Rory Dall

Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin, the Irish Rory Dall, is almost completely a mystery. Keith Sanger has suggested that he never existed at all, because he seems to have left no trace in contemporary records1. All we have about him is stories from oral tradition.

Early 20th century oral tradition tells us that Ruaidhrí Dall was born in 1546. He is said to have gone to Scotland in 1601, and died in 16532. A different and slightly earlier tradition says that he was the son of an Giolla Dubh (Gilladuff) Ó Catháin of Dunseverick in County Antrim. He is said to have escaped to Scotland after his father and brother were hanged for their involvement in the 1641 rising3.

18th century tradition tells us about Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin in Scotland. He is said to have travelled as a gentleman, with a retinue, visiting other noble families and composing tunes for them, and even met King James4. He is said to have died in Scotland, at the house of MacDonald of Sleat, on the isle of Skye, where he is supposed to have left his agate-mounted tuning key5. Next...

Ruaidhri Dall Mac Mhuirich, the Scottish Rory Dall1, was born c.1656 in Bragar, Lewis. He was the son of a wealthy farmer and poet. He was sent to school in Inverness to train to be a church minister but he caught smallpox there and became blind and scarred. Unable to finish his education he studied music instead, and was sent to Ireland to study the Gaelic harp traditions.

When he finished his training he became an itinerant musician, part of a travelling band of low-status entertainers, which he did not much enjoy. In 1681 he was in Edinburgh, where he met Iain Breac MacLeod, chief of the MacLeods of Dunvegan. Rory was soon securely engaged as harper at Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, living at Claggan three miles from the castle. It seems that Rory may have unusually held both posts of harper and poet.

However at some point, and for reasons unknown, he was sent away by Iain Breac to live in Glenelg, a kind of exile from the household. When Iain died, his son Roderick spent very little time at Dunvegan. Rory Dall in Glenelg instead spent time with John MacLeod of Talisker. Later, Rory Dall went and lived with his father-in-law in Lochaber. From there he made occasional visits to the houses of chieftains in the Highlands and Islands. At the end of his life he returned to Dunvegan where he died in 1713-4 and was buried there. Next...


1. Keith Sanger, The Conundrum of the wire strung harp revival, online, 2018 ^

2. Undated typewritten sheet, Sam Henry collection, Coleraine Museum. Online at NI Archives ^

3. William Adams, Dalriada or North Antrim, Coleraine 1906, cited in Colm Ó Baoill, Two Irish harpers in Scotland, in Porter, Defining Strains, Peter Lang 2007, p.229 ^

4. Arthur O’Neil, Memoirs [1803]. Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections MS4/14 transcribed by Michael Billinge, 2016. Older and less reliable printed editions of The memoirs are in Milligan Fox (1911), and O’Sullivan (1958), vol.2. ^

5. Letter from Lord MacDonald to James Boswell, 26th November 1785, reporting the opinion of harper and tradition-bearer Echlin O’Kane. Cited in Colm Ó Baoill, ‘Some Irish Harpers in Scotland’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness 47, 1970-72, p.160 ^

6. This summary of the life of Ruaidhri Dall Mac Mhuirich is based on William Matheson, The Blind Harper - the songs of Roderick Morison and his music, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, 1970 ^