OT: 17 April 1926 – C.M.P. as Critic “The ‘Pibroch’ Controversy”

The Oban Times, 17 April, 1926

The “Pibroch” Controversy
“C.M.P” as Critic
Variations of Pibroch


I wonder if the pipers who have been carrying on this controversy for some time back have any conception of the impression they are making on those of your readers who are not pipers, but still have some ideas concerning the music.

It could hardly have been other than a superfluity of imagination that made Mr. Grant believe he sounded the “A” in The Macintosh Lament at the Edinburgh discussion on “Toarluath,” which Mr. Gray and the assembled musical dons and littérateurs failed to catch up. Mr. Grant is entitled to put it the other way, if he chooses; but he is one against a number, if the newspaper reports are to be depended on. It is, after all, such an unimportant item in bagpipe music that it is hardly worth meddling with, and I would not meddle with it but to show its unimportance. What is “Pibroch,” in any case, but the vulgar section of pipe music? What is the quick finale in the exhibition dances we see nowadays on the platforms of Highland gatherings but a show of dexterity? It is not conceived in the spirit of art. Similarly, “Pibroch” is the outcome of the same spirit. It gives an opportunity to pipers to reveal their expertness in fingering the chanter. The variations of “Pibroch” are so purely mechanical that General Thomason has reduced them to a shorthand notation which, in recording them, makes an enormous saving and writing, engraving and paper. These various mechanical devices in “Pibroch” have their Gaelic names, which pipers never seem able to spell with correctness.

It is not generally known that the terms of “Pibroch” are just those of the Clàrsach as anciently practiced in Ireland, as far as they go. “Lúth” is the Gaelic for “activity” or “expertness,” and that term is subject to qualifying prefixes indicative of special characteristics in the expert movements alluded to. For example: Cruinn-luth (sometimes spelled creanluidh to reproduce the Irish pronunciation of cruinn, which is usually crinn); clia-luth; bárr-luth; glas-luth; leum-luth. Toarluath does not seem to be a clarsach term. I do not suppose the word is correctly spelled however. Angus Mackay and Donald MacDonald make sparing use of it, being content in most cases to use the word “variation” with a number following it.

Special Characteristics of “Toarluath”

One may ask what “Toarluath’s” special characteristic is. It seems to me to belong to certain “grace notes” used in its rendering. These so-called “grace notes” fulfill the purpose of preventing tunes from being single masses of slurs, and serve, through the fingers, to produce on the bagpipe the effect got by tipping the chanter with the tongue, namely, the separation of the notes. If we take the Toarluath of MacKintosh’s Lament and represent the half of the first bar, as written by Angus Mackay, in the solfa (scientific) notation, we can form a fair conception of the point of discussion between Mr. Grant and Mr. Gray. Let me put the notes of the Toarluath melody in capital letters and the grace notes in lowercase type, thus–/sL : -. SrsL : mL/. These grace notes have to be produced at lightning speed to be properly effective; and pipers vary in the degree of dexterity with which they produce them. If, therefore, we take from the time of the second L the proportion used by an inexpert fingerer to produce srs, very little time will be left to the production of the L which follows; and we can imagine readily that the tendency will be constant to shirk the striking of the L, and to imagine it done.

But note the unimportance of the thing–the L we are discussing is A of absolute pitch, and at the same time the soh of the bagpipe scale. That is to say, before the bagpipe can be made to play the MacKintosh Lament the lah of the tune must be put on the soh of the instrument so as to preserve an approach to right tonality; and the notes ti and fah must be avoided to obviate the bringing of the semitones in their wrong order.

And the Rev. Neil Ross, editor of “An Gaidheal,” calls this thing Ceol Mor–great music–and would have us believe there is a kind of heavenly inspiration behind it. He and his friends of An Comunn Gaidhealach should devote their energies to Gaelic orthography is that up to bagpipe playing, which is one of the most successful movements of the present day and needs not their help.