OT: 16 August 1924 – [Contributed] “The Piobaireachd as performed in the Highlands Till About 1808” [review]

The Oban Times, 16 August, 1924
The Piobaireachd
as performed in the
Highlands Till About 1808
By the Late Ian MacLennan, Edinburgh

This is Part I. of what amounts substantially to an improved edition of a work published, some years ago now, by Mr. Ian MacLennan, who, we regret to stay, died while the present issue was in the press. In his day the late Mr. MacLennan was considered probably the best living authority on bag-pipe music. He was from among pipers who inherited a vein for pipe-music, and that combined with a thorough knowledge of the technique of the instrument, and considerable acquaintance with the art of playing it, equipped him with the necessary qualifications for interpreting bag-pipe music and imparting to others what he believed to be the true construction of the tunes and the proper method of playing them.

In a short preface-a certain portion of which might possibly with some advantage have been left out-the author admitted his system having at first met with a somewhat mixed reception, but at the same time found good grounds for stating that it made gratifying headway among writers of pipe-music. He may be considered to have had a passionate interest in the correct production of the ancient tunes, and he rather significantly says:–“ Pibrochs would have been played to time and tune long ago, but for the fact that certain prizes are given for playing written tunes, or rather conglomerations of notes, which have neither time nor execution.” He indicates clearly that while within certain limits freedom may be exercised in bag-pipe playing, yet the art must be subjected to scientific rule, and this seems to have been the case as regards the great masters of the past with, if indeed any, exceptions.

Following the preface is a very useful Glossary of bag-pipe musical terms, arranged in alphabetical order. This feature of the work will serve a much felt want. It is pleasing to find that the explanations are, in most part, unfairly correct lines, and there is evidence that in this particular field the late Mr. MacLennan was a recognised authority. We trust we shall be excused, however, for making a few observations in this connection. There is considerable ignorance of all that is in this subject involved.

We wish to draw attention here to one particular term in Piobaireachd which has for long arrested some interest on our part. This term is “Crùn-luath,” in this work explained as meaning “Crùn,” “a crown,” and “luath,” “fast,” equivalent in full to “crown-fast.” We are under the impression that this term is usually misunderstood and mis-spelt. It is given differently in different dictionaries. In the late Dr. McBain’s –no mean authority–it is shown as “crùnnluadh,” and explained etymologically as composed of the words “cruinn” plus “luath.” We have long suspected, however that the part “luath” of this compound should be “lùth”: and we find this confirmed by the older definitions of bag-pipe terminology. “Luath” does not occur in Joseph MacDonald’s Treatise, compiled about 1760 and published in 1803, where in all these combinations “ludh” is given instead. Thus we think that for “luath” in every case, at any rate with few exceptions, the part-term should be “lùth,” which really means physically a joint, and metaphysically an art, a movement, or trick. It is most interesting to note that in numerous cases this publication before us recognises “lùth.” Then “crùn-luath” should, we think, be “crùn-lùth” or “cruinn-lùth,” same as in “cruinn-léum,” a gallop. In some old literature the combination occurs as “creannludh,” which might be translated as suggesting a tremulo movement in the music. May we also take opportunity to point out that while “Treblachadh,” “Trioblach,” and “Trioblaich” are shown as unknown words they are all well-known Gaelic terms, and mean various modes in tripling, or triplicating, or rendering three-fold, in older works termed “Lùdh-Chrodha.”

We hope to be excused for also mentioning that there is in rents quite a number of bag-pipe music terms still apparently not well known; for instance, “Bàr-lùdh,” “Lùdh-na-h-òrdaig,” “Leith Leigninnean,” “Dochadh,” “Dochadh-na-h-òrdaig,” “Fridh,” “Calp,” “Cuairt,” “Slighe,” “Ri-lùth,” “Déuchainn-Ghléusd,” etc.” and we think the term “Tur-luath” should be “Taor-lùth,” and “Urlar” for the ground of a tune is always correct. It is to be regretted that there is not included in the Glossary the correct terms for the various parts of the pipe. There is a good deal to be preserved in these directions.

As regards the text of the tunes, these contained in this issue are, so far as we think, very excellent reproductions of the original compositions. In every case the construction is natural and the evolution of the parts consistent and in proper symmetry, while the dominant note, which, as the author truly says, gives the expression and feeling their place with effect, runs like a ribbon through each piece; and there can be no better test.
There may still be some diversity of opinion as to the method of notation adopted by the author, but we are satisfied that it is easy, and simple, and has the advantage of considerable brevity. There is, besides, apart from all matters of detail, the great merit in the work that it has come from one who made a life-study of getting at the old tunes in their correct relations and settings. The late Mr. MacLennan made a point of correctly interpreting the ancient music, and it’s obvious that he has succeeded in very large measure, indeed, in reproducing the story and style peculiar to the ancient Piobaireachd.

Thus there can be no doubt that this work will serve a useful purpose. It is to be regretted that at the present moment there seems to be considerable dissatisfaction with the condition of matters as to the technical correctness of at least some of the pibroch texts. We are told by pipers on all hands that there are deviations from better settings than others which would require some explanation. This is understood to have begun over a century ago, and if it goes on much longer it is clear that not a few of our Pibrochs may become more or less unrecognisable a few years hence. Why this should be it is difficult to understand. With so many sources available from which to reconsider the ancient compositions, and so many good pipers–many of them masters of the art–still with us who could help materially in this direction, it should be a specially easy matter to review and revise the situation. A small committee of competent persons could put the house in order and a short time. Who is to move in this very much desired cause? Surely the time has come when no stone should be left unturned to assure that the great heritage of national music bequeathed to us by our forefathers, and which has so often inspired to noble deeds in the regions of bravery, chivalry and romance, should be handed down by us to posterity in all possible excellence in purity. The matter involved seems one preeminently for the Piobaireachd Society to deal with, and we feel sure that they will rise to the occasion.

It will be observed that this Part contains a number of marches composed by Mr. Geo. S. MacLennan, who is now publishing this work. We believe the intention in including these compositions is that pipers and others interested to have an opportunity of learning Mr. Geo. MacLennan’s style of grace-notes as taught to him and to the late Piper William MacLennan by the late Mr. Ian MacLennan–a service which will be much appreciated by many for long curious to acquire acquaintance with Mr. Geo. MacLennan’s wonderful fingering.

The printers are Messrs. Aird & Coghill, Glasgow, and they had done their work–difficult work–exceedingly well.

The Piobaireachd. Published by Geo. S. MacLennan, Bagpipe-maker, 2 Bath Street, Aberdeen. Price 2/6.