PP Editor’s Blog: Canntaireachd Explanation/ RACPADS Donation etc

Reader Thomas Mitchell asks about canntaireachd: ‘Thank you for posting the link to the Piping Press Shop for the Gesto Canntaireachd PDF book which I just downloaded. I remember watching a video years ago of interviews with pipers. One gentleman discussed the merits of pipers learning to sing canntaireachd as it was his contention that the singing could show subtleties of phrasing that are more difficult to put into standard musical notation. Have you every thought of trying to gather audio or visual material of canntaireachd for students that do not have access to instructors familiar with the style?’

Firstly, for the unknowing, canntaireachd (approx. pron. ‘can cher ach’) is just mouth music, and every piper since reed was set in chanter has used it in some form or other. It is the way we convey tunes to one another. How many times have you stood in your band and the pipe major calls out a tune and you can’t remember how it goes? Rescue comes from the band colleague who sings the first few bars. That is canntaireachd.

Pages from the Campbell Canntaireachd
Pages from the Campbell Canntaireachd
Formalised canntaireachd, used as a means of transmitting piobaireachd on paper, came into being we believe, during, or just after, the so-called Golden Age of piping, the era of the MacCrimmons. The version used by the Piobaireachd Society in its books is called Nether Lorn canntaireachd after the manuscript (1791) by a Colin Campbell who lived in that area of Argyll. The Gesto Canntaireachd Thomas mentions is another manifestation of the same idea.

Basically a set of vocables – words that describe notes and gracenotes – was devised to cover the scale and movements in piping. For example a low A with a high G gracenote is ‘hin’. ‘Darid’ is the word for a taorluath; so a low A taorluath is hindarid. A lot easier to write that out than ‘high G gracenote on low A followed by a taorluath’ you will concur.

So, in the days before staff notation, pipers could quickly copy out their latest composition and send it over the hill to their piping pal to see what he made of it. The difficulty was in the timing: written canntaireachd gives no indication as to where the stresses must be placed – which notes are long, and which short. Angus in one glen would have to wait until he met up with Hector in the other before he would really get the gist of the melody as the composer intended it to sound. Therefore when pipe music in staff notation came along in the late 18th century it superseded formal canntaireachd as the best means of transmitting tunes; notes, gracenotes and relative note values all clearly set out.

But the pipers in Thomas’s discussion were correct. Canntaireachd is still needed to transmit nuance. However that canntaireachd need not be written, formal, canntaireachd as that described above. It can be any ‘heedrum, hodrum’ we choose to use. Is important, therefore, that we make a distinction between formal canntaireachd and that which is used every day by pipers the world o’er. To get the right feel into our music we must sing, sing, sing. And when we do so we can use whatever language, dialect and vocables we choose.

My advice to Thomas is just this, and it applies to both ceol mor and ceol beag. Learn the tunes off the printed page then sing them to get the music – or go to someone who can give you the way of the tune in the same fashion.

There is a very good explanation of formalised Nether Lorn Canntaireachd in the introduction to Book 1 in the Piobaireachd Society’s collection and here. But lack of knowledge of it is no reason for not exercising the larynx as and when the urge takes us.


Gail Laird of the Ross & Cromarty Pipes and Drums School has sent this: ‘Hi Rob, The Ross and Cromarty Pipes and Drums School were delighted to hand over their donation towards the MFR Cash for Kids Christmas Charity Appeal. They worked hard in three concerts at the end of November to be able to make a sizeable donation to help other children in their community. I hope you can use this in your blog, Cheers, Gail Laird, Vice Chair RACPADS.’

Very well done to all concerned; a great effort and see the hard-working kids at the cheque presentation above.


Thanks to Roddy Livingstone for forwarding this cartoon from his local paper. It accompanied a story about a man being refused admission to a local pub for wearing a form of Highland dress:cartoon


New message from the South Florida Pipe & Drum Academy:SF