July 31, 2010

Old School: thoughts on ceol mor with four piping legends – Lt.-Col. David Murray

Iain Speirs: Today I’m interviewing Colonel David Murray who was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Cameron Highlanders. He’s also been convener of the foremost piping competition, the Northern Meeting, assistant director to the Edinburgh Tattoo and President to the Piobaireachd Society – a position which he held for six years. At present he introduces and directs piping broadcasts on BBC Radio.

Colonel Murray, how long have you been playing piobaireachd?

David Murray: Piobaireachd, since 1937 – that’s 53 years.

IS: And over that time what changes have you seen?

DJSM: Changes for the better have been the standard of the instrument and the repertoire which competing pipers are putting forward. Many more tunes have been put in now than when were being put in when I started piobaireachd. Tunes like “Beloved Scotland” were never heard 50 years ago – so that’s to the good.

On the debit side there’s much more playing by-the-book; playing the score as it’s written. And, as none of the accessible piobaireachd scores are meant to be played as they’re written, as Kilberry tells you in his preface to his book, that his scores are meant to be a guide and the tune should be taught by an experienced player. This is a retrograde step, in my opinion, and has led to the introduction and the acceptance of several unsung ways of interpretation. So that’s on the debit side.

But, as I said, on the credit side the instruments are very much better. Thirty years ago, 40 years ago, nobody expected the pipes to stay in tune for a whole piobaireachd; now everybody’s pipes stay in tune and that’s a good thing.

IS: Having been president of the Piobaireachd Society for several years, could you explain exactly what it does and what its aims are?

DJSM: Oh, the aims are the study and the preservation of piobaireachd music and the encouragement of the playing of piobaireachd. These are quite clear. What it does or what it did in the time I was president was to try to arouse interest in the older written sources of piobaireachd music: Donald MacDonald, MacPhee, Uilleam Ross and people of that Victorian vintage. And I think to a certain extent that that succeeded. Now you do hear the out-of-the-way settings being played a bit more and being put in a bit more. I note, however, with a certain amount of sorrow, tendency to revert now to what the Piobaireachd Society was thought to be 50 years ago when it jealously guarded its own tradition, when it regarded any comment on the scores it had published as tantamount to heresy. And I think it’s beginning to revert to that sort of position. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that it is and that instead of encouraging the preservation, and that means the playing of, the older written sources of tunes I think that it’s tending to discourage it now.



  1. Brilliant, of all these great interviews this one strikes home the most. If you love the big music then reading this is a boost to your stand. While friends and all say that the piobreachd is just too much maybe they’re not giving it the chance it deserves. Great stuff.

  2. It would be very interesting to read an interview with Murray today, to ask him some of these same questions, to ask him if things have changed for the better over the last twenty years ago. Very valuable interview series. Thanks for publishing it here.

  3. That’s a very moving interview. Here is someone talking about questions rather than fixed answers, discussion and debate (rather than rules and dogmas), the possibility of different interpretations and ways of doing things. Open-ness and thinking, rather than the closed book and one way of doing things. Music to the ears. Thanks you for this great interview.



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