Review of Online Bagpipe Music Book: ‘The Fyrish Collection’ by Niall Matheson

The title of the book comes from Fyrish Hill (Cnoc Fhaoighris, in Gaelic), near Evanton in Easter Ross. On the cover is the depiction of a summit monument built in 1782 on the orders of the laird, General Sir Hector Munro of Novar, who had served in India. At the time the population was being expelled from the land in favour of sheep and human survival was a under threat.

By Duncan Watson

The Munros were involved in these Highland clearances and it is claimed that to keep the locals in employment, the edifice was built. The shape of the monument represents the Gate of Negapatam, Madras, India, which Gen. Munro and his troops took in 1781.

The views from it catch the Cromarty Firth to the east and Ben Wyvis to the west. It is doubtful if the workers enjoyed the views! Anyway, now you know all about the title, what about the book?

It commences with a biography of Niall illustrated with family and Army photographs. Niall was a native of Newtonmore in Badenoch and taught piping by Dr MacKay and John MacDougall.

At the age of 19 he joined the Queen’s Own Highlanders and subsequently their pipe band. Among the band personnel at that time were a crop outstanding pipers, the most notable the late Alasdair Gillies, who for a period was QOH Pipe Major.  

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After the Army, Niall came to reside in the Invergordon area of Easter Ross, relatively near to Fyrish Hill. As I’ve indicated, there was an ulterior motive to the building of the monument, and the first tune in the book is a piobaireachd entitled ‘Fuadaichean nan Ga’idheal’, The Highland Clearances. Probably the workers were those who had been cleared from the land and thus Niall evokes thoughts on this troubling period of Scottish history.

I had not encountered the tune before seeing it in the online book. To do justice to a music book review, at least some of the tunes have to be played on the practice chanter and having a go at this one, it proved promising on a first run through. I later tried it on the pipes and here is my attempt at the start of the tune: 

Niall, a school’s teacher of piping and a reedmaker, has used the lockdown to develop his skill as a composer of piobaireachd and has produced timeless music, music with the flavour of the ceòl mòr composed in previous generations and indeed in previous centuries. Thankfully he has included his other piobaireachd compositions in the book too, including one for the late P/M Gillies.

There is a well laid out index of the tunes indicating the various idioms such as slow airs, 2/4 marches, 6/8 marches, a 9/8 called Matheson’s March, strathspeys, jigs and hornpipes. At the end of the book there is an interesting section explaining the titles of the various tunes.

The first 2/4 is entitled Alex MacKenzie. He was the husband of Bridget MacKenzie the author of the  ‘Piping Traditions’ books referring to various regions of Scotland and their bagpipe history. Alex and Bridget were great supporters of Highland games piping. Alex had academic and practical knowledge of sound analysis, and for a period lectured at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.

He studied bagpipe sound with the use of electronic measuring devices and greatly increased the understanding of the instrument. His tune is attractive and has originality to it. There is another tune in tribute to Bridget and it is fitting that these two great supporters of our art have been remembered by Niall in the best way possible.

Queen’ Own winners at the 2000 Northern Meeting: DJ MacIntyre, Donald MacKay, Niall Matheson and Alasdair Gillies. Picture: R Wallace

There are a couple of tunes with amusing titles. One such is A Salmond Leaps Too Far. This relates to the former First Minister of Scotland. A framed copy of the tune was auctioned at a fund raising event for the Highland Hospice charity in Inverness. A businessman paid £10,000 for it – thus it had nothing to do with the current activities of Mr Salmond. 

The tunes in thos very well laid out book cover all styles of bagpipe music from the traditional to the more modern. There are 13 hornpipes with titles which make reference to local places and people, all adding interest.    

With imaginative twists one or two could be transcribed to reel idiom in perhaps a shanty, rounded style, but for those bent on doing this please save us from unmusical efforts. We hear these too often, even in some of the top pipe bands.

Overall an extremely interesting book full of tunes with a real Highland atmosphere. It is certainly worth adding to every piper’s library.

  • The book is available from the Piping Press Shop here priced £12.

9 thoughts on “Review of Online Bagpipe Music Book: ‘The Fyrish Collection’ by Niall Matheson

  1. The music just keeps flowing out of this man and now onto the written page. Well done Niall, a great collection of tunes that will fit right into any piper’s repertoire. Real mix, something for everyone! With one of your new practice chanter reeds in, I’m off to learn some new tunes. Keep them coming!

  2. Having worked with Niall for a number of years I have had the pleasure of playing a fair few of the compositions at concerts with the School Pipe Band and it is great to see that he has brought them all together in the Fyrish collection. The Piobaireachd compositions are well suited to introducing students to this style of playing and I am sure we will hear them at junior level around the games. A great addition to my Piping library. Well done Niall

  3. Well covid-19 has a lot to answer for, and it’s good to see things starting to open up again. I’ve chased Niall up a number of times over the years trying to get him to publish a collection of his tunes. It’s taken a global pandemic and two lock downs, but finally it’s here.
    Good things are worth waiting for, I’ve gone through the book on my practice chanter and every tune is a cracker. This collection should make it’s way into the library of every serious student of piping.
    Well done Niall, thanks for the music!!!

  4. A really nice selection of tunes in this new book. The Piobaireachd compositions are excellent and cover all levels of ability.

  5. Having played all the tunes in this book a number of times now, ‘Quality’is a word I’d use to describe it.
    Full of melodic memorable tunes and I’m quite sure a few will find their way on to the competition field.
    Well done Niall!

  6. Really enjoyed playing through Naill’s tunes, There’s something for everyone in there, great stuff. Well done Naill

  7. What a fantastic book of tunes. I can’t find a bad tune in here. All the tunes are really flowing and full of music. Well done Niall.

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