Having said that, the tune that stands out as being a completely different – and better – style is “The Desperate Battle.” The rendition of this tune is one that I heard the late John Burgess play many years ago, and completely different from the style that he played on one of his earliest recordings. Really, it just involves the adjustment of the timings of all of the high A’s in the first two variations. The result of this, however, is quite dramatic and makes for a lovely and unique presentation of the piece. Perhaps this is the singular item on the CD that could be credited as unique to John MacDonald.
Otherwise, a lot of it is really just the rather bog-standard way that we have come to play these tunes; “Glengarry’s March” has the “rapid clattering of B’s and low-G’s” as one of the leading modern masters described it to me recently, as opposed to the more perhaps genteel and sophisticated Cameron method rarely heard now. “The MacGregors’ Gathering” likewise is pretty standard, with the exception that Nicol includes with no explanation the Angus MacKay style of variation three, which nobody plays now. “Squinting Patrick” is pretty well straight out of the book, with the exception of longer low-G’s in variation one, and “The Rout of Glenfruin” and “Alasdair Dearg” are also pretty well in standard style because there really isn’t a lot that even old John MacDonald could have done to brighten up those somewhat dreary tunes.
Given all of this, it’s still a valuable and interesting reference and historically this type of recording is important because it gives pipers the chance to copy and learn the tunes and know that the renditions that they will be able to give are authoritative and accurate.
However, I was disappointed because Nicol very much is in the mode of “This is how I got it from MacDonald,” and he does not portray or even give any references to any other ways, which is a pity. There are also no references whatsoever to styles of phrasing and, perhaps more importantly, there are no demonstrations of transitions and pacing between variations. So if you feel like I do that those are what makes the real difference in truly great renditions of tunes, then you too will feel that that is a most major omission and negates much of the advantages of teaching by way of canntairteachd.
It’s questionable also that some 30-plus years after Nicol’s death that the compiler, Dr. David Meyer, has chosen to put these recordings out at a rather premium $25. I would assume they were given to him by Nicol in the spirit of educational advancement and not in the spirit that someone would be making money off them after he was gone. That perhaps is a debate that can continue outwith the parameters of this review.
Colin MacLellan is one of the world’s greatest pipers and, among his many competitive achievements during his 40-year career, he gained both Highland Society of London Gold Medals and two Silver Chanters. He currently is a full-time reedmaker and piping teacher, and lives in Edinburgh. He was the subject of an extensive five-part pipes|drums Interview that started in November 2009.