Published: July 31, 2001

Simply MacDonald’s

The Patrick MacDonald Collection
Highland Vocal Airs, Country Dances or Reels of the North Highlands and Western Isles

(First published 1784)
New edition by Taigh na Teud 2000.
76 pages, 139 compositions

Reviewed by Jack Taylor

Patrick MacDonald is not well known in piping circles, but his brother Joseph is, as the author of the first comprehensive written account of pipe music, A Compleat Theory of the Highland Bagpipe. Another of Joseph’s accomplishments was to transcribe from the voice a large number of Highland airs from his native Ross-shire and Sutherland in the two years before he went to India where he was to die at age 21.

Patrick, also a skilled musician, was persuaded that his brother’s song collection should be published. Wishing to extend it, he traveled throughout Argyllshire, Perthshire, the Highlands and the Western Isles collecting more song airs. To these he added, mostly from pipers, a “few of the most lively country dances or reels,” and, at the behest of his subscribers, he made a special trip to Lochaber where, from an “eminent performer” he wrote out, as best he could, four piobaireachds.

The collection contains 187 vocal airs, 26 pieces of light, mostly pipe, music, and the four piobaireachds. The airs are all short Gaelic “luinings.” Titles such as “Wet is this night and cold,” “Sad am I without mirth or song,” “My love is fixed on Donald,” and “The Vale of Keppoch is become desolate,” give some indication of their flavour. We can learn more from Patrick’s description in the collection’s preface where he states that they were “sung by the natives in a wild, artless and irregular manner—————they dwell on the long and pathetic notes while they hurry over the inferior connecting notes.” All very cheery, and undoubtedly suitable for the piobaireachd-minded.

The “country dances and reels” are mostly unfamiliar to the modern piping ear, but some are precursors of, for example, “The Shaggy Grey Buck,” “Dornoch Links,” “The Grey Bob” and “John MacKechnie.” The piobaireachds are “MacIntosh’s Lament,” “MacCrimmon shall never return,” ” Finger Lock” and “War or Peace.” There is no attempt at pipe gracing, and, in the song airs and piobaireachd, Patrick emphasizes the difficulty in conveying the music in staff notation. The piobaireachd, though instantly recognizable, contain many differences from the tunes as they are now known, including instructions, in two of them, that the groundwork is repeated between the variations.

There are two extensive and fascinating prefaces. The first, written by Patrick MacDonald, relates the background to the work and goes into considerable musical depth. It tells us that the airs are valuable “as probably being the most genuine remains of the ancient harp-music of the Highlands————transmitted with additions————-gradually improved.” Regarding the piobaireachd, he says “a compleat collection of that music would make a large work—————-it is not to be hoped for until a performer of genuine ability shall appear who being well instructed in the notation of music may be able to write from his own performance.” It was about 50 years later that Angus MacKay, aged 13, won his prize in Edinburgh for the beginnings of his collection. The second preface, in a much more ornate style, gives an overview of the origin of Highland music as it was seen at the time.

The Patrick MacDonald Collection is an early and comprehensive collection of Highland music, taken straight from its performers. It is an invaluable historical document. Its recognition as such is evident from the careful annotations, by Roderick Cannon and Allan MacDonald, to this republication of the original. It will be of inestimable value to musicologists and scholars of traditional music. The playing piper interested in seeing old tunes, thinking about how the repertoire evolves, and learning about other Highland music will find it fascinating.

Jack Taylor studied piobaireachd for many years with R.U. Brown and Robert Nicol and won the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal at Inverness in 1973. Now an active solo piping judge, he is a doctor in Aboyne, Scotland.

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