Angus C. MacLeod – Puirt-A-Beul

January 17, 2012

According to the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 where the Jacobite Rising, consisting largely of Scotsmen from the Highlands, was brutally crushed by forces loyal the British government, a ban on musical instruments was placed on the people of the Highlands. According to Garland and other sources, this is the predominant reason for the existence of one of the most enduring folk traditions of Scotland: port-à-beul (or puirt-à-beul), also known as “mouth music.” When no instruments were available, bards from the Highlands would sing for dancing, often imitating the rhythms and music of the bagpipes, using humorous and sometimes bawdy lyrics in a dancable rhythm. However, according to several present-day scholars, this story is utterly apocryphal and nothing more than unsubstantiated legend. Port-à-beul could be much older than 1746, and why not? Humans haven’t always had instruments at their disposal, and what would have kept them from inventing their own music? And there are similar styles in other European regions – lilting in Ireland, for example, and in Norway with a fiddle imitation known as tralling. Regardless, this legend is a nice lead-in to discuss a recording of real mouth music.

Recordings of traditional music from England, Scotland, and Wales, are by far the exception than the norm. While the Gramophone Company of London was cavorting around the world recording all manner of peoples and cultures and exploiting new markets in the first half of the 20th century, the regional and folk music in their back yard went largely unnoticed. There are a number of important exceptions, of course. The Beltona label of Scotland recorded many folk bands and unaccompanied singers from the 1930s onward. People like Cecil Sharpe and Ralph Vaughn Williams helped to usher in a folk revival. Carrying the byline “Lon Dubh Na H-Albainn” or “The Blackbird of Scotland,” the Gaelfonn label was in operation in the late 1950s, and had an office at 102 Maxwell Street in Glasgow. The outfit was run by a well-known Gaelic singer, Murdo Ferguson (1923-2005), who recorded performers on tape in Glasgow and had the records pressed in London. He also pressed Gaelfonn recordings on 45s and LPs as well (which might certainly be worth searching for, as clean Gaelfonn 78s are uncommonly noisy in my experience – an instance where limiting oneself to the 78 medium might solely be fetishistic).

Angus MacLeod was born on the island of Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides (2001 population: 322) and died in 1970. Murdo Ferguson recorded several records by MacLeod ca. March of 1957. This piece is a medley of four different examples of mouth music. My Gaelic being virtually nonexistent, I cannot determine their order….yet I believe I hear the first piece, “Tha Fionnlagh Ag Innearadh” or “Finlay is Spreading Manure,” a little later in the recording than stated. Perhaps a Gaelic expert can chime in…in the meantime, enjoy.

Angus C. MacLeod – Puirt-A-Beul

Technical Notes
Label: Gaelfonn
Issue Number: GLA.1005
Matrix Number: 572 0-6703

Thanks to Bill Dean-Myatt, Cormac O’Donoghue, and Ray Templeton.

For another track by MacLeod, take a look at the new 2-CD collection by Fremeaux, 60 Years of Scottish Gaelic, put together by Scottish discographer Bill Dean-Myatt and Nigel Barrett (and from which I gathered some biographical information).

6 Responses to “Angus C. MacLeod – Puirt-A-Beul”

  1. HAJI MAJI said

    Nice one!
    Mouth music/lilting is also a common method of teaching fiddle tunes in many cultures. It’s also used to commit tunes to memory.

  2. Helen Lyons said

    Loved it! I pulled out the contemporary “mouth Music” cd and listened to it as well.

    Thanks!

  3. Tony Klein said

    Beautiful one! I particularly enjoy his rhythmic sureness and seamless metre changes.

  4. gracenotes said

    I can’t have been paying attention in January, as I missed this one – one of the few on which I might have something useful to contribute. I think it’s true that the highland bagpipes were banned for some years after Culloden as, among other things, they had (and still have) a martial function, so were probably associated with the possibility of rallying anti-Government forces. But you have to bear in mind that there are few episodes of Scottish history over which there is more romantic nonsense talked than the Jacobite rebellion. I doubt very much if other instruments were banned. Even if they were, it seems unlikely that they’d have been suppressed very successfully – imagine a scattered army trying to stop people who live in a remote mountainous and moorland region from playing the fiddle. But it’s probably true that puirt-a-beul has origins in providing music where no instruments were available, as diddling was in northeastern Scotland and lilting was in Ireland, as you suggest. Haji Maji’s also right about mouth music being used to memorise and teach tunes. The bagpipe has its very own variety of such music, called Canntaireachd (Wikipedia has a neat little outline of it, for anybody interested), which is very strictly syllabic, and while it sounds more meaningful than diddling, has in fact (so far as I know) no linguistic significance, unlike puirt-a-beul, which uses real lyrics. Canntaireachd was first written down in the late 18th century (i.e. later than Culloden), but its origins are understood to be very much older. Anyway, it seems unlikely that there’s any connection between the banning of the pipes and puirt-a-beul.

    I have very little Gaelic, but I think that the order of tunes is 1. Co Dhiugh Bhithinn Togarach; 2. Tha Na Teudan Fada Caol; 3. Tha Fionnlagh Ag Innearadh; 4. Bodachan A’Phinnd Liuna. All four of these certainly could have been fiddle tunes first – Nos. 1, 3 and 4 are reels and 2 is a strathspey.

  5. JW said

    Thanks, gracenotes! As always, your thoughts and helpful information are most appreciated (and illuminating)!

  6. Calum said

    No, the ban on pipes is a complete fiction from top to bottom. They are not mentioned in the Disarming Act or contemporary accounts. The high age of piobaireachd composition continued unchecked, and Joseph MacDonald wrote his treatise on the instrument in 1760 with not a mention of any ban. As far as anyone can tell, it arises from the nonsense inserted as the introduction to Donald MacDonald’s collection of piobaireachd published in the early 1820s.

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