Published: November 30, 2004

Smoking Gunn

The William Gunn Collection of Pipe Music
Re-published by the National Piping Centre, Glasgow, (first published 1848)

Reviewed by Bill Livingstone

The William Gunn Collection of Pipe Music is a handsomely packaged re-issue of the ninth edition of The Caledonian Repository of Music. First published in 1848, the re-issue is from 1868. Let me start with the conclusion: this book is terrific.

The book contains a foreword by Finlay MacDonald of the National Piping Centre, with references to several scholarly sources that are useful for interpreting the music. Gunn’s original preface and treatise on principles of music are included, and it is here where we begin to see how piping has changed. His description of “time” will cause pipers to ponder his explanation, and his depiction of fingering, showing both high G and high A being formed with the F finger down, will surprise many.

Tunes are given as many as three titles, in Gaelic and English, and lest we think that unfortunate titles for pipe-tunes are a recent occurrence, consider “Not in a Bag nor a Sack,” or even more unpleasantly evocative, “The Black Ewe’s Cascade.”

There are 214 tunes in the book—astonishing considering that most modern collections contain maybe 50-60 compositions. There are dozens of familiar melodies, most often in two-parted format, which explains the large number of tunes. Some are presented in full (e.g., “The Rejected Suitor”) as we presently know them, but the notation and stylistic presentation are completely different from current practice.

Many titles are unrelated to the names by which the tunes are now known. Aside from the quicksteps, there is rarely an indication of whether a tune is intended as a jig or a 6/8 march. Reels are often difficult to distinguish from strathspeys, usually because the same melody suits either form. A careful study of the score will establish the context, however, and send you in the right direction.

The notational style that Gunn uses is very interesting, and clearly demonstrates a performance style that existed at the time. There is a near-total absence of dots and cuts. The birl is almost non-existent, and where we now play this movement, it is usually seen as a figure consisting of two low A’s separated by a low G gracenote, or a G and D gracenote on low A. Grips are written such that the gracenotes forming the movement are low G, D and low A, not low G. Roddy MacLeod of the Piping Centre kindly sent me the scholarly articles referred to in the foreword, and they seem to make clear that pipers did not play the grips as written, but as we play them today. They also suggest that the absence of birls was no oversight, and while some pipers likely played birls in place of these figures, there was a concern that the birl was overused.

An example of the notational issue is found in “Lady MacKenzie of Gairloch.” This is clearly the tune we know, and the time signature is indicated to be common time. However, it’s actually written in cut common time as reels are now—and apparently was then—written, i.e., two groups of four joined eighth-notes as opposed to four groups of notes, each equal to a quarter-note, thus defining the strathspey idiom. However the context makes it clear that this is a strathspey.

An opposite example is found in “Caber Feidh.” The time signature again denotes common time, but the notation is cut-common, and the context makes clear that this is a reel.

The William Gunn Collection of Pipe Music is a treasure of piping precedent. “Stumpie’s Strathspey” is written with a plethora of four-note runs. It’s clear how this became “Highland Wedding,” as it was likely unplayable in strathspey form by all but a few Flash Harrys.

“Glengarry’s Gathering” is written as a full four-parted march, melodically very familiar to us all. But there is neither a dot nor a cut to be found anywhere in it. In fact, if played as written, it is very reminiscent of how my father played 2/4 marches. I once asked Angus J. MacLellan how this performance style may have come about in a piper who learned in the early 1900s in Ayrshire. He said that a very fine piper from South Uist had moved to Ayrshire, and had a profound influence on many pipers in that area.

Which tells me is that this style of writing was likely a fairly accurate depiction of a playing style. One need only have heard Duncan Johnstone or Andrew Pitkeathly in more recent times to know that this performance style has authenticity. A current exponent of the method is Fred Morrison, whose performance style is highly evocative of the notation methods of The Gunn Collection, including some of the unusual ornamentations.

If scholars of piping notation and performance style such as William Donaldson and Alan MacDonald are correct (and I for one am persuaded that they are) they are on solid ground in their conclusion that the early collectors and publishers of pipe music had it pretty much right. They wrote the stuff to reflect a well recognized performance style. I believe that The William Gunn Collection of Pipe Music does the same thing.

His preface and the literature referred to above take pains to disclaim that the scores do not represent a uniform performance style. Nevertheless, the literature supports the view that there were regional differences in styles, and the Gunn Collection captures this beautifully.

I loved studying this book, and will continue to do so. All pipers should, since it may rekindle a belief in unique individualistic styles, which have authority and integrity, but are now lost in the homogenized piping world now in place. Congratulations to the Piping Centre for adding such a dash of spice into our food for thought.

The only person ever to have won both Highland Society of London Gold Medals, the Clasp at Inverness, and led a band to a World Championship, Bill Livingstone is Pipe-Major of the 78th Fraser Highlanders. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Whitby, Ontario.

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