An Tarbh Breac Dearg

An tarbh breac dearg, an tarbh a mharbh mi,
An tarbh breac dearg, an tarbh a mharbh mi,
An tarbh breac dearg, an tarbh a mharbh mi,
Tarbh buidhe, buidhe, buidhe,
Tarbh buidhe, buidhe, a mharbh mi.
The speckled red bull, the bull that killed me,
Yellow bull, that killed me

From J.L Campbell, Songs Remembered in Exile, Aberdeen 1990, p.92

I have recently been working on this pibroch or ceòl mór, which I first heard on Allan MacDonald’s CD, Dastirum. I had been on the look out for it anyway, since I have a gradual project to learn up versions of the various tunes associated with the Morar harper, piper and fiddler, Raghnall MacAilein Òig (1662 – 1741), whose name is unfortunately Anglicised as Ronald MacDonald.

I have been playing A Ghlas Mheur in concerts for a wee while now and am very pleased with how it is turning out. I have only just started learning An Tarbh Breac Dearg, and it is changing every time I play it – already I am thinking of different sonorities for the ‘away’ sections, and wondering how best to return to the ground between variations.

I am very struck by how both A Ghlas Mheur and An Tarbh Breac Dearg are so obsessively focussed on three note binary sequences. They remind me very much of the medieval Welsh harp music notated in the Robert ap Huw manuscript, and I wonder how much that is because of Raghnall being trained in the old clarsach traditions as well as being a piper and fiddler. Certainly these compositions seem of a different taste to other bagpipe pibroch I am familiar with.

The other thing I am not yet clear about is the actual subject matter. Early piping sources call this tune An t-Arm Breac Dearg, the red tartan army. The song refers to the bull, and the association with Raghnall gives us bull stories to link it with, but I do wonder if they are both later accretion onto an originally martial composition.

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