By Seumas MacNeill
The important feature of ceòl mòr is, of course, the music itself, and indeed it has been suggested by one prominent piper at one time that they should be simply labelled as Opus No. 1, and so on. However, most of us have an interest in who composed the tune, what was the occasion and, even approximately, the date of composition.
With this in mind I have attempted to put dates, even provisional ones, on all the tunes which I can find listed in the more easily accessible publications. These amount to about two hundred, but nearly half of them, at the present time, cannot be assigned to a particular date yet — indeed with some of them it is hard enough to assign them to a particular century. Nevertheless, as G. K. Chesterton. said, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly, so I plotted out the ones which we do know. Additions to this can be made as time goes on.
As could have been foretold, the golden age of Gaelic culture — 1600-1700AD — saw the composition of a great number of our best piobaireachds. Very many tunes were composed at the start of the 17th century because this was when the prolific output of Donald Mòr MacCrimmon began. After 1640 (when he died), the torch was taken up by his son, Patrick Mòr, undoubtedly the greatest composer of all the MacCrimmons. Towards the end of the century we find tunes by Iain Dàll MacKay, so again there is a peak in the graph.
For the previous, century we only have a scattering of tunes that we can approximately date, although there may be a great many more to be added to the list in future. Indeed the 15th century has more titles but it may be that only a few of these were actually composed. during these times. As Alec Haddow pointed out, a tune for an insignificant event is almost certain to have been composed at the time but a tune for something very important might well not have been put together until long after the event. In this way The Battle of the Park is almost certainly dated at 1491, but 1692 for the Massacre of Glencoe is possibly a poor guess.
Other considerations help with dates too. Donald Gruamach was such a horrible man that it is unlikely that anybody composed a tune for him after his death, so we can place this one somewhere about the middle of the 16th century.
Strangely enough we have, at present, more dates in the 15th century than in the 16th. These tunes as we have them nowadays are fairly complete and mostly in the piobaireachd form as we know it, but it may well be that they have been worked on over the years by some of the great master composers.
Coming further forward again we find only a scatter of piobaireachds in the 19th century. By this time it seems that most pipers had decided that to try to compose the great music was outwith their abilities, and in any case was tantamount to sacrilege. Only John MacKay of Raasay and Donald Bàn MacKenzie made any acceptable shots at it. In the latter half of that century there is a complete blank.
In our present time there has been a revival to some extent of the composition of ceòl mòr. This has been motivated by a number of competitions for which prizes were to be awarded. We can expect that these tunes were specially composed for the occasion, although the BBC prize-winning tune of 1964, Salute to the Cairn at Boreraig by Angus MacPherson, had been composed several years previously. Apart from the BBC contest we also had the one organised jointly by the Saltire Society and the College of Piping in 1965 for the Prince Charles Trophy, won by John MacLellan. Then there was the Glasgow Year of Culture contest which produced at least eleven good tunes.
There was indeed a second competition run for the Prince Charles Trophy but the judges chosen for this decided that none of the entries was worth a prize. An alternative panel of judges then looked at these tunes and came to the same conclusion.
It seems that the ability to compose acceptable pieces of ceòl mòr has been fairly steadily improving with the impetus of competition. Attempts to find alternative ‘big music’ for the Highland bagpipe have not been successful. It seems that the format of piobaireachd cannot really be changed without losing the greatness of the music.
But it should be remembered that there are many forms of piobaireachd even within the divisions already proposed of Primary, Secondary, Tertiary A, Tertiary B and Irregular. So far as structure is concerned Alec Haddow lists seven separate groups, so our art is not to be compared with things like the ancient Gaelic ‘filidhs’ or even with the English sonnet where the rules for construction are implacably laid down.
We should remember of course that so far as our acceptable piobaireachds are concerned, Professor T. C. Smout in his History of the Scottish People wrote, “Apart from the great pipers has there been a Scottish composer of outstanding merit in any generation? His question obviously expected the answer, “No”.
• From the February 1996 Piping Times.