All music tells a story of some sort. Bagpipe music, especially piobaireachd, can have a rich history and meaning. While the appreciation of these stories has declined over the years there was once a time when a simple tune could save a life.
First, some boring history.
The early to mid 17th century were particular rough for Scotland. England, Ireland, and Scotland where in turmoil over religion. Charles I was a Roman Catholic. In the 1630’s he tried to pass a series of reforms to move the Church of England away from its earlier Calvinist views.
Although born in Scotland, Charles spent almost all of his life in England and was considered English by many Scots. In 1637-1638 he tried to force the use of the Common Book of Prayer in Scotland. This move was seen by the mainly presbyterian lowland population of Scotland as a way to Anglicise the north. This led to a series of events that eventually led to civil war.
The war in Scotland, commonly called the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, had two main sides: The Covenanters, mainly from the lowlands of Scotland and Presbyterian, were committed to establishing Presbyterianism as the national religion of Scotland, and the Royalists, mainly from the highlands, who were Episcopalian or Roman Catholic and sided with the king.
Things became more complicated with the addition of Clan politics in the highlands. The Campbells, who were Protestant, sided with the Covenanters, due to old clan rivalries. The MacDonalds, who were Roman Catholic and longtime enemies of the Campbells, automatically took the side of the Royalists. Many of the western Clans sided with the Royalists due to their hatred of the Campbells.
The Irish clans also got involved. They sent 1500 men to Scotland and placed them under the command of Alasdair MacColla MacDonald, the son of Coll Ciotach MacDonald.
This brings us to the story in question.
in 1644, Alasdair MacColla was planning on launching an attack to retake Duntroon Castle. Before the attack began, his advance force was captured by the Campbells. One of the members of this advance force was MacColla’s personal piper. They were brought back to the castle and hung. All of them except the piper. The piper was allowed to play a lament for comrades "A Cholla, Mo Ruin".
As it turns out, the tune was not just for his comrades on the gallows. At the same time the MacDonalds, unaware of the capture of their force were still advancing on the Castle where an ambush had been prepaired.
Recognizing the tune, the MacDonalds called off the attack and avoided the ambush. Unfortunately, the Campbells also recognized the tune and killed the piper.
The lament the piper played was based on a song. The song title translated from the Gaelic is called “Coll, my love.” Here are some of the words,
“Coll of my love,
avoid the strait, avoid the strait, avoid the strait.
Coll of my love,
go by the Mull, gain the landing place.”
Of course, every good story has more than one version.
Another, well known version starts with MacColla MacDonald already in possession of Duntroon Castle. While MacColla was away, the castle was captured by the Campbells who killed everyone except the piper. The Campbells then set a trap for the returning MacDonalds.
The piper would traditionally play as Alasdair would return across the loch. This time, as they were returning, they heard the piper playing. Rather than his normal tune of welcome he played "A Cholla, Mo Ruin." The MacDonalds, recognizing the tune, turned away to safety. The piper was punished by having his hands cut off, before being executed. His ghost is said to still roam the castle.
In time, the piobaireachd "A Cholla, Mo Ruin" has become more commonly known as "The Piper’s Warning to His Master."
These two stories show the power of the music. While the first story is probably more accurate, the second is definitely more romantic. Both show that understanding the story of music, while it might not save your life, can increase your enjoyment.