On 30th May, in Islay’s Bowmore Hall, there will be two performances by 140 island musicians of a new Gaelic music piece composed by the renowned Gaelic traditional musician, Clare Jordan, inspired by Islay bard, William Livingstone’s poem on the Battle of Gruinart – the last inter-clan battle fought on Scottish soil.
Every musical group on the island will take part: the traditional instrumentalists from Feis Oigridh, the island brass band, all the primary school Gaelic choirs, the community youth Gaelic choir, the senior Gaelic choir, and the Islay Pipe Band.
The performance will be an innovative mulitimedia event featuring a dynamic digital art work commissioned from local artist and writer Raymond Lafferty.
Composer, Clare Jordan, says: ‘Last year Còisir Ghàidhlig Ìle commissioned me to compose a suite of three songs with words from William Livingstone’s poem, Blàr Thraigh Ghrunieard. I wasn’t aware of Livingstone’s poetry when I started on the project but I became fascinated by this forgotten masterpiece.
‘The Battle of Gruinart was the last clan war fought on Scottish soil and behind the bloody and brutal depictions of 16th century Scottish warfare is the tragic story of two families – the MacDonalds of Islay and the MacLeans of Mull, torn apart over ownership of Islay lands.
‘Sir Lachlan Mòr MacLean was killed in the Battle and he was Sir James MacDonald’s uncle.
‘There’s a further layer to the poem: the folklore and legends surrounding the battle and in particular the story of the evil Dubh Sìth (Black Fairy) who in spiteful rage killed MacLean with an arrow.
‘These are great stories, well-known on Islay, but we’re now going to be sharing them with a wider audience.’
Iseabail Mactaggart, Còisir Gàidhlig Ìle’s gifted conductor says: ‘This is a thrilling event to have produced. The three songs Clare composed for the choir are wonderful and by linking them together with new instrumental passages has produced a stunning new work.
‘Bringing 140 performers together has been a considerable challenge [this has to be an understatement] but it has connected people with different musical interests from all corners of Islay and united them in common cause.
‘This is a genuine community arts event. Islay has never before seen anything on this scale and of this ambition.
‘We are delighted to have Dr Raymond Lafferty on board – he is working with Islay young people taking the John Muir Award in Gaelic at RSPB Gruinart to produce a stunning digital film which dovetails with the music.
Children from all the Islay and Jura primary schools have also produced their own artworks based on the stories in the poem and we are thrilled with the results.
‘Although Gaelic poetry is at the heart of this project we have been determined that this will not be a barrier and that Blàr will be fully accessible to non-Gaelic speakers.
‘The scale and ambition of the project means that we can only have only the one performance but that performance will be during Islay’s exceptionally busy Fèis week and we already know that our audience that will not only be a local audience but an international one too.’
The two performances of Blàr will take place at Bowmore Hall, Islay on 30 May at 6.30pm and 8pm. Tickets cost £10 and are available from Fèis Ìle.
The Battle of Gruinart and the new work
Blàr Tràigh Ghruineart (the Battle of Gruinart Strand) was fought at Gruinart, Islay in 1598 as the result of a dispute between the MacDonalds of Islay and the MacLeans of Mull over ownership of Islay.
Sir Lachlan Mòr MacLean Chief of the Clan MacLean was uncle to Sir James MacDonald, Chief of the Clan MacDonald (Sir Lachlan was the brother of Sir James’ mother).
Despite being heavily outnumbered, the MacDonalds won the day. There were heavy losses on the MacLean side and Sir Lachlan was killed by an arrow shot through his eye – fired by the Dubh Sith – Black Dwarf, according to folklore.
The suite of three pieces covers key elements of the poem:
- Caomhnaibh Bràthair Mo Mhàthair reflects on the consequences of losing the battle and the repeated refrain urges mercy for Sir James MacDonald’s uncle Lachlan Mòr MacLean.
- O Albainn Caoidh laments the loss of young Highlanders’ lives through the battle. The song vividly conveys the brutality of the battle and tells the story of the killing of Sir Lachlan Mor by the Duth Sith.
- Cumha Mhic ‘Ill’Leathain is a haunting lament for Sir Lachlan MacLean.
Ulleam MacDhùnlèibh – William Livingstone, 1808-1870, was born in Gartmain near Bowmore on Islay.
MacDhùnlèibh eventually settled in Glasgow and wrote poetry in his native Gaelic. His work focused on ‘big themes’ such as history, war, the depopulation of the highlands and the clearances. He was largely self-educated (he is supposed to have taught himself to read Greek, Latin, French and Hebrew in order to read original texts) but wrote using a wide vocabulary in elegant Gaelic.
In 1882, twelve years after MacDhùnlèibh’s death, Archibald Sinclair and An Comunn Ileach (The Islay Association) published Duain agus Òrain (a collection of MacDhùnlièbh’s poetry and writings).
Iseabail Mactaggart is a native Gaelic speaker, born and brought up on Islay. She won the National Mod Gold Medal in 2004.
Iseabail has lived and worked in Shanghai, Glasgow and London and returned to Islay in 2005.
She is Chair of Fèis Oigridh, Ile is Dhiura and Iomairt Ghàidhlig Ìle ‘s Dhiùra and has been conductor of Còisir Ghàidhlig Ìle since 2006.
Clare Jordan was born and brought up in Connel, near Oban.
She has been closely involved with the Fèisean nan Gàidheal movement over a number of years and was awarded a degree in Traditional Music from Sàbhal Mòr Ostaig in 2011.
She is a professional musician and composer who is currently living and working on Islay.