Fear Pìoba Meata – The Timid Piper

This is a glorious piece of music, unjustly neglected. Its combination of brevity and musical depth is ideally suited to amateur pibroch players and learners. If competition organisers can’t change the rules to allow gems like this to gain currency, then something is seriously wrong! This is one of many good tunes that don’t fit our institutionalised thinking or event categories. The single-tune format of pibroch competitions since 1781 has eroded musical variety to everyone’s detriment, within and outside the Highland piping world.

An obvious solution would be to allow competitors to submit two short tunes – one lyrical, like Fear Pìoba Meata (PS 103), the other more flashy, with technical variations. The only rule I’d impose on top-level pibroch artists is duration: perhaps max 20 minutes on stage including tuning. Judges would evaluate the entire sonic menu and audiences would come to enjoy how the amuse bouche, starter and main course contrasted and complemented one another.

Below is my interpretation of this noble and delightful hors d’œuvre, uniquely preserved in Colin Campbell’s Instrumental Book 1797. I sing Campbell’s vocables without any editorial tinkering. The accompaniment, played by Bill Taylor on wire-strung lyre, was composed while making a CD recording last June:  Spellweaving, due to be released by Delphian Records next month. I wanted to draw attention to the lyre bridge found on the Isle of Skye in 2010:

This recording of Fear Pìoba Meata was made in Cambridge on 7 January 2016. The version on the Spellweaving CD is more polished, but here we bring fresh ideas to our arrangement 7 months later:


8 thoughts on “Fear Pìoba Meata – The Timid Piper

  1. I spent some considerable time trying to figure this tune out, but with little success.

    Barnaby’s interpretation is very nice and makes musical sense to me. Well done!

    I realise now I was trying to stick too closely to the modern idiom of piobaireachd.

  2. It is much as I imagined the tune, only better, so I feel ‘on the same page’ musically.

    However, I differ in my interpretation of the name.

    What Campbell wrote was ‘Fear Pioba Metic’ (not ‘meata’).  Looking this word up in Dwelly’s Dictionary reveals a spectrum of meanings, mostly centering around the idea of weakness, fearfulness, and timidity.

    It also includes the idea ‘to daunt or terrify’.

    I feel that, given the usual ‘heroic’ flavour of pibroch names, the more likely meaning here would be ‘The Bold or Intimidating Piper’; ie, one who terrifies or daunts. Someone less than impressive would not have been a subject for so heroic an art form as this tune; and it was ever the case that pipes were used to impress or intimidate the enemy.  A recent instance of this effect was when the late General Rory Walker, then a young officer, halted a mob intent on burning the British Consulate in – was it Borneo? – around sixty years ago by playing his pipes on the veranda.

    Another, more tenous, hint lies in the similarity, at least to my ear, between the repeated rhythmic motif ‘harara o ha’, and the Irish song ‘Brennan on the Moor’ (recorded by The Clancy Brothers) which contains the line ‘bold, fearless and undaunted was young Brennan on the moor’.

    And, as Barnaby so well expresses, this is an exultant and exuberant piece of music, much more in keeping with boldness than timidity.

    Another interesting point is that the original song was sung more slowly than the up-tempo version which the Clancy Brothers recorded.

    1. I would agree Ronald that the reading is quite clear  as ‘metic’ but the  manuscript actually reads

      ‘Fhear pioba metic’ why is everyone quietly ignoring the possible implications of the aspirated ‘F’?

  3. I think the probable reason for the ‘Fhear’ spelling is Campbell’s eccentric and idiosyncratic spelling, with no implications for the meaning.

    A survey of his titles reveals several other cases of aspirated initial letters – often ‘F’ – where no aspirating ‘h’ ought to be: Vol 1 no. 64 ‘Fhailte Dhuit ion cheir ‘, no. 67 ‘Ffhagail Cheantiare’; vol 2 no.22 ‘Fhailt na Misk’, no. 28 ‘Fhailt MhicLeain’

    . It would appear he was unsure how to employ this letter, although he often uses it correctly ( vol. 1 no. 45 ‘Lassan Mhic a Cheaich’, no. 72 ‘Marsah na Shisalach’; vol’2 no. 9 ‘Tharrin Mach Bhat MhicCload’.

    There are several cases of an aspirated word being spelled phonetically, eg. vol. 2 no. 31 ‘Hanig Mo Righ…’, while the preceding title, no. 30 ‘Thanig Gorrie’ has the same word correctly spelled, with aspirating ‘h’.

    In those days, gaelic words included in English texts often attracted this ‘h’ as an indication of a slightly different pronunciation, for example  in ‘Pibroch of Donald Dhu’ which is not pronounced ‘Donald Oo’ but ‘Doo’. The actual gaelic spelling and pronunciation has been abandoned. This suggests to me that Campbell got the tunes from several sources and used the borrowed spellings, and was influenced by the English custom just mentioned, to create  phonetic effect.

  4. Regarding “Fh…”, I agree with Ronald: the “h” in this case does not indicate lenition. Campbell’s orthography is inconsistent, sometimes leaning towards Gaelic but more often leaning towards English. Neither Gaelic nor English spelling conventions were at that date as standardised or predictable as they are today. An education in English orthography coupled with some exposure to written Gaelic, but no formal education in his native tongue, would account satisfactorily for the way he spells his Gaelic.

    Having no linguistic expertise, I am not qualified to interpret this title myself. Therefore, when writing the CD liner notes, I contacted Colm Ó Baoill for guidance. Colm was editor of Scottish Gaelic Studies for many years and I have always been impressed by his scholarship. Several email exchanges later, we settled on the following note, published here on 12 October 2015. I hope it addresses the concerns raised by Keith and Ronald adequately as I had put them both to Colm. This is how he answered:

    Fear pìoba meata  Fhear pioba Metie C2. The timid piper. J. MacIver (1966) offered the translations ‘timid, feeble, or faint-hearted piper’ based on the adjective meata. The use of ‘ie’ to represent a mid-central vowel sound is also found in Gesto’s spellings ‘Chiegch’ and ‘Coghiegh’ (for Caogach and Cogadh), a fact brought to our attention by F. Buisman in 2001 and reported by B. Brown (2015, p. 30). In about 1909, before the original first page of the C2 Index became detached and was lost, the manuscript was carefully copied; both in the Index and above the music, the copyist read ‘Metie’. As Colin Campbell’s forms of ‘e’ and ‘c’ can be indistinguishable and the word is obscure, we should not exclude the possibility that he intended ‘Metic’.

    It is a feature of some Gaelic dialects that a vowel ending a word of more than one syllable can sometimes add a new consonant, usually the velar (‘guttural’) continuant consonant normally represented by the letters –dh, or sometimes –gh (as in ‘Coghiegh’). So what was innse (the noun meaning ‘narrating, telling’) at an earlier time has sometimes become innseadh in modern speech. If we could be sure of the reading ‘Metic’ then we might argue that the –c represents somebody’s hearing of that –dh added to meata, in which case meatadh (spelled ‘Metic’) would be a variant of the adjective meata.

    The word miotag or meatag can be discounted because words ending in –ag are generally nouns; in this case meaning ‘glove’, presumably a borrowing from English mitt(en). One minimally relevant form is Dwelly’s miotag ‘fright, terror’, a term marked obsolete; this is likely to be a noun form based on the same adjective meata. In conclusion, it does not matter whether Campbell wrote ‘Metic’ or ‘Metie’ as both point strongly to meata, meaning ‘timid, soft, feeble’. This refers to the man and not to his pipe.

    We’d welcome a critical response to this! Please take the discussion forward at http://www.altpibroch.com/ps103/

    When singing, both on the CD and in the rehearsal recording above, I had suspended all thought about the title. It did not affect my interpretation – I was unsure what the title meant, so simply let the music be my guide.

  5. Well pedanticism  is better here rather than on the tunes main page but as that page makes a lot of the reading of ‘metic’  I was reinforcing Ronald’s point that its reading is quite clear as ‘metic’. Of course what might lie behind it is another question. Likewise I would question where Colin Campbell would have got his education in ‘English orthography’? As far as I am aware it would have been Scots, and at that period that makes quite a difference. Both with what is actually written and more to the point with pronunciation.

    Regarding Ronald’s point on Campbell having used several sources then yes, I had already from Roddy’s pressing me made a listing of what was probably the core repertoire he got from his father Donald. Then as volume 2 was a later copy we do not know exactly how any of the original titles were in that one. Or for that matter what he might have picked up during his time in the Western Fencibles with the other two pipers there. One of whom had competed in one of the early competitions.

    The question I was hinting at with raising the point about the aspirated ‘F’ was that it might indicate that they were just shortened parts of longer titles or lines of songs and therefore it indicated that this was the case as something had come before to cause an aspiration.  It is difficult to believe he would have had any experience of the rules of writing Gaelic, even those that had at that time still tended to phonetic spelling and ‘Fear’ as far as I can remember usually was often written as ‘Fer’.

    But to plug a point I have made before and the more I read the more cautious I get, pretty much all spelling was a mess. If we had say 3 separate examples of Campbell’s title in his hand I would hazard a guess that there would be more than just ‘metic’ with variable spellings. Possibly even ‘metie’.

    As a diversion while waiting for the NRS to relocated a document which I wanted to recheck as my photocopy was not clear I spent most of last week on a ‘time filler’, that is continuing to chug through the Treasurers Accounts which have yet to be edited and published. On reading the photocopies at home over the week end, apart from the reason for copying one page from 1585, I noticed that over two other entries of no more that 5 combined lines the short little word ‘precept’  which appeared 3 times did not use the same orthography for any of the 3 repeats, all letters in each was different to the previous. And this was I assume as he was working at the top for the monarch was a top quality scribe.

  6. “One minimally relevant form is Dwelly’s miotag ‘fright, terror’, a term marked obsolete; this is likely to be a noun form based on the same adjective meata. In conclusion, it does not matter whether Campbell wrote ‘Metic’ or ‘Metie’ as both point strongly to meata, ”

    This is beside the point. See Dwelly’s definition of ‘meataich’ (quoted in the alternative site mentioned above, for ‘critical discussion’. The translation of the title is of considerable importance, not a mere quibble.

  7. Another aspect of ‘Fhear Piopa Metic’ which makes me think ‘Timidity’ cannot be the meaning of the word ‘metic’ is the very last motif in the urlar – ‘hio in em’, which is a rhythmic motif that occurs repeateded throughout the entire urlar, in different tonal combinations: eg ‘o a em’, ‘a e em’. It is only when one reaches the last iteration that it becomes strikingly familiar: it is the dominant motif of ‘Lasan MhicCeaich’, aka ‘The Flame of Wrath’, generally recognized to be one of the boldest and most agressive in the entire repetoire of pibroch.


    Such a parallel would not have been lost to the old pipers and their audiences, and is a clear reference to a non – PC aspect of this music which today’s enthusiasts tend to dismiss or sideline.


    Taken along with Dwelly’s unequivocal definition of meataich = bold, fearless, and the possible parallel with the Irish song ‘Brennan on the Moor’ which celebrates a bold highwayman, where the dominant motif resembles ‘Hihahara o a m’ and may well have been one associated with boldness in the largely vanished musical language of the shared culture of the two countries, as well as the generally stirring quality of the tune, and the well-known reputation of pipers to adopt bold and defiant stances in times of strife, I feel it is a sad distortion to inflict on this fine composition, to say it commemorates fearfulness.


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