Am Bratach No. 243
January 2012

One of the most haunting laments ever composed

I was very pleased to note from Mandy Haggith’s feature last month that noted Assynt Gaelic singer James Graham had mentioned Drumbeg bard Donald Macleod’s poignant lament for his countryman Alec Munro, who died in the Great War.

Until I learned earlier this year that James had recorded it, I feared I was the last person who knew it, as I had earlier suggested to James that it would be most appropriate for an Asainteach to do so.

I had previously passed a copy of an old recording to that enthusiastic collector of Gaelic songs, Fiona Mackenzie, Dingwall, with the specific purpose of saving it for posterity.

The recording was not however by my father — a Durness man — but on the Parlophone label by early National Mod gold medallist Roderick Macleod of Elphin, who owned a draper’s shop in Inverness, and who recorded the song in the late 1920s, a few years before his death.

I first came under the spell of that lament, simply entitled Cumha, on listening as a young lad to the record belonging to my maternal grandparents, who lived at Inchnadamph. Though this copy eventually broke, I was able many years later to borrow another from my mother’s kinsman, Johndan Whyte, a Kinlochbervie man living in Durness, and recorded it on tape.

While I first heard the subject of the song referred to as Alasdair Munro, he was christened Alexander, and a relative of his recently told me that he was called Alec by members of his family.

Alec Munro, a son of Kenneth and Catherine Munro, of Drumbeg, had recently been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) — not to be confused with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders — when he was killed on the Western Front on November 5 1916, aged 23. He is commemorated on Lochinver War Memorial.

A younger brother, Willie, was killed in World War II on September 18 1944, aged 36, while serving in Northern Europe with the Toronto Scottish, after enlisting in Canada, to which he had emigrated.

Alex Munro had two other brothers, Angus and John, and three sisters, Anne, Peggy and Jessie. His mother, Catherine, was a sister of Major General John Stewart of Assynt, the Canadian railway pioneer, who was brought with many of his workforce to the Western Front during the Great War to organise and head a huge system of light railways behind the lines.

I would welcome a photograph of him, and any information on his career before enlisting. Like so many other sons of Assynt and Scotland, his was a promising life wasted.
And I commend the song to all who enjoy Gaelic music, as one of the most haunting Highland laments ever composed:

The sun is low, there’s mist on Quinag,
While through the glen the burn still ripples.
The seawaves surge, like trumpet loud
But gone the brave, they’ll ne’er return.

Inverness and Durness

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