How the march became more pointed and technically demanding

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• From the March 2000 Piping Times.

By David Murray

As intimated in my last column, l’ll continue this issue with part two of my research into the pipe march first broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland. As the early collections of ceòl beag show, tunes in march time of varying quality did exist, few having more than two parts. Those early collections illustrate too that the fingering by our standards is so primitive as to be incomprehensible, and that those who seek to resuscitate such tunes are compelled to restructure them to make them acceptable to our modern ears.

Donald Cameron and Angus MacKay.
Donald Cameron, left, and Angus MacKay.

From the start the great civilian pipers had not been far behind the soldiers in following the trend For march composition, Angus MacKay, Hugh Mackay of the 71st Highland Light Infantry, perhaps the most prolific of the little group, and of course the great Donald Cameron all took a hand although it is perhaps fair to say that in the case of Angus and Donald they were perhaps adapters rather than composers.

Angus’s Black Mount Forest is based on Miss Forbes’s Farewell to Banff. The Highland Wedding is clearly derived from the old strathspey Stumpie although before its metamorphosis into six parts it was called The Breadalbane Fencibles. Another old tune, John Highlandman, appeared as The Abercairney Highlanders. The march we all call Donald Cameron, first appears as Donald Cameron’s Hotchpotch. David Glen published it under that name in 1886 and gave the tunes from which it is derived as Parts 1 and 2 an un-named hornpipe; Part 3 Boturich Castle; part 4, Mackenzie’s Farewell to Ross-shire; Part 5, Tulliechewan Castle; and the last part Sir Charles Forbes of Edinglassie. This last is a six part march with which I heard the old City of Edinburgh Police Pipe Band under Hance Gates compete at Cowal in about 1937 and which I used to play a lot myself. Hugh Mackay was perhaps the only truly original composer of the time, with The Stirlingshire Militia and The Crags of Stirling to his credit.

There were, of course, other marches and other composers, and good tunes, too. The Atholl Highlanders March to Loch Katrine by Willie Ross’s kinsman, William Rose of Blair Atholl, comes to mind. Parker’s Welcome to Perthshire, my own particular Achilles heel, and many others have stood the test of time and still form the backbone of the competing piper’s repertoire.

A word now on old William Ross, eventual successor to Angus MacKay as Queen Victoria’s piper. His massive collection of pipe music, containing both piobaireachd and small music, first appeared in 1869, 21 second enlarged and revised edition in 1876, and a third in 1885. Among the multitude of marches he published are several of the classics like the Marchioness of Tullibardine and the Edinburgh Volunteers. The Glengarry Highlanders turns out to be the Glengarry Gathering and is credited to Angus Mackay.

The Edinburgh Volunteers from Ross's collection.
The Edinburgh Volunteers from Ross’s collection.

Although it would not be true to claim that his system of grace noting is simple by our standards it is noticeable that where we would play a birl between two low As he frequently writes a plain grip. Where we would play a taorluath followed by a birl old Willie writes a spread birl followed by two As separated by a G gracenote and a flick of the little finger. Comparison with other sources confirms that the birl method of separating two low As is never employed, other grace note combinations being preferred. This together with the open, and the totally unpointed method of writing all the tunes, indicates that they were played in the square style – or round if you prefer it – now known across the Atlantic as Irish. This, when read together with the evidence of other sources of the period, shows that in those days piobaireachd – the Great Music – was more difficult to physically execute and to play than the Small Music with which we are here concerned.

The stage is now set for the entry of the great and influential school of‘ the MacLennan family, originally from Wester Ross but latterly settled in the Black Isle. William MacLennan it was who introduced the style of fingering perfected by his cousin, George. The essence of the MacLennan style was the much tighter but distinct fingering of the doublings and the crisper execution of the taorluath along with the much more frequent use of the birl. The single gracenotes, G, D and E proliferated, often in unusual places, and together with the slower but much more accentuated and expressive timing, particularly in the heavier strathspeys and reels, totally altered the character of the small music.

PM Willie Ross on the boards.
PM Willie Ross on the boards.

There is evidence that the MacLennan influence was not universally well received. Indeed, Kilberry is on record as stating that John MacColl opted out from competition because of it, and it seems likely that he would not have been the only piper who did so. The greats of the movement which began to take hold in the years before the Great War of 1914-18, and which was to hold sway for almost the next century, were, of course, john MacDonald (his pre-eminence as a player of piobaireachd has perhaps overshadowed his prowess in the small music), George MacLennan himself, Willie Ross, G. S. Allan, and Willie Lawrie, while among the rising generation of the time were John MacDonald, South Uist, and Robert Reid, with whom the style perhaps came to full fruition.

Composition too went on apace, the marches of Willie Lawrie and GS
MacLennan standing the test of time, while those of John MacColl himself proved eminently amenable to the new style whatever the reservations of the composer might have been. Willie Fergusson is yet another neglected composer of musical and attractive tunes. Kantara to El Arish is not his only playable tune but who’s heard of the Australian Ladies these days?

John MacLellan of Dunoon was a prolific composer of melodic tunes, most of them relegated these days to oblivion apart from his overworked Lochanside. Even the Road to the Isles, originally the Bens of Jura, his mother’s birthplace has bitten the dust. But the tale of the tune, and the copyright thereof is another story!

What is intriguing is the increasing popularity of retreat marches, which seems to have begun in December 1899 with the defeat of the Highland Brigade inspiring John Maclellan’s evocative air Magersfontein. It would. appear to have begun a trend. John was to follow this up with the Heroes of Vittoria: and later with Lochanside. G. S. MacLennan’s Kilworth Hills also dates from this pre-1914 era. The Kilworth Hills are, of course, in County Cork, near the old barracks at Fermoy. It was not until after the Second World War that the composition of marches really began. Much the same went for the now popular 9/8s. The Seaforth Highlanders’ I Hae a Wife o’ Ma Ain seems to have been unique at this time, although jigs in 9/ 8 time, slip jigs, were fairly common.

And beware the Heights of Dargai, the name of a 6/8 march by John Wallace now wrongly but consistently applied to the 9/8 the Dagshai Hills, perhaps by the same composer. What is fascinating is that all the modern 9/ 8s follow the melodic scheme of the Battle of the Somme, the phrases ending with two dotted crotchets or their equivalents.

Where does march playing and composition stand today? In the present state of piping when even the most modest of pipe band players can sport an instrument for which pipers of the past would readily have killed, perhaps an old piper who was brought up on them may be allowed to regret the disappearance of some of the splendid old marches which would add much to the medley selections which are rightly so popular both on the competition field and in pipe band performance. There were, of course, fewer tunes in my day.

But consider this: in addition to his competition repertoire Robert Reid found time to study in-depth tunes like Farewell to the Creeks and Major John MacLennan and to discover nuances of interpretation in these and other deceptively simple tunes which seem to escape the modern player, skilled as his finger technique undoubtedly is. Oh! For one hour of Archie MacNab!

• In the course of preparation of this article I have found Some Letters of Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, 1935-1949 of value in studying this aspect of piping folklore. These were edited by John Shone and published by The International Piper in 1980.

• Click here to read part 1 of David’s article.