Allan MacDonald reviews ‘Side Lights on the Kilberry Book of Ceòl Mòr’


• From the June 2017 Piping Times.

By Allan MacDonald

Side Lights on the Kilberry Book of Ceòl Mór, By Malcolm McRae and Robert Wallace (Piobaireachd Society, 2017).

Allan MacDonald.
Allan MacDonald.

This has been republished recently (2016) and is a compilation of notes written by Archibald Campbell of Kilberry (1877-1963) while receiving instruction from, predominantly, Alexander Cameron (1848-1923) and his pupil, John MacDougall Gillies (1854-1925). Campbell tells us in his introduction that he began playing in 1894 but not “attempting to do so well till 1897.” Although he had received some lessons from Angus MacRae in 1897 and from John MacColl in 1898 and ’99 on MacColl’s visits to Kilberry, his “real piobaireachd education” was with MacDougall Gillies from c.1900 onwards to the time of his introductory comments in 1917. In 1905, he had an intense three-week period with John MacDonald, Inverness (1865-1953) and in 1911, another intense period of three weeks with A. Cameron.

His lessons, from a range of different players at the early stages of his piping experience, must have played some part in his need to write notes to differentiate between the teachers; somewhat like noting details on pronunciation of different dialects of a language while learning. This is unique.

He himself stresses that his written scores and comments on them are an attempt to compile some record “on how the tunes are played by my instructors”; in essence, an attempt to help musician pipers interpret the scores that were later published in his 1948 Kilberry Book … that is probably the most accessible and popular book on pibroch available today. His notes represent minutiae on the differences between his instructors that, for him, were presumably very useful. However, for us, they provide little information on how they played the tunes. As he states himself: “So far as the general handling of a piobaireachd goes in timing, phrasing, and working the piece into a harmonious whole, Cameron, Gillies, and Macdonald are much alike.” He then begins to discuss certain features of Cameron’s playing, “wherein Macdonald falls short”. In general, he states Cameron to be “smooth” in his playing whereas Macdonald is apt to “cut” notes unnecessarily and “perhaps a little rigid and wooden at times.”

Archibald Campbell of Kilberry.
Archibald Campbell of Kilberry.

These comments are, of course, dependent on one having heard these players playing the tunes that he discusses in his notes – 61 tunes in total. However, we have only these comments that are at best subjective, in a medium that cannot be expressed in words.

We can find a bit more on the extent of this subjectivity when we move onto the specific tunes. Turning to The Battle of Waternish, we see an example that bears this out: “The Es at the beginning of each bar should be nice and long. This is in accordance with a rule applicable throughout piobaireachd. Some pipers cut them too short.”

Where did these ‘rules’ suddenly appear from? How can he, after ostensible openness in his introductory comments, state this when there is no evidence from any scores previous to his period that these cadence Es were “‘nice and long”? Yet, despite providing this information, he continues to use quaver (rather than crotchet) introductions/cadences in his score that are similarly reproduced in his 1948 publication (Apart from tunes beginning with ‘hiharin’ where the figure has been split in two beginning with a crotchet). However, Archibald Campbell was well aware of, and commented on [Kilberry: 1948], the shortcomings of conventional notation that he called “pipers’ jargon”.

Archibald’s son, James, many years later attempted to reconcile the hiatus between notation and reality using an outdated concept called ‘appoggiatura’ that was inappropriate in the context of pibroch notation. The idea that the ‘introductions’ or ‘cadences’ should take a time value from the notes they decorate is an attempt to reconcile the mathematical precision, implicit in the musical score, with the actual performance. Later 20th century pibroch performance has vastly elongated the cadences, to the detriment of melody and rhythm and because of this style, the ‘appoggiatura’ conditions could be argued as being valid. However, this can only be relevant to the standardised three-note cadence where the middle note E, takes the value from the principal note.

I was present when James gave the talk in Skye and when I asked him how this could be relevant in the context of Joseph and Donald MacDonald 4, 5 or 6 note ‘introductions’ running down to the principal note, he was silent for a while and finally said: “Frankly, I do not know.” However, this subject has already been comprehensively analysed by Dr. Peter Cooke, formerly musicologist at the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh and as I thought, laid to rest.

The increasing standardisation and convergence of performing styles is underlined by Campbell’s attention to what are relatively unimportant distinctions, especially when we cannot possibly understand the importance of these without the context of a phrase of music. Any description at all would be severely deficient. In this case, it is rather like taking a word out of a sentence of prose and examining it on its own merit. Throughout the sidelights, there are many examples of Campbell taking a motif or figure and analysing the relative lengths of e.g. an E cadence and its following theme note like in Guileagag Mhorag where the E (written as a short grace-noted quaver) is played as long as the following crotchet. Well, these are surely idiosyncrasies of Gillies and Cameron that defy the notation given. We cannot be aware of its context in the whole phrase and can never be, because we cannot hear it being played. We have to assume then, that the piper who reads this and wants to play as Cameron (with E held as long as following crotchet) or like Gillies (with a shorter crotchet) is able then to understand ‘rubato’ and free rhythm to form a balanced phrase. I believe in the German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz’s theory in music that the good musician is the mathematician manqué and that when one elongates notes of the phrase in one place then other notes are instinctively shortened to balance out the phrase. We have to assume that the piper-musician will do this after having incorporated these idiosyncrasies in the style.

Sandy Cameron and John MacDougall-Gillies.
Sandy Cameron and John MacDougall-Gillies.

We are looking at a style that was developing into what we now have today – with vastly elongated cadence Es; ‘Hiharins’ and ‘Echo beats’(originally, more appropriately, called ‘crahinin’ or ‘shakes’) now played with two beats rather than one beat as found in MacKay and earlier. That the style was continually changing is unquestionable as Campbell makes clear himself: “I found a marked difference when I came home in 1905 to what I had heard before I went out to India in 1901, and even Gillies, who had taught me in 1900 to play the notes long, had now shortened them considerably.” It is, therefore, impossible to believe that the style that Cameron, Gillies and John MacDonald played was anything like that played at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century in light of the changes Campbell observed in a short time.

What this publication represents, then, is a little insight into a particular style that had changed quite dramatically from the early Joseph MacDonald, Donald MacDonald and Angus MacKay styles that were more lyrical than early 20th century performance styles. The ‘lyrical’ style favoured a melody with a rhythm and a memorable line that allowed one to learn orally/aurally before they were slowed down in competition. And with the imposition of ‘classical’ principles, where the score is ‘frozen’ in effect, succeeding generations of performers succumbed to the make-believe that pibroch has remained fairly consistent since the publication of Angus MacKay onwards. Stylistically, it clearly has not and applying a 20th century style to a 19th century score is inappropriate because of its entirely different, or rather alien, cultural context.

A page from Side Lights.

Side Lights on the Kilberry Book provides evidence of contribution to the process of cultural colonisation in piping as well as in other areas of Gaelic arts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Campbell was no different from collectors and publishers of music in the 19th century, throughout Scotland, whose position in society ensured that their ‘patronage’ gave them the unstated but accepted role as ‘improvers’ even though it may never have been Campbell’s intention. The ‘simple’ becomes ‘esoteric’ and complicated and one can never see a forest for trees. Pibroch is no longer a living tradition. This publication provides evidence of how the pibroch tradition was increasingly becoming standardised and ‘boxed’. Its republication may be useful for the competing piper, providing he or she knows how to contextualise it effectively.

General Thomason.
General Thomason.

Archibald Campbell had a sensitivity to pibroch and may have changed his opinions quite dramatically if he had had the opportunity to explore in more depth what General Thomason was convinced of; the lyrical nature of pibroch. Campbell [1948:8] stated: “… the piobaireachd has survived largely through the Army, and by means of the competition system. And the competition system has given with one hand and taken away with the other, for it has fostered playing for dead accuracy alone, to the sacrifice of expression”.

• Gold Medallist and double Clasp winner, Allan MacDonald was taught initially by Pipe Major John MacKenzie of Campbeltown and later by Robert U Nicol and Roddy MacDonald (South Uist).

Side Lights on the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor is available from The Bagpipe Shop, priced £15.00 + p&p.