OT: 31 August 1929 – Lochgorm “Piping in Pipe Making”

The Oban Times, 31 August, 1929

Piping in Pipe Making


Concerning Piobaireachd Playing

 Sir,–I have read A. K. Cameron’s letter in your issue of 17th August on these subjects.

Alexander Cameron and Keith Cameron, who finished his Army career in Hamilton Barracks, Lanarkshire, who were both well known to the older pipers in Glasgow and elsewhere, said that their father, Donald Cameron, was taught Piobaireachd playing by Angus MacKay’s father. This John MacKay received his instruction for (sic) John Dhu MacCrimmon, the last of the MacCrimmon school. There are many pupils of Sandy Cameron still in the four, namely, ex-Pipe-Major John Mackenzie, Govan, and Roderick Campbell, Edinburgh (both gold medallists); and others were, the late Pipe-Majors John MacDougall Gillies and Farquhar Macrae, and the great Wm. MacLennan, all of whom played the redundant A. They all read and understood the various ways of writing Toarluath and Crunluath, and treated same as a matter of no consequence.

Piobaireachd is slipping further away from us every day, and for many reasons; environment for one, and because no piper who has not had instruction can play it from scale. Why? Because it is not played as written, and again, it is impossible to do so. If there is any doubt here, let anyone take into consideration the thousands of pipers who could read the scale of nine notes for ordinary March, Strathspey and Reel, and yet throw aside Piobaireachd as hopeless. There is something wrong! What is it? Firstly, time signatures do not apply; the introductory E to all notes under that note is invariably a full melody (or themal note); and should not be treated in cadence form. This is what throws all time signatures out. Secondly, it throws metre irregular, but nevertheless phrases regularly and makes regular musical sense. Further, on this account, moderns have attempted to squeeze piobaireachd into Bars like Marches, Strathspeys and Reels, and on finding this impossible, the conclusion jumped to was that Bars were too many and should be shortened to suit. There is no such thing as a regular piobaireachd in the same sense as a March, strathspey and reel. The editor of “Ceol Mor” is guilty of altering tunes to suit his analysis and index. This will undoubtedly cause harm in the future, and is a gross mistake.

Angus MacKay in his preface states that he had a difficult task, and humbly asked to be excused for any default in his publications, and Pipe-Major Wm. Ross says the same in his publication. He shows in his book as to how the tunes are noted in the MacDonald, MacKay and Ross books, and how the notes should be played otherwise than written. Old manuscripts show the various writers differing in their methods. Many pin their fate in Gesto, but Gesto’s music cannot be played from what he has written, and never will be in a musical sense.

The fault with Piobaireachd lies in changing over to Staff notation. It surely stands to reason that the old pipers could not read, far less speak English, and would not have heard of a crotchet or quaver cadence time signatures and such like. They measured their phrases, which the modern piper does not attempt, from a different angle altogether. They did not measure as John MacDougall Gillies used to say, by twelve inches to the foot, but in a manner which let itself into their art. There is one thing the old school kept to themselves, and that was their system of construction and teaching. If they had not an established system from which Pres. Applied, piobaireachd would not have traveled down from one generation to another. It would be impossible to memorise a lot of meaningless notes.

Much has been written about the various gracing in pipe music. This, when boiled down in analysis, shows only two types. The ordinary grace notes can be performed by every finger on the chanter; triplet means applying each grace note in strict rotation. The other is the grip type, in which Crunluath movements end, and do not admit of two grips, thus showing the fallacy of notes redundant.

Regarding Mr. A. K. Cameron’s chanters and pipes, I should like to put a question to him. Can he make a chanter? If he cannot, then he is not going to enlighten us much, and therefore his red-hot iron business falls to the ground. Good chanters can only be produced by an expert, one who has acquired the art of piping in all its details, knows pitch, and can handle tools. The same applies to any other instrument. Registration of sizes is the first care, then pitch, and from there the placing and tuning of notes. Another important factor, and one which pipers do not think of, is the size of the staple for the reed. It is practically part of the chanter. Without a standard staple, no chanter can be produced in uniformity. Chanters are tuned to the drones, and not the drones to the chanter. One chanter may tune with one set of drones and very often not with another made by the same manufacturer.–I am, etc..