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A History of Piobaireachd, Part 7

The ground or Urlar is the basis of the rest of the tune. Its arrangement appears to follow definite rules. Some of these rules have got to be worked out, but some can be detected easily enough by anyone who has studied a number of tunes. Much of the credit for putting us onto the track of these rules belongs to Gen. Thomason, the author of Ceol Mor. He arranged the tunes in lines and showed clearly that a piobaireachd is built up of musical phrases corresponding with the lines of a piece of poetry. Nearly all piobaireachds can be placed in 3 lines.

There are exceptions but it will be time to look at the exceptions when a learner has been shown the main rules.

There are 2 kinds of arrangements:

  1. Where the first and second lines are of the same length, and the third is shorter by one third. The commonest example is a tune where the first 2 lines consist of 6 bars and the third of 4 bars;

  2. Where all three lines are equal in length, and the first line is played twice. Class I can be divided into 2 main divisions,

     A. – Primary Piobaireachds.

     B. – Secondary Piobaireachds.


A. A Primary Piobaireachd is made up of two phrases of music, each phrase consisting of 2 bars. In speaking of bars it is to be remembered that the placing of notes in a bar is an arbitrary proceeding done merely for convenience sake. The 2 bars of a phrase may be one bar, or it may be 4 bars. But writers of piobaireachd music usually put the phrases of primary piobaireached into 2 bars. The two phrases can be called A and B. The tune is built up thus:
  1. Line I AAB

  2. Line II ABB

  3. Line III AB

Each phrase A and B is of two bars in the tune ‘Mary's Praise’ which is a perfect example of this construction. In most cases however there is little alteration in the phrases as they are repeated. Sometimes A in the second time in the first lines slightly altered as in the ‘Rout of Glenfruin.’ A more common alteration is in B the first time in the second line. Examples ‘Glengarry's Lament’ and the ‘Battle of Waternish.’ sometimes B is distinctly altered in the third line, example, ‘The Battle of Waternish’ again. Such alterations do not alter the fact that the phrases A and B are substantially the same throughout and that the construction of the tune is as stated above.


B. In the Secondary Piobaireachd there are 4 phrases of which A and B are each half the length of C and D. That is to say generally A and B each of one bar and C and D each of 2 bars. The arrangement is:
  1. Line I A B C D

  2. Line II C B A D

  3. Line III C D

A perfect example is the ‘Desperate Battle’ in the variations, but not in the Ground. Looked at as a whole the ‘Desperate Battle’ is an exceptional piobaireachd since the variations do not follow the Ground. Perfect examples are very rare. Usually there is some changes in B and A in the second line and in D in the 3rd line. But C is nearly always the same in the second line as in the first line and this is the principal feature which stamps the tune as a secondary piobaireachd.

As regards examples ‘The Blind Piper's Obstinacy’ would be a perfect example of a secondary piobaireachd were it not for the alteration of D in the last line. ‘Piobaireachd of Domnuil Dhubh’ would be a perfect example of secondary piobaireachd but for the slight alteration of C in the last line. Another nearly perfect example is ‘Lady Margaret MacDonald's Salute.’ A lesser example is ‘The Big Spree’ but it is a secondary piobaireachd all the same, C is the same in the second line as in the first and the other phrases correspond substantially, though not exactly.


Sometimes we have in the second line C A B D instead of C B A D, an example is ‘Glengarry's March.’


| Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 |


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