shortly afterwards at a party at Dolina’s house, on Thirlestane Road. That was a great house for parties. I was there with the Shetland guitarist Willie Johnson. Norman was there and we fell into a horrendous argument about emotions. He said that if he wrote anything emotional he tore it up and threw it in the bucket. I had a big argument with him about that. Towards the end of the night I was playing this slow air and I noticed he was quite moved so I pounced and said: “There, you are emotional.”

In the end, of course, he was very emotional. He just didn’t want to admit it. After that we became really good friends. I think we both realised we liked arguing with one another. I would say that Norman, in his later years, was my best friend. We spent many nights together in his flat in Leamington Terrace.

His poetry and my fiddle music were one of the foundations of our friendship. Norman loved fiddle music. He was a bit of a fiddler himself but, no matter how often I asked, he would never play for me, even if he had had a few drinks. [Aly Bain, ‘Celebrating the Centenary of Norman MacCaig’ in The Scotsman 7 November 2010, accessed online]

As heard on this recording, MacCaig’s playing was pioneering and highly significant at a crucial early stage in the modern history of Scotland’s instrumental music. While his innovative contribution was relatively short-lived, obscure and had little direct impact on other musicians at the time, it can now be recognised as prefiguring or paving the way for later musical ideas and developments. In entering but not staying in the flow of the ‘carrying stream’ of tradition MacCaig exhibited behaviour typical of other highly creative individuals who acted as ‘outliers’ in the Scottish folk music revival, as discussed by Stuart Eydmann in ‘Routes, roles and folk on the edge: Scotland’s instrumental music through the revival lens’ published in Simon McKerrell and Gary West, Understanding Scotland Musically. Folk, Tradition and Policy (Abingdon, 2018), pp. 201-216.)

Other recordings of Norman MacCaig will be considered in a subsequent post or posts. Meanwhile, we would welcome any information, feedback of thoughts on the foregoing.