Dr. Angus MacDonald

2020 marks 200 years since Donald MacDonald produced his first volume of piobaireachd in staff notation. This is the oldest comprehensive written record of ceòl mòr by a piper. A pioneering work, he tackled the difficult problem of committing intricate piobaireachd embellishments to staff notation. He was the person who laid down the format for piping notation with the ornamental gracing above the stave and the theme of the tune on the stave.

His first volume of ceòl mòr appeared in 1820. It contained 23 tunes. By 1826 he had a further 50 tunes ready for publication. This manuscript, however, was not published by him and remained unknown to the piping world until 1893.

Prior to Donald MacDonald, Patrick MacDonald included four pipe tunes in his music collection of 1784 . He provides more evidence for short runs of notes which are today the prolonged ‘cadence’.

Interpreting the music of Donald MacDonald begins to make sense if we apply the advice and instructions he gives before the first tune in his book:

“… in this and the following Piobaireachs the small notes may be left out by the piano forte player ad libitum.”

The frontispiece of Donald MacDonald’s first volume (1820).

Patrick’s brother, Joseph MacDonald, who left a manuscript, A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, written in 1760 but not published until 1803, gives the same advice. Joseph leaves us in no doubt as to the place of ornamentations in the music. What we now call cadences, he called “introductions”, that is, a succession of grace note or runs of small notes leading down to a melody note he instructs, “must be all introduced in the manner you see the little notes set down, and the learner must be always used with these introductions until he can introduce them properly of his own accord, if he has any taste or genius …”.

In other words, pipers decided on an individual basis when and how often to play these runs.

Further evidence as to their extemporaneous use is that they do not appear in the Campbell Canntaireachd which was compiled around 1800. A very plausible suggestion of their origin is that they were played on the clarsach to accentuate the melody note at a time when the clarsach was the pre-eminent instrument in the highlands and their use in melodies common to both instruments spilled onto the pipes. In The History of Skye, Nicolson mentions the MacCrimmons being “skilful players of the harp”.

‘Patrick Òg’ as it appears in MacDonald’s published book.

In ceòl mòr these decorations also serve to delineate beginning and end of musical phrases but in today’s piobaireachd playing they are so prolonged as to distort the melodic line in some tunes. Donald MacDonald was enthusiastic, maybe too enthusiastic, about inserting these runs into his music. In the tune we know as Lament for Patrick Òg (which he calls ‘Cumha Phadruig Mhoir’) he introduces several four-note runs which we never hear today. These must be played as very short notes running down to the melody note. Angus MacKay reduced these decorations to two- or three-note runs and accentuated the E. For instance in Patrick Òg, there is an E quaver with a grace note on G and the modern way of playing is to play the E as long as the following low G. This is what was taught by John MacDonald to his pupils and is what we hear in that tune and all tunes with similar ‘runs’.

These musical motifs are regularly called ‘cadences’; defined in music as “a melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of resolution”. Clearly, they were not cadences in the ceòl mòr of Donald MacDonald but had been pushed in that direction by Angus MacKay and others and have now burrowed their way into the melodic line.

Another difference that the publication of Donald MacDonald exposes is that of the timing of the so called ‘double echoes’. Joseph MacDonald labelled them ‘crathanin’ or ‘shakes’. This movement, which is a characteristic of piobaireachd playing, was written in different ways in Donald MacDonald but standardised to a different rhythm by Angus MacKay. i.e. facilitating the change of rhythm in double echoes from one beat to a two beat rhythm.

Most piobaireachd players today, myself included, learned from masters of the art who learned in a similar fashion – “That is how John played it”. To question or to suggest changing a style of playing was not acceptable. Competing piobaireachd players were (and still are) obliged to stick to the the accepted style, based largely on the work of Angus MacKay and validated by the Piobaireachd Society.

Some tunes in the Piobaireachd Society publications were taken from the Campbell Canntaireachd and have cadences inserted by the editors. They had previously been lost to the tradition and not therefore handed down via these masters. Their interpretation was purely personal choice as the placing of any cadence runs should be the choice of a skilled player, a practice that could apply to all piobaireachd.

Cameron Drummond competing at the 2016 Donald MacDonald Cuach competition held at Armadale Castle on Skye. Iain MacFadyen and Ian Ruari Finlayson listen intently in the background.

Few in the piping world look back to the older records such as Donald MacDonald. Competitive pipers have little time and less incentive to do so apart from preparing for the annual Donald MacDonald Cuach competition. When MacDonald printed his first 23 piobaireachd in 1820, the experience ruined him financially and his manuscript of 50 more tunes lay unpublished. Few pipers had access to printed music until Angus MacKay’s book appeared in 1838. Its influence superseded anything that preceded it. Donald MacDonald, however, shows many different ways of playing the so called ‘double echoes’, cadences and other embellishments which adds to the musical rhythm and melodic variation within piobaireachd.

There is no difficulty today in accessing piobaireachd on the printed page. altpibroch.com has all sources online and to its great credit the Piobaireachd Society has made readily available all the manuscripts through its website. The republication in 2006 of Donald MacDonald’s 1820 collection of piobaireachd, and Volume 2 – the manuscript edited by Roderick Cannon – are important documents in the history of piobaireachd.

It’s now 200 years since Donald MacDonald’s seminal publication and we have to date failed to adopt what he taught. Piobaireachd Society conferences, seminars and learned papers have laid out the evidence for a richer musical palate available to us but we continue to believe that playing parrot-fashion is best.

• Dr. Angus MacDonald is a respected solo piping judge. As a competitor, he won most of the major competitions including the Gold Medals at Oban and Inverness (and in Canada), the Silver Chanter, the Northern Meeting Clasp and the Senior Piobaireachd at the Argyllshire Gathering. He is a Trustee and piping advisor for the Clan Donald Lands Trust, Isle of Skye, and is the main organiser for the annual Donald MacDonald Cuach contest.