Choice Tune: South Hall by John McLellan DCM, Dunoon

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

We are grateful to John Don MacKenzie, Dornie, for supplying this original hand-written copy of the classic 2/4 march South Hall. The tune is of course by one of our greatest composers, John McLellan DCM, Dunoon, but the hand written music you can see is by P/M Willie Ross, written when he was directing the Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle.

Here is the tune in full, beautifully laid out:

On the back of the music is written the following:

The Castle
6.12.57
Dear Mr MacLeod,
This was written today in house.
Yours sincerely,
W Ross

We can compare Ross’s setting with that which appears in the second Cowal Collection circa. 1913:South-Hall

Neither is exactly as we hear most commonly played today. If we are looking for authenticity then we must regard the Cowal setting as how the composer originally scored the tune. John McLellan was, after all, the compiler of the first Cowal book in 1905, and it would be fanciful in the extreme to think that he did not have a significant control over his own tunes and how they appeared in the second book.

On close examination we can see that the taorluaths are pre-Ross and written with the so-called ‘redundant A’, a device many believe was introduced by the early writers of our music to make it more suitable for the piano. Looking further we see that some tachums have an E gracenote on the C giving a softer effect to the movement. Elsewhere McLellan has the more powerful G gracenote on the tachum, this variety helping to add colour to the musical effect.

He also employs the softer D gracenote on the short Cs in the melody – something every discerning piper should do, yet too often these days all we hear is the harsher sounding G. I think we can safely blame Willie R for this (see below).

McLellan has a G gracenote and a B strike in the fourth bars, not a strike doubling. I think this an important distinction giving slightly more breadth to the figure – more pleasing on the ear than the often over-clipped doubling.

There is a misplaced gracenote in the 3rd part, 3rd bar, and a cut to low A  in the sixth bar of this part – not sure about that. It may be conditioning, but I think the way we hear the tune today with the long E, the dot and cut reversed, an improvement.

The grips in the fourth part are written old style and this has the virtue of ensuring that the piper does not clip them to extinction, the big D gracenote separating well the two low Gs.

Turning to Ross’s setting, we see that there are no tachums beginning with the E gracenote and the taorluaths are all ‘modern’. He cuts up to the high A from E in the penultimate bar in all parts – surely not an improvement on the original.

We have the B strike doubling as mentioned above, and those nasty G gracenotes on the short rising Cs and, worse, another nasty G gracenote on the low As before the birls at the end of each part.

There its no grip to C in the sixth bar of the third part – and, you’ve guessed it, Ross has a G gracenote instead.j-maclellan

None of the above takes away from the fact that John McLellan left us another masterwork of pipe music construction. There is melody, technical demand, variety of phrase and cultured gracing within this tune.

It is beyond the learner, but anyone with solid technique from the intermediate stage onwards should have no fear about tackling it. You can listen to the tune being played here on the Tobar an Dualchais website. If anyone has any information on who the piper is please pass it on.

We will have more on John McLellan, Dunoon, in our Famous Pipers column in due course, and thanks once more to John Don MacKenzie for stimulating this discussion.


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