Stories of the Tunes: Cabar Feidh Gu Brath


Today’s tune in our irregular series, ‘Stories of the Tunes’ appears although the ‘story’ behind it is quite stragithforward: it is simply a tune composed by Pipe Major Donald MacLeod in tribute to the regiment in which he served for many years.

As the notes in his book of ceòl mòr state, “Cabar Feidh Gu Brath is one of Donald MacLeod’s earlier compositions the title for which translates as, ‘The Deer’s Horn Forever’. The stag’s head is the main device in the MacKenzie arms and was adopted within the cap badge of the Seaforth Highlanders – and Donald MacLeod was a devoted Seaforth Highlander. The amalgamation of the Seaforth Highlanders and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders took place on February 7, 1961 in a simple ceremony at Redford Barracks, Edinburgh whereby the two regular battalions were formed into a single battalion – 1st Queen’s Own Highlanders. This tune represents that simple but significant occasion.”

In the December 1983 Piping Times, Major General Frank M. Richardson wrote this thoughtful account of the tune although his article appeared earlier in Cabar Feidh, the magazine of the Seaforth Highlanders.

Let me say straight off that I think that Pipe Major Donald MacLeod has very well fulfilled the task which he set himself, and has given to his regiment a splendid possession and one in which Army pipers and indeed all piobaireachd players can share.

It is a pleasing and tuneful composition of which the melody or theme is easy to understand and easy to follow, as it is developed throughout all the variations. The average Army piobaireachd player should have little difficulty in mastering it, and making a good job of it at guest nights and on other occasions when pipers try to show to others what our music can mean. Anyone who read my article ‘The Guestnight Piobaireachd’ in Cabar Feidh in 1951 may remember that I appealed to pipers to avoid heavy and complex tunes and to choose those in which ordinary listeners can hear and follow the theme. Cabar Feidh Gu-Brach is a splendid tune for this purpose. But I see more in it than this. I think that it is a tune with plenty of interest into which a keen piobaireachd player can get his teeth. He will find that his interpretation of some parts of it will vary with his mood.

To the uninitiated, all piobaireachds are laments. This, of course, is not so. These tunes, theme with variations, cover a wide field of mood, and we have Salutes. Gatherings, Battle tunes and so on, as well as many Laments.

Pipe Major MacLeod has called his tune a Salute. I wonder. To me it sounds more like a Lament, and this is not very surprising when re-read his dedication. His tune reflects his mood. Perhaps in this it shares something with one of the great tunes of our ceòl mòr, which has been called not only Seaforth’s Salute but The Lament for Earl of Seaforth — that same Earl who, I believe, gave rise to the Lament for the King’s Taxes, because when he went into exile his steward used to collect the rent and send it to him in Spain, so loyal clansmen had to pay twice, but seem to have lamented they had to pay the King.

Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, a noted authority on piobaireachd, is known to most Army pipers through The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor. His introduction to that important work is to most pipers the only available authoritative work on the subject. I am lucky enough to possess also a copy of a paper which he read to the London Piping Society in 1952; and, even better, many splendid letters written just alter the last War when, as Pipe President of 15 (Scottish) Division, I corresponded with him about our Piobaireachd School at Lübeck in Germany.

Pipe Major Donald MacLeod MBE.
Pipe Major Donald MacLeod MBE.

I would like to examine Cabar Feidh Gu-Brach in the light that piobaireachd is not the random out-pourings of the untutored savage, but, on the contrary, a highly artificial product governed by rigid rules of construction. Kilberry adds that, “It has often been said that the art of composing piobaireachd is dead. Certainly no good player since John Bàn Mackenzie is known to have attempted anything serious in that line. Those who have tried, and whose tunes pipers have declined to play because they do not sound like piobaireachd, have probably failed to observe some or all of the rules … Merely to stick on a taorluath and crunluath does not make a composition a piobaireachd,” he told the London Piping Society.

Pointing out the limited compass of the pipe chanter he wondered if we have not already got enough tunes in this vein to occupy all our time and attention, which may be why he found no interest in composition of new tunes amongst top grade piobaireachd players. Personally, I always felt that the great John MacDonald was a bit elusive on this subject, and I hoped that he might leave some composition to be discovered after his death. If he did so I have not yet heard of it. Cabar Feidh Gu-Brach is cast in the standard form denoted in ceòl mòr and the Kilberry Book as 4:4:4. It has a beautiful First Variation of the type found in the Lament for the Earl of Antrim (Var. 3) and Scarce of Fishing (Var. 2), and some dozen other good tunes. Its taorluath and crunluath are on standard lines. It is thus unquestionably recognisable piobaireachd. It seems to me to be completely original and resembles no other tune that I know. I know Pipe Major MacLeod would be the last to claim that it can be compared with our great tunes like the Lament for Partrick Òg MacCrimmon or for Donald Bàn MacCrimmon, the tune which Colonel Grant of Rothiemurchus says was regarded as almost sacred by John MacDonald. Nevertheless, I could play or listen to this new tune with far greater pleasure than I can feel for a great many of the ancient piobaireachd, and I believe that many players I that most non-players will agree, and many may be helped by listening to it to understand a bit of what our ceòl mòr is about. If the purpose of musical composition is to give pleasure and understanding, then Donald MacLeod has done a good thing.

Archie Campbell of Kilberry.
Archie Campbell of Kilberry.

General Thomason, the compiler of Ceol Mor, a collection of piobaireachd in cypher, included in it a tune composed by himself called Hail to my Country. Both R. B. Nicol and R. U. Brown of Balmoral rather liked this tune, and the latter told me that John MacDonald liked it. But Kilberry quite rightly was opposed to its inclusion in the tunes which we taught at our Lübeck piobaireachd school, because it is not ceòl mòr. In a most interesting letter he described how the General, having first written the first variation “which is Ceol Beag pure and simple … proceeded to try to cast it into a piobaireachd.”

“Call the tune a pleasing and a pleasant piece of pipe music, and no one could complain,” Kilberry wrote, “but it is not the Ceol Mor of the Great Highland Bagpipe.” His letter went on to differentiate between what he called “the heavy stuff” and “the tuny stuff” in piobaireachd. If one were to admit that there is something slightly less respectable, slightly less purely classical, in “tuny stuff,” of which Kilberry gave me several illustrative examples, then one must look slightly askance at some of the finest and most stirring moments in our music and, by analogy, at some of the great classical compositions for more civilised instruments. Though I hesitate to set my own opinion against so great an academic authority I doubt whether it is really necessary for Caledonia to be as stern and wild as all that.

“In memory of Pipe Major Donald MacLeod MBE, Queen’s Own Highlanders (1917-1982), master piper and composer. Placed here by The Piobaireachd Society.” The bench is inside Fort George (north-east of Inverness), which was the Seaforth Highlanders’ depot then, in 1961, the depot of the amalgamated Seaforths and Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders – to form the Queen’s Own Highlanders (Seaforth and Camerons).

 Cabar Feidh Gu-Brach is certainly “tuny stuff”, and indeed when I first studied it I had the feeling that the composer, like General Thomason, was deliberately forcing a ceòl beag conception into the framework of ceòl mòr; at any rate, so far as the Urlar or Ground is concerned, for the succeeding variations are straightforward piobaireachd form.

When I tried to recall the melody before I had it more or less fixed in my mind, I found myself drifting away into the sort of slow air, slow march or whatever you like to call it, with which ceòl beag abounds. It seemed to be recalled to ceòl mòr, almost deliberately by the last bar of each line with its concluding cadence. This feeling particularly strong in the second and third lines, and the crunluath note (‘edre’ in the Campbell Canntaireachd) in the third bar of the third line seemed there to signal the return to ceòl mòr. Do not ask me why that ‘edre’ did it more than any of the others. That is just how it struck me.

In the letter from which I have quoted, Kilberry in 1946 wrote:

“It is melancholy but true that the taste of the Army in pipe music today is deplorable. Probably the dearth of Highlanders amongst both Pipers and Pipe Majors has something to do with it.” So perhaps it would be unduly bold of me as a Lowlander, indeed a Fifer born and bred, to say much more. But allow me one last quotation from Kilberry: “Pay no attention to the sentimental wishful thinkers assert that it is necessary to be a Highlander or a Gaelic speaker understand piobaireachd. The only thing that must be understood is that remarkable instrument the Highland bagpipe, and if you understand the bagpipe in the right way, you will understand piobaireachd.”

Donald MacLeod's book of piobaireachd

Donald MacLeod is a Highlander and a Gaelic speaker, who has for many years studied the pipe and its music, and has been for a long time in the top flight of piobaireachd players. But his greatest attribute is that he was for many years a favourite pupil of the great — the greatest — John MacDonald, of Inverness; a wonderful experience which can be fully appreciated only by those who have also enjoyed it. This background has enabled him to compose for the regiment he has served for so long, and of which he is so proud, a tune which I am sure will be played and listened to with real pleasure by Seaforth Highlanders for many years to come – Cabar Feidh Gu-Brach.

* Cabar Feidh Gu Bragh is published in Donald MacLeod’s book of piobaireachd.

** The tune also appeares in the Queen’s Own Highlanders – The Cabar Feidh Collection.

• Here is Angus MacColl playing the tune in 2015 at a recital for the Ipswich Piping Society: