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A History of Piobaireachd, Part 4

Competition Marches

The more elaborate marches can conveniently be called competition marches. These like piobaireachd have been composed and constructed for the Highland Pipe alone. They are true bagpipe music, but vey modern bagpipe music. I am told that in the 1870's, Competitions for marches at the Northern Meeting frequently played simple 3-part marches of the character of the ‘Earl of Mansfield;’ the earliest competition marches had been composed before then, but not long before.

 

The earliest composer seems to have been Angus MacKay the celebrated collector of piobaireachd who was Queen Victoria,s Piper from about 1840 until shortly before his death in 1858. He seems to have composed our oldest competition marches when at Balmoral, these included Balmoral Highlanders, the Glengarry Gathering, Stirlingshire Militia, Duke of Roxburgh's Farewell to the Black Mount, and some others. It was not long before other composers were at work on similar productions. Wm. Macdonald made ‘Leaving Glenurquhart,’ Ross, ‘The Athol Highlanders, March to Loch Katrine,’ MacKinnon ‘The 74th's Farewell to Edinburgh.’

 

In the '80s these tunes began to be played regularly at competitions. Wm. MacLennan (also famed as a dancer) was regarded as the master performer then and he elaborated them considerably. After him came his equally famous disciples Angus MacCrae and John MacColl, who with the possible addition of D.C. Mather, were supreme up to the end of the last century. After that came what we may call the era of Geo. MacLennan whose influence was responsible for a much larger number of grace notes being put into these tunes. He began playing at competitions when quite a boy and his fine work with the fingers found much favor and other players were obliged to do likewise, in some cases I think, rather against their own inclinations. The upshot has been the Competition March as you have it today, heavily ornamented with grace-notes and a distinctly different thing to what Wm. MacLennan and John MacColl used to play 40 years ago and still more different from what Angus MacKay used to play at Balmoral with his pupils. Whatever the pipers themselves thought (and some used to say that the old plainer style was the best) the listening public vastly preferred the new way so much so that for 30 years and more there has been a positive craze for competition marches. This craze had an almost disastrous effect upon piobaireachd. Piobaireachd had been for at least 250 years and probably longer the only music at which an ambitious Highland piper strove to excel. We have a minute written by the Highland Society of Scotland to the Highland Society of London deploring the fact that the leading pipers of the day took no interest in playing Strathspeys and Reels and confined themselves entirely to Piobaireachd and putting forward suggestions for remedying this state of affairs by holding a Strathspey and Reel Competition.

 

Now in the middle of the 80's and 90's piobaireachd was shoved into the background and at the beginning of the present century, it was necessary to start the Piobaireachd Society in order to rescue the piobaireachd from oblivion. The fact that the Piobaireachd Society is constantly endeavoring to increase its membership and extend the scope of the work shows that piobaireachd is still in the background to a certain extent. There is no necessity whatsoever today for the formation of a society to preserve and encourage the playing of competition marches although someday there may be. It is very unfortunate that at the time when General Thomason, one of the three whom I regard as the great men of Piobaireachd (Jos. MacKay and Angus MacDonald are the other two) was working at and bringing out his work Ceol Mor, the Competition March craze was at tis most unreasonable height. And the present movement I think is a slight reaction to Piobaireachd. Piobaireachd music is difficult music for the ordinary person to understand and it may never become really popular, but there seems to be a feeling nowadays that enough attention is not given to it, and lovers of bagpipe music seem more disposed than they were, to take pleasure in hearing a well-played piobaireachd on a well-tuned pipe.

 

I always think that what has happened about the Competition March is probably what happened about piobaireachd. The competition march suddenly sprung up, apparently out of nothing and within 50 years and probably less of the appearance of the first tunes. This class of music was firmly established as the one in which all the pipers aimed to excel. Already we are talking of Competition Marches known to be much less than 100 years old as fine old tunes. Both the Piobaireachd and the Competition March are genuine bagpipe productions owing nothing to other instruments. When the piobaireachd was at the height of its glory, chiefs and other big men used to send their pipers to Skye to be taught Piobaireachd by the MacCrimmons. If Chiefs had pipers nowadays and if the centres of piping as in everything else had not been moved to the cities much the same sort of thing might be done nowadays and pupils would be sent to the leading experts.

 

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