“To the make of a piper go seven years of his own learning and seven generations before. At the end of his seven years, one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and lending a fond ear to the drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs.” (Neil Munro-“The lost Piobaireachd”).
Piobaireachd (pee-brock) is not the music of the pipe band, (a nineteenth century invention) nor is it the strathspeys and reels that folk dance to. These are known to pipers as Ceol Beag or little music. Piobaireachd (a Gaelic word literally meaning the playing of pipes) is called Ceol Mor, “the great music” of the pipe that serious pipers revere as the height of their art.
So what is it that goes into the making of this so called “great music”? Like the strathspey, this music is unique to the Highlands of Scotland. Generally tunes consist of a poetic urlar (a ground or theme), upon which several variations of varying tempi are constructed. These are embellished with a series of musical ornaments that become more complex as the tune progresses, culminating with the return to the urlar to complete the tune. The effect of these variations with an instrument that is harmonically balanced against its drones will provide an almost mesmerising effect. The piper uses subtle variations of note length to build poetic phrasing, expression and character into a piece to convey the story the original composer was trying to portray to the listener.
These piobaireachd are repetitious gathering tunes that call the Clan, stately salutes about the heroes of battle, or notable gents and ladies, or a lament mourning those who deserve our respect or sometimes contempt. These tunes often date back hundreds of years to a time when the bard or piper held great esteem in the Gaelic community.
Legend says that the MacCrimmons were the greatest of the hereditary pipers, who had a college at Boreraig in Skye where pipers from all over Scotland were refined over a number of years and returned to their patrons. The origin of the music and the history of the MacCrimmons were lost in the mists of time. Our earliest knowledge stretches back to Findlay and Ian Odhar, sometime around the sixteenth century.
After Colloden in 1745 and the subsequent bans on many aspects of Gaelic life, which included the bagpipe, regarded by the English as an instrument of war on the assumption that no Scottish Clan had ever marched into battle without a piper, many of the old tunes were lost, or in fear of being lost. Piping which was then to survive within the Scottish Regiments, now serving the British crown, began to change its character and piobaireachd was more commonly heard on the competition boards at many gatherings, being judged by the local laird or vicar. Those days have gone, and the judges are now piping experts, with the audience made up of piping purists and the general public usually regarding piobaireachd as an acquired taste, preferring to watch the caber tossing or tug-o-war.
In the nineteenth century, tunes were for the first time, being written to manuscript. This has certainly preserved many that would otherwise have been lost to us, but the criticism being that such music cannot be written. Piobaireachd is based on a rhythmic meter much like poetry, where the piper cuts or extends notes to mark phrases, the ends of lines, or even various notes of identical value throughout a line to create interest and the mood of a tune. This is not done at random, and there must be some historical source upon which the pipers base their particular setting. There are various schools of playing and they all have their own individual styles and settings. Some of the pipers own feelings and interpretation are no doubt always expressed in a tune, but variation from the existing settings is frowned upon.
Being an oral tradition piobaireachd was taught using a canntaireachd (can-trock). This was a method of verbalising the notes and embellishments in a tune and teaching it as a song. This method is still used today, with the manuscript used as a teaching aid. Rare is it to find a piper that has learnt piobaireachd with any success that has not had a proper teacher to refine his art using canntaireachd, even in this age of modern communication.
One of modern time’s greatest exponents of piobaireachd was Pipe Major John MacDonald - Inverness. He wrote in 1949 that, “A Piper should be a man of as wide a culture as possible, not only concerned about execution, but with strong and sympathetic understanding of natures varied moods, translated by him into music.”
“When a piper is at his best, and is being carried away by his tune, he sees a picture in his mind – at least that is how it is with me. When I am playing “The Kiss of the King’s Hand,” I visualise Skye and Boreraig and the MacCrimmons. The tune “Donald Doughall MacKay” brings to mind a picture of the old pipers, and how they played this tune. A piper in order to play his best must be oblivious to his surroundings – he must be carried away by the beauty and harmony of the tune he is playing.”
Piobaireachd with its length, intricacies, emotions and the need to have a well set pipe is not the domain of the novice. To say one stands at the start of knowledge after seven years of learning is no exaggeration as this art encompasses a life time’s study. The knowledge passed orally from our teachers cannot be under estimated and indeed I would say that any master’s skill could not be honed in this art without adding the input of previous generations of pipers to his learning. I have heard piobaireachd referred to as self indulgent music, as it may sometimes seem to the uninitiated. It is played only on a solo pipe, and the competent performer often seems to be drifting off to some faraway place, but be assured he is “lending a fond ear to the drone” and expressing the thoughts of “old folks and old affairs”.