The ‘Old Men of the Shells’ and a Win for Alastair Murray

The Clan Donald Trust for the Gaelic Performing Arts, together with the Robert Burns Society of Charleston, are pleased to announce that, on 31st May 2024, Alastair Murray won the third annual Joseph MacDonald Memorial Prize for Piobaireachd, writes Major Bruce MacDonald.

It is held as part of the Scottish Performing Arts Classic in Charleston, South Carolina, USA. The judge was Jack Lee of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Alastair Murray was born in Northern Ireland and brought up in local pipe bands, including Gilnahirk, Bangor Cal., and Glassdrummond, through the guidance of Francis Strain and Fred Russell.  He has played with top Grade 1 bands Ravara, Ballycoan, and St Laurence O’Toole.

Alastair’s recent piping successes include first place finishes in the North American Grade B Piobaireachd, the American Piobaireachd championship, and the Gold Medal Competition at the Ligonier Highland Games.  He has won several prizes in the silver medal at Winter Storm in Kansas City and the Canadian gold medal competition.  Alastair has been overall Ohio branch champion in both piobaireachd and light music six times in a row and won multiple prizes in Scotland, Ireland, and North America.

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Alastair played the Old Men of the Shells. Donald MacDonald’s is one of the earliest sources of this tune. A setting by Angus MacKay shows a slightly different take and this forms the basis of the version in the Piobaireachd Society Collection.

The Kilberry Book setting has a unique approach to the final variations with a hybrid breabach and fosgailte. Famed Pipe Major Donald MacLeod won his first Clasp at the Northern Meeting in 1948 playing this tune.

With regards to the tune’s history, Donald MacDonald gives a rather opaque story. In his manuscript the tune is called, ‘Bodaich na Sligachin bith Sinn a nis ga-faigeil’ which can be translated as ‘The carles of Loch Sligachan are now getting it’, or ‘The defeated men of The Lake of Shells are running away’.

According to MacDonald, this piobaireachd was composed after a battle between the MacKenzies of Kintail and the MacDonalds of Skye. The cause of this feud was revenge for the deliberate drowning of a MacKenzie by a MacDonald who was irked by the MacKenzie’s boasting of victory in an earlier sea battle between the two clans.

The feud came to a head in a battle at the head of Loch Sligachain, on Skye, where the MacKenzies were nearly all killed. However, this account seems to confuse two different events.

First, there was the feud between the MacKenzies and MacDonalds of Glengarry which resulted in a battle at Castle Strome and a sea fight in the Kyle of Lochalsh in which many MacDonalds were deliberately drowned by the vengeful MacKenzies. Separately, there was a Battle of Sligachan that actually took place more than two hundred years before this, fought between MacDonalds and MacLeods.

A variation of the modern name was first printed in news of The Highland Societies’ competition at Edinburgh in 1838, where it was noted that the bronze medal was given for ‘The Gathering of the Shells Bodach nan Sligachan’.


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