Half a Century on, this Seminal Work on Piobaireachd Continues to Educate and Entertain

By The Editor

Fifty-five years ago Seumas MacNeill, then Joint Principal of the College of Piping, began work on a book which was to open a thousand eyes and ears to ceòl mòr.

‘Piobaireachd – Classical Pipe Music of the Great Highland Bagpipe’ was a BBC-commissioned publication. Below is an advert it ran in an October 1968 edition of Radio Times, it listings magazine.

It reads: ‘Piobaireachd , the classical music of the great Highland bagpipe, has been described as Scotland’s major contribution to world culture. Yet despite its acclaimed musical merit, and almost universal acquaintance with the instrument, piobaireachd is played and understood by only a small minority.

‘To interest and educate a wider audience, the BBC has commissioned ‘Piobaireachd’. Published on October 24 1968, this book will not only contribute to the literature of the bagpipe but will help both the listening and reading public to understand and enjoy this ancient classical music.

The Radio Times advertisement from October 1968

‘On November 6 [1968] the BBC begins a series of six programmes on piobaireachd on BBC Scotland (Radio 4). Listeners to the broadcasts will find this book of very great help in their enjoyment of the music.

‘Piobaireachd’ is the first full treatment of the subject. Written by Seumas MacNeill, Joint Principal of the College of Piping, it traces the history of the bagpipe….. and describes in detail the unique characteristics of the instrument itself.

‘The main body of the book is devoted to a close analysis of selected tunes representative of each category of piobaireachd.

‘Finally there is a summary of the present position and a review of future prospects for this great music tradition.’


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Two years ago I wrote to the BBC on behalf of the Piobaireachd Society to ask permission to republish it. This they readily agreed to and after a few historical tweaks, Seumas’s book was made available once more via the Society webshop with all proceeds going towards its charitable work for piping.

As I say in my Foreword, this is a superbly written introduction to the great music. It strikes just the right balance, satisfying both the ‘needs of the inquisitive tyro and the demands of the established player looking for more insight’.

I go on: ‘For the time it was quite revolutionary in its approach. Here for example we have the writer breaking with convention and using multiple time signatures the better to show correct timing. Here too we find the use of double dots, and demi-semiquavers as notes; again a far more accurate way of representing what we actually play.

An extract from the book showing the use of double dots and demisemiquaver notes

‘Seumas MacNeill used his professional knowledge as a senior physics lecturer to give the best analysis of the bagpipe scale we are ever likely to read, and his chapters on tune classification and phrase patterns remain unsurpassed.’

I think that sums it up pretty well. The book comes highly recommended and if you are a piper who hitherto has been happy to stick to ceòl beag and pipe band work, then a dip into Seumas’s seminal study could change your piping outlook forever. Get the book, priced £10, here.

Part of the accompanying radio broadcasts are on the Piobaireachd Society website here. They make worthwhile listening with Seumas at his mellifluent best.

He brilliantly works examples from the following tunes into his narrative: War or Peace, In Praise of Morag, Lament for the Children, MacIntosh’s Lament, Black Donald’s March, MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, Earl of Ross’s March, MacLeod’s Controversy, Flame of Wrath, MacLeod’s Salute and Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay. Here is a short extract from the first programme:

I believe the final programme(s) in the series are missing and would be grateful for a copy of these recordings if anyone has them.

  • The Editor, Robert Wallace, is a former Principal of the College of Piping and is currently President of the Piobaireachd Society.

1 thought on “Half a Century on, this Seminal Work on Piobaireachd Continues to Educate and Entertain

  1. The BBC also issued an LP titled Piobaireachd, of which I still have a copy. It is according to the sleeve based on the programs broadcast on the 6th November and 11 December 1968.

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