Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

I chanced on the Oyster Wife’s rant in the tune database and see it’s taken as synonymous with the Muileann Dubh. There is a pretty short discussion in the comments section but it looks like there may have been more debate in the past ? Although these two tunes are obviously closely related I’ve always come across them as separate tunes and they appear as such in the Skye and Kerr’s Collections. Only the Muileann Dubh appears in Gow’s collections, but it is similar to the same named tune in the Skye collection which for me is a more rounded setting than the Oyster Wife’s rant. Does anyone know whether there were other comments made previously and why we seem IMHO to have ended up with the lesser of the two tunes ?

Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

Both names predate Gow, and there are at least three incompatible explanations of what "Muillean Dubh" really means.

If the Skye Collection version is different (I can’t find my copy just now), it’s because from a much later age when people had more sophisticated tastes, not because the tune Macdonald was arranging was basically different. I go for older and cruder myself.

Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

Jack, I don’t think it’s just the Skye Collection version. Where the tune is called Muileann Dubh the setting is different from where it is published as Oyster Wife’s (in the collections I have). Gow’s version of Muileann Dubh is very similar to the Skye Collection version and is of course older (it also says the tune is "very old").

Do you think Muileann Dubh is worthy of its own submission, the alternative being to post its abcs in the comments of Oyster Wife’s ? It”s the old argument about how different it needs to be to be a different tune.

Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

IMO it’s the same tune, the order of the ‘A’ and ‘B’ strains often reversed according to which title it appears under. I can’t see any problem in posting an alternative version in the Comments where, as is often remarked, you may find better versions than the headline ones.

As with many tunes, especially older and well-used ones, there’s a lot of variation in detail between settings, and a lot of varying opinion, I’ve just given mine.

Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

"Both names predate Gow, and there are at least three incompatible explanations of what "Muillean Dubh" really means." Jack Campin

From the spelling above it could be either;

"dark mill" (maybe, black mill, but I’d think the use of dubh here is meant to convey the nature rather than colour, so dark/black, as in "sinister" )

or "my dark island" (if we allow for a bit of spelling transmogrification and some phonetic re-assembly).

I’d go with the former myself, dark mill, so Jack, what are the "three incompatible explanations"?

I’d hazard a guess that we’re talking about either a mythical place hell/hades/place where fallen soldiers go (perhaps manned by an old crone who spends her time grinding the bodies, similar to the mythical norse weaver (battle goddess?) who weaves the entrails of the fallen on her loom, using the heads and bones for shuttles and weights) etc, or folklore relating to an actual place.

I’d be quite interested to hear the incompatible explanations.

Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

Solidmahog, I’ll never listen to that tune again without thinking of you gruesome description above.. But what did the cailleach do with the ground up bodies?

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Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

"Solidmahog, I’ll never listen to that tune again without thinking of you gruesome description above.. But what did the cailleach do with the ground up bodies?" Ron P

Lol, sorry.

Ah, now, I never said it was "the" cailleach/nic niven/carlin etc, or that this grizzly piece of idle rhetorically speculative gap filling on my part was anything more than a guess (I’m kind of hoping Jack can shed some light on the;

"at least three incompatible explanations of what "Muillean Dubh" really means.").

It is however the very kind of dastardly deed one (well, me, at any rate) would expect to be happening up the old creepy Muileann Dubh.

But fyi, the old woman of the dark mill grinds the corpses into meal. Can’t remember where I know this tale from exactly or who eats the meal, but it’s interesting that it’s typical of the sort of nasty tale that gets attached to former deities or old women/witch generally. The norse woman that I also mention has several parallels in the hybridized norse-gael mythology of the west. And of course, norse mythology. These overtly gory tales tend to be norse in origin.

Still, worth taking a peek over your shoulder now and then, if your listening to it or playing it, on your own.

Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

If I try to look over my shoulder while playing the fiddle I’m quite likely to stick my bow up my nose.

Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

Ach nae probs, I’ll just keep some salt handy to throw in her eyn…

Incidentally, when I was a wee boy, I spilt the salt at the dinner table, immediately threw a pinch of it over my shoulder and got my elder brother in his eyn… of course, he thumped me. I can assure you that I now always look over my shoulder if I spill the salt, just in case it’s my brother and isnae Auld Nick himsel.

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Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

Copied from here: http://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/MT_MUI.htm

"MUILEANN DUBH (The Black Mill). AKA – “The Devil’s Mills,” "Mullin Dhu (The Dark Mill)," "Mullin Du." AKA and see “Oyster Wife’s/Wives’ Rant.” Scottish, Reel and Air. A Dorian (most versions): A Mixolydian (Gow). Standard tuning. One part (Skye): AB (Athole, Kerr, McGlashan, Shears, Surenne): AAB (Gow, Martin, Perlman): AABB (Williamson). "Very old” (Skye, Gow). The melody exists in both air and reel versions. Puirt a beul (mouth music) words to the song begin:
Tha nead na circe fraoich anns a’ mhuileann dubh, The moor hen’s nest is in the black mill,
‘Sa Mhuileann dubh ‘sa Mhuileann dubh; The black mill, the black mill
Tha nead na circe fraoich anns a’ mhuileann dubh, The moor hen’s nest is in the black mill,
As t-samhradh. At summer time.
Apparently, on Cape Breton Island the tune/song was not allowed to be played in certain parts because it was so closely associated with the MacDougalls of Margaree, who apparently were extremely touchy about hearing it played within their earshot! It appears that one line of a stanza of the puirt a beul set to the melody goes "Tha nead circe fraoiche ‘s a’ mhuilean dubh." (In the black mill is the heather-hen’s nest). The offence to the Margaree MacDougalls was due to a joke that was told about hens at the expense of the clan, and they were so sensitive to any reference to the joke that they could not tolerate mention of poultry of any kind, and took the playing of the tune to be a veiled insult against the clan. Shears says his is only one of many settings of the tune played by Cape Breton musicians.
The story of the tune was recited in Gaelic by John Allen Beaton of Broad Cove Marsh, Inverness County, Cape Breton, to researcher Dr. Seósamh Watson in 1982. It seems that a member of the community had taken quite ill one winter, and a man was dispatched to fetch the priest to administer to him. All haste was to be made, as the death was thought to be imminent, but the priest and his summoner were uncommonly fond of music. The passed a mill on the journey to the sickbed, and as they did so they were captivated by a melody emanating from the structure, and they were compelled to stop. Instead of ending, however, the melody played on without conclusion, until finally the priest, remembering his duty, said, “Get going. We’ll be late for the sick man. That’s the devil in there and he’s trying to keep us back. Get Going! We can’t be listening to the tune.” Upon which they resumed their journey. When they arrived they found they were too late; the man had died. The tune, however, stayed with them, and they called it “Muileann Dubh a’ Logadair”; ‘The Devil’s Mills’. Dr. Watson thought the odd word ‘Logadair’ may have been a corruption of the Lochaber placename, Auclaucharach, in Glen Roy, Scotland. [see An Rubha, vol. 9, No. 1, Winter 2005/06]."

So it was the devil himself, in this instance, not a poor old much maligned crone.

Out of interest here’s the a taste of the song from the Njáls saga, the woof of war, with the lead in text for context;

"On Good Friday that event happened in Caithness that a man whose name was Daurrud went out. He saw folk riding twelve together to a bower, and there they were all lost to his sight. He went to that bower and looked in through a window slit that was in it, and saw that there were women inside, and they had set up a loom. Men’s heads were the weights, but men’s entrails were the warp and wed, a sword was the shuttle, and the reels were arrows.

They sang these songs, and he learnt them by heart—"


See! warp is stretched
For warriors’ fall,
Lo! weft in loom
‘Tis wet with blood;
Now fight foreboding,
‘Neath friends’ swift fingers,
Our gray woof waxeth
With war’s alarms,
Our warp bloodred,
Our weft corseblue.

This woof is y-woven
With entrails of men,
This warp is hardweighted
With heads of the slain,
Spears blood-besprinkled
For spindles we use,
Our loom ironbound,
And arrows our reels;
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work;
So weave we, weird sisters,
Our warwinning woof.

So Ron, salts just the ticket…..

Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

Can’t now recall the details, but two of the stories I read behind the title were variants of the ones posted here. The third had it as meaning a tobacco or snuff mull, rather than a mill. There didn’t seem to be much of a story behind it (commemorating an aristocrat’s possessions?) so I’d place less credence in that one.

The Fiddler’s Companion reports the Gow version wrong. Every version of this is dorian/mixolydian hexatonic (which is not one of the commoner modes, and gives the tune its distinctive sound). The Gow version is printed with a three-sharp key signature, but all the Gs are naturaled with accidentals and there are no Cs anywhere.

Re: Oyster Wife vs Muileann Dubh

I have posted the ABCs for the above tune in the comments section of the Oyster Wife’s Rant. The Fiddler’s Companion faithfully reproduces the key of the Gow version as it’s printed in my copy, so I assume the error was either by the editor Richard Carlin or in the folios on which it’s based ?

The Gow version is subtley different from the Skye version and if I get time I’ll try to post it too.

Would it be worthwhile moving the posts in this discussion to the comments section of the Oyster Wife’s Rant to keep things together ?