Dr Jack Taylor reviews ‘Binneas is Boreraig’

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This new edition of Binneas is Boreraig reincarnates the most innovative written piobaireachd collection of the 20th century. It is the only one showing tunes precisely as they were played by a master. And it shows them exceptionally well.

‘Binneas is Boreraig’ means ‘Melody and Boreraig’. The original edition, published in 1959, was the work of Dr Roderick Ross, who admired the playing of Malcolm MacPherson, grandson of the great Calum Piobair. He tape recorded Malcolm playing 112 tunes and transferred what he heard to the page. He ignored time signatures, bar lines and even the five-line stave. He set it down in its natural phrases, used a three-line stave, and put the ground and variations in different colours. He produced six glossy volumes, each with a detailed introduction and glorious photographs and illustrations.

The colour, the photographs and the three-line stave are still there. The introductions have been pruned, but little is lost. The six books are now one, compact and easy to fit into the pipe box or judges bag. Obvious mistakes have been corrected, and each tune now has a story beside it. These stories are sometimes written in the most delicious dry prose – for instance Mary MacLeod committed “some kind of bardic offence”. What on earth could that have been? Did she miss out a verse in front of the chief? Anyway, whatever it was, poor Mary was banished to Mull.

But what is best about “Binneas’ is its portrayal of Malcolm MacPherson’s wonderful musicianship. It is reproduced in full, without constraint. If a note is held, it is given a longer value; if it is glanced over, it is written very short. Phrases are clearly shown, and the variations, being in different colours, stand out.

It was Malcolm’s father, Angus, who said, in 1956, “I maintain once piobaireachd got imprisoned in bars that it lost its soul.” He was referring to book learning in general, but I am sure that he would think that, if a book is needed at all, it should be in the style of Binneas, without bars. I have no doubt that the omission of bars and other musical conventions allows piobaireachd’s soul to at least be touched upon in a way which just does not happen in other collections.

The first time I saw Binneas, was immediately sold on it. I was learning My King has Landed in Moidart, before going to my teacher. I could make little of it from the Piobaireachd Society collection. My King was dead. I looked up Binneas. Immediately, My King lived. That is what Binneas does. It puts life into piobaireachd. In every way it changes black and white into colour. It is an invaluable player’s guide.

Binneas, like CDs of past masters, is a representation of one player’s interpretation only. As such it might be open to the criticism that it encourages copying. Other more prosaic collections could be seen as more favourable in that they might stimulate thought and the need to find a teacher to help with interpretation. But teachers aren’t always immediately available, or easy to find. This is where Binneas comes into its own. It helps to find a way, or to freshen the way. Of course a teacher is needed, too – but Binneas itself teaches as well as being enlightening and enlivening. That is its beauty.

‘Lament for the Departure of King James’, Binneas style.

Any criticisms are minor. Perhaps the three-line stave is quirky, but it is easy to get used to. And learning a tune can be made more tricky when e.g. “Phrase 2 line 1” occurs in lines two and three. The jump of the eye is sometimes none too easy. But, of course, the book should be dispensed with as soon as possible anyway.

Malcolm MacPherson and Dr Roddy Ross.

Roderick Ross did the piping world a great service by producing Binneas. He did not claim that Malcolm MacPherson’s playing was the only way, but rather that it was just one way. It would have been a tragedy if it had been lost, but thanks to Dugald MacNeill and the College of Piping it is available again.

At only £30, it is very good value. The player of any level choosing only one piobaireachd collection to take to a desert island with no electricity for CDs would be wise indeed to choose Binneas is Boreraig. If he does, he has no excuse for not staying right in touch with the music. Go out and buy one now.

Binneas is Boreraig: The Complete Collection. Edited by Roderick Ross; Published by the College of Piping price £30 ($45US).

* From the July 2003 Piping Times.

•• ‘Binneas‘ is available from The Bagpipe Shop. Call Tel +44 (0)141 353 0220 or email shop@thepipingcentre.co.uk