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Rory Dall

The Gaelic harp tradition was intimately connected with Gaelic song, and it seems that the most common type of harp music was to accompanying singing. Again, there is a big difference between the two Rory Dalls in this area.

I have made a chart detailing all of the songs and tunes attributed to both Rory Dalls: Click here for a complete tune-list index (PDF) (updated October 2014)

Almost all of the music credited to Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin, the Irish Rory Dall, is instrumental tunes.

Perhaps he did compose songs, but none survived; perhaps he performed other peoples’s songs; perhaps he worked with a professional singer; perhaps he was an unusual innovator performing only instrumental music.

The 18th century Irish harpers did attribute one song to him; that is Bacach Buidhe na Léimne, the lame yellow beggar. However, the air is a common Gaelic song air, and the words are set in Ireland, especially the South, which is a big difference from the tunes he composed for Scottish patrons, and many people have doubted this attribution.

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Ruaidhri Dall Mac Mhuirich, the Scottish Rory Dall, composed seven songs which survive today. These are grand Gaelic ‘oran mòr’, big songs. They use traditional complex poetic meters and song airs. All of the song texts have been published with English translations and detailed commentary: William Matheson, The Blind Harper, SGTS 1970.

Rory Dall was a kind of singer-songwriter, composing new songs, singing them, and accompanying himself on the harp. We don’t know very much about how he would have accompanied his singing; perhaps simply by playing the same melody as the song text. He possibly also improvised or worked out long, complex variation-sets similar to those played by pipers, perhaps as instrumental interludes between verses.

Perhaps his most famous song is the humourous Féill nan Crann, about a harper who loses his harp key. We don’t know the original tune for this song, though in modern times a pibroch tune has been used for it.

Listen to the first two verses of Oran do MhacLeòid Dhùn Bheagain sung by William Matheson. From his double CD Gaelic Bards and Minstrels, Scottish Tradition 16, Greentrax CDTRAX 9016D, 1993. Used with permission. Click here to order.

Duration 1:00
You can also listen online to an archive recording from Tobar an Dualchais: Marietta MacLeod sings Oran do MhacLeòid Dhùn Bheagain, recorded at a People’s Festival ceilidh in 1952. This interesting song is addressed to Iain Breac McLeod’s son, Roderick, who was not interested in the old Gaelic arts and who did not live at Dunvegan supporting the household of traditional artists.

Another song of Rory Dall Morison that survived in the oral tradition into the 20th century is Oran do Iain Breac Mac Leòid, another poem addressed to Iain Breac MacLeod. This song is a mock lament, complaining that the patron is away down south for a while.
Listen online to an archive recording from Tobar an Dualchais: Margaret Ross sings Oran do Iain Breac Mac Leòid in a field recording from 1953
Listen online to an archive recording from Tobar an Dualchais: Calum Johnston sings Oran do Iain Breac Mac Leòid, to a different tune, in a field recording from 1953

William Matheson says that there is an archive recording in the School of Scottish Studies, of someone singing Rory Dall’s poem Creach na Ciadainn. The reference he gives is SSS SA 1963.19.A2, but I am not finding it online yet at Tobar an Dualchais.

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