Burns March

Burns March is the most important single tune from the old Gaelic harp traditions of Ireland and Scotland.

It has a number of different titles, and I have traced a number of more or less closely related variants from manuscripts and printed sources in Ireland and Scotland.

Two things contribute to the importance of this tune. I believe it is the only notated example of Gaelic harp ceòl mór; and it survives in Edward Bunting’s field notebooks tagged as one of the beginners tunes taught to the young harpers.

In an annotated copy of Bunting’s 1809 book1, is the description “It is said to have been composed for the Burnss who were Lords of the marshes or [papes] near Newry in the 13th Century”

The tune is in the form of an alternating short melody and sequence of figured variations. The variations generally maintain the same sequence of right hand (bass) notes, with different left hand (treble) ornaments, graces, or note-clusters applied to each of these main right hand notes.

Bunting also collected a little song which matches the harp tune2, in the same way that many bagpipe ceòl mór tunes have a “pibroch song” that goes with them. The song seems to provide a structural and phrasing guide to the instrumental melody, as well as giving a mood and back-story to the tune:

Here lies Lappin, harper’s king
His fingers deserve a golden string
His body lies here, his soul flies high
Serenading David in the sky

Í im bó, is Ú um bó

Here we spend our days
Giving Kate and Lappin praise
Now we quit and bid adieu
To royal Kate and Lappin too

Í im bó, is Ú um bó

Here are some examples of variant settings from 18th and 19th century sources:

“Burns March / very old / or Aimbo agus umbo in Irish / huggad a gadda freed smony / I steal a cow and eat a cow / take care of the rogue coming thro the marsh”
Field notation by Edward Bunting, from the playing of harper Denis O’Hampsey, c.1792. Bunting MS29 f14v-15r

“Pretty Peggy / Quins Burns March or 3rd tune / or Pretty peggy /this belongs to Burns March”
Field notation by Edward Bunting, from the playing of harper Patrick Quin, Armagh, c.1800. Bunting ms 33(1) f32r & f31r

“Byrns March / a very old tune / Irish”

O’Farrells Pocket Companion for the Irish or Union Pipes, vol. 1 (c. 1804)

“Imbó agas umbó / A Dirge”

Charles Villiers Stanford, The complete collection of Irish music, as noted by George Petrie... 1902

“Thug Bonny Peggy dhamhsa Pog — Bonny Peggie kiss’d me”

Daniel Dow, Collection of Ancient Scots Music, 1776

Patrick MacDonald, Collection of Highland Vocal Airs, 1784 (“North Highland Airs”)

Patrick MacDonald, Collection of Highland Vocal Airs, 1784 (“Argyleshire Airs”)


1. Handwritten annotation, thought to be by Edward Bunting, in his copy of his General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (1807), BL Add ms 41508, f25v (music p.6). Thanks to Karen Loomis for showing me this. ^

2. Bunting ms29 p.51 (f23r), online at Queens University Belfast. See also Simon Chadwick, Progressive Lessons for Early Gaelic Harp, St Andrews, 2009, p.36-7 & CD track 5. ^