Thank you to Ronald Smith for submitting this article casting doubt on the notion that “A Ghlas” simply means a tuning phrase.
What does ‘A Ghlas’ mean?
There are four tunes with the enigmatic name ‘A Glas’, all in the Nether Lorne MS, although one, ‘A Glas Mheur’, is found elsewhere and is well-known.
The notion that the name refers to a tuning exercise has gained currency, and can be traced to Bunting’s work on Irish harp music, where he uses the word ‘glas’ and ‘gleus’ in a manner that could lead to confusion (Bunting not being a gaelic speaker). ‘Gleus’ refers to tuning, and in the collection of Angus MacKay there is a piece, ‘Deuchain gleus’ or tuning flourish.
However, there are compelling reasons to discount this theory, before it becomes an accepted ‘truth’.
1) Grammatical: the prefix ‘A’ means ‘the’, and it is improbable that four tunes, all named ‘The Tuning Prelude’ would appear in the same collection, since ‘the’ denotes a particular or singular state or thing.
Also, since Campbell recorded four instances of tunes named ‘A Glas’, it must be assumed all four are mistakes for ‘gleus’ – Campbell wrote ‘Glas’ when he should have written ‘Gleus’ four times. This seems a large assumption.
2) Linguistic: it is well established that ‘Glas’ means a joining, with associated meanings of lock, or grip.
It also appears to have had some colloquial use in the past, when Gaelic was spoken widely in the Highlands. Dwelly’s Dictionary records some of this, notably the phrase ‘A glas ghuib’ or ‘mouth lock’, which was used to mean to shut someone up; literally ‘I put the mouth-lock on him.’
3) Cultural: The idea of a ‘grip’ or special handshake indicating membership, status, or solidarity was widespread in the 18th century; examples being the Masonic grip, and the Horseman’s grip – both signifying a degree of attainment. In this respect, Dr. Roderick Ross’s talk to the Piobaireachd Society mentioning ‘The Finger Lock’ as a type of handshake between clansmen before battle – a tradition he claimed to have heard from Jockan macPherson, son of Calum Piobaire – may be illuminating.
4) Historical: There is, in David Murray’s book ‘ Music of the Highland Regiments’ p. 217, an order book from the late 18th century of The Argyll Fencibles which lists the tunes to be played by the piper for various events, and ‘A Glas Mheur’ (The Finger Lock) is for Reveille, along with ‘War or Peace’, ‘Glengarry’s March’, and ‘Lord Breadalbane’s March’. It seems unlikely that a tune called ‘the tuning piece’ would be found in such martial company.
Allan MacDonald, in his treatise on the relation between Pibroch and song, found the words to a drinking song which was sung to the same tune, ‘A Glas Mheur’, suggesting it was pretty well known to drinkers – again, not the sort of company to chose a tuning prelude for their music.
The Transactions of The Gaelic Society of Inverness , Coronation Edition, published a paper on the Rankins of Mull, a notable family of hereditary pipers who gave up teaching around 1757. They had a story about this tune; that it was given to one of their pupils by a supernatural being (one of the ‘Sidhe’) while he was learning but had not quite got the hang of how to play; when he performed this piece, it was remarked that ‘the grip has come into his fingers’, meaning that he had attained mastery.
Since this tradition can be dated back so far, and since the meaning imputed to the name ‘A Glas Mheur’ accords with the idea of attainment connected with ‘the Grip’ mentioned earlier, I feel the suggestion that it means a tuning prelude is improbable; and likewise with the other three tunes. Rather, they all commemorate a forgotten gesture which we may never fully know.