Some Thoughts on Ceol Mor and Its Study

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

A manuscript sample of the well-known tune Lament for the Viscount of Dundee, aka Cumha Chlaibhers or Lament for Claverhouse, has been forwarded by Dr J David Hester PhD of the Alt Pibroch Club website. (There is new a letter from Mr Hester in our Letters column.) I believe the sample may have come via piobaireachd analyst Barnaby Brown and has the comment ‘We’re playing it wrong’ attached.

The music is from Joseph MacDonald’s Treatise – the first attempt at explaining piping in print, and dated circa. 1760. Joseph writes: ‘There is no Style more Martial than this; and when this March is well playd it certainly is Martial. The Contrasts of G & D joind, & A & C, makes the boldness and Singularity of the Style which is very obvious to a knowing Ear.’

viscountBarnaby believes this statement should affect how we interpret the piece and says: ‘What I’d like to know is, how widely was it considered to be a lament before the 1830s?’

I believe the above to be a transcription written to be understood and appreciated by a pianist or other musician. ‘A Species of A Sharp’ above the score is surely a giveaway. No piper in history ever concerned himself with sharps and flats – at least not until the advent of playing in Tattoo massed bands or folk groups. And I am at odds with Barnaby on the ‘we’re playing it wrong’ statement and with the idea that pre-1830 ‘the Viscount’ was perhaps not even considered a lament.

I think it encouraging  that today we have so many skilled, intelligent individuals examining the classical tradition and the old sources. All the evidence we can find should be laid before the piobaireachd playing public as the Piobaireachd Society continues to do, as does the Alt Pibroch website.

But, and you will have been waiting for a but, the difficulty comes in interpreting this source material. For example, names of tunes can be a notoriously inaccurate way of assessing the style of tune and how it should be played. A case in point would be MacDougall’s Gathering. Here we have a tune named, apparently, from an off-hand scrawl on one of the source manuscripts.

[wds id=”7″]The calling of the double echoes on E at the beginning are certainly in the gathering style. Thereafter, however, the piece becomes a plaintive, melodically enthralling piece of music, one of the greatest feats of bagpipe composition there is. If the first few bars say ‘gather round’ then the remainder says ‘sit down and have a listen to this’. Hear it on my ‘Purely Piobaireachd’ CD.

In the case of the ‘Viscount’ the name is not in dispute, it is well documented as a lament in all the early sources. The error we can make in piobaireachd is to worry about names at all; all piobaireachd is slow. Rhythmically different, yes, but there is hardly a gnat’s crotchet of difference in tempo (to borrow from the late, great Humphrey Lyttelton) between Lament for Donald Ban and A Flame of Wrath – have a listen to some of the masters on the PS website.

No, it is not the tempo or ‘attack’ we apply to tunes that governs how they should be played. The music itself is the guide (as Kilberry stated). The sadness in Donald Ban does not come from saying ‘hey, this tune is a lament, I must play it slowly’. Or, ‘hey, Battle of Auldearn, let’s get the broadswords out and have a real go here.’ The music does that for you, (though there is nothing of the chaos of battle in the latter anyway). The piper’s job is to apply a tempo that suits the ear (something that comes after years of listening and appreciating the music),  the correct phrasing and then to let the composition do the talking.

Our piobaireachd professors are at times guilty of writing far too much into these old scores. They need to appreciate the social circumstances, the class-conscious milieu they inhabited and that a lot of what they noted down (thankfully) was an attempt to get the bagpipe and its music accepted into polite society; an attempt to get the mainstream musician to consider our music as anything but the work of the untutored savage, as General Thomason says.

The scholars need to acknowledge too, that central to the delivery of good ceol mor is the bagpipe itself. It is absolutely integral. It governs the music in a way no other instrument does its canon. Piobaireachd is designed specifically for the great Highland bagpipe and the harmonic complexity of its drones, the modal shifts of the chanter. How we play, and how these tunes were composed in the first place, is/was influenced to a lesser or greater degree by the instrument itself.

Another scholarly failing is the inexplicable lack of recognition of our oral tradition as passed down over the generations. Strangely, some of our musicologists will pay slavish attention to the links with Gaelic song and specific works of ceol mor whilst at the same time ignoring this tradition – a tradition documented and, in the case of P/M William MacLean, linking directly to Calum Piobair. We can also hear John MacDonald play.  Should not this evidence be weighed in the balance?

Please let us continue with the gathering of the old scores but please let us not use them to settle old scores, to perpetuate a ‘them and us’ approach, perceived or otherwise. Piobaireachd is difficult music to play well. It takes a lifetime of study to do so; and to teach and to appreciate in full. The academics do important work which must not be undervalued, but it should be viewed within the context of the piobaireachd world as we know it today not outwith it.

And  they must strive at all times to avoid the pitfall of so many learned, well-meaning scholars and their tracts: that of clothing their studies in modal mishmash and language intended for the exam board rather than we ordinary pipers. It does not improve an argument the more difficult the syntax; nor does the last confer a worth greater than its essence, rather the opposite.

Mr Hester of the Alt Piobaireachd Club will be at the Piobaireachd Society Conference next March to deliver a paper on his thoughts. Barnaby Brown himself has already done so. I hope more academics will follow suit. I wish too that they would get out more and listen to today’s piobaireachd players. The competition scene should not be an alien environment for them. The more interaction between scholars and players the better. Each can learn from the other and give a more rounded context in which to proceed.

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9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Ceol Mor and Its Study

  1. Quite frankly, it was all just IT incompetency and a lack of familiarity with Word Press.


    I appreciate Duncan Watson’s perspective: ultimately, it comes down to playing the music well. I worry, however, that “well” in the mind of many competitors means playing it “right”. And by “right”, they mean “in the least controversial way possible so as not to provide a judge an excuse to dismiss their work” as unfamiliar, “fad”-ist or, worse, “unconventional”. Every competitor has his or her story about such an encounter.

    I, too, have had it. Several times.

    My simple proposal is for the Piobaireachd Society to begin encouraging exploration into these other settings my specifically listing and linking to them when they publish their Set Tunes list. Let the competitors choose, but let them know where to find them. The message would be clear: it is acceptable to take a look, possibly learn, maybe even perform them.

    Such a little thing would go a long way.

  2. The “We’re Playing it Wrong” Column was written by “thevoidboy.” Although I don’t know who this is it isn’t Barnaby Brown because he later takes exception to the idea that “we’re playing it wrong” in the comments below the first entry. He cautions against the right/wrong binary way of thinking. He also uses his own name.
    One day, I hope pipers will have the courage to simply use their own names. Is there really a need for aliases? If one is afraid to be identified with one’s own opinion then don’t voice it.

    1. I don’t think it’s a challenge to realize Dr. Hester is thevoidboy on his own website, John. I also don’t believe courage has anything to do with using an alias. It is smart IT behavior on some forums and web environs that could very well protect your identity from theft. Editors of other piping magazines and forums use this device and I don’t fault them for it. Sometimes an opinion stands on its own without a need for support of identity.

  3. I have been watching this and noting that ‘what we are playing is wrong’ and undoubtedly this statement may be in effort to provoke thought. At times reading this stuff I wonder what it s about with all this academic pontificating. I am not a scholar and resist calling myself a musician. I am just interested and have played tunes hopefully at times making a decent job of them and at times have made a right hash of them. One of the benefits of being taught is that it hopefully enables a pupil to engage with aspects beyond what was in the tuition.
    Along with probably many others I have struggled through the texts of Joseph MacDonald, Donald MacDonald, Angus MacKay, Donald MacPhee, General Thomson and a few others and have made reference to the Piobaireachd Society collection of ceol mor. In this I have had personal discoveries, which no doubt others have also dscovered. During this bits of what could be described as pretty clumsy research have learned a few tunes from the old sources and played them using my own ideas of interpretation.
    At times I have thought that I have discovered a few attractive wrinkles in the music which have been overlooked. It does not make such aspects of personal discovery any more or less credible, but despite the judging fraternity being often rightly condemned for their narrow view of things, have got my petrol home playing slightly obscure aspects of tunes.
    I have had the privilege of doing a bit of judging, always in the company of others. It is rare for pipers to submit obscure tunes or styles and undoubtedly this is as a result of the competition system. Despite this there have been occasions when pipers have submitted what can be described as obscure settings from the likes of the Donald MacDonald works, with both success and failure on the competition board in open competition, as opposed to the tunes being set.. Success would be on the basis of playing well as opposed to being rewarded for novelty playing. There are attractive aspects and turns in the old sources, but as in the more modern publications, there are tunes which and aspects of tunes which are simply not attractive. Of course pipers can play what they wish and occasionally we do hear passionate and inspired music, but conversely there is some very poor music played, quite apart from technique and bagpipe sound.
    To try and provoke thought by suggesting even tounge in cheek, that we are playing the music and the ornaments which carries the music is effectively being taught wrongly is not helpful. As we read and write, there are pipers who make a good job of teaching and teaching to a high standard of all of the elements in playing well is not easy. .
    The difficulty in playing well and indeed mastering the technique is amply demonstrated at the likes of The Northern Meeting, which may be the pinnacle of solo, playing, when there are players there whose technique too often falls below the high standàrds expected. We would have the same observations if the settings played were based on the old sources.
    it has been suggested that piobaireachd is in a time warp. True or not, had the settings contained in the old sources, been slavishly adhered to, it would certainly have been the case and it is likely that piobaireachd playimg would no longer exist. Having also done a bit of teaching, I would suggest that trying to teach a eyoungster embellishments such as crunluath motifs as in The Joseph MacDonald, without the grip, the crunluath with the inclusion of the low A and also what appears in the Piobaireachd Society books
    would cause such confusion that teaching would be a minefield.
    I find it almost amusing that the researchers both academic and the clumsy efforts of the likes of me, think we find, as I suggest, a few obscure muscal wrinkles and get on a crusade and label some very good practice as wrong.
    Archibald Campbell takes a lot of criticism about his notation style which he has had published in his Kilberry Book and under the cover of The Piobaireachd Society, which wrongly is probably regarded as official settings. Those settings have been criticised by people within the Society. However when time is taken to read the content of the editorial notes, it reveals that the editors have taken a great deal of time studying old sources.
    it has always been a subject of discussion as to how to get pipers to play alternative setting and at one stage the late James Campbell suggested that pipers should be forced to play the more obscure settings and the set tune system could be employed in this in specifying settings. This has taken place. Some found this interesting. Having sat through such sessions, and attempting to appreciate what was being played, I cannot say it was inspiring, but would.ld resist or never describe what was being played as in any way wrong.

  4. Quote: ‘Strangely, some of our musicologists will pay slavish attention to the links with Gaelic song and specific works of ceol mor whilst at the same time ignoring this tradition – a tradition documented and, in the case of P/M William MacLean, linking directly to Calum Piobair. We can also hear John MacDonald play. Should not this evidence be weighed in the balance?
    Maybe you could explain what is meant by ‘slavish attention to the links with Gaelic song’ and ‘a tradition documented’ and ‘ignoring this tradition’….What tradition? ‘Trado’ means to ‘hand on’. What ‘documentation’ makes one believe that this tradition remained static?

  5. It’s “Dr. Hester”, Rab. 🙂
    I’m not sure that folks applying serious study to early manuscripts are at any distance from the current competition scene. What I read from their work is that they are already aware of how things are and want to suggest wider interpretations of how things perhaps were and could be. Academic research to justify arrangements and manner of playing embellishments seems a valid way to keep the music from stagnating. As long as we stay away from some of the knock-down-drag-out editorials of certain papers from the last century, the music could benefit.

    1. I’m not sure you’re right about the distance thing Steve. In the last 30 years I have never seen any of these academics at major competitions – apart from Roderick Cannon. I am not sure what you mean by ‘knock down drag out’ Editorials. All comment is valid provided the right of response is granted, which I did and do. Seumas MacNeill did not and that was always the great weakness in his sometimes well-written journalism.

      1. The knock-down comment was a snarky reference to the long-ago Oban Times editorial page rows, Rab, certainly not your journalism. I should have been clearer. cheers,

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