There has been some discussion since the publication of The APC Guide to Pibroch, much of it centering around the question of how to classify piobaireachd.
The contention in the book is that piobaireachd is more akin to folk music (what those of you outside the US would prefer to call “traditional music”) than classical music: it is primarily oral in origin.
Some have contended, however, that canntaireachd was written and hundreds of years old.
So, I asked our Member and friend Keith Sanger: What is the earliest evidence of written canntaireachd that we have?
This is his reply:
There is an 18th C Gaelic poem by John MacCodrum called Diomoladh Pioba Dhomhnaill Bhain (“The Dispraise of Donald Ban’s Pipes”), which in one verse appears to be mimikcing sung canntaireachd.
The relevant verse in translation (by Wm Matheson) but with the vocables as translated goes:
Is it not a fine laughing stock to sputter away at a theme (urlar) without playing of variation (lutha) or lovely grace notes (siubhlaicheann)
Ramming odroachan in the tail of odrochan , ramming odrochan in the rear of odrovi (o-dro-bhi, in the Gaelic original).
a narrow crooked bag, half full of slavers, a wind like the chill of frost through the squint holes that the fingers cannot cover,
only ohon and ohi can be understood aright. (o-theoin and o-thi).
There is also in one of the Irish Annals the record of the death of someone in 1226. He was described as being an expert in canntairechta acus crotglesa, translated as “Canntaireachd and harp tuning.” Although it was seized on by some harpers, the word is well attested as just meaning “song-chant”, which is what even the pipe version is, and in the case of that orbit is more likely an indication of how the syllabic verse was actually performed and he would have been that elusive creature a ‘recaire’.
But the earliest pipe tune canntaireachd was Colin Campbell.
It certainly appears that the original assertion is correct: insofar as piobaireachd was primarily (until the 19th century) handed down orally, it is a folk/trad music, not classical. Certainly, at the time of the 19th century and later piobaireachds were literately composed. But the earliest art form came from a dominantly oral music culture and setting.[For those of you interested in downloading the APC Guide to Pibroch, but who do not have Apple devices, you may get to the information (PDF and media files) here.]