Blood was spilt over over a semi-quaver in a 1930s feud

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The first excerpt from Iain MacInnes’s John MacFadyen Lecture of spring 2000 entitled ‘The Ancient Martial Music’

Iain MacInnes

Piobaireachd, ceòl mòr, is, I think we’d all agree, a very remarkable and distinctive music; music of the Gaelic speaking Highlands which has travelled, and has taken root in remarkable places, from Vancouver to Melbourne and back again; music which has inspired poets from Duncan Bàn MacIntyre and Mac Mhaighster Alastair to Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean; and music which continues to fascinate some of the best of modern Scottish composers, Ronald Stevenson, Sally Beamish and many more. Yet for all we talk of piobaireachd and admire it, very few of us actually play it.

Now pipers don’t always agree on everything, but one thing on which there is agreement is that piobaireachd is something special, and should be preserved. We have our Piobaireachd Society, but there’s no society for the preservation of the strict tempo march, for instance, or the hornpipe and jig. This is a good thing in many ways, but it also points to the inherent fragility of piobaireachd as an art form; it has been, and remains, a minority interest, not least relative to the overriding popularity of the light music tradition in Scottish piping. Jigs and hornpipes, marches, strathspeys and reels are in the best of health; they’re flourishing; they’re the focus of much creative effort. Experimentation and innovation lie with the pipe bands and composers in the field of light music. By contrast, piobaireachd survives, where it does at all, almost exclusively on the competition platform in the hands of a relatively small number of top class and highly dedicated performers. Elsewhere it finds few outlets. The focus is on preservation and interpretation; there’s little scope for creativity; for writing and experimenting with new music

But what I’m saying now isn’t all that different from what commentators on piobaireachd have being saying for the past two centuries. And piobaireachd has survived. It’s changed, I think, in material ways, since, say, the early 19th century, when the first published collections started appearing, but the core of the tradition has remained strong. And perhaps more so than any of Scotland’s other musical traditions, piobaireachd gains from the rich inheritance of unbroken teaching, learning and performance. This is very distinctive, and all the best pipers are acutely aware of their musical heritage: who taught them; where the music came from.

And of course people who are passionate about pibroch have always been willing to argue the case for the music, with passion. When I was putting together my thoughts for this evening, one of the first things that sprang to mind was Robert Garioch’s wry and witty commentary on one the early Edinburgh Festivals, I think in the early 50s, in his poem Embro to the Ploy. An incident involved a small group of pipers in the Epworth Hall down on Nicholson Street. There was an altercation and this is how Robert Garioch puts it:

“The Epworth haa wi wonder did
Behold a pipers bicker;
Wi hadarid and hindarid
The air got thick and thicker.
Cumha Na Cloinne played on strings
Torments a piper quicker to get his
dander up by jings,
than thirty u.p. liquor
Hoocheye!
In Embro to the ploy’

Written, I presume, about an incident in which one of the great piobaireachd, Cumha na Cloinne, the Lament for the Children, was rendered on a stringed instrument, an insult to pipers indeed.

I like this verse for two reasons. First of all, particularly in the Lowland tradition, there was in fact a very strong connection between piping and poetry (and there’s a significant body of songs and poems connected with pipers and piping, such as The Life and Times of Habbie Simpson, piper of Kilbarchan, written in the 1650s, which itself spawned a metric form known nowadays as standard Habbie; and songs like Maggie Lauder and John Anderson my Jo. John Anderson was in fact Town Piper of Kelso, who you might recall was having a bit of trouble with his chanter stick in the original, unsanitised version of that particular song; but this isn’t perhaps the time or the place to go too far down the road of exploring piping metaphor; and secondly I like the verse because Robert Garioch has got his canntaireachd absolutely right. Canntaireachd is the old method of singing pipe tunes using specific vocables to represent each cluster of notes and grace notes. He’s spot on: “Wi’ Hadarid and Hindarid the air got thick and thicker”.

And piobaireachd experts amongst you will recognise the vocables for the taorluath movement, one of the closing variations in most piobaireachd. And I suspect that Robert Garioch really knew his way about the pipes, he might have been a piper himself, I don’t know; but in another of his poems, The Big Music, his description of the instrument and the harmonics in the drones and so on is just absolutely right; its very astute observation.

Pipe Major Willie Gray argued the 'redundant A' was not actually played.
Pipe Major Willie Gray argued the ‘redundant A’ was not actually played.

I’d more or less forgotten about that poem until I was reading William Donaldson’s excellent new book on Scottish piping history (its called The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society); and in that he devotes a whole chapter to an incident that took place in 1926 in the aptly named Oddfellows Hall in Forrest Road in Edinburgh. And this involved the coming together of two interesting figures in piping history, Willie Gray who was pipe major of the Glasgow Police and a composer and publisher; and another chap called John Grant,who was a pipe music teacher in Edinburgh, and an avid writer on piping matters to the Oban Times. And in those days the Oban Times was the main forum for pipers who wanted to air their views in public; and believe me, there were plenty of them. There was a packed audience at this event which was billed in the press as, “The pipers challenge’ and the matter under discussion was, well nothing earth- shattering or cataclysmic, but simply the question of the inclusion or otherwise, whether to play or not to play, a single note of almost inaudible length in the taorluath and crunluath movements of the piobaireachd. This note became known as the ‘redundant’ A, a note which certainly appears in most of the early pipe music publications, but which Willie Gray and others argued, was not actually played by the majority of performers. ‘Wi Hadarid and Hindarid the air got thick and thicker’.

In any event, the meeting was inconclusive, the debate raged on in the press into the 1930s; there was genuine annoyance and ill feeling within the piping community. It became known as the ‘redundant A’ controversy. But sitting here now, 75 years later, in the 21st century, surely we have to sit back and ask why? What on earth was the big deal? Why did it matter how you timed the precise movements in the taorluath and crunluath variations. As Willie Donaldson says in his book, “Why this apparent willingness to shed blood over a semi-quaver?”

Well one thing the incident points to is the strength of the teaching tradition; the belief in piping ancestry, pedigree, the passing of correct style from master to pupil. If that’s how a tune has been taught, then that’s how it should be played. Indeed in the course of the debate in the Oddfellows Hall in Edinburgh, the Oban Times reported that John Grant had outlined his piping pedigree. Mr Grant stated he was taught by Pipe Major Ronald MacKenzie, a pupil of John Bàn MacKenzie, who was taught by Angus MacKay, and who in turn was taught by John Dubh MacCrimmon. Dynamic stuff; straight to the MacCrimmons in four generations, though it’s worth pointing out that in point of fact, this didn’t make too much sense, because Angus MacKay was highly unlikely ever to have met Iain Dubh MacCrimmon, an old man during Angus’s boyhood.

But piobaireachd is essentially conservative by nature, and to know where the music comes from and how it passes from one generation to the next, helps legitimise your own performance and style of interpretation. And I often wonder if the reason why really quite minor musical issues in piobaireachd become important is that the music itself has moved ever further from the society: that created it, the Gaelic speaking Highlands of the 16th and 17th centuries.

We’ve become dislocated, distanced, from that tradition. The less we feel part of a creative musical community, the more we have to rely on received wisdom; the application of rules and formulae; of prescribed texts. What was once intuitive and natural becomes harder; its like learning a foreign language, where you have to consciously learn the vocabulary before you can string a sentence together. And of course in the past 100 years, as the music itself has turned global, and pipers around the world, many of whom have never seen Scotland let alone the Highlands, turn to playing pibroch, they really have only two things they can rely on; one is the tradition of direct teaching from master to pupil; and the other is the printed score. And as we shall see, the printed score has become ever more important.

Angus MacPherson
Angus MacPherson … could trace his piping lineage to the MacCrimmons.

I’d like to play you a clip from the BBC piping archive. It’s one which many of you will have heard before, but which beautifully illustrates this strong sense of continuity. It’s Angus MacPherson from the famous piping family from Cat Lodge in Badenoch, and this is Angus recorded in 1959 at the age, I think, of 82, and as you can hear, Angus really does have a direct line to the MacCrimmons . . .

‘I started to learn the pipes when six or seven years old at Cat Lodge. My father had just retired as piper to the Laird Cluny MacPherson. I have a very long connection with piping, perhaps longer than any man living today who plays pipes. I can trace my connection right back to my great grandfather who was a piper, Peter MacPherson from Skye. I know for a fact my grandfather Angus MacPherson had lessons from John MacCrimmon at Boreraig and he and Angus MacKay, the son of the great John MacKay of Raasay lived beside one another on that island.

My grandfather got further lessons from John MacKay when he and John’s own son played together on the braes of Raasay. My father was born there and naturally he got his piping to begin with from his own father, my grandfather. Therefore, I claim that I have had my ceòl mòr and my ceòl beag too, handed down from the original source.

Unfortunately, living in the days we are in now piobaireachd and the music of the bagpipe generally has changed rapidly, and I am afraid that it has lost the soul that I have heard in it played by the old men and has become mechanical, rounded off, and consequently you haven’t got the spirit and the life in the music that I heard in my day …”

Angus MacPherson recorded in 1959, and it was Angus who used the magnificent term, “piobaireachd has never been the same since they imprisoned it behind bars”; in other words, he really disliked the use of printed music in the teaching of piobaireachd, which to many, even now, remains first and foremost an oral tradition.

• Part 2.