A’ Ghlas Mheur or The Finger Lock is a very celebrated piece of ceòl mór, said to have been composed by Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig1. It appears in a number of bagpipe settings from the end of the 18th century onwards2.
The earliest written version, printed in 17843, is a fiddle setting, though it has been suggested that the publisher made the fiddle setting based on a pipe version.
Opening of the 1784 print showing the fiddle scordatura. The notes are to be fingered “as written’, but the fiddle is re-tuned a-e’-a’-e”, so some notes sound one note higher than written. e.g. the 2-note chords in bar 2 will sound a fifth, e’-b’.
I have seen two different sets of song words for this tune, both printed in 19th century periodicals4. The song words “Ol, ol, ol” (drink, drink, drink) were printed in 18745. There are 16 verses which seem to imitate different variations of the instrumental tune. The song words “Cumha an t-Sealgair” (the hunter’s lament) were printed in 18816, taken from the singing of Neil MacNeil in Barra in 1870. Again, there are said to be 16 verses (only 15 are printed) which seem to imitate the instrumental variations.
There are a number of traditions connected to this tune, some of them a bit garbled. It is often said to be unusually difficult to play on the pipes7. James Logan in 1831 writes that “there is a wild traditional account attached” to this tune8, though he does not tell us what the tale is. There is a story from Oban that relates how the tune was learned from the playing of a fairy teacher, by a piper who was nephew to an Irish harper9.
The confusion in the traditions may come from confusion about the title. There seems to be a persistent confusion in Gaelic musical terminology between the words glas (a door lock) and gleus (a musical key)10, and it has been argued11 that the title of this tune should properly be something like “A’ Ghleus Mheur”, meaning something like ‘the tuning of the fingers’.
William MacDonald (pipes), ‘The Fingerlock (An Glas Mheur)’, Ceòl na Pìoba - Pìob Mhòr, CDTRAX5009, 2000, track 5. More info.
Calum Johnson (cannteraichd), ‘A’ Ghlas Mheur’, 1964, University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies tape SA1964.145.A5, online at Tobar an Dualchais. This is the ‘cannteraichd’ vocables, used by pipers as a mnemonic to assist in the memorisation and performance of the instrumental tune on the pipes.
A clarsach setting of this tune is included on my new CD, Tarbh. Below is a demonstration of some of the verses from An Gaidheal sung to the 1784 melody.
1. The earliest attribution to Ranald I have seen is in Donald MacDonald, Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia c.1820 ^
5. D.C. MacPherson (Abrach), ‘Raonull Mac Ailein Oig’, in An Gaidheal, summer 1874, p.74-5. ^
6. Alexander Carmichael, ‘Cumha an t-Sealgair’, in The Highlander, August 1881, p.52-4. ^
7. Henry Whyte (Fionn), ‘The Martial Music of the Clans, XIII - The MacDonalds (Continued)’, in Celtic Monthly, 1903, p.68. Also, an article in the Scots Magazine, October 1784, p.553, describes this tune as “a much admired composition, but difficult of execution”. John Johnson of Coll said it was “used as a puzzle by the old pipers” according to C.S. Thomason, Ceol mor, 1900. J.G. Dalyell, in Musical Memoirs of Scotland, 1849, p.101, perhaps merely showed his ignorance of Gaelic and Highland culture when he said it was a tune that “...a lowlander may not venture to interpret” ^
8. James Logan, The Scotish Gaël, 1831, p.428 ^
9. Donald MacFarlane (Loch Sloy), ‘The Playing of Piobaireachd’, Oban Times, 1st November 1919, p.3, reprinted by William Donaldson, ‘The Finger Lock’, Piper & Drummer magazine, 2002-03, revised 2012. Online at pipesdrums.com. ^
10. For commentary on Edward Bunting’s early 19th century attempts to define these words, see Colm Ó Baoill, Irish Terms, 2002, online at earlygaelicharp.info: no. 42 ‘Glas’ & no.18, ‘Tead a’ leithghleas’. ^