The Royal Scots Cap Badge


Desperate Battle Of The Birds - Part I


There are at least three stories about the tune called The Desperate Battle of the Birds. One story is linked to the MacLeod's of Assynt at a time that they occupied Ardvreck Castle (see Roderick MacLeod's rendition of this tale). Another goes well back in time and another to a later period.



One legend links this tune to an arranged battle at the North Insh of Perth, circa 1396, probably, but not certainly, between Clan Chattan and Clan MacKay in the reign of King Robert III. The King had commanded the two clans to settle their incessant feuding by each choosing 30 men who would fight to a finish.

Wooden galleries were built around the field of action for the King and his guests to observe the slaughter. The King halted the battle when only 11 badly wounded Clan Chattan and one Clan MacKay were still standing. The piobaireachd is said to reflect the birds sweeping down on the corpses to get their fill.



In true Gaelic style there is another heather myth that suggests that the music flows from an incident somewhat later in time, probably by 300 years and probably in Argyll. This story is largely based on a fragment of a Gaelic poem that was popular in the 1700's. The tale tells of a young wife who called on her husband to destroy his collection of birds, of which he was very proud. This she demanded constantly, nagging, nagging and nagging some more despite his many unending kindnesses to her.

He refused; he could not bring himself to destroy his precious flock of birds. Eventually the birds turned on the woman and attacked her, pecking her to death. The swooping and calling of the birds can be heard in the music. The composer of the piobaireachd, Angus MacKay, Gairloch, is thought to have to have been inspired by the poem, which would have been sung as was the custom of the time.



There is also a less well-known third source based on an article by the late Roderick MacLeod, originally from Sutherland but with close relatives on Lewis.

(The family moved to Vancouver where he became a founding member and first President of the B.C. Pipers' Association). His story is based on the folklore of Lewis as passed on by an aunt – the MacLeod Barons of Lewis long held Assynt where the story originated.


Ron Macleod Summarizes The Story Below.

A lady of Ardvrek Castle, Assynt, was given to partying and liked to keep the dancing going as long as possible. One evening she ordered that the beaks of the roosters be tied so they couldn't announce the breaking of day with their crowing, thereby bringing the dancing to an end. She sent a team of servants – her piper, maids, shepherd, smith – to the henhouse to carry out her order.


The group tried first to seduce the birds with soft words. That didn't work and the birds became extremely agitated. There followed a terrific battle in the henhouse before the servants could capture all the roosters and tie their beaks. The servants came back to the castle carrying scars from the battle, the piper having fared the worst. The dancing that night went on and on and didn't stop until noon the next day.


The tune “Desperate Battle Of The Birds”, sprang from this event is said to reflect attempts to woo the birds with soft words, followed by an explosion of concern that raised a storm of dust, noise and flying feathers from cackling hens, screeching roosters and screaming servants. All of which is reflected in the music.


Desperate Battle Of The Birds is just another heather myth in the jungle of piobaireachd mythology. This last version of the origin of the tale places the event in the late 15th or early 16th century, a time when Assynt was still in the possession of the Lewis MacLeod's.


Desperate Battle Of The Birds - Part ii



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