By Peter Cooke
In the first part of this article I described how two distinct performing traditions, which existed at the end of the 18th century, could be exemplified in the way notators chose to write out what is best regarded as one formulaic motif — the echoing beat on A introduced by the ‘E cadence’. I chose this formula because the way it is played can radically affect how one perceives the melody of a ground as a whole.
While surveying 19th century collections I suggested that by the 1880’s, when Donald MacPhee’s Collection and the first part of the David Glen Collection appeared, the two styles — that of the MacArthurs and MacDonalds on the one hand and that of Angus MacKay on the other — were becoming confused by some pipers. General Thomason’s monumental but compact Ceol Mor appeared in 1900, in which he unsuccessfully attempted to sort out some of the confusion.
The MacPhee and Glen notations suggest that by the 1880’s virtually all pipers gave length to the E in the cadence, but that not all of them also gave any length to the D — many apparently preferred to treat it as an ordinary grace note. But how the first A was played then we are not sure. Neither was Thomason. Writing about the formula he commented: “E is a prominent note in all these beats … The relative values of E and the primary note… [as he notates them] … are more or less conventional’’. He added that in any case the proper timing of the formula “‘is not likely to be acquired correctly whatever the notation may be — without the aid of a master’ (Ceol Mor Notation, 1893, p.9).
For Thomason there were actually two basic ways of rendering the formula and he labelled them the ‘Gairm’ (or Call’) and the ‘Eallach’ (or ‘Burden’), He notated the ‘Eallach’ showing length for the note D as well as E, and, according to the musical metre, he shows five different ways of writing the ‘Eallach’ (see example 2a). Example 2b shows how he generally treated the ‘Gairm’.
However, five years after Ceol Mor appeared, this indefatigable researcher had changed his mind (in his revision to Ceol Mor, Abbreviated Notation, 1905), and he set out to correct, among other things, what he admitted was ‘’a serious defect in the first edition of Ceol Mor”, a failure to distinguish between “‘full’’ double echoes (eallach) and “‘broken”’ double echoes (gairm). The broken form which he then introduced is none other than the formula as played in the MacArthur/ MacDonald style with a long first A (example 2c)
while the ‘full’ eallach represents the formula played with a short or equal first A (example 2d).
He makes an interesting statement in his revision: “Pipers of the present day will not, as a rule, admit of the distinction between the Eallach and the Gairm, but the Author cannot concede this point. It used to be very marked in his early piping days and is still to be traced in Skye. How the distinction has vanished now, it is impossible to say, but it is a great pity …”. Thomason’s “early piping days” date back to the 1850’s when he himself was a beginner on the pipes and when he first noted the formulaic nature of many pibroch grounds (see page v of his introduction to Ceol Mor).
Thomason suggests (probably mistakenly) that these two different ways of playing the formula could actually occur in the same piece.
Not a clear case
If, for him in 1905, it was not a clear case of two different styles, for others it is, and feelings about the two styles are polarising. At least one authority still has an open mind, however.
David Glen’s collection, The Music of the Clan MacLean (1905) contains an interesting footnote to a setting of The Bicker, here called MacLean of Coll Putting his Foot on the Neck of His Enemy, which Glen collected from Coll’s piper, John Johnson. Presumably, Johnson learned his art from the Rankins — hereditary pipers to the MacLeans — before the last of them emigrated to Prince Edward’s Island early in the 19th century. Johnson’s curious way of playing E cadences intrigued Glen so much that he notated the style, a style where there is no pause on E or D but where the piper briskly tumbles down to the melody note (example 2e).
Since some of the later Rankins were trained in Skye, could this way of playing have been typical of that of the MacArthurs and MacDonalds? In other words, did they play them as they actually wrote them? Glen’s footnote is tantalising for his example stops just short of the bar where the A formula is used.
But there are still pipers around who are in no doubt that the A should be played long. In 1907 Lt. John MacLennan, for example, complained that the practice of playing echoing beats on A as a birl was now common (presumably the birl results from pipers rattling through MacKay’s version) and to counteract this MacLennan adopted a notation that exaggerated the length of the first A (example 2f).
He also felt that the habit of leaving the length of the E in the cadence to the pleasure of the performer had resulted in the destruction of the rhythm of the ground, for pipers were making the E too long (see his preface to Piobaireachd as the MacCrimmons Played It).
In his second volume, published posthumously 16 years later, he reiterated his complaint about the birl, comparing the modern way of playing the formula to the “neighing of the horse” (The Piobaireachd as Performed in the Highlands for Ages, Till About the Year 1808).
But we have now reached the time of the founding of the Piobaireachd Society, whose work so far as this formula is concerned was to prove crucial in deter- mining the fate of the different styles, because of its early policy that pipers must play in competitions ‘according to the book’ (i.e. follow whatever is the approved setting).
The Society was founded in 1903 and its first four books (1905, 1906, 1907 and 1910) show how successive committees plumped for one or the other of the two styles of writing out the double echo. Dr. Charles Bannatyne’s influence is seen in the two middle books where the MacDonald/MacArthur style is adopted (Ex. 2g) and, in the Oban Times, both he and Lt. John MacLennan strongly attacked the fourth book where the committee had reverted to a modified form of MacKay’s version (Ex. 2h), said to have been produced with the aid of such pipers as John MacDonald of Inverness, J. MacDougall Gillies and W. Ross (Scots Guards) (see Preface Book 4, 1910).
The first volume of the new series edited by Maj. J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus eventually settled the question of what was in future to be the approved way of playing our formula. MacKay’s style is preferred to MacDonald’s from the very outset, but the formula is notated showing a birl on a minim A (Ex. 2j) or in later volumes with a crotchet E (taking the accent) followed by the birl (Ex. 2k).
The music committee justified their notation because of the “unanimity which exists among the players, who have inherited the traditional teaching, as to the correct way of fingering these movements in spite of recorded staff notation.” (Preface Vol. i, p.iv).
That there could not have been unanimity made little difference. With pibroch playing receiving recognition only on the competition platform, these words and the new settings dealt what was perhaps the final blow to the MacArthur/MacDonald way of playing the formula and it is interesting that any later public protests about how it should be played came mostly from outside Scotland, away, that is, from competitions supervised by the Society.
The most articulate commentator was G.F. Ross writing from Calcutta in two books (published by Henderson of Glasgow) in 1926 and 1929: they were presumably by way of reply to the Piobaireachd Society’s first book in the new series. In the preface to his first volume Ross stated: “The principal source of argument is the playing of the double beat on low A” (p.16) and he expands on this theme in his second volume in his ‘Word to the player’: “What causes, above all, loss of rhythm in these days is the over-dwelling on the E of the G-E-D cadence and the rushing of the double beat on A … The double beat on A should be played as written herein [Ex. 2l]
and should not on any account be rushed as some modern publications would indicate … Therefore, when seeking for the rhythmic swing of a tune, find the rhythm of the double beat on A by the omission of the cadence … It should be observed that where the double beat on A is followed by a long A to complete the bar the rhythm of a tune will generally demand the longest accent on the first A of the double beat, rather than on the last. This view is confirmed by Joseph MacDonald in his Treatise on the Scots Highland Bagpipe.
Ross had, by 1926, to look back to the distant past for confirmation of his strongly held views; but he looked also to Simon Fraser, an Australian piper who had been corresponding at great length over several decades with pipers all around the world about the style he had learned. Simon Fraser was a pupil of Peter Bruce of Glenelg, a prize-winning piper in the Highland Society of London’s competition in 1838. Peter Bruce had emigrated to Australia taking with him what he had learned from his father Alex, who was reputed to be Donald Ruadh MacCrimmon’s favourite pupil.
I have not been able to inspect the complete Simon Fraser manuscript collection (in the possession of Dr. Barrie Orme of Melbourne) but was able to note two of Fraser’s ways of writing the formula we are discussing (Ex. 2m). They pose a fascinating question: could they be evidence of how Donald Ruadh played echoing beats? If so, where did John MacKay get his style?
Simon’s son, Hugh, seems to have abandoned his father’s style of playing echoing beats on A: we know this from a recording made by Hugh when in his 80s and kindly supplied to the School of Scottish Studies by Dr. Orme. So as a playing tradition this detail of Fraser’s style has apparently died out in Australia.
The writer has discovered only one piper in Scotland who insists on playing and notating echoing beats with a long first A: this is George Moss of Kessock who tells me that long ago he opted out of the competitive field of piping because he refused to adapt his style to that favoured by judges in competitions.
There is also the evidence of a Uist piper, Calum Beaton, who told me once that an uncle of his used to play with a long first A until John MacDonald of Inverness came out to teach in South Uist as the Piobaireachd Society’s instructor and told him this was ‘wrong’.
I must admit to being impressed by the musical sense to be heard in this apparently obsolete pibroch style and this brings us back to the reason for this long and perhaps tedious piece of documentation. It is to pose the following question.
Case for re-assessment?
If we accept that pipers are today playing a repertory, which in its heyday more than 200 years ago was performed in a number of different styles, depending on how far the main centres of performing and teaching were isolated or otherwise from each other; and if we accept that performance styles have inevitably changed through time, some merging with others, some even dying, is there not case for a reassessment of today tradition, or at least for an honest attempt at reconstructing some of these earlier styles?
Such an approach is not uncommon in other musical fields. There is, for instance, the work of the late David Munro whose research and performance European medieval and renaissance music was a catalyst to a tremendous flowering of interest in ‘early music’. Some of his efforts at historical reconstruction initially outraged some of the more academic historians, but his sheer musicianship allied with scholarship won him the respect of thousands, among both the general public and his peers.
At least one piper, Pipe Major James McColl of California has already begun a reappraisal, with daring experiments with the tempos of pibrochs. Even if those pibroch enthusiasts present at this year’s  Piobaireachd Society conference had enjoyed hearing recordings of McColl playing, they know that he would not be considered for a place in competition today. In any case some of his tempo could be faulted in historical and music grounds.
But what if another competent piper offered a rendering of Hector MacLean Warning’s just as it is written in the MacArthur MS, complete with long first A’s preceded perhaps with short tumbling G-E-D cadences for good measure? This should be a different matter, for as I have tried to show there is solid documentary evidence to suggest that some pipers traditionally played that way. Until such an experiment is not felt to be out of place in competitions it would be worth creating a non-competitive platform (eve at competition meetings) for such experiments.
All else that is needed is for pibroch players to be prepared to put behind them what knowledge may have com down to them in a master-pupil succession by admitting the possibility of change during the last two centuries. Then they can look afresh at the historical records created at a time when the MacArthur, MacCrimmon and Rankin pipers were still alive and playing.