The Desperate Battle Of The Birds - II
This version of The Desperate Battle Of The Birds was documented by Ron MacLeod in 1959.
I listened to Jock Low of Victoria play the above tune, and play it well, at the Vancouver Caledonian Games, in July last.
When listening I thought of a story told me by an old aunt of mine who had a wealth of tales concerning the customs and manners of the people of Assynt. The story told me, many years ago, was in connection with Ardvreck Castle, which at one time was the stronghold of the MacLeod's of Assynt, and where an incident happened which one could speak of as a Desperate Battle Of The Birds.
The remains of this castle stand today in the Parish of Ayssnt in the county of Sutherland, sheltered by friendly hills, and with the water of Loch Assynt lapping at its feet.
Changes have taken place since Ardvreck Castle was last occupied and although at times the occupants seemed to be fighting for their very existence, at other times they feasted like Barons.
In those early days Assynt was well populated with inhabitants who had flocks and herds, and the MacLeod's were often able to give a good demonstration of Highland hospitality.
At the time of the tale told me, the old lady of the castle was living the life of the nobility, and was much given to wining, dining, and dancing, and would keep the dancing going as long as possible. In those days of candles, cruisies, lanterns and no alarm–clocks, people snug in their beds depended on the crowing of the cock to tell them when it was daybreak. On this occasion the mistress of Ardvreck Castle ordered the piper, shepherd, smith, and one of the maids to fasten the beaks of all the roosters, so that the dancers would not be able to tell the time.
They went in the evening to the house where flocks of fowl were perched high up on spars and, as my aunt said : there was a terrific battle, with cocks and hens before they succeeded in getting the bills of all the males, securely fastened.
It served the purpose however, as the dancing went, on till noon next day, but the piper, like those of his kind – always foremost in the fray – got the worst of it.
What came to my mind, when listening to the tune, and thinking of the above, was that if Angus MacKay, when collecting Piobaireachd Manuscript in the Highlands, had heard this tale, he may have taken the above parts and combining them together, unfolded to us his thoughts and ideas, the same as the sounds and movements are imitated in the tune.
The center of his thoughts would be on old Ardvreck Castle and he is heard addressing the crumbling, walls with words like these, which are translated into melody in the Urlar:
The Leod flag on tower flew, To tell of watch and ward,
Walled secure, Stronghold sure, Sprees you've seen galore,
When rafters sung, A magic hymn, The music of Ceol Mor,
Blythe they'd spring, The Highland Fling, Ballroom dancers gay.
Oak walls rung, As Gaelic tongue gave Hoochs In the Strathspey.
Angus himself may have been relying on cock-crowing to give him the time, and was probably lying awake in the darkness and stillness, straining his ears to catch the roosters shrill cry at daybreak. This part of tile story he heard, would come to his mind, and he adds it to the time, still speaking as It were to the ruins of the old castle, in the next variation:
Of lofty fame,
Quaffed her toast in wine,
Trust they put,
To herald dawn o' day,
But madam stilled,
The carol shrill,
So dancers whirl'd away, Then pipers slept, harps were dumb, Goblets all were dry, With Chanticleer, Bereft of voice, The sun was risen high.
The composer now can see, in fancy, log fires being lit in banquet hall and ballroom; peat fires in the parlour; candlesticks and crulsies brought out in readiness for the guests; and the piper, shepherd, sinith, and mald set off for the hen-house, where startled fowl gaze wildly at the intruders, and the stage is set for the battle of the birds.
Then the composer imitates the friendly efforts made by the mald, as she tries at
the start to woo unfriendly birds, and she speaks to them in language fowls should
understand, in Variation 3 :
But the reply comes back from screeching roosters in the battling language we hear,
as we listen to Variation 4:
At last ‘With the task completed they all leave the din of affrighted birds,
tired and weary, with one among them deserving of praise, for it tells in the next
part how he suffered, as they make to the Castle, moving along to the sympathizing
rhythm of the slow time in Variation 5.
His clothes held more than mud,
His head was clawed, his face was scratched,
His precious hands dripped blood,
He blessed the birds in Canntaireachd,
Those Brebach Beats that go,
Rejoicing that the battle is over, and happy because madain is pleased with tile work achieved, the piper, now witli the pipes on his shoulder, defiantly sends a "MacLeod" tune echoing through the halls as he leads the Grand March into the ballroom, in the Taorluath and in the next Variation there is dancing of Flings and Reels, during the, long weary hours of the night. Tapestry covered windows let in no light, and muzzled roosters are unable to tell the daybreak, so though hearts are light, man canna tether time or tide, and pipers and harpists sleep, and stir not, till the sun shines on the hills of Assynt. And so It ended with no one left to repeat the Urlar.
Desperate Battle Of The Birds - Part i
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