Are We Comporting Ourselves Correctly?

An interesting sideline arises from research into the tempo at which pibroch was performed before 1840. In his thesis (available on this site), Allan MacDonald gives a few quotes that suggest the performance style was more animated, indicating a quicker pace to the music. I can add a few more such descriptions which together build a picture of the piper’s comportment pre-1840.

What emerges is quite at odds with the heavy-footed, somnambulistic pacing in a circle, sometimes with eyes shut, which is characteristic today. To summarize: The pipers strode or strutted rapidly back and forth on a straight line while playing the ground, wearing a haughty, proud, martial expression. By contrast, they would then face the audience and stand stock still while playing the variations, resuming the stately stride back and forth while playing ùrlar returns.

Contemporary pibroch players usually consider it important to maintain a dignified air, of course. And this was taught from early on, Joseph MacDonald (1760) saying that the act of walking when performing Marches (his word for pibrochs) “gives the Performer a better opportunity of discovering a gracefulness of carryage in Feature and Attitude.” But, in addition to the faster tempo, there are indications of a higher level of engagement with the audience as well—in 1761 a satire suggests a piper “rushes on you with all the martial strains of a peebruch.” (Memoirs of Magopico, p. 39).

[By the way, Allan MacDonald (pp. 19-20) considers ‘March’ an “unfortunate translation from Gaelic of the word ‘spaisdearachd’ or ‘spaidsearachd’ which is a characteristic way of walking. MacEachan’s Gaelic-English Dictionary (1862) has ‘walking backward and forward.’ ‘Spaidsearachd a’ phíobaire’ has connotations of a ‘haughty and proud’ expression in performance.” Indeed, the word spaidsearachd figures in the titles of some pibrochs where it is sometimes translated as bragging or pride.]

So here are the actual descriptions:

“. . . he walks backward and forward . . . playing his Bagpipe with a most upright Attitude and majestic Stride. It is a Proverb in Scotland, viz. the Stately Step of a Piper.” [i.e., Spaidsearachd a’ phíobaire, as discussed by Allan MacDonald quoted in the previous paragraph] (Burt, Letters from the North of Scotland, 1725, p. 167)

“I only saw the piper marching always with rapidity and with the same warlike countenance. A second musician . . . wearing the same martial look and walking to and fro with the same haughty air.”
(Faujas de Saint Fond, accompanying Adam Smith to the piping competition in Edinburgh, 1783.)

“He strutted up and down with the most stately march, and occasionally enraptured his audience, who expressed the influence of his instrument by loud and reiterated plaudits.” [note the high level of audience engagement here, interjecting applause periodically.] (Sir John Carr, 1807, also at the Edinburgh competitions.)

“The bagpiper traverses the ground with haughty stride while occupied with his initial theme, or its renewal preceding each variation. During the latter, however, he becomes stationary—fronting him who he would most honor with his performance.” [traverse is used here in the sense of back and forth movement] (J. G. Dalyell, 1849, quoted in Ian MacInnes’ thesis, available on this site, p. 196)

“His walk, when playing pibrochs, was dignified and stately. And when he came to the quick passages, he stood perfectly still.”
(Simon Fraser to the Oban Times, Jan. 18th 1913. Describing Sandy Bruce when playing pibroch in the early 1840’s)


4 thoughts on “Are We Comporting Ourselves Correctly?

  1. 1) It is so refreshing to read this article which has great bearing upon the tempo of traditional gaelic bagpiping.

    Last week I had another look at the tune Square Reays March (PS 491) which has befuddled me for a long time now. With the rhythms of the songs ‘Houses of the Holy’ (‘Physical Graffiti’ by Led Zeppelin) and ‘Little T and A’ (‘Tattoo You’ by the Rolling Stones) in mind I found that playing the canntaireachd setting of ‘Square Reays’ resulted in a most pleasing result, quite consistent with the above article.

    2) It is very good to have articles posted on Facebook. Is it possible to allow members to post on this media?

  2. I’ll look into allow members to post on FB. It may be something I can tie into from here, or it may just mean my opening up the FB group membership.

  3. Thank you Bob, it is most helpful to have these quotes brought together on one page. Here is another, which I recently came across in Dwelly’s dictionary:

    Marching with singlings and standing with doublings was the old way of playing. Now some pipers maintain that marching should be continued throughout the whole performance. A. R. MacLeod, Edinburgh.

    This is from his entry for cèol mór, but not in the first (1902) edition linked to the webpage where I found it: .

    Nor in the revised 1918 edition: Incidentally, this edition has a photo of Dwelly playing Highland pipes in 1881, aged 17, as its frontispiece:

    If anyone could help pin down which edition it first appears in, I’d be grateful!

    1. Well it is not in my 1973 copy but I think the answer lies in what was described as ‘Appendix to Dwelly’s Gaelic-English Dictionary’ , Edited from manuscripts in Dwelly’s hand in the National Library of Scotland by Douglas Clyne. (Editing completed and seen through the press by Derick Thomson) Published by Gairm in 1991.

      This was the Appendix referred to by Dwelly in his preface, presumably to the revised edition of 1920. In the preface by Douglas Clyne to his ‘Appendix’ he comments on the fact that nearly four fifths of the original appendix relate to the letters A to D. and that apart from additional words it contains additional meanings and some are followed by passages in which the word is used. I suppose that Dwelly’s papers in the NLS really need to be checked to see if he adds anything more .

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