We continue our exclusive discussion with one of the greatest pipers of the last 50 years. Subscribers can read Part 1 here:
pipes|drums: We followed up the last part talking about Gaelic and the influence of Gaelic. Do you buy into the theory, perhaps put forward by Allan and Willie Donaldson, that Gaelic song was the impetus for piobaireachd or the root of piobaireachd? Some people would say it’s not a theory but a fact. Where’s your stance on this?
Dr. Angus MacDonald: Gaelic poetry, song, and music were all important in highland society and they were all part of a tapestry of culture feeding off and influencing each other. Clarsach playing was dying out, certainly, as the pipe was getting stronger but likely left its mark with the runs and other gracings transposed onto the pipes. Sometimes melodies were taken from piobaireachd and sometimes it was the other way. A Gaelic song would be made into a piobaireachd. But that wasn’t always the case, though, and not all tunes can be connected directly to Gaelic song.
p|d: When Allan re-introduced this notion, there was a lot of controversy about that, and heretical discussion or points of view. It seems to have died away and people are accepting it for what it is and relaxed a little bit. Has that been a welcome thing?
DAM: The evidence is there quite clearly for pipers to see. When Joseph Macdonald was writing about it and trying to explain the music of the pipes in his Compleat Theory, compiled around 1760, piobaireachd playing was very different. Nowadays some of the ornamentation has drifted into the melody. And if you take a lot of the ornamentations out of a tune and just play, as Joseph Macdonald said, the main notes, you will get the melody better. And quite often doing that you can recognize where the song is, and sometimes that song is still to be found, and can, in fact, tell you how the piobaireachd should be played.
For instance, a tune at the very back of The Kilberry Book, “March for a Beginner,” it’s called, and if you play it as it’s in The Kilberry Book, it just has no musical sense. But take out the ornamentations, and what these ornamentations have become now, (because they’ve been changed in the way that it had been written through Angus MacKay), then you come to quite a beautiful melody, and you should have a look at that. And it’s the same with quite a few other piobaireachds. The melody has been lost because of confusion in how to interpret the ornamentation.
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p|d: Going back a hundred or more years ago, William Donaldson puts forth the notion that the pre-Piobaireachd Society era was a thriving and evolving music in piobaireachd. What do you think of the notion where people would come and present different interpretations in tunes as they were handed down, but then standardized and sterilized?
DAM: In all traditional music there are big regional variations and different versions to be found. What the Piobaireachd Society did was to try to put a standard version, at least, on paper. And it would be wrong to decry them for what they did. They’ve done tremendous work over the years to preserve piobaireachd playing. Still, we haven’t really got piobaireachd playing back