Battle of Harlaw (The)

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BATTLE OF HARLAW, THE. AKA - "Desperate Battle (The)." Scottish, Fiddle Pibroch (4/4 time). D Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). AABBCCDDEEFFGGHHIIJJKKLLMMNNOOPPQQRRSST (theme and variations). The Battle of Harlaw took place on July 24th, 1411, and pitted the Lowlands lairds against the followers of Donald of the Isles in the latter's claim as successor to the Earldom of Ross. The battle established the territorial limits of the Lords of the Isles and Highlanders still regard it as a victory, though the Lowland ballad also claims victory due to the death of Red Hector, one of the leading Highlanders.

Bagpipe music for the melody appears in a manuscript of 1624-25, and "Battle of Harlaw" is mentioned as a bagpipe piece in a c. 1650 poem ("Polemo-middinia") by Drummond of Hawthornden. Collinson (1975) is of the opinion that "the tune will hardly survive the test of píobaireachd requirements," but concedes when played at the proper adagio tempo there is a faint suggestion, in the melodic progressions and repetitions, of the sound of the píobaireachd. This tune, or one by the same name, metamorphed into several other dance and song airs--see Bayard's extensive note for "Over the River to Charlie (1)." Gratten Flood thought the piece did not bear the marks of a 15th century work but did think it bore all the characteristics of a 17th century tune [Ed.-which should be taken with a grain of salt, as Grattan Flood is notoriously unreliable]. Johnson (1984) dates the fiddle version of the tune which he prints to 1720 on stylistic grounds, however, he believes the original melody was probably written as a harp piece "immediately after the battle it commemorates, which took place in Aberdeenshire in 1411" (Johnson, p. 123). However the battle may have been originally referred to in Gaelic as "An Cath Gairbheach" or 'The Battle of the Rough Lands', although Gairbheach has since been anglicized to Gairioch.

From the harp repertoire it may have been transferred to the pipes, continues Johnson, as the entire piece is in the range of the bagpipes and is in modern pipe repertory (with small alterations) as "The Desperate Battle" (see Angus MacKay's pipe collection, for example). The title as a song appears in The Complaynt of Scotland (1548), and lyrics set to the tune appear in Allan Ramsay's Ever Green (1724). Stenhouse printed a tune he called "The Battle of Harlaw" as air his Illustrations (Edinburgh, 1853), obtained from "a folio manuscript of Scots tunes of considerable antiquity" (although his melody differed considerably from the "Harlaw" tune printed by Dow, below). One version of the ballad, as sung by the late Lucy Stewart of Fetterangus, was recorded by Scotland's Battlefield Band on their album "At the Front" (Topic 12TS381, 1978).

Apart from manuscript collections, the first published appearance of the tune is in Daniel Dow's Ancient Scots Music (c. 1775), which is certainly the earliest date for a setting of the melody for the fiddle. The tune later appeared in Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, although that publisher altered the second strain from the one printed by Dow. Johnson (1984) states it should be played on as many open strings on the fiddle as possible to maximize the resonance.

Source for notated version: Ancient Scots Music by Dow [Johnson].

Printed sources: Johnson (Scottish Fiddle Music in the 18th Century), 1984; No. 57, pp. 135-137. Purser (Scotland's Music), 1992; Ex. 8, p. 76.

Recorded sources:




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