The great pinkie debate


• From the December 1996 Piping Times.

The letter from Mr. F. Kenneth about the open C/closed C reminds us that over 50 years ago almost all pipers, apart from competing pipers, played the open C. Seumas MacNeill published the following article in his usual forthright manner in the Piping Times, February 1951. The subsequent correspondence which ensued will be of great interest to all the younger readers and the older ones, we hope, will be reminded of the feelings and arguments involved.

Do you ‘C’ the light?

Clockwise: John MacLellan, Seumas MacNeill, John Wilson, Archibald Campbell, Angus MacPherson and Archie MacNeill.
Clockwise: John MacLellan, Seumas MacNeill, John Wilson, Archibald Campbell, Angus MacPherson and Archie MacNeill.

It does not seem to be known at what time pipers started playing the note ‘C’ with the little finger of the right hand covering the low ‘A’ hole, but this way of playing note ‘C’ is played by almost every professional piper of any consequence at the present day. Is it that the older pipers who held monopoly of the boards a generation ago kept many of their tricks to themselves? Were they jealous of their ability to blow a true ‘C’? What reason can be put forward to explain why almost all the bagpipe tutors do not indicate in their review this method of fingering? Why is it that note ‘C’ is played in the flat manner by keeping the little finger up? And this way is fingered by the majority of pipers who are not on the solo competitive level.

To any piper who has some sort of an ear for sounds, he should be able to tell that the note ‘C’ played with the little finger on makes a considerable difference in sharpening the note so that it is in tune with all the other notes of the scale and in unison with the drones. When this note is played with the little finger up, the flatness of the sound emits a distinct and unpleasant disharmony while the rest of the notes are in tune. It should be noted that this only applies to the full scale bagpipe chanter and does not refer to the practice chanter, as the difference in fingering note ‘C’ is almost imperceptible. Pipe chanters, like other things, are on occasion made a little out of tune, or the wood may change shape after the final finish has been done. As it so happens, the note ‘C’ in some chanters is slightly flat and when these chanters are fingered in the wrong manner the flatness is intensified. On the other hand, one rarely comes upon a chanter which has a sharp ‘C.’

open C

The note ‘C’ played with the little finger up is done sometimes to facilitate fingering in certain types of tunes. For instance, in the first bar of the second measure of Donald Cameron and in the third measure of John MacKechnie. In both these tunes, a birl is played immediately and rapidly after the note “C” and no disharmonies can be heard because of the speed and consequent shortness of the note ‘C.’ Another example is in the jig John Patterson’s Mare, where the ’C’ in several places is played so rapidly that there is no need to put down the little finger. Perhaps the purists might quibble about this, but for all practical purposes it is the method of choice.

These examples and in many other tunes of similar nature the note ‘C’ is played so smartly that the pinkie is kept up for a fleeting second. This small point should have no weight in any argument in favour of the open ‘C’ and when ceòl mòr or slow marches are played the closed ‘C’ is absolutely necessary to give the correct sound. Besides, the correct sound having the pinkie down has a much more steadying effect on the chanter and the grip on the chanter is reinforced. Another aid to correct fingering which the closed ‘C’ has, is that the distance of the raised fingers from the chanter is never excessive, as might be the case when the open ‘C’ is played.

The difficulty encountered with this problem is the correction of pupils who have been originally instructed to play the open ‘C’ and find it a difficult job in correcting this. They usually develop a small low ‘G’ crossing noise when playing from ‘C’ to ‘E’ and it is hard for them to remember and lift the pinkie when descending from ‘C’ to ‘B’.

N.B. – The term ‘Open C’ refers to the pinkie of the lower hand being kept up, and the term ‘Closed C’ means that the pinkie is kept down when note ‘C’ is being played.

Capt. John A. MacLellan.
Capt. John A. MacLellan.

Captain John MacLellan’s review of the College Tutor Part 1 in March 1954 says:

Again, in my opinion, it is a mis-statement to say that the closed ‘C’ is not widely known outside the professional piping circle. Most of the pipers I know use the closed ‘C,’ and indeed nearly all the pipers who have passed through my hands have played the closed ‘C’ before arriving in the Regiment. I do think that this is a good point to mention, as nothing sounds so bad as an open ‘C’ because it is too flat, and I also think it tends to slovenly playing.

Then in August, 1954, the following letters appeared.

Dear Sir,

Open or Closed C Note in Pipe Music

I noticed from your edition of last March that the open C note is condemned as wrong, yet we have it from Angus MacKay’s published book of piobaireachd 1838 both written and shown from a drawing of the pipe chanter as correct, and from many other published collections also. Asa boy! was taught the bagpipe scale with the open C which I presume is meant by having the little finger up. Like many others however, I found that to suit the modern chanter it required to keep the little finger on so as to get a sharper and clearer C note, and in this way it became quite popular, but could in no way condemn the former method.

In my earlier instruction no piper would ever dream of making a closed C note and we have definite knowledge that Angus MacKay, to whom we owe so much, taught from his own fingers the open C. I would suggest that, rather than condemn either method, it be left to the discretion of the performer and accept either way as correct. In my judging, and I do quite a lot of it, I act in this manner.

Angus MacPherson.
Angus MacPherson.

May I encroach upon your tolerance further by touching upon the modern method of making the open crunluath on C, in such tunes as The MacKay’s Banner and the Battle of the Pass of Crieff. In many cases it is mutilated beyond recognition as again compared with Angus MacKay’s and other old publications. The melody note C is cut out and a mangled note, half C half B with a grip is performed. When there is an open melody note on C in the taorluath it must follow that you make it likewise in the crunluath. There can be no argument against this. I once asked one of our leading professionals why in MacKay’’s Banner he did not sound his melody note C openly in his crunluath to correspond with his taorluath. He told me quite frankly that he was taught to begin with it. I pointed out it should be done but that now they wanted it as he now played it. I happened to know this man’s tutor very well and saw much for the fact that in his day the tutor always played in Angus MacKay’s book of Piobaireachd, the movement but as distinctly written.

I hope Mr Editor that what I write will in no way be construed as condemning our present day pipers. On the contrary I have a great regard for them and consider piping today to be of a very high standard.

Angus Macpherson,

Dear Sir,

The hundreds of pipers throughout the world who play the open C in March, Strathspey and Reel, and who have read recent dogmatic statements that the open C is wrong, must be feeling pretty sick and discouraged. Some of them, in fact, may be tempted to give up piping altogether in disgust. Let me hasten to assure them that there is no cause for alarm or dispair.

“The awful secret of the closed C.”

This must be regarded as one of the best kept secrets of all time. I have been playing pipes for 39 years, and in all these years I never heard a whisper that the open C was wrong until recently. Before the last war I was a very successful competitor for years around the Highland games and wherever piping competitions were held, Glasgow included. Would you believe it – the judges, rather than tell me that my open C was wrong and sounded awful and thereby give away the secret, actually gave me prizes instead, even first prizes. Now doesn’t that beat cock fighting? My own teacher, the late Roddie Campbell, never breathed a word to me about my C being wrong; in fact, he was always very careful to play the open C himself in my presence.

John Wilson.
John Wilson.

When I joined the 4th Camerons in 1939 and was stationed in Inverness, I took the chance of having a few lessons from the late John MacDonald. Again not one word about my open C when we went over Marches, Strathspeys and Reels. Can you beat that? These old Highlanders could certainly keep a secret. But wait you! Only a few days ago, I read with great interest an account of the wonderful discovery in Egypt of a complete unplundered funeral ship of Pharaoh Cheops. There is a possibility that a similar great discovery may have been made, say, in Skye (but kept secret of course). Perhaps an unplundered tomb of one of the MacCrimmons has been found, with drawings on the walls showing the correct finger positions for each note, so that the departed, on his Heavenly journey, would never strike a false note, especially a horrible open C. Or perhaps the spirit of this Marian year has gone to the heads of some of our pipers and they have decided to assume pontifical powers and issue dogmas of their own, starting with the dogma of the closed C. Anyway, it is all very interesting and fascinating, don’t you think? By the way, Roddie Campbell almost gave the show away once, when he told me that in his young days the old pipers would often, even in piobaireachd, play an open C or even an open high G if it gave them the effect they desired. Now that should have given me furiously to think, shouldn’t it? Some competitors I have heard in Scotland, supposedly playing on a Great Highland Bagpipe (which you could hardly hear behind a newspaper) would be well advised to take a leaf out of the old timers’ book, because their notes, far from requiring sharpening, could very well have done with flattening.

But now, I’m going to tell you my very own secret. Is the whisky handy? I really believe you should have a shot before you read any more. I didn’t intend to reveal this secret, because, after being kept in the dark all these years, I thought I would get my own back by keeping this strictly to myself. But I’m afraid I’m not like the old Highlanders. I’m just bursting to tell my secret. Well, the fact of the matter is that I changed over to the closed C myself. There! I knew that would rock you. Have another shot – that’s better. Here is the story. As most of you know, I was a prisoner of war in Germany for almost five years. In August 1943 I managed to wangle a transfer to an officers’ camp as an orderly. When I reached this camp I was delighted to meet several 4th Camerons, including one of my pipers and he introduced me to a New Zealand officer who was a piper and who actually had a set of pipes. The chanter or chanter reed of the pipes was rather flat (reeds were very scarce) especially the C, so I practiced playing the C closed to try and improve matters. This went on for months before I managed to get a supply of reeds sent out, and by that time I had become so used to closing the C that I didn’t bother to change back again. Mind you, I only play the longer notes closed; the short C’s I played and stillplay, open.

When I am judging piping, I never take marks off a man because he plays an open C.

So let’s be reasonable and correct. Let’s say, “We think that such and such is the best way” or “In our considered opinion such and such is the best way.”

If we feel we must be dogmatic, then let’s be able and willing to produce conclusive evidence to prove our assertions.

If by this time, the bottle is empty, and your eyes are slight glazed, there is only one thing to do, just nip out to the nearest one, sit down in the darkest and quietest corner you can find, and order a glass and a pint. Very likely you will go into a dream, and you will be astonished at the extraordinary things you will think of. You may even hear the spirit voice of a MacArthur or a MacCrimmon whispering in your ear “Don’t be so damned silly.”

John Wilson,
Toronto, Canada

The following letter was published in the October, 1954, edition.

Dear Sir,

The letters of Mr Angus Macpherson and Mr John Wilson in your August number deal faithfully with (to quote the latter) “the recent dogmatic statements that the open ‘C’ is wrong,” and there is no need for me to describe the practice and precepts of my several teachers, from Angus MacRae in 1897 downwards.

Archie Campbell of Kilberry.
Archie Campbell of Kilberry.

I should like, however, to deny that the controversy, if any, is correctly described on the page of ‘Contents’ as ‘Joseph MacDonald and The College versus the Rest.’ A careful perusal of Joseph MacDonald’s Treatise will reveal that, like Mr Wilson, he played the ‘C’ both ways, and ‘open’ even when the note was long. We are left with ‘The College versus the Rest,’ and it is regrettable that the College, which does such admirable work in the cause of piping, should set itself up in opposition to the rest of the piping world in this detail. I trust that the unfortunate description of the ‘C’ on page 22 of the College’s otherwise excellent Tutor will be revised in a future edition.

If some of Mr Wilson’s observations (good humoured though they are) may seem a trifle unkind to the College, has not the College asked for them? The College may have misled your third correspondent, Mr MacIntyre, and other pipers in far New Zealand in regard to the high ‘A.’ Perhaps he never heard George MacLennan play; unquestionably one of Scotland’s highest authorities.

To revert to Joseph MacDonald, it would be advisable for anyone proposing to cite him as an authority to consult first his original MS. in the library to Edinburgh University. The printed version was published more than 40 years after the author’s death, and differs from the original in several particulars. Who was responsible for the differences no one knows.

Archibald Campbell,

Archie MacNeill’s article appeared in the November, 1954, Piping Times:

Controversial ‘C’

My attention was drawn to the article on the above note and I am surprised that John Wilson never heard the difference between the two methods of playing the ‘C.’ He is correct in his statement that the pipers must have kept it a secret. I was not long trying to be a piper before I discovered that the ‘C’ was slightly flat and did not chord properly with the drones. When I was about seventeen years of age I attended the Highland Games at Luss and Helensburgh and heard how the ‘C’ sounded in piobaireachd playing. My chum and I would go near the piper who was tuning up near a hedge or tree or some out of the way corner. The piper would keep turning round about so that we would not see his fingers. At first thought it was my own chanter that was out of balance, although if I had a reed that was too sharp on the top ‘G,’ the note ‘C’ would be correct. Why, I cannot tell.

Archie MacNeill.
Archie MacNeill.

In 1897 I was introduced to the late J. A. Center, Bagpipe maker, piper and dancer, whose business was in Grove Street, Edinburgh. I told him I couldn’t get the ‘C’ to please me in my pipe chanter unless I played it as a so-called ‘false’ note. He was a very friendly chap and told me he was 29 years of age and always played the ‘C’ with the little finger down. A few years later I met him and G.S. Allan in Edinburgh and we had another talk about this note. Allan also played it with the little finger on. Center told me that he tried to make a chanter which could be played with the fingers up and still keep the ‘C’ correct, but it spoiled the note ‘D.’ In Joseph MacDonald’s book the ‘C’ is shown with the little finger down and the little finger off or on for the top ‘G’ and ‘A.’ In Wm. MacKay’s tutor of 1841, corrected and improved by Angus MacKay in the year 1843, the note ‘D’ is shown with the two bottom fingers on. I have been told some of the old pipers played it this way and I find that it makes a better fourth than the orthodox method as some chanters are sharp on the note ‘D.’ Some pipers find it difficult to play the closed ‘C’ but what about the note ‘D’ in the third part of the Smith of Chilliechassie – Wm. Ross’s collection. The little finger has to go off and on 5 times and three fingers go up and down instead of two. In conclusion, if the note sounds true what does it matter how it is fingered.

My son Alex met the famous blind pianist Alex Templeton at the Highland Games in Hamilton, Ontario, some years ago. The latter had got a set of pipes and a tutor and said he couldn’t get the note ‘C’ correct as it was flat. He was quite surprised when told to play it with the little finger down.

In 1954 there was also a letter from Archie Euman of Peebles who had been taught by Willie Ross at the Castle. He inferred that he was not actively encouraged to play the closed C by the great man, but observing that he himself did have his pinkie down for C, he concluded that if it was good enough for Pipey Ross then he would do it, too.

Our conclusion would have to be that Seumas MacNeill and Tommy Pearston were successful in moving virtually all pipers of successive generations to the closed C.