Mullindhu: an ambiguous tune

September’s workshop looked at a version of Mullindhu, which translates as The Black Mill. A Scottish tune with Highland origins, there are a few different versions and spellings about in the main collections (Skye, Fraser and Athole are ones I regularly refer to). A reel in A Dorian, our version is slow and stately, more like a march, and was recorded by Jock Tamson’s Bairns.

Resources for this and the two other tunes we looked at (PDF, ABC and MP3 formats) have been added to the Resources Page.

Alba Low whistle in D (c) Gordon Turnbull

The story I originally heard about this melody from Edinburgh fiddler Doug Patience (now in County Clare) was that the mill in question stood on disputed land between two rival families and was burnt down by one of the sides. The composer was local and diplomatically wrote a tune that could be seen as either celebratory or in lament, depending on the point of view of the listener.

On The Session.org, a discussion on the tune quotes a story from Cape Breton Island about the Mill as a clandestine rendezvous for romance that similarly divides opinion:

Apparently, on Cape Breton Island the tune/song was not allowed to be played in certain parts because it was so closely associated with the MacDougalls of Margaree, who apparently were extremely touchy about hearing it played within their earshot! It appears that one line of a stanza of the puirt a beul set to the melody goes “Tha nead circe fraoiche ‘s a’ mhuilean dubh.” (In the black mill is the heather-hen’s nest). The offense to the Margaree MacDougalls was due to a joke that was told about hens at the expense of the clan, and they were so sensitive to any reference to the joke that they could not tolerate mention of poultry of any kind, and took the playing of the tune to be a veiled insult against the clan.

More on the tune background and stories can be found at the Fiddler’s Companion, including one story that includes devilish dealings.

I was pleasantly surprised that a bit of playing about with the tune reveals it to be a version of The Oyster Wives’ Rant, a reel I have known for many years but not often played. We also had a look at this in the workshop. The Fiddler’s Companion informs us that the earliest printed version is in Bremner’s Collection of 1775 and that it is part of a family of tunes and variants from Scotland to England and Ireland — so our Mullin Dhu connection is no surprise.

In searching about for a possible companion piece, I came across the distinctively titled An Oidhche Bha Na Gabhair Againn (The Night We Had the Goats) in the Athole Collection, a book which handily orders the tunes by key. This is in the relatively rare G major and I have adapted it slightly to my playing style. We didn’t have time to look at it properly, but it bounces nicely off the Ds and Gs and lends itself to short sharp spiky rolls. Interestingly, it resolves on to A, which lends it a whistful, inconclusive feel to my ears.

While it is described as a pipe tune, and printed versions may go back to 1795, the origins may be in puirt-à-beul. The odd title might be explained by another translation, The Night the Goats Came Home.

Here’s a version played a few years ago by then 17 year olds Hannah Stockley and Brad Murphy at the Gaelic Society in Sydney, Cape Breton.

After the workshop, myself and Malcolm Reavell rounded off the day by walking along to the Dalriada in Joppa and joined in the regular Saturday afternoon session for a couple of hours. Thanks to Sean Paul Newman (guitar) and Robert Chalmers (concertina) for their hospitality.

Reminder: FluteFling workshops take a break in October, but goes on the road in November with a big Aberdeen weekend featuring tutors Davy Maguire, Sharon Creasey, with a concert and sessions. And to keep the momentum going, regular Edinburgh workshops resume in November and December.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.