If this tune sounds familiar, it could be that you’re a fan of The Incredible String Band. The band's co-founder, Robin Williamson, used it for the closing track, ‘The Circle Is Unbroken,’ on their 1968 double LP, ‘Wee Tam & the Big Huge.’ I’ve loved this song since first hearing it back in the day. It's the first tune I learned to play on the penny whistle and I’ve often played and sung it during ceremonies. Some years ago Robin told me he got the tune from an Irish lament by the blind bard, Antoine Ó Raifteiri (1779-1835), who wrote it for twenty people from Annaghdown (Eanach Dhúin) who were drowned on September 4th 1828 when their boat went down while carrying them to a fair in Galway. Ó Raifteiri probably repurposed a traditional tune to make his poem into a song. Robin did the same 140 years later and these are the words Robin put to it, turning a lament of loss to an inspiring song of hope:
Seasons they change while cold blood is raining
I have been waiting beyond the years
Now over the skyline I see you’re travelling
Brothers from all time gathering here
Come let us build the ship of the future
In an ancient pattern that journeys far
Come let us set sail for the always island
Through seas of leaving to the summer stars
Seasons they change but with gaze unchanging
O deep eyed sisters is it you I see?
Seeds of beauty ye bear within you
Of unborn children glad and free
Within your fingers the fates are spinning
The sacred binding of the yellow grain
Scattered we were when the long night was breaking
But in the bright morning converse again
Why do I call it ‘The Roundhouse Tune?’ Thereby hangs a tale...
I wanted to build an Iron Age roundhouse for decades. I mentioned this whilst walking through the woods at Wild Ways with Elaine, who co-runs a retreat and crafts centre there with partner, Garth. She said, “Well why don’t you then?” Next thing I know, we’ve found a good spot, cleared away the undergrowth, felled some Ash trees for timber and started to build. We also planted and harvested an acre of long-straw wheat for thatching material.
The build took about a year and a half, working during school holidays. Many folk came to help, from visiting individuals to entire Druid camps. John Letts, who pointed me to the one remaining source for long-straw wheat seed in the UK, turned out to be an expert in medieval thatching techniques. With wonderful generosity, he taught us how to thatch.
During the build I kept playing and singing ‘The Circle is Unbroken.’ The lyrics seem so appropriate for what we were doing, which felt so much like building a “ship of the future in an ancient pattern,” using “the sacred binding of the yellow grain” for our thatch with the intention of bringing “scattered” folk together for ceremonies, celebrations and music sessions, and to “converse again.” The other-than-human population of the area seemed to appreciate the tune as well. A Wren built her nest on top of the wattle wall and raised three chicks while we rattled around, daubing the walls and thatching the roof. During breaks I would sit near the nest and play ‘The Roundhouse Tune.’ The chicks would invariably join in, twittering an uplifting chorus.
For those who like the technical stuff, the basic recording was made at Wild Ways on December 1st, 2023 using a Zoom H4n Pro Handy Recorder. I’m playing a B flat ‘Generation’ penny whistle. I added reverb and, on the second and third rounds, echo, using the Audacity audio editing suite, one of the finest examples of free, open source software on the planet. The idea for the echo came from another track I’ve loved for decades; ‘Prisms,' from the self-titled 1970 LP by the band, Quintessence, a soaringly beautiful, echo-enhanced flute solo by founder member, Raja Ram. The video was put together using another great piece of open source software, the excellent OpenShot video editor.
The still photos featured in the video date from 2008, when we started building the roundhouse, through to the present. A couple of folk who appear in them have since departed for the Otherworld. May their onward journeys be blessed. I play the tune three times. On the first round, the photos are mainly of the structure as it was being built. The second round has shots of the roof being thatched and re-thatched. The third has stills from a few of the ceremonies we've held in the roundhouse. These are from the preparatory ceremonies we make to ready the roundhouse and the lead ritualists before the later arrival of larger groups for the main ceremony. If you're intrigued by these small ceremonial snippets, check out the British Druid Order website for more on our unique, 'shamanistic' take on Druidry, Britain's oldest native religion whose name we know.
Over the years, the roundhouse has been the scene of many amazing, powerful, transformative ceremonies. One of my favourite memories is of the day we invited Robin Williamson to play there for us. Of course, he played ‘The Circle Is Unbroken’ (right). I hope my rendition of the tune does it justice and that the tune and accompanying film give a little flavour of what the roundhouse is like. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet there one day?