October 31, 2001

MacArthur Returns

The Music of Scotland Ceòl na h-Albainn
The MacArthur-MacGregor Manuscript of Piobaireachd (1820)
edited by Frans Buisman and Andrew Wright, Consulting Editor Roderick D. Cannon, published by the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen in association with The John MacFadyen Memorial Trust and The Piobaireachd Society, paperback, 230 pp. £30.

Reviewed by Dr. William Donaldson

The MacArthur/MacGregor Manuscript is a wonderful thing. The document itself, to be sure, is battered and shabby enough after the passage of 180 years, but the music is as fresh and lovely as the day it was first written down, subtle, inventive, richly varied, and a joy to play. The 30 tunes recorded by John MacGregor of the famous Perthshire piping family from the singing and playing of Angus MacArthur of the even more famous MacArthur dynasty of Skye, are published here in the form of a photographic copy of the original, a transcript prepared by Andrew Wright, and a “critical edition” by Frans Buisman.

In the clear and unpretentious introduction to his section Wright sets out his approach, which includes transposing the scores into the key of A from the D in which they were originally written and correcting musical inconsistencies where they appear. The work seems well done, the decisions—on the whole—sensible and musicianly. Above all, Andrew Wright respects the spirit of the original and the result takes us closer to this music than any other published source. Two tunes “based” on the MacArthur manuscript were issued for competition a couple of years ago translated into the Piobaireachd Society house-style; it is very pleasing to report that this has not happened here. An occasion for unrestrained rejoicing, then? Well, perhaps . . .

The project was begun by Andrew Wright in the later 1980s with funding by the John MacFadyen Memorial Trust. Later Frans Buisman joined the editorial team. The two editors are described in Roderick Cannon’s “General Preface” as having worked independently of each other and they have produced two very different books sitting uneasily together within a single set of covers. Andrew Wright’s section (if one includes the facsimile copy of the manuscript) fills less than half of the 230 pages. The rest consists of several chapters from Frans Buisman on the compilation of the manuscript, the MacArthur and MacGregor piping families, the technical characteristics of pipe music, playing styles and styles of notation, and a “critical edition” of the scores. This latter uses a complex system of musical contractions and analytical codes, the “Key” to which occupies nearly three quarto pages in double columns. Some kinds of “academic” writing make little serious attempt to communicate with the outside world and unfortunately this is very much the case here. The apparatus is highly visible (there are two different kinds of footnotes, for example), but the content is sometimes shaky. Minute particularity blends with passages that are highly speculative and the historical sections are short on analysis and interpretation.

This is the first in the proposed Music of Scotland series, published by the Universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow and intended “to make Scottish music accessible to all in scholarly editions which are reliable and practical.” In this case, it is difficult not to think that Buisman’s work might have been better placed elsewhere. It will be of limited interest even to the most knowledgeable of living performers. More importantly, it seems likely to encourage the misleading notion, stemming from the Celtic Twilight, that ceòl mór is an arcane and difficult form of music that the merely curious had better leave well alone.

If Andrew Wright’s work had been separately published along with the facsimile and sold at £15 (or less, in view of the generous funding the project has received from several Trusts), it would have been a “must have”; at £30 for the two-in-one volume, potential purchasers have a more difficult decision.

Dr. William Donaldson is a frequent contributor to the Piper & Drummer. His online series, “18 Tunes: an exploration of Piobaireachd,” on the 2000 Set Tunes was a pioneering investigation into ceòl mór, and his latest effort, “‘Entirely at the pleasure of the performer’: a further exploration of piobaireachd,” on the 2001 Set Tunes is currently running on Piper & Drummer Online. Dr. Donaldson was a pupil of Robert Nicol for many years, and his book, The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society, has been recognized as one of the most important works on Highland piping yet published. He is a lecturer with the Open University and lives in Aberdeen, Scotland.


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