The Steeds of Culloden is a tune not without its irony.
Over a decade ago, I was invited to take part in a concert at Ellen Stewart’s LaMama Experimental Theater Club, to benefit a local Scottish society and help raise money for their annual Burns Night Supper. I decided to create a piece entitled “The Steeds of Culloden.”
On the 16th of April, 1746, a hoard of delusional Scotsmen charged like mad badgers across an open field, through freezing rain, and straight into the teeth of the mighty British Army, where they were promptly devoured with tremendous loss of life while inflicting very little in the way of enemy casualties, during what proved to be the last attempt to establish an independent Scotland through violent means
Well, as I was doing my research for this piece, I discovered that the bad weather and boggy terrain kept most of the British cavalry from taking part in the brief battle. As it turned out, there weren’t many steeds of Culloden!
At least not at first. And that proved to be a very bad thing.
After literally chomping at the bit all day long, the riders of said steeds flew into a rage after the battle, and began slaughtering the Scottish wounded where they lay. This turned into a murderous rampage that spread out for miles around, destroying everything and everyone in its path, all the way to the city of Inverse. Systematic butchery followed for months afterwards, in what has come down to us as the darkest days in the history of these two kindred peoples.
Taking all this in and letting it percolate, I worked up some improvisations in the Celtic DADGAD tuning, which became my original performance at the Scottish music concert. Later, I switched to standard tuning and that most somber of keys, E minor, to compose a tone poem of the same title.
As we meet our young and handsome hero, he is galloping across the heath, pursued by all the King’s horse. Over hill and dale, through neighborhood and mire, he repeatedly evades each squadron of troopers or company of dragoons that seek his untimely end.
I leave it to the gentle listener to decide if he reaches the safety of his Highlands home, or if he falls before the steeds of Culloden.
Originally composed as a solo piece, as heard on the album Lost and Haunted Ways, I spent some years performing “The Steeds of Culloden” with the addition of mandolin and flute. I expect to record that version for my next CD, which will feature my songs and many other musicians and singers.