Robert Nicol – Canntaireachd
The John MacDonald of Inverness Settings
Macater Press, 2010
$25, available directly from the publisher
Reviewed by Colin MacLellan
Robert Nicol – Canntaireachd: The John MacDonald of Inverness Settings consists of recordings taken in 1974 at a summer school that Robert Nicol taught at in the early 1970s. It is interesting because Nicol did not travel abroad often, and the recordings survive from many that were taken on this particular visit and represent sung versions of seven piobaireachd.
The tunes, in order of presentation, are “Glengarry’s March,” “The MacGregors’ Salute,” “A Flame of Wrath for Patrick Caogach,” “The Rout of Glenfruin,” “The Desperate Battle,” “The Little Spree” and “Lament for Alasdair Dearg MacDonell of Glengarry.”
The singing is of course the integral method that was used by Nicol in his teaching. It is “canntaireachd,” not in the purest sense, but more of a piper’s heedrum-hodrum, and the consistency of the representation of the different notes and movements throughout the tunes is quite excellent. Nicol uses the same vocables mostly for the same movements in all of the different renditions, and it struck me quickly that this method must have been developed over many decades of teaching in this way.
The advantages of using this canntaireachd are quite obvious; the teacher can get the tunes over to the student in exactly the way he wants and so it is very much left to the student to copy what he has heard. All very well and good if the aim is to carbon copy the playing of the teacher, as it so often is.
A minor criticism of the method is that, in fact, Nicol’s voice is not particularly outstanding because he frequently sings low- and high-A out of tune, and the singing tends to be delivered in a slow and ponderous manner. This is not really important, however, as the singing is more in tune with the pitch of the pipe chanter and not with the practice chanter, so it is impossible to play along with Nicol’s voice on the chanter when learning the tunes. This I would say is perhaps the only disadvantage in using the oral method in teaching piobaireachd. The pitch of the practice chanter is much too high to try to emulate with the voice.
Getting on to the tunes themselves, they are delivered very much in a direct manner, with frequent references to the fact that in all cases the tunes were taught to Nicol by John MacDonald of Inverness. The subheading of the CD – “The John MacDonald of Inverness Settings” – is misleading. They aren’t the settings of John MacDonald; they are sung the way John MacDonald taught them to Nicol.
In nearly all cases, any differences from what could be termed the norm can be attributed to various people. For example the changes highlighted in “Glengarry’s March” are Colin Cameron’s, and not John MacDonald’s; the changes in “The Little Spree” should be credited to Donald MacPhee Sr., etc. Therefore, “as played by,” or “as taught by,” would be a much more accurate description of the presentations.