Friday, January 19, 2007

MacPherson's Rant

Who's up for some fascinating Scottish history today? I've been a fan of Celtic music for years and years, and one of the tunes I've always liked is "MacPherson's Rant" (also called "MacPherson's Lament" and "MacPherson's Farewell"), which I suspected must be based on a true story because there are so many versions of it floating around. While listening to an instrumental version of the song just now, I finally decided to research the facts.

What a fascinating story! It seems that James MacPherson really did compose the song on the eve of his execution in the year 1700. The son of a Scottish laird and a gypsy, our Jamie was an uncommonly handsome and powerfully-built fellow, an expert swordsman and fiddler, and a very slippery thief in the style of Robin Hood. The tale of his unjust execution on trumped-up charges reads like something out of a novel: when the authorities saw a rider coming and correctly guessed a pardon was on the way, they turned the town clock ahead fifteen minutes so they could get on with the hanging.

Jamie taunted the crowd that had gathered to watch his execution. He fiddled for them, playing his own freshly-written tune, and then broke his instrument so nobody could play it after his death.

"MacPherson's Farewell" was later rewritten by Robert Burns. The song has a lot of verses, and it's often performed at an achingly slow tempo to emphasize the tragedy. But I like the faster, rowdier versions because it's clear Jamie was ticked off when he wrote the thing and then played it for his bloodthirsty audience. Here's the first verse and the chorus:

Fareweel, ye dungeons dark and strang,
A wretch's destiny.
MacPherson's time will no' be lang,
On yonder gallows tree.

Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
And sae dauntingly gaed he,
He played a tune an' he danced aroon,
Below the gallows tree.

I submit that if the guy was behaving "rantingly, wantonly, and dauntingly"--he did, after all, show his contempt for the crowd by smashing his violin--maybe the song should be performed with some attitude. Just a thought. (As I recall, The Corries used to make a pretty good job of it, especially when they did it live.)

Pour yourself a cup of coffee, and then click over to this longish Wikipedia article and prepare to be riveted by the 300-year-old story. You can read more of the lyrics there, too.

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Erin O'Brien said...

I so dig guys who behave "rantingly, wantonly, and dauntingly."

Brenda Coulter said...

Thank you, Erin. It's commenters like you that make blogging so much fun.

Alison Strobel Morrow said...

What a cool post--I'll have to go look for a version to listen to since I don't think I've ever heard it before. I love celtic music, too. When I lived in Scotland during college, I used to love going to pubs and ceilidhs (pronounced KAY-lees--it's like the Scottish version of square dancing, and SO much more fun, no offense meant to those who like square dancing) and hearing folks bands play.

Just think: that song is older than our country!

Brenda Coulter said...

Here's an instrumental (violins) version on YouTube. It's far too slow and too sweet for my tastes (it should be, as I said, performed "rantingly, wantonly, and dauntingly"), but if you listen you may realize that you've heard the tune before.

Lori Benton said...


Thanks for posting about Jamie MacPherson. I'm very interested in Scottish history, but hadn't yet come across this braw laddie.


Brenda Coulter said...

It was my pleasure, Lori. I enjoyed learning about him, too.

Anonymous said...

Brand new musicakl being premiered this October in Edinburgh called MacPhersons Rant