Living Piobaireachd: a piping conundrum

‘Living’ piobaireachd implies the present and progress or movement into the future. This has been the essence of a number of recent articles on this site; for example the involvement of a scientific approach to improving performance as advocated in David’s ‘The Bullet-Proof Musician’. Although I must admit that the wry thought crossed my mind that if such a thing was possible, then the horrific loss of the lives of pipers in military engagements over the past centuries would have been prevented.

However the opposite of ‘live’ or ‘living’ is ‘dead’, in other words ‘live’ is always going to be a transitory state whereas its opposite of death is pretty final. For Donald MacDonald his piobaireachd was certainly live and reflected the period and environment in which he lived. But he died in 1840 and the environment in which he had performed continued to evolve so there is little doubt that both he and his world are now long dead.

Yet it is here that we reach the conundrum that in endeavoring to promote and develop piobaireachd today, that dead and unreproducible past is constantly raised. In fact one of the aims of this site was to make available reproductions of the all the early written sources. Although to be strictly accurate, in terms of the really ‘historical’ period for piobaireachd they are all later and suffer from the problem of the added difficulty of how accurately any written source can ever reflect an unwritten musical form.

Now having put my head above the parapet with that firm statement ‘unreproducible past’ I need to go on to justify it and so to start my rambles return to David’s article and how to ‘improve your performance, practice and concentration’ with the other telling comment ‘when prepping for their own competitions’. Competition has come to dominate piping to such an extent that it totally masks how far away from the historical period of piobaireachd and it’s players today’s piping has come.

For example it is probably safe to say that the most musically stressful point in a modern pipers life comes when playing in front of the judges at a competition. In contrast it is unlikely that for any professional piper whether ‘Highland’ or ‘Lowland’ in that historic period before say 1745 if not later, playing actually rated very high at all in their stress levels. Since that might appear a rather radical statement let’s consider some examples starting with the odd concept promoted in some less academic popular histories (or the press), that pipers were in the forefront when highlanders charged into battle.

The military technique known as the ‘highland charge’ which was certainly employed to great effect by Alistair MacColla in the 1640’s and remained effective to some extent even up to 1745, consisted of rapidly closing with the opposition, exchanging musket fire when within range then continuing the charge aiming to close with them before they could reload. Even if there was not other evidence of the pipers actual role, the idea that the piper could, while playing, run down a slope over rough ground at the front of, (or even the rear of), charging men is obviously complete nonsense. A certain way of having the blowpipe sticking out of the back of the neck before he had gone ten strides.

The piper’s role, which we know from contemporary accounts was to play ‘martial music’ to steady the nerves of the soldiers while they waited for battle to commence, which given the nature of military tactics at those times could be quite a wait. At Killiecrankie the two sides faced each other for over two hours before Dundee gave the order to charge. Again from contemporary evidence we know that the pipers then handed their pipes to a ‘gillie’ and charged in with the rest. So it is therefore possible to draw some logical conclusions.

It is extremely unlikely that the minds of any group of soldiers waiting for a battle to commence would not be focused on that, rather than any critique of the piper’s performance. In any case, before the modern world of recordings, aural and written and with the average highlanders actual exposure to piping being only occasional, then even if so minded the ‘tools’ for refined criticism are not there. Likewise the piper would certainly not feel under pressure because he was in front of a critical audience, although he too might have shared the different sort of stressful feelings of those possibly about to die in battle. Indeed playing by giving him something to do could even have lowered his own stress levels.

Having mentioned Lowland pipers it is probably worth considering their circumstances as well. Many of them served as Burgh pipers when they were often paid less than the drummers. That was because the drummer had to be permanently on tap (sorry I could not resist that one), so that they could instantly be used to attract attention for urgent proclamations. The pipers on the other hand only had firm commitments to play early in the morning and late at night and some other events by arrangement. They were therefore free outside of those duties to have another source of income not always from piping. Butcher seemed to be one favorite choice.

Even when adding to their income while still working as professional pipers most of that work involved playing for dancing. This was the main reason why they constantly feature in the Kirk Session records. The only free time in the working week for most people to dance was on a Sunday when of course the Ministers wanted them in church. But apart from treating Kirk censure as an occupational hazard, playing for dancing required a different approach from the modern scene. Rhythm was of course very important but what was not required by both the dancers and the piper was lots of highly technical and brilliant fingering. The dancers were not listening, while the player’s aim was to pace his fingers to play for long periods of time without tiring.

‘Highland’ pipers too could have additional occupations, although it is not clear to what extent that was the case. Certainly in 1732 on the MacDonald estate of North Uist, Malcolm McVaird was sitting rent free for his position as ‘piper and forester’, and as anyone familiar with that relatively treeless landscape will appreciate, for ‘forester’ read ‘preventing poaching of game and fish’. Somewhat earlier in 1726 the Duke of Gordon’s piper across in Keppoch signed what is so far the earliest written contract between a highland piper and his employer, undertaking the additional role of ‘Forester in Lochaber’, though in his case it covered both protection of the trees, game and fish. (‘An Early Pipers contract’, forthcoming in the Piping Times).

Likewise, John MacIntyre, who in 1697 was sent to both Rankin and MacCrummon for tuition, received a rent-free holding in Degnish from the Earl of Breadalbane for serving as piper and forester, at least until he removed to the Menzies Estate around 1712. He also provides a good example of the nature of the times, when at one point in 1709 an instruction came via the Earl’s local chamberlain for the piper to attend at Kilchurn Castle at the north end of Loch Awe. From Degnish, which is about 3 miles south of Ardmaddy, to Kilchurn is some 25 miles as the crow flies and nearly twice that actually on the ground. In good conditions, (which are not guaranteed in early April), and with a gillie to carry his pipes, it was at least a two day journey on foot, probably more. It is fairly safe to suggest that any playing he did between leaving home and arriving at his destination would have been in thanks for the hospitality at his rest points on route rather than a ‘practice’ for whatever he had been summoned for.

This in turn brings us to another major difference between then and now. Once the student musician had passed through the initial period to reach a level of competence, it is unlikely that ‘practice’, in the form we understand that word today, ever featured again in their performing life.

It can be difficult to fully appreciate the contrast between now and back then, at a time when all music was ‘live’ and for the more traditional musicians new works were either self composed or had to be absorbed aurally. Furthermore, the demands on the musician’s time of just the basics of simply ‘living’  (as with the example of MacIntyre’s journey) meant that when a professional musician played, it was for an audience of some sort. An audience that for the most part would have had much less exposure to professionally made music and musicians than we have today.

A good exposition on that aspect of early music of all types is to be found, particularly in his opening introduction, by Howard Goodall’s ‘Story of Music part 1’ to be found online here;-


4 thoughts on “Living Piobaireachd: a piping conundrum

  1. As Derrick’s Image of Ireland (1591) shows, a piper accompanied the soldiers into battle and was killed in the fray.

    The observation that the highland charge was used with some effect as late as 1745 might seem to exclude the crucial events at Culloden in 1746, when the attack on Cumberland’s left cut Barrell’s regiment to pieces and was only stopped when the few who had wreaked such gory havoc were stopped by the second line forming a ring of bayonets and demanding their surrender.

  2. Another excellent, well wrought post of insights, Keith. Thanks!
    If a kind of music “lives” only as a sport, requiring specialized sports psychologists for support, then it would follow it has ceased to be a kind of music at all. Music as sport? Piobaireachd competitions are endurance tests. Will the tuning hold? Will the crunluaths come through without mistakes after ten minutes of sustained finger work? Will the piper play every gracenote in the PS text? Will the judge require his way of playing the Donald Mor run-down and reject all others? In spite of that, one important teacher and judge links his piobaireachd playing, which he always refers to as ‘technique’, to the druids. It’s a bit like a modern day MacDonald who grew up in Los Angeles hating a modern day Campbell who grew up in Brisbane who he has never met because of something he saw on TV about ancient clan feuds. There is such a mashup of romance, artifice and politics in piobaireachd competition it is amazing any music makes its way through at all.

  3. Ronald I am not sure I fully understand the points you are making. The specific argument I was making related to the so called ‘Highland Charge’ a tactic which was certainly extensively used to great effect by Alasdair MacColla, if not as some think devised by him. This was much later than the wars in Ireland which by that date when the Northern Earls had been much influenced by other European military tactics tended to deploy disciplined bodies of pikemen and musketeers.

    The highland charge had still worked in some of the earlier engagements of 1745/46, indeed there is among the archives at Blair Castle a document written by Lord George Murray defending himself against some criticism that in one of those earlier engagements when one wing of his forces had easily demolished it’s apposing wing of the government force, that Lord George should have called them back to assist the other wing of his force which was having a harder time of it.

    His explanation, (or defense), was that he could not find a piper because they had all, as was the custom, handed their pipes to their gillies and charged into battle with the rest of their regiments. Presumably Blind Allan MacDougal from Lorne was absent from that particular event, since he would have been unlikely to move anywhere without guidance. He was also curiously the only piper on the Jacobite side to be specifically described as a ‘Highland Piper’ rather than just a piper. He died in 1773 and his grave slab is still extant.

    Culloden is a battlefield I knew very well as when in my youth I was at Fort George on most Sundays I would ramble around it. That was about as exciting as Sundays got around there at that time, even the newspapers usually only turned up on Monday, while the Ministers morning sermon in the Fort Chapel while diverting did not reach excitement levels. So having been on the moor in conditions in which the battle was fought the only sensible conclusion was that it was not a place to have a battle at any time, especially for trying to deploy a highland charge. Although Barrell’s Regiment may have succumbed as the overall battle was ultimately lost it marked the end of an era.

    Of course the Battle was one that if there had been any sense in the Princes head would not have been fought in the first place. The attempt at a night attack was a reasonable ploy but when it was abandoned Lord George’s plan to withdraw to a defensive position , rest and re-assess the next move should not have been overruled. Even then with it going ahead and ending with that defeat it did not have to be the disastrous end to the campaign that occurred. Lord George had sensibly instructed that in the event of defeat forces should regroup at Ruthven Barracks.

    Within a few days the remnants of Culloden and a large number of fresh men under Cluny McPherson who had been down there foraging, amounted to a force as large as that which had been at Culloden. Then there were the unused Fraser’s who were on route to Culloden and turned around in good order on meeting the men fleeing west from the battle. If the ‘Prince’ had not tossed in the towel and instructed them all to fend for themselves, and that was pretty final as they were only fighting in his name; then at least with large organised Jacobite forces still in the field, in his name, with the potential to continue fighting a less drastic end to that war could have been negotiated.

    ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie?

  4. A most interesting gloss on your first remarks, Keith. My point was merely that the apparently spontaneous charge at Culloden, made in the absence of direction from above and in response to galling cannon fire, and despite suffering heavy losses during its advance, had a serious impact, and perhaps merited a more upbeat mention than your phrase ‘to some effect’, which suggested (to me) that the tactic was past its sell-by date.

    The allusion to the picture of the slain ‘pyper’ alongside his pipes in Derrick’s ‘Image of Ireland’ was to show that in that engagement, at least, the piper had taken part as a musician and not as a combatant, so that this role has some historical basis.

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