OT: 27 August 1927 – Review of “A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe”

The Oban Times, 27 August, 1927

A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe”

Part I.

 Joseph MacDonald was a son of the Rev. Murdoch MacDonald, a Minister of Durness in Sutherlandshire, and early in life showed a great musical genius. He collected many of the old airs of his district, and besides being a player upon the violin was keenly interested in pipe music. In 1760 he went to the East Indies in the service of the East India Company. Before his departure he wrote out a number of the vocal airs which he had collected and left the manuscript with a sister. These airs form the first and greater part of the collection subsequently published by his brother, the Rev. Patrick MacDonald, Kilmore.

During his lengthy voyage to India and to while [sic] away his leisure moments in that country he wrote his treatise on the “Scots Highland Bagpipe.” From letters to his father it seemed he was anxious to publish his collection so that the music would “not be allowed to sink and die away.” Alas! poor Joseph died in India before he had been little more than a twelve-month in that country. His manuscript, however, was discovered in Bengal by Sir John Murray MacGregor, who, on his return home, forwarded it to the Rev. Patrick MacDonald, Joseph’s brother. In the meantime, the Rev. Patrick had in 1784, published a collection of Highland airs, the major portion of the collection being Joseph’s.

“Scots Highland Bagpipe.”

In 1803, the Rev. Patrick published his brothers treatise on the “Scots Highland Bagpipe.” It would seem clear that Joseph’s manuscript was not completely ready for publication at the time of his death, and his brother, Patrick, was possibly not sufficiently conversant with pipe music to edit and correct manifest clerical errors, etc., in the manuscript. In studying the “Theory,” therefore this point should not be overlooked and the fact remembered that but for Joseph’s premature death we might have had an even more valuable work than that now before us.

Joseph’s work was probably the very first attempt to produce pipe music in modern staff notation, and though Donald MacDonald’s collection may have come before the public very soon after the “Theory” was published, Joseph’s manuscript was, of course, much older than Donald MacDonald’s. Indeed, it is more than likely that Donald MacDonald’s method of recording his collection in staff notation is the result of the publication of the “Theory.” The scheme in Joseph’s mind would seem to have been to write out tunes, etc., showing only the big or themal notes, or style of variation. This seems evident from the method of explanation he adopts. He writes out the “plain” notes of the various beats and on a second staff underneath a beat is “sett down at large, with its dividing notes.” His method is progressive, leaving from the fingering of the scale, shown by illustrated “holes,” open or closed (as in Glen’s collection) to the various beats used in piobaireachd, including an elaborate set of “cuttings” of the style of what to-day would be call Crunluath Breabach beats. He then proceeds to discuss Time, Rests, Keys, Methods of Composition, etc., and gives some valuable information as to the “style” of the instrument. His work opens with a list of “The Original Terms of Art belonging to the Bagpipe” and closes with “a March (piobaireachd) for a beginner.”

Terms of Art

 Coming first to his “Terms of Art” it is clear beyond question that the termination “luath” commonly used to-day, is incorrect and should be “ludh,” meaning “art.” In fact his heading, already quoted, is in itself perfectly clear evidence of the point. The word “Creanludh” is used, and as Mr. MacDonald says in his preface to the reprint, this word, instead of “Crunluath,” is probably the correct one and substantially a harp term. The word “Taorludh” does not appear in Joseph’s list of “Terms of art,” but in the context of the work the word “Tudhludh” appears. Mr. MacDonald considers the correct word is “Taobhludh” and Joseph’s writing this is as it is frequently pronounced in some districts or by some people. It is quite possible the prefix “Taor” has arisen through the mist printing of the phonetic “Taovludh” as “Taorludh” the “r” having replaced the “v,” an error easily understandable in manuscript writing.

The beats known to-day as “Toarluath” is called “Riludh” or “Iuludh” in the work. The word “Riludh” does not appear in his list of “Terms of Art,” but “Iuludh” does and yet on the next page “on the signification of Terms mentioned in this Treatise” he calls the beat “Riludh” and describes its fingering (of which more anon). He then describes “Creanludh,” as the adding to “Riludh” of the doubling of the E, the term not meaning the “whole ‘Crunluath’ beat as we know it to-day, but only the end of it.” He then describes what we to-day call the “Crunluath” beat as “Iuludh and Creanludh together.”


Close study of the work makes it quite clear that “Riludh” and “Iuludh” are one and the same beat and as the word “Riludh” is not known to Gaelic scholars the question arises whether “Ri” is not a misprint for “Iu.” In setting print from manuscript (the I having two dots over it) a mistake might easily occur. Were the word “Iuludh” substituted for “Riludh” throughout the work it would not in any way upset the context, which fact supports suggestion of a possible misprint. It is to be regretted the original manuscript is not available to settle such points. It is said to have “mysteriously disappeared” from the place in which it was deposited. His fingering of the scale shows the second finger of the upper hand “on” when sounding high G and A (sometimes sounding G, the little finger “on” also), and also the little finger of the lower hand “on” when sounding C.

His description of the various beats, etc., is most interesting but it is impossible to deal with all points within the short compass of an article such as this, even though they may throw much light on modern practice and discount many of the firmly held ideas of modern players! A few may be referred to, however.

It has to be admitted that, at times, it is somewhat difficult from the modern staff notation point of view, to follow some of this illustrated fingering of the beats, for he may by this method illustrate only two notes of a grip and yet from the letterpress it would seem clear he intends the full grip. A case in point is the beat called “Riludh” or “Iuludh.” Without careful study of the work the reader might easily jump to the conclusion that the beats were different, the difference being the omission in “Iuludh” of the last G in the GDG grip. Reference to his “Exercise on the 4th Table” however, where he illustrates the grip in the first bar by the notes GD only, proves he means GDG, as his figure “3” refers to the number of the beat in the 4th Table itself which beat is distinctively given with the GDG grip. There could hardly be two separate beats with so fine a distinction between them as the omission of the last G in the GDG grip, although it might be said that many play the grip imperfectly to-day, sounding A instead of the last G.

The “Reprint” is very finally imposed and is a credit to the publishers. Orders for copies should be sent to Mr. Alexander MacDonald, Glencona, Inverness

A Musical Genius of the 18th Century