Piobaireachd Terminology

This collection of Piobaireachd Terminology provides some delightfull insights into words we commonly use today. I am not sure who compiled the document but it was kindly provided to us by Ron MacLeod MBE, Canada.

In the Piobaireachd Society's books, frequent reference is made to the Cragich, a term attaching to many tunes in the Campbell Canntaireachd. One comment is the mysterious, and another the cryptic Cragich, and its meaning is still seemingly unknown. The Canntaireachd has many mistranslations and misunderstandings of the Gaelic, which would seem to have been the work of either Gaels with a very limited knowledge of the English language, or else an English speaker with no knowledge of the Gaelic, and who translated phonetically. For, quite apart from the fact that words do change their meanings down the centuries, until recently, Gaelic was almost entirely a spoken tongue and many speakers were, by modern standards, illiterate. Therefore dialects also play their part in adding to the confusion, and a perusal of a number of Gaelic/English dictionaries show a wide divergence of meaning.

Cragich being apparently a Pibroch term, and remembering the many references in Ossian to rocky, echoing places, and also to Jos. MacDonald's similar quote, to play amidst Rocks, Hills, Valleys and Coves where echoes rebounded, and not to join a formal regulated chamber concert, led me to search amongst the rocks and crags of the dictionaries, and there I found the word Creachedh. Being a Sassanach, I asked some of my Gaelic friends to pronounce this word for me (none of them had ever met this word) and to my ear it certainly could be Cragich.

Some dictionaries define this word as preying, plunder, spoil, free booting, but in a century-old book in the City of London Guildhall Library, edited by J. M. MacLeod, the definition is Execution on a musical instrument.

This definition opens up a wide field of speculation. It does not distinguish between the player or the tune, or to pipe music and could apply to all instrumental music. But as regards Pibroch, it is well known that in olden times there were indoor tunes, played on a smaller pipe, and with a vocal accompaniment. Also poems are extant called Pibrach and their verses headed Urlar, Siubhal and Crunluath respectively. The instructions were that the Urlar was to be recited slowly, the lines often repeating themselves, the Siubhal to be read a little faster, whilst the Crunluath was a verbal gallop. Then came the development of the Piob Mor, with its loud chanter and drones, essentially an outdoor instrument.

Thus, in trying to classify these outdoor tunes, composed exclusively for the Great Pipe, it would surely be very natural to coin a word from the crags and rocks amongst which they were played, hence Creachedh.

Is this really the meaning of Cragich?

In the City of Westminster Library there is (or was), a Gaelic/English dictionary, again of the mid-1800's. (My recollection, which may be faulty, is that it was an early MacLaren) which had quite a lot of information for the Pibroch student. Apart from a most knowledgeable paragraph (the only sensible one I have read in a non-piping book) there were also a number of very interesting words.

The first word I consulted was Urlar and the definition was ground, floor, etc., hence Theme. But there is another word, pronounced much the same but spelt Urluidh and this latter word was defined as A Lay or melody of great beauty!

In some of the earlier collections of Ceol Mor, we find the terms Taorluidh and Creanluidh latterly spelt as Taorluath and Crunluath. Thus Urluidh could surely be pronounced as Urlar? There is still another Gaelic word, sounding very much the same, aon–luath which was translated for me by a Uist piping friend as meaning, to him, one (finger).

A consideration of the phonetic similarity of these three words gives a probable clue as to the early basis of Pibroch, and to its subsequent development. Can we not deduce that it started as a song, or other melody, and to preserve the pure melodic line, was played simply, with single grace notes (one finger). This was the Urluidh later explained as being the ground of the tune, and thus translated literally as Urlar.

The limitations of the chanter which make accepted harmonies impossible would thus lead to a use of two grace notes, hence the dithis or couplet, and to the Siubhal. As Seumas MacNeill explains in his very scholarly book, Piobaireachd, pipers have now come to accept a distinction between the two movements, the dithis having the accent on the upper note, whilst the siubhal has its accent on the lower, and here this dictionary confirms this view. For apart from the usual definitions of siubhal such as to depart, departure, etc., the word is also associated with death, to depart this life. Musically, the dithis, with the upward throw, depicts life, vitality, standing up, whilst the siubhal is surely for more sombre and sad. This musical thought is extended into certain taorluath variations, notably in the Lament for Donald of Laggan, and in Donald MacDonald's setting of Too Long in this Condition, about which there will be more to say.

The next challenge would be to invent a three grace note turn, hence the tri–luth or tripling. But even the orthodox taorluath is really a three note beating since it was played closed, i.e. the little finger was kept down, so it is a g.d.e. fingering.

The next invention would be the use of four grace notes, which is the crunluath. Again a closed movement (vide Jos. MacDonald) this is merely the taorluath, plus an f grace note. Doubtless the lifting of the little finger, thereby giving an a was a later development.

The five note beating again quoted in MacDonald's Treatise, has dropped out of use and knowledge, but does it not survive in the Flame of Wrath? Add a c to the final two low g's, join them into one movement, and have we not the original MacCrimmon fingering? As is well known, the complications went still further until Patrick Og decided that pipers were being cursed with too many fingers and he felt that the time had come for some measure of simplification.

The appearance of these notes on the lines and spaces of Staff Notation may well have obscured our thoughts as to the essential simplicity and natural logic of this progression.

The other interesting dictionary discovery relates to the mach notes. Mach is generally translated as out and this has been assumed to mean that the piper has reached the end of the variations. But this explanation is not at all satisfactory, and does not explain the taorluath mach. Fortunately the Westminster book gives a far better answer, for it defines mach as certainly meaning out, i.e. the grip is outside the chanter. This is ingenious but surely a wholly satisfying definition. It also confirms our traditional teaching of this movement, that there are two grips, a closed and an open or mach, and that four theme notes should therefore be heard (the first cut) and that the final e must not be over emphasised, since it is not a melody note.

Whilst on the subject of dictionaries, another word Crosanachd relates to the pibroch, The Blind Piper's Obstinacy and throws an entirely different light upon the traditional understanding of this tune.

The Gaelic title is Crosanachd an Doill, the first word being translated as obstinate, perverse, peevish. crotchety, etc., hence the Obstinacy, the tune being something about an obstinate, irritable blind man. This is unrealistic to begin with, blind people are normally very placid, what the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve about, and they are not inclined to lose their tempers. Now there is a well known musical term ostinato frequently misprinted as obstinato meaning a melody with a repetitive or obstinate theme. To this extent, practically all pibrochs are obstinatos, and since Joseph MacDonald in 1760 wrote about Adajios and Allegros surely he, or some other savant from the cities would apply the expression to a pibroch. Hence the Blind Piper's Obstinacy applies to the tune, and not to the piper,

But the music itself tells us what the tune is all about. It is bird song, a cuckoo and a thrush or lark. Many years ago I was told of an old tradition in Gairloch that Iain Dall had composed a tune to sunlight but that the tune had been lost. There is nothing unusual in music or melody being dedicated to the sun, all cultures from the earliest times have done it. But how would a blind man describe his feelings for the sun he could not see ? Surelv by the sounds he hears, and in the wilds of Gairloch it is the birds which express their delight, with song, at the returning sunlight. The Urlar is the call of the cuckoo, the pitch diminishing as the bird flies away, the call slinked by a few notes which, to me, depict vastness or space, the open air. In Var. 2, the other bird joins in, the trill on the E, and thereafter a cacophony of bird song, as the sunlight, and warmth increases. This is what happens when the sun rises to gradually pierce the early mists, or when it emerges from behind a storm cloud. For in the Piobaireachd Society's Book No. 9 (Laird of Anapool's Lament) mention is made of a legend that lain Dall MacKay composed a tune, In Praise of the Rainbow. It is more than probable that the sunlight and rainbow legends are the same.

Now for what the dictionaries have to tell us about Crosanachd. All those I have consulted give obstinate, stubborn, peevish, etc., but in a work by (the late Dr. Norman) MacLeod and Dewar, it is further defined as a certain mode of versification. Could this, by any chance, be the verbal recital of pibrach previously mentioned? But the final interesting discovery is in a dictionary by Alex. MacBain, which extends the meaning to Poet and Chorister, and a standard English dictionary defines the latter as Any singer, i.e. as a bird!

Thus Crosanachd=a singing bird and the dictionary finally confirms the music, which confirms the tradition, and at last gives sense and reason to the traditional instruction that the variations are to be played lively.

I trust that these thoughts may stimulate others into similar research, and thus clarify a little of the confusion over Pibroch nomenclature, and give a new meaning towards its understanding, and playing.

To conclude with two rather random points, but still on the aspect of mistranslation, there is the word Spaidsearachd, translated as March and many tunes have this word in their title. But I was told many years ago that this was not a happy translation, that there is, in fact, no English word which really describes its true meaning. In olden times, the piper was a proud man, high in the Clan hierarchy, and when he appeared before his Chief, properly apparelled and bannered, to play his tune, he strutted or stalked, i.e. carried himself with pride and dignity. This was the spaidsearachd and unlike Obstinacy, applied to the piper, not to the tune.

This mention of the Chief recalls a comment the late Dr. Calum MacCrimmon made to me about the Piper's Warning to his Master. Calum would have none of it, the piper was not a menial, a dog, and he acknowledged no master, his allegiance and duty was to his Chief. If this tune were renamed the Piper's Warning to his Chief it would be true to tradition and may find greater favour with present-day pipers. Personally, I was originally biased against it simply because of its present name.

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