The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy — an impression of ‘fairy piping’?


By John Gould

One evening in September, 1968, I went to bed with a slight ringing in my left ear. It was scarcely noticeable, and hardly worth mentioning except that when I laid my head on the pillow it became louder, and clearer. It had a very pure tone, somewhere between that of a flute and that of an oboe in quality, but the most remarkable thing was that it became articulate, and went through several repetitive figures, with variations.

My first reaction was one of surprise – was someone doing a bit of midnight piping down on the meadows? I raised my head in order to hear more clearly, but the music stopped. After about a minute I lay down, and there was the music again. A few trials of this nature soon established that the music was in my own ear – certainly not in my mind, as it would be if I was thinking or imagining it. The sounds were in the organ itself; my inner ear was playing music, and I could listen to it. It was fascinating, and I toyed with the idea of nipping downstairs to get a ballpoint and manuscript paper so that I could note a few bars down, but I was tired out, and fell asleep to the sound of it.

The next day, on my way to work, it suddenly struck me that I had heard what figures in folklore as ‘fairy piping’, and could have kicked myself for not having taken the trouble to note it down, since as far as I knew, nobody at all had ever recorded such music. I consoled myself with the thought that if what I’d heard was fairy piping then I might be like those others in the tales I vaguely remembered, who subsequently became excellent pipers.

I soon forgot all about it but six weeks later the same thing happened. The music was not nearly so ornate, or as ingenious in the variations as it had been the first time I heard it, and so it was fairly easy to concentrate on memorising a typical phrase and the way in which it varied, and this time I made a point of noting it down. It was not until aster the following year that I heard these sounds again, and once more, shortly afterwards, for the fourth and last time. The last occasion differed from the others in that the music was fainter, slower, and more fitful than before.

Up to this point, I had treated the whole business as an interesting physiological curiosity which perhaps shed some light on the folklore tradition of the existence of ‘fairy piping’ – or ‘fairy music’ generally, come to that, but it occurred to me after hearing the last examples that it might not be a good thing to have one’s ear playing music of its own. I worked at Salford University [in Greater Manchester, England ] at the time, and so I asked the Physiology lecturer there what was the significance – if any – of ‘ringing in the ears’.

“Oh, that’s tinnitus”, he told me, “People usually get it when they’re going deaf.  You haven’t got it, have you?”

Tinnitus has negative effects on the brain but it can make it more attentive and less relaxed. (Photo: Sjstudio6 / Shutterstock).

This was definitely bad news, but it rang a bell of a different kind for me. All at once I remembered other ‘fairy piping’ stories. Not those which involve pipers, but the run of the mill kind concerning ordinary people. I began a search for a story I had read once, and which suddenly made sense. In this story, a child lies down on a fairy mound one hot afternoon, and hears – faintly – the most wonderful music coming apparently from inside the mound. He falls asleep, and waking up as the sun sets, goes home to tell of the wonderful music he has heard. His parents are upset by the news, and subsequently the child seems to lose interest in his companions and his family – he seems not to hear what they say, having ears only for the ‘fairy piping’. Eventually, he pines away and dies.

I was never able to find this particular story, but there was no shortage of other similar tales from both Ireland and Scotland. Broadly, they fell into three types. In the first kind, which I believe to be the original type of ‘fairy piping’ story, those who hear it are not considered to be fortunate; they are believed to be bewitched. The second kind of story usually tells of someone – often a musician – who hears the ‘fairy piping’ on his way home from some drinking bout. This second kind of story too, can be regarded as being original, for like the stories of the first kind (which attribute tinnitus to some kind of bewitchment) the second kind of story deals with circumstances (the effects of too much drink) in which tinnitus is known to occur.

The third kind of ‘fairy music’ story is artificial, or contrived; they are literary creations based on the general acceptance by the societies in which they are produced that such a thing as ‘fairy music’ has a real existence. In this third kind of story the person hearing the fairy music is often fortunate as a result of it, and no bewitchment ensues.

All this is by the way. I only mention it in order to establish that my own experience, which can hardly be unique, affords a plausible explanation for the seemingly fanciful notion of ‘fairy music’, which persists in Celtic folklore and legend. In support of the notion that those who heard ‘fairy music’ were under some baneful bewitchment (and this is possibly of interest to pipers in the medical profession) is the fact that my own experiences of this phenomenon coincided with my first experience of migraine (brought on by the eyestrain involved in transposing a few hundred folk-tunes into the Rev. Henerbry’s standard key of G.). The acquisition of my first pair of glasses cured all this.

Once it is realised that the fairy piping of folklore is real and not either imaginary or fanciful, those tales of tunes that musicians have learned ‘from the fairies’ become of great interest. Here, for those who may be interested in what to look for, is my own first- hand description of the characteristics of fairy-piping as 1 experienced it:

I have already mentioned the tone – like a flute, but not a flute; like an oboe, but not an oboe, but somewhere in between the two, very pure and completely lacking in vibrato. Some electronically produced sounds come near it but they are usually far too heavy and punchy. Broadly, fairy piping is mechanical, repetitive, emotionless, and endless; it just goes on and on. The melodic phrases have no tonic, and consist of small intervals – often chromatic – above and below a recitative note. Larger intervals of a 3rd and a 5th crop up, and the phrase itself may shift up and down. Usually it is regular, and of a moderate tempo. When it is regular, it gives the impression of speeding up by increasing the number of notes in a bar. The notes are articulated by almost inaudible blips (which I have not indicated in the examples) or by gracenotes, these being usually upward leaps of a 3rd or a 5th or an octave. Shakes and triplet ‘curls’ are also a common feature.

What in the end makes it fascinating to listen to (a point made in all the old stories) is the way in which it is varied – and I’m sorry my examples do not show this. Slight alterations of the phrases give an impression of inexhaustible ingenuity. Such are its characteristics, and they are probably the same for anyone whose ‘ringing in the ears’ takes the form of music. Once heard, its general sound is not forgotten, and should be easy to recognise in any composition that has actually been influenced by it.

A very old sketch (source unknown to us) which was thought to show Iain Dàll MacKay being guided by a daughter or granddaughter. She is, however, holding what appears to be a set of reel/Border pipes so unless the Blind Piper of Gairloch played these in addition to the great highland bagpipe, then it can’t be him. MacKay, known simply as Am Piobaire Dall (the blind piper), in Gaelic, composed ‘The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy’.

Unfortunately, none of the tunes that are supposed to have been ‘had from the fairies’ are anything like what you would expect; they are far too melodic and tuneful. At the time, I knew only four piobaireachd and so my search for any music that could possibly have been influenced by fairy piping was focused upon what I knew of ceòl beag and traditional folk and dance music. In the end, all I could muster in support of my hunch were The Eagle’s Whistle (an Irish tune); the first strain only of The Fairy Dance; and the tune of Thomas the Rhymer (a Borders ballad). Funnily enough, two of these three tunes do have supernatural associations, one in its title, and the other in its content. An Irish version of the Thomas the Rhymer tune, almost identical, is titled The Song of the Ghost. Three tunes being hardly enough to support my hunch, I lost interest and forgot all about it.

Only once in the next ten years did I hear anything to remind me of fairy piping, and this was an ùrlar heard faintly, through crackling atmospherics, on BBC Radio Scotland. It had all the characteristics – the repetitive phrasing punctuated by leaps to a higher note, and (in the second line) a typically simple but ingenious turn of the phrase. It also had the appropriate eerie, emotionless air of detachment. After much searching of the books I eventually ran this tune down. It was Maol Donn, played in what I believe is the MacPherson style. Naturally, I learnt it, and I still think that this tune could be an attempt to capture the sound of ‘fairy piping’. The style of the ùrlar is sustained throughout the thumb and second variations, but comes a sad cropper in the third variation, which not only snaps abruptly from the style of the tune up to that point, but introduces a sentimental touch which destroys the strange detachment of everything which has gone before it. There is nothing wrong with this third variation, of course, nor with its matching Taorluath and Crunluath movements, except that they clash with the mood of the earlier part of the tune.

Apart from mentally labelling Maol Donn as a possible fairy piping tune, I let the subject drop out of my mind again, and it was not until years later that I gave it any thought at all. The occasion that prompted it to resurface this time was a realisation that I had several tunes of Iain Dàll MacKay more or less under my fingers. Out of curiosity, I searched the index of ceòl mòr for any more lain Dàll compositions. Finding only one, The Hen’s March Over the Midden, I put on my glasses – a necessary precaution with this book – and set about learning it. I was soon bogged down in the repetitive phrasing wondering whether I’d ever get it right. It was obviously of the same stuff as The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy, which set me wondering (as the difficulty slowly fell away) why Iain Dàll should have composed such tunes as these, so different from the Lament for Patrick Òg and The Unjust Incarceration. That was when I remembered the ‘fairy piping’ once more.

Both The Hen’s March and The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy have the sound of compositions inspired by the sort of thing I have equated with the fairy piping of folklore and legend. Iain Dàll MacKay naturally cannot be consulted as to whether this was the case or not, but since what I suggest brings no disparagement (and possibly adds something) to his reputation, I will proceed with a brief examination of the problems involved in expressing fairy piping in ceòl mòr, and of how they seem to have been resolved in these two tunes.

Any composition for the bagpipe has to recognise the limitations of the instrument whilst making the most of its peculiar virtues. As far as fairy music is concerned, the bagpipe is at first sight ideal, for it has the continuity of sound and lack of vibrato that are two of the primary qualities of that music (which sounds just like piping of an unearthly kind). The scale of the bagpipe, however, is not chromatic, and so any attempt to portray fairy music must aim to convey an impression of its sound rather than a direct imitation. The endless nature of fairy music makes a lengthy composition desirable, and here ceòl mòr fits the bill perfectly. As to form, any of the known patterns would be equally suitable, built as they are in short phrases of one or two bars.

It is when the Ùrlar is done, and the variations crop up that the real problem arises. Suibhal and Dithis will not do, for though they are simpler and more repetitive than the general run of Ùrlars, the objection to them is that they are simplifications, and fairy piping tends to intensification. (Only an interruption, such as a cough or a sneeze, makes it revert for a while to simpler patterns). Not only are they simplifications but their doublings iron out any cadences which might provide opportunities to convey the simple but ingenious turns of phrase which give the mechanical-sounding fairy music fascinating quality. Worse, the ensuing Taorluath and Crunluath variations, whatever their type, are inadmissible in any rendering of fairy music, since the ear itself does not seem to work that way, being predisposed to the harmonic series as far as the larger intervals are concerned. An accomplished musician, rather than falsify the impression he was trying to create, would very likely try to devise some modification of the patterns of variation more suited to his purpose.

In the Blind Piper’s Obstinacy these difficulties have been satisfactorily resolved within the conventions of traditional ceòl mòr. The pattern is set by the urlar (which has a doubling in the canntaireachd) and a first variation that is a development of the Ùrlar (rather than a simplification of it). Upon this first variation are hung two more, which by switches in the time signature and slight alterations of the phrasing convey the required impression of intensification and acceleration. This done, the tune then snaps back to the first variation – but not quite. This is a development of the first variation, introducing the dre movement (on account of which the canntaireachd labels this second series Crulive). Two more variations are taken from this development of the first variation, following the same pattern of intensification etc. as those of the first cycle.

It may be that this process could be extended further, but this is as far as the recorded versions go. The Hen’s March, though slightly different in form was obviously an attempt at the same problem. It is interesting to note that The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy uses only five notes of the chanter scale, and that these five notes, A, B, C, D, and E, do not conform to any pentatonic scale. The A and the B seem to function as recitatives; the C and E as the typical intervals of 3rd and 5th; whilst the shifting of the phrases around C, D, and E is perhaps the nearest approximation to a chromatic sound that can be managed on the chanter.

So, without doing any violence to the basic patterns of ceòl mòr, The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy seems to me to have realised the main characteristics of fairy piping. It has not the wildness of Maol Donn, nor is it as eerie, but against that it has resolved the problem of attaching a sequence of variations that satisfy the demands not only of ‘fairy music’ but also those of ceòl mòr – about which the MacCrimmon school was very particular.

Once or twice, in conversation, I have mentioned that I have actually heard fairy piping. I say so with a straight face, and watch the smiles spreading slowly on the faces of those around me. Such is the utter disbelief in such things today that the possibility that there is a perfectly natural explanation for this supposedly supernatural phenomenon never occurs to them. Not one has ever asked me to describe it. That would not have been the case in Iain Dàll’s day. Were he to have been acquainted with anyone who heard fairy music – that is to say, anyone afflicted with this peculiar musical form of tinnitus – it is fairly certain that his interest would have been aroused, and that he would have asked the man — or woman – to whistle or ‘diddle’ a few bars of it so that he could see what it was like.

This might well have provided the impetus to make an attempt to capture such sounds in a musical composition. But there is no hint of the supernatural in the titles by which these two tunes are known to us. The Hen’s March Over The Midden may be what the sound of that tune suggests, but it has a sarcastic ring to it. And The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy is a title suggesting disapproval.

How strong were the superstitions in those days? Did the composers’ friends feel uneasy about such things, wish he’d drop the whole business, and return to the style of composition in which he excelled?

* From the July and August 1986 editions of the Piping Times.