OT: 3 October 1903 – Oilthigh [“The Passing of the Piobaireachd”]

The Oban Times, 3 October, 1903

[The Passing of the Piobaireachd]

28 September, 1903

Sir,–Having read “H.L.I.’s” letter, kindly allow me to say a few words, through your valuable paper, on one or two points. He mentions that if the MacCrimmons were to rise out of their graves they would be surprised to hear in the improvement made in their own composition of the piobaireachd. What I would like to know is where the improvement comes in.

When a piobaireachd is composed it is utterly impossible to alter it to any degree; and surely anyone who composes a tune ought to know how it should be played. The only improvement I am aware of is the superiority of the instrument both in tone and make. When compared with the old make of the pipes are now [sic] vastly superior indeed, but only in the rendering the sound more pleasant to the ear. The fingering, if not worse than it formerly was, it certainly no better.

“H.L.I.” is quite right when he says that nobody in this generation ever heard a MacCrimmon play. But the MacCrimmons have left behind them pipers who can play and teach, as, for instance, the Camerons, who undoubtedly can trace their teaching back to MacCrimmon’s time. If “H.L.I.” is a Highlander, I am very much surprised to hear him giving a march preference to a piobaireachd. In my own opinion it is impossible for anyone to appreciate a piobaireachd who has no Highland blood in him.

I suppose “H.L.I.” would consider a piper insane if he played more than two piobaireachds in one evening. Perhaps that accounts for some of the judging at games being unfair, when the judges have to listen to about a dozen pipers playing piobaireachds. After hearing the first two they begin to get sick of listening to the rest.–I am, etc.,


OT: 3 October 1903 – D. Davidson “The Passing of the Piobaireachd”

The Oban Times, 3 October, 1903

The Passing of the Piobaireachd

Duneira, Row, Helensburgh, 29 September, 1903

Sir,–Would you kindly allow me space in your valuable paper to reply to your correspondents in last week’s issue on pipe music? I think Mr. MacLennan’s letter should do something to stir up all who are desirous of getting the best, not only of piobaireachd, but of all kinds of pipe music. One cannot fail to notice nowadays how tunes are mutilated to suit the individual taste, and in some cases rendered almost indiscernible. Take, for example, “John McKechnie’s Reel.” As played by some pipers you with fail to recognise it.

I am sorry so many are led away by imitation, without musically discerning which is best. Of course, some will say it is a matter of taste; but I think at the root it is a matter of ease. Another example might be taken from the third measure of “Duntroon.” How many good players will go on snap, snapping the C.A’s, whereas, if the old style of C.A. and B.A. alternately were used with good accent, the tune would have a finer effect.

I agree with Mr. MacLennan that some authority should take the matter up, and fix the best and only recognizable setting of each tune.

Your correspondent, “H.L.I.” says “that the toarluath is the only means of cutting the other notes”–(What other notes?)–when it is impossible to sound two consecutive E’s on the pipes. I think this must be a mistake, as two consecutive E’s could be detached by either a top G, or low A, grace note. As to “physique” and “carriage,” with these in combination with good playing the piper is ideal, but the playing is of the first importance.

I agree with “H.L.I.” when he closes by referring to the usual ignorance of judges. This ignorance, or favouritism, whichever it may be, is becoming very common, as evidenced by the Highland games season just closed. The time has come when competence and unbiased judges will need to be selected if progress is to be made. No wonder the bagpipe and its music have no “further future” predicted when the men who are to give life and the stimulus to them are killing them. Hoping some better authority will take the matter up,–I am, etc..

D. Davidson

OT: 26 September 1903 – H.L.I. [“The Passing of the Piobaireachd”]

The Oban Times, 26 September, 1903

[The Passing of the Piobaireachd]

Sir,–”A. M.,” who is writing these articles, is apparently troubled with cacoethes seribendi [insatiable desire to write], and consequently inflicts upon your readers some extraordinary views anent “Piobaireachd.”

 In my humble capacity as the President, of what I naturally consider one of the best of pipe bands in or out of the regular volunteer or private pipe bands, including even Lord Archibald Campbell’s Pipe Band, and having studied the pipes and the music thereof–pibroch, marches, and dance music–I am naturally a little bit amused at your correspondent, “A.M.’s,” third article. “A.M.” says, to begin with, that he only knows about six pipers who can play pibrochs. Who are they? He continually quotes “MacCruimen” as the greatest of authorities, but let me ask him did he ever hear a “MacCruimen” play? I may be wrong; but I think all these pipers are dead some little time ago; aye, even an hundred years ago. I should like to hear his explanation why pipers can’t improve as we advance, just the same as they do in other music.

If, as he says, a pibroch is a theme with variations (the story with additions) then that dispels the popular idea of what a Pibroch really means. I grant that there is not the same opportunity with pipes as with other instruments, as the pipes only have one octave, the toarluath being the only means of cutting the other notes when it is impossible to sound two E’s consecutively on the pipes.

The writer of the article on the “Passing of the Piobaireachd” says he has no desire to pose as an authority on this subject, but at the same time he quotes some very learned theories in support of his “passing away.” He says “the Piobaireachd is too often regarded as the primary form of pipe music, old-fashioned and barely intelligible, little suited to the present age of civilization, and consequently little appreciated.” Of course it is! The later generation of pipers have very considerably improved on the music of their forefathers. “A.M.” is not to think I mean those pipers who endeavour to play the “Honeysuckle and the Bee,” but these pipers in Glasgow alone who not only play well pibrochs, marches, and reels, but can also read and write the music set down by the famous “MacCruimen” and improve on it, and themselves compose very excellent music.

Unfortunately for “A.M.,” but fortunately for us of modern times, we have not the time or inclination to be Helen Macgregors, to sit down and listen to the coronach being played, while there is a chance of calling in the nearest doctor to save life and not lament over the dying. The sentiment may have been very appropriate some two or three hundred years ago, but its day is gone, and, I think, for ever. About two piobaireachd skin one evening are enough for any sane modern Highlander.

Unfortunately there are a good number of the old-wife Highlanders who seem to revel in this lamenting over the passing away of the piobaireachd. To a certain extent “A.M.” is quite right in advocating the keeping up of the old tunes, not necessarily laments, that are just as well rendered by the pipers of to-day as by the “MacCruimens,” whom nobody of this generation ever heard. As in everything else we must go forward, and I have not the slightest doubt that if any of the “MacCruimens” could rise up and hear their own piobaireachds, they would be amused at the improvement.

Then “A.M.” talks about different fashions and styles on the pipes. Everyone will admit that there is always room for improvement, but as to fashion, well, I don’t think there should be any fashion. Style is quite a matter for the player, but it he fingers his notes properly, keeps proper time, and what is very necessary, has a good carriage, and gives a sympathetic rendering and shows that he feels himself part of the music, it is all we can expect. From a personal point of view the writer has always thought, and thinks he voices the feelings of the majority of Highlanders when he says that there is nothing more inspiriting than to see a piper with good physique and carriage playing a stirring march on the war pipe. It appeals much more to his manly feeling than to hear a piper (endeavouring to emulate a “MacCruimen” he never heard) droning out a lament without object or purpose, unless it be on the platform competing for a prize to be awarded by a judge possessing the usual ignorance of pipe music.–I am, etc.


OT: 26 September 1903 – J. MacLennan “The Passing of the Piobaireachd”

The Oban Times, 26 September, 1903

The Passing of the Piobaireachd

 Parliament Square, Edinburgh, 19 September 1903

Sir,–Having read “A.M’s” interesting articles on piobaireachd, I have to crave a corner of your valuable paper to pass a few remarks on the subject.

In the first place he says “A piobaireachd is a theme with variations.” That is so, or, in other words, a Fantasia, in the form of a Rondo, commencing and finishing with the melody. The earliest tunes were composed in three-foot measures, and some in four feet, but when Mary MacLeod, the Dunvegan poetess, appeared–about 1600–she doubled the three foot measure and sang in six foot measure. She is, I believe, the only bard who sang in this style, and Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon, who was her contemporary, came out with tunes of the same measure, which were, of course, twice as long as the old tunes. To make up for this and have tunes of the same length as Patrick Mòr’s, the pipers, instead of adding to their tunes, had recourse to strategy, and repeated the bars until the music became tedious. Thus “Mary’s Praise” is composed of four bars or measures of music, and these are run out to sixteen bars. “Cumha Mhic fir Arais,” usually called “Macintosh’s Lament,” is composed of four bars of music, but is run out in Mackay’s book to 36 bars, so that, as your correspondent says, the tunes are played to death before the ground is finished, far less the variations. Again, he says, pibroch “is considered old-fashioned, barely intelligible, and, consequently, but little appreciated.”

The pibroch as now played is no credit to our country. Joseph MacDonald, writing in the beginning of 1800, says–” Our martial music has been on the decline for more than half a century.” John Dàll Mackay, Gairloch’s blind piper, and his son Angus, when speaking of a young pipers to my grandfather, used to say–”Cha ‘n e piobaireachd tha ann a nis ach durdaireachd aon-ghuthach coltach ri bùirich nam bò.” It is not pibroch now, but the buzzing monotonous sounds of a horn, like the lowing of cattle.

In tracing the history of music in early Scotland one is very forcibly impressed with the conviction that the art of pibroch playing was more intelligently cultivated by our remote ancestors than it has been during the last 150 years or so. The pipers who survived Culloden, not only kept the pibroch among themselves, but they, unfortunately, were enabled to exhibit it in so mysterious a form as to impose on and perplex the understanding of their pupils. They embraced every opportunity of the forming the ground and often the variations, and not only so, but the terms used to denote the different parts have been rendered unintelligible. “Toarluath” and “Crunluath,” for instance, are terms unknown in the Gaelic language. My father always impressed on me that “lugh” was the word used when he was young. Lugh means hinge, or, perhaps phalange–Luighean an dorais, they hinder the door–thus, Lugh na hòrdaig means that some joint, or phalange;Lugh na ludan, the little finger joint; Barr-lugh, the tips of the finger; etc. We have “Da-Lugh,” from two fingers. This movement is also called “Iul-lugh,” which means leaving, guidance, the index finger; (Iulaig means a mariner’s compass) and is now called Dithisd–a compass; Tri-lugh commonly called Toarluath, three fingers; Ceithir-lugh, pronounced Cairlugh, for fingers, commonly called Crumluath, the Greum-lugh, and the Leum-lugh, as well as the Cliabh , or Cath-lugh.

When MacCulloch visited the Western Isles in 1824 he found the pibroch had neither time, rhythm, melody, cadence, nor accent, and it remains so to this day. Anyone listening to the pibroch playing of the best performers must feel how disconnected and meaningless it is, and no one is better aware of this than the piper himself. Professor Brown, of Glasgow, says in “The Thistle”–”The pibroch is usually played in a very irregular manner, the phrases being repeated and varied without any reference to melodic form,” and that is quite true. Take, for instance, the trebling of the 2nd variation of “Mary’s Praise,” the turluath of “Seaforth’s Salute,” the first variation of the “Prince’s Salute,” and several others. No one versed in the rudiments of music can say that they are anything but sheer nonsense, yet valuable prizes have been gained for playing then in this way, and intelligent old men who had been accustomed all their days to hearing these monotonous sounds swear by them as the music of their forefathers, all which verifies the truth of Mr. Burney’s statement that “there is no sense so liable to prejudice in favour of habitual feelings as the ear, for the people of every country are partial to their national music, be it ever so wild, uncouth, and barbarous.”

Speaking of “Macintosh’s Lament” “A.M.” says–”the air is a pretty one, but clumsily handled.” I think it is not too much to say that a great many more pibrochs are in the same position. In another place he Says–”When listening to a pibroch one fancies that one or more of the variations are out of place and foreign to the spirit of the ground.” Unfortunately, this is a reality. Take the “Lament for the Earl of Antrim.” The variations are quite different from the ground and the toarluath different from the lot. Then, as to how the variations should be played, he states “When a variation is doubled it is only repeated a little faster than the singling, and with some slight variation. The doubling, therefore, is merely another aspect of the singling.” By this, one would understand that singling and doubling our misleading words. For singling, then, we should have the word “Adagio,” and for doubling, we should have “Andante” as being slightly faster. For my own part I have been taught that one beat of the doubling contained two beats of the singling, one beat of the trebling contained three beats of the singling, and one beat of the quadrupling contained four beats of the singling.

The whole object of the variation is to show the dexterity and technique of the performer. He begins with the singling; doubles, trebles, or quadruples it to the delight of his audience, and at the same time shows his own ability. I am well aware that is not done at the present time, but if it were the pibroch would have a very different and more pleasing effect. That sweet poet William Ross, had a pibroch manuscript belonging to his uncle, Angus Mackay, piper to Gairloch, and he gave it to my father. The notes are written on nine horizontal lines, i.e., a line for each note on the chanter. There are no bar lines in it, nor time signatures, but each beat or step is so circumflexed that the learner cannot go wrong in it. The singling, doubling, trebling, and quadrupling are given quite distinctly.

Pibroch, or properly speaking, “Ceol Mor,” or “Ceol Garbh,” as opposed to “Ceol Beg,” or “Ceol Mein,” is the classic music of the Highlands, and the tunes can easily be written so that a musician can read them.

It is to be hoped they Society now formed will put their books and manuscripts into the hands of the Committee of our Professors of Music to have been grammatically arranged.–I am, etc.,

J. MacLennan

OT: 26 September 1903 – David Glen “The Piobaireachd Society of Scotland”

The Oban Times, 26 September, 1903

The Piobaireachd Society of Scotland.

21 September 1903

Sir,–Kindly allow me space in which to lodge a protest against a statement in the article under the above heading, which appears in your Saturday’s issue, and which may do serious injury to my business if allowed to go uncontradicted.

The statement is–”From no other Book of Pibrochs can copies of Pibrochs be issued at small cost, as neither the society nor pipers could afford the expense of buying so many tunes written out in full.”

The society and pipers can have from my “Ancient Piobaireachd,” which contains 70 of the very best tunes, any single tune written out in full musical notation for 1s each; or in book form they can have from 12 to 15 tunes for 4s. I shall be very pleased to supply this society quantities at a reduced price for distribution to their competitors.–I am, etc.,

David Glen

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