Part 2 of Iain MacInnes’s 2000 John MacFadyen Lecture

Iain MacInnes

Competition is very much part and parcel of the piping culture here in Scotland, and its shaped not just the music, but also the style of performance. It all goes back to 1781, when the Highland Society of London started the first modern contest (if we can call 1781 modern) that took place at the famous cattle Tryst in Falkirk. But then two years later there was a huge row over the results, and the whole thing decamped to Edinburgh, where it stayed until the 1840s. Now so much of what we take for granted today in performance-style was formulated at the Edinburgh contest; not just superficial things like dress and deportment and etiquette, but more fundamental things like how we actually play the tunes.

It became clear to me when I was researching the history of these competitions, that within 40 years of them starting in the 1780s, pipers were being gently persuaded to change the shape of the tunes. And they did this by gradually abandoning the old practice of repeating the theme of the tune, the ground, at various points throughout the performance. And as you can imagine, this substantially altered the feel of the music.

All the early texts, the pipe music collections, descriptions of how pipers played and so on, suggest that repetition of the ground had been common practice prior to the 1830s. The tune, Cean na Drochaid Beag, the End of the Small Bridge, is a classic gathering tune. It appears in the first published collection of pibroch with no fewer than 20 variations and five repetitions of the ground. And it’s the sort of tune that we really don’t hear nowadays; it must have been played urgently, briskly.

This first collection was called the Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia, put out by the Edinburgh pipe-maker Donald MacDonald in 1820; and Donald puts it very neatly in his introduction. He says:

“As a chorus of a song is to the verses, So is a ground of a pibroch to its variations, and ought to be played after the doubling and where it happens tripling of each measure. It is also the conclusion of each piece, as well as its beginning”.

But why this desire to change the shape of the tunes? I don’t know what the pipers themselves made of it, but for the competition organisers, faced with the task of entertaining large audiences in Edinburgh, it was simple expedience. With shorter tunes, more pipers were able to perform in public in the time available. And by the beginning of last century, the old custom of repetition of the ground had, in effect, been abandoned.

It’s interesting that when we talk of piobaireachd and piping, we’re so often presented with an image of an unchanging art form that’s come to us perfectly preserved from the time of the MacCrimmons. But that’s an image which is really quite hard to sustain. Each generation of pipers has, it seems to me, left its mark, whether it be in adapting the tunes to suit the competition format, or simply in favouring one style of performance over another.

And that, perhaps, explains the sort of comment made by Angus MacPherson, Invershin:

“The piobaireachd and pipe music generally has lost the soul that I’ve heard of it played by the old men, and it’s become mechanical, rounded-off, and consequently you don’t have the lift and the spirit that I’ve heard in my day”.

John Johnstone, Islay.
John Johnstone, Islay.

And this sort of viewpoint is really quite common, particularly where older players are talking about piobaireachd. It’s an acknowledgement, perhaps, that styles have changed, and that the tradition has moved on from generation to generation. For instance here’s the piper John Johnstone from Coll writing to the Oban Times in 1912:

“Compared with ancient piobaireachd as played by the great pipers of old, the present mode of playing is immensely wide of the mark. This is so much the case that one who acquired them at first hand from the great performers would scarcely know them”.

And here’s Pipe Major Willie Gray in 1940: “There is but a slender chance”, says Willie, “of the art ever again rising to the standard of the older players”.

And the reasons?: “… environment, lack of knowledge of the Gaelic language, loss of technique, and the modern and faulty method of setting down music in print”.

Now by these sort of comments we needn’t assume that piping is in a hopeless and irretrievable state of decay; simply that things have changed. And possibly the main way in which things have changed in the past century is that there has been a general consolidation of playing style. Most modern pipers do play piobaireachd in a way which is quite consistent, one to another, a style distilled from the teachings of Calum MacPherson and John MacDonald of Inverness, filtered through their pupils, and left to mature in the published settings of the Piobaireachd Society. If a John MacDougall Gillies, or a Willie Gray, or a Robert Reid or a John Johnstone even, were to appear nowadays on stage at the Eden Court, they would, I’m sure, sound quite different from most of the modern players.

Brian Donaldson competing in the Former Winners' MSR at the 2019 Northern Meeting.
Brian Donaldson competing at the 2019 Northern Meeting.

And if a certain uniformity has crept in, then perhaps that’s the price we’ve had to pay for the sheer convenience of having pipe music printed on the stave. The historian Hugh Cheape puts it very neatly in his book, The Book of the Bagpipe. He says: “As traditional music was written down, arranged and published, the swirling pool of folk music began to crystallise and become less fluid”.

 The sheer variety of performance that we might have witnessed say 150 years ago has perhaps diminished but in recent years there has been a huge amount of genuine interest in alternative settings and styles of performance. The pool of pibroch knowledge has certainly crystallised, mainly round the settings published by Archibald Campbell of Kilberry and the second series of the Piobaireachd Society, but it certainly hasn’t stagnated.

Bruce Gandy receiving the Donald MacDonald Cuach in 2015.
Bruce Gandy receiving the Donald MacDonald Cuach in 2015.

The Clan Donald Association, for instance, runs a competition in Skye, which concentrates on Donald MacDonald settings; text from the Gesto Canntaireachd, the Campbell Canntaireachd, and the Angus MacArthur MS is now readily available for pipers who are interested; and researchers such as Allan MacDonald have been exploring links between the Gaelic song tradition and early piobaireachd, and their findings have been persuasive.

One thing Angus MacKay, who was Queen Victoria’s piper, appears to have done when he published his seminal pibroch collection in 1838, was to quietly rationalise, in effect reduce, the number of fingering options available to the piper.


Light music

Well, so far I’ve been talking about piobaireachd, a subject that does tend to occupy a great deal of thought and effort in certain parts of the piping community. But the truth is that piobaireachd isn’t where most of the creative energy in piping is now focused. If we can look on piobaireachd as the grand old man of the piping world, then the exuberant youth is busy ploughing his furrow in the field of light music. And we do have a huge amount to celebrate when it comes to the light music tradition.

The beautiful quicksteps, for instance, that started appearing in the 1820s as Army pipers played troops from one posting to the next. The big competition marches which emerged with Hugh and Angus MacKay, and later, with brilliant composers like John MacColl and Willie Lawrie. With the tunes designed specifically for competition, the strathspeys and reels adapted from the dance music tradition, and built into big, impressive exhibition pieces. And with the music that’s gone hand in hand with the explosion of interest in pipe bands.

This type of music is the vehicle that’s carried piping round the world, and which has made it a truly global phenomenon a great success. Earlier this month the Edinburgh Military Tattoo was staged for the first time on foreign soil, in Wellington, New Zealand, and the focus was, as ever, on the swank and swagger of the pipe bands, and on their music. If you happen to find yourself in Glasgow in mid-August, you’ll come across almost 4,000 pipers and drummers, over 200 bands, at least 40 of them from abroad, in town for the World Pipe Band Championships. At the time of writing, the championship trophy has gone outside Scotland six times in the past 10 years.

"… modern pipe bands have fuelled an explosion in modern composing."
“… modern pipe bands have fuelled an explosion in modern composing.”

And of course as the bands themselves have put down roots all round the world, so the idea of what constitutes good pipe band music has also shifted. It was in 1970 that the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association first introduced a medley selection in competition. The aim was to create music that was a bit more exciting to listen to, more likely to appeal to a mass audience.

And its certainly been very successful. Bands have been pushing back the musical frontiers. They’ve been looking to orchestrate tunes and drum scores in a way which was never attempted before the 1970s. And, of course, band pipers have been composing tunes which suit their own requirements. Just as the big competition marches evolved in the 1840s, hand-in-hand with the new competitions, so modern pipe bands have fuelled an explosion in modern composing.

And it’s been instructive to look on from the sidelines, because it’s become clear that pipers born and bred in Melbourne and Los Angeles, say, often do have a different musical sensibility to pipers here in Scotland, a different perception of what constitutes a good pipe tune. And the debate is just starting. Are pipe bands in fact taking  us too far from the musical culture of the Highland pipe? Are we simply sacrificing the grand old tunes for a mish-mash of flashy and futuristic finger exercises, or to paraphrase one 19th century writer, tunes which begin, go on, and end, no one knows when, or how, or where.

Mavericks. G. S. MacLennan and Peter Mac Leod Snr.
Mavericks. G. S. MacLennan and Peter Mac Leod Snr.

But this to me is a healthy debate. We have to remember that G. S. MacLennan, for instance, was looked on as a bit of a maverick when he was composing at the start of last century; or that the great tunes of Peter MacLeod were often considered too difficult to play in his own lifetime. And of course both are now regarded as amongst the greats of modern pipe music composing. We need people to be questing and probing at the edges, creating new music, because that’s how the tradition lives and breathes. New tunes which are good will be played and accepted; tunes which aren’t will be quickly forgotten. The wheat separates from the chaff, and in many ways this is perhaps the key role of modern pipe bands; they allow composers to be experimental and innovative, and even if some of what’s being played sounds alien to our ears, time will tell. Many tunes which were composed for pipe bands in the early 1980s, for instance, have already been forgotten; but the best have been absorbed into the wider repertoire.

• Part 3.