Roots, Laments, and Cattle Thieves

American ScotsGenealogy is growing in popularity around the world. As an American, I’m in the vast majority of US citizens whose ancestors came from another continent. And I’m one of an estimated 40 million Americans with some Scottish or Scots-Irish heritage. Before I began learning the Great Highland Bagpipe, I was only mildly curious about from whom and whence I came. But lately I’ve been trying to flush out details in my lineage with the hope of finding some great bagpiper from Gairloch or Skye as a direct ancestor. So far, no luck. The closest I’ve come, with the help of a relative I never knew I had, is a possible connection to a band of cattle thieves from Dumfries. Hardly Highlanders, and certainly nothing to brag about, especially on the piping forums.

The Viscount of Dundee

John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee

Despite the disappointment of the probable Lowland connection (no offense intended to all those from south of the Great Glen), my quest for roots has yielded some interesting things that only augment the enjoyment of my piping education. The most recent example relates to my current favorite piobaireachd, “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.” I learned of this tune from a story Andrew Wright told our class at last year’s Coeur d’Alene Piping Camp. When he was a kid he liked getting a rise out of his teacher by referring to it as “Lament for the Discount of Dundee.” Andrew’s story piqued my curiosity, but the real impetus for learning it came from my wife, whose grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from Dundee. I knew nothing about the namesake of the tune, or its geographical place, or even what it sounded like. I just wanted to play something with a literal connection of some kind to a family member, and my wife’s grandmother was the closest I could get.

John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee, died here in July 1689

Claver’s Stone

Musical beauty is truly in the ear of the behearer, but for me the ground of “Cumha Chlaibhers” is one of the most lyrical, haunting melodies I’ve ever heard. I’m one of those types of folks who want to know something about the history of whatever it is I’m doing, so I had to find out who the Viscount was. Thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that John Graham, the 1st Viscount of Dundee, was referred to by his non-Jacobite enemies as “Bloody Claverhouse” (“Bluidy Clavers”; but his friends called him “Bonnie Dundee”). He commanded the Jacobite troups at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, winning the battle but losing his life. To my ears, this particular piobaireachd lament poignantly captures the bittersweetness of this story, and enriches my interest in playing and listening to it.

Highland cattle

The apples of my ancestors’ eyes?

Yesterday, however, I opened a link to an Ancestry.com page that my long-lost relative sent about our possible cattle thieving ancestors. The first name I saw on the page was “John Graham of Claverhouse.” Could this be the connection I was hoping to find? Of course not. I was all but horrified to learn that my putative ancestors had fought against Dundee a decade before Killiecrankie, on the side of the Covenanters. They chased him right out of Drumclog, and – probably – got right back to pinching cows. I think I’ll look more deeply into my wife’s grandmother’s ancestry and see if I can find a connection to Mr. Graham on that side of the family…

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About Bob McMichael

Education: Ph.D., Brown University M.A., Brown University B.A., UC Berkeley Work: English Teacher, Cambridge High School (2012-present); Owner, McMichael Piping (2008-present); VP, AERO Specialties (2002-2009); web designer (2010-present); Freelance Writer (2000-present) View all posts by Bob McMichael

One response to “Roots, Laments, and Cattle Thieves

  • Robert McMichael | Reflections

    […] One of my ancestors was a Lowlands cattle thief who fought with the Royalists against the Jacobites, but died from an axe blow to the head by Bonnie Dundee (John Graham of Claverhouse, also known as the Viscount of Dundee). The Viscount was later killed in the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 while leading the Jacobites to victory. Not long afterward, a piece of classical bagpipe music (a piobaireachd tune called “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee”) was written lamenting his death. I learned the tune on the pipes before knowing this history, and later was able to play the tune at Dundee’s death spot in a farmer’s field. I’ve written about this here. […]

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