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Lament For The Children - Cumha Na Chloinne

The Lament for the Children was composed by Padruig Mor MacCrimmon. The beauty of the music is beyond the power of words to describe. Hearing this cèol mor played by a master piper is to enjoy what the Raasay poet Sorley MacLean called one of the greatest glories of Scottish art. Writing in 1910, the Reverend Neil Ross commented, It may be said that the full maturity of Cèol Mor is evinced in the beauty and conception of this beautiful tune.


When was it composed? There is no certainty but it may have been in the early 1650's. An event that inspired the tune was said by Angus MacKay, Raasay, to have been Padruig's loss of seven of eight sons in the course of a year to an unknown scourge. Some think it was a disease brought to Skye by a trading vessel. Whatever, the details of this tragedy are unknown and probably unknowable. It is clear from the glorious music, however, that the inspiration was strongly driven by an emotional outburst far, far beyond the commonplace.


Lately, another perspective on the inspiration for this glorious music has been presented by Bridget MacKenzie in her book, Piping Traditions of Argyll. Her story is based on some facts and some conjecture. Padruig fought on the uncrowned King Charles II's side against Cromwell's Roundheads at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 - the final battle of the Second English Civil War. He served under the leadership of Ruairidh of Talisker and Norman of Bernera, sons of Sir Ruairidh Mor MacLeod of Harris and Dunvegan and uncles of the reigning Chieftain. More than 800 of the MacLeod clan were slaughtered and over 2000 Scots taken prisoner at Worcester when the Royal Cavalry failed to deliver at a critical time in the battle and foot soldiers were abandoned to their fate.


Padruig was one of the prisoners on that dreadful day (The MacCrimmon Family by George C.B. Poulter and Charles P. Fisher, 1936). But, unlike other prisoners who were shipped as slaves to sugar plantations in the Caribbean and the Carolinas, Padruig was released. He returned to Dunvegan to continue as piper to MacLeod of MacLeod for another twenty years.


Padruig would have given his composition a Gaelic name, in this case, Cumha na Chloinne, a name that we know in English as the Lament for the Children. But who were the children? In Padruig's time the people of the clan were the children of the Chieftain. At Worcester, the MacLeod Chieftain had lost hundreds of his children, a loss most grievous in its enormity for a relatively small island clan.


It is here that we leave the facts and enter the world of conjecture. The emotion that Padruig MacCrimmon would have felt, having been one of the few survivors of this terrible tragedy at Worcester, is beyond knowing for certain. But, if his emotion was not powerful and sustained, he would not have been the inspired composer we know him to have been. In the service of his Chieftain, and, out of the agony of his personal experience, it is not unreasonable to conjecture as Bridget Mackenzie does, that the Lament for the Children could have been inspired by the MacLeod clan's tragedy at the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651.


Did the inspiration arise from a profound and unfathomable personal tragedy? Or, did it arise from a horrific clan tragedy in which the composer was a player? Neither of these propositions about the inspiration for this timeless classic are likely to be infallibly proven. Indeed, it is not beyond belief that both events may have inspired the greatest master of càol mor, Padruig Mor MacCrimmon.


In the end it does not matter all that much. This great music speaks a truth of its own. The music sings of tragedy in a language that is godlike in its spirituality and its sustained beauty of expression. The inspiration, the beauty, and the timelessness of the music are now as one.


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