Canntaireachd and graphic design: capturing its ‘expressive force’

The following article was written by core team members Kate Carpenter and Josh Dickson and was recently published by the National Piping Centre on

Canntaireachd and graphic design: capturing its ‘expressive force’

The Pibroch Network gathers together and makes accessible pibroch’s earliest primary sources with the means to explore them effectively, meaningfully, and collaboratively. It’s a network not only in terms of the comprehensive and interlinking database of repertoire and source material made ever more discoverable – it’s also a network by virtue of its many user communities able to engage with each other – pipers, other musicians and singers, artists, scholars, researchers, students and teachers.

By bringing together voices new and old, we aim to spark innovations in research, education, performance, outreach, and access to pibroch: the single malt of Scottish music.  

Kate Carpenter volunteers as a visual design consultant for Phase III of the Pibroch Network website. Through her Masters degree in graphic design, she has been investigating how to use canntaireachd as not just an aural but also a visual representation of pibroch. The work she is producing as part of her studies includes a visual album of the tunes contained within the 1828 Gesto Canntaireachd with musical information represented visually in John (Iain Dubh) MacCrimmon’s vocables through the tools of graphic design. Below, Kate recounts her initial discovery of this historical source and her collaboration with the Pibroch Network to realise her creative ideas – culminating in practical solutions for improving non-pipers’ access to the classical music of the Highland bagpipe.


There has long been a tradition of women upholding and passing on knowledge of piping through canntaireachd. Unwittingly, I’ve followed in these footsteps – years ago, my partner, a former Vale of Atholl piper, made a comment in passing about the existence of canntaireachd, a ‘secret language’ of pipers. Women are no longer excluded from playing the pipes, and there is nothing stopping me from trying to learn to play them, except that I am no musician, and am far more visually inclined in how I think and process the world. Canntaireachd felt like a way of understanding and coming closer to this music; a point of entry more accessible to me as a graphic designer.

Visualising canntaireachd

This initial mention of canntaireachd planted a seed: I loved the cross-sensory idea that music could be written down in words, and that this could be an art form in itself. In the case of canntaireachd, this hasn’t always been plain sailing; it was Frans Buisman who first offered the important philosophical and functional point in 1987 that ‘it is essential for canntaireachd to be chanted … canntaireachd ceases to be canntaireachd the moment it is written down’. Buisman believed that to render pibroch graphically was to deprive canntaireachd of its ‘expressive force’ as a fundamentally oral/aural representation of the music.

While undertaking a Masters degree in graphic design, I became inspired to challenge this lack of ‘expressive force’ in written canntaireachd. Playing with the idea that overlaying images can create new meanings, the seed of an idea started to sprout: what meaning might be conveyed by screen printing a canntaireachd design onto the musical notation?

Visual representations of pibroch and canntaireachd took root in my imagination. I learned about the existence of A Collection of Piobaireachd or Pipe Tunes as Verbally Taught by the McCrummen Pipers … by Neil MacLeod of Gesto in 1828, and as I was searching high and low for more information, I came across papers by both Barnaby Brown and Josh Dickson and transcriptions of Roderick Cannon’s lectures. I discovered an early attempt in 1880 when John F Campbell published Canntaireachd: Articulate Music, in which he tried, unsuccessfully, to align the Gesto vocables with the notes of Cill Chriosda (‘Kilchrist’) on the stave:

The opening notation of ‘Kilchrist’ in John F Campbell’s Canntaireachd: Articulate Music (1880)

I found myself following links to the erstwhile Alt Pibroch Club website. Eventually this led to an inquisatory email to Barnaby and an initial phone call, which evolved into a series of regular meetings. In exchange for some graphic design for the nascent Pibroch Network, Barnaby provided me with tuition in the music and history of canntaireachd and, more widely, pibroch.

The vocables of canntaireachd captured my imagination. As a self-confessed non-musician, I use canntaireachd as a means of understanding and accessing musical patterns and theory that have otherwise eluded me. As an outsider and a graphic designer, I look for visual ways to communicate the experience of pibroch – its ‘expressive force’ – through visual means.

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