NEFA - The North East Folklore Archive

Pipes and Pipers

Bagpipes in Peacetime
by Greg Dawson Allen


The clann (children)

A patriarchal system has existed in the highlands and borders for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Under the social organisation of the clann chief each member or tenant had his or her own position, role and status. Those attending to the chief and his family included a harper (or clarsach player as in the Gaelic) and a bard or poet, then latterly, with the introduction of the bag-pipes to Scotland around the 15th century, a clann piper.

Stories abound of notable bards who composed intricate verse in honour of victory in battle, at times of bereavement and in general praise of significant events, or, of reverence and gratitude to the chief. The bardic verse rallying men and women to battle is much older than that of the role of the piper. Tyrtaeus, the Lacedomian (680 BC) was the composer of five books of war verse. Tacitus, the Roman scribe, describes, albeit with some flattery to his father-in-law, Agricola’s achievements including Calgacus’s speech to his Pictish warriors before the decisive battle of Mons Graupious (allegedly fought at the foothills of Bennachie in 55 AD) as well as one notable poem celebrating the work of Arminius, an heroic figure famous for his struggles for freedom. (LOGAN P222)

The piper and his bagpipes followed on from the harper and bard. The hills and glens were appropriate for an instrument meant to be played in the great outdoors. Playing the bagpipes indoors was, more or less, a lowland and English custom. The fierce sound of the Piob Mhor takes on a natural sound as it joins in with the sounds of the wind and the river. Even when, during social occasions, the piper played the dance or entertainment was held out of doors. (MANSON P82/83) As with the bard and harper, the piper held prominence beside the clann chief and often son followed in father’s footsteps and position.

The MacCrimmons were perhaps the best known of the distinguished piping families. In all seven generations of pipers and seven years of personal tuition was required for bestowing the true title of Hereditary Piper. (MANSON P257) The MacCrimmons were the pipers to the family of MacLeod of Dunvegan in the Island of Skye. The progenitor of the MacCrimmons was said to be of Italian descent from Cremona in Italy, with the unlikely name of Donald, who arrived in Scotland and settled in Glenelg on the west coast on the opposite side of the Minch from Skye.

Supposedly his son, Iain Odhar became the first of his line of the great MacCrimmon pipers to MacLeod of Macleod. Other heredity pipers include the MacKays of Gairloch and Raasay, the Rankins (Clann Raing) in Mull, who were descended from Clann MacLean of Duart and went on to become pipers to the MacLeans of Coll after the former lost lands in the early 18th century. The list also includes the MacIntyres of Rannoch, the Cummings of Badenoch and Strathspey, who were official pipers for that clann until the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746, and the MacArthurs, pipers to the MacDonald of the Isles.

The MacCrimmons and the MacArthurs were said to have been the finest pipers and exponents of the piobaireachd and history relates great rivalry between the families for supremacy. Both the MacCrimmons and the MacArthurs had colleges for piping students; the former on the farm of Boreraig, eight miles south west of Dunvegan Castle on Skye, the latter at Ulva near Mull. For the MacCrimmon pupils seven years study was necessary in their apprenticeship. The pupils had a solitary designated area of open space in which to practice the scales and tunes on the chanter, the Small Pipes and Piob Mhor before being allowed to perform for their Master Tutor. The college at Ulva had four rooms; one for cattle, one for guests to stay, one for practice and one specifically for the use of students. In both cases the countryside was preferred for practice as was, and still is, deemed correct for the Piob Mhor. (MANSON 272-274)

Incidentally, the bards too had to devote much time and effort to their learning. Bardic studies in Ireland lasted twelve years before being given the title of “Bard”, and learning comprised of committing to memory sixty thousand verses which they had to be able to recite on the command of the chief. The notion that clann society was ignorant and backward could not be further from the truth. (LOGAN 223)

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PIOBAIREACHD (pee-broch)

Piobaireachd or Pibroch, as Sir Walter Scott phonetically introduced the word into his text, means "pipe playing", but it is the Ceol Mor – the Great Music, the classical repertoire of the bagpipes and is separated from the Ceol Beag (Little Music) of the reels, strathspeys and marches.

There are three further distinctions, which categorise the composition of the piobaireachd:
Cruinneachadh: Gathering
Cumhadh: Lament
Failte: Salute

Joseph MacDonald in his “Compleat Theory Of The Scots Highland Bagpipe” published in 1803 gives a variation on the terminology "Invented and taught by the first Masters of this instrument in the Islands of Sky and Mull".

Poirst Tinali (Port Tionail): A gathering of the Highland Clans
Cumhe (Cumha): A lament
Failte: A salutation.

Connections with the types of music played on the bagpipes can also be made with the cruit (harp). The god Dagda played "The three things whereby cruit-players are distinguished".

Sleep-strain: Music to induce sleep
Smile-strain: Music to bring laughter
Wail-strain: Music to shed tears.

In piping music the three definitions can be interpreted as lullaby, dance tune and lament.

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CANNTAIREACHD (can-ter-ach)

Piping teachers of the 15th century wrote no music. Instead, their students learned to hear and translate the music to their instruments by ear alone, becoming instinctive to the tuning, tunes and intricacies of the piece. Music was taught in the musical and oral tradition, and although a pupil may have a particular skill with the pipes, if he could not learn to play by ear and retain the tunes, then he had little future as a piper.

Teaching was in three parts, all of which took place in the open air:
At first the students were taught and asked to repeat the ‘words’ known as the Canntaireachd, spoken in syllables.
The second stage saw the students fingering the tunes on the chanter as heard from the Canntaireachd.
The third stage was to ease the tune from the chanter by blowing.
The last, and ultimate challenge, was to play on the full set of pipes – the Piob Mhor.

Individual teachers had their own method and style of teaching. The MacCrimmon’s Canntaireachd was written down in 1828 by Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto, containing twenty Piobaireachd.

A proficient player of the bagpipes can sight read the Canntaireachd and immediately transpose the ‘urlar’ ( ground or theme) to music. The vowels represent notes and the consonants finger movements or grips that ornament them. (PURSER)

In combining the versatility of the intricate varieties of grace notes and vibrating capable on the bagpipes, the piper can use the nine notes available and play a tunes from the Canntaireachd containing more than sixty syllables. An example from Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto as taken from John MacCrimmon, piper to the old Laird of MacLeod and his grandson, the late General MacLeod of MacLeod is as follows;

(The True Gathering Of The Clans)

I hodroho, hodroho, haninin hiechin,
hodroha, hodroho, hodroho hachin,
hiodroho, hodroho, haninin hiechin,
hodroha, hodroha, hodroha, hodroha,
hodroha, hodroho, hodroho hachin,
hiodroho, hodroho, haninin hiechin,
hodroha, hodroho, hodroho, hodroha,
haninun, haninun, haninun, haninun.

Ist. Var. I hodroho, hodroho, haninin, hodroho,
hodroha, hodroho, hodroho, hodroha. . . .

And so forth for another six blocks with instructions for ‘Doubling’ and ‘2nd, 3rd and 4th Variations’ with a final “Crouluigh Mach” or “Finishing Measure” which could be compared with an ‘Envoy’ which finalises a Sonnet in poetry;

Last Part:
hiodratatateriri, hodratatateriri, hiendatatateriri, hodratatateriri,
hadratatateriri, hadratatateri, hodratatateriri, hadratatateriri,
And so on.

Canntaireachd remained in the oral tradition of song and music for the past two centuries, but a tutor published in 1803 attempted to set the difficult and often carefully guarded methods of piping in print.

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Sir John Murray MacGregor, Chief of clann MacGregor and Auditor General of Bengal found the ‘Treatise’ written “In the course of a tedious voyage to India” in Bengal.

The writer was Joseph MacDonald, an officer in the service of The India Company. It was compiled over three years, between 1760 and 1763 by MacDonald, the third son of the eleven children of the Reverend Murdo MacDonald, minister in the parish of Durness in north west Sutherland. (DONALDSON 2)

"The Compleat Theory Of The Scots Highland Bagpipe" was published in 1803, posthumously by Patrick MacDonald, brother of Joseph, as MacDonald died in Calcutta of a malignant fever at the young age of twenty four. He would never see his work in print. (MACDONALD. HIGHLAND VOCAL AIRS PREFACE).

Joseph MacDonald was born on 26th February 1739 and music featured largely in his childhood, being able to lead the psalmody in the church of Durness by the age of eight years. As well as the pipes, Joseph could play the fiddle, flute, and oboe, and was gifted in learning; he could speak and write French, Latin and Gaelic.

Through his father’s far-reaching contacts, the fifteen-year-old Joseph was sent to study at the grammar school in Haddington in East Lothian. He kept up his musical tuition, studying under the classical Italian violinist and composer, Nicolo Pasquali.

It is for the bag-pipes, however, that Joseph MacDonald is remembered. ‘The Compleat Theory Of The Scots Highland Bagpipe’ has become a fitting legacy for the young MacDonald, this being the first publication of its type and so specific was it that it is of a standard other exponents in the same field strive for today. There was very little MacDonald left out in his manuscript, the title page listing the contents:

"A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe"
Containing All the Shakes, Introductions, Graces, & Cuttings which are peculiar to this Instrument.
Reduc’d to Order & Method: fully explain’d & noted at Large in 58 Tables & Examples.

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The Piper in peace time

The Piper in peace time, whether attached to the clann system or not, had an important role in day to day society. At celebrations, such as anniversaries and weddings, the piper had a privileged position. In the 19th century the piper piped in the morning of the wedding and followed the bride and groom as they separately led processions of their relatives and friend around the houses. The joining of the couple in marriage heralded a united march through the neighbourhood. The title of ‘piper’ eventually gave way to other occupations and in the much sought after skills of his music his daily trade was set aside to provide the entertainment.

"I am a jolly miller
I come o’ the millers o’
And if you do not know me
My name is Willy Spro,
I play upon the bagpipes
Wi’ mickle mirth and glee
And I care for nobody, no, not I
And nobody cares for me"

The piper was also present at the more sombre occasions of funerals. A lament on the pipes accompanied the coronach, a mournful recitation of cries in remembrance of the dead, immediately after the death. (MANSON 152)

The coronach gradually faded into obscurity but the presence of the piper continued, particularly in Aberdeenshire. The death of a clann chief in the highlands brought the whole population of the area to the graveside. The death of a chief in Skye was recorded as having a procession of two miles in length with six men walking abreast. Apparently seven pipers were in attendance and played the lament, each placed along the route from the house to the cemetery; "Upwards of three hundred gallons of whisky was provided for the occasion, with every other necessary refreshment." (MANSON 153)

A parody of the last Will and testament of Andrew Kennedy by William Dunbar, "Testament Of Mr Andro Kennedy", describes custom pertaining to customs of the Carrick district of Ayrshire and is representative of Wills of the 15th century; it follows a strict format, firstly commending the soul to the Lord God in Heaven, secondly, makes provision for the deceased’s request for the burial, thirdly, dispenses goods and chattels to friends and relatives, and lastly, outlines plans for the funeral:

"I will na preistis for me sing,
Dies illa, dies ire, Na yit na bellis for me ring
Sicut semper solet fieri,
Bot a bag pipe to play a spryng
Et unum ail wosp ante me
In stayd of baneris for to bring
Quatuor lagenas cervisie,
Within the graif to set sic thing
In modum crucis juxta me,
To fle the fendis than hardely sing De terra plasmasti me."

Dunbar, "Maister", as he was known was present in the court of King James IV but little is known of him other than his poetic works and regular accounts of salary paid to him by the Royal Treasury. He is believed to have died just prior to 1515.

The piper was, and still is, a lifter of the burden of dreary toil, and brought a respite from the physical and mental drudgery of hard labour. In 1786 squads of workers, linking communities together, with passable stone based roads each had a piper to help ease the tedious, heavy lifting. Likewise, the launching of a boat across single beaches was aided by the piper setting a rhythm to which the men could co-ordinate their efforts as one. The reapers during harvest welcomed the steady pipe music to assist in the swing of their scythes, and, in the celebrations of the “Meal an’ Ale” when the harvest was in, the piper was an honoured guest, to take the farm workers’ minds off the bleak winter ahead.

Many of the Scottish travelling people are exponents of the bagpipes and incorporate the music of the pipes in their style of singing the “Muckle Sangs” or big ballads. Here they are overlapping one tradition with another – that of storytelling and music, and presenting the whole in accented story/song, sung with true feeling and realism. The kirk session, the great defenders of Scottish morality, served to document local social issues and it is from these sources that the piper can be identified as the “Deil’s” provider of music and dancing;

"A winnock bunker in the east,
There sat Auld Nick in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gi’e them music was his charge;
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl."

Robert Burns, when writing “Tam O’ Shanter”, conjured up the spirit of the presbytery’s opinion on the bagpipes and their use for providing music for dancing. Probably most elders of the Kirk session didn’t oppose the use of pipes, preferring the “skirl” of the pipes to the chant of the psalms.

The bagpipe in the late 18th century and early 19th century was as common place in the western highlands as the fiddle was in the bothys and houses in the east. However, neither were exclusive to any one place and, where entertainment was to be had, music, in all its forms was called upon.

Puirt a beul (mouth-music), diddling and cantering, all consisting of nonsensical verses, but which kept a time without the elaboration of balladry words, were engaged in creating a jovial atmosphere. (CANNON 105)

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The Small Pipes were more commonly used indoors for dances but neither the players of the latter or the Piob Mhor were refused at any social event.

The most frequently performed dances of both east and west were the Reels (ruidhle), Jigs and Strathspeys.

The Reel, usually a combination of a three person dance, using a figure of eight configuration, is said to be the oldest and of Norse origin. In a piper’s repertoire the Reel is played in Alla Breva time, 2/2, with two beats to the bar. Jigs are composed in 6/8 time and are fast in tempo. The tradition of the Jig is more upheld in Ireland where it is also a solo step-dance. Piping tutors in Scotland, printed in the 19th century, on average, contained around twenty Jigs within a hundred tunes, but the decline in the Jig saw, in 1900, only five Jigs per one hundred tunes. Strathspeys are more associated with the fiddle but equally have their place in pipe music. A distinctive style of Reel, the Strathspey had prominence in Aberdeenshire and in districts around, also in Deeside, Moray and Buchan. The Strathspey Reel uses extreme “pointing”, dotted rhythms played as if double dotted with a reverse accent made (as in fiddles playing) with the bow. The Strathspey for the pipes are mainly arranged from the original fiddle tunes. (CANNON 110-112)

One of the best known tunes for both pipers and fiddlers, to which the Rev. John Skinner of Longside in Aberdeenshire in the 18th century added words, is “Tullochgorum”, described by Robert Burns as , “The best Scotch song ever Scotland saw.”

"What needs there be sae great a fraise
Wi’ dringing, dull, Italian lays;
I wadnae gie our ain strathspeys
For half a hunder score o’ them;
They’re dowf and dowie at the best,
Dowf and dowie, dowf and dowie,
Dowf and dowie at the best,
Wi’ a’ their variorum;
They’re dowf and dowie at the best,
Their allegros an’ a’ the rest,
They canna please a Scottish taste
Compared with Tullochgorum."

The piper in Scottish society from the Highlands to the Borders is an accepted and welcome figure. His, and her position is set upon a solid foundation of fact and folklore and a staunch musical and bardic tradition, which, can be said, has occurred, historically speaking, in recent times. Yet, to try and untwine one tradition from the other would be impossible as one is inextricably bound in the other and therefore inseparable.

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