I spoke to Karen McCrindle Warren about her Piobaireachd, composed for the Highland Bagpipes.
You can hear Karen play her Piobaireachd here.
The tune is one of memorial and witness for women executed in Dumfries in 1659, but also stands in as a memorial for all those executed for whom there is no physical memorial. The tune was commissioned by Steve Rooklidge of the Shasta Piping Society of California. Asked for a remembrance piece for the “devastating witch trials that took place during the 16th and 17th centurires. A “Lament for the Accused”, if you will.” He included a link to the Interactive Witchcraft Map published by the University of Edinburgh.
Questions in bold are mine. Here is what she told me:
“This tune commemorates the events of 13th April 1659, when nine Galloway women were executed on Dumfries Whitesands. Agnes Commes, Janet McGowane, Jean Tomson, Margaret Clerk, Janet McKendrig, Agnes Clerk, Janet Corsane, Helen Moorhead and Janet Callon, were “stranglit at stakes till they be dead, and thereafter their bodies to be burnt to ashes”. This began a third peak in Galloway – more and more witch finders came forward, demanding their fees for rounding up suspects and torturing confessions from them.
“The tune is written in pentatonic G – the key that gives the most dissonance against the drones, symbolising the pain, fear and anxiety of these times, and the high G’s symbolising the screams of the ‘witches’ who were tortured for confession and put to such horrific public execution. Not enough to kill them by strangling them at the stake, they had to be sure they were dead by also burning their bodies to ashes.”
Can you tell me more about how the Piobaireachd was commissioned?
…I started looking through the map and searching for more information about witchcraft in Scotland, and particularly relating to Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway which is my area of interest. I wrote music that was dark and desperate, but it took a while to find the story behind the title, and find the right title that suited the tune. In the end, I felt the tune, title and story were a perfect fit.
Piobaireachd has a way of pulling at the heart strings, as the variations grow in intensity, it is like waves of grief coursing through the body and soul, returning to the calm of the ground as you try to compose yourself and move forward in life.Karen McCrindle Warren
Your Piobaireachd is moving and intense, demanding time and space for witness. Traditionally, how has this style of composition been used in memorials?
Piobaireachds have been used in memorials for centuries. It is the traditional, ancient music of the bagpipe, and is often used to lament or salute those we have lost. For example “Lament for Mary MacLeod”, “Lament for the Duke of Hamilton”, or “Lament for the Children” – this last one was written by Patrick Mor MacCrimmon who lost seven of his eight sons to small pox within a year. This year the piping world lost a talented and lovely young man Alex Duncan at the age of 26. A close family friend wrote a piobaireachd to commemorate him “Lament for Alex Duncan” and it was performed at the Glenfiddich Championship at Blair Castle where Alex used to spend a lot of time piping. For one tune, our whole world came together and remembered this wonderful young man and mourned such a great loss to our community. Piobaireachd has a way of pulling at the heart strings, as the variations grow in intensity, it is like waves of grief coursing through the body and soul, returning to the calm of the ground as you try to compose yourself and move forward in life.
What aspects of the history of the witch hunts informed your composition?
I really didn’t know anything about witches in Scotland before Steve brought it up – we all learnt about Anne Boleyn having her head chopped off for being a witch, but I had never really considered witchcraft in Scotland. What an eye opener that map was! As I read into some of the cases, the things these poor people were being accused of was just crazy. Anyone could fall out with you and accuse you of being a witch and your life would be over. Suspicion was enough to accuse, repute was enough to convict. It must have been a terrifying time, and it was this state of distress I tried to bring out in the music.
There is growing momentum for a national memorial to those killed during the witch hunts in Scotland. How do you see your composition playing a role in this work for a national monument?
This isn’t something I’m familiar with but my music is freely available to anyone who wishes to listen, use it in memorials or learn to play it, and I hope it helps to evoke the desperation of the times and the memory of all these poor people who had their lives taken in such a cruel and violent way for nothing.
Karen can be found online at: