Set Tunes analysis: Isabel MacKay

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Today, we kick off yet another occasional series, this time on the tunes that are set regularly for the major solo piping competitions. The first tune to be discussed is Isabel MacKay. The tune was last set in 2016, although it is in the current CLASP list. Here to take us through the tune is the Great Educator himself, the famous Seumas from the May 1987 Piping Times.

By Seumas MacNeill

Seumas MacNeill
Seumas MacNeill

The recommended texts are the Piobaireachd Society Book 6 and the Kilberry book. It also appears and is discussed in Further Sidelights. Apart from the actual difficulties of interpretation this tune illustrates quite a number of changes which have occurred in the writing of piobaireachd in the last hundred and fifty years. According to Book 6, “The setting printed is that of Angus MacKay.” I am sure that this statement was made in all honesty, but it is far from being correct. Perhaps when these books appeared, when almost all piobaireachd learners lived in Scotland and were able to go to a master piper for instruction, the differences between these texts and that of Angus MacKay were not important. Now, however, they are very important, and even 50 years ago a good deal of license was taken when changing Angus’s version of the tune into the more modern concise notation.

As a general point, and not specific to this particular tune, the method of writing Hiharin by the Piobaireachd Society has probably changed our emphasis when playing this movement. Almost invariably, when Angus MacKay writes

this has been contracted to

I do not want to suggest that I give any support to the proposals that are occasionally touted around that we should really be doing a big wabbly birl with a long rest on the first low A. This, obviously, is not what Angus MacKay is suggesting. But he does show that if you are going to have two beats in the movement then the first one falls on the E and the second one falls on the last low A. Writing the movement in the ‘modern’ style has brought us all round to giving the E a full beat to itself and taking the time for the little finger movement off the final low A. In other words, we probably all play the first E too long. Similarly, the dre movement, shown by Angus MacKay in Hiodre as

has been contracted to

but so far no harm has been done. The danger is that future generations might be tempted to put all the time of the first beat on to the E introductory note, forgetting that Angus Mackay shows the E and B perfectly even.

There are other details of a similar nature, but to the piper learning this tune for competition they will no doubt seem a bit irrelevant. He knows how to play the different movements and the fact that the writing of them has changed over the years is no great worry.

More important, however, is the change which has taken place in the writing of the Taorluath Variations. Angus MacKay calls the movement a “Taorluath Breabach,” which in his book is exactly what it is. The recommended texts however call it a Taorluath, because we do not play the redundant A in taorluath and crunluath movements nowadays, and taking out the redundant A in the taorluath takes away the two-note bounce. Again I do not suggest that you do anything about this, because redundant As have been out of fashion for a very long time, and it is very possible that they were never played as Angus MacKay writes them. After all, he was writing for pianists and other musicians as well as for pipers, and he may well have been trying to write something which to a pianist would mean something that sounded like a taorluath. And you should remember also that those who have traditionally been taught redundant As were told that you should feel it but not hear it.

As a matter of interest Angus MacKay writes this Taorluath Breabach as

Without the redundant A the Variation consists of a Taorluath movement and a straight change to another note as

The redundant A appears also in Angus MacKay’s crunluath movements, except when playing from D. This time there is no appreciable difference for us playing the normal crunluath but there has been a very serious change of emphasis in the expression of this Variation as printed by the Piobaireachd Society. In the Singling, Angus writes

Book 6 for that movement gives

The Kilberry book is the same except that pause marks are put over both the low A and the F.

Now the interpretation of this is that Angus MacKay played the Breabach movement ‘up’, as we say, with most of the time given to the second of the two bounce notes. Book 6 would seem to indicate the usual five beat sequence for a Breabach Crunluath, and Kilberry is obviously indicating that the bounce should be played more slowly than usual, relative to the rest of the movement.

Incidentally, the pause marks in the Kilberry book do not appear on a low A and F in the second last bar of the Variation. I had always thought that this was a misprint, but I am indebted to Andrew Wright for pointing out that that particular half bar in the Variation is unique in another sense, and so it is reasonable that it should get different timing.

When we come to the Crunluath Doubling, the situation gets somewhat out of hand. Angus MacKay gives the first bar as

Book 6 interprets this as

Note that the timing of the two half bar phrases is identical in Angus MacKay but has been altered in Book 6. So Angus MacKay continues to play the Crunluath Breabach Doubling in the ‘up’ fashion whereas Book 6 gives it (apart from the first half bar) in the form of the usual five-beat breabach

To complicate the matter even more, Kilberry gives the Variation in the ‘down’ way, his first bar being

In Further Sidelights the emphasis is even more on the down beat, the low A having a dot, but it should be remembered that Sidelights was written before the Kilberry Book.

So the only real problem for anyone learning this tune — since none of us is likely to be playing redundant As — is whether to play the Crunluath Breabach up, down or even. Book learning says play it up, the traditional teaching of Alexander Cameron was to play it down, and the authority of Book 6 is to play it evenly. It is possible that the editors of Book 6 were leaving the matter to the piper’s choice, but in that case they should not have said that the setting is Angus MacKay’s.

The tune is supposed to have been composed in honour of a young girl tending her cattle at a sheiling, so it is a pastoral piece, a praise, a ‘behold-her-solitary-in-the-field’ kind of thing. No lamenting or sadness here, please.

Binneas is Boreraig shows the Crunluath movement, both Singling and Doubling, to be played ‘up’. The Taorluath Variations are as given by Book 6 and Kilberry, except that the notes without embellishments are shown to be longer than the ones on which the Taorluath is played.

Cape Wrath Hotel
The Cape Wrath Hotel near Durness in north-west Sutherland was built on the site of the old Keoldale House and incorporated into the present building. According to Bridget MacKenzie, Isabel MacKay lived here in 1747 on marrying John Sutherland (a great-great-grandson of Donald Duaghal MacKay). Isabel’s father was John MacKechnie.