Peter McCalister reviews Book 16 of the Piobaireachd Society collection


The present Piobaireachd Society Collection started with Book 1 in 1925. The most recent book in the collection was Book 15, published a quarter of a century ago in 1990, so the arrival of this new one is a bit of a publishing event for the Big Music. Although I declare a conflict of interest, being on the Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society, I had no hand in the preparation of this book.

Book 16 contains 20 tunes from a number of sources including William Ross’s book (the Piper to Queen Victoria, not Willie Ross of Edinburgh Castle), Ceol Mor by General Thomason, Angus MacKay’s unpublished tunes, and others. Some are well known (Glengarry’s Lament, The Cave of Gold), some have been heard at times (Hail to my Country) but most (The Fairy Flag, The Frisky Lover etc) have probably never been played on a bagpipe for over 100 years.

What can the present generation of pipers get from this ‘new’ material? The first thing to note is that the tunes are in a wide variety of styles, lengths, and difficulty, so they will appeal to pipers of all abilities. Tunes like Angus MacKay’s nameless tune, Hinto hinto could be played by a piper new to piobaireachd – though I vaguely recall hearing a recording of Gordon Walker playing that tune on the radio a few years ago.

Most of the tunes are of average length and difficulty, but there are a small number of very challenging pieces amongst which is another nameless tune (Hiotro traen) from John MacDougall Gillies’ manuscript. This tune – on page 580 – would be my personal favourite from the whole book. Here is the urlar:

The most difficult tune is probably The Piper’s Salute to his Master, which has a ground full of tricky embellishments. This tune also demonstrates something that recurs throughout the book, namely small touches of an unusual nature, that are rarely seen in piobaireachd. The tune then goes on to have six variations, each with a singling and doubling, before the taorluath and crunluath (singlings and doublings of both of these, too). I think pipers might choose to play some (but not all) of the variations, as otherwise the tune would be well over 25 minutes long.

Here is variation 4 doubling, with each mordent sign meaning a movement such as edre, hotro, hiotro, bari, and so on:

Finally, away from comments on difficulty or sources of material, it has to be said that there is a lot of melody to be found in these pages. A few tunes are ‘bottom hand growlers’ to work your fingers in a satisfying manner. But most of the tunes are bursting with music which cries out to be heard after a long absence, and for this reason I commend this book to pipers. To finish, here is the beginning of a variation from The Lament for the Great Supper which also has the usual movements denoted by the mordent sign.

* Book 16 is available from the Bagpipe Shop, priced £15.

• This review was first published in the July 2015 Piping Times.