I wonder if you have ever heard the old joke – “Why is the Free Kirk so opposed to sex before marriage?”
Answer – “Because it might lead to dancing.”
I am first going to make the assumption that everyone reading this regards the pipes as a musical instrument and that music is played on that instrument. It may be helpful in the first instance to define ‘music’:
1. “Vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way to produce beauty of form, harmony and expression of emotion”.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary.
2. “An art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony and colour”.
I question whether piping as we know it, in its competitive form at least, satisfies all of the elements of these definitions and, in particular, ideas of emotional content which is common to both definitions.
Despite pipes now being a normal feature in traditional music bands, despite the very successful and universal revival of the bellows blown pipes of Scotland, piping being a degree subject at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and it being common place to find pipes included in traditional music sessions, the overwhelming context for Highland piping is still the competition, whether that be solos or pipe bands.
My interest in piping followed a fairly normal course while at school, playing in solo and pipe band competitions. When I went to university, even although I was a member of a Grade 1 band, my interest waned due to the fact that the only context that was available was competition.
Although technically challenging, I found the repeated practice and playing of only three sets of heavy competition marches, strathspeys and reels quite limited and limiting. Frankly, I couldn’t find much music in the turgidity of the style of playing and I found the prescribed rhythms and tempos a mystery compared with traditional and folk music from other parts of Europe. The Irish tradition, for instance, is such a close relative of our own music. It seemed to me so much more attractive, available and alive. It produced a definite emotional response in me.
The Highland music of Cape Breton, which I discovered in the 1980s, produced an enormous emotional response in me, especially when hearing those Highland tunes that were so familiar and yet unfamiliar to me; familiar in the sense that I was aware I knew the tunes and unfamiliar in that I had never heard them played in that style before. I well remember being at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1987 and being physically drawn to a stage because I couldn’t quite ‘put my finger on’ what I was hearing. I later discovered that it was Cape Bretoners, Buddy MacMaster (on fiddle), Maybelle Chisolm MacQueen (on piano) and Dave MacIsaac (on guitar). The music was quite simply stunning and the response I was feeling was not just from the point of view of their essential and powerful rhythms, but also from that ‘light bulb and unforgettable moment’ when the thought overtook me, “Ah – that’s what our music is supposed to sound like!” There were many pipe tunes in their selections but I had never heard them played with such vitality, swing and rhythm.
In Scotland at that time, I loved the music of two folk bands, namely Jock Tamson’s Bairns [pictured] and Ossian. Although they differed slightly in that Ossian had incorporated highland pipes, it seemed that their approach just captivated the essence of what our Scottish music is and should be.
The longstanding and accepted argument expressed in favour of competition is that it continues to improve the standard of piping and to some extent this is true. However, I feel that this improvement encompasses a narrow range of parameters and in the case of solo competitions a disproportionate emphasis being placed on technique.
“Competition is the antithesis of what should be a therapy; combining the stress of competing and striving for a technical goal, instead of focusing on the expression, creativity and the joy of the creation of music making itself.”– Annie Grace – piper, actor, singer and multi-instrumentalist.
Since the inauguration of the first piping competition in Falkirk in 1781, more and more testing technique in the form of ornamentation has been added to the music. I can only imagine that this provided an ever-increasing test of technical excellence for the pipers. It also provided the judges with an objective means of judging one piper against another. Extra parts were added to traditional two-parted dance tunes and the more complex technique had the effect of slowing the tempo and changing the internal rhythms thus gradually divorcing the music from its original dance context. Competitions appear to have stifled the essence of the music with little or no consideration given to tempo and rhythm of the original dance music.
I realise that competition has become firmly established as a format in its own right and never before have pipes sounded so accurately tuned or has there been such technical excellence amongst the top players.
Although in this article I am talking principally about dance music i.e. jigs, strathspeys and reels, Allan MacDonald [pictured] in his 1995 thesis submitted to Edinburgh University for the degree of M.Litt. on the ‘Relationship between Pibroch and Gaelic Song’ states:
“I suggest that pibroch’s divorce from the rhythms of the Gaelic language and its adoption to a predominately English-speaking rhythm with a subsequent greater dependence on the written scores has left the modern pibroch player unable to interpret pibroch in the way in which it was originally intended to be performed. Its patronage and preservation through a competitive system has meant that many alternative settings and styles have been ‘ironed out’ in order to set a standard for judging.”
Standardisation has resulted in a predictable performance style which can be summed up by referring to one anonymous correspondent to the Oban Times newspaper who stated:
“The majority of musicians are, I am afraid, conventional and convention in art is the end of all things is it not?”(Early Celtic Music 14/9/1895)
It seems to me that Allan MacDonald’s argument about pibroch applies equally to dance music.
Let’s imagine piping before the British Army raised the Highland regiments, before the music was standardised and written down and before competitions became the dominant force in our musical culture. Piping existed as a true folk culture being transmitted orally within the Gaelic culture of Scotland and the tempos, rhythms and styles of the music were informed by, and inherently linked to, that culture and language.
At this point however it would be helpful to define the social context to which I refer and in particular dance. Hard shoe percussive step dance and Scotch Reels in which step dance was an integral part were danced in the Highlands and possibly all over Scotland for that matter. When pipes were used to provide accompanying dance music it was vital, and makes perfect sense, that the tempi and rhythms of the music were that of the dance rhythms. If the tempo and rhythm varied from that required, then the dancer would be unable to dance and accurately provide the percussive accompaniment to the tunes vital to the team that is the musician and the dancer. The two have a symbiotic and interdependent relationship.
Hard shoe percussive step dance mostly died out in Scotland as it evolved into competition highland dancing which again was standardised for judging purposes. There has, however, been a revival of step dance in Scotland resulting in the need for a steep learning curve amongst Scottish traditional musicians in how to play for it.
It’s interesting to note the opinions of the piping establishment and governing bodies of piping in their dismissal of all that is not ‘serious’ and ‘competition’ piping. One commentator recently asked of Skye piper, Brighde Chaimbeul on Twitter: “I hope she doesn’t give up on her serious piping in favour of the folky stuff. She has too much talent for that”.
Brighde had the perfect three-word response: “Define serious piping.”
Another example, tragic in its own way, happened in the 1960s when a leading figure in the piping establishment had been invited to teach at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton. Alex Currie told me that about ten of the old dance pipers went along to take the week-long workshop. During the course of instruction their style was ridiculed and they were made to feel so ashamed of their playing that most of them put their pipes in their cases at the end of the week, never to play again. If only that tutor, a Scotsman, had realised that he was dealing with a seam of cultural gold, a window into past styles long lost from Scotland. If only he’d had the insight, the foresight of Hamish Henderson, we may now have recordings and videos of all these pipers.
“Do not give what is holy to the dogs nor cast your pearls before swine lest they trample them under their feet and turn and tear you to pieces.”Matthew 7:6.
This quotation reminds me of that infamous finale of the Scottish Pipers’ Association Knockout Competition held in Glasgow in 1993. The two pipers were Gordon Duncan and Gordon Walker. I well remember walking out in protest at what the adjudicator, Seumas MacNeill, said: “The piping tonight, I don’t think there was a great deal of piping tonight. I thought that some of it was very good, some of the march, strathspey and reel playing I enjoyed, but the rest of it was garbage.”
A bus had been hired that day to bring folks from Pitlochry down to hear the competition. I vividly remember the journey home, sitting up the back of the bus with Gordie. He was upset, not because he hadn’t been placed first, but by what Seumas had said. I promised Gordie that I would phone Ian Green of Greentrax Records and the next morning I suggested to Ian that he give Gordie a record contract. Immediately, he did. In his own beautiful way, Gordie had the perfect three-word response to Seumas MacNeill in naming his brilliant debut album, Just for Seumas.
This same mindset has also infiltrated the dancing establishment. When seventh generation dancing master, Sheila MacKay, who lived in Fife and knew and could perform all the basic steps known in Cape Breton and had learned them from her father was asked: “Why don’t you dance these anymore?” the answer came back that she was made to feel ashamed of them by the Official Board of Highland Dancing. Sheila, incidentally, had never been to Cape Breton or even heard of it – she described her own step dance as, “the old Scotch steps taught to me by my father.” This in itself is corroborative proof, if, in fact any is needed, that step dancing existed and flourished in Scotland.
Standardisation and competition, it would appear, has cost our culture dearly.
The older dance and piping styles from the highlands survive in parts of Canada, in particular Cape Breton Island being a good example where the reels are played at 104-108 beats per minute (counting two beats per bar) and the dance strathspeys at 160bpm (counting four beats per bar). Contrast this to the tempi of competition strathspeys and reels where the accepted tempi are 78-82bpm for reels and 108 for strathspeys using the same counting system.
I was lucky enough in 1992 to be introduced to Alex Currie, probably the last true folk or dance piper of Cape Breton. His grandnephew, John MacLean took me to visit Alex on my first night in Cape Breton when I arrived to teach at The Gaelic College in St. Ann’s. Alex’s ancestors were forced to leave South Uist at the beginning of the 19th century during the infamous Highland Clearances period. He was the youngest of 13 children and, as such, effectively lived in to the next generation. He learned his piping by ear from the Gaelic singing of his mother and could play hundreds if not thousands of tunes. He imitated the sounds of singing on the pipes and used unconventional gracing in his playing. He was one of the most sought-after pipers for dancing in his day. His brother, Paddy who was third oldest in the family walked regularly for piping lessons from an old man, Hugh MacIntyre, who had actually been born in South Uist. Paddy would teach Alex what he had learned so Alex’s playing had a direct link back to Uist.
He was like a demon when he played, always sitting to play and always donning his hard shoes so that he could beat time to his playing. His pedal percussion was a vital and integral part of his performance. He refused to play if he couldn’t sit down and wear his hard shoes. For strathspeys he beat alternate heels beating out the four on and the four off beats in the bar, exactly what is heard in the majority of the strathspey dance steps. For reel playing, Alex used a complex system, using both feet and both heels and toes. An example I learned watching him would be using right heel for the on beat, the left toe for the offbeat and the left heel for the three-quarter beat. He could use different combinations but always produced the on, the off and the three-quarter beats to play to.
As you can appreciate from my description, Alex was unique from so many points of view but most importantly, he gave us a view into the past and allowed us to hear, and see, what dance or folk piping was like before competitions were introduced. This in itself is vital for us as Scots to help understand the mysteries of our identity.
As a complete contrast to the music of Alex Currie, John MacLean, who introduced me to Alex, was a successful competing piper as well as being able to play for step dance and Scotch reels. He competed in the Fergus Highland Games in the late 1990s for the coveted prize of Gold Medal. Eight pipers were invited to take part and the remit was a set of two marches, two strathspeys and two reels. His execution had been technically faultless but by the second reel, Roddy MacDonald’s Fancy, John’s musical soul got the better of him and he played it in the old dance style that came so naturally to him. John received a standing ovation from the crowd at the end of his performance but when he received his crit. sheet from the judge, it simply read, “Welcome to Cape Breton”.
After the competition the judge explained to John that although he had him in first place, he had to punish him because the playing of the last reel was too musical! John was placed fourth on that day instead of first for ‘playing too musically’.
Alex Currie was born in 1910 and died in 1998. Paddy Currie was born 1893 and died in 1976. Hugh MacIntyre, Paddy’s piping teacher was born in South Uist in 1821. Alex and Paddy’s ancestor, Lachlan Currie, arrived in Cape Breton from Uist in 1808. On a visit to Scotland in 1997, shortly before he died, I took Alex and his daughter Mary to Iochdar in South Uist where their ancestors had come from. I also took John MacLean there during the 2009 Ceolas traditional music festival and on both occasions looked in awe at the grave of Alex and Mary Currie in the graveyard at Iochdar. During Alex and Mary’s visit I also took them to meet Duncan Currie, piper and distant relative. We shared tunes, stories and a few drams all morning sitting round Duncan’s Rayburn in his kitchen.
That alone begs the question, “What have we done to our precious musical culture?”
There were also waulking songs, tunes and songs to accompany work, music associated with the harvest, births, marriages and death. All were performed rhythmically and, indeed, it is the very rhythm that lightens the load of the repetitive work. The period following Culloden, however, saw Gaelic culture discriminated against to such an extent that cultural genocide was nearly achieved. With the pipes now firmly in the hands of both the British Army and the official governing bodies of piping, and with competitions becoming ever more important, the social context for our music was changing dramatically as these foreign influences and rules were being constructed on how to interpret and play tunes in order to satisfy competition standards.
The other important factor was that the writing of music in manuscript form didn’t allow for the subtleties essential in the interpretation and expression of the music within its original social context. Reels, in manuscript form, are written with quavers that are even or, alternatively, as a dotted quaver followed by a semi quaver. Neither of these options are ever used in the traditional playing of a reel. The player always seeks something in between and usually, if not always, different every time, depending on the context and emotional ‘feel’ of the tune.
Strathspey playing changed every bit as much as, if not more, than reels with a necessity during competition playing for the internal rhythm to be ‘heavy, light, medium, light’. Compare this artificially imposed rhythm to that required for dancing where four even beats are needed for the dancer.
Jigs suffered similarly as the two groups of three quavers in the bar tend to be played with a dotted quaver followed by a semi quaver and then quaver. Dancing a jig would be impossible to follow using this dotted rhythm, the natural human rhythm being two groups of three near even beats within the bar.
As competitions advanced, there was a need to formalise a system of guidelines if not rules to ensure that there was fairness in the judging process. The sound, set up and tuning of the pipes is obviously an important part of the judging process and a good starting point. The interpretation of the music can be entirely subjective and a fairer system was essential to ensure fairness across the board. The system that evolved placed ever-increasing emphasis on the accuracy of the execution of technique and I believe this developed as objective a system as is possible in order to fairly judge one against another. A judge reading a manuscript and comparing this with what was being heard could make judgments based on a concrete comparison between the two. This system based on tangible elements is obviously fairer than using the subjective parameters.
This came at a huge cost to the music and its emotional content. I believe that the musical baby was thrown out with the bath water.
So, what of the future?
If competitive piping remains shackled and encased in a glass case with no deviation or development possible then it may face an uncertain future and even an existential crisis. The logical end point of the competitive system would be to have robots play the material, and with modern technology I think this would not only be possible but technical perfection could be achieved every time. There would, of course, be no point in following this route, so what are the possible practical and realistic solutions?
We could, as the governing body of the Royal National Mòd has done, create two competitions; one for ‘Mòd’ singing and the other for ‘Traditional’ singing. For piping to adopt this model we would have to define ‘standard competition’ and ‘traditional’. This, I can understand, is possible but the system would create yet another barrier within our musical culture and engender even more divisions. There are enough boxes and barriers as it stands. There would also have to be yet another set of rules written.
It seems to me that competition is hard wired into our psyche as Scots and maybe this is partly as a result of our Reformation, Enlightenment, the Act of Union, the industrial revolution, the Jacobite rebellions and other major events of our history. Given this, I am much more in favour of allowing our tradition to develop by introducing a more liberal approach to judging and encouraging our music, whether it be pibroch or dance music, to be played with more inclusion of, and recognition given to, its original social context.
We could in time have a panel of judges and include masters of their art from different disciplines e.g., Freeland Barbour from the dance tradition; there being no one having a better understanding of rhythm or being able to execute it than Freeland. Frank McConnell could be brought in as a dance specialist to judge the performances suitability for accompaniment of dance.
We could also, as the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society does at its competitions, allocate 50% of the marks to five members of the audience, leaving the remaining 50% with a panel of judges.
The music could evolve slowly but surely into what it was when the potential power of the music could be unleashed with the rhythms of Gaelic language and dance inextricably linked to our piping. We would all have a clear understanding of what our music is and how it should be played. It evolved over hundreds of years to a point of great sophistication by a process of distillation until rules and outside influences were imposed on it.
I can hear my critics saying that competitions must be honoured in their present format and not changed, and that our classical music played on our noble instrument must not be allowed to be denigrated. Or words to that effect.
Allow me to place a more positive take on all of this. We are the custodians of an ancient precious tradition that could find the very kernel and heart of what that music means on so many different levels. It is really only when music is experienced in a way that an emotional response is evoked that we can say that the music of the pipes can truly satisfy not only one of the universally accepted definitions of music but appeal to our musical hearts and souls.
What an example for future generations! We could produce something that was so profound that it would be the envy of the world. Can you imagine a judge at the Glenfiddich being so moved he wasn’t able to resist moving and tapping his feet (and disobeying that warning sign on the wall?).
It might even lead to dancing.
Postscript: I’m not sure that my conclusions, above, are very conclusive. My suggestions were more a random set of thoughts that may be thought provoking and this blog was certainly never intended to be an academic paper.
My motivation for writing this piece is very much to do with expressing the thoughts and feelings that have been milling about in my head for years. I don’t mean to be critical or judgmental; every part of our culture is relevant and has its own unique position.
I have been immersed in piping for my whole life, from, as a child, listening to my father playing, to learning from him and at school, competing in solo and pipe band competitions, playing for dancers while at university, discovering the bellows-blown pipes and the privilege of playing and teaching professionally all over the word and in the process, meeting lifelong friends in music. The greatest pleasure, however, has been in making the instrument, thinking about sound, proportions, reeds, reeds and reeds.
I gave up the day job in 1986 so for 35 years of my adult life have been living and breathing and totally immersed in bagpipes. I didn’t set out to make money when I started pipe making, my motive was to make the best sounding instruments I could and I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a stellar set of crafts people, including my father, to help me in that endeavour. I am even luckier to have a son who has taken custody of that precious gift to carry it on for another generation.
I care deeply about our musical culture; the place pipes have in that culture and indeed in the wider society of our country. I care deeply and want the best for all of this and for Scotland.
Maybe I believe that with slight shifts in consciousness and allowing our piping culture to gradually free itself from its shackles and be allowed to gently develop and evolve we may witness a subtle distillation process that, through time, will bring out the very best for piping, for our traditions and for Scotland.
* The views expressed in all blogs that appear on Bagpipe.News are not necessarily the views of the National Piping Centre.