The tune was originally a very popular 17th century bagpipe piece, probably by an unknown composer, known among pipers as “Righ na m Porst,” or ‘king of airs’ (according to James Logan, 1831). Logan says the “It is stated by MacDonald that this reel was composed at Tulloch, in Aberdeenshire, a tradition that I have often heard repeated, detailing the particular circumstances connected with its production.” However, in MacGregor's collection of poems it is confidently stated that the tune was composed by John Dubh Gear, a MacGregor of Glen Lyon [Logan, p. 260]. J. Scott Skinner as well, in Harp and Claymore (1904), remarks: “There is a tradition that this wild effusion was composed and danced by John Macgregor, Castle Grant, about 1640.” MacDonald once remarked that this reel was composed at Tulloch in Aberdeenshire, and this assertion has survived in tradition. Legend has it, remarks Nigel Gatherer, that the reel was improvised on the spot by a MacGregor who had just emerged victorious from a fight with a Robertson for the hand of the Laird o’ Tulloch’s daughter. O’Neill (1922) declined to print stories of the tunes origins as “too unreliable,” and remarks that they include “A wild orgy of dancing under improbable circumstances in one case, and a desperate encounter with swords in another, are given as the inspiration of what has been termed ‘the maddest of all Highland reels’". Another story has it that both dance and tune were composed at an impromptu dance around the year 1690 outside the Kirk of Tullich (near Ballater, Aberdeenshire), that occurred when the minister failed to arrive for a scheduled service. The parishioners clapped their arms and stamped their feet to ward off the bitter cold and snow, encouraged by circulating flasks of whisky. These movements escalated into arm swings with one another accompanied by reel steps to further keep warm. "Another version of the story adds that when the minister finally arrived, heavily delayed by the weather, he soundly rebuked his dancing parishioners for their act of sacrilege. Not a single one who took part, it is said, is to have survived the year!".
As we enter Strathspey by the Abernethy forest, we pass through the district of Tulloch, the scene and birthplace of the famous reel of Tulloch. Here, some two hundred years ago, lived the laird of Tulloch, with his lovely daughter Isobel. To her came many suitors from many lands, for she had beauty and her father had wealth. Among them was a MacGregor, whom the maiden secretly loved, and a Robertson, whom her friends favoured, but whom she disliked. As time went on, the rivalry between these suitors became fierce, until the Robertson resolved on the destruction of the MacGregor. Getting together a small party of his own clan, he surprised the MacGregor as he wandered down Speyside with the lovely Isobel. But the MacGregor was more than a match for the Robertsons, whom he kept at bay until he reached the friendly shelter of a barn. Dashing in there, he kept them all at a distance until Isobel had barricaded the door, and then he picked them off with his musket, which Isobel loaded for him as fast as he could discharge it. And so he destroyed the whole band, which included the treacherous brother of the persecuted damsel.
X:1 T:Real of Tullack [sic] M:C| L:1/8 R:Reel S:William Vickers' 1770 music manuscript (Northumberland, p. 6) K:D f|e2 AB/c/ ecAf|e2 AB/c/ dBGf|e2 AB/c/ eAcA|BE E/E/E dB G:| |:B|cA cd/e/ cAAB|cA cd/e/ BGGB|cA cd/e/ cAcA|BE E/E/E dBG:|]
Although we are not trained musicologists and make no pretense to the profession, we have tried to apply such professional rigors to this Semantic Abc Web as we have internalized through our own formal and informal education.
- Mats Melin, A Story to Every Dance: The role of lore in enhancing the Scottish solo dance tradition, 2018, p. 82
- The story comes from a paper written by Benjamin Taylor, published in Atlanta and reproduced in the Aberdeen Free Press in the late 19th century.
- Melin, ibid.