He didn’t play in one set way

Posted March 20, 2012 by Barnaby Brown
Categories: Wider context


One of legendary piper Donald MacPherson’s catchphrases was “No-one has a monopoly on taste”. In about 2003, on one of my many visits to Donald’s home in Balbeggie, Perthshire, I remember how his normally unassailable state of calm was perturbed by a Piobaireachd Society judges’ seminar. Someone had played a recording of Bob Nicol interpreting a tune in a way that, to Donald’s ear, sounded stilted. Donald didn’t mind Nicol’s interpretation, but was irked by some people’s infatuation that this was how it should be played.

Donald was the most senior pibroch adjudicator at the time. He had consistently beaten Bob Nicol on the competition platform when the other judges at the seminar were boys. Why was this recording more precious to them than an insight from Donald? The answer isn’t just that Bob Nicol was a fervent disciple and prolific teacher, actively passing on what he received from John MacDonald. He also had a ‘purer’ piping lineage: Donald learnt many of his tunes from the book and his interpretations drew on a wider range of musical influences, so didn’t qualify so clearly for pedigree status.

Reverence for a master in any tradition plants a deceit; before you blink, a disciple says “that’s the way he did it” and an in-the-moment impulse becomes gospel truth, fixed for generations. The institutionalisation of that impulse gives rise to two false notions: firstly, that the master did it this way only; and, secondly, that convergence of interpretation is desirable. The first is delusion; the second leads to dullness and decay, discouraging questioning and diversity, putting off the brightest young recruits.

John Shone illustrated the deceit in a story he told at the Piobaireachd Society Conference, 19 March 2011:

I went to JB Robertson and was given Mary’s Praise and MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart and he was a very great teacher because he used to say to me – “Don’t just go to me – go to others.” And so because of Jack I ended up at Blacksmith’s Cottage. And there I went on several occasions to Bob Nicol and Bob sat me down and said “Who taught you?”
I said “JB”
“Oh! Then you’ll play me a tune.”
I said “Yes”
“What are you going to play?”
“Mary’s Praise”.
And I played Mary’s Praise, then I played MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart. And if people knew the cottage, there is that beautiful plate glass window looking out into the glen, it was lovely. And I played and at the end I put my pipes down and he said “Awful. That was not how it was given to me by John MacDonald. MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart – you’re cutting it up into little chunks.”
“Oh” I said. “I’m sorry Mr Nicol.” I was only very young – about 24 years. “Sit down,” he said. He then gave me MacCrimmons’s Sweetheart as John MacDonald played it.

Years went by and I thought that’s interesting and I’ve got this given to me from the man who was taught by John MacDonald. I get the tape and the tape is MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart. John MacDonald plays that as you’ve just heard, identically to the way JB gave it to me and not as Nicol. When I spoke to Bob Brown about it, he said “what you don’t understand is he played the tune in various ways so don’t judge either Bob Nicol or John MacDonald. He didn’t play in one set way.” So he may have written the tunes differently to us and played them differently – so we’ve got a real problem, haven’t we.

Proceedings of the Piobaireachd Society Conference xxxviii (2012): 19-20

I’d suggest it’s a relief to know that John MacDonald could tickle his audience with something slightly different from what they were expecting. Although it can be uncomfortable for students when certainty is removed, it is vital for professionals to keep their mind and craft bright and fresh. This fluidity is centuries old in pibroch: it permeates every page of the early sources.

Devotional intensity

Posted August 1, 2011 by Barnaby Brown
Categories: Wider context

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church, Oxford University, recently wrote:

quite apart from the propensity of human beings to become irrationaly tribal about the most obscure matters, we should remember that ordinary Christians experienced God through the Church’s liturgy and in the devotional intensity which seized them in holy places. Once they had met the divine in such settings, having absorbed one set of explanations about what the divine was, anything from outside which disrupted those explanations threatened their access to divine power. That would provide ample reason for rage and fear.

I was taken aback by the level of rage and fear which Allan MacDonald and I provoked in some quarters of the pibroch establishment; particularly by the deafening silence in the pages of the Piping Times when Dastirum was released in July 2007.  When I phoned the editor, a year after handing him a review copy, to ask why there had been no mention of our product, he explained, “I don’t have a good word to say about it. It would lead people astray”.

I admire his honesty. Nearly all 2000 copies of Dastirum have now been sold and, partly because I believe that a monopoly of interpretation is bad for any tradition’s health, and partly because Dastirum still sells steadily on zero marketing, I am about to publish a second edition. From the vigorous discussion of Dastirum at bobdunsire.com in 2007, here are two posts that round out the picture. The first is from Andrew Berthoff:

It never ceases to amaze me how people can feel so threatened by art that is different. I recognize that judging art requires some sort of basis, and piobaireachd competitions inevitably follow familiar guidelines for what’s “good” and what’s not.

In time, these guidelines change, but, as Allan notes, that does not happen overnight. It will happen incrementally, as judges have the courage to reward what moves them rather than what is “correct” based solely on 20th century styles.

But why should people not readily embrace and appreciate the sound research and conclusions from Allan, Willie Donaldson, and even Jimmy MacColl, who decades ago espoused heretical notions that piobaireachd should be played with passion and pace? Their findings have little if anything to do with piobaireachd competitions, so why put it down just because it goes against conventional contest-thinking?

The second is from Graineag:

When I was studying abroad in Glasgow about nine (gasp!) years ago, I had the great fortune of being able to get a few lessons from Allan, so I guess you could say I’m among the “converted.” The penny dropped that he was really on to something when one night at the Piping Centre, Allan was teaching me about different methods of playing cadences (as illustrated briefly on p.34 of the notes to “Dastirum”). As we sat playing our chanters, P/M Angus MacDonald walked in and said “Ach, that’s lovely. You know, I can remember my father used to put wee flourishes like that in his pibrochs when I was a wee boy… Only when he was playing for himself, of course. He never played that way in the competitions.”

A couple of years later, I was doing lessons by tape with Jimmy McColl and, curious about his own theories on ceòl mór, I asked him to put down a few of the same tunes that I had learned from Allan (such as “Mackintosh’s Lament”, “Salute to Donald”, etc.). When I compared the tapes, the interpretations were near-identical, the only substantial difference being that Jimmy played the urlar about 8-10 beats slower.

What Allan has done through his research and his undisputedly fine playing is to provide another angle from which to view this music and the social environment from which it arose. Nobody, least of all Allan himself, it seems, is advocating that everybody should play this way. If you’re satisfied with playing and listening to ceòl mór in the modern competition style, then that’s wonderful. If modern pibroch doesn’t satisfy you, then this is one possibility of an alternative. Is it exactly as the MacCrimmons would have played? Of course not. Is it perhaps closer to that than what is played at competitions the world over now? I think there’s a substantial body of evidence from Allan and several others to suggest that it is. Whether you like Allan’s style of playing or not, I think we can all agree that a bit of debate is a perfectly healthy thing.

I opened with a quote from ‘The Christian Background’ by Diarmaid MacCulloch, found in the National Theatre programme for Henrik Ibsen’s play, Emperor and Galilean (London, May 2011). Ibsen’s play “raises the question of whether human beings have the power to shape history, or whether history has a will of its own”. Either way, history is inevitable. When human beings sense the rigidity, or lack of spirituality, that results when any good thing gets organised, evolution is provoked.

Several parallels may be drawn between pibroch competitions and organized religion, but poisoning and slaughter are thankfully not among them! I wonder if the Piping Times will review the second edition of Dastirum

The myth of backwardness

Posted December 21, 2010 by Barnaby Brown
Categories: Wider context

Tides have turned. It is a huge relief and satisfaction to have witnessed the swell of respect for pibroch since I started lessons at the College of Piping, Glasgow, in 1981. In coming to understand how such a dignified musical tradition fell to such a low cultural standing, and what is now helping to restore its confidence, I found this article by Alastair McIntosh thought provoking:

Ronald Black is now retired from his position as Senior Lecturer in Celtic at Edinburgh University. It always dismayed me that he was never given a personal chair. The reality is that he belongs to a different educational tradition than the mainstream of our more anglicised universities.

That mainstream, resting on the Oxbridge and public school model, is one in which the function of education is to further refine and advance the specialised interests of an elite. It was this ethos that pushed Gandhi to say that his life’s greatest disappointment was “the hard-heartedness of the educated.”

Like in colonial India, Oxbridge has too often been aped in Scotland. Celtic studies were OK so long as they could be managed, like Macpherson’s Ossian, into classical mode, or buried in desiccating and under-funded anthropological archives.

Celtic studies could be paid lip service only where they did not emancipate a colonised cultural spirit. That spirit, as Jim Hunter points out in On the Other Side of Sorrow, had been successfully inferiorised through cultural invasion, thereby internalising its own supposed backwardness.


Refusal to collude with the myth of backwardness is vital; there is still considerable distance to travel, emancipating the cultural spirit of pibroch. But, at another historical resolution, backwardness is no myth: Oxbridge is no longer the enemy. It is our own piping institutions who persist in aping a managed, dessicated order long after the South has moved on.

Stirling Head 20

Posted August 30, 2009 by Barnaby Brown
Categories: Wider context

Stirling Head 20 (detail)

Stirling Head 20 (detail). Palace of King James V of Scotland, c. 1540

The more interrogation this circular sequence of numerals receives, the better. If it is music, then it could be compared to jazz musicians following a chord chart or lead sheet, rather than being told exactly which notes to play.

Given striking parallels between Welsh cerdd dant (‘string music’) and music from northern Britain built on double-tonic grounds, I suspect court professionals in 16th-century Scotland had clearly-articulated ideas about musical structure. If they expressed these in writing — for the benefit of students or for ensemble performance — then Is and Os would be appropriate: more appropriate than staff notation or tablature. Memorisation, improvisation and accompaniment in a largely unwritten musical tradition require understanding (conscious or unconscious) of a substructure. In jazz, as in the Renaissance, this often takes the form of a harmonic ground. Verse to verse, variation to variation, performance to performance, the surface details are ever-changing; it is the underlying harmonic patterns which, hallowed by usage, are more relevant to fix in writing.

For me, the prime difficulty in seeing this inscription as music is the third numeral. We are not dealing with a sequence of Is and Os, as in the twenty-four measures of cerdd dant, but of Is, Os and IIs. A further distinction may be drawn between serifed and unserifed Is, but this may have been introduced by the carver rather than whoever laid out the design. Although Renaissance music often moves between three fundamental chords, the body of Welsh manuscripts which suggest a musical interpretation of Stirling Head 20 are consistent in using only two ciphers to represent units of opposing harmonic quality. These typically represent stability (I, open strings) and restlessness (O, in tension with the tonic or drone). 

One of the 24 measures of cerdd dant (c.1562).  AB MS 17116B (Gwysaney 28), f.61v

One of the twenty-four measures of cerdd dant (c. 1562).
AB MS 17116B (Gwysaney 28), f. 61v

The case for the inscription being music is possibly strengthened by the fact that cerdd dant, pibroch and the dance music of northern Britain all share a preference for double-tonic grounds built from units of 4: although units of 3, 5, 7, 11 and 13 are present, 4 is the norm in the earliest source material. In this inscription, an internal sequence of 8 numerals (I  O  I  I     I  O  I  II) recurs four times, separated by sections of 16 and 4 numerals. The significance of this recurring ‘phrase’ may not be musical, but I doubt it is accidental, as the level of care invested in the layout and carving of this roundel is of the highest order.

Stirling Head 20 - possibly one of the 9 Female Worthies

Stirling Head 20. Oak ceiling boss, possibly representing one of the Nine Female Worthies

It would be wonderful if the media attention of the last three days brought a better explanation to light. This pattern gnawed at John Donaldson‘s brain for three years and a musical solution was balm, but perhaps Renaissance experts should examine it thoroughly for other possibilities.

A folder of resources relating to the interpretation of Stirling Head 20 is at www.box.net/shared/q9oejdv98i

Greenhill 2

Posted February 5, 2009 by Barnaby Brown
Categories: Wider context

Tags: ,

‘Greenhill 2’ is the second of a set of six Just tunings considered by Peter Greenhill for the Robert ap Huw manuscript (c.1613). It may be of interest to pibroch players because it produces a scale remarkably similar to historic Highland bagpipe intonation, as evidenced by 1927 recordings of John MacDonald of Inverness and the Iain Dall chanter (c.1690). For a full discussion, see Affirming an ancient intonation, an interview by Mike Paterson in Piping Today 38.

MP3 of Greenhill 2

In this recording, I tune a wire-strung harp – an Ardival ‘Kilcoy’ – to Greenhill 2, following my own route. There are other ways of ending up with Greenhill 2; my principle designing this route was to minimise movement of the tuning key.

Hioemtra haentra – One of the Cragich

Posted January 17, 2009 by Barnaby Brown
Categories: Campbell Canntaireachd, Pibrochs

Tags: , , ,

The creation of this site was prompted by a persistent trickle of emails from total strangers, such as the following:

I make Renaissance and French Baroque Lutes.  Often, while I’m working I listen to piobaireachd.  The performance of ‘Hioemtra Haentra’ from Campbell Canntaireachd is sublime.  My attempts to track down a copy of this music in standard notation has led me to this email address.  I would very much appreciate any help you might offer in locating a copy (pdf or ?) of ‘Hioemtra Haentra”.
Thank you
~Ken Wryn

I’ve been receiving emails like this since 1999, and have long wanted to bring far-flung individuals who share my interest in this music together. Thank you, Ken, and all of you before him, for your encouragement. This is your site: we’re in this together as co-explorers, co-learners. As James Campbell of Kilberry told me in his Cambridge rooms in 1993, “There’s very little we know for certain about pibroch”.

This tune was transcribed by me from Campbell’s MS (ii.26) in mid-October 1997. I was electrified by the manuscript’s enigmas and spent a week, wrapped in woolly hat and scarf on the balcony of my Berlin bedsit, transcribing every tune that hadn’t been published by the Piobaireachd Society. I’d had the NLS microfilm for over 2 years, and handled the original with reverence in the National Library of Scotland, but only when I found myself living above a microfilm scanning bureau did I get round to producing a hard copy I could work from at home.

My transcription of this tune is still in handwritten canntaireachd – it has never, to my knowledge, been put into staff notation. I’d encourage students to learn it by ear from CDtrax 5009, and/or by studying the source. I’m not at all certain that my interpretation is correct – in particular, I am bemused by Campbell’s arrangement of syllables into vocables, I can’t see the musical logic in it. Please experiment with other rhythmic interpretations.

I hesitate to produce a score in staff notation because I’d have to add so much that is not specified by Campbell. Like figured bass, a canntaireachd score must be ‘realised’, and the skill of realising it is what I want to encourage here.

In my mind, the structure of phrases in the Urlar and each var is:

I’ I O I”

Campbell, however, consistently divides this structure into 3 uneven lines, each beginning with O:

O I’ I
O I”

This means that  there are only 4 phrases to learn (or notate) in each movement, and Campbell’s score can be abbreviated considerably. Here I rearrange the syllables into vocables that make more sense to me:

O   – hioemtra haentra hioembari chehentra
I   –
hobandre chehendre hobandre chehendro
hobandre chehendre hobandre chehimbao
I” hobandre chehendari hobandâre chehendro

I interpret “hen” as F grace to Low A. If you want staff notation, have a go at transcribing it yourself from the recording, perhaps with a friend’s help. But remember, the traditional way to learn pibroch is by listening and singing – not by reading. The Suzuki method of learning and teaching is nothing new and has many advantages – staff notation tends to be read too literally, burying the soul of the music. Technology allows us to return to a more traditional and, I believe, efficacious teaching method.

My dearest on earth, give me your kiss

Posted January 13, 2009 by Barnaby Brown
Categories: Pibrochs

Tags: ,

What a great title! This pibroch is in Piobaireachd Society Book 11 (1966) p.352. Other titles on competitors’ lists are “The Lovely Lady’s Request” (1832) and “Dear Lady, give me a kiss” (1835).

The Piobaireachd Society editor, Archie Kenneth, made an emendation with which I disagree. In this recording, I insert “hiotroao” in the second half of the phrase b’. This restores the Urlar to a more orthodox Well-woven structure:

a b B A
b’ a’ B’ B”

MP3 file (2.4 MB)