Skaithmuir: New Celtic Music

With a break from deadlines, I've made a return to composition. In an interesting plot twist, I have found that instead of the styles I used to write, or the chamber and orchestral music I have always planned to write, what comes very naturally is music in the style of Irish and Scottish jigs and reels. 

This one is called Skaithmuir, pronounced SKAY-mur. As I began to write, I was envisioning the battle of Skaithmuir, sometimes called the battle of Coldstream, between James Douglas and the Gascons who had left Berwick, which he was besieging, on Valentine's Day 1316 (not that Valentine's Day would become 'a thing' until the days of Chaucer, at least 50 years down the road, but that's a different story).

James Douglas, a man ferocious on the battlefield, though said to be soft spoken in any other area of life, later called Skaithmuir the hardest battle he ever fought. Expecting a 'band of foragers,' he instead came face to face with an army of Gascons that outnumbered his men eight to one.

Shawn Kleiner, modern American classical trombonist, experiences this battle firsthand in The Water is Wide:

That’s no handful of raiders,” Hugh breathed at his side.
Shawn shook his head, dazed. “It’s a whole army.” Armor flashed in the rising sun; spears swayed like a living forest.
They are at least twice as many as us,” said Brother David, sitting astride his horse beside Shawn.
The Gascons had seen them. Shawn’s heart pounded; the familiar tremble of adrenaline began in his arms. His pony moved restlessly beneath him, feeling the energy of a coming battle.
Across the field, English horses tossed their heads. All the men looked to Douglas. “Do we fight?” Hugh asked.
Aye.” Douglas drew the sword from his back.
There are twice as many of them,” Shawn hissed.
We do not run from the enemy on our own soil.” Douglas stared straight ahead at the army where they’d expected only foragers. He nodded to the man at his side, who unfurled his white banner with the band of blue and three white stars. Across the field, motion rippled through the ranks of knights. Visors lowered. Lances shifted.
Shawn thought of Amy. His certainty, all these months, that he would see her again, suddenly seemed foolish. He thought of stories he’d read where people died in one dimension, but survived in another. He knew if he died on this field, he’d be dead everywhere, every time. He thought of his mother, and hoped Amy would be there for her.
Put your helmet on,” Hugh muttered.
Shawn nodded numbly. This was no different than any battle, he told himself. A trumpet blared across the field. He lifted the helmet, and pushed its heavy weight down tight. Just like the raids, he told himself. But there hadn’t been knights charging him then. Just like Jura, he told himself. They’d fought back, there. But there hadn’t been knights charging him on those ships. He swallowed. The last time he’d been thrown in among mounted cavalry, it hadn’t gone so well.
The charge began. The English rolled like a silver wave across the silver, frosty field.
The ford will slow them,” Hugh said. “Steady, Shawn. We each kill two and we’re good, aye?”
Shawn nodded, grateful that at the end, at least he’d been called by his own name. He secured his shield on his arm. Cold breath puffed from his pony’s nose. It tossed its head. Shawn hefted his sword.
Owen,” Hugh said, “Watch Niall’s back.” He stared straight ahead, watching the horsemen charge, their lances pointed. The ground shook. Around him, Shawn heard visors click into place. Horses shuffled, snorted, and shook their manes. Lances and swords emerged, and he felt some safety in the men surrounding him.
Douglas swung his sword lazily at his side, the way Shawn had once swung his trombone, grinning, before a concert. Indeed, Douglas smiled in anticipation, much as Shawn himself did before the hardest pieces. “Take their leaders first,” Douglas said. His message rippled down the ranks.
Sunlight flashed off the four score Gascons thundering toward them. Douglas backed up twenty paces from the stream, up the small hill; the motion reflected down the line, thirty-nine horses backing up, snorting, pawing.
What are we doing?” Shawn asked Hugh
The stream will slow them,” Hugh said. “We’ll charge as they cross and the momentum will be with us.”
Shawn nodded, seeing only the knight from Bannockburn rising over him, sword flashing down.
Look to Douglas,” Hugh murmured. “Take courage, Shawn. Fight your hardest. He’ll bring us through.”

Long story short--Douglas routed the English. (You'll have to read the book to find out how a modern American musician came through this battle.) Legend says the stream ran red with their blood for days afterward. At one point, Douglas killed their leader and the words, "Your leader's dead!" rang out across the battlefield. It was at these words that the battle turned, that the Gascons turned and fled (or...tried to.) At about 2:23, you'll hear these words echoed musically: Your leader's dead, your leader's dead, your leader's dead!

And so ends the battle of Skaithmuir, the hardest battle ever fought by James Douglas. I guess he wasn't there to comment on Teba. Maybe soon I'll write that piece. 

In the meantime, I hope you've enjoyed this musical rendition of a historical event--or this historical re-telling of a musical event!

If you like the song, it's available in sheet music for treble clef instruments:
If you're in the Twin Cities (or plan to be here by plane, train, automobile, private jet, sturdy Nikes, canoeing up the Mississippi, pony express, or other venue--and why wouldn't you be????) I'll be reading from The Water is Wide at the next Books & Brews on July 9, 2018, along with Kendall Price and Wendy Brown-Baez. Craft brew sampling with Michael Agnew while hearing local authors--seriously, this is well worth the less than $8!)

The Battle is O'er is now available!
Start from the beginning: Prelude One Prelude Two Prelude Three
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