Garb of Old Gaul (The)

From The Traditional Tune Archive
Jump to: navigation, search

Back to Garb of Old Gaul (The)


GARB OF OLD GAUL, THE. AKA - "In the Garb of Old Gaul." Scottish, English; March (4/4 time). C Major (Kerr): B Flat Majot (Köhlers’). Standard tuning (fiddle). AABB. A British military march of the Revolutionary War period (Winstock, 1970), and the most famous composition of John Reid, who died in 1806. Reid, ultimately to become a general, began his career as a commissioned ensign in Loudon's Highlanders at the age of fourteen. As an officer he fought the Jacobites and later served in France. He turned up in North America with the Black Watch in 1755, where he took part in the capture of Montreal. Reid also was an accomplished and sensitive player on the German flute and a composer of some pieces of merit. He composed a set of minuets and marches, published between 1770 and 1780, of which "Garb of Old Gaul" is one. Reid said the original words were written in Gaelic by a soldier of the Black Watch, although the ones usually associated with the tune were written (first published in 1765) by General Sir Harry Erskine of Alva in Sterlingshire (who served with the Royal and 25th Regiments, the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers). By 1769 the Black Watch was playing the air as their slow march, and it was sometimes called "Highland March (The)" or "42nd Regiment's March (The)" (David Murray, 1994). Upon his death in 1806 the University of Edinburgh was the recipient of his considerable fortune to establish a Chair of Music, with a concert to be held on his birthday at which some of his compositions would be played, in order that the audience would become acquainted with the type of music in vogue during his lifetime. The Reid Memorial concert is still held each January 13th, with "Garb of Old Gaul" among the pieces played (David Murray, Music of the Scottish Regiments, Edinburgh, 1994).

General John Reid (1721-1807)



The melody still serves as the slow march of all Scottish battalions in the British army. "Cases have been known," writes David Murray (p. 176), "where some soldiers have believed that 'Old Gaul' was some ancient regimental hero immortalised in music, but the mundane fact is that Gaul was a province of the Roman Empire corresponding to Eastern France and Western Germany. Its natives were reported to have worn a mantle or cloak belted round the body in the style of the 'Feile Mor', the belted (Highland) plaid of yore. Hence the kilt is the 'Garb of Old Gaul,' and hence too, the words of the opening verse":

In the garb of old Gaul with the fire of old Rome,
From the heath-covered mountains of Scotia we come;
When the Romans endeavoured our country to gain,
Our ancestors fought, and they fought not in vain.

Murray points out that Victorian arrangers altered Reid's two-part march by arranging it as a slow march, "with an introduction of stunning forget-ability, the whole rounded off with a trio of equal mediocrity." Unfortunately, it is this version that often is heard on a march-card.

The air is mentioned in the following anecdote regarding a piece called "The Combat of Saint-Cast", from Lewis Spence's (1874-1955) volume Legends and Romances of Brittany (N.D.):

This ballad somewhat belies its name, for it has some relation to an extraordinary incident which was the means rather of preventing than precipitating a battle. In 1758 a British army was landed upon the shores of Brittany with the object of securing for British merchant ships safety in the navigation of the Channel and of creating a diversion in favour of the German forces, then our allies. A company of men from Lower Brittany, from the towns of Tréguier and Saint-Pol-de-Léon, says Villemarqué, were marching against a detachment of Scottish Highlanders. When at a distance of about a mile the Bretons could hear their enemies singing a national song. At once they halted stupefied, for the air was one well known to them, which they were accustomed to hear almost every day of their lives. Electrified by the music, which spoke to their hearts, they arose in their enthusiasm and themselves sang the patriotic refrain. It was the Highlanders' turn to be silent. All this time the two companies were nearing one another, and when at a suitable distance their respective officers commanded them to fire; but the orders were given, says the tradition, "in the same language," and the soldiers on both sides stood stock-still. Their inaction, however, lasted but a moment, for emotion carried away all discipline, the arms fell from their hands, and the descendants of the ancient Celts renewed on the field of battle those ties of brotherhood which had once united their fathers.

However unlikely this incident may seem, it appears to be confirmed by tradition, if not by history. The air which the rival Celts sang is, says Villemarqué,[49] common to both Brittany and "the Highlands of Scotland." With the music before me, it seems to bear a marked resemblance to "The Garb of Old Gaul," composed by General Reid (1721-1807). Perhaps Reid, who was a Highlander, based his stirring march on an older Celtic theme common to both lands.

[49] _Barzaz-Breiz_, p. 335. Sébillot ("Traditions de la Haute-Bretagne", t. i, p. 346) says that he could gain nothing regarding this incident at the village of Saint-Cast but "vague details."

The story is apocryphal at best, and considered a "Victorian confabulation," 'sentimental poppycock' or 'fanciful pan-celticism' by others, who point out that Beton and Scots Gaelic are not linguistically related (although Breton and Welsh are perhaps intelligible to one another), and that common troops of the 18th century appeared to have little difficulty firing upon those much more closely related, when so ordered.

Source for notated version:

Printed sources: Kerr (Merry Melodies), vol. 3; No. 413, p. 46. Köhlers’ Violin Repository, Book 1, 1881-1885; p. 4.

Recorded sources:




Back to Garb of Old Gaul (The)