Maol Donn or MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart is a piece of ceòl mór, said to have been composed by Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig1.
As well as the formal instrumental variation set, it is also a Gaelic song.
The earliest written source for this tune is Colin Cambell’s manuscript written in cannteraichd notation, from 17972. The tune is well-known amongst pipers, and settings of it appear in many of the main collections of pibroch from the 19th and 20th centuries3.
The English titles of many pibroch tunes are somewhat odd, being often either garbled mis-translations or 19th century confections - in this case I suspect that the celebrated name of MacCrimmon may have become attached to the tune as part of an expansion in the MacCrimmon myth-making.
There are two contrasting stories to explain this tune’s title. One says that the tune was composed by Ranald when he found a smooth seashell whilst walking on the beach4. The other, which has a song to back it up, says the tune is to a prize cow that was lost5.
There are a number of different versions of the song words and melody written down or recorded6.
John MacDonald (pipes), ‘MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart’, Columbia 4512 (WA-5038-2), 1927, online at cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14 (first section only).
Calum Johnson (pipes), ‘Maol Donn’, 1955, University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies tape SA1955.174.1, online at Tobar an Dualchais.
Donald MacPherson (pipes), ‘MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart’, A Living Legend, Siubhal 3, 2004, Track 1.
Kate MacDonald (song), ‘Maol Donn’, 1970, University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies tape SA1970.309, online at Tobar an Dualchais.
Rona Lightfoot (song), with Iain MacDonald (whistle & pipes), ‘Maol Donn’, Eadarainn, SKYECD28, 2007, Track 4, online at Education Scotland: Scotland’s Songs.
The video above shows Barnaby Brown demonstrating the cannteraichd vocables from the 1796 manuscript setting.
A harp setting of this tune is included on my new CD, Tarbh. The video below shows an extract from this tune played on the harp.
1. The earliest attribution to Ranald I have found is as late as 1954, by Charles MacDonald (‘Mar a rinn Raghnall mac Ailein Òig am port mór “Maol Donn”’, 1954, University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies tape SA1954.42.3, online at Tobar an Dualchais). In c.1900, John Johnston of Coll ( in C.S. Thomason, Ceol mor legends, NLS MS 3747-9) said that the tune was by “Clanranald’s piper”, and in 1826, Peter Reid wrote out a setting of the tune with the title “Maol Donn /Morar’s March”. (f21v, online at piobaireachd.co.uk). The main 19th century & early 20th century sources either give no attribution, or say it is by a MacCrimmon. ^
5. John Johnston of Coll, in C.S. Thomason, Ceol mor legends, NLS MS 3747-9, cited in Peter Cooke, ‘Problems of notating pibroch: a study of “Maol Donn”’, in Dickson, The Highland Bagpipe, Ashgate, 2009, p.19 ^
6. Peter Cooke, ‘Problems of notating pibroch: a study of “Maol Donn”’, in Dickson, The Highland Bagpipe, Ashgate, 2009, p.20-21. This paper (originally published 1972) prints words and notation of two different versions of the song, plus three versions of a very similar section interpolated into a longer, different song. ^