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The Auld Alliance

Scottish Pub - Paris

The History and Development of Pipe Music

Whilst bagpipes were played throughout Europe prior to the 18th century, no music has come close to the Piobaireachd in style and composition. Even in Scotland the differences in musical abilities are immense.

In the Lowlands of Scotland, pipers occupied well-defined positions as town pipers, performers for weddings, feasts and fairs. There was no recorded "master piper" nor were there any pipe schools. Lowland pipers played songs and dance music, as was expected by their audience, so no effort was made to produce great music. Highlands During this same time in the same area of Europe, separated only by mountains and glens were pipers of a different calibre. These pipers were strongly influenced by their background of the Celtic legends and the wild nature that is the Highlands. The Highland piper occupied a high and honoured position within the Clan system. To be a piper was sufficient; if he could play well then nothing else would be asked. As the Bagpipe slowly left centre stage throughout Europe a new form of music was starting in the Highlands. For over three hundred years one family was to dominate piping in Scotland. The MacCrimmons were responsible for elevating Highland pipe music to a new level - piobaireachd.


Music in the Highlands is divided into two types, each known in Gaelic as Ceol Mor for Great Music and Ceol Beag for small music. As the Highland Bagpipes are Piob Mhor and a piper is Piobaire, Piobaireachd in Gaelic simply means piping. But in the course of time Piobaireachd (pronounced Piobroch) has come to stand for the great classical music of the Bagpipes. Ceol Beag existed before the beginnings of Piobaireachd. Most of these tunes are believed to have been simple, short and repetitive. The harp being an ancient instrument and popular in the Highlands would suggest that some early pipe tunes probably originated from harp music. Dances such as reels and jigs and early Clan gathering tunes made up the early music for the Highland Bagpipes. Piobaireachd is not easy to define nor sometimes to describe. The basic structure consists of an air with variations on the theme. The ground is the basic theme and is normally played slowly and is often the most interesting part of the music. Some grounds are made up of short repeat phrases while others are free flowing, but most are based on the pentatonic scale. Often the ground is followed by variations that are always simple and increase in complexity with each more difficult to play than the previous. In concluding variations the composer's ingenuity and the piper's capability are tested. The piobaireachd ends with a return to the slow and impressive ground and the whole tune can take between ten to twenty-five minutes. Currently the ground is played at the beginning and the end of a tune only, in the past the ground was played at intervals within the tune, often played between doublings of variations and the subsequent singling of the next variation. Each piobaireachd tune was composed for a particular purpose. Some recent studies have broken piobaireachd down into the following types; Gatherings, Marches, Laments, Salutes and other titled tunes. The idea that the individual notes of the chanter take on meaning has been proposed several times. Low G note of Gathering Low A Piper's note B note of challenge C most musical note D note of Battle E Echoing note F note of Love High G note of sorrow High A Piper's note The MacCrimmons The MacCrimmon family evolved Highland Bagpipe music from a fairly uncomplicated movement consisting of a few variations to the complex structure of piobaireachd. This classical music is an art form, which can compare to the music of any other country and most of it was composed a hundred years before the piano and without any form of written notation. It would be difficult to ever know where the MacCrimmon family came from but a few theories do exist. Some believe that they came from Ireland. The links between the two countries were strong and the distance is not great. In 1595, Rory Mor MacLeod went to Ireland to fight for the O'Donnells. It is said that MacLeod brought back with him Iain Odhar MacCrimmon. But, there are no indications that Ireland had any form of music even remotely resembling piobaireachd. It does not matter where the MacCrimmons came from; it is sufficient to say they were responsible for the changing of pipe music forever.


The pipes in the Lowlands seemed to flourish until the time of the Reformation, when the playing of the bagpipes as well as any musical instrument were classified as sinful by the Calvinists. The use of the pipes greatly discontinued in the Lowlands while the Highlands, largely unaffected by Lowland politics, became the stronghold for bagpipe music. Not only did various towns employ pipers but also so did the Chiefs of the Highland Clans. Most of the early history and songs associated with this instrument come from this small area in the north of Scotland. There are many references at the close of the 16th Century to the prevailing custom of a piper being considered an indispensable member of the Clan Chief's establishment.


As a musical instrument of war the PIOB MHOR is without equal. The shrill and penetrating notes worked well in the roar and din of battle. Pipes have reportedly been heard at distances over six miles, and under favourable conditions at ten miles. At the great clan fight on the North Inch of Perth in 1396, "Clans stalked into the barriers to the sound of their great warpipes." Clan Chatten maintains that their piper was wounded during the fight and after dispatching his foe gathered his pipes and played the clan to victory before succumbing to his wounds. The chanter he used became known as the "Black Chanter." It is said that at the Battle of Harlow in 1411 the Highland army charged to the sound of the pipes and in 1431, at the Battle of Inverlochy, the pipes were again in evidence. In 1549, a French military officer described a skirmish near Edinburgh in which the wild Scots "encouraged themselves to arms by the sounds of their bagpipes." In 1651 at Stirling, a pageant was held in honour of Charles II. Acknowledged by his peers as the "Prince of Pipers", Patrick Mor MacCrimmon was introduced to the King. MacCrimmon immediately composed and played for his monarch the Piobaireachd "Fhuair mi pog do laimh an Righ" (I got a kiss of the King's hand). In September of the same year Patrick was taken prisoner at the Battle of Worchester, a misfortune he deplored in another piobaireachd. The King shall enjoy his own again During Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion of 1745, it was the practice of the Highland Army to impress and carry along with them every man whom they discovered to be a piper. The music of their favourite instrument solaced the highlanders on many a weary march through Scotland and England. Prince Charlie is reportedly to have entered Edinburgh at the head of a 100 pipers. This last reflection on the bagpipes and the Highlanders attitude is by an Englishman in 1679. He wrote "Music they have, but not the harmony of the spheres, but load taurean noises, like the bellowing of the beasts; the load bagpipe is their delight; stringed instruments are too soft to penetrate the organs of their ears, that are only pleased by sound of substance." What is heard in this sound of substance is a call to battle, a lament or the awakening of memories that recall a time lost and a land that will call to the heart of anyone with Highland blood.

Extracted from an article by Gordon B. Kinnie on behalf of Bagpiper.com sources: Lloyd Duhaime, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada,www.scotsmart.com