The grace-noting of competition marches… from the Piping Times 1949

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By Archibald Campbell.

I am provoked to write to the Piping Times in order to correct a statement by “Veritas” in his article in the January number. I did not judge at the Northern Meeting in 1928. I judged in 1927, and George MacLennan (whom a severe illness had left a mere shadow of his former great self) competed. But he did not play the tunes named by Veritas, and he was in the prize list, though not first.

I have kept up a scrap book for over forty years of letters and articles on piping, chiefly in the Oban Times, and l have often wished that rival correspondents would express their dissenting views in more moderate language. We all want, or should want, to be helpful, but trying to be clever at the expense of the other man merely invites retaliation and ends in unseemly wrangling. The classic example is the correspondence on piobaireachd which inflated the columns of the Oban Times from 1910 to 1912. I for one, learnt nothing whatsoever from those reams of letters, of which the writers were too busy vituperating each other to think of how instructive a properly conducted controversy might be to a keen young student, as I myself was in those days.

Veritas’s object appears to have been to attack the practice and precepts of Pipe-Major Ross. But does he really think that strictures by an anonymous writer, in the tone which he has seen fit to adopt, is going to have any effect upon the position and influence in the piping world of a man like Pipe-Major Ross? If he would give his name and explain in temperate phrases why he considers that George MacLennan’s way of finishing a competition march is preferable to Ross’s, we might get somewhere. As it is we get nowhere, beyond reviving our regret that writers on piping so often prefer gibes to reasoned disputation.

•Archibald Campbell, Kilberry. The Piping Times wrote in 1975: “The late Kilberry was, of course, one of the great figures in piping this century. His contributions via the Piobaireachd Society collections, his own Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor and his many writings in the Piping Times and elsewhere have added tremendously to our knowledge.”

The Piobaireachd Society is dragged in presumably to deepen the dig at Pipe-Major Ross. But that Society has nothing to do with the judging of marches at Oban, and the judges are not appointed because they are members of it. My own personal objection to the three A’s at the end of a competition march is derived from the teaching, fifty years ago, of Angus MacRae and John MacColl. To my lasting regret I never heard William MacLennan, whom they both acknowledged to be the master player of marches. In such terms did they speak of him, that if he had played the three A’s undoubtedly they would have copied him. The three A’s were introduced by George MacLennan, together with a general elaboration of grace noting which caught the fancy of judges and compelled those who remained within the competing circle (unlike MacRae or MacColl, who left it) to modify their methods. Speaking to me of the way in which the “fireworks” of George MacLennan, then a mere boy, had taken the judging community by storm, John MacColl said: “It isn’t that we can’t put in the notes. We can. But we don’t think they are right.”

John MacColl, to me the most attractive march player I ever heard, used to think out every grace note in a tune, distributing doublings, single grace notes and plain notes according to what he considered to be the requirements of the melody, and some of the embellishments which came into vogue in the early part of the century and subsequently became universal he simply would not have in the eighteen-nineties. I went to India in 1901, after having had some experience of judging the leading players. I came back on leave in 1905 and was then surprised to hear the E start note of competition marches doubled. This practice, now general, was not adopted by the leading players in the nineties. Coming home again in 1910, I thought I noticed the following changes (amongst others) in previous usage:

(1) High A grace notes were more frequent on high G’s, formerly plain.

(2) There was more doubling of high A. For instance, the first high A in the last part of Abercairney Highlanders was doubled by George MacLennan and his imitators.

(3) The G, D, G grip was played oftener on C’s which formerly had had a single high G grace note, e.g., in the second bar of Charles Edward Hope Vere.

(4) A “birl” was added more frequently to the high G grace note in such dotted low A’s as that in the first bar of last part of The Stirlingshire Militia.

(5) There seemed to be a tendency to double all E’s or F’s that could be doubled, example, in the first part of the 74th, and to abandon the discrimination which the best players formerly exercised.

(6) Angus MacRae had sternly curbed my desire to use the high G, D, E doubling of D and only permitted it to be plyed occasionally, when coming to D from a higher note, as in the third bar of the Marchioness. From a lower note he would not allow it. Yet today nothing is commoner in such passages as the second and fourth bars of the Edinburgh Volunteers.

Knowledge of when not to double a note which invites doubling seemed to be a feature of the art of competition march playing in the view of John MacColl. Much as George MacLennan’s brilliant fingering was to be admired, there was reason in the complaint of critics that in his fourth part of the Abercairney Highlanders you could not hear the tune for the doublings. And the three A’s at the end of a competition march certainly grated on one who had been taught that a proper finish was no high G but two hard raps on the low G, which Angus MacRae frequently executed with a perfectly straight little finger.

John MacColl’s timing and accentuation technique, which carried him to the top of the tree, is another story. Although glimpses of it (and sometimes, perhaps, more than glimpses) survive today, the habit of playing competition marches with drums in a band does not encourage such survival in the fingers of a bandsman.