Road to the Isles
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ROAD TO THE ISLES. AKA and see “Bens of Jura,” "Burning Sands of Egypt (The)." Scottish, Canadian, American; (Pipe) March (duple time): Ireland, Barndance. USA; Michigan, southwestern Pa. D Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). AB. The tune was composed originally in 1891 by 16-year-old John McLellan (1875–1949), D.C.M., a poet and painter from Dunoon, Scotland, who became Pipe-Major of the 8th Battalion, Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders during World War I. McLellan called his compositino "The Bens of Jura." When McLellan sailed with Highland Light Infantry to Malta in 1894, at the request of his fellow pipers, his tune was re-named "The 71st’s Farewell to Dover." In the new century, about 1902, the melody acquired another name: "The Highland Brigade’s March to Heilbron," and still later it was called "Burning Sands of Egypt (The)." Cape Breton piper Barry Shears insists it was composed in honor of McLellan's mother, nee Darroch, who was originally from Jura.
The title "Road to the Isles," certainly the most famous name for the melody, is actually the name of a poem set to McLellan's tune by Kenneth Macleod, "Written for the lads in in France during the Great War." It was first published in Songs of the Hebrides, vol. 2 (1917). The song begins:
A far croonin' is pullin' me away
As take I wi' my cromach to the road.
The far Cuillins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' the sunlight for my load.
Sure by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go
By heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles.
If it's thinkin' in your inner heart the braggart's in my step
You've never smelled the tangle o' the Isles.
Oh the far Cuillins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' my cromach to the Isles.
The song was recorded on 78 RPM in 1926 by music hall star Sir Harry Lauder . Paul Gifford reports that William McNally (1870–1954), a well-known dulcimer player from Glasgow, claimed to have popularized that tune (and also "Skye Boat Song") and that he recorded the tune for Regal-Zonophone about 1932, but Lauder's popular recording certainly predates McNally's. The illiterate son of Irish circus people, McNally had learned the dulcimer from his mother and entertained for many years on excursion boats out of Oban in the Hebrides. "Road to the Isles" is said to have been played by piper Bill Millin on the first day of the Normandy landings on D-Day, 1944. Accordion player Jim Coogan remembered learning the tune from Irish musicians in New York in the 1950’s as an accompaniment for a dance called the "Pally Glide," reminiscent of the popular Irish dance “Shoe the Donkey.”