Glen Strae, the home territory of Griogair Ruadh Mac Griogair. Photo by Richard Webb, Wikimedia Commons
“Griogal Cridhe,” as the lament for Griogair Ruadh Mac Griogair of Glen Strae is widely known, is one of the most popular songs in Scottish Gaelic tradition, and one of the oldest.
Few who hear it or sing it, perhaps, know just how old. The origins of the song, known by several names, stretch back 445 years, to 1570, shortly after the reign of Mary Queen of Scots came to an end, and when Griogair Ruadh was executed by the Campbells of Glenorchy.
That makes this a very old song indeed. It is also notable in that it is a song composed by a woman, the widow of Mac Griogair, and in some versions sung as a lullaby, much like the song we examined in October, Dèan Cadalan Sàmhach. Lullabies were one genre, though not the only one, that Gaelic women were able to exploit to express their emotions and opinions.
In Gaelic society, whether in Scotland or Ireland, composing high-register bardic poetry was a male profession, but Gaelic Scotland has a particularly strong strand of women poets. They may not have been “official” court poets, but they often served as a voice for their communities long after the nobility ceased to honor or support the Gaelic poets who praised them. And the songs of Sìleas na Ceapaich, Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh and Maìri Mhòr are still sung today.
The woman who composed this month’s featured song, Mór Chaimbeul or Marion Campbell, also known as Mór nighean Dhonnchaidh, the daughter of Duncan Campbell of Glenlyon, lived when the bardic profession and Gaelic language and tradition was still strong throughout Highland Scotland, and indeed beyond the “Highland line.” In 1570, Mary Queen of Scots was only recently exiled, and the Linn nan Creach, the long period of raids and in-fighting that followed the suppression of the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles in 1493, was still unfolding, with the Caimbeulaich, the Campbells of Argyll, emerging as the dominant overlords.
Mór Chaimbeul is believed to have composed the song after Griogair Ruadh, her husband, was executed by Cailean Liath, the Campbell of Glenorchy, her cousin. The fact that Griogair Ruadh married a Campbell shows how complicated and intertwined the relationship between these families was, despite later attempts to depict their conflict in black-and-white terms.
The historical origins of the song have been investigated and documented by Dr. Martin MacGregor, senior lecturer in Scottish History at the University of Glasgow, in “The Polar Twins,” an anthology (edited by E.J. Cowan and D. Gifford) on the relationship between literature and history published in 1999 (see “Surely one of the greatest poems ever made in Britain”: the lament for Griogair Ruadh MacGregor of Glen Strae and its historical background”.).
The history of Griogal Cridhe as a song has been traced by Dr. Virginia Blankenhorn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh, in her paper “Griogal Cridhe: Aspects of Transmission in the Lament for Griogair Ruadh Mac Griogair of Glen Strae.”
“Griogal Cridhe” — a title the song acquired in the 1890s — may have been composed in 1570 or shortly after, but the song did not appear in print until 1813, when the earliest known printed version was published in Patrick Turner’s “Comhchruinneacha do dh’Orain Taghta, Ghaidhealach.” Turner as “Moch maduinn air la Lunasd’” with the refrain:
Ochain, ochain, ochain uiridh,
‘S goirt mo chridhe laoigh,
Ochain, ochain, ochain uiridh,
Cha chluinn t-athair ar caoidh.
Turner’s text has often been treated as an authoritative source, but Blankenhorn reminds us his printed version may have been a compilation of several versions of the song current in oral tradition in the early 19th century. His collection was published 243 years after the events the song describes. What’s remarkable, she suggests, is that oral tradition “appears to have preserved the essence of the poem with remarkable fidelity despite the passage of nearly two-and-a-half centuries between its composition and its earliest appearance in written record.”
Blankenhorn traces two main variants of the song, one a lament and the other a lullaby. One variant appears common to Skye, Harris and Lewis, and the other to Barra, Eriskay and Uist. Blankenhorn also found a third, smaller group of variants that can’t be assigned to either region, but share some features of both and may have been drawn directly from printed texts.
Here are two examples of the song. First, folklorist Margaret Bennett of Skye singing a version of the lament collected by Skye folklorist Frances Tolmie:
Second, Gaelic singer Catherine-Ann MacPhee of Barra sings a version from her island:
Musically, the song has many variants as well. Blankenhorn mentions nine musical settings. The air collected by folklorist Frances Tolmie, first published in 1895, has been the most popular. Unlike many Victorians, Tolmie had enough “regard for the traditional melody to leave it alone,” Blankenhorn said.
She divides the airs into a “northern” and “southern” group, referring to those associated with Skye, Lewis and Harris and Uist and Barra. Despite the variations in melody and lyric, “the clearest impression overall must remain one not of difference, but of similarity,” Blankenhorn writes in her paper. “None of the versions we have encountered here truly stands at odds with the others.”
In her paper, Blankenhorn also provides multiple sets of lyrics and references to various singers whose versions of the song are available on Tobar an Dualchais, including Seasaidh NicCoinnich (1918-1992), Nan MacKinnon (1903-1982), and Kitty MacLeod (1914-2000), among others.
Why has “Griogal Cridhe” remained so popular? After five centuries, it still packs an emotional punch, even for those who aren’t familiar with the details of its history. Grief is a universal emotion, and the tremendous outpouring of grief and anger experienced by Mór Chaimbeul echoes clearly to this day.
— Liam Ó Caiside