The Old Men of the Shells – A Watery Grave

At this point I have access to over 100 different piobaireachd tunes, gleaned from various sources – many freely available on the web. I have decided to spend some quality time with a few of the tunes for which I have multiple performances, to get a handle on how different pipers interpret the tunes.

Ken Eller, on his estimable site “The Captain’s Corner”, has made available many recordings of recitals and performances he has attended over the past two years or so, and it is from his archives that I draw my two examples for today.

“The Old Men of the Shells” is one of those intriguingly titled tunes that just begs an explanation. Two possible backstories are given at the end Dr. William Donaldson’s article on the tune, which is part of his excellent series on Andrew Berthoff’s Pipes|Drums website. Whichever story you believe, the tune apparently commemorates a series of reciprocal deaths by drowning, hence the allusion to prolonged life among the creatures of the sea bed.

As far as the tune is concerned, the various manuscript versions available are nicely discussed in the Donaldson article, but whichever path you take through the tune it is a very beautiful and lyrical one. This beauty is heightened in the thumb variation of the urlar, which swoops across the entire register of the bagpipe – very dramatic!

I mentioned earlier, two recordings are available on The Captain’s Corner website. Listen first to Lionel Tupman playing the tune at the William Livingstone Memorial Invitational Competition in 2007 and then to Andrew Hayes playing at the same competition one year earlier. Both performers take the same route through the tune, but Tupman plays the tune at a considerably slower pace. I thought that the juxtaposition of these two tempi was interesting, and I invite your comments. I will not tell you which tempo I preferred, but either way, enjoy the tune – it’s a classic!

3 Replies to “The Old Men of the Shells – A Watery Grave”

  1. I tend to lean more towards the quicker tempo on this tune. The feeling that is evoked in my mind is less of the contemplative lament looking back with fondness, but rather of the initial shock of the untimely loss and revenge. Sadness leads to frustration and tension in var.2 doubling which is only heightened throughout the tar and crun fosgailte. After reading the Donald MacDonald commentary you pointed out I can see why there is tension here. I think that a quicker pace is justified and gives this tune great energy.

    p.s. nice page, I’m glad there are people like you and Justin that are promoting knowledge of the big music here in Utah. Keep up the good work. Let me know if there is going to be a piobaireachd meeting anytime soon. I would love to start going.

  2. Interesting, John. Despite the fact that a majority of the tunes are described as laments, I think maybe we tend to forget to ask, why is the person lamenting? Anger and shock could certainly come into it. If this tune is interpreted the way you describe, it would be in the company of tunes like A Flame of Wrath, and I’m sure there are others like it.

    I guess it’s no different today. I read the obituaries in our local paper (the Salt Lake Tribune) nearly every day, and occasionally you’ll read one that has some real anger hidden in the lines commemorating the deceased. The public anger and grief over mass killings like the shootings at Virginia Tech and here in Utah at Trolley Square show that humans’ propensity for violence and their response to it has not changed much down the years.

    At this point in my piobaireachd career, I’m more a listener than a performer. I wonder Justin, do you know this tune? What think you?

  3. I just came across this so there’s a bit of a delay in posting here.

    I wasn’t able to listen to the links on Ken Eller’s site but have a recording of Bill Livingstone playing the tune. I think he’s definitely playing a bit more up-tempo than not which, I assume in looking at the music, would be much more affective. John makes a very good point in that the tune does not lend to sounding as though it should be contemplative but more angry. Var. 2 doubling, especially, is very driven as well as the doublings of the tarluath and crunluath variations. The note groupings are mostly major, in using the tonic and other major chords, but the use of passing notes tends to build tension within the tune itself. There are these two conflicting emotions making it difficult to just mourn or be vengeful, not in the sense that they don’t belong together. Another tune regarding the MacKenzies of Kintail is “Glengarry’s March” (or “Cill Criosd”) which also involves the MacDonells of Glengary, with whom they were warring. This tune certainly has enough to lament over but really shows the cyclical nature in how revenge is taken, as well as some slighty off-color and humurous moments in the pipers “poking fun at” or, rather, goading of those that are burning alive in the church. With that, I definitely agree with you, Marc, when you say, “that humans’ propensity for violence and their response to it has not changed much down the years.”

    Just to add to the pot a bit, in “Binneas is Boreraig” it’s said that, “one tradition is that this[tune]is about men drinking, a seashell being a convenient and popular drinking vessel…” Whether the tune is about exacting revenge or men drinking it offers a great musical experience.

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