Those alternative settings are sometimes worth an airing


By Peter McCalister

Peter McCalister.

For better or worse, tune settings in the Kilberry book, and in the Piobaireachd Society’s (PS) collection, have become known as the ‘usual’ versions – and other versions as ‘alternative’ settings. Why play an alternative setting of a tune? The PS has, over the last 80 years or so, chosen their settings with care, and not all alternative settings are pleasant on the ear. To deviate from the norm, to less musical settings, would be folly. In competition, the bench of judges may appreciate the effort made to seek out an alternative setting, but (stating the obvious) you will only get a prize if you play it well.

The aim of this article is not to favour one version over another, or to imply that the ‘usual’ versions are not the best ones available. Instead I simply wish to state that the other settings exist, and are now easy to access, either online or in print. Another point, harder to explain, is that studying the different versions of a tune, leads in the end to more understanding of what the composer was intending.

All examples below are taken from the 2013 Set Tune list. In Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarbert’s Fancy, the John MacKay version has opposite pointing of quavers, in what is usually called Variation 2.
Angus MacKay has no pointing of quavers in this variation, so what is now the ‘accepted’ pointing is that of Campbell of Kilberry. Would it be nice to try this alternative pointing? Have a go …

Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarbert’s Fancy

The Old Men of the Shells is so famous now that some might say that to present an alternative version would be a brave move. Nonetheless, different versions exist, and indeed PS Book 7 prints one in full (by Angus MacKay) and goes on to mention a third noted down by a Major MacKinnon as taught to him by William Gunn in 1860. The latter has been preserved in the manuscript of J. MacDougall Gillies, on the Piobaireachd Society website:

old men of the shells

Lady MacDonald’s Lament was written by Angus MacArthur and appears in his manuscript in 3/4 time. The PS version is based on A. McKay (who had access to MacArthur’s manuscript) and for some reason he changed the tune to 4/4 time. However, the original version is much clearer and more musical, and the 1st variation, in 6/8 time in the original, is a masterpiece. It’s an example of how using the Donald MacDonald double echo and hiharin would actually make the tune sound coherent, and may be a clue as to how these movements were intended to be played by MacArthur. Here is the MacArthur original (edited by Andrew Wright and Roderick Cannon):

Lady MacDonald’s Lament, macarthur

The Rout of Glenfruin is in the PS Collection as Angus MacKay’s version, but all other settings agree that the tune should be longer, usually by adding a dithis variation, with doubling and trebling of that. This does make the tune pretty challenging – Donald MacDonald has 12 variations! The Campbell Canntaireachd has 10 variations, avoiding the dithis but bringing in more taorluath variations, and a total of four crunluath variations including the a-mach. A brave piper might decide to tackle one of these versions, as to build such a tune with good effect, would be a musical tour de force. Here are the dithis variations as they appear in Glen’s book:

Rout of Glenfruin

In Angus MacKay’s Nameless – Hiharin odin hiharin dro, there is a wee turn on the note B which recurs in the taorluath and crunluath movements. In the PS collection the crunluath appears as in a) below, but the original is b) below, with a long B initially – the ellipse is my addition. Captain John MacLellan pointed out that the PS simply got this wrong, when they produced Book 5. The original version is more musical in my opinion, and fits better with the taorluath variation:

Finally, the written and electronic versions of Roddy Ross’s book Binneas is Boreraig should not be overlooked. In The Prince’s Salute, the Donald MacDonald version has the first variation played ‘down’, and Binneas agrees with this conclusion. Here is an excerpt:

The Prince's Salute as it appears in Binneas is Boreraig.
The Prince’s Salute as it appears in Binneas is Boreraig.

An article on the Piobaireachd Society website on this tune, written by Jimmy McIntosh, was first published in The Voice magazine in 1996. Jimmy points out that John MacDonald did not agree with the Piobaireachd Society setting, which amongst other things plays this variation ‘up’. Jimmy quotes his teachers, the Bobs of Balmoral, having differing interpretations of the variation, but both playing it ‘down’.

He goes on to say that ‘Bob Brown played a more subtle and difficult timing, rolling over the higher Ds and Es to the low A. This is not easy to do consistently, but is very musical.’ Here is Jimmy’s attempt to put that into writing:

To conclude, almost all the settings I have shown in this article were accessed in a very short time with a few clicks of the computer mouse. A major upgrade of the PS website has been done during 2012 which makes it easy to navigate and find the various versions of the tunes. The available books in print are easily purchased via the College of Piping shop. So, no longer does one have to puzzle over what Angus MacKay and Donald MacDonald really thought – just go and have a look.

• From the September 2013 Piping Times.