OT: 16 July 1910 – Somerled MacDonald “The Piobaireachd Society’s Music”

The Oban Times, 16 July, 1910

The Piobaireachd Society’s Music

Edinburgh, 8 July, 1910

Sir,–I should like to say a few words regarding the correspondence which has appeared in the columns of “The Oban Times” on the above subject.

The aims and objects of the original Piobaireachd Society as it was founded by Captain Campbell of Kilberry are already sufficiently well-known, as also that General Thomason’s publication, “Ceol-Mor,” was taken as a basis to work from. But it is not commonly known that the present Piobaireachd Society rejected “Ceol-Mor,” and made it one of their rules that no piobaireachd was to be taken out of this book. They also rejected the General’s excellent system of writing the music, they holding that the General knew nothing of piobaireachd, and that his system of writing it was “rotten.” For the benefit of those not in the know, I may hear remark that the General Could play upwards of sixty piobaireachd on the pipes. From the above remarks it will be seen that the present Society differs in every respect from the original; and all its admirers must therefore condemn General Thomason’s magnificent work.

I see by the preface to their last issue that classes are being held for the instruction of pipers in the Society’s “music.” This means that the Society is now doing a real harm, and it is difficult to understand how the Masters can teach settings which they themselves have so often condemned.

Taking the first tune in their latest issue, “The Stuart’s White Banner,” the “suibhal” as here written is the way it is generally played by our leading pipers, but compare it with the corresponding variation in “Lochnell’s Lament” or “Weighing from Land,” and it will be seen that the accentuation is quite different. I would like now to ask what rule the Society has laid down for this. It would also be interesting to know how the masters explain this matter to their pupils. There is also another matter of great importance, and that is the little finger note–specimens of the note I refer to will be found in “The Stuart’s White Banner” and in the “Vaunting.” When I was a member of the Society it was one of the rules that this note had choose one to be played as it is written–that is to say by making a grace note of the E, and the first A a full note, or, in other words, to play it as Mr. MacLennan wants us to have it. Now, if the Society wish to be consistent, why not follow out Mr. MacLennan’s system in its entirety?

Let us take the “Blue Riband” as an example, and see how it would sound according to the Society’s rule; then let us turn to the system as given by Mr. MacLennan, compare the two, and see which is the most consistent.

“Mal Dhonn” is evidently a great admirer of the Society, and knows what he is writing about–at least so he tells us–so perhaps he might be able to throw some light on the Society’s method of teaching and writing the tunes (I mean, of course, without purposely misunderstanding this letter).

Whether the system as shown by Mr. MacLennan be right or wrong, it shows us clearly for the first time the construction of a piobaireachd, and I am sure that the original Society would have at least given him a hearing.

There certainly have been piobaireachd composed, or rather made, in modern times; but I think most people will agree that there is a distinct suspicion of “cribbing” in most of them, and there is always the “I have heard that before somewhere” feeling about them. This may be attributed to the want of knowledge of the rules of construction. For marches, strathspeys, and reels these rules are known, and that is the reason good marches, strathspeys, and reels are being composed today. It is characteristic of the Highlander that he accompanies his music to the beat. Again, it is odd that pipers should begin the tune by marching without keeping time, then march in time, and then stand perfectly still. Why should he march at all if he is not going to keep time?

I am under the impression that the system as given by Mr. MacLennan is the one that was used in the composition of piobaireachd in ancient times, and that it has since gradually drifted into its present unsatisfactory state, probably through overexpressing certain notes, or by the masters purposely teaching wrong–such things have happened even in the present day. “The Bells of Perth” and many other tunes have completely changed their character within the last ten years. I also think there is just as much room for individuality of expression in this system as there is a march, strathspey, or a reel. I am, etc.,

Somerled MacDonald