Turning back the clock ?

Although it is possible to turn back a clock, in reality it does not turn back time; the earth still continues rotating around the sun as it always has done. The stimulus for this article was David’s series based on the Hannay-MacAuslan MS. Working on the rather optimistic assumption that it should be played exactly as written, and being even more optimistic in assuming that those interpretations were given time in the competition system, there are still some difficulties with producing a ‘competition performance’ exactly as it would have been at the time the manuscript was written.

We know that at that time the 2-drone pipes were still being used in competitions since it was not until circa 1822 that they were finally discouraged. We also know what they looked like as this drawing of one was printed in the second of Domenico Corri’s 2-volume New and Complete Collection of the most Favourite Scots Songs, published in Edinburgh circa 1783. However, returning to the original assumption, even if the ‘re-constituted’ Hannay-MacAuslan versions made it onto the modern competition platform, what odds am I offered that the other pipers would object to competing against a player of the 2-drone pipe with its advantage of one less reed to go off with a mind of its own? Yet this was the the actual reality of the performances at the time David is trying to resurrect.

Remaining with the topic of the 2-drone pipe, there are problems answering both the question of how prevalent they actually were, and why they were actually favoured over pipes with the bass drone. In regard to the first question of prevalence, the main problem is that the contemporary sources do not distinguish between pipers using two or three drones, they are all just pipers. Which, prior to the advent of the competitions, does seem to be telling us something, even if it is not clear what.

However, always willing to place my neck on the block in the cause of research, I would suggest that at times it is possible to come to a firm opinion on when the ‘piper’ does have a 3-drone pipe. For example, we know that William Cumming piper to the Laird of Grant played with three drones because we have a painting of him doing just that. It is also noticeable that he has a large flag attached to his pipes displaying the Grant armorial. Take away the bass drone and it would be very difficult to fly such a flag, so we can rest on fairly solid ground when suggesting that two other pipers who also are known to have had their patrons’ armorial flags would also have been playing with a bass drone.

These two pipers interestingly appear around the same time as Grant’s when, in 1713, Atholl’s piper Donald MacLaren alias MacGregor was advanced one year’s salary of £40 Scots to replace the ‘flag’ which had been damaged by the local people. The piper was in Balquidder, so it was possible that the locals did not appreciate being reminded by the armorial that they were Atholl’s tenants. The second of these pipers is even more informative as the account from 1712 for the piper’s flag with the arms of the Marquis of Huntly on it is still around in the Gordon MS. It shows that the armorials were actually made by one of the Scottish Heralds and the cost was £41 14sh Scots.

The Huntly piper was probably a William Gordon who appears in the accounts as a piper around that time. It is also worth noting that in terms of costs these pipe banners were some ten times as expensive as the cost of the pipes that bore them. Even as late as the time when the Breadalbane Fencibles were raised for military service and a pipe banner with the Highland Society’s arms were given to winners of the competitions, along with the prize pipe, the ‘flags’ were still more expensive than the pipes: around £12 for the banners compared to £7 7 sh for the 3-drone pipe. In other words, the ostentatious display of the patron’s armorial was one reason for turning their piper into part musician and part flagpole.

What then do we know about the rest of that piping world who used 2-drone pipes? Well, it is a fair bet that they or rather their patrons did not run to expensive pipe banners requiring display. It is also unsafe to assume that the patron’s wealth and status is always a guide to nature of the instrument (or flagpole) used by the patron’s piper. The Earls of Breadalbane were among the wealthiest lairds, not just in Perthshire but also Scotland, yet we know that the pipes played by John MacGregor, the late eighteenth century piper on the Breadalbane estate, were 2-drone pipes. They are currently on display at Blair Athole. Of course, once the Highland Society competitions started to be won by members of his family, one of the 3-drone prize pipes became their normal.

What we do not know, however, is which version of the instrument the MacCrummens were playing. It is certainly possible to construct an argument that, set against their historical background, the odds are they actually played both. Which brings us back to the reasons many pipers clearly preferred just the two tenor drones and no bass. It is a subject about which there is little or no information, even of anecdotal form. But there are some rare comments about piping by pipers that were recorded in London around the middle of the nineteenth century.

These comprise a series of accounts collected pretty much from their mouths by Henry Mayhew and published over four volumes called London Labour and the London Poor. Among those he interviewed were a number of Scottish pipers living and working on the streets of London. One in particular makes some interesting comments on the use of his drones. Many of the pipers were old soldiers but in this case it was his father from Argyle who was a piper with the 92nd. While the father was away with his regiment, the eldest son earned money playing on some ‘small pipes’ the father had left behind. By the time of the interview, the father was invalided out and and the second son was playing his father’s full set.

Some relevant quotes follow:

When I play in a gentleman’s room I don’t put the drone on, but only play on the chanter, or what you would call the flute part of it. I cut off the drone, by putting the finger in the tall pipe that stands up against the shoulder, which we call the drone pipe. The wind goes up there and if you stop it up it don’t sound. A bagpipe has got five pipes – the chanter, the drone pipe, the two tenor pipes, and the blow-stick, through which you send the wind into the bag, which is of sheep skin covered with green baize. …

When I am playing in the streets I put the drone on and I can be heard miles off. I’ve very often had a horse shy at me…

I get my reeds from the Duke of Argyle’s piper. He’s a good friend to me, and very fond of me. They are made of thin pieces of split cane… Before I play I have to wet them. They last me six or seven months if I take care of them. The Duke of Argyle’s piper never grumbles when I go for new ones. When I go to him he makes me play to him to see how I’ve got on with my music. He’s a splendid player and plays from books. I play by ear.

The noise dosen’t affect the hearing nor has it Jim [his brother]. But my father’s quite deaf of the left ear, where the done goes. I never have the drone on, only very seldom. When I have them on I can’t hear anything for a few seconds after I leave off playing.

Apart from their father’s military pension of 1 shilling a day, due to loss of a leg during the Punjab War, the rest of the family income came from the children’s piping – sometimes from piping on the street but also from playing at ‘gentlemen’s houses’ (often, it would seem, at General Campbell’s). Since the definition of a ‘professional’ is someone who practices their profession for a living, these were professional pipers. Even within the world of piping there was and always had been more than one level. For a top position, those early piping competitions were the place to be seen and heard to try for an appointment to a more prestigious position.


8 thoughts on “Turning back the clock ?

  1. On most occasions I prefer to play (and listen to) piobaireachd / ceol mor with just the bass and one tenor drone in operation, particularly with a nice quiet (sounding) chanter. I find the additional tenor can overpower.

  2. Corri’s drawing shows two drones of similar length, similar also to the length of the chanter.  Bearing in mind the fact that we should always be careful about using such drawings as firm evidence of what early pipes were like, what other evidence do we have of two drone pipes with drones of the same length or of differing length to allow for the option of using a drone of a different pitch  to suit the requirements of different tunes?.  Corri’s drones also appear to have cylindrical bore while the chanter is conical.  My knowledge of acoustics is getting rusty but I wonder how this could affect their pitch in relation to that of the chanter.  I ask such questions while thinking about what William Dixon’s bagpipes could have been like.

  3. Other evidence for two drone pipes comprising just two equal tenor drones, well I mention one in the article, the MacGregor pipe which is on display at Blair Castle. There is also one claimed to having been played during the 45 at the visitor centre at Culloden, and if memory serves me right there is also one at the museum in Fort William.

    Apart from the tuning chambers which allow the lower section of drone to slide up into the upper section and the ‘Bell’, the highland pipe drones are all cylindrically bored. The only exceptions to that are, if taken as per the portrait the last section of the drone tops in the portrait of Grant’s piper of 1714 and adding some substance to their being genuine the single remaining tenor drone on the MacIntyre Pipes circa 1674 also now in the museum at Fort William which has a similar open conical end to it.

    I have received a direct request from he who edits my text into modern acceptable prose** for some additional references. So for the Marquis of Huntly pipe banner see my article ‘Right Hand Men’ in West Highland Notes & Queries. Series 3, No 10 (October 2007), 19-23 where in footnote No 1 I transcribe the entire account for the banner.

    For details of Atholl’s piper and his problems with that pipe banner see ‘The two sides of Sheriffmuir’ in the Piping Times vol 68. No 2 (November 2015) pp 37-42 which includes reproductions of the actual documents courtesy the Archives at Blair Castle.

    ** Since I spend my days with my nose buried in old documents looking for piping and harping evidence and trying to understand the background to what I am reading, it is noticeable that the writers of those original contemporary documents did not bother much with spelling, punctuation or balanced sentences. So whether cause or effect I find these days neither do I. Indeed it is writ, somewhere on the National Records of Scotland website that the better you get at reading old hand writing and spelling, the worse your own modern spelling becomes.

  4. Just to be clear about my intentions: I am seeking to exegete the music, to allow the notation to inform me of something it wants to communicate, and to not impose my foreign, modern tastes upon it. It is clear to me: the more time you spend in the primary scores, the more variability you see, the more familiar you become with a transcribers or piper’s favorite stylistic idiosyncrasies, and the more information you can get directly without the mitigating hand of a 20th century editor.

    The information is disruptive.

    What I am not claiming is that I can recreate the sound or performance of the ancients. I am looking to learn from their musicality.

  5. I was originally trying to find time to comment on your ‘Glengarry’ Part 1, but some of that now fits better with your reply here. But first a point I have made to you in a previous offline email, I do not think any musician actually plays exactly as noted in any music score. As I commented before all you need to do to prove that point is feed any music score into one of those computer programmed sound generators and listen to it then played accurately as per the score.

    But to turn to a more specific example. Before any music is written down a number of choices have to be made; one of which is the time signature. Now with piobaireachd like much of the Gaelic song on which it was originally based, the music has a ‘free’ rhythm, a detectable pulse but not a beat. But for this score we are about to note down at the start requires a time signature.

    This is a problem which has existed and been appreciated by nearly all compilers of Gaelic music at least from Patrick MacDonald onward. The much maligned Kilberry was acutely aware of it, consider for example his comment on ‘Donald Duaghal MacKay’, ‘It is safe to say that if the ground is to be played with due feeling and expression, no two of the recorded semi-quavers in the whole part will be given the same length’.

    In the preface to Donald MacDonald vol 2, regarding the question of setting it in 6/8 or common time we quoted the late John MacLellan who referring such a choice had said that ‘whichever of the two was preferred, it should be played with a ‘leavening’ of the other’. It can also be seen from comparison of the Hannay MacAuslan MS as well as Donald’s earlier draft copied by Sir John MacRa that choice of time signature flipped flopped around.

    So returning to your attempts to return to a primary written source which by your definition is the earliest in which a tune first appears then in reversing or trying to reverse what the writer has given back to what he may have meant and played also requires you to make a choice. The fact that you are turning written music into played music is still an editorial process; your editorial process and no one else’s.

    I think the point that Barnaby a few posts back was trying to make is that as it is your personal musical editorial choice that should be made more explicit. On a site like this where there numerous view points not all in accord with your interpretation, (and that is what it is), the current way these interesting posts have been written implies a bible according to Altpibroch rather than a bible according to in this case David, (or Barnaby, Keith, Luke and John, or anyone who wants to pitch in).


  6. Yes. And no.

    Of course all performances, spoken, sung, played, are interpretive. This is just as true with any reception of the communication act: it is mediated as well. You have only stated  what is at the heart of communication theory, rhetorical theory, philology, exegesis and hermeneutics. You really aren’t saying anything more than what everybody who performs an act of communication assumes: that multiple intentionalitues are at work, that certain rules are abided by, that confusion may arise, but for the most part we manage to get our points across. And quite well.

    The same is true with staff notation.

    Everybody who has ever thought of this realizes that the translation of orality into literacy of any sort is a reduction in the amount of information being communicated. So what?  Communication still takes place.

    And in fact, what I suggest is that literature represents far more creative possibilities than orality, precisely because it is not constrained by particular performative decisions.

    Take the following three words:

    I love you

    As they exist right there on the page they can be spoken with longing, desire, obsession, or quite perfunctorily.  The interpretive possibilities are remarkable.

    But they are not limitless.  It is generally accepted, for example, that those three words do not mean “I hate you.” In fact, if that is the intent of the author or interpreter at the time, we would probably correct them. We would say something like, “Don’t you mean you hate me?” or “That’s a very strange thing to write, given my experience of what those words are typically taken to mean.”

    So, I am arguing that it is entirely possible to note the explicit and empirical differences we see when comparing scores with one another.  We understand the rules of the linguistic game taking place when the transcribers and composers adopted the language system of staff notation.   Its limits are known, but the rules are accepted: you don’t mark a note high G, when you mean low-A. You dont mark half-note, when you mean “play a dotted eighth note”.

    Now, is it at all an accurate, perfect recording of a performance? Of course not. But neither is any language system, (except non-ambiguous artificial systems like math or symbolic logic).  Does that prevent us from recording? Does that prevent us from playing? Not at all.

    In fact, if I see a grace note in one score, replaced by an eighth note in another score of the same tune, I think I’m pretty justified in concluding that these two scores reflect two different interpretations of that tune. And if that’s true, then there is a lot, in fact, that can be learned by looking at the scores and taking their evidence seriously.

    As a result of this, by looking at these primary sources we can come to some very specific conclusions regarding what pibroch performance was like historically, and use those conclusions to propel us into a new-old era of pibroch in which staff fundamentalism and orthodox stylistic idiosyncrasies can be overcome. These conclusions are compelling. They are:

    1) After careful consideration of the evidence, it is clear that cadences were inventive flourishes to be used in a style and time that was idiosyncratic to the performer (MacDonald generally favors streaming cadences, and lots of them; MacKay, held-E cadences were quite that family’s favorite choice; Peter Reid’s collection show just how variable other pipers deployed this movement). The point of the cadence was to be tool for inventive creativity. Today, it is approached very different.

    2) After careful consideration of the evidence, crahinin were rhythmically quite variable. This stands in contrast to the echo-beat style that dominates today.

    3) Evidence also points to the fact that hiharin were not burls. They were a member of the same family as crahinin, and themselves show quite a style of rhythmic variability.

    4) After careful exploration, it is clear that pibroch is a class of music with multiple genres.

    5) It is also empirically self-evident that urlars were played as refrains. This has all sorts of interesting consequences, profound ones. One o the most important of which is, when they were no longer played as refrains, a fundamental change took place in pibroch.

    At which point, the overall conclusion that results from just these five observations is: This music was much more fluid in style and performance than we would ever expect from what we are taught, we what see in the PS orthodox scores, and what we hear today. It is part of pibroch’s history and tradition that performers and performances were much freer, and much different, than what we both assume and experience when encountering pibroch today.

    So, what is the “APC Approach I” that I am outlining? It is an outline of how these conclusions can be used to help us interpret these scores, by exegeting the scores and better understanding what they are fundamentally communicating to us: how to play pibroch. It is a toolkit that takes seriously these conclusions by helping to clarify what it means when a transcriber writes a cadence here, crahinin there; what it means when we encounter a salute or a lament or a gathering tune; and how, with these and other insights we develop when immersing ourselves in these primary sources, we might get back to the music behind the notes, the song behind the score and interpret it ourselves within the expanded framework of pibroch that these primary sources have unveiled before us.

    So, of course what you are seeing is my interpretation of Cille Chriost That both is, and is not the point. I am demonstrating how I have come to this interpretation by outlining the means by which I have reached it. By making those means explicit, and offering why and how those means are justified and justifiable, others may begin to make their own interpretations and justify them.

  7. Well some sort of movement in terms of your agreeing that the interpretation of the Hannay MacAuslan MS is yours and that as it stands there are still problems re-interpreting musical scores.

    As far as most of your reply I certainly have no problem with the belief that in most cases what is played today differs from earlier times. I agree that in the days when piobaireachd was the preserve of a relatively small number of pipers still with strong ethnic Gaelic links there was considerably more variation in playing styles and instruments. As I have suggested before I suspect that the pipers also altered their playing depending on whether they had two or three drone pipes. Movements that would sound well against two tenor drones might require a change to avoid being lost in the bass drone.

    But this is not the points I was trying to make although there is an element of seeing the wheel being re-invented that comes with age and memory. There is for example a talk given by Malcolm MacRae to one of the Ardvasar Seminars which was published in the PT back in October 1988 which could sound almost as ‘fresh’ today if added to this site. (it is probably also available on the PS website library).

    Since this has started here, a continuation with my thoughts regarding the Glengarry’s March post may as well be added here too, with reference back to that post and the second and third of your initial bullet points. You state that the Hannay MacAuslan MS has never been type set or published, which is an odd statement as the MS has been published here on Altpibroch. Which also raises the question that as the modus of this site is to make the original MS available which it now is, then by definition an edited typeset is no longer required as people can go straight to the original?

    Then there is the statement that ‘almost no academic work has been done on it since Roderick Cannon’s initial analysis’. Really? Back in the PT of December 1985 the late Frans Buisman published a two part dissertation on it and also took it in to consideration in numerous subsequent piobaireachd studies. As for Roderick’s thinking and further research, I have lost count of the hours of research time we expended trying to back trace the MS’s history, unfortunately with no success.

    Roderick’s most recent thoughts regarding that MS were incorporated into the discussion regarding it in the edited version of Donald MacDonald’s book. Since that comes firmly down on the argument that the MS was produced by a ‘student’ being taught under Donald’s direction then the question raised in your second bullet point of whether Donald is not the primary source becomes at least academically debatable.

    Likewise the argument made in that analysis and discussion that the MS was by a student feeling their way under Donald who at that time was also doing likewise at the forefront of musical notation of piping, (for example obvious changes from edition to edition carefully noted in the ‘Table of Anomalies’ a result of years of work by Roddy),  is up to people to read and choose whether to believe or not. I would certainly defend your own right to dismiss it as rubbish, but before as in your APC Approach 1, offering your version of the MS as a baseline a more open approach to at least indicate to your readers that there were alternative views, even published ones is one sided.

    Otherwise it is like treating the Hannay MacAuslan MS as tablets of stone when if the alternative arguments are accepted it is closer to a student’s slate and chalk. Which returns us to the question of the APC approach. I thought that Altpibroch was intended to be a broad church open to all views. That heading of the ‘APC approach’ implies that what is being offered is done in the name of the whole congregation, rather than just your view and I would side with Barnaby that it still needs to be made more explicit that it is your own personal views.

  8. There is so much here to digest and to discuss, that I feel this is a topic worth its own series or perhaps Public roundtable.

    For now, what I will say is: the approach I am outlining is for you, and others, to critique and employ as you wish. I present it publicly for two reasons:

    1) To allow people to see, not the results of interpretive work, but the process. I believe that watching the process is the most important didactic tool that we have as musicians and scholars.

    We all like to present ourselves, our conclusions and our performances, after we have reached the final stages of preparation. And that’s fine, but that is not the purpose of this site. The intention behind the site is to encourage people to become curious, to learn and to explore. The best way to do that is to offer tools for learning and demonstrate the process for interpretation.

    2) To play music and encourage others to play music. Arguments like this are interesting and exciting, but they are secondary.

    I want to play music.

    And so, I present the way in which I have begun to approach these manuscripts. It is one approach, inspired by and therefore named after this social experiment and its materials.

    If others are now not entirely intimidated, it is my hope they develop and present their approaches here, as well. They can call them “APC Approach X”, or “Doo-hickey’s Extravaganza”. It makes no difference to me.

    But I am calling it “The APC Approach I” out of the recognition and respect I have for this extra-ordinary thing we are doing here.

    And I hope others are inspired by this experiment, as well.

    PS – if you or others have evidence and arguments about the primary sources, I would like to see it. Not the conclusions, but the facts, warrants and reasoning behind them.

    And I hope they are something I can understand, because, quite frankly, every time I have read Buisman, I come away more confused than when I started.

    So, if you think H manuscripts are student scribbles or first drafts: why?

    And, more importantly: so what? Seems to me that only reinforces their value to me, as they are precisely therefore the reflection of exactly the kinds of struggle to “put down on paper” what is being played. And therefore part of the exact struggle of interpretation that the entire “APC Approach I” is reflective of and participates in.

    But perhaps, as I stated at the beginning of this comment: this is worth its own series of articles.

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