Peter McCalister reviews ‘Pipers Meeting’

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• From the October 2017 Piping Times

By Peter McCalister

Jack Taylor and Patrick Molard have done a masterful job of ‘translating’ the remaining unpublished tunes in Colin Campbell’s two volumes of canntaireachd. Several generations of pipers, including the influential Archie Kenneth, suggested that these tunes “lacked musical merit” but Jack and Patrick disagreed, hence this new book. They made a number of important decisions at the outset, including to avoid using time signatures and edit these 45 tunes – many of which were irregular – with a very light touch. This approach differs from the Piobaireachd Society books and other writers, who consider that Colin Campbell must (in his 168 tunes) have made the occasional error, which should be corrected to make tunes more easily followed by pipers and listeners. More of that later.

Jack Taylor and Patrick Molard.
Jack Taylor, left, and Patrick Molard.

Jack and Patrick have produced a major bit of work here. So, what are the tunes like and is it likely that pipers, who have more than 300 piobaireachds already available, will learn these ‘new’ tunes?

Looking at the ‘easier’ pieces first, there are many that pipers will find attractive and easy to learn. By ‘easier’ I mean those which are shorter and in a regular metre or pattern; easier to memorise. Examples might beOne of the Cragich (vol. 1 no. 52) which has an attractive melody and short variations, Cronh Laoide air Aidin thorbein and Euan aka shar shein – Primary tunes where phrase A and phrase B differ by a note or two.

Then there are number of tunes of some difficulty but which spring out of the page as striking pieces of music. Three examples are:

Hindo rodin 3 times. This unassuming title disguises a piece of surprising beauty and complexity. It is probably my favourite tune in the book.

One of the Cragich (vol. 2 no. 26) – an unusual tune where crunluaths appear in the Ground and a crunluath brebach variation is followed by what is described as a crunluath a mach.

White Wedder Black Tail. A lovely tune, despite the fact that sheep were a source of unpopularity at the time of the Highland Clearances (Colin Campbell published vol. 1 in 1790).

Finally there are tunes of astonishing difficulty. These either have many variations or (more commonly) are of very irregular construction. Examples of these are:

Taviltich – which has an enormous irregular melody lasting 58 bars, utilising every note on the chanter. This is followed by taorluath and crunluath singling and doubling variations, each containing 34 bars.

To play this – to even try and memorise it – would be a tour de force. Here is the Ground:

Slanssuive – the powerful melody contains unique phrases – not seen in any other piobaireachd that I have ever seen. This is followed by long variations which look hard to memorise. The ground is below, right:

MacDonald’s Gathering. This tune is called The Gathering of the MacDonalds of Clanranald by Angus MacKay and Donald MacDonald, but Colin Campbell adds (to the staccato Ground) two dithis variations, five tripling variations and five crunluath fosgailte variations. The management of the tempos of all these variations – building the tune over time – would be a challenge to any piper.

I propose that the above suggests a book suited to most pipers, and there are certainly (to use Archie Kenneth’s words) many tunes of “merit.”

I realise that Jack and Patrick wished to present the Campbell Canntaireachd accurately as it appeared on the page in 1790, with few corrections, but my own view would be to look for places where more editing might be done, to correct some of what may have been typos by the Campbell family. For example, the tune called MacMhicAlister’s Dead Lament has obvious bars missing in the later variations, and it is possible to even up these variations to fit with earlier ones. Here is Patrick and Jack’s version:

MacMhicAlister's Dead Lament from 'Piper's Meeting'.
MacMhicAlister’s Dead Lament from ‘Piper’s Meeting’.

I have re-translated the tune from the canntaireachd, below, adding my own take on where cadences might be placed in the Ground, and putting in several movements (especially crunluath movements) to even up the tune for pipers. This demonstrates my final point: the Campbell Canntaireachd is open to many interpretations … so good luck to those who take this on. And well done to Jack and Patrick for putting in the years of work that has led to this book.

Peter McCalister's interpretation of MacMhicAlister's Dead Lament.
Peter McCalister’s interpretation of MacMhicAlister’s Dead Lament.

• Pipers Meeting is available from The Bagpipe Shop.