A History of Piobaireachd, Part 5
Slow Airs come next on my list. Those that are played nowadays are like quick marches, a mixed collection, many are song airs, some Gaelic, some Lowland. There are among them probably many old airs older than the bagpipe itself, and some perhaps played long before the day of the piobaireachd was made. A few of those composed in modern days have been made for the pipes and I can think of two which have been adapted from piobaireachd and which by accident may represent old original airs on which those pobaireachds were built up. They are ‘Findlay's Lament’ and the ‘Unjust Incarceration’ the settings of which we have now were evolved by Angus MacKay and his brothers. But on the whole I should be inclined to say that we cannot claim this class of music as one composed for the Highland Pipes only, meaning by Highland Pipe the form of the bagpipe we play today.
Strathspeys neither slow airs nor strathspeys, the next on the list, are mentioned by Jos. MacDonald as Highland bagpipe msic, but you will remember that he speaks of violin dance music being suitable for the Highland pipe, if within its compass. I fancy that all the old strathspeys which we have were originally fiddle tunes. They were first put on the pipes for dancing to, later on competitions were instituted for Strathspeys and Reels, and Strathspeys were elaborated, fresh parts were added and more grace notes were inserted until the modern competition Strathspey was produced, which is played but seldom for dancing and generally more for competition or exhibition purposes. You do not hear ‘Blair Drummond’ and ‘Athol Cummers’ or ‘Shepherds Crook’ played much for the Highland Fling.
Next come Reels. These according to Jos. MacDonald were genuine pipe music and very fine music too, the old Highland reels are. Some of those played nowadays may have been fiddle tunes once, but many seem to be true Highland pipe tunes. A selection of them, like strathspeys, has been elaborated for competition purposes and are played solely for display. We do not dance the eightsome reel to ‘John MacKechnie's Reel’ yet this tune, in the much simpler form that we play it, is given by Jos. MacDonald in 1760 as a typical example of a Highland dancing tune. Anyone interested in tracing the evolution of a competition Strathspey or Reel can study with profit the original simple form of the tune given in one of the earlier-published books of pipe music such as Gunns and compare it with what is played on the platforms today.
Lastly we have Jigs. These, like the piobaireachd have suffered in popularity owing to the latter-day craze for competition marches, strathspeys and reels. They have probably suffered too because the dances for which they were played in the old days have disappeared. But they are genuine bagpipe music. Jos. MacDonald's brother Patrick, who published a book of Highland music in 1784 calls them ‘reels in 6/8 time’ and calls reels ‘reels in common time.’ I have suggested that some of the old jigs have been turned into 6/8 marching tunes. It seems that expert pipers have always been fond of playing jigs for their own amusement or as finger exercises. I have heard of old pipers of our time or just before our time who would play nothing but piobaireachd and jigs, Malcolm MacPherson the old Cluny piper, for example. But there are no competitions for jigs, or very few and although they are popular to some extent in South Uist and the Islands, they are generally played in private for the piper's own amusement. A drawback to my ear is that there is much false-fingering in them when played by anyone but a first class performer.
So much for History, or rather I fear, for mere suggestion and conjecture, for there is very little proper evidence on which to construct a history of the various kinds of Bagpipe music which we hear today.
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