WS: 8 January 1953 – Archibald Campbell of Kilberry “Nobody Can Compose Piobaireachd Nowadays”

The Weekly Scotsman, 8 January, 1953



So far as I know, there is no direct evidence of how piobaireachd, which means “piping” or “pipe music,” and [sic] came to be applied to Ceol Mor or the classical music, came into existence.

The ordinary Highland history enthusiast will probably say that piobaireachd is a very ancient form of music which has come down from the dim and distant past. In my opinion, this is not so.

The piobaireachd is not a barbarous form of music, but a very artificial product constructed carefully in accordance with definite rules. Whatever the inchoate form was in the early days of development, what we have nowadays and cherish so highly is a strict convention evolved, apparently, by intellects much superior to ours.

For, nowadays, no one can compose a piobaireachd which will satisfy the ear of an expert in the music. Efforts have certainly been made, but do we ever hear a reciter play a tune that was composed and called a piobaireachd by anyone who is alive to-day? Yet these same reciters let us hear plenty of modern marches, strathspeys, and reels, some of them to work of quite obscure players.

Names and Tunes

The names of extant piobaireachds are a guide of some sort–but not an entirely safe one, perhaps, because the names of all pipe tunes become mixed up, or are changed and forgotten, and new names are invented.

There are a few piobaireachds named after long-past events, but none of the numerous laments commemorates the death of any historical individual of a date previous to the year 1600. We have laments for Queen Anne and for the Viscount Dundee, but none for William Wallace or Robert the Bruce.

All the definite evidence we have about history of piobaireachd is derived, firstly, from Joseph MacDonald’s Treatise of 1760, and, secondly, from the records of the Highland Society’s competitions from 1781 to 1844. Clearly, it was the principal form of Highland pipe music when Joseph MacDonald wrote.

The MacCrimmons

Equally clearly, 20 years later and for the next 60 or 70 years, it was the only description of pipe music deemed worthy of their patronage by Highland and Lowland chiefs and other influential patrons of Scottish art. It was referred to constantly by those patrons as “ancient.”

Joseph MacDonald was severely practical and technical. Yet he ventures on no dates and gives no names. He does not even mention the MacCrimmons by name.

So we are driven to a less satisfactory source of information–tradition, which has to be handled cautiously. But tradition connecting piobaireachd with the name of MacCrimmon is so firm as to create a practical certainty.

The first reputed MacCrimmon composer was Donald Mor. His life-time has been placed, by other sources, approximately from 1570 to 1640. I suggest that, not very much earlier than 1600, the piobaireachd form of pipe music was developed by the MacCrimmon family for the purpose of bringing out from the instrument the most pleasing sounds of which it is capable.

That they succeeded is indicated by the fact that ever since, all those eminent in the profession of piping esteem piobaireachd far above any other class of pipe music.

It is certainly difficult music to understand, but, in a well-played piobaireachd on a well-tuned pipe, sounds are produced that are never heard in marches, strathspeys, or reels, and which satisfy the ear of a skilled piping musician in a way that no other sounds can do.

Skye College

The precise character of the MacCrimmon college is not known. Tradition is busy, but is sometimes grotesque. It is possible that some of the pupils sent by big men were favourites, but musical duds, whom the MacCrimmons did not like to send home before hammering something into them.

But imagine an intelligent young piper staying there for seven long years without anything else in the world to do, and only learning a bare 200 tunes!

The important fact to my mind, is that learners were sent from distant places to and almost inaccessible corner of Skye. Surely this implies, if it does not prove, that there was something obtainable there which could not be got elsewhere. That is one of the reasons for my submission that the MacCrimmon family were the manufacturers of the piobaireachd form.

End of Epoch

I suggest, therefore, that piobaireachd is a product not of barbarism, but of civilisation; that it marks the end, and not the beginning, of the development of music for the Highland bagpipe; that it is not much older than 350 years.

Although, compared with the pipers of old days, we may have advanced in the art of making bagpipes and reeds, we have not advanced–we have not got as far as they in the art of musical composition, since the ability to compose what is accepted by the best pipers as the highest class of music has departed.

The basis of the piobaireachd is the ground of (sic) “urlar.” Its arrangement appears to follow definite rules. Because would-be composers nowadays do not try to follow these rules, but strike out on their own for something original, the skilled piobaireachd player, they find, will not play their tunes because they do not “sound like a piobaireachd.”

On Right Track

Some of these rules have yet to be worked out, but some can be detected, without much difficulty, by the study of a number of tunes.

We were put on the right track nearly 200 years ago by Joseph MacDonald when he told us that the ordinary regular piobaireachd consists of 16 “fingers.” If these “fingers” are translated into bars, and the bars put into three lines (as emphasised by, among others, the Piobaireachd Society), the structure of most tunes is made plain.

To the casual ear, the air of the piobaireachd is often disguised by the application of certain conventional embellishments, prominent among which are the cadence grace-notes. The grace-noting of a piobaireachd is very important. The piper cannot take liberties with the composer’s grace-notes as he can–or, at any rate, does–in marches, strathspeys, and reels. He must play them as he finds them, or he will land himself in trouble.

Every high G or other grace-note has been put in or left out with an object, on what precise systems we poor, ignorant decadents cannot say. But a careful student can often glean from the position and nature of the grace-notes some guidance on how the ground should be played.

May I mention a curious phenomenon? We talk of ancient piobaireachds and the MacCrimmons, but many of our favourite tunes are neither reputedly ancient nor reputedly MacCrimmon.

We have no evidence of any particular name being applied to any particular piobaireachd in any day prior to 1781, though many may have been composed 150 or even 200 years before that. In 1760, Joseph MacDonald recorded snatches of tunes which we know, but without names.

Usual Fate

what of piobaireachd composition to-day? The usual fate of a piobaireachd composed nowadays is to be ignored because it does not sound like a piobaireachd. Perhaps the reason is that the composer has not follow the rules and conventions adopted by the old-time composers.

I know of no attempt on the part of any top-grade piobaireachd player in my lifetime to compose a piobaireachd seriously. Those I have known have shown, to me at any rate, no interest in any such attempt.

One objection to a strict adherence to the old patterns may be that atmosphere is everything in artistic composition; that we cannot recapture the atmosphere of the seventeenth century, and that it is no use trying. The artist must be free to introduce fresh notions in keeping with the century in which he lives.

Quite so–but let not the artist make the mistake of calling his creation a piobaireachd. This literally comprehensive title has for so long been restricted to the convention to which I have been referring that it cannot be expanded again–or, at least, pipers will not sanction its expansion.

Let the enterprising twentieth-century composer find some new and different name for his composition.

Perhaps the plain truth is that enough of the old tunes have survived to occupy all the time and attention available to any present-day piper. After all, the compass of the pipe chanter is limited, and we still possess more first-class piobaireachds than first-class marches, first-class strathspeys, or first-class reels.