OT: 26 September 1903 – J. MacLennan “The Passing of the Piobaireachd”

The Oban Times, 26 September, 1903

The Passing of the Piobaireachd

 Parliament Square, Edinburgh, 19 September 1903

Sir,–Having read “A.M’s” interesting articles on piobaireachd, I have to crave a corner of your valuable paper to pass a few remarks on the subject.

In the first place he says “A piobaireachd is a theme with variations.” That is so, or, in other words, a Fantasia, in the form of a Rondo, commencing and finishing with the melody. The earliest tunes were composed in three-foot measures, and some in four feet, but when Mary MacLeod, the Dunvegan poetess, appeared–about 1600–she doubled the three foot measure and sang in six foot measure. She is, I believe, the only bard who sang in this style, and Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon, who was her contemporary, came out with tunes of the same measure, which were, of course, twice as long as the old tunes. To make up for this and have tunes of the same length as Patrick Mòr’s, the pipers, instead of adding to their tunes, had recourse to strategy, and repeated the bars until the music became tedious. Thus “Mary’s Praise” is composed of four bars or measures of music, and these are run out to sixteen bars. “Cumha Mhic fir Arais,” usually called “Macintosh’s Lament,” is composed of four bars of music, but is run out in Mackay’s book to 36 bars, so that, as your correspondent says, the tunes are played to death before the ground is finished, far less the variations. Again, he says, pibroch “is considered old-fashioned, barely intelligible, and, consequently, but little appreciated.”

The pibroch as now played is no credit to our country. Joseph MacDonald, writing in the beginning of 1800, says–” Our martial music has been on the decline for more than half a century.” John Dàll Mackay, Gairloch’s blind piper, and his son Angus, when speaking of a young pipers to my grandfather, used to say–”Cha ‘n e piobaireachd tha ann a nis ach durdaireachd aon-ghuthach coltach ri bùirich nam bò.” It is not pibroch now, but the buzzing monotonous sounds of a horn, like the lowing of cattle.

In tracing the history of music in early Scotland one is very forcibly impressed with the conviction that the art of pibroch playing was more intelligently cultivated by our remote ancestors than it has been during the last 150 years or so. The pipers who survived Culloden, not only kept the pibroch among themselves, but they, unfortunately, were enabled to exhibit it in so mysterious a form as to impose on and perplex the understanding of their pupils. They embraced every opportunity of the forming the ground and often the variations, and not only so, but the terms used to denote the different parts have been rendered unintelligible. “Toarluath” and “Crunluath,” for instance, are terms unknown in the Gaelic language. My father always impressed on me that “lugh” was the word used when he was young. Lugh means hinge, or, perhaps phalange–Luighean an dorais, they hinder the door–thus, Lugh na hòrdaig means that some joint, or phalange;Lugh na ludan, the little finger joint; Barr-lugh, the tips of the finger; etc. We have “Da-Lugh,” from two fingers. This movement is also called “Iul-lugh,” which means leaving, guidance, the index finger; (Iulaig means a mariner’s compass) and is now called Dithisd–a compass; Tri-lugh commonly called Toarluath, three fingers; Ceithir-lugh, pronounced Cairlugh, for fingers, commonly called Crumluath, the Greum-lugh, and the Leum-lugh, as well as the Cliabh , or Cath-lugh.

When MacCulloch visited the Western Isles in 1824 he found the pibroch had neither time, rhythm, melody, cadence, nor accent, and it remains so to this day. Anyone listening to the pibroch playing of the best performers must feel how disconnected and meaningless it is, and no one is better aware of this than the piper himself. Professor Brown, of Glasgow, says in “The Thistle”–”The pibroch is usually played in a very irregular manner, the phrases being repeated and varied without any reference to melodic form,” and that is quite true. Take, for instance, the trebling of the 2nd variation of “Mary’s Praise,” the turluath of “Seaforth’s Salute,” the first variation of the “Prince’s Salute,” and several others. No one versed in the rudiments of music can say that they are anything but sheer nonsense, yet valuable prizes have been gained for playing then in this way, and intelligent old men who had been accustomed all their days to hearing these monotonous sounds swear by them as the music of their forefathers, all which verifies the truth of Mr. Burney’s statement that “there is no sense so liable to prejudice in favour of habitual feelings as the ear, for the people of every country are partial to their national music, be it ever so wild, uncouth, and barbarous.”

Speaking of “Macintosh’s Lament” “A.M.” says–”the air is a pretty one, but clumsily handled.” I think it is not too much to say that a great many more pibrochs are in the same position. In another place he Says–”When listening to a pibroch one fancies that one or more of the variations are out of place and foreign to the spirit of the ground.” Unfortunately, this is a reality. Take the “Lament for the Earl of Antrim.” The variations are quite different from the ground and the toarluath different from the lot. Then, as to how the variations should be played, he states “When a variation is doubled it is only repeated a little faster than the singling, and with some slight variation. The doubling, therefore, is merely another aspect of the singling.” By this, one would understand that singling and doubling our misleading words. For singling, then, we should have the word “Adagio,” and for doubling, we should have “Andante” as being slightly faster. For my own part I have been taught that one beat of the doubling contained two beats of the singling, one beat of the trebling contained three beats of the singling, and one beat of the quadrupling contained four beats of the singling.

The whole object of the variation is to show the dexterity and technique of the performer. He begins with the singling; doubles, trebles, or quadruples it to the delight of his audience, and at the same time shows his own ability. I am well aware that is not done at the present time, but if it were the pibroch would have a very different and more pleasing effect. That sweet poet William Ross, had a pibroch manuscript belonging to his uncle, Angus Mackay, piper to Gairloch, and he gave it to my father. The notes are written on nine horizontal lines, i.e., a line for each note on the chanter. There are no bar lines in it, nor time signatures, but each beat or step is so circumflexed that the learner cannot go wrong in it. The singling, doubling, trebling, and quadrupling are given quite distinctly.

Pibroch, or properly speaking, “Ceol Mor,” or “Ceol Garbh,” as opposed to “Ceol Beg,” or “Ceol Mein,” is the classic music of the Highlands, and the tunes can easily be written so that a musician can read them.

It is to be hoped they Society now formed will put their books and manuscripts into the hands of the Committee of our Professors of Music to have been grammatically arranged.–I am, etc.,

J. MacLennan