RSPBA History: The Hallmark of a Solo Piper is Piobaireachd, But What Use Does it Serve Pipe Bands?

We continue with our look back at the history of the RSPBA as described in an edition of the Piping, Drumming and Highland Dancing Journal of 1949. The author, Mr RC Whitelaw, Secretary of the then Scottish Pipe Band Association, demonstrates the misguided thinking which set the Association’s attitude to classical pipe music for 40 years, an attitude only overcome relatively recently. As ever, Mr Whitelaw is refreshingly outspoken, and if he had a downer on piobaireachd he was a keen supporter of more appreciation for drumming. The above picture is of Cowdenbeath Public Pipe Band from the same era as the article.

In discussing the future policy of the Association, there are so many interwoven and interdependent schemes to be considered, that the greatest care must be observed if their application, on an Association level, is to be successful.  I know how difficult and trying it is for any teacher to change the result of tuition given by someone else. 

I also know that many promising pupils have been completely spoiled by unqualified teachers.  Our main problem, therefore, is engulfed in the lack of qualified and certificated teachers.  It is true to say, however, that many of our best individual exponents had their training in a pipe band. 

Nevertheless, I submit that the teaching of pipes and drums must remain one of our biggest concerns.  To promote this effort, the Co-ordinating Committee for the Certification of Piping Teachers is in process of being set up.  As a member of that Committee, I doubt very much if the proposed scheme will meet the purpose desired by the Pipe Band Association. 



I admit that the hallmark of the solo piper is the piobaireachd, but what use does piobaireachd serve to the pipe bands?  To qualify for a certificate from the Co-ordinating Committee one must be a proficient piobaireachd player, theoretical as well as practical.  To my mind such procedure does not meet our purpose. 

We must, therefore, prepare to solve our own problems, provide our own teachers, and approve a syllabus necessary for the issuing of Teachers’ Certificates. We have in the Association today a Selection Committee comprising the best piping brains in each of the eight affiliated Branches. 

I feel confident that such a committee of experts is capable of issuing its own syllabus and Teachers’ Certificates.  Such a syllabus and such certificates would, in every respect, conform to the needs of a pipe band and would be more than mere encouragement or the individuality of solo piping. 

I am not trying to belittle the Co-ordinating Committee, but I say quite openly that if they retain piobaireachd playing as the necessary qualification for a Teacher’s Certificate, I must condemn the method.  Our task must be to develop and further pipe band culture.  We shall fail miserably in that connection if we are to devote our time to a branch of piping which is completely divorced from pipe band technique i.e. piobaireachd. 

‘If they retain piobaireachd playing as the necessary qualification for a Teacher’s Certificate, I must condemn the method…

SPBA Secretary RC Whitelaw, 1948

I am not condemning piobaireachd playing as such.  Let the critic have his own choice of the kind of pipe music he likes, but there is no connection between piobaireachd and the pipe band.  We must not forget that the basic principles of a good pipe band are melody, rhythm and tempo, which can only be achieved by the inseparability of pipes and drums. 

When properly blended and conforming to the three basic principles with the drums accompanying and embellishing the melody, encouraging and supporting the rhythm, and both pipes and drums playing closely and harmoniously together to provide a strict and maintained tempo; when such principles are generally understood and fully applied then, and only then, will we be able to claim an advance in the art of a pipe band. 

I firmly believe that the Pipe Band Association is perfectly capable of solving its own problems and the onus of proving that belief lies with the Executive Committee, supported and strengthened by the two Selection Committees.  Let us, therefore, combine our thoughts and efforts to produce a thesis acceptable to, and worthy of, the pipe bands. 

Within recent weeks the Drummers Selection Committee has done excellent work in establishing a School of Drumming.  They have carefully studied and devised their own syllabus for the issuing of elementary, advanced and post-graduate certificates.  What is to hinder similar action by the Pipers Selection Committee? 

I ask you to give more attention to the section previously referred to as ‘the piper’s labourers’…..

SPBA Secretary RC Whitelaw, 1948

I have been an interested party in the furtherance of the School of Drumming, and because I am so interested I have learned that the drum holds great possibilities for the advancement of pipe band culture.  I believe the time has come when all pipers should take a greater interest in the drum and drumming. 

I do not ask you to become drummers – unless you wish – but I do in all seriousness ask you to give more attention and consideration to the section of the band which was previously referred to as ‘the pipers’ labourers.  Believe me when I say that the more I study drumming the more convinced I am that the drum is an absolute necessity as Art accompaniment and embellishment to the collective playing of the bagpipes. 

The drummers who march behind you can do very much more than simply keep you on the step.  They can either make or break the piece you play according to their degree of efficiency. 

  • To be concluded. Read the first excerpt here and the second here.

1 thought on “RSPBA History: The Hallmark of a Solo Piper is Piobaireachd, But What Use Does it Serve Pipe Bands?

  1. I support what Mr Whitelaw said: “the basic principles of a good pipe band are melody, rhythm and tempo, which can only be achieved by the inseparability of pipes and drums”, but think he forgot to also mention that “piobaireachd” trains players to tune their instruments well, so that each of the chanter’s notes should harmonise with the unwavering drone tone, which is the foundation of the instrument. Modern electronic aids now allow lesser players to achieve much better results than before, and quickly too. But back then in the 1940’s when things had to be accomplished by ear and trial and error, a piobaireachd player’s expertise was invaluable.

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