The Royal Scots Cap Badge


A History of Piobaireachd, Part 2

For some years after the '45, piping was suppressed by the Disarming Act. In 1750 there was a revival when competitions were organized by the Highland Society, first at Falkirk Tryst and afterwards in Edinburgh. They were held sometimes annually and sometimes every three years from 1781 to 1844, and for piobaireachd only. There is no hint of any competitions for marches or for strathspeys and reels, although dancing displays were given at some of the competitions. It is apparent from the history of these competitions that during these years piobaireachd was regarded as the only form of music worthy to be played by pipers of the highest class. Pipers in the regular army were frequently among the prize winners. But the matter is placed beyond all doubt by Joseph MacDonald, the first Piper, so far as we know, to give any description of piping in writing.


Joseph MacDonald was the son of a minister and was born in Strathnaver in Sutherland. He seems to have been to some extent a musical genius. He may or may not have had a complete knowledge of the pipes, but he had a good knowledge, certainly, and he was certainly a player. During a voyage to India in 1760 he wrote a treatise on the Highland Bagpipe in which he made the earliest attempt ever made to fit pipe music to the musical staff notation. A good deal of his description about how to finger grace notes is hard to understand, principally because there are many obvious printing mistakes in the book, but his general description of Highland Pipe Music is most informative.


What he calls Pipe Music is most instructive. What he calls pipe music or rather music for the Highland Bagpipe, we call Piobaireachd. He divides piobaireachd into
  1. Marches including Gatherings such as The Macleans March,
  2. Rural pieces and Laments.
The use of the Highland pipe he says is both to "rouse men to the defense of their country and to animate them when approaching an enemy and solemnize rural diversions in fields, and to parade before companies and to play amongst rocks, hills, valleys and caves where echoes abound." In the Low Countries all their pipe music consists in imitating the music of other instruments such as violins, etc. He calls it a ridiculous and preposterous thing to attempt to play on the Highland pipe music peculiar to other instruments such as slow Scotch tunes. The Lowland Pipe he describes as blown with bellows and used for imitating Italian and Scotch tunes and minuets and this he alleges is what has given people so contemptible a notion of the pipes, because the imitation is so poor a one.


The Highland pipe according to him should only have played upon it music composed specially for it. This music is firstly piobaireachd, and secondly reels and jigs. In which latter there is a large number. Joseph MacDonald makes no mention of what we nowadays call marches or any direct mention of strathspeys. Quick marches were evidently not known to him as pipe music. What he calls marches were piobaireachd. He writes, "slow music, viz. marches, is always performed walking."


To sum up what I have been saying I believe that the piobaireachd is a product, not of barbarism but of civilization. That it is the end and not the beginning of the development of music constructed solely for Highland bagpipe. That it is not very much older than 300 years, and that although we may have advanced in comparison with the pipers of the old days in the art of making bagpipes and reeds, we have not advanced, and we have not got so far, in the art of musical composition, since the ability to compose what is acceptable to the best pipers as the highest class of pipe music has departed.


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