July 31, 2010

Sing it loud

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.


  1. Ah Colin, as always you nailed this perfectly. I faced the attitude of Bob Nicol in my very early years in Scotland, and it was challenging to say the least. This is the way I got it from old Johnny MacDonald”…and that was the discussion over. There’s a lot less of that on the bench these days

  2. Its very good indeed to get a straight, informed, and authoratative account of this work. I still find that out of respect for tutors on summer schools who are good enough to let us have recordings for the purpose of private study, I don’t feel inclined to buy it.

  3. Good review by Colin. It is true that Nicol often said This is how i got it from John MacDonald” as if no other explanation was required ! These types of cds are useful in avoiding the ‘straight out the book’ syndrome we often get now but discussion of other styles too would be even more valuable.”

  4. If I learned anything in this review it’s that Colin is ridiculously educated about tunes (obviously) but it would be great for someone of his stature to maybe put together a cd or some kind of teaching aid of a few tunes with a couple styles of each tune.

  5. Colin is one of the few who offer gratis online assistance. You should go to his pipereeds dot com site and click on the resources” tab – you’ll be on your way. “

  6. I would like to thank Colin for this excellent review! Sometimes it is difficult understanding what a reviewer is really trying to say but not this time. I found the comments to be particularly valuable from an historical point of view and agree, to a point, it is worth having. I will not be purchasing it for the reasons Colin touched on at the very end of his fine article.

  7. This is just the kind of review we need more of in piping journals: direct, insightful, not malicious, not sycophantic, fearless handling of sacred cows. Thanks for calling it the way you see it, Colin. There are so many Pibroch tutorials out on CD these days. I think the grocer down the street has one too.



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