MacRobert the Piper, the Finger Lock and a Heartbroken Lover

In this article we follow the story of a man who learned to play the pipes from the Rankins on the island of Mull. Originally from Ireland, he ended up living on the isle of Skye.

The story starts when the laird of Muckairn (Taynuilt, the village a few miles east of Oban) employs two men from Ireland, one a blacksmith called Robert and the other a harpist called David.

By Calum MacLean, Tobermory

Robert, the blacksmith, has a son Calum and he is sent to Mull to learn the pipes at the famous ‘college’ run by the Rankin family. He is said to be lazy and does not make much progress. This annoys his tutor. But Rankin has a daughter and she has a notion for Calum. 

One version of this story tells us that the fairies, in the guise of an old man, help Calum to become an accomplished player. Another tale, which I think more likely, is that his ultimate success was thanks to this daughter of Rankin.

The first story: Calum has a good ear but did not pay much attention to his lessons. One night, when playing with his teacher at a wedding, he had a bit too much to drink and made a fool of himself.

Thrown out of the house, he walked for a distance arriving at another house where an old man sat by the fire. The man asked Calum in and began to talk to him. Calum explains he is a piper and the old man tells him he knows of Rankin’s new composition, a tune called the Finger Lock.

The tune was complete apart from one variation, said he. The old man sang the tune and Calum learned it adding the missing variation himself. He went back to the wedding to play the tune to Rankin.

Outside he struck up his pipes and played. Rankin recognised Calum’s playing and his tune, now complete. He was so happy with Calum’s performance he forgot about earlier in the night and they both got on well from then on.

From this tale we can surmise that the old man was a fairy in disguise who decided to help Calum by giving him the gift of music.

As I say, there are different versions of the story about Calum, son of Robert the blacksmith. His name even has different versions. On Mull he is known as Calum MacRaibeirt, and in Skye as Malcolm, or Calum, Robertson, both meaning the same thing, Calum son of Robert.

Our story could be dated late 1600s to early 1700s, the time of Patrick Mor or Patrick Og MacCrimmon, and the version of the story I think to be correct, as it at least has some evidence from other sources, is this: Rankin’s daughter is said to have played the pipes too and she fell in love with Calum.

She helped him learn and taught Calum a new tune her father was composing. Rankin always played his new tune in secret and kept it to himself, though not his daughter, by practicing it at Eas Fors, a waterfall not far from his house on the Mull coast opposite the island of Ulva. The roar from the cascading water masked the sound of the pipes.

Eas Fors, the waterfall where, according to legend, Rankin played is, on the Mull mainland opposite the small island of Ulva

When Rankin discovered that Calum could play his new composition he was not, surprisingly, angry. Maybe his daughter talked him round, or maybe Calum helped to finish the composition?

The Finger Lock is the first tune in the Piobaireachd Society’s collection of 16 books. Rankin reputedly said of it, ‘There’s been a lock on Calum’s fingers and now it is released.’ This is how the tune came to be named.

We cannot be sure who composed it, however. Ronald MacDonald of Morar, composer of The Vaunting and other tunes, is credited with the composition but it may be that he learned it from Calum’s playing years later when he was in Skye? 

When on Skye, Calum was said to have competed against Patrick Og  MacCrimmon and was his equal on one occasion and narrowly lost on another, but that is another story. 

Pipe Major William MacLean states in his writings that Calum also wrote the piobaireachd Catherine’s Lament. If true, this would suggest that he was a top composer, as well as a fine player, of piobaireachd.

William MacLean playing at Oban in 1912

Rankin may have composed the Finger Lock and Calum might have added the ‘missing’ variation, we might never know. But if you look at the Finger Lock there is a variation between the Taorluath and Crunluath which is  unusual. Could this be ‘Calum’s Variation’, the variation that unlocked his fingers?

Ultimately Calum left Mull and Rankin’s daughter. He may not have felt the same love for her that she felt for him and made a break for it. Sad to have lost her love, legend has it that she wrote a song about it. Although we cannot say for certain she was the composer, it has survived in local tradition and is preserved here.

Like a lot of Gaelic songs, there are quite a few verses telling the story. I will try to summarise it for you, though the Gaelic is old, making the translation open for debate.

‘I gave my love for whatever reason –  Ho ro ho hug o – You guess to whom – Ho hao riri hoireann – Ho ro ho hug o – To the son of Robert the metalsmith, not a tinker who would make a spoon or would put teeth in a carding comb, but a smith who would make weapons, a sharp sword and a red shield.’

The song goes on to state, ‘I gave my love to the son of a woman from another land’. This would confirm Calum coming from Ireland. It also says, ‘Where in the world is he, who would put any man before you [Calum], for the beauty and clarity of your music apart from Clan Dullie [the Rankins] and Patrick MacCrimmon’. This also helps date Calum and the song in the time of Patrick Mor or Patrick Og MacCrimmon.

2 thoughts on “MacRobert the Piper, the Finger Lock and a Heartbroken Lover

  1. Thanks for posting such a great story. I hope readers take time to listen to the superb singing of William Mathieson which brings the whole piece alive. Like Brigid above I too search for the unlocking of the fingers….I hope I find the fairy before she does!

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