Port Atholl

Port Atholl is the name of two different tunes.

The first tune, which is always titled ‘Port Atholl’, is always set in G, with f sharp, and it is found in Scottish sources with a Perthshire or East coast connection. Nowadays it is often listed as one of the compositions of Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin (late 16th c - c.1650), but as far as I can see the only evidence for this is the listing in Bowie, which may or may not be entirely reliable.

Port Atholl is also a name sometimes given to the tune used by Carolan for his song Seabhac na hÉirne at the end of the 17th or early 18th century. It has a minor sonority; the different sources set it in different keys. Though this second tune most often appears in a Carolan context, it is sometimes said to have been ‘borrowed’ by Carolan from Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin. This second tune will be dealt with seperately, on its own page.

At first glance the two tunes appear to be quite different, though I wonder if they both descend from one early 17th century original. Or perhaps Rory Dall composed two different tunes for the Dukes of Atholl. Or alternatively, the attribution of the second tune may be quite false, and it may be a Carolan original that is wrongly said to have originated as Rory Dall’s “Port Atholl”.

The earliest appearance of the first ‘Port Atholl’ tune is in the Balcarres lute manuscript, written in Fife, Scotland, around 1700. It has three different settings of our tune, each one said to be sourced from a different contemporary musician.

f78r / p.219 / no.248 Port Atholl, with the 1st string, tuned up half a note, mr lesslies way, right marked
My transcription from the Balcarres tablature
Mr Leslie’s version is the most old-fashioned and looks to me very much like 17th century harp idiom; these harmonies and bass notes are very plausible on early Gaelic harp, as shown in this video:

f52r / p.103 / no.161 Port Atholl, mr Mclaughlands way, by mr Beck
My transcription from the Balcarres tablature
Mr McLaughlan’s version is in the then very new Scottish baroque fiddle style, and has a non-Gaelic harmonic bass added.

f5v / p.10 / no.13 Port Atholl, John morrison’s way, by mr Beck
My transcription from the Balcarres tablature
John Morrison’s version is also in Scottish baroque fiddle style, with more florid movement around the basic melody shape. Mr. Beck appears to have intabulated the fiddle version of the tune for lute, and added the very un-Gaelic-harp-like baroque harmonies.

There is a version in Daniel Dow, Collection of Ancient Scots Music, c.1776
The tune here is similar to John Morison’s, but the bass is Dow’s own composition for harpsichord or ’cello.

There is also a verson in John Bowie, Collection of Strathspey Reels and Country Dances, 1789.
This version is especially interesting as the melody line is said to have come from the playing of John Robertson, who performed it on the Queen Mary harp in the early 18th century. The bass is Bowie’s own arrangement.

Bowie tells us that all of John Robertson’s repertory was composed by ‘Rory Dall’, but one of the pieces is demonstrably later than Rory Dall’s time, and this seems a rather undiscriminating blanket statement, so I am not sure how literally we should take this attribution.