OT: 19 September 1903 – Unsigned “The Piobaireachd Society of Scotland” [Report]

The Oban Times, 19 September 1903

The Piobaireachd Society of Scotland

 The Piobaireachd Society of Scotland was instituted in January last, and in view of the promised revival of the piobaireachd, it will be of interest to publish some particulars of its aims and intentions.

The society began in a modest way with but a meagre list of members, who, however, were all enthusiasts. During its brief existence it has had a large accession in membership, and is now giving signs of considerable activity.

The office-bearers are:–President, Major-General C. S. Thomason, R.E.; secretary and treasurer, Mr. J. MacKillop, jr.; committee, Captain Colin Macrae, Capt. C.A.H. MacLean of Pennycross, Captain Kenneth Cameron, R.A.M.C., Captain. Malcolm MacNeill, D.S.O., Somerled MacDonald, and Major S. MacDougall of Langa.

The objects of the society are:–

(a) The encouragement, study, and playing of piobaireachd music on the Highland bagpipe.

(b) To collect piobaireachd MSS. and Legends, and published tunes which have never before been published, and to correct, when possible, tunes already in print which are known to be wrong.

(c) The general advancement and diffusion of knowledge of this ancient Highland music.

(d) Eventually, by offering adequate money prices, to hold piobaireachd competitions, to be judged by members of the society. A list of tunes to be played at such competitions to be selected by the society.

Particulars as to the qualification for membership, subscription, and so forth will be had on application to the secretary, Mr. J. MacKillop, jr, Polmont Park, Stirlingshire.

With its rules the society issues a small leaflet of which the following are extracts:–

To those who take an interest in Highland music, it is at once apparent that the piobaireachd, which is the true and ancient music of the Highland bagpipe, is in a languishing and tottering condition.

There are many people who are in a position to do a great deal for this music who have become lethargic, but who, if they would interest themselves in it, could in a great measure assist to remedy this state of matters.

After the Battle of Culloden in 1745, it is wonderful to think how many things became illegal and dangerous. Besides the kilt and tartan, bagpipes seem to have caused much consternation to the British Government, as to be convicted of


was, in those days, often as much as a man’s life was worth. Naturally, under such circumstances, the piobaireachd languished and threatened soon to become extinct. After about a generation, however, the anti-Highland panic began to subside, and a reaction in favour of Highlanders set in.

Donald MacDonald, a piper and maker of bagpipes, turn his attention to writing down this music in ordinary music notation. He collected and noted down as much piobaireachd music as he could find extant. MacDonald’s first volume, containing twenty-three piobaireachdean, appeared in print about 1806. The publication nearly ruined him, and the manuscript of the second volume, which was never published, is now in the possession of the president of the society, Major-General C. S. Thomason, R. E.

Angus MacKay’s book was published about 1839, but the publishing of books of piobaireachdean does not seem to have been a paying concern, as MacKay’s second volume (like MacDonald’s) never appeared in print. The manuscript of this is also in the hands of the president of this society. There are also more modern collections by Ross, Glen, MacPhee, and others.

Unfortunately, in most published books, there are a great number of


These may have arisen largely from the difficulty in writing down piobaireachdean in ordinary music notation, as it was formerly handed down from one generation to another by the system known as canntaireachd. It would, indeed, be a marvel if errors did not abound, considering the limited extent of musical education which alone could have been brought to bear on them. We find divergencies occurring in comparatively short spaces of time even with music noted, and it is a matter of marvel that this music, much of it coming down to us through many centuries, and for half-a-century prescribed, should now be even recognisable. It is believed to be largely due to technical errors permeating much of our published piobaireachd music as to make it all but unintelligible, that piobaireachd playing is now in such a languishing condition.

The whole language of the Gael is acknowledged to be essentially poetic, and, such being the case, it would be anomalous indeed if his music were that of prose, and if one looks on a piobaireachd as poetry, and not as prose–as many people seem to think it to be–it is easy to correct many metrical errors. As an example of this, let us take “I got a kiss of the king’s hand”–Angus MacKay’s book. The first part of the ground or Urlar has twelve bars, and in the same part in the variations there are only eleven bars. One naturally concludes that there is something wrong in this.

On comparing the variations with the ground, it is at once apparent that the third bar of the ground


in the variations. This little error is known to every leading piper in Scotland, and he plays it wrongly simply because it is in MacKay’s book, and if he did play it correctly, most of those who at present act as judges of piobaireachd would say that he was wrong.

In the competitions held under the auspices of this society it shall be endeavoured, as far as possible, to correct errors, when sufficient evidence or authority can be obtained to vouch for the corrections.

The society shall also decide between the diverse renderings of conflicting authorities.

No one has ever done more for the Highland piobaireachd than the president of the society. In that excellent book of music “Ceol Mor,” he has collected nearly every piobaireachd in existence. The compiler has introduced a system of shorthand in the book for the purpose of economising space whereby tunes which formerly occupied several pages of music can be written in very small space. Another great advantage of this abbreviated method of writing the music is that internal errors in metre or otherwise are easily detected. The system is very simple, and easily acquired.

It is known that there are at least two large collections of piobaireachd manuscript which have never been unearthed. One of these may be canntaireachd, in which case it will not be of much use to the society, as the reading of canntaireachd is believed to be


The other collection, however, is in the ordinary music notation, and tunes at present unknown to exist may be discovered in it. The whereabouts of both collections are known to some of the members of the society.

There are also several MSS. collections in the possession of irresponsible people, who either are not aware of their value or who take no interest in their preservation or publication. To secure unpublished manuscript and publish it so that those interested in Highland music may get the benefit of it, and to collect and preserve all valuable MSS. are two objects of the piobaireachd society.

The society proposes to encourage professional players to increase their repertoire. This can be done by offering prizes of considerable value at competitions in a certain number of tunes to be selected by the society, a list of which will be given out beforehand. By this means competitors will be placed on an equal footing, and the one or two at the top will not have a monopoly as at present.

It is also intended to hold annually a strictly amateur competition on the same lines as a professional one, viz., by giving a year’s notice of the tunes to be played, and having different ones each year.

This society also desires as much as possible to collect and eventually to print


relating to piobaireachdean.

There are many excellent performers of marches, strathspeys, and reels (“Ceol Beg”) and we feel sure that the languishing condition of the piobaireachd (“Ceol Mor”) has only to be pointed out to Highlanders and all interested in Highland music, to find ready response and support to the society’s efforts in endeavouring to preserve and encourage it.

This ancient Highland music is one of the few remaining links that bind us to the days when pipe playing was at the height of its fame, and it is the earnest desire of the society to restore it in a great measure to the exalted position it held in former days when the college of instruction existed in the Isle of Skye under the far-famed MacCruimeins.


The society is to hold a competition next year for piobaireachd playing, at which they will give £30 in prizes.

The first prize shall be £20 and the society’s gold-medal; second prize, £5; third prize, £3; fourth prize, £2. The date of the competition and place where it shall be held will be advertised in the “Scotsman,” “Glasgow Herald,” and “Oban Times” on the Saturdays in July of next year. But it shall be held, if possible, at Oban during the Argyllshire Gathering.

In the competitions for piobaireachd playing, held under the existing rules, many of the most beautiful of the old piobaireachd are never played at all, the reason being that at present it is only necessary for a piper to give a list of from three to eight piobaireachd to the judge, and many pipers give the same list year after year. The result of this is, that out of nearly 300 piobaireachd which are in existence, only about twenty are ever played at competitions. The society proposes to have


and give out a different list of six piobaireachd each year for the following year’s competition, any of which the pipers may be called upon to play.

The society believe that the falling off in piobaireachd playing is largely due to two reasons–First, that so many pipers have different settings of the same tune, and they are afraid to play certain settings, in case their setting may be different to that which the judges think the correct thing; second, that many are so long that the pipers are afraid to play them, as a long tune is a much greater strain both on the fingers and on the pipes than a short one. A set of pipes might stand splendidly for “Glengarry’s Lament,” but would go all out of tune in playing “Donald Ban MacCruimein’s Lament.”

The society shall, as much as possible, select tunes of equal length, so that all the pipers may be put on the same footing, and not one get a very short tune to play and another a very long one, which happens often under existing rules.

With regard to the settings of tunes, the society, after much consideration, has decided to adopt “Ceol Mor,” collected by Major-General Thomason, R.E. The reasons for this are–First, that “Ceol Mor” is the only large collection of piobaireachd in existence; second, that the society will be able to distribute six piobaireachd in abbreviated “Ceol Mor” settings, with key to the notation, amongst the pipers at a very small cost. With


of piobaireachd can this be done, as neither the society nor the pipers could afford the expenses of buying so many tunes written out in full.

The Society does not guarantee that “Ceol Mor” is free from mistakes, or that the settings in it are the best, but it is a standard from which all can play the same setting, and this will put all competitors on an equal footing.

If after the competition each year any competitor can point out errors in a tune, or give a better setting on some good authority, the committee of the society will thoroughly consider his suggestions; and should they decide to adopt them, they will be glad to pay those who assist them in trying to correct the tunes as much as possible.

The society hope by this means at some future time to be able to publish the best and most correct book of piobaireachd in existence, and to restore the ancient Highland Piobaireachd to the exalted position it held when the college existed in Skye under the far-famed MacCruimeins.

The society will select only those who are thoroughly acquainted with the tunes to act as judges at these competitions, so that the pipers may have absolute confidence in them.

The tunes for next year’s competition will be:–

“The Desperate Battle Perth.”
“The King’s Taxes.”
“Lament for MacLeod of MacLeod.”
“The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute.”
“The Groat.”
“Lament for the Earl of Antrim.”

The committee has decided to let pipers have those tunes free of charge this year, and they may be had on application to the secretary of the society.